Starting Over Again

BLOG #53, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
STARTING OVER AGAIN
December 31, 2014

Tomorrow is New Year’s Day, time to start over again, time to take down the old calendar and replace it with the new, time to box up 365 days of tax-records and make room for new ledgers. Time too for the New Year’s Resolutions that are so quickly discarded and forgotten.

And there’s a good reason why they rarely work: It’s because we leave God out of the equation. As if one could revolutionize a life by the human will alone!

It is rare in this brief journey we call life that I have stumbled on a genuine life-changer. Let me tell you about one of them.

A number of years ago, Helen Mallicoat, a delightful woman from Wickenburg, Arizona, came into my life through my magazine, Zane Grey’s West. She, like me, reveled in the Old West and in the writings of Zane Grey. It was some time later that I discovered she was a poet. And furthermore that the Lord had gifted her with a dream one night: so vivid that, on awakening, she got up and wrote it down word for word. It has since that time circled the globe in numbers past quantifying. Hallmark alone has sold millions of copies. She told me, “I’ve never copyrighted it, reason being that it is a sacred thing: God gave it to me in the middle of the night; thus it is His, not mine.”

I have used it in my classes, in talks, in stories, in books, many times. Most recently, in my 2013 Christmas story, “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.” If you are a person who finds it impossible to distance yourself from the mistakes in your past or cease worrying about the problems in the future that appear insurmountable, I invite you to internalize Helen Mallicoat’s poem. By internalize, I mean: post it on your wall where you’ll see it every day; memorize it; and repeat it over and over all day, for 30 consecutive days. Then you can forget it because it will then be permanently part of your psyche: you couldn’t forget it if you tried.

If you prayerfully invite God to help you internalize the poem, as you day by day repeat it, I can guarantee that your life will never again be the same as it was before. I invite you to take me up on it. Let me know the results. Here is the only New Year’s Resolution you will need. I call it “The I AM Poem”:

I was regretting the past
and fearing the future.
Suddenly my Lord was speaking:

“My name is I Am.” he paused.
I waited. He continued,
“When you live in the past,
With its mistakes and regrets,
It is hard. I am not there.
My name is not I Was.

When you live in the future,
With its problems and fears,
It is hard. I am not there.
My name is not I Will Be.”

“When you live in this moment,
It is not hard. I am here.
My name is I Am.”

–Helen Mallicoat

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A Strangling Christmas Hug

BLOG #52, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
A STRANGLING CHRISTMAS HUG
December 24, 2014

Every Christmas, I read stories aloud to many different groups. When I put a collection together, rarely do I think much about which ones will be the read-aloud winners for the season. But once a new Christmas in My Heart® collection comes out, then I begin trying stories out on various audiences.

At a recent Christmas vespers, after I was through, completely out of the blue, a little girl of about eight rushed at me, gave me a strangling hug, then ran off—all without a word. Obviously, one of the stories I read so touched her heart that she just had to tell me about it – in her case, in a fierce hug rather than in words.

Every year now, for more than twenty years, Janet Parshall has interviewed me about the new Christmas book, on her syndicated Moody Radio show, “Janet Parshall’s America.” On the December 17, 2014 broadcast, she asked me this question: “You’ve pointed out that for every story that makes it into a collection, you routinely pass over 100 – 300 stories that do not. What makes the difference?”

I told her that though I have no formula for defining the difference between winners and losers, one thing I do know: the ones that make it in slam into me [much like the little girl in the second paragraph] and demand to be included. And they burrow into my subconscious and imbed themselves like velcro—impossible to get rid of them.

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And oftentimes, it is the simplest stories that win out over the more complex one. For instance, the one I read on the broadcast, “The Christmas Doll,” by Jeanne Bottrop, an old story written during the Great Depression of the 1930s, why did I include it, given that it is such a simple little story written by an author few people have ever heard of? I told her, I did it because children do not internalize abstractions; they internalize story. Children today are so buried in gifts from so many directions, from so many people, that they find it extremely difficult to empathize with those less fortunate than they. But if they hear a story like this one: of an eight-year-old girl, mother having died when the little girl was three, a father who rarely came to see her, so poor she had only one patched coat, forced to work as hard as adults, who considered a single orange to be a Christmas gift of such value that she’d make it last for weeks, or months. A girl loved by no one who yearned for a doll she could love with every atom of her starved little heart. Might not such a story make a real difference?

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I’ve also read another story, Bruce R. Coston’s “The Gift” (from Christmas in My Heart® 23) a number of times this season. It is a simple little story of a little girl who longed for a kitten, parents who weren’t at all interested in getting her one, a tender-hearted veterinarian [Dr. Coston], and a kitten brought to the vet so that he could put it to sleep. “It was flea ridden and suffered from an upper respiratory infection that left her eyes crusted and red and her nose running. Her ears were filled with mites and her intestines with worms, but she was playful and endearing. She didn’t need a painless death! She needed someone who would afford her a painless life–someone who really cared. Amy came to mind.”

That, in essence, is the simple story—yet, regardless of age, it has deeply moved audience after audience I’ve read it to this Christmas season.

* * * * *

Yes, just simple little stories. Yet compare them to the inanities filling the air-waves today. Which type of story is more likely to help instill positive character traits in listeners, cause them to be kinder, more empathetic?

These are the kinds of stories that are worth their weight in gold. Such stories are the real reason the series has defied the odds by still being alive 23 years after it was first launched.

Stories likely to elicit strangling hugs.

THE PERVERSITY OF CHRISTMAS TREES AND THEIR STANDS

BLOG #51, SERIES 5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
THE PERVERSITY OF CHRISTMAS TREES AND THEIR STANDS
DECEMBER 17, 2014

I suspect watching the Lucy and Desi Christmas special might have had something to do with it. You remember: Lucy’s determination to trim their Christmas tree so it will be perfectly symmetrical. The trimmer being their next-door sidekick: Mr. Mertz. As usual with Lucy, disaster was the result.

Just so, with us: Connie repeatedly urged me to hurry up and cut that perfect little fir tree north of our house. “Hurry, before it snows!” her very words. Like most husbands, I didn’t like being told what to do and when. The TV weather predictors had managed to be wrong so many times already this year, why should this time be different? “Maybe an inch or so in the foothills,” their prognosis.

So I waited. Then slipped and stumbled my way downhill through a foot of very cold and very wet snow. I had to dig down a foot just to get to the fir’s base. Then: a mighty cold job cutting it down and dragging it uphill to the house.

When Connie saw its snowy branches looking oh so Christmasy, she pronounced it a winner: perfectly symmetrical and just the right size.

Out to the garage I went to haul down from the rafters the big state-of-the-art/never-failed-us-yet Christmas tree stand.

Once inside with it, I lowered the tree into the stand. In order to preserve its symmetry I didn’t cut the big lower branches off. Eight stabilizers were screwed in to the tree to guarantee vertical perfection. It looked wonderful, but deep inside its firry heart, it harbored subversive thoughts.

Before we started decorating it, Connie called my attention to the fact that only the four upper stabilizers reached the tree; the four lower ones connected with nothing. I assured her that four would work just fine. Indeed, it appeared I was right. First we decorated it with long strings of colored lights. Finally, with a little rejiggling, it was perfect. Next, I put up scores of beautiful red ornaments. Then we tried out a bedraggled angel to crown the tree; it was quickly replaced by a shimmering red steeple-shaped ornament. We turned the room lights off and the tree lights on. Ah, perfection!

Shortly afterwards, we noticed that the tree was tilting in the wrong direction. I soon fixed it.

In no time at all, Connie called my attention to its tilting in a different direction. We fixed it. And the cycle continued again and again. And I was growing ever more irate.

Finally, I announced that, like it or not, the symmetry would have to be sacrificed. One after another after another, I cut enough low branches so there was a satisfactory thud as the tree hit bottom. All during the process, there was a light rain of ornaments letting go.

But now, we could finally fix the tree once and for all! All I had to do was screw in all eight stabilizers. Trouble was, Connie had filled the stand with water, and the rubber stabilizer connectors kept falling into the water, so I burrowed into the tree, Connie attempting to keep it erect while I fished the rubber connectors out. But now, some of the stabilizers didn’t get to the tree at all, as some were screwed out further than the others, leading to my inability to stabilize the tree. By now, more ornaments rained down—and broke. Including the piece de resistance at the top. And the long snaky electric lights did their utmost to strangle me. I got testy and testier, and howled like a man.

Finally, I left Connie holding the tree up and went out to the garage to corral an earlier vintage tree-stand. In the rafters, I finally found it. One small problem: part of it was missing. Then I remembered hearing, on the opposite side of the garage, something metallic fall behind high stacks of boxes filled with books. So I now had to move a big stack of boxes in order to retrieve the rest of the stand. Much time had passed by then.

So much so that Connie had all but given up on holding the tree upright. More ornaments had fallen.

So now we had to completely undecorate the tree, then lift it out of its original stand, stagger across the front room to the deck, carry the all-too-full water-filled original stand, trying not to spill much, then take it outside and dump the water off the deck.

Then, I lifted up the malevolent tree once again and lowered it into its much smaller stand. And the tree stood up straight and tall. It was quickly tightened in place.

And we got to start all over again.

True, the tree had lost some of its symmetry—-but somehow symmetry didn’t seem important any more. The important thing was: It stood up straight and tall! I concluded that symmetry was overrated anyhow.

GOING BLIND

BLOG #50, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
GOING BLIND
December 10, 2014

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My wife and I often travel on Southwest Airlines; whenever we do so, I like to peruse their in-flight magazine, Spirit. The cover story in the July 2014 issue was titled “As the Lights Go Down.”

Nicole Kear begins her gripping story with these riveting words: “The day I found out I was going blind started out like any other.” She was nineteen years old, a sophomore at Yale, undecided as to whether to major in English or in theater.

A routine appointment with her doctor turned out to be anything but! The eye-specialist shattered her dreams by announcing that she had a degenerative retinal disease called “retinitis pigmentosa.” My retinal cells were slowly dying which would result in gradual vision loss. First the disease would eat away at my night and peripheral vision, and eventually it would claim my central vision too…. It was untreatable and incurable.

As she walked the twenty blocks back to her home, she was overcome by wave after wave of fear: “But more than anything, I felt instant and irrevocable loss, like a kid who’s just lost her grip on a helium balloon. I made a grab for it, fast, but it was too late, and I watched helplessly as it receded, further and further out of reach.”

As time passed, she felt for a time that she’d be crushed under the strain of knowing that darkness was inevitable. “But something else was happening, too. Through the fog of my shock and confusion, I started seeing everything with the eyes of someone looking for the last time. Sights I’d always taken for granted–the bits of sparkle in the pavement, the bright, brilliant red of the streetlight–seemed immensely, heart-breakingly beautiful. I’d wasted so much time, I scolded myself, being blind to the beauty around me. Knowing it wouldn’t last forever, I became ravenous for images.”

So how was she to face it?

“Though I couldn’t control my disease or the blindness it could bring, I could control how I responded to it…. In the time I had left, I could stuff my brain with images in hopes they’d be enough to last a lifetime. I could use the death sentence my eyes had been given as a kick in the pants to start really living.”

Time passed. One afternoon, she sat down with her leather-bound journal and drew up a personal bucket list of things she wanted to see and do before her vision gave out. She called it her carpe diem campaign.

She double-majored in English and theater, learned how to be a circus clown, learned how to master the flying trapeze, and traveled to Europe. In Rome, “I sat in front of the Pantheon, drinking in every column, every chiseled Latin letter, sketching these details in my journal in an effort to permanently imprint them on my memory.” She picked sweet-peas on a farm in North Italy, hiked cloud-capped mountains to see where Ovid had lived, watched men on Vespas smoking cigarettes and women gossiping while leaning out of windows, and smelled the sweet aroma of marinara sauce simmering on stovetops. “Spending all the money I’d saved from birthdays and graduations, I bought a Eurorail pass and set off with my sister to Paris, where we watched Grand Guignol puppet shows, and Amsterdam, where we stood by narrow canals eating wheels of black licorice. I witnessed the sunrise over Venice’s Bridge of Sighs, and I felt near to bursting with awe at the beauty and the grandeur.”

After college, she moved back to New York, where she performed Shakespeare in the lower East Side, 1950s cult classics in the West Village, and avant-garde German theater on St. Mark’s Place.

She fell in love several times–but finally the real thing: David proposed to her in the middle of the Smoky Mountains.

Next came Hollywood: “I was an actor, after all, and in L.A. the streets were paved with TV pilots. David and I quit our day jobs as long-term temps at an investment bank, packed our stuff, and ventured west. I was bowled over by California’s beauty. Rolling, golden hills that looked like sleeping lions. Jagged cliffs with precipitous drops to the churning, foaming Pacific Ocean. Even the light was different, and the smells. Every time I walked out my front door and inhaled the scent of jasmine, I stopped to marvel . . . sniffing jasmine blossoms made me feel like a Disney princess.”

Driving became more and more difficult. She’d become totally night-blind. As her field of vision continued to shrink, she bumped into things more and more, and fell down stairs–and fumbled her stage-lines.

Then she discovered she was pregnant. But now, color-blindness was setting in, and her depth-perception was going too. Even so, She and David decided to go ahead with it. “When my son made his entrance, just after midnight on Thanksgiving Night, I soaked in so many sights: his strong chin, bee-stung eyes, the complex curvature of his ear, so tiny it made my heart ache with tenderness…. Two years later I saw my daughter for the first time, a ruddy, round-cheeked newborn sporting a Mohawk.” There were details she couldn’t see, but she didn’t worry about that.

By the time she was 34, she was deemed legally blind. She could no longer read regular print. Even so, she decided to have another baby. “My third baby is now 2 years old, and I’ve been able to read her books (if the text is big enough), take her to the playground (if it’s enclosed), and watch her blow out her birthday candles.”

Nicole Kear concludes her remarkable story with these poignant words: “But I’ve learned not to peer too anxiously into the future. Hindsight may be 20/20, but what’s to come is too murky for any of us to make out. My eyes are so dim that I need to train them on the present, to soak up as much as I can, to slow it down, to make it last. As much as I can, I stop to smell the roses–and while I’m there, I look at them, long and hard. Those blazing red streetlights. The way the skin on the top of my children’s noses wrinkles when they smile. . . I don’t know the kind of life I might have had or the kind of woman I might have become if that appointment 18 years ago had actually been routine. . . . What I do know is the life I have is nothing like what I expected, but it is everything I wanted–full of beauty, love, and a light beyond anything the eye can see.”

Nicole Kear is the author of the new memoir, Now I See You.

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Four months after reading this, on a 55th anniversary cruise from San Diego through the Panama Canal to Fort Lauderdale, my eyes became progressively more difficult to keep open, and the pain increased continuously. In Fort Lauderdale, our son rushed me to an eye specialist.

I can now see again, but it has resulted in a profoundly greater appreciation for the daily miracle of sight.

I conclude with this quotation penned by Harry Moyle Tippett:

Out of a world of total silence and darkness Helen Keller found a way to a world of light and holy purpose. In the top floor bedroom at Forest Hills . . . there were eight windows looking out into a vast expanse of blue sky by day and of star-studded velvet by night. Small strings guided her steps to the sanctuary, and there she reveled in an inner illumination that matched the glorious light of day she could not see and the silver sheen of stars she could only feel. She said, ‘I learned that it is possible for us to create light and sound and order within us, no matter what calamity may befall us in the outer world.’

SO WHERE DID THE OTHER NINE GO?

BLOG #49, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
SO WHERE DID THE OTHER NINE GO?
December 3, 2014

In times gone by to be diagnosed as a leper was a curse almost worse than death, for you were immediately expelled from the human race. And nobody—but nobody—was ever cured from it.

That’s why it was such a monumental event when Christ cured—not one—but ten lepers at once! St. Luke, the physician, noted such miracles in his Gospel. In the 17th book, he notes not just the ten-fold miracle, but also noted something else: Only one came back to thank his Lord. That Christ was not above noticing such things as gratitude or the lack of it is born out by his sadly asking the rhetorical question: “Where are the other nine?”

With all his multitudinous faults, David was an exception to the rule. Jeremy Taylor put it this way: “From David learn to give thanks for everything—every furrow in the Book of Psalms is sown with the seeds of Thanksgiving.”

I wish I could say I’ve personally experienced a considerably higher ratio in terms of my own giving, but I can’t: At best, one out of ten will thank me. And I’m lucky if I get that many. I’m convinced, however, that, generally speaking, gratitude has to be taught at home. Rarely does it flower spontaneously.

For most of twenty years now, I’ve gifted a significant number of Christmas in My Heart® books to the leadership of large Christian organizations. As certain as night follows day, I can be absolutely certain that the same people will thank me every last time; and the same people will not.

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We have all once again celebrated the sacred holiday of Thanksgiving. How many of us, I wonder, really took time to thank God for our many blessings—the gifts of life, health, family, friendship, and so much more?

But what about this week, now that Thanksgiving is over for another year? Does our thankfulness end Thanksgiving night?

For many years now—but not nearly enough—, I have made the expression of gratitude into a great adventure. Are these unexpected expressions of gratitude received in ho hum fashion? Not on your life! It’s more like cold water to travelers dying of thirst.

About a month ago, at Lauderdale by the Sea in Florida, I couldn’t help but notice how extra delicious the vegetarian omelet was. I asked our waiter to relay my appreciation to the chef. He turned me down, saying: “Sir, I think it would mean more if you took time to thank him personally.” I followed his suggestion and finally found the chef in a hot windowless room; dark, cheerless, and dank. You should have seen the sunrise of joy on his face as he effusively thanked me again and again for taking the trouble to track him down and thank him personally!

I’ve made it a habit, whenever I discover someone who is going the proverbial “second mile” in any aspect of service to others, to take time to say “thank you”—not just generally but specifically, which means much more to the recipient.

Oh there are ever so many opportunities, each day of our lives, to say thank you. Often we completely forget to regularly thank those who are nearest and dearest to us.

Emerson maintained that “the gift without the giver is bare,” which reminds me of expensive Christmas cards some people mail us, that arrive with their names printed on it. And nothing else. Am I impressed? Not on your life! They could have said something! Or what about tipping in hotels and motels. It’s all too easy to just drop some dollar bills on a table, and leave it at that. But ah the day-brightening-difference to hospitality workers when I also write “Many thanks!” or “You keep our room beautiful!”

It is an industry axiom that for every person who sends us an unsolicited note of thanks, there are at least a hundred people who feel the same way but will never take the time to express that gratitude. That’s why I consider unsolicited thank you notes as pure gold!

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So how about you? How many of our readers would like to join me in this great Gratitude Adventure?