JOURNALING AND OUR BOOK CLUB

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

JOURNALING AND OUR BOOK CLUB

Nov. 2, 2011

There are, in each of our lives, certain days that prove pivotal in our journeys.  One such day had to do with a lecture of the top information literary specialist in America to the faculty of Columbia Union College.  Looking around at us, college professors from many disciplines, she asked us a simple question: “Let’s say you gave your students an examination earlier today.  Then, a week from today – completely unannounced -, you give them the same exam.  How much of what they knew today . . . will they remember a week from now?”

None of us even came close to the correct answer.  “Your top student,” she pointed out, your four-pointer, will remember a week from today, at most, 17%!  Most will remember far less – and it will be all down hill from there.”  I’ve never taught a class the same way since.  For if the most brilliant student in the college forgets at least 83% in one week, what pitiful retention rate does that imply for the rest of the class?  Hence the preposterous exercise in futility of end-of-the-semester exams three and a half months later!

As for thoughts, rarely do they come when you most want them to.  In fact, many insidiously come to us just as we’re drifting off to sleep.  Have you ever thought, What a beautiful thought!  Can’t believe I came up with it.  In the morning, ho hum, I’ll write it down . . . I’m far too comfy to get up now.

And in the morning, what do we remember? Not much.  Chances are, we won’t even remember what the thought was about.  If it does come to us, it will be in such muddled shape it won’t even be worth writing down, for thoughts only ring their golden bells once in life.  Another put it this way: “God only gives you a great thought once.”

One of England’s great writers, Matthew Arnold, in his poignant poem, “Despondency,” described this phenomenon in eight lines:

“The thoughts that rain their steady glow

Like stars on life’s cold sea,

Which others know or say they know –

They never shine for me.

Thoughts light, like gleams, my spirit’s sky

But they will not remain;

They light me once, they hurry by,

And never come again.”

America’s greatest poetess, Emily Dickinson, took the same number of lines to express her own frustration:

1452

“Your thoughts don’t have words every day

They come a single time

Like signal esoteric sips

Of the communion wine

Which while you taste so native seems

So easy so to be

You cannot comprehend its price

Nor its infrequency.”

You no doubt noticed certain words in Dickinson’s poem that are a bit archaic today.  Unless you keep by your side a full-sized Webster’s Collegiate dictionary (or equivalent on-line), you’d miss key portions of Dickinson’s meaning (especially when trying to understand what Dickinson meant by words such as “signal,” “esoteric,” “native,” “easy so to be,” etc).  It is no exaggeration to declare that unless each of us not only has, but uses, such a source, we will unquestionably cripple our ability to understand what we read.  Really serious readers also access an unabridged dictionary, and for archaic words the monumental Oxford Unabridged.

SO WHY JOURNAL?

Some years ago I had in one of my Freshman Composition classes a second-generation student (I’d taught her father in high school a generation before).  She asked me one day if I’d had my students journal in my classes when her father was in my English classes.  Her face fell when I answered in the negative.  She then added, “Oh it’s sad because Dad and I aren’t getting along very well—he’s just an authority figure rather than a father.  I just thought if I could read journal entries written by Dad when he was young like me, perhaps we could meet in our journal entries.”

Up until that time, I’d never really given much thought to journals as vehicles to freeze our thoughts into time periods.  Since then I’ve discovered that a number of renowned writers have capitalized on that reality to find out how they thought when they were much younger, or described people, places, experiences immediately after they took place.  I’ve ruefully discovered that while my writing has greater depth and breadth now than it used to have, I’ve lost the ability to think and articulate as a 50-year-old, a college student, a high school student, or a child.  This is a major reason why journal entries penned at each stage of our lives are so significant.

As for travel, travel writers will tell you that, in visiting places for the very first time, you have only moments in which to jot down those first impressions.  When you first arrive, everything jars, for everything is new.  Each sensory impression has an echo: a flashback to its counterpart back home.  But by the next day, sensory impressions are already blurring—you are no longer sure what is new and different and what is not.

Several days ago, on a Southwestern Airlines plane, I was privileged to sit next to a delightful young couple.  We got into a far-ranging discussion of books (e-books versus paper) and quotations.  They were most interested in my daily quotation tweets, for both seek out memorable quotes in their daily reading.  In truth, had I not many years ago begun writing down in the back of my journals the most memorable quotations from my reading, I’d not have near the vast repository of memorable quotations I draw from today.  We use quotations in so many ways in our lives (family, school, church, public speaking, writing).  I also paste in poetry at the back of my journals.

But the same is true with vivid metaphors and similes.  These too I write down in the back of my journals.  For such figurative language reveals to us how much more vivid and fresh our spoken and written communication can be if we avoid hackneyed words and cliches.

Then there are powerful beginnings and endings (in both short stories and longer works).  For unless a beginning sentence or paragraph sucks us into the story, article, or book, why write something no one will remain interested in beyond the first page?  This is a key reason why, when I find such a riveting passage, I write it down at the back of my journals.  The same is true of endings.  All too many writers just run out of gas at the end, are seemingly unable to close the sale.  But some writers spend a lot of time with their conclusions, so structure them that but one additional word would wreck that last page.  The endings are so deeply moving that you couldn’t forget them if you wanted to.  They ring like a giant bell.  These too I write down at the back of my journals.

So it is that while my journals also record the nuts and bolts of my life: who I write to or phone every day, who I meet with, where I travel to, etc. (and these can prove to be extremely significant when I need to retroactively find out where I was and what I did on certain days), even more valuable to me are the things I write down at the back of my journals, for they synthesize my creative involvements.  I also record goals and objectives in my journals.

I also write down significant things I hear in the digital media, lectures, church services, workshops—oh the list goes on and on!

* * * * *

I hope you can now see why I am urging each new participant in our Book of the Month Club to immediately purchase a full-sized journal from your local office supply store.  Mine are ledger size and contain around 300 pages; they generally last me three to five years each.  What you’ll discover, over time, is that these journals will not only end up capsulizing and chronicling your life, they will also become so much a part of who you are and what you do and say and write that you’d feel empty without them.

I look forward to hearing back from you as you make your journals part of you.

SAMPLINGS FROM MY JOURNALS

QUOTATIONS

“Parting is all we know of heaven

And all we need of hell.”

—Emily Dickinson

“It is nothing to die; it is horrible not to live.”

—Victor Hugo

“It is better to be silent and thought a fool than to open the

mouth and remove all doubt.”

—Abraham Lincoln

METAPHORS

“Now there was a chasm as wide as the world between them and only

the child to span it.”

—Ernest Pascal

“A little mouse of thought went scampering across her mind and popped into

its hole again.”

—George Meredith

SIMILES

“The softness of a kitten’s feet–like raspberries held in the hand.”

–Anne Douglas Sedgewick

“And his little feathered head drooped like the head of a wilting poppy.”

—Elizabeth Goudge

BOOK BEGINNINGS

“A sharp clip-clip of iron-shod hooves deadened and died away, and clouds of yellow dust drifted from under the cottonwoods out over the sage.”

–Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage

BOOK ENDINGS

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done;

It is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

—Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities

* * * * *

Next Wednesday, we’ll begin the Southwest National Park Lodges series.

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TREASURES FROM THE PAST #1

One of the responses to the survey has already had its effect: it urged me to keep mining the bullion of the past in my blogs.

I have been working around the clock on my eighth collection of animal stories (Animals of the Jungle). As I searched for stories, in a long-ago essay written by Hildegarde Hawthorne (granddaughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne), published in a magazine for young people early in the twentieth century, I found a timeless treasure of thought perfect as the follow-up to last Wednesday’s blog: “Don’t Wait Until Tomorrow.”

It was inspired by Emerson’s famous poem:

DAYS

“Daughters of Time, the hypocritic Days,
Muffled and dumb like barefoot dervishes,
And marching single in an endless file,
Bringing diadems and fagots in their hands,
To each they offer gifts after his will,
Bread, kingdoms, stars, and sky that holds them all.
I, in my pleached garden, watched the pomp,
Forgot my morning wishes, hastily
Took a few herbs and apples, and the Day
Turned and departed silent. I, too late,
Under her solemn fillet saw the scorn.”

THE DOORWAY OF THE DAYS
by Hildegarde Hawthorne

A day is a wonderful thing. It is like a great doorway flung wide for you to pass through into all manner of adventures. One after the other, these doorways open to you, each different, each opening on a fresh prospect. Fresh, yourself, after the rest and the stillness of night, you stand each morning on the threshold, and then you step through and are launched on what that day has for you.

Of course, the day, being as it were just this welcoming doorway, can not make you go out to meet what it holds. You can refuse its mighty invitations. It may be a day that opens on shadowy forest paths, on blue headlands, a day where nature is at her most beautiful best. Again it may hold a splendid hour or two of companionship with some one who could tell you much of this nature, who could give you new insight into her mysteries, who could explain what hitherto you had never understood. It might be a day made for running feet and for laughter and joy. It has opened the wide doorway to all this. But of course you can refuse it all. You can turn your back on the prospect before you, spend your hours indoors, fail to meet the friend who was waiting, sulk over some fancied slight or trouble, worry and exhaust yourself in various ways. The doorway of the day will swing close, at last, and the possibilities on which it opened will have gone, perhaps forever.

Supposing you had only one day to live in, like some of the ephemera, whom you may watch in summer, dizzy with their dancing, in a sunbeam. Just one day! Well, it would hold twenty-four hours. How splendid! How much you could do in that time. And how much to choose for the doing, the seeing, the hearing, the feeling, the thinking! A sunrise and a sunset, stars, a moon maybe, winds swaying tree-tops or ruffling water; and then comrades to play with, a fine book to read, music to hear; a ride, perhaps, in a motor-car or on a horse, a walk in a country lane or along a street filled with all manner of things worth looking at; there would be meals to eat, a lesson to study. You would have the joy of bodily exercise, the joy of loving, the delight of conversation with friends. Each hour would hold its own miracle.

At the end, before sleep came, you would find no words to describe the marvel of a day. Room in it for the exercise of all your faculties, for dreams and for reality, for play and for work. A great round day, and you alive in it.

You see, just because there is more than one day, we get too used to them to remember what they really are. We let them slip through our fingers, with their adventures unlived, their beauty unseen. Many a day has been treated as though it were just a bore, when it was simply bursting with exciting thrills. Many a day that held in it a wonderful thing, which you would have cherished all your life, has been allowed to pass away empty. For only what you take from the offerings of each day is yours.

Do you ever think over the manifold ways in which each day is spent by the people on this earth? How an Eskimo spends the day you have given over to school, to football practice, or a game of tennis or to skiing, to a matinee or a quiet time reading while the storm beats on the windows and shouts over the house? How that same day is being spent by a savage in Africa, by a Russian refugee, a coal-miner, a seaman? You can get some notion of all that a day opens on if you let your mind wander a bit in these directions.

It seems to me that the great difference between those who lead a full and interesting life and those who don’t is that the first do not let the fact that there are three hundred and sixty-five days in a year dull the wonderful possibilities of each individual day. They look before and after, of course, for the past and the future add richness to the present. But the day itself is the thing. Because tomorrow you are to go on an entrancing journey, or to the dentist, there is no reason for slighting today. It too has its worth and its gift. Live it. The combination of you and a day is too wonderful to be missed. People throw days away as if they were worthless pebbles, and then complain that life is a poor affair. One of Emerson’s noble sayings was, “Give me health and a day and I will make the pomp of emperors ridiculous”; and as you grow older you will cherish also in your memories his brief poem on “The Days.” It is a vivid picture in words of what I have been trying to set forth; and every earnest boy and girl can imagine the days going on about their tremendous business rather bewildered and rather amused. Here we are, they say, full of everything. And look how we’re treated and hear how we’re reviled! What’s the matter with these people, anyway?

And then the Days will show each other the unused things they had ready, which were never asked for, like handfuls of fine jewels shining in the light, but which no one stooped to pick up.

“Funny business!” sigh the Days, and if they had heads, there’d be reasons a-plenty for shaking them.

It is interesting to realize that the day that opens its great gate to you is for you only. No one else has just the same day. Even though you go every hour of the twenty-four close with a sister, a brother, a dear friend, and though what happens to you happens too to him or to her, as the case may be, yet the day will not be alike. Half of everything is the thing itself; the other half, its effect on you; and that effect can never be exactly duplicated. That is why it is that one person will get joy and interest out of a day that another will find merely tiresome.

The best will in the world can not keep dull days and dark days entirely away. You are going to miss quantities of things that you could have enjoyed, because you are tired or out of sorts or disgruntled. Other things will come to you that will be hard to bear and sad to live through. But for all that, the greater portion of your days are good days. The doorway they provide leads to much, and it is your own fault if you get only a little.

The fun of being alive and of having these days opening up, one after the other, is tremendous. Out you go to meet them, with your body, your mind, your senses, your questing spirit. You find things to laugh over, or cry over. You find things that set your mind to keen working or that strengthen your muscles or train the faculty of sight or of hearing, that make more proficient your hands, more skillful the whole bearing of your body. You meet something new to you, and have to readjust yourself and your ideas to take it in. To something else you say good-by for the last time. You will have your own interests, however, and the more, the merrier.

As your mind grows and develops, so the interests of your days should grow and extend, and each day coming ought to be more than the one gone, for you yourself are more. The trouble often is that one drops something for each new thing taken up. The play and the ecstasy of youth is lost with the deeper feeling and growing cares of maturity. But the girl or boy who goes on into maturity without losing too much of that young rapture becomes the best sort of man or woman. Don’t let your life go dry; let it keep its sap and freshness. Artists usually excel in this wisdom. The child lives on in them, making them richer and their days more radiant because it has not withered out of them. Keep what has come, and go on to what is due, and you will not be likely to find life a bore or a burden.

I remember how long a day appeared to me when I was a child—not too long, I enjoyed every moment of it, but so much longer than it does now. I had a better understanding of how great a day is, then. Now it seems short; sometimes I feel as though it merely winked at me and vanished. I can quite imagine that when I move on into eternity that eternity will soon seem to be short enough for all I want to do and be. Think of standing and waiting while the great door of eternity swings open and lets you through! But of course a day is after all a portion of eternity, and maybe it is because we are close to one end of eternity in childhood that days are eternal to us then. Why, any spring morning that was fair and welcoming I remember how I would go to lie under a certain apple-tree where the grass grew thick and the bending branches swept it, making a bower of bloom. And there I would dream away several days in a space that must really have been only a couple of hours. I would like to get back the glorious leisure of those days, to feel the promise of eternity in them; but though I haven’t lost the sense of the magnificence of a day, I can’t hold on to its vastness.

Except always in what it offers.

Now and again a day will come with a gift so splendid that you can not help but recognize it and acclaim it. You will say, as you have heard others say, “That was a great day in my life!” But don’t disdain the other days, that blow no trumpets and open no golden treasure-chests. They have their own wonderfulness, that calls to the wonderfulness in you, and through their mighty doorways you step to everything in life.

St. Nicholas, January 1923

FORMAL EDUCATION—LET THE BUYER BEWARE

In last Wednesday’s blog, I touched on a number of things about formal education that are good, positive, and helpful growth-wise. In this week’s, we’ll deal with formal education’s down-side. Since I’m a product of homeschooling; parochial education; state university education; ivy league education; teaching in junior high, senior high, junior college, college/university, adult education; as well as independent research, editing, and writing, I feel I can now approach formal education objectively.

First and foremost, formal education is not the real world; each segment of it is a self-propelled entity bordering on virtual reality. Thus it is a grave mistake to assume that academic success will equate with real world career-success. In fact, the two are not very compatible with each other. Let me explain:

Once your parents enroll you in formal education—let’s say kindergarten—, it’s like an assembly-line or car-wash; your own engine is left on a siding for it won’t be needed for a long time. Year after year, your teachers and administrators will be your engineers; all you have to do is follow orders. Over time, you become ever more subservient to these academic demi-gods who have such awesome power over you; if they dislike you, they can cripple your future career by lowering your grade or failing you outright, for grading is one of the most subjective and least-understood things on earth—paradoxically, even among educators themselves.

But what happens when you graduate at last and enter the job market? What all too many discover is that their own engine has remained on a siding for so long, it’s all rusted out. They no longer know how to be self -propelling. Many never do get the old engine up and running again; in such cases, they either accept other-directedness or find some job position in academia, the only world they understand. And some (a real serendipity to school administrators and business managers) become perpetual students: always learning but never putting their learning into practice.

Also, in degree areas that ostensibly equate with the real world (such as business, management, economics, technology, engineering, etc.), there is invariably a significant gap between cutting-edge developments in the real world and academic catch-up. For instance, schools of business are now reeling because the template they were basing their degrees on has dramatically revealed its obsolescence in the plunging, undulating roller coasterish stock market in today’s recessionary times, where no one is perceived to have the answers any more: not Wall Street, not economists, not pundits, not talking heads, not overseeing bureaucrats—not even that erstwhile golden boy of investors: Warren Buffett—no one appears to have the answers. Least of all, academia.

Another weakness of formal education is that it is so stratified and straitjacketed by regulations that it more often than not fails to adequately challenge eager learners. All too often, especially in elementary and secondary education, it degenerates into a form of social homogenization and control. If a teacher has 25 – 35 squirming bodies in a given class, s/he cannot possibly do justice to each one, therefore administrators will, more often than not, judge teacher performance by classroom discipline (that’s far easier to measure).

One significant weakness of formal regimented education is that it makes no room for side-trips. You are told to study certain things; and if you regurgitate them according to the teacher’s expectations and demands, you may be awarded an A. Thus, if I am taking a literature course, and told to study only one play by Shakespeare—say King Lear—, there is no incentive for me to also read Hamlet or Richard II. But—if I am taking but one literature class at a time, or being homeschooled, or reading on my own, while I’m at it, I can read Shakespeare clear through. Which I’ve done. But not while taking a full-load in an academic institution. Actually, I’ve experienced far more mental growth taking just one class at a time than I ever have taking a full-load, where I have to rush just to keep up with the teacher’s reading demands.

Also, formal education is hard on individual creativity. In the vast majority of instances, you are not rewarded for creativity, but rather by conformity to the demands of the teacher or the system. Mavericks are tolerated at best. Those who tend to think outside the box are not generally popular in academia—unless you’re a McArthur or Fullbright scholar, of course.

I guess what I’m getting at in this blog is this: I am not suggesting that we throw out the proverbial baby with the bath water. What I am suggesting is that we realize up-front that academia cannot be considered to be “real world”—that is not its function. Thus, if you wish to be truly successful in real life, then that presupposes that you will continue to keep your own engine in good running order, with plenty of independent side trips to give it exercise. Parallel to your formal education ought to be a major emphasis on personal growth (based on such things as voracious reading and journaling from books, magazines, newspapers, judicious use of the media, travel, lectures, personal inquiry, research, writing, etc). If you do these things, you will have a counterbalance to the dependence that invariably results from grade-dominated formal education. Thus you may end up with the best of both worlds.

SLAUGHTERING CREATIVITY IN THE CHILD

It is both wondrously simple and unbelievably complex: this mind God gave us—that either works, or doesn’t; sings—or sputters.

Famed obstetrician Dr. Frederic Loomis, in his memorable books, The Bond Between Us and Consultation Room, noted that in his long medical career (early to mid twentieth century), delivering over 3,000 babies in California’s Bay Area, invariably the new mother’s first two questions were either, “What is it?” (In those pre-computer days, the baby’s sex was unknown until its birth) or “Is it . . . all right?” and invariably the second question was the one asked with the most trepidation.

So it is that if the answer is positive, and it’s “all right,” the stage is set for the most incredibly rapid rate of brain growth the child will ever experience in life: not sipping life but swallowing it in gulps gallon by gallon. It is during this period of life that the child’s non-stop fusillade of questions about everything drive parents crazy. This period doesn’t ebb until around the age of six, when it is said that we’ve learned half of what we will learn in life. I must qualify that assumption by adding: half of what we need to know in order to function as human beings.

But there is no valid reason why this learning curve should not continue throughout life—unless. . . . And it is this “unless” that is a national tragedy for our nation. The tragedy has to do with the disconnect between the parents who are so euphoric about their babies’ being “all right” and their impatiently squelching, if not outright suffocating, the learning process once it has begun. How? By responding to the little question-machines with, “Don’t bother Mommy! Can’t you see I’m busy? Go bug Daddy!” Or “You and your interminable questions—you’re driving me crazy!” “Give us some peace, and shut up, for Pete’s sake!” Or, the most deadly cop-out of all, Oh, go watch TV, and leave me alone! No, I don’t care what you watch, just get out of my hair!”

And so that God-given creativity is blighted, and begins to shrivel up and die.

It’s that simple.

That dying of the once aspiring mind is accelerated by another tragedy: the wholesale annihilation of print in the home: no books, magazines, or newspapers to be found anywhere—only an impressive stack of electronic gadgetry that attach their tentacles to the child like so many octopus suction cups that drain away what creativity is left.

How?

By by-passing the receiver’s brain and blasting in, like so many moment-by-moment howitzer shells of pre-fab information created and packaged by someone else. Just a few of those results in little damage to the receiver’s creative process; the problem in today’s electronically obsessed society is that it continues day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, and decade after decade. And the more of this pre-fab imagery that stacks up in the mental archives of the receiver the less likelihood that anything created by the receiver’s brain will be left. Over time that person becomes what sociologists label “other directed” rather than “inner-directed” and ceases to function as a creative force at all.

I built a foundation for this new series of blogs on education and creativity with Blog #16 (March 10) – “Little Boy Blue”; Blog #17 (March 17) – “Non-reader’s Doomsday”; Blog #18 (March 24) – “Miracle in Silver Spring”; and Blog #19 (March 31) – “The Child is Father of the Man.” In coming weeks, we shall continue to explore this vital subject.

* * * * *

Every young man and woman is now a sower of seed on the field of life. Every thought of your intellect, every emotion of your heart, every word of your tongue, every principle you adopt, every act you perform, is a seed, whose good or evil fruit will prove the bliss or bane of your afterlife.

—Stephen S. Wise