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.’

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The Sochi Olympics

BLOG #8, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
THE SOCHI OLYMPICS
February 19, 2014

Another Winter Olympics is almost history. And it will be sad to see it end. Sad because in all the world there is nothing like it. Oh there are so many stories to tell in such gatherings.

Yesterday, anchorwoman Meredith Viera was asked by Matt Lauer what impressed her most about this particular Olympics. Without missing a beat, she shot back: “The people.” “The Russian people.” She noted their deep unabashed pride in their nation, the evident pleasure it gave them to show visitors around or tell them about why their nation is special, unique.

During the last couple of weeks, a number of the pundits have pointed out another key variable in this particular Olympics. The opportunity to once again feel proud of their country. For the fall of the Berlin Wall dealt a terrible blow to Russians’ feelings of self-worth. We chuckle a little and say, “Get over it! You’re still the largest nation on earth.” But to them, it’s like large sections of their heart have been torn out. Just imagine if we had lost such a land-mass: Estonia (17,300 sq. m.), Armenia (11,506 sq. m.), Azerbaijan (33,436 sq. m.), Belarus (80,154 sq. m.), Estonia (17,300 sq. m.), Georgia (26,910 sq. m.), Kazakstan (1,049,150 sq. m.), Kyrgyzstan (76,640 sq. m.), Tajikistan (55,520,sq. m.), Turkmenistan (188,450 sq. m.), Uzbekistan (172,740 sq. m.), Ukraine (233, 100 sq. m.). Total 2,025,354 square miles. That’s the equivalent of two land masses the size of Argentina! Not counting the Eastern Europe satellites. No wonder that Vladimir Putin is trying hard to reestablish Russian pride as it was before 1991.

But back to Sochi and Winter Olympics. Watching both the national (think medal count) and individual stories play out, we’re seeing a continual interplay of triumph and tragedy, euphoria and heartbreak. Just one little misstep or stumble separating a gold medal from elimination. All the harder to take such a loss given the single-minded day by day effort, practice, and struggle necessary to even qualify to be an Olympian. And the more the media hype before the slip, the more devastating the fall.

Another reality is that the vast majority of participants have no illusions as to the odds of their making a podium. They train and come to an event such as Sochi for one reason: being a part of the greatest show on earth for two weeks. The camaraderie, the friendships, the experiences, the romances, the memories–all these are guaranteed to change their lives forever. And every two years of their lives, when a summer or winter Olympics rolls around, they vicariously live again the thrill of being part of the world’s largest and greatest tests of strength and skill.

And how could we possibly forget the stunning beauty of the magnificent snow-capped Caucasus Mountains, now limned in our memory banks forever.

As for we the viewers, we too are changed because we not only learn a great deal about the host nations, we too vicariously experience all the emotions, all the highs and lows, the Olympians do. Each of them becoming a part of us – for always.

DAYTON DUNCAN AND KEN BURNS’ THE NATIONAL PARKS: AMERICA’S BEST IDEA

BLOG #26, SERIES #3

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #11

DAYTON DUNCAN AND KEN BURNS’

THE NATIONAL PARKS: AMERICA’S BEST IDEA

June 27, 2012

 

 

 

 

Without fear of hyperbole, I submit that this collaborative effort by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009) is one of the greatest books of—not only this year, but this generation.  It is a prodigious piece of scholarship!  Just imagining their challenges gives me the chills: Becoming the authority on America’s history of conservation, and lack of it; the history of all of our national parks and monuments; the biographies of all the key figures in the development of each one; securing copyright permissions for this warehouse-worth of documentation; securing illustrations of all kinds and permissions to use each one; writing (in association with the filming of the award-winning PBS series of the same name); and then fact-checking every last piece to the mosaic.

 

Obviously though the text itself was written by Dayton Duncan, it had to be synthesized with   Burns’ PBS film series; there could be no noticeable discrepancies between the two.

 

I’m in awe at what they and their staffs accomplished.

 

TWO YEARS WITH DUNCAN AND BURNS

 

For almost two years now, this book has been my bible for writing two blog series: The Northwest National Parks and The Southwest National Parks.  Every time I’ve moved from one park to the next, before I turned to any other sourcebook, I first milked this book dry.  They never let me down.  They and the writer of the two companion books on the wonderful old lodges that grace these parks: Christine Barnes.

 

So it has been, as you have kindly vicariously traveled along with Connie and me and Bob and Lucy Earp, that thanks to The National Parks, we were able to briefly give you snapshots of how the following parks came to be: Crater Lake National Park, Oregon Caves National Monument, Mount Rainier National Park, North Cascade National Park, Olympic National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Grand Tetons National Park, Glacier National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Zion National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Death Valley National Park, Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon National Park; we are now studying Yosemite National Park; and we shall conclude the Great Circle with Great Basin National Park.

 

But, my blogs have only provided you with enough information to whet your appetite for learning more about each park; for that it is a must that you buy a copy of the book for yourself and make it your own.  Within those two covers you will have an almost inexhaustible treasure mountain to mine from in future years.

 

But more than all that, you will discover that the book is also the riveting story of the American people, and how thousands of people from many professions and many levels of society came together in making possible a cause greater than themselves.

 

Once you read this book, I will almost guarantee that you will, like our intrepid foursome, wish to personally explore these parks yourselves, using the book as a guide.  In our trips, as we were driving from one park to another, one of us would read aloud from this book to the others in the car so that when we arrived there we’d not only know what to look for but also know the significance of what we saw and experienced..

 

Nor should I fail to bring out a great truth: Our children and grandchildren will value very little temporal things we give them, but they will cherish until the day they die the memories you made with them, the places you took them to, the time you spent with them, the things of value they learned with you.  With this in mind, consider the purchase of this book, reading it, marking it, internalizing it, and making it your family treasure map to the greatest national park mother lode in the world!

 

And—a favor I ask of you: please share with me your own personal book-related reactions and memories resulting from it.  You may reach me at:

 

Joe L. Wheeler, Ph.D.

P.O. Box 1246

Conifer, CO 80433

 

SOURCES USED

 

Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009).

QUOTATIONS TO LIVE BY GOOD IDEA? OR BAD IDEA? – Part Two –

BLOG #15, SERIES #3

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

QUOTATIONS TO LIVE BY

GOOD IDEA?  OR BAD IDEA?

– Part Two –

April 11, 2012

Yes, my life-long fascination with the most condensed sources of wisdom we know—quotations, resulted in my writing down my favorite ones at the back of my journals.  They’d accumulated to such an extent that I spent two years prioritizing them in the limited edition book (nine copies; one went to Ann Landers, one to Abby Van Buren, and one went to the White House): Thoughts and Quotations from My Reading Journal: 1988 – 1989.  I also have purchased a large number of quotation books over the years.  Altogether, we’re speaking of over a million quotations.

But I am deeply indebted to my students over the years to their honing my philosophy of quotations—for it is a philosophy.  Reason being that many of the quotation collections available in book stores—including the venerable Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations—don’t impress me much.  And more significantly, would not have impressed my students much.  Reason being, their failure to isolate the truly memorable powerful ones from the “same ol’ same ol’s.”  Consequently, a good share of these ostensibly “great quotes” would have put my students to sleep.

Many times over the years, the thought has occurred to me that I ought to put together a compendium of my favorite quotations, or a series of such collections.  But the very thought was so daunting that each time I regretfully moved on to other more pressing projects.  But when my agent and our daughter Michelle ganged up on me too, I acknowledged defeat and decided to see if we could develop an audience for my brand of quotations.

Let’s see, how can I define my philosophy of quotations?  Well, just as is true with the stories that make it into my story anthologies, I routinely reject 100 – 500 for every one that makes it in.  The few who make it in have to have intrinsic in them the qualities that would have made my students in years past, write them down.

I look for day-brighteners; changes of pace; profound thoughts—especially life-changing ones; proverbs from around the world; spiritual ones that could give the reader the courage to face another day; funny ones that make you laugh; if at all possible ones with the author’s name attached; ones that once read you can’t erase them from your mind; contemporary ones as well as those that have stood the test of time.

Permit me to be more specific:

HOLIDAY-RELATED

Columbus Day: “If Columbus had waited for decent ships, we’d all still be in Europe” – Robert Heinlein (Oct. 10, 2011)

Halloween: “Who shall say which is more horrible to see: empty skulls or dried-up hearts?” – Balzac (Oct. 31, 2011)

Election Day: “The higher you climb, the more rocks you have to dodge” – Western Proverb (Nov. 8, 2011)

Thanksgiving: “From David learn to give thanks for everything—every furrow in the book of Psalms is sown with the seeds of Thanksgiving.” – Jeremy Taylor (Nov. 24, 2011

Christmas: “When you have learned about love, you have learned about God.” – Fox Proverb (Dec. 25, 2011)

New Year’s Day: “Maximize the day: Each day contains 86,400 seconds—that’s 86,400 opportunities.” – Leonard Nimoy (Jan 1, 2012)

Lincoln’s Birthday: “I fear you don’t fully understand . . . the danger of abridging the liberties of the people.” – Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12, 2012)

St. Patrick’s Day: “Following the line of least resistance makes rivers and people crooked.” – Irish Proverb (March 17, 2012)

CONTEMPORARY AUTHORS

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool to help me make the big choices in life.” – Steve Jobs (Nov. 12, 2011)

“A single journey can change the course of a life.” – Angelina Jolie (Dec. 15, 2011)

“Sometimes the greatest secrets lie in the middle of things you can’t quite explain.” – Stephen Spielberg (Jan 27, 2012)

“Those who believe they are in full possession of the truth can be dangerous.” – Madeleine Albright (Feb. 27, 2012)

FOR THE SPORTS BUFF

“The quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence, regardless of their chosen field of endeavor.” – Vince Lombardi (Oct. 9, 2011)

“Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” – Tim Tebow (Nov. 2, 2011)

“You got to be careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there” – Yogi Berra (Jan. 25, 2012)

“Golf is a game in which you yell Fore, shoot six, and write down five.” – Paul Harvey (March 15, 2012)

HUMOROUS CHANGES OF PACE

“No food tastes as good as the food you eat when you are cheating on a diet.” – Al Batt (Oct. 7, 2011)

“To have the last word with a woman, apologize profusely, then run like the devil.” – Author Unknown) (Oct. 26, 2011)

“The difference between a farmer and a pigeon: the farmer can still make a deposit on a tractor.” – Author Unknown. (Nov. 6, 2011)

“Fanatic: One who sticks to his guns whether they’re loaded or not.” – Author Unknown (Jan 14, 2012)

“Always go to other people’s funerals; otherwise they won’t go to yours.” – Yogi Berra (Feb. 6, 2012)

TIMELESS

“Example is not the main thing in influencing others.  It is the only thing.” – Albert Schweitzer Oct. 3, 2011)

“Suffering can become a means to greater love and generosity.” – Mother Teresa (Oct. 8, 2011)

“One man with courage makes a majority.” – Stonewall Jackson (Oct. 25, 2011)

“Whatever you dream you can, begin it.  Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”  – Goethe (Nov. 30, 2011)

“Judge not your neighbor till you’ve been in his place.” – Rabbi Hillel (Dec. 21, 2011)

“The fewer the words, the better the prayer.” – Martin Luther (Dec. 23, 2011)

“Life is too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrong.” – Charlotte Bronte (Jan. 18, 2012)

“A letter is a joy of Earth – it is denied the Gods.” – Emily Dickinson (Feb. 15, 2012)

“Life – a little gleam of Time between two Eternities.” – Carlyle (March 31, 2012)

* * *

As you can well imagine, it takes a great deal of extra time and effort to marry a quote to a specific date (such as a holiday).  It takes even more time to choose the best quote among alternatives.  Most time-consuming of all is to stay current.  In my case, I keep up by reading books, THE DENVER POST, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, NEWSWEEK, SUCCESS, AARP, many different magazines, and listen to the media.  Were I not to do so many would write off all my other quotes, consigning them all to the dust heap of the past.  This means that I have to be recording quotes wherever I am, even if it be inconvenient.

What I try hardest to pull off is to reverse roles with myself: ask myself continually, If I were not me, would I take the time out of each day to check out these daily tweets?  I would hope these quotes would prove to be such day-brighteners that you’d feel any day to be incomplete where you had failed to check out that day’s quotation.

* * * * *

So here are my questions to you.  What do you think of the first six months’ worth of quotes?  Do they meet your needs?  Do you use them much in your daily life?  Do you share them with friends?  How can they be improved? Are they as helpful to you as other quotation collections you access?  If I were ever to print them in booklets, would you be interested in purchasing copies?

Look forward to hearing from you!

Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/joewheelerbooks

QUOTATIONS TO LIVE BY GOOD IDEA? OR BAD IDEA?

BLOG #14, SERIES #3

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

QUOTATIONS TO LIVE BY

GOOD IDEA?  OR BAD IDEA?

– Part One –

April 4, 2012

On October 1, 2011, I sent up a trial balloon: Would the public be interested in trying out my daily quotation tweets.  Now that these tweets have been running for a half year, I figured it would be a good idea to have a referendum on them—hence this blog.

Now for the story behind these daily tweets:

I’ve always loved quotations, the most condensed and concise source of distilled wisdom we know, even more condensed than poetry.  Way back when I began my teaching career in California’s gold country, one day I decided to try something new: give my students something to look at besides me.  So I wrote a quotation in chalk on the blackboard.  It proved to be a hit: it was the first thing students looked at when they entered the classroom.  Over the years, as I moved from junior high to senior high to college English, there remained one constant: a quotation each day.  I soon learned that merely scribbling any ol’ quotation wouldn’t work; it takes hard work to keep young people interested in anything!  Too stodgy or philosophical, and they’d lose interest.  So I learned to mix in enough humor so they never knew from one day to the next what kind of quotation would set the day’s mood—for a teacher has that kind of power over the students who willingly or unwillingly stream in and out of his/her classroom.

In this vein, long ago in a convention, I wrote down a quotation I so internalized that it became part of who I am: There is only one unforgivable sin in teaching: and that is to bore your students.  Because of this awareness of how difficult it is to maintain students’ interest from day to day, I never permitted my classes to become predictable.  Consequently, they never knew from one day to the next what tangent they’d find me on next.  I’d even switch in mid-class: if I saw that deadly glazing of eyes, I’d leapfrog into a story, substitute something radically different, take them for a walk, go outside, sit on the lawn or in the shade of a tree—anything to regenerate interest.

* * *

Well, many years went by, and I made a life-changing decision: take early retirement from the formal classroom in order to write full-time.  In essence, to trade direct mentoring for indirect mentoring.  In truth, I really miss the daily one-on-one interaction with my students, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world for now I am blessed by letters and emails from all around the world from people (young and old) who through our books, stories, blogs, and tweets, feel they are vicariously sitting in a virtual classroom with me.

In the sixteen years since I left the formal classroom, a serendipity has to do with the large number of former students of mine who have re-entered our lives—an honor I do not take lightly.  For it is little honor to hold students captive in a given classroom, but it is a great honor to have even one voluntarily re-enter my world!

It is interesting to note what brings them back, and it violates most everything methodology teachers tell you in education classes.  They re-enter my life because each one felt I loved him or her.  That I always tried to be kind.  That though I made more than my fair share of mistakes, when I did so I could be counted on to apologize to them publicly.  That they remembered how hard I tried not to ever bore them.  That we laughed a lot. That my interest in them continued long after graduation. That I told or read lots of stories.  In fact, I’ve had a number of them write or phone me, saying, Dr. Wheeler, I wake up in the middle of the night and hear you reading to me!  For there is something in being read to that indelibly embeds itself in memory.

In fact, it was former students who helped propel this traditional dinosaur into the digital world of blogging.  They’d say or write, “Dr. Wheeler, I miss your classroom so much—if only I could re-enter it again.  Hear your voice.  See you cackle”.  Which brings me to a recent article on our books and stories penned by a former student of mine, Kimberly Luste Maran.  For it, she interviewed three of my former students about what they remembered about my classes—scary!  For one never knows what idiosyncrasy they’ll remember.  Let me quote from one of these:

Sadly, my favorite memory of Dr. Wheeler lacks all context now: I cannot for the life of me remember my good-natured but ‘snarktastic’ remark—possibly something about refusing to do my final paper on Zane Grey?  But I will always have that perfect mental snapshot of how the venerable white-haired elder of the English Department paused for a second behind his posh wooden desk, then stuck his tongue out at me like a schoolkid.

                                    —Camille Lofters, English/pre-law, and journalism major,

                                       1995 graduate (Adventist Review, Dec. 16, 2010)

When one considers how incredibly difficult it is to snag even a millisecond of another person’s time in this hectic world we live in, it is a near miracle if even one person takes time to listen to what we say.  That’s why I never take for granted the undeserved honor so many pay me by reading our books or stories, or tuning in to these weekly blogs.

Or daily tweets.  One of the key factors in getting me to take the inertia-breaking decision to sire a series of daily quotation tweets had to do with the number of former students who admitted that they wrote down in their notebooks their favorite quotations—but what really boggled my mind was their adding, “And I’ve kept them all these years!”

* * * * *

Next week, I’ll get into a discussion of why I feel our daily quotation tweets are different from anything else out there in cyberspace.  Also what kind of rhythm there is to these daily choices.  And finally, why I’d love to hear back from you about your reactions to these tweets.

Please stay tuned.  I’ll see you next week!

Follow me on twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/joewheelerbooks

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

DON’T WAIT UNTIL TOMORROW!

Responses are trickling in, in onesies and twosies, as our readers are weighing in, responding to our “First Reader Survey.” We apologize for the delay in posting the March 3 blog—we had a computer glitch. We’re delaying the tabulation of these responses until more come in. But preliminary responses encourage us to hold the course with what has been posted the first year and a half. More on that later.

* * * * *

It has been said that when each of us approaches the autumn of our lives, and looks back, invariably there are many regrets. One of the few exceptions has to do with memories: almost none of us regrets the expenditure of money that made memories possible. Where we do fault ourselves has to do with not making them.

It is so easy, in this journey called life, to postpone vibrant living on the pretext of not having enough money. In reality, with very few exceptions, we always have money for what we really want to spend it on.

Some years ago, in a large Sabbath School in Texas (our average attendance over a thirteen-year period was around 300—all the chapel would hold), I administered a survey. First of all, I asked each person there to look back through the years and rummage around in their minds for the ten most meaningful incidents or events in their lifetime. At the end, they were to rank them according to the long-term impact on the rest of their lives. Then I devoted the rest of the hour to the process, including the prioritizing. Each person would hand in the summation—no names expected—and quietly walk out. There was absolute silence—I can never forget that.

A week later, I reported on the results. So unexpected were they that I subsequently tried the experiment on other groups—invariably, the results remained the same.

What I fully expected were “big” events: job promotions, honors received, brand new cars, winning big games, inheriting a large estate or a great deal of money—but I didn’t get them. What people valued most in retrospect were memories. Most were surprisingly simple, such as the following:

  • One remembered the night her boyfriend broke up with her; she’d escaped to her room, unable to face anyone with her grief. There came a soft knock on her door. Then her mother came in, took one look at her daughter’s tear-stained face, crawled over to her, took her in her arms, and held her all night, not leaving until dawn—thereby forging a bond that lasted for life.
  • A heart-stopping sunset seen from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
  • The look of absolute trust and adoration on one bride’s face, as she looked at her husband-to-be as she came down the aisle on her father’s arm.
  • A never-to-be-forgotten Christmas when there was no money to buy gifts; Dad was out of work and Mom was expecting within only weeks. So they each made their presents with whatever was available, and decorated the scraggliest excuse for a tree anyone could imagine. Yet, in retrospect, so much love was expressed that, with no exception, every member of the family considered that Christmas to be one of the fondest memories of their lifetimes.
  • A son of missionary parents begged, borrowed or scraped up enough money to travel clear across America in a bus to Miami, where he boarded a plane to the island in the West Indies where his parents lived—and, totally unannounced, walked in on them on Christmas Day. Later he would say, “The look of unbelieving shock on Mom’s face when she looked up and saw me standing there—well, it’s as clear in my memory as though it were yesterday!
  • A teen-age daughter who felt estranged from her undemonstrative father, on a vacation, was reluctant at first to accept her father’s invitation to take a walk with him down the beach. But she agreed to go. Sunset came and went, night fell, and he opened up his heart to her, telling her, in halting words, how much he treasured her, loved her; and she, in turn, shared her long pent-up dreams with him. Arm in arm, they walked that beach far into the night.

Relationships. Feelings. Family. Love. What failed to appear on those 300 survey responses were all the things our media and advertisers tell us are essential to happiness: new cars, expensive gadgetry, job promotions, honors, luxuries, large inheritances, winning big games, buying mansions or yachts or expensive jewelry.

I’ve never been able to look at life the same since.

Epiphanies—we never see them coming, don’t recognize them when they’re happening; only in retrospect do we realize how different our lives would have been had that one day never been. That long-ago survey represents just such a day in our personal journeys. Connie and I resolved to stop postponing living: “Someday—we’ll do this.” “Someday, we’ll travel here, there,” realizing that “someday” never happens unless we will them to; unless we sacrifice to make them happen.

Even though we were always short of money, we traveled with our two children, Greg and Michelle, to beauty-spots all across the nation. Oh we wondered if it was worth it when they bickered constantly in the back seat, and complained until we wanted to scream—and occasionally did. So how passing strange it is to hear them reminisce (now that they’ve grown up and established homes of their own) about the wonderful things they saw and experienced during those long-ago trips: “We were so lucky! Most of our friends never got to see all those places that we did!”

IN CONCLUSION

So . . . I urge each person reading these lines to resolve to henceforth live each day of life to the fullest, and make lasting memories—real ones, not vicarious electronic ones—with their loved ones, families, and friends. For none of us is guaranteed a tomorrow.

We only have this moment!

What about you? Looking back over your own life, what are your own favorite memories? Please let us know during this week.

Published in: on March 9, 2011 at 8:54 am  Comments (2)  
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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?

MEMORIES THAT BLESS AND BURN

Last Wednesday, I revisited my past, the face of which was a long ago student of mine, Donna Diebel Beehler.

All too rarely, does the frantic pace of my life slow down enough for reflection. And without reflection we lose focus; we risk veering off course, forgetting to re-ask ourselves Life’s Three Eternal Questions: “Who am I?” “Where have I come from?” “Where am I going?”

So it was good to go back to one of the earliest stages of my teaching career, to the campus of Sacramento Adventist Academy. More beautiful even than it had been in the 1960s – except its iconic symbol, its great oak, was no longer there. Other trees vainly attempted to take its place, but it was not the same for limned in a double-exposure image was the tree that was still there – in my heart.

Have you ever noticed how certain moments of your lifetime are frozen in time? When time itself seems to momentarily stop. I looked for the classroom where it happened. It was an early November afternoon, and I was teaching an English class – or trying to, for afternoon classes are, by nature, sluggish. Suddenly, the door of the classroom was yanked open, and a student cried out, “Kennedy’s been shot! Kennedy’s been shot!” With those six words, all classroom control vanished. Television was so new back then, there wasn’t even a set on campus. All we had was radio. We all headed to the gymnasium, as I remember, to listen to ongoing commentary – every last one of us in a state of shock.

* * * * *

Later in the day, Connie and I managed to find our way – no easy task after all these years – to our old home on Pueblo Avenue. It was still there! Just a different color. I embarrassed Connie by stopping, walking up to the front door, and ringing the bell. When a man opened it, looking at me quizzically, I explained: “We used to live in this house.” After inviting me in, and summoning Connie from the car, we revisited that part of our lives: The foyer (once amber bottled glass by the door) where our then little boy, Greg, used to sit in the morning sun, mauling our Siamese cat, Nuteena (fondly called “No Nuts” because he’d been neutered).

Next door, a Majong-obsessed couple used to live – they regularly hosted noisy Majong tournaments. But what we remembered most vividly was that dreadful weekend of Kennedy’s assassination when we crashed our neighbor’s house (they had a TV and we didn’t) and sat with them in their living room, immersed in the gloomy black and white (no color then) images of Washington in mourning beamed into households all across the nation. This couldn’t be happening! But it was. What I remember most clearly: the clip-clopping of horses’ hooves, the firing of guns, the somber bells, choral dirges, muffled voices; standing on the steps of the Capitol, beautiful Jackie dressed in black, holding little John John’s hand, dressed in his now famous blue jacket – and his saluting as the body of his father went past; the long lines of mourners slowly walking by the coffin – and people weeping unashamedly.

And next morning, our neighbor banging on our door, shouting, “Come on over! Oswald has just been shot!” Blood, blood everywhere – the end of innocence for our generation. That did it! We drove down to Sears and bought our first television set.

* * * * *

That evening, en route to an alumni gathering in Rancho Murietta, we drove by one of my alma maters, Sacramento State University. And my mind drifted back to one of the key epiphanies of my lifetime: It was a sizzling summer afternoon and I was sauntering past an open door when I heard a familiar voice, “Joe! Got a minute?” It was Dr. Victor Comerchero, one of the University’s most beloved teachers. I’d taken several English classes from him. After some small talk, he got to the point – bluntly: “Joe, what are you doing here?” Noticing my bemusement, he chuckled and added, “What I really mean is, what are you doing with your life?”

I sputtered, “Well, I’m taking English classes, trying to bring my undergraduate English minor up to a major.”

“The reason, I asked, Joe, is that I’ve been looking over your records . . . . Do you realize you’re half way to a Masters in English? Why are you wasting time with just aimlessly taking classes?”

My mouth gaped open. Huh? Half way to a second Masters? Suddenly, my inner stars came into alignment as I considered the ramifications and resultant possibilities. So many times since, I’ve thought back to that life-changing moment when a busy professor on a hot summer afternoon (with no air-conditioner in his office) cared enough for a student he barely knew, to search his academic records, stop that student as he walked by, and challenge him to build a foundation under his dreams. The result was that I completed my course work, wrote my thesis on utopian and dystopian writers; even before graduation, my proximity to that second Masters catapulted me out of the high school classroom into the collegiate world, clearing the way for my Vanderbilt doctorate and all that has followed.

* * * * *

But my life nevertheless remains imprinted on one seamless bolt of cloth. In God’s eternal scheme of things, Sacramento Adventist Academy was just as significant as Sacramento State University and Vanderbilt University – each would play a central role in my life’s journey; just so, equal weight to the human faces along the way: Donna Diebel Beehler and Debbie Bighaus-West (more on her later), Dr. Victor Comerchero, and Drs Warren Titus and Kenneth Cooper of Vanderbilt University.

For each of them, I am profoundly grateful.