Category Archives: wisdom

Do Not Crush the Butterfly…

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Art on the bedroom wall, with Christmas lights being used as a night light.

Talking to a school administrator the other day about the challenges my children and I have been facing in the last year, I had one of those experiences where you get a look at your own life through someone else’s eyes.  “Wow, you have really been on a difficult journey,” he said.  I just nodded in response.  Financial difficulties, health problems, dealing with depression… life has been tough.  But you get through things like that by being centered.  Meditation tricks.  Things you can do to smooth out the wrinkles and keep moving forward.

I always return in the theater of my mind to a moment in childhood where I learned a critical lesson.  My life has been one of learning how to build rather than destroy.  It has been about creating, not criticizing.

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Electric lights have come to Toonerville, helping to light the darkness.

When I was a boy, I was a serious butterfly hunter.  It started when Uncle Don gave me a dead cecropia moth that he had found in the Rowan grain elevator.  It was big and beautiful and perfectly preserved.  Shortly thereafter, I located another cecropia in the garage behind the house, a building that had once been a wagon shed complete with horse stalls and a hay loft.  I tried to catch it with my bare hands. And by the time I had hold of it, the powder on its wings was mostly gone.  The wings were broken in a couple of places, and the poor bug was ruined in terms of starting a butterfly collection.

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A cecropia moth

Undeterred by tragedy, I got books about butterfly collecting at the Rowan Public Library and began teaching myself how to bug hunt.  I learned where to find them, and how to net them, and how to kill and mount them.

I discovered that my grandfather’s horse pasture had thistle patches which were natural feeding grounds for red admiral butterflies (pictured top left)  and painted lady butterflies (top right).  But if you wanted to catch the rarer mourning cloak butterfly (bottom picture), you had to stake out apple trees, particularly at apple blossom time, though I caught one on the ripening apples too.

swallowtailBut my greatest challenge as a butterfly hunter was the tiger swallowtail butterfly.  They are rare.  They are tricky.  And one summer I dueled with one, trying with all my might to catch him.  He was in my own back yard the first time I saw him.  I ran to get the butterfly net, and by the time I got back, he was flitting high in the trees out of reach.  I must’ve watched him for half an hour before I finally lost sight of him.  About five other times I had encounters with him in the yard or in the neighborhood.  I learned the hard way that some butterflies are acrobatic flyers and can actually maneuver to avoid being caught.  He frustrated me.

The tiger swallowtail was the butterfly that completed my collection, and it was finished when one of my cousins caught one and gave it to me because she knew I collected them.

But then, one day, while I was sitting on a blanket under a maple tree in the back yard with my notebooks open, writing something that I no longer even recall what I wrote, the backyard tiger swallowtail visited me again.  In fact, he landed on the back of my hand.  I dropped the pencil I was writing with, and slowly, carefully, I turned my hand over underneath him so that he was sitting on my palm.

I could’ve easily closed my hand upon him and captured him.  But I learned the lesson long before from the cecropia that catching a butterfly by hand would destroy its delicate beauty.  I would knock all the yellow and black powder off his exquisite wings.  I could not catch him.  But I could close my hand and crush him.  I would be victorious after a summer-long losing battle.

But that moment brought an end to my butterfly hunting.  I let him flutter away with the August breeze.  I did not crush the butterfly.  It was then that I realized what beauty there was in the world, and how fragile that beauty could be.  I could not keep it alive forever.  But it lasted a little big longer because I chose to let it.

So, here is the lesson that keeps me whole.  Even though I had the power, I did not crush the butterfly.

 

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500 Words

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When I started this whole blogging-every-day thing, I decided the rule had to be 500 words written in a day.  And I meant to hold myself to writing 500 words somewhere in the writing day, whether it was my blog post or the novel I was working on, or a combination of both.  I followed that rule religiously through more than 1,500 blog posts and five first draft novels.  I found it easier and easier to surpass 500 words on a daily basis.  There are all sorts of bits of time available and I collect ideas faster than a rich kid generates empty candy wrappers.  The more I call on the well of words for more words, the more words are available.  Now, it seems, writing only 500 words is the trick.

I suppose I have become an Old Man of Words.  I know both the rules and the exceptions.

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Knowing that I can write more than 500 words easily, then the question becomes, why don’t I?  Well, the cardinal rule is “Say it short.  Say it simple. And say it sweet.”  That rule can generate a lot of wonderful writing, full of juicy ideas that splash with flavor when you bite into them.  Ernest Hemingway knew that rule.  Every poet knows it.  Readers generally prefer the easily accessible idea expressed with elegance.

Now, I also have to admit a guilty pleasure in perpetrating purple paisley prose.  That is the style of writing in which I generally write convoluted sentences with complex ideas that fold back in on themselves and over-use alliteration to criminal degrees.  Charles Dickens liked to do that with descriptive details.  Paragraphs about the boarding schools of London, the streets filled with child chimney sweeps and flower girls, and dingy mind-dulling workhouses could take up two or three pages per paragraph.  And two pages further on, he layers more details on the same setting.  Piles and piles of words and wordplay fill the pages of William Faulkner, James Joyce, and Marcel Proust.  And if you haven’t read at least something from each of those gentlemen, you will never know what you are missing.  But you can prune your paragraphs like a greenhouse master florist with limited space will do to his orchids, and you can actually end up fitting great beauty and powerful content into something even more limited than a 500-word essay.  In fact, if you take your ideas and distill them, and keep distilling them, over and over, you will eventually have pared the words down into poetry.

So, there you have it.  The reason my essays are about 500 words.  This one is four hundred and forty one words.

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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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