Fortune cookies

I’m a fortune cookie believer. Forget the horoscopes — what could be better than a tiny slip of wisdom hidden inside a crunchy, tasty treat? Since I always choose the cookie that’s pointing directly at me, I know the message inside is meant specifically for me.


I keep all my fortunes. I have a drawer in my jewelry box filled with hopeful promises of good days ahead or money that will soon come my way. Don’t laugh — I got “Your personal property will be enhanced within the month,” shortly before the Permanent Fund Dividends came out, and I’ve been a believer ever since.

This past summer I got a little flip calendar entitled “African Wisdom for Life.” It’s got a proverb for each day of the year. It’s like a fortune cookie a day. I’m not very good at sticking with something each and every day of the year, but I enjoy those proverbs so much that I haven’t missed a day. They’re very simple, yet they often have an uncanny relevance to my own life. I had just decided to pass on writing a novel in the month of November for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) because I still need to finish my novel from last November. Feeling like I was passing up dessert so I could make room for my carrots and peas, I read this Zambian proverb, “The wise continues while the fool is always beginning.” What do you know? I chose the way of the wise. Lest I become too prideful, however, this Ugandan proverb should keep me humble: “You may be the greatest swimmer on earth but it does not make you better than the smallest fish.”

A proverb from Sudan applies to the overscheduled children in our lives, of which I have at least one: “If you fill a bag too full, it will burst.” School, sports, activities, homework, friends, and the occasional chore — it’s a wonder they don’t all burst.

The other day, when I was feeling anxious about something, I read this proverb from Kenya, “Worrying is like a rocking chair: it swings you back and forth and takes you nowhere.” A confirmed worrywart, I sat down to rock in my rocking chair, grateful for the reminder that all my worrying really wasn’t getting me anywhere.

A number of the proverbs have to do with striving to reach your dreams, recognizing that the journey is long and hard. From Zimbabwe: “Be patient with your drum, the night is long.” From Kenya: “One does not climb a tree from the top,” and my favorite, from Zimbabwe again, “To climb a mountain, you zigzag.” Sometimes I feel like all I’m doing is zigzagging — it’s good to remember that each zig or zag gets me that much closer to the top of the mountain.

Some of the proverbs are eminently practical, like this one from Kenya, “Look for the camel who carries the water,” or this Nigerian proverb, “Dig your well before you become thirsty.” Some evoke a vivid image completely foreign to our lives here in Alaska: “If you ride a lion, consider carefully how you want to get off.” Can’t you just picture that? Others sound like they could have been written by a 21st century American, illustrating the commonality of humankind, like this Kenyan proverb, “The one who asks for the path will not lose his way.” Ladies, recognize that one? Come on guys, just ask for directions already!

Some of the proverbs just tell the truth with wise humor: “Be wiser than other people, but don’t tell them,” or, from Cameroon, “The person who aims at nothing will surely hit it.” Others make me smile and wish I could think of something so humorous, like this gem from Ethiopia, “If you are not sure what is yonder, throw a pebble toward it and see what happens.” How’s that for a philosophy of life?

Today’s proverb comes from Liberia: “Some people dream of great accomplishments while others stay awake to do them.” I guess I better stay up and finish this after all. Maybe I should make some tea, and have a fortune cookie.


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