THE GIRL WITH DANCING EYES

BLOG #46, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
THE GIRL WITH DANCING EYES

November 12, 2014

She would not have been unusual during my growing-up-years—but she is now. She was reading the Scripture text at church: clearly, each word perfectly enunciated, with deep feeling. And her eyes—they lit up the entire church. I literally could not take my eyes off of her.

After church, I spoke with her. I learned quite a bit about her upbringing, but learned little I had not already surmised. I complimented her on the sense of wonder radiating from her eyes—but really it was the parents who deserved the fuller credit for them. For it was they who have so far protected her from losing that God-given sense of wonder all babies are born with, but oh so few retain more than months.

So why, if her eyes are wonder-filled, do I label her “The Girl with Dancing Eyes”? This is why: When she was in church, her eyes were wonder-filled reverent eyes; but, one-on-one, outside of church—I was not a stranger to her (her family reads from my books)—, though the wonder remained in her eyes, there was a joyousness, tied to an entrancing addition of impishness, that was absolutely irresistible: the only word that adequately capsulizes the totality is “Dancing.”

But why is she not the norm among children her age? Reason being that many forces are at work that contribute to stripping that sense of wonder from the eyes of babies and children. Parents do it the very first time they permit the baby to be in the room when the television set is on. Studies have shown that babies are anything but unaware, picking up 60-70 percent of what is said and depicted on the screen. Parents all too often fail to realize how little it takes to quench that spark of vibrant life that brings the glow into the eyes. Parents—and how few parents are not guilty of this!—apparently don’t realize what they are doing when they say, “For goodness sake, stop bothering me with your questions—go watch TV!”

And precious little that appears on the television screen elevates the soul of those who watch it. And even if a program is values-worth-living-by-affirming, all too few of the million-plus commercials each of our children is exposed to during their growing-up years, are likely to increase the candle-power of those pure eyes they were born with.

But parents cannot take that sense of wonder for granted. It must be continually reinforced in the family story hour. For children do not internalize abstractions, but rather they internalize whatever values (uplifting or debasing) they hear or see in stories. Since few of the stories they experience on the media are compatible with the sense of wonder they were born with, wise parents realize that it doesn’t take more than seconds or minutes to blight—or even destroy completely—that glow. But if they are introduced to the right kind of stories (the ones they’ll ask for again and again), they will internalize those values. This is the reason Christ never spoke without stories: He created us to internalize them; to grow into them.

One danger, however, must be pointed out: It is all too easy for concerned parents to over-react. To be so over-protective and restrictive that their children either rebel or grow up to be narrow-minded, naive, and incapable of dealing with the complexities of adult life.

It is an awesome responsibility to raise a child.

Trains – The New Way to Travel (Part 4)

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

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

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

Scan_Pic0101

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHERE DOES “MORNING” COME FROM?

BLOG #12, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
WHERE DOES “MORNING” COME FROM?
March 19, 2014

Some people never lose their childlike sense of wonder. Elizabeth Goudge, one of my favorite English writers, never lost the ability to think as a child, no matter how old she got.

Just so, Emily Dickinson, America’s greatest poetess, enchants us still, well over a hundred years later, because she never lost that trait.

Have you ever wondered how you’d respond to a child’s queries about something as prosaic as mornings?

Following is Dickinson’s try at it:

MORNING

“Will there really be a morning?
Is there such a thing as day?
Could I see it from the mountains
If I were as tall as they?

Has it feet like water-lilies?
Has it feathers like a bird?
Is it brought from famous countries
Of which I never heard?

Oh, some scholar! Oh, some sailor!
Oh, some wise man from the skies!
Please to tell a little pilgrim
Where the place called morning lies!”

–“Morning,” published in
St. Nicholas, May 1891

Published in: on March 19, 2014 at 5:00 am  Comments (3)  
Tags: , , , ,

THE GIFT OF AWARENESS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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