Once Upon A Time 141 Years Ago

BLOG #11, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
ONCE UPON A TIME 141 YEARS AGO
March 12, 2014

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What’s so significant about 1873, 141 years ago? Let’s find out.

Lincoln had been assassinated at the end of the horrific Civil War during which virtually every family, North or South, had been bathed in blood. The terrible Reconstruction Period was bringing a new species of hell to the South. To add even more misery, the terrible bank panic of 1873 was blighting the hopes and dreams of millions of people, for there was then no FDIC to fall back on.

But in the midst of all this, something totally unforeseen took place: Roswell Smith (1829-1892), cofounder of Scribners and founder of the Century Publishing Company, woke up one never-to-be-forgotten morning with a dream; but, unlike most people, this publisher believed in constructing lasting foundations under his dreams. Since he had more than enough money, all he lacked was a young energetic visionary editor who’d help him to change the western world. He found her, a widowed Mary Mapes Dodge, whose best-selling book, Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates, eight years before, had elevated her to the pinnacle of national popularity. Once she’d signed on, the stage was set.Scan_Pic0080

On my lapboard this stunning late winter day in the Colorado Rockies, is a very old book containing two 141-year-old magazines and four 140-year-old magazines. The crystallization into reality of Smith’s and Dodge’s dream: the very first volume of a life-changing magazine, St. Nicholas.

I’ve always been attracted to visionary dreams that change the world. I can only imagine what it would have been like in that New York editorial office when Smith handed Mrs. Dodge that very first magazine. In my introduction to “A St. Nicholas Magazine Christmas” (Christmas in My Heart® 17, 2008), I took our readers back in time to what it would have been like for a child or a teen to have been handed a copy of that magazine.

The fastest speed known to man was the train; transportation in general was still dominated by the horse. The telegraph office and the newspaper in each town were their windows to the world. The center of home life was the stove, kitchen, or fireplace–here is where family reading took place in the evenings. Paper was so rare that children, both at home and at school, tended to write with chalk on slate rather than using a pencil on paper. Childhood, as we know it today, didn’t exist back then, for children were expected to work as hard as adults. Education was all too brief; maybe, if you were lucky, three or four grades in a one-room schoolhouse. Girls especially faced an unenviable future for few careers other than marriage and motherhood were open to them. They were expected to marry by the ages of 14 to 17 (boys 15 to 18); children would then arrive on an average of every two years. No small thanks to the failure of doctors and midwives to wash their hands between patients, untold millions of women died of puerperal fever or childbirth “complications” – hence men tended to go through three wives in a lifetime. Life expectancy was short.

So just imagine yourself as an 1873 child or teen, as this magazine created just for you was delivered to your door. You’d be not only hungry for knowledge, you’d be voracious: all that knowledge out there, but inaccessible to you. Now here come, in your mailbox, windows to the world: history, biography, religion, literature, art, music, mythology, biology, architecture, anthropology, philosophy, technology, folklore, popular culture, and on and on. Authors and poets such as Jack London, Rudyard Kipling, Anthony Hope, Tennyson, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, Longfellow, Bret Harte, Whittier, Frances Hodgson Burnett, William Cullen Bryant; and artists such as Arthur Rackham, Maxfield Parrish, Howard Pyle, Rembrandt, Rubens, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Frederic Remington, Charles Dana Gibson, Arthur Keller, etc.

Faithfully, for two-thirds of a century, three generations of young people received 1,200 pages of fascinating reading material every year. Without preaching or moralizing, the magazines helped inculcate principles of right living in its readers: character traits such as integrity, kindness, self-sacrifice, empathy, industry, courage, fortitude, self-respect, patriotism, respect for their elders, sportsmanship, etc.. – traits that bridged to the Golden Rule and service for others. Interwoven into the very fabric of the magazine was God’s leading in each of our lives. Thus, in its 66 years, St. Nicholas had a huge impact on the American people and British Commonwealth.

And yet, miraculously, defying all the odds, here is this refugee from another time, this 1873-74 artifact, on my lapboard! Thoughts and reactions almost overwhelm me. What will be the thoughts of people in 2155, 141 years from now, when they look back in time? Will there be any paper books left outside of mega library vaults? Will the average person be able to experience the thrill of touching and reading actual paper pages from times past? Or will the closest thing be digital? Digital recreations that lack any real connections to the real artifact itself. In that probable age of Orwellian Big Brother will they be forced to enter the Ray Bradbury world of Fahrenheit 451 and seek out those who memorized seminal books from the past (reason being totalitarian rulers have now erased all printed records that such books ever existed)? Even more terrifying, will there yet exist civilizations based on the Judeo-Christian belief system generations of children once grew up internalizing?

In a way, thousands of homeschooling parents are already circling their wagons around their children, earnestly seeking to preserve values worth living by for their children. Searching out real books, with the known potential to change lives for the better if their values are internalized. In a world that increasingly devalues real books, a revolution has already begun, a revolution every bit as significant as the one begun back in 1873-74 with this priceless book resting on my lapboard today.

THE GIFT OF AWARENESS

BLOG #3, SERIES 4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
THE GIFT OF AWARENESS
January 16, 2013

Only the curious
Have, if they live, a tale
Worth telling at all!
—Alastair Reid

Again and again and again, in recent years, in searching for a place or address, it has happened: The person being asked for information looks at me with a blank three-watt look, and mumbles, “I don’t know where it is” or “Dunno” or “Huh?” It matters not if the place in question is only two or three blocks away!

Which brings me to today’s subject: “The Gift of Awareness.” One of the greatest gifts a parent, teacher, or mentor can bestow on a child or teenager.

Paradoxically, at no time in human history has this much knowledge been accessible, at one’s fingertips; yet at no time in human history has such knowledge been devalued more. Just look around you at the millions who are myopically majoring in minors and minoring in majors, steadily constricting their worlds into knowledge that means virtually nothing: pop culture (celebrities, media, and sports). More likely to be immersed in a meaningless virtual reality world than the real. Boys especially, locked into a Peter Pan existence on their computer keyboards. Both sexes bailing out of growth trajectories in favor of obsessive text-messaging and substance abuse (be it drugs, alcohol, pornography, pop culture, or virtual reality). Result: You walk up to them, ask a question; they look at you with zombyish eyes—there’s nobody home.

So where did we as a society get off the track? Early. The first time we snuff out the God-given sense of wonder each child is born with by responding to questions with, “Oh, stop bothering me! Go watch TV” or “Go play a video game!” “Stop being such a pest!”

Each time this scenario takes place, the child’s light of awareness dims, the inner-wattage is reduced. In time, the result is another walking zombie.

Contrast that tragic result with the flip-side: a child or teen whose questions are enthusiastically fielded. Such lucky people grow up to be an Einstein, a Bill Gates, a Steve Jobs, an Edison, or Tesla. Or in the humanities, an Emily Dickinson or a Leonardo; a Tolstoy or a Schweitzer; a Dante or a Bronte; a Georgia O’Keefe or a Winslow Homer.

Blessed beyond belief is the child or teen who is mentored by a parent or teacher who is excited about life and growth and becoming. Could it be that the current wave of homeschooling is but the result of teachers and administrators who are devoid of such excitement, who blight their students’ lives by boring them?

What we need is a new concept of achievement: might it not be true that taking the time to ignite the mind of just one child or teen—such as Annie Sullivan so famously did with deaf, dumb, and blind Helen Keller—would by itself be worth having lived?

Beloved, what do you say to our making ourselves a committee of one determined to bestow the gift of awareness to children and teens in our homes, our classrooms, or proximity?

TREASURES OF THE PAST #3 TENNYSON’S “ULYSSES”

BLOG #19, SERIES #3

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

TREASURES OF THE PAST #3

TENNYSON’S “ULYSSES”

May 9, 2012

 

Last week, in discussing our Book of the Month, Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Enoch Arden, I also referred to Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” generally considered to be the greatest poem on aging ever written.  It was so considered by three generations of our family, namely my maternal grandfather, Herbert Norton Leininger; my mother, Barbara Leininger Wheeler—and I have inwardly mined its wisdom all of my life.

 

The untimely death of his dearest friend and soulmate, Arthur Hallam resulted in a spiritual earthquake that permanently darkened Tennyson’s inner skies.  Not only did it result in the greatest ode in the English language, it also resulted in Tennyson’s writing a poem that almost defines the aging process long before its author reached his own twilight years.

 

Tennyson’s persona is no less a person than Ulysses, the lead character in Homer’s immortal Iliad and Odyssey.  Ulysses, who, after fighting the Trojans for ten years, roams the Mediterranean world for another ten years; only then, returning to his long neglected wife Penelope, and kingdom of Ithaca.  But Tennyson goes beyond Homer in this marvelous creation: a titan who finds “business as usual” impossible to endure after having lived and interacted so long with kings, queens, warriors, and Greco-Roman gods.  Indeed this restlessness has resulted in his rounding up all the surviving warriors who accompanied him on his sojourns and battles, and enlisting them in one last adventure, one from which none will return to Ithaca alive.

 

In this monologue, Ulysses explains to us the reasons why he is embarking on this third and last quest.  He has thought of everything and everyone (with the notable exception of his long-suffering wife Penelope); he has turned over the reins of government to his much more prosaic son Telemachus, and has his crew ready to launch out into the deep.

 

First of all, he explains to us all why he must go—his restlessness; his hunger to fully live again (not merely exist); his yearning for action; for fighting against overwhelming odds; for making a real difference in his interactions with all those he comes in contact with; for learning, for becoming, for experiencing, everything life and the gods may throw at him.

 

Then in the poem’s powerful conclusion, Ulysses details his personal Bucket List: all he hopes to accomplish before he and his mariners sail off into the sunset.

 

This is one of those poems that so grows on you that each year of your life that passes, the lines and imagery will embed deeper into your psyche.  In short, properly internalized, the poem will revolutionize the rest of your life.  At the least, post it on your wall, or, better yet, memorize it:

 

ULYSSES

 

It little profits that an idle king,

By this still hearth, among these barren crags,

Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole

Unequal laws unto a savage race,

That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

I cannot rest from travel; I will drink

Life to the lees [dregs].  All times I have enjoyed

Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those

That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when

Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades

Vext the dim sea.  I am become a name;

For always roaming with a hungry heart

Much have I seen and known,—cities of men,

And manners, climates, councils, governments,

Myself not least, but honored of them all;

And drunk delight of battle with my peers,

Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.

I am a part of all that I have met;

Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough

Gleams that untraveled world, whose margin fades

For ever and for ever when I move.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,

To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!

As though to breathe were life!  Life piled on life

Were all too little, and of one to me

Little remains; but every hour is saved

From that eternal silence, something more,

A bringer of new things; and vile it were

For some three suns to store and hoard myself,

And this grey spirit yearning in desire

To follow knowledge like a sinking star,

Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

 

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,

To whom I leave the scepter and the isle—

Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil

This labor, by slow prudence to make mild

A rugged people, and through soft degrees

Subdue them to the useful and the good.

Most blameless is he, centered in the sphere

Of common duties, decent not to fail

In offices of tenderness, and pay

Meet adoration to my household gods,

When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

 

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:

There gloom the dark, broad seas.  My mariners,

Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me—

That ever with a frolic welcome took

The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed

Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;

Old age hath yet his honor and his toil.

Death closes all; but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done,

Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;

The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep

Moans round with many voices.  Come, my friends,

‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, and sitting well in order smite

The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;

It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,

And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

Though much is taken, much abides; and though

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are:

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

—Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)