A little red wagon with black wheels captured my attention as I entered my fifth grade classroom one morning many years ago. The wagon, made from construction paper, was on a bulletin board. The tongue of the wagon pointed upward diagonally as if trying to reach the large, bright yellow, five-pointed star in the right corner of the board.
The message “Hitch your wagon to a star” boldly stood out in black letters that were centered above the little red wagon. I was intrigued with what the sentence meant, but I would not have to wonder long.
Mrs. Haynes, our teacher, soon had a serious talk with us about what the wagon and the star meant. I sat intrigued, really paying attention, since she spoke as if what she was saying was very important. The memory of that morning has stayed with me for sixty-four years.
It was one of my first introductions to abstract thinking. Students usually think literally in the first few years of their lives. They are not accustomed to the use of metaphors to get a point across, and Mrs. Haynes was using a metaphor of a little red wagon and a star to get a powerful message across to her class.
She said that we all could have dreams. That we, like the wagon, could work toward, reach toward good things in life. She said we could use our minds to think of new and wonderful plans, that we could do big things with our lives when we grew up.
Coming from a family of seven children I guess I had never given serious thought to my future. I had never thought I could do anything important with my life, but Mrs. Haynes and her bulletin board have stuck with me for many years. Maybe that’s why I am an idealist today. (I am sorry I never had a chance to thank Mrs. Haynes for her lesson that morning.)
The quote “Hitch your wagon to a star” was written in 1862 by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay “American Civilization.” In the essay, a high school commencement speaker challenged a graduating class to “hitch their wagon to a star.”
The speaker asked a child, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
The child answered, “I used to want to be a great actor, but my dad told me hardly anybody gets to be an actor, so now I have to pick something else."
The commencement speaker replied, “Nonsense. If you want to be an actor, then do your best to be an actor. Hitch your wagon to a star.”
Even though I had loved the concept of hitching my wagon to a star ever since I was ten years old, after the death of my husband Ralph several years ago, I lacked enthusiasm and confidence to face life again. I felt washed up, sad, tired without him. I felt that dreaming a new dream was out of my reach. I wondered how life could possibly ever be good again without him.
Then ever so slowly my heart began to heal, and I set my sights on trying to make something good come from his early death. I decided that maybe there was some reason I was still alive and that I must try to move forward.
I realized I could no longer hitch my wagon to the same star I had before his death—that dream of growing old together; the dream of together watching our grandchildren grow up; of seeing what each of them would become; that dream of taking trips together; of more picnics in the pasture with family and friends at our house in the country which we lovingly called Thornberry Acres.
I realized those dreams were gone, so I would have to focus my energies and time on hitching my wagon to a new dream, new hopes, new goals—a new star.
If you are grieving, you know what I am talking about. Going on without the one you love is hard. Grief can be devastating, particularly during the holiday season when past happy memories flood our minds. But as I have told myself so many times, “What other choice do I have than to go on?”
So I encourage you to squeeze good from each day you are given. Time moves on so quickly, so seize the moment. Honor your loved one’s memory by living life fully. Even though it is not easy, keep walking, and “Hitch your wagon to a new star.”
Cherish yesterday, live today, dream tomorrow
Call about the next "Living Life after Loss" Group at:
709 Liberty, Clay Center, Kansas
Dawn Phelps, RN/LMSW, Group Facilitator