THE CHANGING SEASONS

The snow is falling again as I write these words.  Another reason for living in the Colorado Rockies.  In fact, the two seasons are slugging it out, as the golden aspens (at peak only a week ago) are clearly reluctant to surrender the field to the forces of winter, but they have no choice in the matter given that each season is as inexorable as incoming and receding tides.

We’ve been waiting almost half a year for this moment: when once again it is safe to build a fire in our moss rock fireplace.  If the truth must be told, when we moved back to Colorado in 1996, the real estate agent had been given a list of 30 priorities (what we valued most in our new home).  At the top were: It should feature serenity, a view we’d never tire of, lots of snow, and a wood-burning fireplace.  Today we get to revel in all four.

OUR BLOG WORLD

Our daughter Michelle and agent, Greg Johnson, joined forces two years ago to drag, kicking and screaming all the way, this dinosaur of the ink and paper age, into the new digital age.  “You must blog!  Thus was born the weekly blog, Wednesdays with Dr. Joe,” which has continued unbroken even during that hellish period when an unscrupulous predator hacked into our world and shut us down.  We have no idea how many readers we lost during that traumatic period.

What I have discovered is that blogging is such a new construct that there are few entrenched norms—unlike tweets where a Procrustean Bed of 140 spaces preclude deviation length-wise.  As you have discovered, I joined the ranks of those who prefer the longer format.  It’s really much like the weekly column I wrote once, “Professor Creakygate,” for the students attending Southwestern Adventist University.  Once you establish a rhythm, it’s just a matter of not breaking it.

Given my penchant for longer blog series (the Northwest National Parks, the Southern Caribbean, the Zane Grey convention in Virginia, the Trembling World, and the upcoming series on the Southwest National Parks), I have discovered that long series where I dwell on a subject for months at a time can put my voice into a straitjacket which precludes me from speaking out on hot current issues.  Because of this, I hereby announce that this time, expect periodic breaks; but rest assured, always I will afterwards resume the series topic.

OUR TWEET WORLD

I held back as long as I possibly could—until my agent held my feet to the fire long enough to risk ignition—on adding the tweet dimension to our lives.  On October 1, I started daily tweets, concentrating on quotations chosen from a half century of collecting (hundreds of thousands).  Not just quotations, but quotations that help make sense of this thing called “life.”  Speaking just for myself, this hectic life we live virtually guarantees that we will break down unless we turn to a Higher Power than ourselves and also seek wisdom from others who have learned much from the batterings of the years.  These hard-earned nuggets of thought and insights end up providing us with just enough strength and courage to face each day.  Changes of pace too, for without changes of pace (such as humor) in our thought-processes, we become warped or petrified.

During my 34 years in the classroom, one aspect was a constant: a thought written with chalk on the blackboard each day.  My students looked forward to something new that greeted them each time they came in the door.  Also, I have since discovered that many of them copied those quotes into their notebooks and have lived with them ever since.

I’m an avid collector of quotation compendiums.  Some few I find worth the price; many, if not most, are not (merely quotations flung onto paper, without regard to their relative power or effectiveness).  I don’t know about you, but what I hunger for most are quotes that make me think, that make me re-evaluate my own habits and inter-relationships, that end up making me a different and better person than I was before.

I also realize that we are each fighting off electronic strangulation; so much so that we try something new with great reluctance.  It is my earnest desire that you will find these tweets worth the time it takes to check them out each day.

MY PERSONA

For years now, my agent has been trying to hammer into my thick head this message:

Our old world (paper and ink-driven) is changing by the nanosecond.  While books are likely to always be with us, they will never reign supreme as they have during the last six centuries.  Like it or not, electronic books will continue to expand their reach.  What this means is that the old templates will no longer work like they once did.  Your persona is no longer captureable just in traditional print.  But rather, you owe it to your “tribe” [people who are kind enough to listen to what you write and what you say] to speak out about life and values multidimensionally: through paper and ink books [75 so far], through public speaking, through media appearances on radio and TV and book-signings, through your blogs, through your tweets, and through all the plethora of new communication technologies.  Only by keeping up with all this as best you can, can your unique voice (your persona) have any chance of remaining alive during coming months and years.

And since I do wish to stay in contact with all of you, I am committed to continuing to create books (traditional and electronic), blogs, and tweets.  Do let me know if all I’ve articulated in this blog makes any kind of sense to you.

* * *

Next week, we will transition through the abstraction of travel toward the Southwest parks and lodges.

* * *

Advertisements

Easter, Lent, and “Easter in My Heart”

Once again we celebrate Easter, commemorating our Lord’s resurrection on April 7, A.D. 30. Given that Easter is one of the two holiest days in the Christian Church, it is surprising that there is such widespread confusion about what Easter is and is not. Indeed this recent question was addressed to me on Facebook: “Please tell me what Lent is.” In this blog, I am answering that question.

First of all, however, let’s find out how Easter began in the first place. It almost didn’t because the idea that special times might be considered sacred in themselves did not even exist in Post Apostolic Christianity. Instead, they continued to observe the Jewish festivals, though with a different emphasis: for instance, for Passover, Christ was considered to be the true Paschal Lamb.

As time passed and more and more Christians observed Easter, pitched battles were continually fought over when the Resurrection should be celebrated, the Gentile Christians espousing one time and Jewish Christians another. Not until the Council of Nicaea in 325 was there a consensus: that Easter was to be kept on Sunday, and the same Sunday around the world.

Lent, quite simply, is a period of fasting during the 40 days preceding Easter. For instance, in the 2011 calendar, Lent (Ash Wednesday) began on March 9, and Easter Sunday (at the conclusion of Easter Week), will be celebrated on April 24.

Initially Lent was considered to be a season of preparation for baptism, of absolution for penitents, or of retreat or recollection, but there was little uniformity in practice. During the medieval period Lent fasting was vigorously enforced among the faithful; that consensus, however, broke down during the Reformation. By the eighteenth century, strict observance of the Lenten fast was generally abandoned.

Today, many devout Christians are returning to the earlier strong emphasis on fasting during the forty days leading up to Easter Week.

EASTER IN MY HEART

As an anthologizer of Christmas stories for nineteen years now, I never cease to be amazed at two realities: Where Christmas stories are concerned, I have untold thousands of stories to choose from; but where Easter stories are concerned, I have almost none! Why is it that Christians respond so differently to the two equally high days?

I really became aware of this discrepancy in 1999 when I signed a contract with WaterBrook/Random House to put together a collection of spiritually-based Easter stories for the Christian community. I was staggered to discover that they just plain didn’t exist! In fact, I seriously wondered if I’d have to tell my publisher that the book was impossible to produce. Finally, I took the matter to the Lord, asking that if it be His will that such a book ought to be, He’d open doors I knew not of.

I now quote from this precious book of Easter stories that almost wasn’t: “I never cease to be amazed by God’s incredible choreography. A number of years ago, when Christmas in My Heart was in its infancy, a friend of mine, the Reverend Dr. Darrell Richardson, called me up and told me that he was in town for a convention and had brought me a present. It turned out to be a large box of old (most over half a century old) inspirational magazines, all filled with stories. As the years passed by, I looked into the box once, picked out a Christmas story or two, then forgot all about it.”

Now, after earnestly praying to God, reminding Him that my final book deadline was almost upon me, and to “please help me find such stories—and quickly! . . . , one morning, the conviction came, Find that box of old magazines! In due time, I found it then searched through the entire collection. In the process, I found more great Easter stories than I had encountered all through the years! How incredible, and humbling, to realize that years ago, God knew the day was coming when those stories would be needed—and had them sent to me ahead of time! I no longer believe in coincidence: I have experienced far too many instances of divine scripting and choreography. But only recently did I find a biblical base for that assumption (Psalm 139:1-5, 15-16), one of the most life-changing passages in all Scripture.” (Easter in My Heart, 12-16).

* * * * *

Easter in My Heart

Sadly, Easter in My Heart is no longer in print, but we still have copies available for those who seek stories that will reveal the deeper spiritual meaning of Easter for their children or for incorporating into Easter services in their churches.

For information on how to order, log in at and if you let us know right away, we’ll fire off a copy to you in time for Easter week.

Do let me know your thoughts, reactions, and responses to this blog.

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

MEASURING OUR LIVES BY BUTCHART GARDENS

Yes, ‘tis true: we do just that. We first experienced British Columbia’s Butchart Gardens 42 years ago (Greg fondly remembers it; Michelle does not because it was dark in the womb—but she was there). We’ve returned to what most likely is the world’s most beautiful garden three more times, in every season except winter. Most recently, in mid May.

We cannot perceive of any garden in the world being more beautiful than it was this time. Tuips, azaleas, rhododendrons, pansies, primroses, and many other May-time flowers—as well as flowering trees and shrubs—made every turn in the path a vision of paradise.

Though each season has its unique loveliness, it’s mighty difficult to imagine anything more magical than the post-winter explosion of spring.

This time, at the very inception of cruise-to-Alaska season, hordes of tourists were being disgorged from buses, bringing delight to Vancouver Island business owners as well as those cruise ship passengers.

For the first time in four decades, I took a mental inventory of what we’d seen and experienced over the years. In retrospect, I now realized that Butchart was anything but a finished product: it had continued to change, evolve, expand. There were far more pools, brooks, streams, waterfalls, bridges; types of trees, shrubs, and flowers, than ever before. Earlier, it had been merely memorable and beautiful—now, it took your breath away. Of course, with people from all over the world making it a destination stop, with more and more cruise ships docking in Victoria because of it, Butchart owners have more than enough money to hire a veritable army of gardeners to manicure it on an hour-by-hour basis.

Something else I hadn’t noticed before—was kids. Bus loads of them. Most with check-lists in their hands, searching for items to check off, delighted to cross bridges or leap from flagstone to flagstone in pools, etc. Whoever declared that kids no longer appreciate beauty in their lives these days should have been there to listen to those awe-struck children and tweens! Butchart managers are wise to give them special rates, for no child I saw there will ever be the same; for the rest of their lives, they will make a point of returning whenever it’s possible to do so.

At the front of Butchart’s wall calendars is a condensed version of the Garden’s history—it’s now more than a century old. Robert Pim Butchart was the pioneer manufacturer of Portland Cement in Canada. In 1904, with his wife Jennie and two daughters, he settled on Vancouver Island at Tod Inlet, 13 miles north of Victoria. From 1905 – 1910, huge amounts of limestone were quarried from the area. Jennie Butchart sighed at how unsightly and downright ugly the vast pit was becoming.

Because she loved to have beauty around her, she decided to do something about it. She discovered that the mild weather conditions on the island made for perfect flower-growing. First, she planted rose bushes, then, with the help of laborers from the cement works, she developed a Japanese garden.

Word got out, and more and more townspeople from Victoria began to visit the gardens. The Butcharts named their home “Benvenuto” (Italian for “welcome”), and the grounds were always open.

It has remained open for over a hundred years now—with more and more people from around the world adding it to their personal Bucket List of places to see before they die. And more and more like me and Connie, feel impelled to return again and again.

Steinbeck must have envisioned a place like this when he read in Genesis 2:8

And the Lord God planted a garden eastward of Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. . . .KJV

When Steinbeck wrote his unforgettable novel, East of Eden, I can’t help wondering: When he wrote it, had he seen Butchart Gardens?

ALASKA—A STATE OF MIND

We’ve just returned from our third cruise to America’s last frontier.  Each time we go there, the realization that we’ve but touched the fringes of it sinks deeper.

For it is so vast that travel writers exhaust superlatives in vain attempts to describe it.  After all, it encompasses 580,000 square miles (as large as England, Italy, Spain, and France combined).  It has more shoreline than all the rest of our states combined.  It is blessed with 150,000,000 acres of national parks and forests, wildlife refuges, and other designated preserves; 38 mountain ranges, 3,000 rivers, and 3,000,000 lakes. Of its 15 national parks, only 5 can be accessed by road.  Much of it is barely charted, let alone touched by the human foot.  Indeed, of the 670,000 people who live there (about the number who live in Fort Worth, Texas), almost half of them live in only one city, Anchorage.

And it changes dramatically with the seasons.  That reality became evident during this our first spring visit to Alaska. Especially was it evident in towns such as Juneau and Skagway, that we’d experienced previously only during summer or fall; during those seasons, they seemed to be rather typical semi-frontier coastal towns, but now, in the spring, against the backdrop of towering snow-capped mountains, it felt like we’d suddenly been transported into the Swiss Alps!  It was a magical experience.

But why so few people?  Part of the answer to that question came to me in my research for “A Thousand Miles to Nome” (the fascinating epic story of the Great Serum Run of 1925, when dog-teams alone represented the difference between life and death in that northwesternmost Alaskan town, in the midst of a deadly diphtheria epidemic).  It was in the dead of winter, and ice had cut off all access to the town by sea until May—only by dog-sled teams could the life-saving serum make it through in time.  Of the ten lectures I gave to the SAGE group on board Royal Caribbean’s Rhapsody of the Seas, this was the only lecture open to the entire ship.  In that lecture, I noted that, during winter months, added to the bitter cold and frequent blizzards, it was dark 20 out of every 24 hours—only the hardiest and bravest could stand it.  Offsetting this, of course, in the summer 20 hours of light each day made it difficult to sleep.

Not surprisingly, given our fascination with Alaska, our seventh story anthology of The Good Lord Made Them All series will feature Animals of the North.  It will most likely be released by Pacific Press in January of 2011.

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)

ALUMNI WEEKEND TIME

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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