THE CLOCK OF LIFE

“The clock of life is wound but once
And no one can tell you when the hands will stop
At late or early hour;
Now is the only time you have;
Live, love, toil with a will;
Place no confidence in tomorrow
For the clock may then be still.”

Author Unknown

This powerful little poem I positioned at both the beginning and ending of my most recent Christmas story, “The Clock of Life” in Christmas in My Heart 18 (Pacific Press, 2009); in that story, I fictionalized my own recent close call. Over an 18-month period, my body began shutting down on me. Finally, my doctor took one look at my yellow skin and gave me two hours’ notice before checking in at a hospital E.R, Then it was a race against time to find out what was wrong before it was too late.

During those long days and much longer nights, when the clock on the wall above my bed seemed to take forever to indicate one lone minute had passed, I had plenty of opportunities to Monday-morning quarterback my life: Was my life over, my race done? Had I accomplished all I had hoped to in this short soap opera we label “life”? Was I at peace with God? Had I told my wife and children often enough how very much I loved and cherished them? Was my house in order (ready for an exhaustive audit)? If my body continued to close shop on me, was I ready to tie up all the loose ends of my life? Was my wife Connie prepared to shoulder the entire burden of life alone? What could she do with the massive library that has made our 71 books possible? Did I have fences I needed to mend before it was too late? How was I doing on my Bucket List? Did I have any major regrets? Most important of all . . . was I ready to meet my Maker?

After much prayer, I was convicted that I should pour all these variables into my 18th Christmas story. And “The Clock of Life” proved to be the perfect catalyst.

* * * * *

Several days ago, I was debriefing by phone with Tim Kubrock (principal of Monterey Bay Academy) over the alumni breakfast the week before; more specifically, my remarks to the alumni.

Because of all I have gone through during the last couple of years, I was especially conscious of just how fragile is our hold on life—and, by extension, how little time we have in which to accomplish our goals. I used to take all this for granted. I most certainly do not any more.

And so I urged my fellow alumni to not delay in their giving to this school that contributed so much to us in the morning of our lives. I was painfully blunt: “You know, each year we lose more of our beloved classmates—most likely, never on earth will all of us in this room assemble together again. So please don’t delay in your support of our alma mater.”

All this the principal and I referenced in our chat.

Then he told me, “I’ve got to tell you about an experience I had in my office about 5 p.m. Saturday afternoon. A 50th anniversary alum walked in (I could tell by the honor ribbon on his shirt). Well, he just wanted to talk about the academy, life in general, his own children (who’d also attended the academy), and some painful things I can’t share. Before he left, I felt impressed to offer prayer for him and his family: that the Lord would help to heal the brokenness in his family. When he got up to leave, there was a softness and peace in his face that had not been there when he came in.

There was then a long silence. . .

Followed by a sigh . . . and

“He died last Friday.”

Advertisements

THE OTHER SIDE OF “POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE”

            All across America right now a rite of passage: Graduation, is taking place.  For the 34 years of my teaching career, every spring, as a member of the faculty I’d have a ring-side seat when the long black line solemnly came down the aisle.  “Solemn” at the beginning —“euphoric” at the end.  “Solemn” because instinctively each graduate sensed that when the ceremony was over a door would be closing on that portion of their life story.  Ironically, in ancient Rome, especially in the decedent late period, unwanted children were routinely booted out of their homes into the streets to survive as best they could—and they called them “alumni.”

            Just so today, in these recessionary times, I’d guess many of the graduates we see march down the aisle in May and June, without solid job prospects, the very thought of being cast out into a cold world makes them shudder.

* * * * *

            When I took early retirement in order to write full-time, I didn’t realize what it would feel like to not be there at the front of the auditorium in my doctoral robe every spring.  I’ve always reveled in medieval pageantry and, let’s face it, our graduation ceremonies re-immerse us into medieval pageantry every spring.

            To tell the truth, I really miss not being there—far more than I would have believed possible.  Every spring, to see each of those now beloved students I’d taught and associated with for four long years come down the aisle toward me, would bring a catch to my throat.  For my in-loco-parentis rights ceased when they marched back out: my children were about to leave home.  Of course they’d come back on alumni weekends—but it would never never never be the same.

            Perhaps that’s why I wrote these words on April 5, 1991 when I was professor of English at Columbia Union College (now Washington Adventist University) in Takoma Park, Maryland.  I am hereby setting these lines loose into the world:

“THE OTHER SIDE OF
‘POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE’”

The years. . .they flow by like rivers,
     Every one bridged by a song;
Every spring that I can remember
     Haunted by that Elgar tune.

Oh incongruous sight:
     That long black line,
     In the morning of their lives.

I don’t know why this sentimental heart of mine
     Never seems to learn:
          All it takes is that first chord of “Pomp and Circumstance”
          And chills go up my spine;

          All it takes is that long black line flowing down the long aisle
          And tears—I can hardly see.

Why does my heart catch in my throat
     When these eagles of the morning
     Fly down to me?
          Could it be because there is yet no rank
          And only God knows who will storm the peaks,
          Who will merely circle above the valley,
          And who will cease to fly at all?

 * * * * * * * *

You are so solemn, caught up in the pageantry of it all,
     Only now realizing that the Camelot you thought
          Rose dimly in the mists ahead
          Is now only organ notes from being behind. 

Occasionally you will look up, see me, and shyly smile;
     I smile back . . . signaling it’s all right.  I’ve been where you’re going
          Too.
     But deep down, I know I haven’t:
          The other side of “Pomp and Circumstance”
               Is always new.

Our eyes, our eyes remember
     The thousand days we’ve spent together
           The long stretches of sea and sand,
           The rugged peaks spearing the azure;
               Together we viewed the edges of the world;
               Together we climbed celestial stairs to God.

And now it’s time for you to go,
     And we must stay behind,
          For 8760 hours from now
               Another long black line . . .
               Will complete its circle too. 

But never again will there be another just like you,
     And part of us will have left with you:
          For your success will be our success
          And your failure ours as well;
               Laughter and tears,
               Sunlight and shadow
          The part of us that is now you . . . we’ll share. 

* * * * *

Oh Lord . . . the only thing which brings solace
     To my already lonesome heart . . . is the thought . . .
          That in Thy celestial city
          Once again we’ll hear those haunting strains
               Of “Pomp and Circumstance” . . .

                And all of our college children . . .
               Will come home to Thee.

               —Joseph Leininger Wheeler (© 1991)

SEA AND SAND, LEAVING OUR HEARTS ON LA SELVA BEACH

One mile of beachfront.  How many high school graduates can claim such a thing? Yet ‘tis true: Connie and I were both lucky enough to graduate from a parochial high school, Monterey Bay Academy, that owns one mile of beachfront on one of America’s most beautiful—and expensive—stretches of real estate.

Not that we valued it much half a century ago: “So the place has a beach—ho hum.”  Of course teenagers, in any age, have little concept of value, for perceived value is a by-product of time and the battering of the years.

Connie and I have just returned from another alumni weekend.  They say that wherever it is you grow up becomes part of your DNA: if it be mountains, always mountains will call to you; if it be plains, always plains will call to you; if it be the desert, always deserts will call to you; and if it be a coast—always the sea will summon you home.

A fifth generation Californian on both sides of my family, I cannot be very long absent from it without saying to Connie (also California-born), “Honey, I need an ocean-fix—I’m hungry for the sea.”  And we go.  In this case, make that “went.”  And we stayed at one of our favorite cliff-dwellings: Santa Cruz’s Sea and Sand Inn, so that every night we could listen to the waves thunder up the beach, accompanied by the inimitable croaking bark of seals. 

Alumni weekend just gave us an excuse for going.  Those classmates of long ago—it hurts to see them; but it hurts more not to.  Every year that passes, there are more who’ll never come again.  And those who are still with us walk slower than they used to.  But Time can sometimes be kind, gifting alumni with a second set of lens: they see through the wrinkles and stooped shoulders to the still vibrant spirit within.  To them, by some inexplicable miracle, the campus hunk is the campus hunk still, the campus clown is funnier than ever, and the campus dreamgirl is the campus dreamgirl still.

I can never be more than minutes on the MBA campus without responding to tidal suction: I have to wend my way down to the beach, ditch my shoes, roll up my pantlegs, and immerse myself in my personal paradise-regained.  And there, as always, time telescopes for me, the past seamlessly merging with the present.

We also go back to our alma mater because of music.  And this year’s music could happen but once, for Arladell Nelson-Speyer was “coming home” after a twelve-year hiatus.  Arladell, who’d directed the academy’s legendary touring choral group, the Oceanaires, for thirty long years (half the entire history of the school).  Arladell, who’d during those twelve intervening years endured enough heartbreak for three lifetimes—and our own hearts vicariously broke for her.  Since we couldn’t take away her anguish, we settled for second best: being there for her.

So—shades of Mr. Holland’s Opus (a 1965 Disney tearjerker chronicling the thirty-year career of a beloved mentor and teacher of music)—out went a call: “Oceanaires—all Oceanaires—come home!”  And they came, from all over the nation.  About a quarter of the thousand or so Oceanaires who have ever been—answered that call.  On that memorable Saturday afternoon, they packed the stage.  Connie (one of those precious few original Oceanaires) joined them, standing side by side with Muffy Lindgren Ramsland, another member of a trio that performed for all four years in academy.

Arladell had practiced with them, and wielded the whip as in days gone by; so they were ready to sing their hearts out.  The sound was the same, yet richer because of their cumulative size; the bass section sending chills up our spines with a deep rumble never evidenced when they were young.

Oh we never wanted it to end!  For it was life—all of our lives—that we were hearing and seeing.  Since the old familiar songs appeared in our printed programs: “The Morning Trumpet,” “E’en So Lord Jesus, Quickly Come,” “I Will Give You Thanks, Oh Lord,” “Children of the Heavenly Father,” “Soon-ah Will Be Done,” “Honor and Glory,” and “I want to Walk as a Child of the Light,” each of us (listeners as well as singers) inwardly checked them off on our personal bucket lists.  And we mourned because the last number was that much closer.

But all too soon, it had to end: It was time for the Oceanaires’ signature piece, “Ride the Chariot in the Mornin’, Lord.”  As it progressed to its inevitable conclusion, I wept—we all wept—instinctively recognizing that we’d never experience the likes of it again, for no recording could possibly ever recapture that magical moment.  So we stood, clapping and cheering and weeping until our hands were sore and our voices were hoarse.  Connie later testified that the emotional overload among the singers was even greater—if that could even be possible—than ours. For older singers, that is: none of the 2010 Oceanaires could possibly understand the thoughts swirling in the minds of those whose life journey was nearing its terminus.

* * * * *

Monterey Bay Academy.  I’m reminded of a remark attributed to Daniel Webster, who when asked where he graduated from, responded with, “Oh, sir, it is but a small school—but there are those of us who love it.”  Just so, our beloved academy.  One of the unsung, virtually unknown little coeducational Christian academies, where boys and girls still come from all over the world, where close to 70% work part of their way, where 90% go on to college—and the friendships born in dormitories here last for life.  Indeed, no other friendships ever formed in later years can possibly compare to these, forged in life’s morning years on La Selva Beach.

So, if you have a son, daughter, niece, nephew, or grandchild you covet such a launching pad for, as this, delay not a moment, but e-mail the Principal, Tim Kubrock, and enroll that lucky teenager immediately at Monterey Bay Academy.

DRILL SERGEANT MOTHER HENS

Without a doubt, those four words describe her perfectly. More on her later.

* * * * *

Most of the truly important lessons I’ve learned in life, I’ve learned the hard way. Unquestionably, my most significant growth occurred after I was fired . . . twice. Everyone ought to get fired at least once in life, just for the learning that follows.

It was at a book-signing that she came up to me, introducing herself with these trenchant words: “You don’t know me, but you ought to: Years ago, at ______, you fired me before you took over as Vice President. That was a big mistake, because I could have made you a success, so you wouldn’t have lost your job.” Turns out, she was right: upon the advice of my predecessor, I had fired the one person who could have saved me. In those days, I was incredibly naive about the real world outside cloistered academia. My relevant epiphany had not yet taken place.

That was the slow slogging result of years of door-to-door book sales and fund-raising. Can’t remember the breakthrough moment, only that my life has never been the same since. That’s one thing that really amazes me about life: the greatest truths are known and internalized by so few.

Here it is:     Every organization has two chains of command: de facto and de jure. The truly successful people know which is which, and act accordingly.

One of them, the de jure, everybody knows about instinctively–the logical one. The one on letterheads and power-flow charts. The person on top (usually a man) is the boss. The next one down is next in importance, and so on, each one proportionally less important, until you get to the bottom. These are the ones most everyone goes to when they need something. But is it valid? Ostensibly, yes. If you ask the person at the bottom for something, you go through your entire spiel, and chances are the answer will be, “Terribly sorry, but you’ll have to talk to _______ [the next person up]; and so it is that you keep getting bumped up to the top. Almost to the top, because the boss is always too busy to talk to you. Same with phone queries.

The other one, the de-facto, almost nobody knows about, because it’s not on letterhead or power flow charts. The only ones who know about it are insiders, and they won’t talk about it. Why? Because it’s too precious, coming under the abstract heading: “Knowledge is power.”

It works this way: in each department, there is a go-to person (usually a woman). There has to be, or the entire organization will collapse, for somebody has to be in charge, know how to negotiate the system. Combined in that one person are two oxymoronic qualities: being both a drill-sergeant and a mother hen. Externally no nonsense and hard as nails; deep down, loving, kind, caring, appreciative, tender, empathetic, and supportive.

What is really intriguing is that these de facto go-to people each report to another, higher up, just like them. Up and up and up till you get to the very top. That’s why, when I want to get or learn something, I by-pass the letterhead people and start with the top. Not the CEO, of course, but most likely his personal secretary (usually a woman); I call on her because she runs the entire organization. It would disintegrate without her.

Even her supposed boss trembles in her presence because he is powerless without her. Alienate her at your own risk because if she loses faith in you, you are history. All she has to do is cash in enough of the thousands of chips (“I owe you’s”) she has in her arsenal, and you walk. Since she alone has in her mental lock box all the corporate memory (also all the skeletons, and she knows in which closets they can be found), she cannot possibly be defeated. Not only is she a king-maker, she is also a king-unmaker.

I’m guessing the reason it’s usually a woman is that women (down through history generally being considered of less value than men) have learned to rule by networking among themselves and through empathetic men. They laugh at letterheads and power flow charts. They let those on them strut and preen their feathers as they grandstand on talk shows and to talking-heads. They laugh because they know where the real power is, how to use it, how to get things done—and how to stop everything in its tracks.

* * * * *

Now back to Sacramento two and a half weeks ago. On Friday evening, when we entered the restaurant meeting room, no one greeted us. We had to introduce ourselves to each one. Clearly, no one was in charge. All we had were middle-aged alumni who’d been told to show up; well, they had, but without a shepherd they were as clueless as milling sheep. Then suddenly, there was a shout: “She’s here!” “Debbie’s here!” It was almost spontaneous combustion in the room. Debbie Bighaus had finally arrived from the northwest. The one person, the Facebook Wagonmaster, who was single-handedly responsible for our all being there, had arrived—our de facto drill sergeant-mother hen.

Let the party begin!

MEMORIES THAT BLESS AND BURN

Last Wednesday, I revisited my past, the face of which was a long ago student of mine, Donna Diebel Beehler.

All too rarely, does the frantic pace of my life slow down enough for reflection. And without reflection we lose focus; we risk veering off course, forgetting to re-ask ourselves Life’s Three Eternal Questions: “Who am I?” “Where have I come from?” “Where am I going?”

So it was good to go back to one of the earliest stages of my teaching career, to the campus of Sacramento Adventist Academy. More beautiful even than it had been in the 1960s – except its iconic symbol, its great oak, was no longer there. Other trees vainly attempted to take its place, but it was not the same for limned in a double-exposure image was the tree that was still there – in my heart.

Have you ever noticed how certain moments of your lifetime are frozen in time? When time itself seems to momentarily stop. I looked for the classroom where it happened. It was an early November afternoon, and I was teaching an English class – or trying to, for afternoon classes are, by nature, sluggish. Suddenly, the door of the classroom was yanked open, and a student cried out, “Kennedy’s been shot! Kennedy’s been shot!” With those six words, all classroom control vanished. Television was so new back then, there wasn’t even a set on campus. All we had was radio. We all headed to the gymnasium, as I remember, to listen to ongoing commentary – every last one of us in a state of shock.

* * * * *

Later in the day, Connie and I managed to find our way – no easy task after all these years – to our old home on Pueblo Avenue. It was still there! Just a different color. I embarrassed Connie by stopping, walking up to the front door, and ringing the bell. When a man opened it, looking at me quizzically, I explained: “We used to live in this house.” After inviting me in, and summoning Connie from the car, we revisited that part of our lives: The foyer (once amber bottled glass by the door) where our then little boy, Greg, used to sit in the morning sun, mauling our Siamese cat, Nuteena (fondly called “No Nuts” because he’d been neutered).

Next door, a Majong-obsessed couple used to live – they regularly hosted noisy Majong tournaments. But what we remembered most vividly was that dreadful weekend of Kennedy’s assassination when we crashed our neighbor’s house (they had a TV and we didn’t) and sat with them in their living room, immersed in the gloomy black and white (no color then) images of Washington in mourning beamed into households all across the nation. This couldn’t be happening! But it was. What I remember most clearly: the clip-clopping of horses’ hooves, the firing of guns, the somber bells, choral dirges, muffled voices; standing on the steps of the Capitol, beautiful Jackie dressed in black, holding little John John’s hand, dressed in his now famous blue jacket – and his saluting as the body of his father went past; the long lines of mourners slowly walking by the coffin – and people weeping unashamedly.

And next morning, our neighbor banging on our door, shouting, “Come on over! Oswald has just been shot!” Blood, blood everywhere – the end of innocence for our generation. That did it! We drove down to Sears and bought our first television set.

* * * * *

That evening, en route to an alumni gathering in Rancho Murietta, we drove by one of my alma maters, Sacramento State University. And my mind drifted back to one of the key epiphanies of my lifetime: It was a sizzling summer afternoon and I was sauntering past an open door when I heard a familiar voice, “Joe! Got a minute?” It was Dr. Victor Comerchero, one of the University’s most beloved teachers. I’d taken several English classes from him. After some small talk, he got to the point – bluntly: “Joe, what are you doing here?” Noticing my bemusement, he chuckled and added, “What I really mean is, what are you doing with your life?”

I sputtered, “Well, I’m taking English classes, trying to bring my undergraduate English minor up to a major.”

“The reason, I asked, Joe, is that I’ve been looking over your records . . . . Do you realize you’re half way to a Masters in English? Why are you wasting time with just aimlessly taking classes?”

My mouth gaped open. Huh? Half way to a second Masters? Suddenly, my inner stars came into alignment as I considered the ramifications and resultant possibilities. So many times since, I’ve thought back to that life-changing moment when a busy professor on a hot summer afternoon (with no air-conditioner in his office) cared enough for a student he barely knew, to search his academic records, stop that student as he walked by, and challenge him to build a foundation under his dreams. The result was that I completed my course work, wrote my thesis on utopian and dystopian writers; even before graduation, my proximity to that second Masters catapulted me out of the high school classroom into the collegiate world, clearing the way for my Vanderbilt doctorate and all that has followed.

* * * * *

But my life nevertheless remains imprinted on one seamless bolt of cloth. In God’s eternal scheme of things, Sacramento Adventist Academy was just as significant as Sacramento State University and Vanderbilt University – each would play a central role in my life’s journey; just so, equal weight to the human faces along the way: Donna Diebel Beehler and Debbie Bighaus-West (more on her later), Dr. Victor Comerchero, and Drs Warren Titus and Kenneth Cooper of Vanderbilt University.

For each of them, I am profoundly grateful.

ALUMNI WEEKEND TIME

Yep, it’s spring, so it must be alumni weekend time.  I’m certain of it, for we just returned from one in California.

By now, I’ve accumulated enough years on my vintage [in mercy, we won’t say how old] life odometer, to be a veteran of these springtime rites of passage we call alumni weekends.  In our case, they are inescapable because not only do my wife and I have collectively nine alma maters to keep track of, I’ve also taught at five educational institutions (three universities, one high school, and one junior high), over a period of 34 years.   Each of these can be counted on to schedule an alumni weekend each spring.  Translated: it means that rare is a spring when a particular alumni weekend fails to belt out an irresistible siren call.  And it’s all because of numerology.  Actually it’s an insidious attempt by society to keep us broke by reminding us (by snail mail, e-mails, telephone, Facebook, blogs, Twitter, et al) that somewhere, every year of our lives, a five-year-multiple of some sort has reared its ugly head.  And rejecting such a summons is almost a sacrilegious act: akin to burning a Bible—or a National Geographic magazine.

Well, as I said, we’ve just returned from another one.  And this one was impossible to resist: a West Coast high school class was circling its wagons for their big 4 0 reunion.  And I received an invitation that—oh, let me tell you how diabolically wicked it was!  One of those long-ago students e-mailed me, informing me that way back when we were both young and foolish, I’d been one of her favorite teachers, and she’d never been back to an alumni reunion because I wasn’t there and that if I didn’t show up for this one she’d boycott that one too—Did I really want to have such a dastardly crime on my conscience?  And she called in reinforcements for added insurance.  “Trip insurance,” I believe they call it in the cruise industry.

So, of course, we packed up our bags and went.  And it was worth many times over what we paid for it.  I must confess to you that, in life, I’ve had more than my fair share of honors and degrees, but none of them can compare to this tender-hearted former student of mine, who after agreeing to introduce me to the alumni crowd, sat there with me on the front row racked with anguish and embarrassment, declaring over and over in a shaking voice, “I just can’t go through with this, Dr. Wheeler!  I just can’t!”  And the closer we got to our place in the program, the more she shook.  Almost, I thought we’d lose her.

But of course we didn’t: the most moving heart-felt tribute a teacher could ever receive.  Complete with a conch shell in which she had somehow some way, I don’t know how! beautifully inscribed these words inside: “Dear Dr. Wheeler, you will always remain in our hearts”—words no one but me could see.

Of course I hugged her!  Indeed, for a time, I could not speak.  Not until afterwards did we discover she’d been given a standing ovation.  Because, in the brief terrestrial passage of this thing called “life,” rarely are we moved to such an extent that we’re incapable of speech.  All the way back, on our return flight to Denver, I dissected that precious moment to find out why.  The closest I can get to an articulate explanation is this: If we are lucky enough to live a rich full life and be the recipient of honors, the ones that mean the most come from the lips of those who have known us the longest, and say, in essence:

I knew you when—.  I knew you when you were young and crazy like us.  When you loved us unreservedly even when we were most unlovable.  There were times when you lost your temper, when you did and said stupid, even inexcusable things, just like some of us did—but we loved you all the more because we knew the love you had for us was Velveteen Rabbit real.  And it’s because of all that, that we haven’t been able to forget you—that we can’t even imagine not having you with us when we celebrate our 40th alumni weekend.

This is what alumni weekends are really all about.  For we are unreservedly vulnerable only once in life—when we are young.  And though we may be considered successful by the great world later on, if our long-ago peers don’t consider us to be successful (with qualities that really matter, that stand the test of time), when we go back to the old campus on alumni weekend, when we pick up where we left off all those years ago—then we are not really successful at all, no matter what the world might say.  And this is the reason that, if I should somehow live a thousand years, never could I imagine so undeserving, so heartbreakingly beautiful, a tribute as the one I just received.

May God bless her!  And bless all those others who shakily stand up in front of their long-ago-but-forever classmates, to express that rare kind of love that comes—if it comes at all in life—but once.