DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB

Nov. 23, 2011

SELECTION TWO

THE CHRISTMAS ANGEL

by

ABBIE FARWELL BROWN

 

 


 

 

DICKENS AND BROWN

 

If the truth must be told, I almost chose Dickens’ Christmas Carol as our December selection, but had second thoughts because Connie and I concluded that most of you would have already read it.  If it should turn out that you have not, I have a suggestion: In such a case, since both The Christmas Carol and The Christmas Angel are quick reads, I suggest that you read Dickens’ great classic first, for all modern Christmas stories graft on to Christmas Carol.

I was privileged to partner with Focus on the Family and Tyndale House in twelve classic books: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1997) and Little Men (1999); Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1997), and The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1999); Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur (1997), Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis (2000); Grace Richmond’s The Twenty-fourth of June (1999); Gene Stratton Porter’s Freckles (1999); Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (1999); Abbie Farwell Brown’s The Christmas Angel (1999); and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol 1997) and David Copperfield (1999).  For each of these I wrote a modest biography of the author (averaging 60 – 80 pages in length) as well as discussion questions placed at the back of the book for individual readers, parents, teachers, and homeschoolers.  And we featured the oldest or best set of illustrations we could find.

All these books have long since gone out of print, however, we still have sale copies available (new condition) for almost all of them should you be interested in purchasing them from us.  Since I’m hoping that you’ll either re-read or read for the first time The Christmas Carol, I’m featuring part of my introduction/biography: ‘Scrooge at the Crossroads.”

I cannot remember when I first heard it read . . . nor when I first read it . . . nor when I first experienced it on film . . . nor even when it first engulfed me as live drama. . . .  I only know that looking back through life, somehow — I know not how — Christmas Carol was always there.

In the annals of literature there is nothing like it.  Certainly there was nothing like it before Dickens wrote it in 1843 — since then, many have tried to imitate it.  But the great original still stands, alone and inviolate — the Rock.

Can Christmas possibly be Christmas without it?  Many there be who would answer in the negative: somehow, to conclude even one Christmas season without re-experiencing the story would be to leave that year incomplete.

In the century and a half since it was published, we have come to take it for granted: we just accept it as if it had always been with us: like Wise Men, creches, and holly.  What would the world, after all, be like without Scrooge, Marley, the Cratchits, the Three Ghosts, Bah! Humbug! and Tiny Tim?  Well, in the year of our Lord, 1842 — none of those yet existed.

So what was 1843 like for Charles Dickens?  Simply and succinctly put: not good.  It was about time for it to be “not good.”  Let’s step back in time — and I’ll explain.

As we can see in the bio, Dickens endured a tough childhood — a mighty tough childhood.  Then, at the age of 25, he was catapulted to the top of his world.  It is always dangerous to soar too high too young: it usually results in a strong case of King of the Mountain hubris — unless the 25-year-old is strong and wise beyond his years; unless he realizes, with Nebuchadnezzar, how quickly the God who giveth can become the God who taketh away; even more importantly, unless he realizes that, in life, nature ‑‑, and apparently, God ‑‑ abhors long plateaus.  In other words, today’s Success is already unrealizingly sowing the seeds of its own destruction.  This was true with Dickens.  He had assumed, as had that great Babylonian king before him, that he had become king and great all by himself ‑‑ by the sheer brilliance of his mind and force of his will.  Both of which he had an oversupply of.

Perhaps a baseball analogy would help.  In 1836, he stepped up to the plate, and hit Boz out of the park.  Next, he hit Pickwick out of the park.  Then Oliver Twist, then Nickelby, then The Old Curiosity Shop, then Barnaby Rudge, which just cleared the outer wall.  Then came his ill-fated trip to America, and when his bat made contact with American Notes, he only hit a bloop single, not even realizing that he now had a hairline crack in the bat.  That was followed by Martin Chuzzlewit ‑‑ and with it, he broke his bat.

For the first time in seven years, he was in trouble.  He had mistakenly assumed that, being King of the Hill, he could say anything he darn well pleased.  That he could travel to the late great colony of America and noblesse oblige himself all over the place.  Since Americans were too cheap to pay him his due royalties, he could just tell them where to go.  To put his condition in modern vernacular, he had an attitude problem.  Even his countrymen felt, this time, that he had gone too far.

The result: the golden faucet ‑‑ that had gushed its riches upon him for almost seven years ‑‑, now slowed its flow so much he wondered if perhaps his well was going dry.  Even worse, what if it was dry?  What if people would no longer buy his books?

Dickens was never much of a humble man: he knew to a penny the value of his gifts.  Or had known prior to 1842.  Now, he didn’t know any more.

Well, what could he write that would improve his fortunes, and help bring back his fickle audience?  Something he could write quickly, not just another two-year book serialization.  So the idea for Christmas Carol came to him (see bio).  For a month and a half he totally immersed himself in the world of Scrooge.  In the process, he gradually became aware that, somewhere along the way, he had become a Scrooge himself: had felt himself so secure in his gifts that he no longer needed other people, that he no longer needed to really care (not just abstractly, but one-on-one) about human need.

In the course of writing the story of Scrooge, Dickens was able to pull himself back from the brink, to realize his need of others.  He began to wonder if he any longer knew ‑‑ or if he ever had ‑‑ who he really was.  Could he even know without going backwards in time?

The answers to those questions were a long time in coming, but A Christmas Carol was the first step, the four other Christmas books represent additional steps, but the biggest steps were Dombey and Son, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Yet something else happened during the writing of the little book: he learned a great deal about the difference between writing a lean cohesive book (written all at once) and writing the usually episodic, rambly, serialization book.

As a result of this no man’s land between the hubris of his youth and the social conscience of his maturity, he was able to make it the rest of the way through his life without ever again seriously daring hubris.  He was able to find out things about himself that stripped away some of his teflonish pride.  And sorrow would rock him on his heels again and again.

So it came to pass that in the last quarter of his life, in his 450 public readings (for fifteen long years, having an average of one public reading performance every twelve days), the story of Scrooge became as indispensable as singing the national anthem at a big league baseball game ‑‑ unthinkable to close without it.  And as his life drew to a close, a higher and higher percentage of each evening performance was devoted to Christmas Carol and its lesson of agape love.

It is no hyperbole to say that without this one little book, the life of Charles Dickens most likely would have been a very different story.  In a very real sense, then, we may validly say that the characters ‑‑ children, if you will ‑‑ conceived by this author ended up by taking him on a long journey . . . that would take the rest of his life.

And it is our privilege to be invited along.

Welcome to the timeless world of Christmas Carol.

ABBIE FARWELL BROWN AND

THE CHRISTMAS ANGEL

I have always loved Christmas stories — especially the heart-tugging kind.  And, let’s face it, sentiment and Christmas belong together.  Of all the seasons of the year, the heart is openest to love, empathy, kindness, forgiveness, generosity, and change . . . at Christmas.

Thousands of authors have written stories about Christmas, but sadly, most of them are shallow, sterile, and un-moving.  These stories may be technically brilliant, but if they fail to engage the heart, I view them as failures.

Only a few have written “great” Christmas stories, and even fewer have written “great” Christmas books (usually novelette length rather than full book length, as Christmas books are rarely very long).  And of those few special Christmas books which percolate to the top, very very few manage to stay there, but gradually, over time, sink down into that vast subterranean sea of forgotten books.  To stay alive, season after season, generation after generation, presupposes a magical ingredient no critic-scientist has ever been able to isolate.  Just think about the ones that come to mind: The Christmas Carol, Miracle on 34th Street, Its a Wonderful Life, The Other Wise Man . . . , and, with these four, we begin to sputter and qualify.  There are many others that come to mind, but none of them has been able to stay in the top ranks of Christmas Best Sellers.  In recent years, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson (1972) and Richard Paul Evans’ The Christmas Box (1993) have so far evidenced staying power, but only time will reveal whether they will stay there, for it is comparatively easy to stay alive for ten, twenty, even thirty years ‑‑, it is much much harder to remain vibrantly alive 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 years or more.

But, none of this precludes comebacks.  Literature and public taste are, after all, cyclical, thus even during authors’ lifetimes, reputations roll along on roller-coasters, undulating up and down as public tastes and demands change.  No one remains hot forever.  Along this serpentine track of survivors rumble authors such as Dickens, Dostoevsky, Hugo, Cooper, Scott, Stevenson, the Brontes, Twain, Cervantes, Tolstoy, Alcott, Shakespeare, Carroll, Chaucer, Defoe, Dante, Dumas, Eliot, Kipling, and Thoreau — these never go out of vogue.

Once past the immortals, we move into a much more fluid field.  Depending on many factors, recoveries and resurrections continue to take place.  Usually because certain works brazenly dig into our memories and impudently refuse to leave.   Which brings us to Abbie Farwell Brown.

It was some years ago when I first “met” her.  My wife and I were wandering around New England at the height of fall colors.  Ah, autumn in New England!  There are few experiences in life to match it.  Among those few are New England used bookstores.  Well, it was in one of these that Connie discovered an old book — and short — with the intriguing title of The Christmas Angel.  She brought it over to me and asked if I was familiar with it or with the author.  I was not, but on the strength of the wonderful woodcut illustrations, we bought it.  Upon our return home, I unpacked it, then sat down to read it — and LOVED it.  Such velcro sticking power does it have that it has pummeled me until I am black and blue from its demanding to be brought back to the top, where it keeps telling me it belongs!  It was there once, and liked it, but, through no fault of its own, readers who loved it died off, so it began its gradual descent into that ultimate oblivion.

So here it is, if for no other reason than to rescue my battered body from its continuous pummeling.  I don’t often creep out far enough on limbs to risk getting sawed off, but I shall make an exception for The Christmas Angel.  I shall be really surprised if it does not claw its way back to the top — and stay there, this time.  It has all the enduring qualities that has kept The Christmas Carol up there for over a century and a half — in fact, one manuscript reader told me, about a week ago, that she even prefers it over The Christmas Carol.  It is one of those rarities: a book that should be loved equally by all generations — from small children to senior citizens.  I can see it being filmed; and I can see it becoming a Christmas tradition: unthinkable to get through a Christmas season without reading it out loud to the family once again.

Since the story is divided into 15 short chapters, it would lend itself to being spread out during the Advent or the Twelve days of Christmas.  Having said that, I’ll prophesy that pressure to read on by the listeners might make a proposed time table difficult to stick with.

And, unquestionably, the Reginald Birch illustrations add a very special dimension to the book.

When Christ wished to hammer home a point, He told a story, a parable, an allegory — in fact, biblical writers tell us He never spoke without them.  This is just such a story.  But, coupled with that is something else: it is one of the most memorable and poignant Angel stories I have ever read.  And it is amazing how many people today are rediscovering Angel stories!

It has to do with Miss Terry — bitter, cold, bigoted, and unforgiving.  As was true with Dickens’ Scrooge, in her life virtually all sentiment, caring, and love had been discarded, then trampled on, in her morose journey through the years.  And now, at Christmas, but one tie to her past remains, one key that might unlock her cell block of isolation: her childhood box of toys.

She determines to burn them, — every last one.

* * * * *

It is my personal conviction that reading both books this Christmas season will result in one of the richest Christmas seasons you have ever known.  And it will amaze me if you don’t end up loving The Christmas Angel at least as much as The Christmas Carol.

In my introduction/biography for The Christmas Angel I piece together Brown’s fascinating life story and list all her books and short stories.  I’m guessing many of you will wish to track down and purchase her other books as well as this one.

Be sure and journal each time you read from these books.

At the back of my edition are seven pages of questions to deepen your understanding.  Such as these:

Chapter One: “Alone on Christmas Eve” – What is the impact of that line?  Why is it harder to be alone on Christmas Eve than at other times?  Or is it?”

Chapter Four: “Why is it, do you think, that so few toys survive intact?  Are they deliberately mistreated, or does it just happen”

Chapter Six: “Why did Miss Terry rescue the Christmas angel from the muddy street, and why did she find it impossible to toss it into the fire as she had so many other toys?”

Chapter Nine: “Why is it, do you think, that toys have greater reality to children than they do to adults?  How is that borne out in this chapter?”

Chapter Fourteen: “How do Angelina’s Christmas angel and her guardian angel blur together?”

LAST SUGGESTIONS RE WRIGHT’S CALLING OF DAN MATTHEWS

More and more people keep expressing interest in The Book Club.  When you notify us that you wish to join, please email that information to us so we can add you to the roster.  If you feel uncomfortable posting your mailing address on the web, just drop it in the mail to me at P.O. Box 1246, Conifer, CO 80433.  Send me your name, interests, reading preferences, and other items that will help me chart the direction of The Book Club.

After securing a copy of each month’s book, be sure and journal each time you read from the book.

Following are some observations and suggestions re your reading our November selection: Harold Bell Wright’s The Calling of Dan Matthews:

1.  I first read it when I was seventeen.  Why do you think it had such a powerful impact on me?  (On others as well?)

2.  How is it different from other religion-based novels you’ve read?

3.  Wright wrote three Social Gospel novels.  Look up the term, then respond in terms of how the book incorporates the movement’s key elements.  In other words, Christ, in His life on this earth, was not at all into doctrine or creeds, but rather into selfless service for others.  So, did Wright pull it off?

4.  Did reading this book have an impact on you personally?  In what way?

5.  Did reading the book make you want to read more Wright books?

            SECURING DECEMBER’S BOOKS

You will have no trouble finding a copy of Dickens The Christmas Carol, for it is one of the best-selling books of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  But if you’d like to order my Focus/Tyndale edition, just write me at Box 1246, Conifer, CO 80433, or send me an email at “mountainauthor@gmail.com.”  Should you wish me to inscribe any copies, just let me know—there will be no charge for that.  The Christmas Angel is likely to be more difficult to secure, but again, I can supply you with a copy.

PRICE: $16.99 each.  However, if you alert me to your being a member of our book club, you can reduce it to $14.00 each.  If you purchase both books, I’ll reduce the price to $25.00 total.  Shipping will come to $6.00 extra.

I’ll need your full name and mailing address.  Checks are fine.  So is PAYPAL. For further information, access our website at

* * * * *

Next Wednesday, we’ll journey to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.

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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.

WILLIAMSONS AND TRAVEL

 

WILLIAMSONS AND TRAVEL

For Oct. 19, 2011

As we begin to pack our suitcases for our auto-trip through our Southwestern national park lodges, I thought this would be the perfect time to see if I couldn’t siphon some money out of your pockets.  After all, that’s what’s been happening to me ever since the first time I stumbled on a Williamson book many years ago.

Have you ever wondered what it would have been like to travel when the automobile was new?  When there were no transcontinental highways (how about hardly any paved roads at all!), motels, service stations, AAA, repair garages, etc.?  Not to mention automobiles that broke down so often that only the foolish traveled without a chauffeur, mechanic, and ample supply of spare parts and tires.

Well, imagine no more.  Back in 1902, an adventuresome British husband and wife writing team, C.M. and A.M. Williamson, partnered with Doubleday Page to produce one of the most fascinating and informative series of travel novels ever written.  Before they could write such a book, however, the fearless couple had to themselves explore a given travel route.  In the process, they devoured local travel lore, legends, history, historical romances—all kinds of fascinating side trips.  Then they incorporated all the usual mechanical breakdowns, and stirred in enough romance to keep the reader up half the night turning pages.  In short, there has never been another series like theirs!  There could not be, for the age vanished almost as quickly as it began.

Following are the books I have been able to find (first editions when possible):

  •   The Princess Passes                                (1903-4)                         Early automobile
  • The Lightning Conductor                        (1903, 1905)                 Early automobile
  • My Friend the Chauffeur                         (1905)                              Early automobile
  • Lady Betty Across the Water                 (1906)                         General early travel
  • Rosemary in Search of a Father            (1906 – 1907)            General early travel
  • The Princess Virginia                               (1907)                         General early travel
  • The Chaperon                                              (1907 – 1908)            Water travel
  • Set in Silver                                                 (1909)                         Early automobile
  • The Motor Maid                                         (1910)                        Early automobile
  • Lord Loveland Discovers America      (1910)                         Early American travel
  • The Golden Silence                                     (1911)        Travel in desert lands (including camel transportation)
  • The Port of Adventure                         (1913)                         General travel
  • It Happened in Egypt                          (1914)                         Egyptian travel
  • Secret History                                        (1915)                         Early airplane travel
  • The Lightning Conductor                    (1916)                         Early automobile Discovers America
  • Winnie Childs: Shop Girl                    (1916)                          General romance
  • Everyman’s Land                                    (1918)                        End of World War I travel
  • The Lion’s Mouse                                    (1919)                         Post-war travel
  • The Second Latchkey                             (1920)                         General
                                                                                               

Here are some passages from their 1905 novel, My Friend the Chauffeur, that will give you a sense of their writing style:

In France: “. . . we moved like a ship under full sail; but suddenly the road reared up on its hind feet and stood almost erect, as though it had been frightened by the huge snow-capped mountains that all at once crowded round us.  An icy wind rushed down from the tops of the great white towers, as if with the swooping wings of a giant bird, and it took our car’s breath away” (118-19).

In Italy: “It [Certosa of Pavia] was too beautiful to chatter about.  But it did seem strange that so pure and lovely a building could have owed its existence to a crime.  I had heard Mr. Barrymore telling Mamma that it was originally founded in thirteen hundred and something, by the first Duke of Milan with the view of taking off the attention of Heaven from a murder he had committed—quite in his own family—which got rid of his father-in-law, and all the father-in-law’s sons and daughters at the same time.  No wonder it took a whole Certosa to atone for it. . . .”(164).

Bellagio, on Lake Como: “The rest of the party were on an entrancing terrace, looking down over other flowery terraces upon the town of Bellagio, with its charming old campanile, and its grey roofs like a flock of doves clustering together on the border of the lake.  The water was so clear and still that the big hotels and villas on the opposite shore seemed to have fallen in head down, and each little red-and-white canopied boat waiting for passengers at the quay had its double in the bright blue mirror.  Clouds and mountains were all reflected too, and it seemed as if one might take one’s choice between the real world and the dream world” (192).

My favorite passage from the book, however, is from Maida (the loveliest passenger in this ancient Panhard automobile) who plaintively poses this rhetorical question: “What becomes of the beautiful army of days marching away from us into the past?  The wonderful days, each one differing from all the others: some shining in our memory, in glory of purple and gold, that we saw only as they passed, with the setting of the sun; some smiling back at us, in their pale spring dress of green and rose; some weeping in gray; but all moving at the same pace along the same road?  The strange days that have given us everything they had to give, and yet have taken from us little pieces of our souls.  Where do the days go?  There must be some splendid world where, when they have passed down to the end of the long road, they all live together like queens, waited upon by those black slaves, the nights that have followed them like their shadows, holding up their robes.

“I’ve had this thought in my mind often since I have been flashing across Europe in an automobile, grudging each day that slipped away from me and would not stay a moment longer because I loved it.  I wish I knew the way to the land where the days that have passed live; for when those that are to come seem cold to me, I would like to go and pay the old ones a visit.  How well I would know their faces, and how glad I would be to see them again in their own world!” (205).

If you too are getting the Williamson bug, just log on the Internet and begin chasing down these wonderful travel romances.  Your travel life will never afterwards be the same!

* * *

Next Wednesday, we’ll ourselves hit the road.  Please come along.


29th Zane Grey Convention

 

WILLIAMSBURG, VA

Part 1

Every four or five conventions, we go east rather than west.  Williamsburg it was this year—with Jamestown and Yorktown making up the triangular cradle of the American nation.

Once upon a time, in the not very distant past, Zane Grey was a household name across America.  In fact, during the first half of the 20th century, Grey was the world’s most popular and highest-paid author.  He is generally considered to be the Creator of the Romantic West and the Father of the Western Novel.  But today, with reading in decline along with literacy in general, with young people literate in little other than popular culture and sports, with plunging national test scores in history, it should come as little surprise that few people under the age of 50 recognize either his name or his books.

We in the Zane Grey’s West Society seek to do our part to help reverse that sad state of affairs.  We don’t want the love of the West to die out when we step off the stage of life.

Four-hundred years ago, Virginia was the wild West; 250 years ago, the Ohio Valley wilderness was the frontier.  It was during this time period that one of Grey’s ancestors, Betty Zane, became a Revolutionary War heroine when she risked her life in order to race across a clearing, a sack of gun powder on her shoulder, as a desperate act to save Fort Henry (commanded by Col. Ebenezer Zane, her brother) and those settlers within who were being besieged by French and Indian forces.  Since those besieged were out of gunpowder, they were doomed unless by some miracle they could contrive to secure some gunpowder.  Not surprisingly, when Grey grew up and began to write, Betty Zane (a novel based partly on that heroic dash) would become his first published book.  Three more novels set in America’s second West followed: The Spirit of the Border, The Last Trail, and George Washington, Frontiersman.  George Washington was well acquainted with the Zane family.  In fact, after the Revolutionary War was over, George Washington and the Continental Congress authorized Ebenezer Zane and his brothers to blaze a trail into the wilderness, on the west side of the Mississippi.  That route was first known as “Zane’s Trace,” then the National Road, then Highway 40, and today Interstate 70.  All this family history was reason enough for us to meet in Williamsburg the third week of June this year.

I’m often asked the question, “What do you do in your conventions?” Let me walk you through to give you the answer: first of all, we drive to, take a train to, or fly to, wherever a given convention might take place.  Traditionally, the convention begins on a Monday evening, consequently you’d expect everyone to arrive sometime Monday.  NOT.  A number arrive by Friday, and fully half generally check in by Sunday.  Our Zanies so enjoy being together that they can’t wait to catch up on the intervening year.   Registration takes place Monday afternoon, as does the process of hauling books or memorabilia to the room chosen to house the auction items until Tuesday afternoon.  Most everyone brings items since without that annual transfusion of funds, we’d have to dramatically raise our dues (we’ve only raised them once in 29 years!).  The only way we’ve been able to pull that off is to all serve pro-bono.  There is no paid anyone in the entire Society.  For all of us, serving is a labor of love.

Terry Bolinger welcoming the convention

Monday evening is the barbecue or opening banquet.  Since there’d been a lot of rain, this time we held a banquet inside.  No one sits alone—our members make sure of that.  After being welcomed by our president, Terry Bolinger, dinner is served.  Afterwards, Terry had all the new attendees stand, introduce themselves, and tell where they’re from.  These introductions accelerate the getting-acquainted process.  Next came the introduction of James Perry, Public Affairs Officer for the three parks we were visiting this convention: Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown.  He welcomed us to the colonial triangle and filled us in on what we ought to look for.  Afterwards, Dr. Jim D’Arc, Director of Film archives for Brigham Young University, took us behind the scenes of the famous movie he’d brought along: Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, directed by John Ford, and in the cast: Henry Fonda, Claudette Colbert, and Edna May Oliver.  Sometimes the films Dr. D’Arc brings are shown on evenings other than Monday.

Tuesdays are always the longest days, perhaps because the members Memorial Breakfast begins at 7 a.m.  As soon as breakfast is over, we give members the opportunity to reminisce about those who are no longer with us.  For to live in the hearts of others is not to die.  Before we separate, always—for 29 unbroken conventions now—, I remind the members that before the Society was founded, the other Co-Founder (the Rev. G. M. Farley) and I promised each other that, in order to make sure no one would ever be lonely at a convention, Poet Laureate of America Edwin Markham’s “Outwitted” would be recited, then everyone would repeat it aloud.  We now did just that:

“He drew a circle that shut me out,
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout;
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.”

Joe Wheeler giving his 29th keynote address

After a short break, we reconvened.  After preliminaries, I was introduced, and I gave my 29th convention keynote address.  This one was titled, “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” and had to do with that traumatic six-year period (1982 – 1988) when it appeared that the Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania home of Zane and Dolly Grey would be lost to the wrecking ball.  Few of our attendees had ever heard before the story of  how the miracle of it ended up in the National Park System took place.

Lackawaxen, PA Museum in 1982

This was followed by Dorothy Moon, head curator of the Lackawaxen Museum, who filled us in on all the fascinating things that were happening there.  She in turn was followed by two representatives (Joanne Duncan and Kathryn Miller) from the National Road/Zane Grey Museum in New Concord, Ohio, who also brought us up to date on that facility.  It has been mighty tough for them because the recession has hit Ohio so hard.

In the afternoon, a good share of the attendees gathered to participate in the annual auction.  Since so much is riding on the income derived from it, I encouraged everyone to get into the act.  Besides the regular auction, there was also the opportunity to bid on a large number of silent auction items.

Back side of Zane Grey House in Lackawaxen, Pa in 1982

In the evening, many returned for Huckster’s Night (an opportunity to hawk items you’d rather sell than have to haul home).  Others took the evening off, a number eating in colonial restaurants in Williamsburg—complete with staff in colonial costumes.

* * * * *

Next Wednesday, we’ll explore Old Town, Williamsburg.

“OUTWITTED” AND THE ZANE GREY’S WEST SOCIETY

Twenty-eight years ago it was when the Rev. G. M. Farley (a Pentecostal minister and administrator) and I had a far-reaching discussion having to do with the issue of organizing (or NOT organizing) a society dedicated to celebrating the life and works of the frontier writer, Zane Grey.

At one point in our discussion, G. M. sighed and said, “Unless our conventions turn out to be different from all the other conventions I attend, I’d rather we’d not even start this one.”

“Explain yourself,” I broke in.

“It’s this way, in every convention I attend, it’s always the same: People aimlessly milling around—almost all of them lonely.”

“True, G. M. I’ve noticed the same thing. I’ve often thought, as I walked through the crowd of attendees, and looked enviously at those few who seemed to belong, in occasional clusters of attendees who appeared to know each other, Wouldn’t it be great to belong to at least one of them? To have someone’s eyes light up at sight of me and welcome me in? “But I just don’t know how we could do any better than they.”

“Neither do I,” rejoined G.M., but let’s at least seek out a solution before we give up on our dream.”

At one point in our brainstorming, I happened to mention a poem by Edwin Markham, late in the nineteenth century, Poet Laureate of America. Turns out G.M. was already familiar with it: “The very thing! If that doesn’t work, nothing will! Let’s try it!

Joe Wheeler delivering keynote address

And so we did. At each one of our now 28 consecutive conventions, for the benefit of first-time attendees, I first recite the poem out loud, then I lead out in having us all recite it together (after first explaining the history of its origins and use in our Society, and urging all attendees to each implement Markham’s words in each interaction with others).

Paul and Jeannie Morton

It works. Indeed it works so well that one of the last things G.M. said to me before he died was this: “Thank God for that poem! There are no lonely people in our Society. If anyone sits at a table alone, others walk over and invite them to join them at their table. When they travel, they make a point of visiting each other. They consistently arrive early at the conventions in order to fellowship with each other. In fact, they’re closer to each other than even my own church members are to each other!”

ZGW Society members enjoying an all-day ride on the Rogue River.

I shall conclude with the poem that single-handedly defines the love each member of the Zane Grey’s West Society has for each other:

“He drew a circle that shut me out,
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout;
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.”

“Outwitted,” by Edwin Markham

SPECIAL NOTE

Because of a special blog series on our Northwest national parks beginning the first week in August, we are scheduling our next blog (on Plagiarism) for tomorrow, July 29.

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

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.”

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)

THE CHILD IS FATHER OF THE MAN

“My heart leaps up when I behold
       A rainbow in the sky:
So it was when my life began;
So it is now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old.
     Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man.”
                 —Wordsworth

The child is also, of course, father, mother, of the woman.

When we consider the fact that half of what we learn in life takes place before we ever step foot into a formal classroom, it makes little sense to continue blaming our schools for our plunging test scores.   For several generations now (not coincidentally, beginning with the introduction of television in American homes after World War II), literacy test-scores have been in free-fall; so much so that our nation has dropped out of the company of the leading nations of the world and now finds itself in embarrassing third-world company literacy-wise.

Somewhere during the last three generations, the intellectual, moral, and spiritual education of our children has taken a back-seat to creature comforts and ever larger homes.  Paradoxical, isn’t it, that at the very time our homes are getting ever larger (larger than is true of any other nation on earth), the parenting/educating within those homes has proportionally decreased.  At an ever earlier age, we shove our children out of the house into child-care facilities and kindergartens. All this to avoid the God-given responsibility to be there for our child.

For each day, each moment, our pre-school child is becoming.  Never again in his/her lifetime will growth occur at such blinding speed.  Indeed, so much of a sponge is the child’s brain that linguists maintain a child could master 50 languages by the age of six!

Up until World War II, no higher priority was there for American parents than being there for one’s children.  As a result, each generation’s children earned ever higher degrees (and ever-higher paychecks) than did the one before.

That is no longer true.

Jackie Kennedy famously noted that the older she got the more convinced she became that no amount of fame, position, or income could possibly compensate for having failed as a parent.

In my own life, I owe whatever success has come my way to having been blessed by parents who considered me, my brother Romayne, and my sister Marjorie to be their #1 priority in life.  Because we were missionary kids, I was home schooled for 14 of the first 16 years of my life.  During those early years I was ferried once a week to the nearest American library where I checked out as many books as I could stagger home with.  As a result, guided by my remarkable mother (an elocutionist who had memorized thousands of pages of short stories, poetry, and readings), I devoured library after library—and have never quit.  My brother became an internationally known concert pianist, earning two doctorates in music, in Austria.  And my sister became an award-winning artist with the brush.

There is an epidemic of home schooling taking place in our nation right now.  It is hard for me to admit this—being the product of two masters degrees and a doctorate, and having dedicated 34 out of 36 years to formal Christian education in my pre-publishing career—admit that today I have grave doubts about the effectiveness of our current formal education template: ever larger classes, ever less time to devote to individual students, ever more complex bureaucratic paper-work to deal with, unable to so much as touch or hug a child without being accused of molestation, graduate students being forced to take classes from graduate assistants so that their ostensible faculty may continue to churn out scholarship no one reads. . . .  This litany could go on.

But I must return to the beginning: the home.  For it is the home alone—the mother and father working hand-in-hand, led by God—that holds the answer to the sad case of Little Boy Blue.  And each time such a twosome determine to sacrifice whatever it takes to be there, be home whenever the child is home during the growing-up years (for at least one parent—be it mother or father—to be there to answer all the tens of thousands of “whys?” that each small child fires machine-gun style each day); to take the time to themselves be the pulpit, to control the avenues to their children’s hearts, minds, and souls; to establish a daily story hour during which values worth living by may be internalized; to make possible the serenity which alone can enable each child to dream…. 

            Ah!  To dream:

“We grow great by dreams.  All big men and women are dreamers.  They see things in the soft haze of a spring day or in the red fire of a long winter’s evening.  Some of us let these great dreams die, but others nourish and protect them; nurse them through bad days till they bring them to the sunshine and light which always comes to those who hope that their dreams will come true.”

                                                            —Woodrow Wilson

* * * * *

See you next Wednesday.

LITTLE BOY BLUE

So what is happening to our boys? They begin life, just like girls, brimming over with a sense of wonder. Each day far too short for all they want to see and do. Their sense of beauty is just as strong as girls’ are. They cry just as often and as much at heart-stopping beauty: be it a sunset, a story, a painting, a piece of music, or a face. They yearn with fierce passion to become, to learn all there is to know.

And then . . . they wither. They disengage. They begin majoring in minors—and never quit. Their dreams die stillborn.

Broken driveshafts litter the land. Why? No one seems to know. Or care. But I do.

* * * * *

Where and when did we lose them? It started early—very, very early. With:

“Don’t bother me, Daddy’s busy!”
“Will you just shut up! Your questions are driving me crazy!”
“No, I don’t have time to take you to the park.”
“No, you can’t play outside, there are perverts on the loose!”
“No, you can’t have a sandpile—sandpiles are too messy.”
“No, Mommy doesn’t have time to read to you,. Go watch TV—no, I don’t care what you watch, as long as you leave me alone!”

Since a boy deprived of action is a Ferrari limited to a thirty-foot-long strip of pavement, boys end up going where we send them—to video games (the wilder, the more violent, the edgier the better), to gameboys, to dark movies, to 24/7 sports (most of it vicarious). Vicarious . . . that says it all. Since we deprive them of action in the real world outside, they settle for a meaningless virtual world. All that pent-up energy that should be channeled into life-affirming growth is poured down a rat hole. Makes no difference, be it drugs, liquor, violence, porn, or lassitude: the results are the same, reminding me of a summer day in Nashville, many years ago. I was alternatively reading and taking notes from a large stack of books, and swimming laps in a rooftop swimming pool. A young man of about eighteen was sprawled out on a deck chair doing nothing. Out of the blue, he spoke up:

“What are you doing here in Nashville?”

“Me? Oh, I’m working on my doctorate in English. That’s why I’m reading so many books.”

“Oh, I’m just curious; you seem to really enjoy it—like you get high on it.”

I laughed. “I do. I do get high on it. It’s exciting to grow, to learn things I didn’t know before.”

Then the saddest words I’ve ever heard, accompanied by a sigh: “Guess I could never get your kind of high—it’s so much easier to just do drugs.”

I never saw him again.

* * * * *

Which leads me to a recent conversation I had with an area elementary school principal. She said, “Since you’re so involved with getting kids into reading, you’ll never believe what they told us at a reading conference I just attended.”

“What was that?”

“When you’re reading to small children, don’t show them the pictures.”

“Huh? You’ve got to be kidding!”

“That’s just what I said.”

“What possible reason could they have for not showing them the pictures?”

“That’s the part I can’t get out of my head. They say that most children today come from non-reading homes—hardly a book, magazine, or newspaper to be found anywhere—, replaced of course by a large screen/media center. . . . Well, everything in the house being electronic, these kids are so electronically overexposed they are literally incapable of creating their own mental pictures—”

“In other words,” I broke in, “they are incapable of imagining.”

“Exactly. So they tell us not to show them the pictures, as they’d be just one more visual crutch to keep them from creating their own mental pictures. So we’re supposed to read them but one line at a time, stop, then ask them what kind of mental pictures they can come up with, so that gradually, over time, we may help them belatedly to begin to think their own thoughts.”

I was stunned. Speechless.

So no wonder we’re losing our boys! Deprived of action and growth in the real world, and deprived by media overexposure of the ability to imagine, to conceptualize, to think, one by one they disengage, leave us, and spiral out of life into darkness. You can tell by the vacant stare, the bored look in their eyes, that they’re no longer with you. So it’s little surprise when they drop out, give up on college and real growth, and inertly slip down into a virtual world from which they never return.

So they’re just as dead to us as was Eugene Field’s unforgettable Little Boy Blue, whose toys

“. . . wonder, as waiting the long years through
In the dust of that little chair,
What has become of our Little Boy Blue,
Since he kissed them and put them there.”

* * * * *

Next Wednesday, we’ll tackle the learning ramifications of being incapable of imagining.