50 TAKES ON WISDOM

BLOG #12, SERIES #6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
50 TAKES ON WISDOM
March 25, 2015

What would you get if you asked fifty of the world’s most eminent people to share with you the most significant insights into wisdom they’d gleaned from this thing called “life”? That’s exactly what photographer and film-maker Andrew Zuckerman did in his wondrous volume titled Wisdom (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2008).

Interviewees included the likes of Richard Rogers, Chuck Close, Madeleine Albright, Burt Bacharach, Andrew Wyeth, Buzz Aldrin, Desmond Tutu, Judi Dench, Clint Eastwood, Michael Parkinson, Ted Kennedy, Nelson Mandela, Robert Redford, Frank Gehry, Henry Kissinger, Rosamunde Pilcher, Jane Goodall, Alan Arkin, Dave Brubeck, and Vaclev Havel.

In his insightful “Afterword,” Zuckerman explores the evolution of his concept:

It is very hard to tell another human being that he or she is an icon, and that you’re there to extract the wisdom out of their iconic beings. It doesn’t sit well. People are people. We’re sitting down to have a conversation. I’m a young person conversing with an older person and there’s a certain human engagement. I thought: what no one has a problem with is being a human being. Everyone is human. I kept thinking about this idea of setting out on this amazing adventure to create a field guide for navigating one’s life. I wanted to explore what it is to be human, to hear from people who have lived for a long time and have an enormous amount of experience. . . .

I’m thirty years old and at this point in my life most of my generation, my peers, are creating work that is a mirror of youth culture. Our society is obsessed with youth. I have never understood that. My whole life, I’ve enjoyed meeting accomplished older people–it just seemed logical to me that these are the people who had done it. They have all the secrets. Why wouldn’t you ask them? ‘What secrets does youth hold? How did you do it? And how do you feel now about how you did it? And what did you learn?

* * * * *

It took me most of a week to fully digest all this, and the several hundred 3 x 5 note cards on which I copied quotations. I’ll be sharing with our readers in our daily quotation tweets.

C O D A

I take very serious these daily quotations. Quite candidly, one of my biggest fears is that my reference field would be too narrow, reflect my own reading too much, my own academic fields of expertise too much, my own era too much. With these concerns ever in my mind, even though I already have millions of quotations to draw from, I’m constantly seeking new sources of fresh wisdom.

Consequently, I consider it providential that our son Greg already had this seminal book in his personal library so that I could immerse myself in it.

I’m hoping you’ll agree.

I’ll start out with a longer quote from the book – too long for a tweet. On being asked what sessions stood out to him most, Zuckerman responded with:

One was Chuck Close, who spoke of the enormous amount of information contained in the topography of a face. He said, ‘If you’ve laughed your whole life you have laugh lines, if you’ve frowned your whole life you have furrows in your brow. Sometimes you have both, and most people have a kind of duality of life experience, some tragedy and some great moments of extreme happiness, and I don’t want one of those to overwhelm the other.’ It’s true. There’s an enormous amount to communicate in a portrait that can’t be communicated in words. The face reveals the journey traveled. And one of the incredible things about photographing people at this stage in their lives is that they’ve had quite a long journey and the information in the face was really what I was there to capture with the utmost clarity.

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Doctor of Happiness

BLOG #11, SERIES #6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DOCTOR OF HAPPINESS
March 18, 2015

Serendipitously, while still sifting through thousands of stories in my archives, I found the perfect companion piece to last week’s blog, “How to Be Happy?” When I checked the source, I knew I had to incorporate it into this week’s blog, for the story was featured in the November 1935 issue of Sunshine magazine, published by Sunshine Press in Litchfield, Illinois. Sunshine has long been one of my favorite magazines, both for its stories and for its quotations. I’ve anthologized many of the stories, and in my daily quotation tweets, few sources do I raid more often than Sunshine magazine.

During the last period of its existence, it was published by Garth Henrichs, and he and I became good friends. When I told him of my love for the magazine, he sighed and said, “Your words mean a great deal to me – especially since age is catching up with me and I have no one to carry on after I’m gone.” We stayed in contact until the late 1980s, when Garth was finally forced to close the doors of Sunshine Press, founded by his father Henry Henrichs. But before he died, he entrusted me with the legacy of keeping Sunshine alive in my writing and books. Neither blogs nor tweets existed back then. Thus, I’m confident Garth would be filled with joy to see this story by an unknown author live again.

Enjoy!

“MARY ANN, Ph. D.”

Mary Ann was a scrubwoman. But that didn’t prevent her from being a philosopher, although she did not know herself by that designation. It is not uncommon these days to find excellent wisdom wrapped up in odd and unpromising packages.

Mary Ann did a lot of thinking as she scrubbed, which did not hurt the scrubbing. Her conclusions may not have matched the classic cogitations of the collegiate or his companions in wisdom, but they were ideas that had the spice of sense in them. And that’s something.

It was one of those depressing, damp days too prevalent in the great city. Mary Ann was scrubbing the imposing stone steps of a well-known banking institution, when a banking official known to the scrubwoman entered. He paused for a moment, as he often did, to exchange a bit of conversation with Mary Ann. He hoped she might be happy and well. She was well, and had a good appetite, thank you. And she had a “right smart amount” of happiness, too, but not any too much.

Mary Ann often had pondered that matter with a view to discovering a satisfying conclusion. At the best, she found it a somewhat complex affair, but not wholly confounding. She had evolved what might be called a philosophy of happiness – she had to have one to keep going and hold up her end of the day’s demands. Life would be unbearable in a city tenement, and crushing to a scrubber of bank portals, without some definite ideas about happiness and contentment. Her philosophy might not conform to the most logical reasoning, nor blend with the poet’s dream of bliss, but it satisfied Mary Ann.

Looking up at the banker from her kneeling position, Mary Ann quaintly said, “There ain’t no happiness in this world, ‘cept what we makes ourselves.”

“Quite a chunk of wisdom,” thought the banker, but he said nothing. Mary Ann hesitated, expecting the banker to pass on, but he did not. Instead, he stood there and just looked at her.

Mary Ann raised up on her knees. “You see,” she continued, “happiness, t’ me way o’ thinking, is something inside o’ you. A lot o’ folks ‘spect somebody t’ come along an’ fill ‘em full o’ happiness, an’ all they think they got t’ do is jest t’ do nothing. You know, Mister, that makes me feel kinda ‘shamed o’ meself – jest like we humans can’t take care o’ ourselves.”

“Seems to me,” continued Mary Ann, seeing that the banker friend was still listening, “seems t’ me what we git from other folks, what some call happiness, is something cheap, an un–ungenuine. What you git from inside yerself is all good, and it sticks.”

The banker looked enviously at Mary Ann. He found little genuine happiness in his relationships with people. Certainly he found pleasure in business–when it was good. As to happiness from the “inside,” as Mary Ann had said, his responsibilities and worries were altogether too heavy to admit of it. Hence, Mary Ann’s philosophy was somewhat perplexing, effective as it appeared to be.

“Are you happy, Mister?” questioned Mary Ann, unexpectedly.

The banker was embarrassed, and he hesitated before he answered. “Oh, yes–why, yes, of course,” he stuttered, “Maybe not the kind you are talking about. You see, I depend on society–business success, you understand, to supply my happiness.”

Mary Ann looked up at the banker, laughing, “aw, you ain’t had no happiness at all. All you git that way ain’t happiness–it’s nothing only pleasure. That ain’t happiness. I bet it don’t last no longer than it takes you t’ git away from it.” And Mary Ann laughed again.

The banker walked slowly away. “Mary Ann, Doctor of Philosophy,” he muttered. “The half of all I own would I give to experience the happiness Mary Ann possesses. My money entangles me in snares I cannot break. Would that I might cast it off, but my family and my friends live on the fruits of my investments. I cannot forsake them. I live in fear of something, I know not what. I am worried – worried— ”

When Mary Ann finished scrubbing, she hummed a little tune all her own. Weary in body, to be sure, but happy because the portals were shining – a work well done – and she was earning an honest and respectable living, and she could look the whole world in the face. The contagion of her happiness shed a ray upon her surroundings and brightened the outlook of those near by.

The banker, wise in many things, foolish in the greatest, experienced a bit of Mary Ann’s brand of happiness when, on the early morning of Thanksgiving Day, he deposited at Mary Ann’s tenement door a huge basket bulging with good things. It was in material things, such as these, that he had sought his own happiness, but in his own possession rather than in the possession of others. Suddenly he realized the folly of his own philosophy.

In the basket left at Mary Ann’s door, hidden among the profusion of good things, she found a note written in the banker’s own hand. It merely said: “It is more blessed to give than to receive. Thanks to Mary Ann.”

GOING BLIND

BLOG #50, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
GOING BLIND
December 10, 2014

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My wife and I often travel on Southwest Airlines; whenever we do so, I like to peruse their in-flight magazine, Spirit. The cover story in the July 2014 issue was titled “As the Lights Go Down.”

Nicole Kear begins her gripping story with these riveting words: “The day I found out I was going blind started out like any other.” She was nineteen years old, a sophomore at Yale, undecided as to whether to major in English or in theater.

A routine appointment with her doctor turned out to be anything but! The eye-specialist shattered her dreams by announcing that she had a degenerative retinal disease called “retinitis pigmentosa.” My retinal cells were slowly dying which would result in gradual vision loss. First the disease would eat away at my night and peripheral vision, and eventually it would claim my central vision too…. It was untreatable and incurable.

As she walked the twenty blocks back to her home, she was overcome by wave after wave of fear: “But more than anything, I felt instant and irrevocable loss, like a kid who’s just lost her grip on a helium balloon. I made a grab for it, fast, but it was too late, and I watched helplessly as it receded, further and further out of reach.”

As time passed, she felt for a time that she’d be crushed under the strain of knowing that darkness was inevitable. “But something else was happening, too. Through the fog of my shock and confusion, I started seeing everything with the eyes of someone looking for the last time. Sights I’d always taken for granted–the bits of sparkle in the pavement, the bright, brilliant red of the streetlight–seemed immensely, heart-breakingly beautiful. I’d wasted so much time, I scolded myself, being blind to the beauty around me. Knowing it wouldn’t last forever, I became ravenous for images.”

So how was she to face it?

“Though I couldn’t control my disease or the blindness it could bring, I could control how I responded to it…. In the time I had left, I could stuff my brain with images in hopes they’d be enough to last a lifetime. I could use the death sentence my eyes had been given as a kick in the pants to start really living.”

Time passed. One afternoon, she sat down with her leather-bound journal and drew up a personal bucket list of things she wanted to see and do before her vision gave out. She called it her carpe diem campaign.

She double-majored in English and theater, learned how to be a circus clown, learned how to master the flying trapeze, and traveled to Europe. In Rome, “I sat in front of the Pantheon, drinking in every column, every chiseled Latin letter, sketching these details in my journal in an effort to permanently imprint them on my memory.” She picked sweet-peas on a farm in North Italy, hiked cloud-capped mountains to see where Ovid had lived, watched men on Vespas smoking cigarettes and women gossiping while leaning out of windows, and smelled the sweet aroma of marinara sauce simmering on stovetops. “Spending all the money I’d saved from birthdays and graduations, I bought a Eurorail pass and set off with my sister to Paris, where we watched Grand Guignol puppet shows, and Amsterdam, where we stood by narrow canals eating wheels of black licorice. I witnessed the sunrise over Venice’s Bridge of Sighs, and I felt near to bursting with awe at the beauty and the grandeur.”

After college, she moved back to New York, where she performed Shakespeare in the lower East Side, 1950s cult classics in the West Village, and avant-garde German theater on St. Mark’s Place.

She fell in love several times–but finally the real thing: David proposed to her in the middle of the Smoky Mountains.

Next came Hollywood: “I was an actor, after all, and in L.A. the streets were paved with TV pilots. David and I quit our day jobs as long-term temps at an investment bank, packed our stuff, and ventured west. I was bowled over by California’s beauty. Rolling, golden hills that looked like sleeping lions. Jagged cliffs with precipitous drops to the churning, foaming Pacific Ocean. Even the light was different, and the smells. Every time I walked out my front door and inhaled the scent of jasmine, I stopped to marvel . . . sniffing jasmine blossoms made me feel like a Disney princess.”

Driving became more and more difficult. She’d become totally night-blind. As her field of vision continued to shrink, she bumped into things more and more, and fell down stairs–and fumbled her stage-lines.

Then she discovered she was pregnant. But now, color-blindness was setting in, and her depth-perception was going too. Even so, She and David decided to go ahead with it. “When my son made his entrance, just after midnight on Thanksgiving Night, I soaked in so many sights: his strong chin, bee-stung eyes, the complex curvature of his ear, so tiny it made my heart ache with tenderness…. Two years later I saw my daughter for the first time, a ruddy, round-cheeked newborn sporting a Mohawk.” There were details she couldn’t see, but she didn’t worry about that.

By the time she was 34, she was deemed legally blind. She could no longer read regular print. Even so, she decided to have another baby. “My third baby is now 2 years old, and I’ve been able to read her books (if the text is big enough), take her to the playground (if it’s enclosed), and watch her blow out her birthday candles.”

Nicole Kear concludes her remarkable story with these poignant words: “But I’ve learned not to peer too anxiously into the future. Hindsight may be 20/20, but what’s to come is too murky for any of us to make out. My eyes are so dim that I need to train them on the present, to soak up as much as I can, to slow it down, to make it last. As much as I can, I stop to smell the roses–and while I’m there, I look at them, long and hard. Those blazing red streetlights. The way the skin on the top of my children’s noses wrinkles when they smile. . . I don’t know the kind of life I might have had or the kind of woman I might have become if that appointment 18 years ago had actually been routine. . . . What I do know is the life I have is nothing like what I expected, but it is everything I wanted–full of beauty, love, and a light beyond anything the eye can see.”

Nicole Kear is the author of the new memoir, Now I See You.

* * * * *

Four months after reading this, on a 55th anniversary cruise from San Diego through the Panama Canal to Fort Lauderdale, my eyes became progressively more difficult to keep open, and the pain increased continuously. In Fort Lauderdale, our son rushed me to an eye specialist.

I can now see again, but it has resulted in a profoundly greater appreciation for the daily miracle of sight.

I conclude with this quotation penned by Harry Moyle Tippett:

Out of a world of total silence and darkness Helen Keller found a way to a world of light and holy purpose. In the top floor bedroom at Forest Hills . . . there were eight windows looking out into a vast expanse of blue sky by day and of star-studded velvet by night. Small strings guided her steps to the sanctuary, and there she reveled in an inner illumination that matched the glorious light of day she could not see and the silver sheen of stars she could only feel. She said, ‘I learned that it is possible for us to create light and sound and order within us, no matter what calamity may befall us in the outer world.’

Barely Begun at Seventy – How to Never Get Old – Conclusion

BLOG #30, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
BARELY BEGUN AT SEVENTY
HOW TO NEVER GET OLD
Conclusion
July 23, 2014

“Youth is not a time of life…. It is a state of mind. It is not a matter of ripe cheeks, red lips and supple knees. It is a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions; it is a freshness in the deep springs of life.

Youth means a temperamental predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over love of ease. This often exists in the man of 50 more than the boy of 20.

Nobody grows old by merely living a number of years. People grow old by deserting their ideals. Years wrinkle the skin, but self-distrust, fear and despair–those are the long, long years that bow the head and turn the growing spirit back to dust.

You are as young as your faith, as old as your doubt; as young as your self-confidence, as old as your fear; as young as your hope, as old as your despair.

In the central part of your heart there is a wireless station. So long as it receives messages of beauty, hope, cheer, courage, grandeur and power from the earth, from man and from the infinite, so long are you young. When the wires are all down and the central part of your heart is covered with the snows of pessimism and the ice of cynicism, then you are grown old indeed and may God have mercy on your soul.”

–Author Unknown. Quoted in Josephine Lowman’s column in the
Nov. 10, 1980 Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

If you do a lot of people-watching like authors such as I do, it won’t take long for you to discover that children and teenagers tend to congregate around two groups of people: their age group and old people who never grow old. You can’t possibly miss the latter. You feel their force field the instant they come into the room. They radiate joy and vibrant energy. They’re not at all interested in either themselves or what you might think of them–but rather they are fascinated by everyone in their vicinity. They yearn to hear each one’s life story. They do not grandstand; indeed, they listen more than they talk. When they leave the room it’s like the lights were suddenly dimmed to a fraction of what they were before they came in.

They have a Falstaffian exuberance of life. My maternal grandfather (Herbert Norton Leininger) was a tornado of a man. I was privileged to live my eighth grade year with him and Grandmother Josephine. Early each morning I’d hear the sonorous voice of Gabriel Heater on the radio, setting Grandpa’s sails for the day. The walls were papered with National Geographic maps. The house was like a central command war room, and Grandpa was the Five Star General who knew everything that was going on in the world–and what to do about it. Furthermore, he knew who was responsible. If he felt any particular leader was falling down on the job, he’d sit down at his trusty manual typewriter and tell the offending person how to mend his or her ways. Not in generalities–but in specifics. When the six daughters would come home for Christmas, he’d corral his six sons-in-law and show and tell them what was happening in the world. But he wasn’t at all interested in their opinions–he was the alpha male, and never for a moment let them forget it!

Grandma had learned years before that if she waited to get into the conversational sound-track until the lord of the manor paused for breath, she’d never get in at all because when he was on a roll, Grandpa never did pause for breath. So Grandma wisely (amazingly, she was an early modern in this respect) just talked simultaneously–usually about family, people, gossip, personal things; and the daughters were full participants–and there was much laughter. We kids loved the two sound-tracks, and listened to them both. Especially we reveled in seeing those authority figures (our fathers) squelched by their fierce father-in-law.

Grandpa loved literature–could quote and perform Shakespeare by the hour. Apparently, he knew Hamlet by heart; and would tread the boards like a professional when he could round up a captive audience. When he was 75, he announced that for fifty years he’d pleased his wife and the world by being clean-shaven; now, he was going to please himself. He grew a distinguished goatee, purchased a natty Lincoln hardtop; constructed the first camper we’d ever seen; he and a luckless co-conspirator we knew only as Mr. Smith, painted it the ugliest green I’ve seen in my lifetime, packed it with grub and they journeyed north to the North Pole.

When they returned, before we knew it, they’d headed south into the jungles of Mexico. In his eighties, he announced he was going to find the headwaters of each of California’s major rivers and ride down them in a rubber raft. Never can I forget one day when I was invited to join other descendants who’d dutifully brought the requisitioned grub to the appointed spot on the riverside. After quite a wait, we heard the put-put of an outboard motor, Grandpa veered in to the bank, unloaded what he wanted to get rid of, bequeathing it to us; then, with inimitable noblesse oblige, accepted our tribute, loaded the grub, restarted the motor, headed out to mid-river, and with a jaunty wave, disappeared from view.

On the day of his death, he and his Lincoln were roaring through the Oregon countryside, wiping out mailboxes right and left, as though he was Don Quixote and they were enemy windmills.

His was the only funeral I’ve ever attended where all the “mourners” did was laugh.

* * * * *

So, beloved . . . , you don’t have to ever get old at all. My Great Aunt Lois, at the age of 104, still firmly up to date on the Zeitgeist, was asked, “Aunt Lois, how old do you have to be before you are old?” Without a minute’s hesitation, she shot back, “Old is anyone who is fifteen years older than you are.”

Those who never grow old remain passionately in love with every aspect of life. They are voracious readers and indefatigable travelers. The days are never long enough for all they want to learn and do. Yet in all their continual growth, they continuously watch out for opportunities to help those who need what they’re capable of providing–they are known far and wide for paying it forward. They revel in children and young people, never more joyous than when in the midst of them. Because of all this, they find no time in which to get old. Most likely, death will have to really huff and puff just to trip them up at last. When their race is stopped, funerals are never held for them–only celebrations.

My own beloved mother was just as much in love with life as was her father; she differed from him mainly in that she spent her lifetime ministering to the needs of others. His center of gravity was closer home.

I’ve dedicated 13 of my 86 books to my mother, for she was my lodestar. Possessed of a near photographic memory, she’d memorized thousands of pages of short stories, poetry, and readings. And never slowed down until faced with the cruelest enemy of all, Dementia.

In one of my books, Tears of Joy for Mothers, my introduction is titled, “My Mother’s Scrapbooks,” and it consists of my mother’s favorite poems of the home, of life itself. It is fitting that I close this three-part blog series with the poem she first recited when she won a high school elocutionary contest with it. Later on, it was while hearing her recite it that my father fell in love with her. Late in life, in the “From the Cradle to the Grave” programs she and my father put on, she’d close the program with the one poem that summed up her passion for life: Amelia Burr’s “A Song of Living.”

“Because I have loved life, I shall have no sorrow to die.
I have sent up gladness on wings to be lost in the blue of the sky,
I have run and leaped with the rain, I have taken the wind to my breast.
My cheek like a drowsy child to the face of the earth I have pressed.
Because I have loved life, I shall have no sorrow to die.

I have kissed young love on the lips. I have heard his song to the end
I have struck my hand like a seal, in the loyal hand of a friend.
I have known the peace of Heaven, the comfort of work done well.
I have longed for death in the darkness and risen alive out of hell.
Because I have loved life, I have no sorrow to die.

I give a share of my soul to the world where my course is run.
I know that another shall finish the task that I leave undone.
I know that no flower, no flint, was in vain on the path I trod.
As one looks on a face through a window, through life, I have looked on God.
Because I have loved life, I shall have no sorrow to die.”

Barely Begun at Seventy – Part One

BLOG #28, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
BARELY BEGUN AT SEVENTY – Part One
July 9, 2014

It was a glorious spring morning in California’s verdant Napa Valley. And the alumni were coming home from all across the nation to their alma mater, Pacific Union College, judged by the likes of Newsweek and U.S. News to feature the most beautiful college campus in America.

I was privileged to be one of six alumni to be honored that weekend. But for us it was a two-way street: we were expected to give as well as take. Each of us was given around eight minutes to share with the audience the most significant distilled wisdom life had brought us. If you don’t think that would be a tough challenge, just put yourself in our places: how would you have responded to such an assignment?

For me, the question had profound implications, convicted as I am that all true wisdom comes from God. And since I’ve tweeted nuggets of wisdom every day now for almost three years, I had a lot of distilled wisdom to access. But the core of my response to this assignment was a no-brainer: There was for me only one possible quote that would satisfy. Especially, given the makeup of this particular audience. This is it:

A life may be over at sixteen
or barely begun at
seventy;
it is the aim
that determines its completeness.

That well-over-a-hundred-year-old-quotation came to me just when I needed it most: during the countdown decade leading up to the biblical “threescore and ten” that symbolizes a lifetime. At least that used to be true. In America, prior to the twentieth century, the norm was only forty-five years. Today, we’re back to the biblical seventy. I discovered that seminal quotation in a very old issue of that great magazine for young people: The Youth’s Instructor.

I needed it because as each of us approaches this time-period in life, one’s seventieth birthday can be almost terrifying: You mean my life is almost over? I don’t have any more time left? Will it be all downhill for me now? Will I be living on borrowed time? Is my productive lifetime over? Will it all be just a waiting game–waiting to die? All these questions swirled around in my head.

Also part of this ferment was a long-time metaphor for the perceived terminus of one’s productive lifetime: the proverbial Gold Watch. When or if one lived to be 65 years of age, one’s employer presented you with a gold watch. From that day forward, you were no longer a worker bee. You were now officially old. But not to worry: the benevolent government would now take care of you in the short time-frame you had left. Blessed be Social Security.

You see, when Social Security was born during the traumatic FDR era, no one expected Americans to live much longer than 65: many would die before they reached 65. This is why it seemed such a safe life raft for our government to offer its citizens. No one then even dreamed that more and more Americans would be living into their seventies, eighties, nineties, and, gasp! hundreds! Prime reason why the Social Security program is today threatening the fiscal stability of our nation.

The mind-set back then was this: You have exceeded expectations: You have reached 65. This gold watch means you’re done. We’re putting you out to pasture. We expect no more work out of you. Rock away on your front porch until you have the good sense to die. Always remember that Social Security is short-term: we can’t afford to pay you for living much longer. Most certainly we don’t expect you to live past seventy! Goodness! Do you think you’re immortal!

This was the mind-set of my grandparents’ generation.

But the problem today is this: We have never developed a template for vibrant productive living beyond the Gold Watch.

I see this reality at every alumni weekend I attend. Classmates who have given up on productive living now that they’ve entered the Gold Watch period. They don’t admit this in words, but they most certainly articulate it in their actions! They’ve traded their heretofore active lifestyle for a meaningless sedentary one. They’ve given up on goals. You ask them what they’re doing these days, and they sigh, “Not much…. Watch TV, putter around, play a few holes of golf, babysit the grandkids–you know: the usual.”

You can tell they’re telling you the truth because physically and mentally they are rapidly falling apart.

Each of them is indeed just waiting to die!

Next week, July 16, we shall continue on this topic: BARELY BEGUN AT SEVENTY.
Copyright© 2014

 

Trains – The New Way to Travel (Part 4)

BLOG #25, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
TRAIN – THE NEW WAY TO TRAVEL (Part Four)
June 18, 2014

Now we come to the end of our study on Amtrak trains and I’ve saved the most unexpected aspect until last: the impact of trains on young people. Not only that, but how I related to them.

Let me begin with the lovely young coed from Mesa State, the one who was so taken with the far-ranging conversation around our breakfast table. Permit me to begin with her appearance. Since her eyes still retained that magical childlike sense of wonder about the world around her, I‘m all but certain she’d been home-schooled. We saw no tatoos, no jewelry hanging from lips, cheeks, or nose. Clearly, she was highly intelligent and most curious about our worlds. Later on, I chatted with her for a while in the Observation Car. Some time later, as I walked past her coach seat, she moved over and asked if I’d be willing to talk with her for a while. She was full of questions about life, what it was all about, how she was to avoid the moral and ethical land-mines laying in wait for her at every turn. I told her about my 2014 Christmas in My Heart story, “The Tides of Life,” the love story of an artist just a little older (at the beginning of the story) than she. But her questions ranged so much wider than art that I introduced her to the 2013 Christmas story, “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” in which I distill the most significant life-related wisdom God has entrusted to me during my lifetime. Also how I was able to incorporate that wisdom into what I called “The Nightingale Assignment,” a six-week period during which I challenged each student to come up with goals they could live with, and strive toward. Sometime during the discussion, she brought up the subject of birthdays, shyly admitting, “My birthday was ten days ago.” That was all I needed. Telling her I’d be right back, I moved forward to my seat, rummaged around in my briefcase for a book, took it back to her, and then showed that it was Christmas in My Heart 22, which contained that goal-setting story; then backdated it to her birth-date, and inscribed it to her. She then told me that a certain soldier had been moving in on her and she didn’t know how she could hold him off. She was so overcome by my taking so much time to talk to her, listen to her, and offer counsel, that she broke down in tears, convulsively hugging me. One of the last things she said to me was, “Oh, how much I wish I could have been one of your students!” I told her I’d always be there for her, no further away than a letter, email, or phone call. She got off the train at Grand Junction. But I’m hoping our time together and the stories in the book will make a real difference in her life.

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Our reason for making the trip was to attend a 55th alumni weekend at my undergraduate alma mater, Pacific Union College in the verdant Napa Valley. While there, as one of their honorees, I was asked to speak about the impact of my own principal mentor, Dr. Walter Utt, who I’d worked for three years. I told those assembled of the incredible impact that one man had on my life, how he’d remained in touch with me–until his untimely death [he was a hemophiliac] in his early fifties from an AIDS-contaminated blood transfusion out of San Francisco. I noted that after that never-to-be-forgotten remembering service (after I returned home), in gratitude to Dr. Utt’s impact on my life, I made a vow to God to make mentoring the #1 priority of the rest of my life.

Well, two days later, we boarded the eastbound Amtrak in Sacramento. We were soon climbing the newly snow-capped Sierras [a snow storm had just made a significant deposit of moisture in the higher Sierra Nevada Mountains]. In order to revel in the beauty more, I found my way forward to the Observation Car, and took a seat just inside the door. Turns out I’d joined a large group of college students and young singles. They were curious about me and I about them. For some unknown reason, I was impressed to ask a coed this question, “So what are you going to do with the rest of your life?” In seconds, her face was radiant–and the entire group was galvanized by the question and her answers. Afterwards, I asked another student the same question, and another, and another. By this time, older people in the car had figured out that they were missing out on something really interesting–so they moved into our group. The students were soon asking me questions. Learning I was a full-time author, and had been for many years a college professor of English, they pumped me for all I was worth. During the course of the next couple of hours I’d referenced the mantras for making a success of life in “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.” Incredibly, that half of the Observation Car became my class, and they proclaimed me to be their teacher. I passed out all the business cards I had left. Turned out to be one of the most fascinating and far-reaching discussions on life I’ve ever had.. Finally, I told them I’d better see how my wife was and left them; I didn’t see them for some hours afterwards, and they then reproachfully asked me why I’d deserted them.

It was late afternoon, when at one of our Nevada stops, many of us disembarked in order to get some fresh air. Several of those students were turning the air blue with cigarette smoke–so thick were the fumes that I couldn’t stand getting too close to them. But even so, the coed I’d spoken to first in the Observation Car turned to me, and in an earnest voice said, “Dr. Wheeler, do you know why I’m on this train?” I’m on because I wanted to get some answers about what life is all about. ”

I assumed I’d later be able to find her and follow up on her open invitation for me to talk with her personally. But unfortunately, she got off at the next stop. I’ve been troubled ever since . . . and prayed that, if it be His will, that God would have her reconnect with me.

So what does all this mean? I submit that there was something about Amtrak travel that caused all those students to buy tickets on The California Zephyr for reasons perhaps unknown even to themselves. But clearly they were seeking answers. Even more, they were seeking people who really cared about them, their goals, their dreams.

I suspect that they aren’t finding those answers in the hedonistic society we’re part of today. For universities have all but abandoned God, country, and values worth living by. People who attempt to live by a spiritual code are ridiculed and discounted. Thus these young people who clung to me like a life raft had clearly found in me something they weren’t finding anywhere else.

I will never be the same person I was ten days before. Nor, I am guessing, will those young people who spontaneously annointed me as their “professor.” And who got off the train with at least a few of their life-related questions dealt with or answered.

SPECIAL NOTE: All illustrations in this series taken from Amtrak Timetable and Vacations.

Trains — The New Way to Travel (Part Three)

BLOG #24, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
TRAINS – THE NEW WAY TO TRAVEL (Part Three)
June 11, 2014

During that long night, the train would stop at Helper, Provo, and Salt Lake City, Utah. At Salt Lake City, many got off, and many got on. But since the overhead lights were left at dim, we were only partly aware of the stops. Then came Elko and Winemucca, Nevada; but again we were little aware of the stops. Not until Reno, did we thoroughly awaken. By breakfast time, we were climbing the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Never before had we seen so little snow in the Sierras in mid-April. It was late afternoon when the train drew into the Old Sacramento train station. Here we disembarked, rented a car, and drove up the San Joaquin Valley to Red Bluff, where my sister and brother-in-law live.

IMAX ON WHEELS

A week later, we boarded the east-bound California Zephyr in Sacramento. Right on time. By now we’d become one with the rhythm of the train and life inside it.

Europeans and world travelers are fascinated by America’s vast open spaces, the grandeur of the West; for there’s nothing to match it anywhere in the world. They don’t show that fascination in planes–but they certainly do in trains. On trains you see people from all over the world who are entranced by the majesty of the American landscape. To them, rolling through the West in an Amtrak car is like looking through IMAX lenses at some of the world’s most iconic scenery slowly rolling by. Just as interesting: to see Americans discover for the very first time their own heritage outside their windows.

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Everywhere we’d been, during that intervening week, people had asked us what it was like to travel on a train. We couldn’t have attracted much more attention if we’d announced we’d be on the next space flight. Because we live in a “ho-hum” and “whatever” time, almost never do people get energized or excited about anything any more. Planes certainly don’t excite any more; indeed, the normal response to hearing we’re taking a plane somewhere is either complete boredom or commiseration. Not even cruise ship travel excites any more. But rather, “sure hope you don’t get sick!” or “Where you going this time?” Hardly anyone travels by bus anymore. And car travel is–just car travel. This is why it’s so amazing to see so many people light up and gush when told we’re traveling by train. “Oh, be sure and tell me what it’s like when you get back!” or “You lucky guy! Can I tag along?”

Life has, in truth, come full circle: what’s old has become new, and what’s new has become old. Retro is in. Roughing it is in. Five-star hotels are passé. Children and young people are searching for experiences that are fresh, new, and not cookie cutter. This is why trains are in and planes are out.

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Interestingly enough, the same phenomenon is true on trains. All you hear around you are variations on “Thank God we’re traveling by train!” “Isn’t plane travel awful!” “Isn’t it great to be free to get up, walk around, talk to people, play games, eat whatever or whenever we want, relax or sleep, with no timetable to worry about!”

Really, it’s one big mutual admiration society! Hardly a soul wants to be anywhere else but on a train. And they love the Observation Car. The interaction with people of all ages, the running down to the snack area below whenever they want a bite to eat, the opportunity to play board games, to laugh, to reminisce, to joke–but more than anything else: to talk with people and find out what makes them tick.

Then there’s the Dining Car (right next to the Observation Car). We actually looked forward to the three full meals a day they offer there. The food was surprisingly good. And the vegetarian options were most palatable. But really, you’d have to experience it yourself to fully appreciate the full difference. Had we been traveling by auto, it would have taken us two and a half days (including two nights at a motel), the stress of driving long hours, finding acceptable eating options on the road, gas costs alone would have totaled over $500 for the round trip–not counting repair problems or road hazards. Meals would have cost us at least as much, per meal, as on board Amtrak.

But oh the difference! To get on the train and be able to fully relax. No driving pressures. No hauling in and out suitcases each night. No missing much of the scenery because of driving demands. Just sit back, relax, and watch America slowly pass by. Tired of sitting? Wander down to the Snack Car, the Observation Car, the Dining Car. Get acquainted with your fellow passengers.

Occasionally, one of the train personnel would get on the mike and tell us about the history of sites we were passing by. Later on, I discovered that someone has written and published three books detailing every significant history-related spot in the entire transcontinental train route from the Atlantic to the Pacific! I saw all three in one of the train station gift shops.

There’s also not a little of “Now that we’re here, let’s close the door! We don’t want too many people to discover how wonderful train travel is, because they might then wreck it for the rest of us.”

The one sad negative for the host of wanabee train travelers is that trains service all too few locales across the country. Radically different than it used to be when trains connected virtually every hamlet in America. Europe is much more fortunate than we are in this respect.

Next week, I’ll be bringing to a conclusion my paean to train travel.”

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JUST ONE DAY AT A TIME

BLOG #15, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
JUST ONE DAY AT A TIME
April 9, 2014

Next to me in an office supply store line was a young woman in her mid to late 30s. She was working so hard to get just right a lamination of a long sheet of quotations that everyone in the waiting line got interested in her. Turns out that it wasn’t even for her, but for a dear friend. When I mentioned to her that her friend was lucky to have such a caring friend, she remarked in a very soft voice to me that creating this gift for her friend took her mind off her own troubles.

Conversationally, almost as an aside, I said, “Hopefully, your troubles aren’t too bad.”

When she puddled up, I realized I was in too deep to back out without further dialogue, and, well, one question led to another and before I knew it we’d moved away from the counter so she could speak confidentially. It helped that she’d purchased some of my books in recent years and trusted me.

It was far far worse than I had imagined: her husband had recently died from cancer. . . . Her teenage son had got in with the wrong crowd, overdosed on drugs, and died. . . . Without her husband’s income, she’d lost their home. . . . And the final straw: she’d lost her job too. She was homeless and destitute and didn’t know where in the world to turn.

She summed it all up with these poignant words: “God is my last resort, and I struggle to make sense of it all one day at a time.”

“One day at a time.”

* * * * *

Which reminds me of another encounter I had in a hospital break room a few years ago. I incorporated it into my story, “The Clock of Life.” in Christmas in My Heart 18 almost five years ago.

I’d been operated on for an obstruction in my bile duct that had resulted in my skin turning yellow with jaundice. My hospitalist had told me that if I made it to dawn without the most excruciating pain I’d ever experienced, that would mean I’d escaped pancreatitis. So I walked the hospital corridors hour after hour, stopping once in a while in the break room. Once, there was a woman sitting there who was the spouse of another patient in the ward. Turned out that her husband had a rare virulent form of leukemia. When I asked how severe it was, she answered almost matter of factly, “He can’t even turn over without my help.”

I followed up by asking, “And how long has he had this condition?”

There was a very long pause before, in a soft but strained voice, she answered, “Twenty-five years!”“

I was so stunned, I was almost unable to speak. Finally, I said, “Twenty-five years?

She nodded. “Yes. And in all that time I’ve never left him–not even for a day.”

I could only stammer, “My dear woman, how do you do it?”

Never will I forget her response: “God gives me strength for one day at a time.”

* * * * *

I was on the phone for over an hour one night recently. On the other end of the line was a friend I’d worked with in a university some years before. His voice was so soft I hardly recognized it. He’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was so weak he couldn’t even get out of his chair without his wife’s help. He was undergoing 28-day cycles of radiation, each of which did all but kill him. The prognosis looked anything but good.

In situations like this one is almost incapable of speech. What do you say to a dear one who knows for a certainty that, unless a miracle takes place, he is living his last hours in life?

I told him I’d been praying for him. He told me that many others were praying for him too. . . and added, “It’s not too hard: we all know we’re going to die, so it’s not an “if,” only a “when.” And clearly he was getting his house in order: family and close friends visited him or phoned him often.

And he now lived “one day at a time.”

Before I signed of, he thanked me again for taking the time to call, saying, “You’re part of what means most to me: true friends who stay by me to the end.”

* * * * *

One day at a time. . . . God gives us strength for one day at a time.

THIS THING CALLED “WISDOM”

BLOG #6, SERIES 5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
THIS THING CALLED WISDOM
February 5, 2014

If you, like me, spend much time in bookstores, and watch where people go, once they’ve come in, you’ll discover that many are there for one reason only: they are searching for wisdom. Browsers search through quotation books, philosophy books, religion books, writing books, advice books, self-help books–the list could go on and on. Each of these browsers seeking answers, solutions, or guidance.

Yet it’s strange,, isn’t it? That we who are all but buried in torrents of information–more so than any previous generation in history–find it increasingly difficult to separate the wise from the foolish, the gold from the mica, the original from a copy or cloning.

Untold thousands of these seekers who buy book after book turn up empty. Eventually, a disproportionate number of them give up on finding solutions for their problems and settle for a guru. A guru who’ll say to them, in essence: You fools! You’ll never find answers on your own. Only sages like me, who have sifted through all the stratas of information and have discovered the mother lode of wisdom, can be trusted to answer your questions and bring you peace. All you have to do is listen to me talk and read my books. Never again will you have to wonder about what is important or not. In the future, you need search no further for I have all the answers.

Sound familiar? It ought to for our contemporary society is overrun by self-annointed gurus and prophets who have set themselves up as demigods, both religious and secular.

I too have long searched for wisdom. All writers do. How well I remember a key epiphany in my life’s journey. I stumbled on a book that appeared to contain all the answers I’d ever need in my search to be a successful writer. In fact, the dust-jacket trumpeted the gladsome news that wanabe writers need search no further than this one book, for in it an impressive group of successful writers each divulge the secrets to their writing success. It was not a cheap book, but I rose to the bait and bought it.

Never in my life have I been more disappointed/disillusioned by a book! It was hollow. Not one of all those famous authors offered solutions or guidance! Instead, each one revealed how insecure s/he was; how terrified each one of writer’s block: of coming up empty idea-wise, wisdom-wise.

Not one of them accessed a Higher Power in this near frantic search for wisdom. At this time in my journey, my books were selling well and letters were streaming in. A number of them praised me for my wisdom, acknowledging their debt to me as a source of wisdom they could depend on. This concerned me no little for I knew it was not true, for I was searching for wisdom myself. For an author, such letters are insidious, for the temptation is to believe them, and write back, acknowledging the truth of their assumptions, and inwardly adding another name to the tribe of devotees who can be counted on to buy his/her books.

Finally, God gave me a totally different epiphany: one that has, over time, revolutionized my life. The catalyst: Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived. If the story is hazy to you, here it is:

That night the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream, and God said, ‘What do you want, and I will give it to you!’

[And Solomon answered] ‘O LORD my God, now you have made me king instead of my father, David, but I am like a little child who doesn’t know his way around. And here I am among your own chosen people, a nation so great they are too numerous to count! Give me an understanding mind so that I can govern your people well and know the difference between right and wrong. For who by himself is able to govern this great nation of yours?’

The LORD was pleased with Solomon’s reply and was glad that he had asked for wisdom. So God replied, ‘Because you have asked for wisdom in governing my people and have not asked for a long life or riches for yourself or the death of your enemies–I will give you what you asked for! I will give you a wise and understanding mind such as no one has ever had or ever will have! And I will also give you what you did not ask for–riches and honor! No other king in all the world will be compared to you for the rest of your life!’
(1 Kings 3:7-12 NLT)

Though I had read this passage before, never before had I thought of it as having any possible association with myself. But now the thought came to me: Nowhere in Scripture is it said that God would not grant wisdom to someone other than Solomon! What if I asked for it? I could but ask. I couldn’t possibly be more at sea wisdom-wise than I am now!

And so, with my own adaptation of Solomon’s request, I began the first day of the rest of my life:

Lord, as I begin this new day, I recognize that my own wisdom wells are shallow and the water brackish–only Yours are deep, filled with living water. Would You be willing to grant me, just for today, access to Your wisdom wells so that what I say and write may be a blessing?

Incredibly and immediately, I was engulfed by breakers of wisdom rolling up the beaches of my mind!

And so began my daily partnership with God. It has radically changed my life, for I’ve never again had to worry about accessing true wisdom. I never write a word of a story, or a plot, without humbly asking God, that if it be His will [absolutely critical, for God ignores gimme prayers], He will supply the story concept, the plot, the characters. He may make me wait, but always, the story comes, and all I have to do is toddle along behind the characters as God takes them wherever it is His will that they go. Same is true for my (our) story anthologies: God chooses the stories that make it in.

Thus I take no credit for anything that bears my name, but rather I continually note God’s mind-boggling condescension in partnering with the least of His children, one who has made so many mistakes in life. If there be anything in our books that have been published since that life-changing day when I first prayed what I’ve come to call the Prayer of Solomon, it is because all is His rather than mine.

But the flip-side of the coin is this: In order to continue this partnership with God, I am not at liberty to write anything God would not approve of. I cannot compartmentalize what I write or say.

* * *

But now, let’s get back to you. You may not be a writer, so how does the Prayer of Solomon apply to you? The Prayer may be used by every individual, young or old, on earth. It is no more complex than humbly submitting your daily trajectory to the Creator of us all, who created us in His own image, and is moment by moment, accessible to each of us.

However, if you do decide to make this Prayer the foundation of the rest of your life, be prepared for seismic changes in your life. Not that you won’t continue to make mistakes, zig when you should have zagged, but the trajectory of your journey will trend upward rather than downward.

May God bless you.

POEMS I HAVE LOVED IN LIFE – “A SONG OF LIVING”

BLOG #20, SERIES 4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
POEMS I’VE LOVED IN LIFE #4
“A SONG OF LIVING”
May 15, 2013

No small thanks to my dearly beloved mother, a master of elocution, short stories, readings, and poetry, in both her public and private performances, I grew up with a great love of poetry, (other than quotations, the most succinct and condensed form of knowledge and insight transferal we know).

Three times before, I constructed foundation blocks under this new series with Edwin Markham’s “Outwitted” (July 28, 2010); Tennyson’s Enoch Arden (May 9, 2012); and Tennyson’s “Ulysses (May 16, 2012). On these three, I launch my new series of blogs centered on some of the poems I’ve loved most in life.

Like most of our blogs, something triggered this particular blog. As is true with most of us, I’ve generally lived each day with a rather cavalier disregard for death: Oh, someday, far off in the mists of time, it may happen to me . . . but not soon. Well, for us the trigger turned out to be the sideswiping of our rental car by a large tour bus on the Monterey coast only two weeks ago. Our lives were spared, but only by inches: only a few inches to the right and all four of us would have been splattered on California’s Coastal Highway 1.

Needless to say, that close call was a stark reminder of just how fragile this thin thread we call “life” really is.

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Only once in our 80 books have I anthologized very many poems. In Tears of Joy for Mothers [we celebrated another Mother’s Day just last Sunday], in a tribute to my mother, Barbara Leininger Wheeler, I wrote a long introduction titled “My Mother’s Scrapbooks,” in which I assembled for the first time all of the poems of the home my mother loved and recited most. In retrospect, it seems to her three children that she had in her arsenal a poem for every kind of child misbehavior there exists—and, because we were a perverse threesome, she needed them all! Very few of Mother’s poems exist in poetry anthologies, mainly because they were folk poems that were recited by elocutionists from generation to generation without ever gracing the more formal genre of book collections.

Late in life [I was privileged to experience one of them], my mother and father (he, with music) put on memorable programs titled “From the Cradle to the Grave,” celebrations of life, in all its multidimensionality with audiences large and small. I can hear her marvelous poetic lines as I write these words, and my eyes mist over—for I never then realized I was hearing her poetic declarations for the last time.

Always, in these programs, she concluded with what had become, over the years, her life’s signature poem, “A Song of Living” [I’ve never found out who wrote it]. She first recited it in public at the age of fourteen in a high school elocutionary contest. At college, it was while hearing her recite it for a program that my father first set eyes on her. By the time she’d finished, he’d fallen in love with her.

Here are the words:

Because I have loved life, I shall have no sorrow to die.
I have sent up my gladness on wings to be lost in the blue of the sky,
I have run and leaped with the rain, I have taken the wind to my breast.
My cheek like a drowsy child to the face of the earth I have pressed
Because I have loved life, I shall have no sorrow to die.

I have kissed young love on the lips, I have heard his song to the end.
I have struck my hand like a seal, in the loyal hand of a friend,
I have known the peace of Heaven, the comfort of work done well.
I have longed for death in the darkness and risen alive out of Hell.
Because I have loved life, I have no sorrow to die.

I give a share of my soul to the world where my course is run.
I know that another shall finish the task that I leave undone.
I know that no flower, no flint, was in vain on the path I trod.
As one looks on a face through a window, through life, I have looked on God.
Because I have loved life, I shall have no sorrow to die.

Included in my anthology of motherhood stories, Tears of Joy for Mothers (Nashville: W Publishing Group/Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2006). $13.99. Though out of print, we still have copies available. You can reach me at my email: mountainauthor@gmail.com.