‘”THE HIGHWAYMAN”

BLOG #24, SERIES 6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
POEMS I’VE LOVED IN LIFE

ALFRED NOYES’ “THE HIGHWAYMAN”
June 24, 2015

Wisdom, in whatever form it’s packaged, has always fascinated me. The most condensed form of wisdom is a quotation, which we discussed last week. Second only to quotations are poetry, in terms of the words required to compress wisdom into so few lines. Next would come essays and short stories.

As those of you know who own my book, Tears of Joy for Mothers, my introduction was titled “My Mother’s Scrapbooks,” a dual heirloom which I was lucky enough to inherit. My mother was a professional elocutionist, a stage performer whose control of audiences—be it for short stories, readings, or poetry—was absolute. I grew up listening to the rhythm of her voice. She bequeathed to me two great gifts: an enduring love for short stories, and an equally enduring love for poetry.

In earlier times, the reciting of poetry was a staple in schools, civic functions, and churches everywhere. Today, poetry has been all but snuffed out by a vacuous media. Ted Koppel put it best in these two lines:

“Almost everything said in public today is recorded;
Almost nothing said in public today is worth remembering.”

So little of enduring value in today’s televised yada-yada.

In my classes, I found boys and young men to be the most resistant to poetry. That is, until I showed them how brutally honest and searing great poetry can be. Result: many went on to put together scrapbooks composed of their favorite poems.

Though I don’t currently have a Dr. Joe’s Poem of the Month Club, I have blogged quite a few of my favorite poems. Here they are so far:

1. “Love Comes Not the Same” – Joe Wheeler – (Feb. 10, 2010)
2. “The Child Is Father of the Man” – William Wordsworth – (March 31, 2010)
3. “The Other Side of Pomp and Circumstance” – Joe Wheeler – (May 12, 2010)
4. “The Clock of Life” – Author Unknown – (May 19, 2010)
5. “Outwitted” – Edwin Markham – July 28, 2010)
6. “Days” – Emerson – (March 16, 2011)
7. “October Song” – Joe Wheeler – (Oct. 5, 2011)
8. “Enoch Arden” – Tennyson – (May 2, 2012)
9. “Ulysses” – “Tennyson – (May 9, 2012)
10. “The Mill” – Edwin Arlington Robinson – (Aug. 1, 2012)
11. “A Song of Living” – Author Unknown – (May 15, 2013)
12. “First Settler’s Story” – Will Carleton – (June 24, 2013)
13. “Where Does Morning Come From?” – Emily Dickinson – (March 19, 2014)
14. “And I Learned About Women from Her?” – Kipling – Oct. 8, 2014)
15. “I Am” – Helen Mallicoat – (Dec. 31, 2014)
16. “Wisdom” – Edgar Guest – (March 4, 2015)
17. “It Couldn’t Be Done” – Edgar Guest – (April 22, 2015)

So . . . , I have a question to ask of you: Would you like me to make a regular thingn of poems I’ve loved in life? Are you one of those who’d like to collect them if I did? If you are, please respond right away!

Meanwhile, over the next several weeks, I’m going to share a couple more of my favorites with you.

You can contact me at: mountainauthor@gmail.com. Or message me on Facebook.

Stay tuned.

 

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POEMS I HAVE LOVED IN LIFE #18

BLOG #25, SERIES 6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
POEMS I’VE LOVED IN LIFE #18
June 24, 2015

Alfred Noyes (1880 – 1958), though born in England, later moved to America, where he was Professor of English at Princeton (1914 – 1923). A prolific writer, he is best known for his The Loom of Years (1902), Poems, (1904), Forty Singing Seamen (1907), Tales of the Mermaid Tavern, and Forest of Wild Thyme (1905).

But out of all the works he ever wrote, it is The Highwayman that has given him immortality. My mother loved it, knew it by heart, and often performed it. One of the fascinating poetry genre we call “story poems,” it has an irresistible beat to it.

It is a poem to be recited to an audience—be sure and include children and teenagers—on a dark and stormy night. Turn the lights down low, or out completely. The more ghostly the setting the better!

Once heard, it can never be forgotten—especially if recited or performed by elocutionists like my mother. I’ve loved it ever since I first heard my mother perform it when I was young. If this was what poetry was—I wanted more of it!

THE HIGHWAYMAN
PART ONE
I

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding—
Riding—riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

II

He’d a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin,
A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin;
They fitted with never a wrinkle: his boots were up to the thigh!
And he rode with a jewelled twinkle
His pistol butts a-twinkle
His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky.

III

Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard,
And he tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred;
He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
Bess, the landlord’s daughter
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

IV

And dark in the dark old inn-yard a stable-wicket creaked
Where Tim the ostler listened; his face was white and peaked;
His eyes were hollows of madness, his hair like mouldy hay,
But he loved the landlord’s daughter,
The landlord’s red-lipped daughter,
Dumb as a dog he listened, and he heard the robber say—

V

“One kiss, my bonny sweetheart, I’m after a prize to-night,
But I shall be back with the yellow gold before the morning light;
Yet, if they press me sharply, and harry me through the day,
Then look for me by moonlight,
Watch for me by moonlight,.
I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way.”

VI

He rose upright in the stirrups; he scarce could reach her hand,
But she loosened her hair I’ the casement! His face burnt like a brand
As the black cascade of perfume came tumbling over his breast;
And he kissed its waves in the moonlight,
(Oh, sweet black waves in the moonlight!)
Then he tugged at his rein in the moonlight, and galloped away to the West.

PART TWO
I

He did not come in the dawning; he did not come at noon;
And out o’ the tawny sunset, before the rise o’ the moon,
When the road was a gipsy’s ribbon, looping the purple moor,
A red-coat troop came marching—
Marching—marching—
King George’s men came marching, up to the old inn-door.

II

They said no word to the landlord, they drank his ale instead,
But they gagged his daughter and bound her to the foot of her narrow bed;
Two of them knelt at her casement, with muskets at their side!
There was death at every window;
And hell at one dark window;
For Bess could see, through her casement, the road that he would ride.

III

They had tied her up to attention, with many a sniggering jest;
They had bound a musket beside her, with the barrel beneath her breast!
“Now keep good watch!” and they kissed her.
She heard the dead man say—
Look for me by moonlight;
                Watch for me by moonlight;
I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way!

IV

She twisted her hands behind her; but all the knots held good!
She writhed her hands till her fingers were wet with sweat or blood!
They stretched and strained in the darkness, and the hours crawled by like years,
Till, now, on the stroke of midnight,
Cold, on the stroke of midnight,
The tip of one finger touched it! The trigger at least was hers!

V

The tip of one finger touched it; she strove no more for the rest!
Up, she stood up to attention, with the barrel beneath her breast,
She would not risk their hearing; she would not strive again;
For the road lay bare in the moonlight;
Blank and bare in the moonlight;
And the blood of her veins in the moonlight throbbed to her love’s refrain.

VI

               Tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot! Had they heard it? The horse-hoofs ringing clear;
Tlot-tlot, tlot-tlot, in the distance? Were they deaf that they did not hear?
Down the ribbon of moonlight, over the brow of the hill,
The highwayman came riding,
Riding, riding!
The red-coats looked to their priming! She stood up, straight and still!

VII

Tlot-tlot, in the frosty silence! Tlot-tlot, in the echoing night!
Nearer he came and nearer! Her face was like a light!
Her eyes grew wide for a moment; she drew one last deep breath,
Then her finger moved in the moonlight,
Her musket shattered the moonlight,.
Shattered her breast in the moonlight and warned him—with her death.

VIII

He turned; he spurred to the West; he did not know who stood
Bowed, with her head o’er the musket, drenched with her own red blood!
Not till the dawn he heard it, his face grew grey to hear
How Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
The landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
Had watched for her love in the moonlight, and died in the darkness there.

IX

Back, he spurred like a madman, shrieking a curse to the sky,
With the white road smoking behind him and his rapier brandished high!
Blood-red were his spurs i’ the golden noon; wine-red was his velvet coat,
When they shot him down on the highway,
Down like a dog on the highway,
And he lay in his blood on the highway, with the bunch of lace at his throat.

*      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

X

And still of a winter’s night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,
When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
A highwayman comes riding—
                Riding—riding—
A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.

XI

Over the cobbles he clatters and clangs in the dark inn-yard;
He taps with his whip on the shutters, but all is locked and barred;
He whistles a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
                Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

“It Couldn’t Be Done”

BLOG #16, SERIES 6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
“IT COULDN’T BE DONE”
April 22, 2015

I’ve long been fascinated by stories having to do with this abstraction we call “success.” Just what is it that separates the successes from the failures in life? Thousands of books promising success to those who will buy and read them vie for our attention on bookstore shelves. And success remains one of the most turned-to categories in quotation books.

Each issue of Success magazine is redolent with articles, interviews, and bios geared to readers who are searching for success in their lives.

But is it possible that readers can get so inundated by torrents of success-related hype that they miss the great simple truths that, if internalized, could make all the difference in the world? The sober reality is that all the advice in the world won’t work if the advisee doesn’t.

I’ve long been intrigued by studies that confirm one reality in America today: four-point straight A students usually end up working for B-/C+ students. The former all-too-often being all theory and the latter being persistent pluggers who doggedly slog through obstruction after obstruction en route to eventual success. In reality, grade-point average is a lousy indicator of life-success.

Edward A. Guest (1881 – 1959), though born in England, achieved his fame in America. In 1899, Guest, exchange editor of the Detroit Free Press, began writing daily columns, the chief feature being homespun family-friendly poetry. By 1916, these poems were being syndicated in hundreds of newspapers across the nation. Thanks to daily and weekly syndication, weekly radio programs, royalties on books and greeting cards, movie rights, Guest became the highest paid poet in America. His work dominated the first half of the twentieth century.

Elocutionists such as my beloved mother memorized and performed Guest’s most popular poems before audiences large and small across the nation.

One of his most popular, and most widely anthologized poems, was this one – still alive a hundred years later (my mother performed it often):

IT COULDN’T BE DONE

Somebody said that it couldn’t be done,
But he with a chuckle replied
That “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one
Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.
So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin
On his face. If he worried he hid it.
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it.

Somebody scoffed: “Oh, you’ll never do that;
At least no one ever has done it”;
But he took off his coat and he took off his hat,
And the first thing we knew he’d begun it.
With a lift of his chin and a bit of a grin,
Without any doubting or quiddit,
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it.

There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,
There are thousands to prophesy failure;
There are thousands to point out to you one by one,
The dangers that wait to assail you.
But just buckle in with a bit of a grin,
Just take off your coat and go to it;
Just start in to sing as you tackle the thing
That “cannot be done,” and you’ll do it.

Included in Guest’s book, The Path to Home (Chicago: Reilly & Lee Company, 1919). Original text owned by Joe Wheeler.

QUOTATIONS TO LIVE BY

BLOG #16, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
QUOTATIONS TO LIVE BY
April 16, 2014

It is said that poetry is the most condensed literary art form there is–much more than is true of novels and short stories. I would disagree: quotations are even more condensed than poems.

Of course that gets us into the debate as to whether quotations deserve to be classified as an art form. I submit that they are. It is almost impossible to create shorter condensations of wisdom than in quotations.

For example, how could it be possible to condense the essence of the following any further than these?

“God is Love” (John 4:8)

“I came, I saw, I conquered” (Julilus Caesar)
“All the World’s a Stage.” (Shakespeare)
“What’s past is prologue” (Shakespeare)
“To err is human, to forgive divine.” (Pope)
“Jesus wept” (John 11:35)

Looking back through time, I think I was first captivated by quotations in the old Reader’s Digest. In their early days, their editors routinely featured quotations worth remembering, the essence of Alexander Pope’s immortal “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.”

All of us aspire to be witty, to articulate thought so splendidly listeners will be in awe of us. But if we are not the first to come up with timeless phraseology–well the artist James McNeill Whistler captured it best in a conversation he had with Oscar Wilde:

Wilde: “I wish I’d said that.”
Whistler: “You will, Oscar, you will.”

Early on in teaching, I wrote on my classroom blackboard one morning, a quotation I felt worth remembering. I wrote another on the board the following day, and so on. It didn’t take long to discover that it was the first thing students noticed when they walked into the room.

Over time, that daily quotation became part of my persona. So much so that if I missed a day, my students demanded I immediately remedy that omission.

Fast forward to the last eighteen years of writing and anthologizing full time. As books bearing my name accumulated, former students began checking back in. A number mentioned those long-ago quotations–many had copied down their favorites: a number still had them. Several suggested I take advantage of the worldwide web and tweet one every day. That way, they could still pretend they were students of mine.

So it was that on October 1 of 2011, I tweeted my first quotation. I have not missed a day since. In late June of 2014, I’ll log in my 1000th quotation.

I take these postings mighty seriously for I want each of them to be worth remembering. I’ve discovered that most quotation books are merely compendiums of quotations, mighty few of them worth writing down, even fewer worth internalizing.

Though I have well over a million quotes archived, it is never easy to select a month’s worth of quotes. For I determined early on to avoid merely posting same ol’ same ol’s; quotes originating with individuals many of our contemporaries don’t even recognize. Because of this, in order to maintain a good mix of quotes old and new, I continuously search for current quotes worth remembering. I add humorous ones as day-brightening changes of pace as well. But always I also feature the greatest ones from ages past.

I’ll be most interested in your reactions to our quotes. If enough interest is expressed, I’ll consider making them available in printed form as well.

If you like quotes but haven’t yet checked ours out, you can access them at http://www.twitter.com/JoeWheelerBooks.

 

 

Will Carleton’s “The First Settler’s Story”

BLOG #30, SERIES 4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
POEMS I’VE LOVED IN LIFE #5
WILL CARLETON’S “THE FIRST SETTLER’S STORY”
July 24, 2013

Several days ago I had a long phone conversation with a dear cousin of mine, Steve Hamilton. Especially dear because when we were young, we were perpetually getting into mischief together. What one of us didn’t think of to perpetrate, the other one did. Back in those “spare the rod and spoil the child” days, given that our fathers were in the prime of their manhood, Steve and I got spanked together with alarming regularity. Not that it was considered alarming to us, for we merely considered it part of the rhythm of life—except we didn’t believe for an instant that old line, “Son, this hurt me more than it hurt you!”

Well, it so chanced that this time our conversation veered into the subject of words, and their impact on relationships. How, in spite of our best resolutions, wrong words seem to have a fiendish propensity to slip out at the most inopportune moments, and leave heartbreak in their wake.

Which led to this old poem bequeathed to me by my minister-father. The only such case I can ever remember, because it was my elocutionist mother who filled my memory banks with unforgettable poetry. After I quoted some of the most memorable lines to Steve, I promised to send him a photocopy of the complete poem. In doing so, I was impressed to make it the subject of this week’s blog.

Will Carleton (1845-1912), was born in Hudson, Michigan; became an editor and prolific writer of poetry, long and short. This particular poem was included in Carleton’s collection, Farm Festivals (Harper & Brothers, 1881).

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I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a life-long battle with my tongue. In the process, I’ve learned that what I’ve said, no matter how sincere my penitence may be, cannot be apologized away. In such cases, prayer doesn’t help much either because God cannot save us from the consequences of our own mistakes and ill-chosen speech.

So, just in case any of our readers suffer from the same malady I do, I’m sharing the essence of this story-poem with you. The essence, because it is a very long story-poem. Too long for a blog.

It is chronicled as though it was a true story, and so I consider it to be. It is told in the first-person by the so-called “First Settler.” An intrepid soul who moved west, into unsettled territory, bringing his lovely girl-bride with him.

But it was such a lonely life!

“Well, neighborhoods meant counties, in those days;
The roads didn’t have accommodating ways;
And maybe weeks would pass before she’d see—
And much less talk with—any one but me. . . .”

And finally I thought that I could trace
A half heart-hunger peering from her face.
Then she would drive it back, and shut the door;
Of course that only made me see it more.
‘Twas hard to see her give her life to mine,
Making a steady effort not to pine;
Twas hard to hear that laugh bloom out each minute,
And recognize the seeds of sorrow in it.”

Time passed, and the stresses resulting from isolation, bad weather, failed crops, poverty, and inadequate most everything, one day precipitated the following:

“One night, I came from work unusual late,
Too hungry and too tired to feel first-rate—
Her supper struck me wrong (though I’ll allow
She hadn’t much to work with, anyhow);
And when I went to milk the cows, and found
They’d wandered from their usual feeding ground,
And maybe left a few long miles behind ‘em,
Which I must copy, if I meant to find ‘em;
Flash-quick the stay-chains of my temper broke,
And in a trice these hot words I had spoke:
‘You ought to’ve kept the animals in view,
And drove ‘em in; you’d nothing else to do.
The heft of all our life on me must fall;
You just lie round, and let me do it all.’

That speech—it hadn’t been gone a half a minute,
Before I saw the cold black poison in it.
And I’d have given all I had, and more,
To’ve only got it back in-door. . . .

She handed back no words, as I could hear;
She didn’t frown—she didn’t shed a tear;
Half proud, half crushed, she stood and looked me o’er,
Like someone she’d never seen before.”

That night, too proud to apologize, he went to bed with the issue unresolved. Next morning,

“So, with a short ‘Good-bye,’ I shut the door,
And left her as I never had before.”

That afternoon, sensing an oncoming storm, he left work early and hurried home.

“Half out of breath, the cabin door I swung,
With tender heart-words trembling on my tongue;
But all looked desolate and bare;
My house had lost its soul—she was not there!
A pencilled note was on the table spread,
And these are something like the words it said:
‘The cows have strayed away again, I fear;
I watched them pretty close; don’t scold me, dear
And where they are, I think I nearly know:
I heard the bell not very long ago
I’ve hunted them all the afternoon;
I’ll try once more—I think I’ll find them soon.
Dear, if a burden I have been to you,
And haven’t helped as I ought to do,
Let old-time memories my forgiveness plead;
I’ve tried to do my best—I have, indeed.
Darling, piece out with love the strength I lack,
and have kind words for me when I get back.’”

Just as he finished reading her note, he heard thunder—and the storm swept in.

“As if the ocean waves had lost its way;
Scarcely a pause the thunder-battle made,
In the bold clamor of its cannonade.
And she, while I was sheltered, dry and warm,
Was somewhere in the clutches of this storm!
She who, when storm-frights found her at her best,
Had always hid her white face on my breast!”

He rushed out, with his dog, frantically searching for her.

All night we dragged the woods without avail;
The ground got drenched—we could not keep the trail.
Three times again my cabin home I found,
Half hoping she might be there, safe and sound;
But each time ‘twas an unavailing care:
My house had lost its soul; she was not there!

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When, climbing the wet trees, next morning sun
Laughed at the ruin that the night had done,
Bleeding and drenched—by toil and sorrow bent—
Back to what used to be my home I went.
But, as I neared our little clearing-ground—
Listen!—I heard the cow-bell’s tinkling sound;
The cabin door was just a bit ajar;
It gleamed upon my glad eyes like a star!
‘Brave heart,’ I said, for such a fragile form!
She made them guide her homeward through the storm!’
Such pangs of joy I never felt before.
‘You’ve come!’ I shouted, and rushed through the door.

Yes, she had come—and gone again. She lay
With all her young life crushed and wrenched away—
Lay—the heart-ruins of our home among—
Not far from where I killed her with my tongue.
The rain drops glittered mid her hairs’ long strands,
The forest thorns had torn her feet and hands,
And midst the tears—brave tears—that one could trace
Upon the pale but sweetly resolute face,
I once again the mournful words could read—
‘I’ve tried to do my best—I have indeed!’”

But Will Carleton wasn’t yet quite through with his story-poem. He added six more lines. Six lines that grant him immortality—for untold thousands of readers have written them down, posted them on walls, and learned them by heart. Repeated them over and over until they made them part of their very souls.

Here they are – italicized:

Boys flying kites haul in their white-winged birds;
You can’t do that when you’re flying words.
‘Careful with fire,’ is good advice, we know:
‘Careful with words,’ is ten times doubly so.
Thoughts unexpressed may sometimes fall back dead;
But God himself can‘t kill them once they’re said.

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.

JOURNALING AND OUR BOOK CLUB

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

JOURNALING AND OUR BOOK CLUB

Nov. 2, 2011

There are, in each of our lives, certain days that prove pivotal in our journeys.  One such day had to do with a lecture of the top information literary specialist in America to the faculty of Columbia Union College.  Looking around at us, college professors from many disciplines, she asked us a simple question: “Let’s say you gave your students an examination earlier today.  Then, a week from today – completely unannounced -, you give them the same exam.  How much of what they knew today . . . will they remember a week from now?”

None of us even came close to the correct answer.  “Your top student,” she pointed out, your four-pointer, will remember a week from today, at most, 17%!  Most will remember far less – and it will be all down hill from there.”  I’ve never taught a class the same way since.  For if the most brilliant student in the college forgets at least 83% in one week, what pitiful retention rate does that imply for the rest of the class?  Hence the preposterous exercise in futility of end-of-the-semester exams three and a half months later!

As for thoughts, rarely do they come when you most want them to.  In fact, many insidiously come to us just as we’re drifting off to sleep.  Have you ever thought, What a beautiful thought!  Can’t believe I came up with it.  In the morning, ho hum, I’ll write it down . . . I’m far too comfy to get up now.

And in the morning, what do we remember? Not much.  Chances are, we won’t even remember what the thought was about.  If it does come to us, it will be in such muddled shape it won’t even be worth writing down, for thoughts only ring their golden bells once in life.  Another put it this way: “God only gives you a great thought once.”

One of England’s great writers, Matthew Arnold, in his poignant poem, “Despondency,” described this phenomenon in eight lines:

“The thoughts that rain their steady glow

Like stars on life’s cold sea,

Which others know or say they know –

They never shine for me.

Thoughts light, like gleams, my spirit’s sky

But they will not remain;

They light me once, they hurry by,

And never come again.”

America’s greatest poetess, Emily Dickinson, took the same number of lines to express her own frustration:

1452

“Your thoughts don’t have words every day

They come a single time

Like signal esoteric sips

Of the communion wine

Which while you taste so native seems

So easy so to be

You cannot comprehend its price

Nor its infrequency.”

You no doubt noticed certain words in Dickinson’s poem that are a bit archaic today.  Unless you keep by your side a full-sized Webster’s Collegiate dictionary (or equivalent on-line), you’d miss key portions of Dickinson’s meaning (especially when trying to understand what Dickinson meant by words such as “signal,” “esoteric,” “native,” “easy so to be,” etc).  It is no exaggeration to declare that unless each of us not only has, but uses, such a source, we will unquestionably cripple our ability to understand what we read.  Really serious readers also access an unabridged dictionary, and for archaic words the monumental Oxford Unabridged.

SO WHY JOURNAL?

Some years ago I had in one of my Freshman Composition classes a second-generation student (I’d taught her father in high school a generation before).  She asked me one day if I’d had my students journal in my classes when her father was in my English classes.  Her face fell when I answered in the negative.  She then added, “Oh it’s sad because Dad and I aren’t getting along very well—he’s just an authority figure rather than a father.  I just thought if I could read journal entries written by Dad when he was young like me, perhaps we could meet in our journal entries.”

Up until that time, I’d never really given much thought to journals as vehicles to freeze our thoughts into time periods.  Since then I’ve discovered that a number of renowned writers have capitalized on that reality to find out how they thought when they were much younger, or described people, places, experiences immediately after they took place.  I’ve ruefully discovered that while my writing has greater depth and breadth now than it used to have, I’ve lost the ability to think and articulate as a 50-year-old, a college student, a high school student, or a child.  This is a major reason why journal entries penned at each stage of our lives are so significant.

As for travel, travel writers will tell you that, in visiting places for the very first time, you have only moments in which to jot down those first impressions.  When you first arrive, everything jars, for everything is new.  Each sensory impression has an echo: a flashback to its counterpart back home.  But by the next day, sensory impressions are already blurring—you are no longer sure what is new and different and what is not.

Several days ago, on a Southwestern Airlines plane, I was privileged to sit next to a delightful young couple.  We got into a far-ranging discussion of books (e-books versus paper) and quotations.  They were most interested in my daily quotation tweets, for both seek out memorable quotes in their daily reading.  In truth, had I not many years ago begun writing down in the back of my journals the most memorable quotations from my reading, I’d not have near the vast repository of memorable quotations I draw from today.  We use quotations in so many ways in our lives (family, school, church, public speaking, writing).  I also paste in poetry at the back of my journals.

But the same is true with vivid metaphors and similes.  These too I write down in the back of my journals.  For such figurative language reveals to us how much more vivid and fresh our spoken and written communication can be if we avoid hackneyed words and cliches.

Then there are powerful beginnings and endings (in both short stories and longer works).  For unless a beginning sentence or paragraph sucks us into the story, article, or book, why write something no one will remain interested in beyond the first page?  This is a key reason why, when I find such a riveting passage, I write it down at the back of my journals.  The same is true of endings.  All too many writers just run out of gas at the end, are seemingly unable to close the sale.  But some writers spend a lot of time with their conclusions, so structure them that but one additional word would wreck that last page.  The endings are so deeply moving that you couldn’t forget them if you wanted to.  They ring like a giant bell.  These too I write down at the back of my journals.

So it is that while my journals also record the nuts and bolts of my life: who I write to or phone every day, who I meet with, where I travel to, etc. (and these can prove to be extremely significant when I need to retroactively find out where I was and what I did on certain days), even more valuable to me are the things I write down at the back of my journals, for they synthesize my creative involvements.  I also record goals and objectives in my journals.

I also write down significant things I hear in the digital media, lectures, church services, workshops—oh the list goes on and on!

* * * * *

I hope you can now see why I am urging each new participant in our Book of the Month Club to immediately purchase a full-sized journal from your local office supply store.  Mine are ledger size and contain around 300 pages; they generally last me three to five years each.  What you’ll discover, over time, is that these journals will not only end up capsulizing and chronicling your life, they will also become so much a part of who you are and what you do and say and write that you’d feel empty without them.

I look forward to hearing back from you as you make your journals part of you.

SAMPLINGS FROM MY JOURNALS

QUOTATIONS

“Parting is all we know of heaven

And all we need of hell.”

—Emily Dickinson

“It is nothing to die; it is horrible not to live.”

—Victor Hugo

“It is better to be silent and thought a fool than to open the

mouth and remove all doubt.”

—Abraham Lincoln

METAPHORS

“Now there was a chasm as wide as the world between them and only

the child to span it.”

—Ernest Pascal

“A little mouse of thought went scampering across her mind and popped into

its hole again.”

—George Meredith

SIMILES

“The softness of a kitten’s feet–like raspberries held in the hand.”

–Anne Douglas Sedgewick

“And his little feathered head drooped like the head of a wilting poppy.”

—Elizabeth Goudge

BOOK BEGINNINGS

“A sharp clip-clip of iron-shod hooves deadened and died away, and clouds of yellow dust drifted from under the cottonwoods out over the sage.”

–Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage

BOOK ENDINGS

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done;

It is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

—Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities

* * * * *

Next Wednesday, we’ll begin the Southwest National Park Lodges series.

“OUTWITTED” AND THE ZANE GREY’S WEST SOCIETY

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

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

“Explain yourself,” I broke in.

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

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

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

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

Joe Wheeler delivering keynote address

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

Paul and Jeannie Morton

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

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

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

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

“Outwitted,” by Edwin Markham

SPECIAL NOTE

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

SLAUGHTERING CREATIVITY IN THE CHILD

It is both wondrously simple and unbelievably complex: this mind God gave us—that either works, or doesn’t; sings—or sputters.

Famed obstetrician Dr. Frederic Loomis, in his memorable books, The Bond Between Us and Consultation Room, noted that in his long medical career (early to mid twentieth century), delivering over 3,000 babies in California’s Bay Area, invariably the new mother’s first two questions were either, “What is it?” (In those pre-computer days, the baby’s sex was unknown until its birth) or “Is it . . . all right?” and invariably the second question was the one asked with the most trepidation.

So it is that if the answer is positive, and it’s “all right,” the stage is set for the most incredibly rapid rate of brain growth the child will ever experience in life: not sipping life but swallowing it in gulps gallon by gallon. It is during this period of life that the child’s non-stop fusillade of questions about everything drive parents crazy. This period doesn’t ebb until around the age of six, when it is said that we’ve learned half of what we will learn in life. I must qualify that assumption by adding: half of what we need to know in order to function as human beings.

But there is no valid reason why this learning curve should not continue throughout life—unless. . . . And it is this “unless” that is a national tragedy for our nation. The tragedy has to do with the disconnect between the parents who are so euphoric about their babies’ being “all right” and their impatiently squelching, if not outright suffocating, the learning process once it has begun. How? By responding to the little question-machines with, “Don’t bother Mommy! Can’t you see I’m busy? Go bug Daddy!” Or “You and your interminable questions—you’re driving me crazy!” “Give us some peace, and shut up, for Pete’s sake!” Or, the most deadly cop-out of all, Oh, go watch TV, and leave me alone! No, I don’t care what you watch, just get out of my hair!”

And so that God-given creativity is blighted, and begins to shrivel up and die.

It’s that simple.

That dying of the once aspiring mind is accelerated by another tragedy: the wholesale annihilation of print in the home: no books, magazines, or newspapers to be found anywhere—only an impressive stack of electronic gadgetry that attach their tentacles to the child like so many octopus suction cups that drain away what creativity is left.

How?

By by-passing the receiver’s brain and blasting in, like so many moment-by-moment howitzer shells of pre-fab information created and packaged by someone else. Just a few of those results in little damage to the receiver’s creative process; the problem in today’s electronically obsessed society is that it continues day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, and decade after decade. And the more of this pre-fab imagery that stacks up in the mental archives of the receiver the less likelihood that anything created by the receiver’s brain will be left. Over time that person becomes what sociologists label “other directed” rather than “inner-directed” and ceases to function as a creative force at all.

I built a foundation for this new series of blogs on education and creativity with Blog #16 (March 10) – “Little Boy Blue”; Blog #17 (March 17) – “Non-reader’s Doomsday”; Blog #18 (March 24) – “Miracle in Silver Spring”; and Blog #19 (March 31) – “The Child is Father of the Man.” In coming weeks, we shall continue to explore this vital subject.

* * * * *

Every young man and woman is now a sower of seed on the field of life. Every thought of your intellect, every emotion of your heart, every word of your tongue, every principle you adopt, every act you perform, is a seed, whose good or evil fruit will prove the bliss or bane of your afterlife.

—Stephen S. Wise

THE CLOCK OF LIFE

“The clock of life is wound but once
And no one can tell you when the hands will stop
At late or early hour;
Now is the only time you have;
Live, love, toil with a will;
Place no confidence in tomorrow
For the clock may then be still.”

Author Unknown

This powerful little poem I positioned at both the beginning and ending of my most recent Christmas story, “The Clock of Life” in Christmas in My Heart 18 (Pacific Press, 2009); in that story, I fictionalized my own recent close call. Over an 18-month period, my body began shutting down on me. Finally, my doctor took one look at my yellow skin and gave me two hours’ notice before checking in at a hospital E.R, Then it was a race against time to find out what was wrong before it was too late.

During those long days and much longer nights, when the clock on the wall above my bed seemed to take forever to indicate one lone minute had passed, I had plenty of opportunities to Monday-morning quarterback my life: Was my life over, my race done? Had I accomplished all I had hoped to in this short soap opera we label “life”? Was I at peace with God? Had I told my wife and children often enough how very much I loved and cherished them? Was my house in order (ready for an exhaustive audit)? If my body continued to close shop on me, was I ready to tie up all the loose ends of my life? Was my wife Connie prepared to shoulder the entire burden of life alone? What could she do with the massive library that has made our 71 books possible? Did I have fences I needed to mend before it was too late? How was I doing on my Bucket List? Did I have any major regrets? Most important of all . . . was I ready to meet my Maker?

After much prayer, I was convicted that I should pour all these variables into my 18th Christmas story. And “The Clock of Life” proved to be the perfect catalyst.

* * * * *

Several days ago, I was debriefing by phone with Tim Kubrock (principal of Monterey Bay Academy) over the alumni breakfast the week before; more specifically, my remarks to the alumni.

Because of all I have gone through during the last couple of years, I was especially conscious of just how fragile is our hold on life—and, by extension, how little time we have in which to accomplish our goals. I used to take all this for granted. I most certainly do not any more.

And so I urged my fellow alumni to not delay in their giving to this school that contributed so much to us in the morning of our lives. I was painfully blunt: “You know, each year we lose more of our beloved classmates—most likely, never on earth will all of us in this room assemble together again. So please don’t delay in your support of our alma mater.”

All this the principal and I referenced in our chat.

Then he told me, “I’ve got to tell you about an experience I had in my office about 5 p.m. Saturday afternoon. A 50th anniversary alum walked in (I could tell by the honor ribbon on his shirt). Well, he just wanted to talk about the academy, life in general, his own children (who’d also attended the academy), and some painful things I can’t share. Before he left, I felt impressed to offer prayer for him and his family: that the Lord would help to heal the brokenness in his family. When he got up to leave, there was a softness and peace in his face that had not been there when he came in.

There was then a long silence. . .

Followed by a sigh . . . and

“He died last Friday.”