Category Archives: wisdom

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

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Some books come along telling a story that has to be taken seriously in ways that don’t make sense in any normal way.  The Alchemist is one of those books.

What is an alchemist, after all?

An alchemist uses the medieval forms of the art of chemistry to transmute things, one thing becoming another thing.

Coelho in this book is himself an alchemist of ideas.  He uses this book to transmute one idea into another until he digs deep enough into the pile of ideas to finally transmute words into wisdom.

There is a great deal of wisdom in this book, and I can actually share some of it here without spoiling the story.

Here are a few gemstones of wisdom from the Alchemist’s treasure chest;

“It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting…” (p.13)

“It’s the simple things in life that are the most extraordinary; only wise men are able to understand them.” (p.17)

“All things are one.  And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”  (p.24)

“And when he had gone only a short distance, he realized that, while they were erecting the stall, one of them had spoken Arabic and the other Spanish.    And they had understood each other perfectly well.  There must be a language that doesn’t depend on words, the boy thought.” (p.45)

All of these quotes from the book, as you can see, come from the first third of the book.  There are many more treasures to be found in this book.  I should not share them with you here.  Just as the main character of the story learns, you have to do the work for yourself.  But this book is not only an enjoyable read, but a map for how you can execute your own journey towards your “Personal Legend”.  In fact, you may find that the book tells you not only how to go about making a dream come true, but, if you are already on that journey successfully, it tells you what things you are already doing right.

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Who Are You Really, Old Man?

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A wizened old man in a wizard’s robe walked up to a twelve-year-old boy.

“Okay, ask your question, and make it good.”

“What?” said the boy.  “Who are you, old man?”

“Never mind who I am.  I can answer the ultimate question.  I have lived a long life.  I am very wise.”

“Being old makes you wise.”

“It logically follows, yes.  But surely you have a question for me.  I know the meaning of life.  I can teach you great magic, deep knowledge, and truth.  So what will you ask?”

“But the only wisdom that is real,” said the boy, “is knowing that people like you and I really know nothing in the face of the vast, complex universe.  I’m twelve.  I don’t know anything.  So I am also truly wise.”

“I can’t argue that.  It is circular reasoning.  A circle is a closed loop.  But the snake who eats his own tail in the circle of life is a short-lived fool.”

“I guess you are right.  That probably does make you wise to know that.”

“But you haven’t yet asked your question.  The good one.  What is it that you most need to know to make a success of your life?”

“But I have asked it.  You just haven’t answered.”

“You did?  But what did you ask?”

“Who are you really, old man?”

“Ah, that one again.  Well, at heart, I am the same boy that I was when I was twelve.  I have learned my whole life long, so I am considered a teacher.  I have spent every coin I have ever earned while experiencing my life, so I am a poor man.  But no man on earth can ever be richer than me.  I have peace of mind.  And that is everything of value that there is.  If I am to say who I really am, then I must admit, I am you.”

“I thought so.  In the end, that’s who we all are.”

 

 

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I Love to Laugh

“Mickey, why can’t you be more serious the way smart people are?”

“Well, now, my dear, I think I take humor very seriously.”

“How can you say that?  You never seem to be serious for more than a few seconds in a row.”

“I can say it in a high, squeaky, falsetto voice so I sound like Mickey Mouse.”

“You know that’s not what I mean.”

“I can also burp it… well, maybe not so much since I was in junior high.”

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“I distinctly remember getting in trouble in Mrs. Mennenga’s third grade class in school for pantomiming pulling my beating heart out of my chest and accidentally dropping it on the floor.  She lectured me about being more studious.  But I made Alicia sitting in the row beside me laugh.  It was all worth it.  And the teacher was right.  I don’t remember anything from the lesson on adding fractions we were supposed to be doing.  But I remember that laugh.  It is one precious piece of the golden treasure I put in the treasure chest of memories I keep stored in my heart.”

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“I always listened to the words Groucho Marx was saying, even though he said them awfully fast and sneaky-like.  I listened to the words.  Other characters didn’t seem to listen to him.  He didn’t seem to listen to them.  Yet, how could he respond like he did if he really wasn’t listening?  In his answers were always golden bits of wisdom.  Other people laughed at his jokes when the laugh track told them to.  I laughed when I understood the wisdom.”

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“Laughing is a way of showing understanding.  Laughing is a way of making yourself feel good.  Laughing is good for your brain and your heart and your soul.  So, I want to laugh more.  I need to laugh more.  I love to laugh.”

 

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Why Mickey Writes

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If you are wondering, “How in the Heck can Mickey write nonsense like that essay he wrote yesterday?”, then please be aware that Mickey is pondering that same question.

Seriously, why would a writer publish personal thoughts and allude to personal tragedies?  Especially when they are about things that once upon a time nearly killed him?  (Please note that when Mickey starts a sentence with “Seriously” it is probably about to lead to a joke, the same way as when Trump says, “Believe me” we should  assume he is telling a lie and knows it.)

The answer is simply, writers write stuff.  They have to.  If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be writers.

It is really not something to do to earn fame and fortune.  Fame and fortune happen to rare individuals like J. K. Rowling and Steven King… and even Stephanie Meyer, to prove that it is totally random and not based on actual writing talent… except for sometimes.

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You write to get your head right about bad things that happen in life.  You find that factor in Mark Twain whose infant son died, as well as most of the rest of his family, before him, forcing him to face survivor’s guilt and the notion that life is random and death does not come for you based on any kind of merit system.  Charles Dickens wrote about the foibles of his father, on whom he based the David Copperfield character Wilkins Micawber, a man who was overly optimistic and constantly landing in debtor’s prison because of it.  He also wrote in his stories about the women he truly loved (who were not, it seems, his wife) one of whom died in his arms while yet a teenager.  Dickens’ amused take on the innate foolishness of mankind gave him a chance to powerfully depict great tragedies both large (as in a Tale of Two Cities) and small (as in Oliver Twist).  I wrote yesterday’s post based on the connection between the nudity I write about in novels and my own traumatic assault when I was only ten.

You write because you have wisdom, an inner personal truth, that you are convinced needs to be crystallized in words and written down on paper.  It isn’t necessarily real truth.  Lots of idiots write things and post them in newspapers, blogs, and even books.  And it is often true that their inner personal truth is complete hogwash.  (But, hey, at least the hogs are cleaner that way.)  Still, your wisdom is your own, and it is true for you even if some idiot like Mickey reads it and thinks it is only fit for cleaning hogs.

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And you truly do have to write.  If I did not write my stupid, worthless novels, all the hundreds of characters in my head would get mad and start kicking the pillars that hold up the structures in my head.  I do have structures in my head.  My mind is organized in boxes that contain specifically sorted ideas and stories and notions.  It is not a festering stew pot where everything is mixed together and either bubbling or boiling with hot places or coagulating in the cold corners.  (That is how I picture Donald Trump’s mind.  It is certainly not an empty desert like many people think, because deserts don’t explode all over Twitter early in the morning like the stew pot metaphor obviously would.)

And so, I have done it again.  I have set down my 500+ words for today and made a complete fool of myself.  And why do I do it?  Because Mickey is a writer, and so, Mickey writes stuff.

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Things I Must Tell You Before I Die

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I collect sunrises.  The picture above is today’s, July 16th, 2017, looking east over the green belt park in Carrollton, Texas.  Every new day is a miracle.  I am sixty years and eight months old as of this sunrise.  I have six incurable diseases and am a cancer survivor since 1983.  One of those diseases is diabetes, and I cannot afford to be put on insulin.  There is no reason to believe I will have another sunrise tomorrow.

But I am not sad or angry.  I am not afraid.  I am thankful.  I have lived a good life.

And here’s a secret nobody has probably ever told you before in these exact words;  “Life is a miracle, and no matter how cruel it has been to you over time, or what terrible things have happened to you, the world is a better place because you have lived in it.”

Amazingly, those words apply even to Adolf Hitler and Charles Manson.  If you think about it, there was a backlash to all the misery, suffering, grief and death they caused.  In a backhanded way,  bad people make us come together, find the strength in ourselves to resist evil, and make the world better in ways it couldn’t have been if there had been no challenge or reason to do it.  Think of all the heroes like Oscar Schindler that Hitler’s persecution of Jews created.  Think of all the times a Satanic figure like Manson made you shudder when you confronted the darkness in your own soul, and how it made you vow to be a better person than he was.  And how you kept that vow.

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It seems I may have become a nudist in my doddering old age.  I signed up to blog for a nudist website associated with the AANR (American Association of Nude Recreation) and suddenly I have nudist friends who are encouraging me to take all my clothes off and go camping in spite of my little pink psoriasis spots.  I haven’t actually gone naked camping yet, despite the invitations.  But if I continue to blog about it, I will end up having to. Even though the pay per article is pretty paltry.   Hmm.  I still might not.  But you can’t be any more naked with no clothes on than you are when you bare your soul by writing.  If you have actually read my blog, you have seen things that are well beneath the very skin of me… all the way to heart and bone.  And here is the secret I must impart about all of that nakedness stuff;  “People are actually naked all the time.  Clothes merely make us think that we are not.”

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Here’s a really important thing I have to tell you.  I was a middle school teacher and actually loved it.  Don’t tell the people at the Institute for Keeping Crazy People Off the Streets.  They are probably still looking for me.  Though I have reason to believe they may also be entirely imaginary.  Teaching middle school kids will do that to you.  I was an English teacher for 31 years in Texas public schools.  I taught kids to read.  I taught kids to write.  I taught kids to laugh at Mark Twain’s story about a jumping frog and the people who bet on them.  I taught kids to be amazed at the ways and words of William Shakespeare, to see language and stories as poetry and music and the “stuff that dreams are made of”.  I taught them that Socrates supposedly invented school the way we do it now with teachers using the Socratic method.  So I suppose, realistically, you would have to say that I taught over a thousand kids in South Texas to sincerely hate Socrates.  But here’s a secret I must also tell you before I can die; “When it comes to learning about love and life and laughter, they taught me so much more than I could possibly have taught them.  I loved being their teacher for the too-brief time it was my privilege to be that.”

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And there you have it.  Three things I had to tell you in case I croak before sunrise tomorrow.  I am not saying that is what will happen.  Only that it could happen.  But there is wisdom in telling secrets and not carrying them with you to the grave.  Or was I supposed to admit that it is actually foolishness?  Now I’m not sure any more.  But it is one of those.

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The Insufferable Superiority of Dead Guys

I may have stupidly revealed this secret before, but since it is already probably out there, here it is again; I have been on a lifelong quest to find and learn wisdom.

Yep, that’s right.  I have been doing a lot of fishing in the well of understanding to try and find the ultimate rainbow trout of truth.  Of course, it is only incredibly stupid people who actually believe that trout can survive living in a well.

So I have been looking at a lot of what passes for wisdom in this world, and find that for the most part, it consists of a bunch of words written by dead guys.

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Boris Pasternak qualifies.  He is a dead guy.  At least, he has been since 1960.  Pasternak is a Russian.  His novel Doctor Zhivago is about the period in Russian history between the beginnings of the revolution in 1905 and the First World War.  He won the Nobel Prize for Literature for it in 1958, but the Soviet government, embarrassed by it, forced him to turn down the prize.

Nobel novelist is probably something that qualifies a dead guy as wise.

I am led to believe that he knew where to fish for the trout of truth.

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I like the idea that the real value in literature, as in the life it portrays, is found in the ordinary.  And yet, Boris speaks of it oxymoronically as extraordinary.  Wisdom is apparently found in contradicting yourself.

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I like the idea of a world infused with compassion.  But is he saying love may lead to misperceptions of how the objects of our love are mistreated?

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This man saw Leo Tolstoy on his deathbed when he was himself but a boy.  Like Tolstoy he questioned everything.  And like Tolstoy, when the end came, he believed in hope for the future.

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The worst part of getting wisdom from dead guys, guys you never met in real life but only came to know from books, is that you cannot argue with them.  You can’t question them about what they meant, or ask them if they ever considered one of your own insights.  You never get to tell them if you happen to fall in love with their ideas.

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Richard Feynman is a physicist, scientist, and writer of science-based wisdom.

Richard Feynman is also dead since 1988.

He is considered a brainiac superhero by science nerds everywhere, and not only do his words still live in his writings, but so does his math.

But what he is actually saying is, that in truth, we really never “know” anything.  It can never be fully understood and maybe the questions that we ask are more important than the answers.

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Wait a minute!  Feynman, are you calling me a fool?  

Of course, I can’t get an answer out of him.  Richard Feynman is dead.

But he does suggest what I can do about it.

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I had or worked with a large number of teachers in my life who would be absolutely horrified by that advice.

So, what conclusion can I reach other than that Richard Feynman thinks I’m a fool even though he never met me?

I don’t really know.  Maybe I should learn the lesson that you must be careful when you listen to dead guys talking.  But I do like what some of them say.  Perhaps that is my trout of truth.

 

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Wisdom From a Writer’s Life

Don’t get too excited.  I searched every box, trunk, bag of tricks, safe, closet, and jelly bean jar that I have in my rusty old memory.  I didn’t find much.  In fact, the old saying is rather applicable, “The beginning of wisdom is recognizing just how much of a fool you really are.”  The little pile of bottle caps and marshmallows that represent the sum total of my wisdom is infinitely tiny compared to the vast universe of things I will never know and never understand.  I am a fool.  I probably have no more wisdom than you do.  But I have a different point of view.  It comes from years worth of turning my ideas inside out, of wearing my mental underwear on the outside of my mental pants just to get a laugh, of stringing images and stupid-headed notions together in long pointless strings like this one.

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Mason City, Iowa… where I was born.  River City in the musical “The Music Man“.

One thing I can say with certainty, nothing makes you understand “home”, the place you grew up in and think of as where you come from, better than leaving it and going somewhere else.  Federal Avenue in Mason City looks nothing now like it did when I was a boy in the 1960’s going shopping downtown and spending hours in department stores waiting for the ten minutes at the end in the toy section you were promised for being good.  You have to look at the places and people of your youth through the lenses of history and distance and context and knowing now what you didn’t know then.

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Grandpa Aldrich’s farm in Iowa is now Mom and Dad’s house.  It has been in the family for over 100 years, a Century Farm.

The only thing that stays the same is that everything changes.  If I look back at the arc of my life, growing up in Iowa with crazy story-telling skills inherited from Grandpa Aldrich, to going to Iowa State “Cow College” and studying English, to going to University of Iowa for a remedial teaching degree because English majors can’t get jobs reading books, to teaching in distant South Texas more than a thousand miles away, to learning all the classroom cuss words in Spanish the hard way, by being called that, to moving to Dallas/Fort Worth to get fired from one teaching job and taking another that involved teaching English to non-English speakers, to retiring and spending time writing foolish reflections like this one because I am old and mostly home-bound with ill health.  I have come a long way from childhood to second childhood.

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If “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is really true, I should be Superman now.  I look like I’ve seen a lot of Kryptonite, don’t I?

Six incurable diseases and being a cancer survivor since 1983 have left their marks upon me.  Literally.  Little pink bleedy spots all over me are the mark of psoriasis.  The fuzzy-bad photo of me spares you some of the gory details.  The point is, I guess, that life is both fleeting and fragile.  If you never stop and think about what it all means then you are a fool.  If you don’t try to understand it in terms of sentences and paragraphs with main ideas, you are an even bigger fool.  You must write down the fruit of your examinations and ruminations.  But if you reach a point that you are actually satisfied that you know what it all means, that makes you the biggest fool of all.

If I have any wisdom at all to share in this post about wisdom, it can be summed up like this;

  • Writing helps you with knowing, and knowing leads to wisdom.  So take some time to write about what you know.
  • Writing every day makes you more coherent and easier to understand.  Stringing pearls of wisdom into a necklace comes with practice.
  • Writing is worth doing.  Everyone should do it.  Even if you don’t think you can do it well.
  • You should read and understand other people’s wisdom too, as often as possible.  You are not the only person in the world who knows stuff.  And some of their stuff is better than your stuff.
  • The stuff you write can outlive you.  So make the ghost of you that you leave behind as pretty as you can.  Someone may love you for it.  And you can never be sure who that someone will be.

So by now you are probably wondering, where is all that wisdom he promised us in the title?  Look around carefully in this essay.  If you don’t see it there, then you are probably right in thinking, just as I warned you about at the outset, “Gosh darn that Mickey!  He is a really big fool.”

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