Tag 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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Books are Life, and Life is Books

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I just finished reading David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, his novel from 2014.  Just, WOW!  I guess this post is technically a book review… but not really.  I have to talk about so much more than just the book.

You can see in my initial illustration that I read this book to pieces.  Literally.  (And I was an English Major in college, so I LITERALLY know what literally means!)

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Look at this face.  Can you stop looking at the beautiful eyes?  I can’t.

I discovered Mitchell as a writer when I happened onto the book and movie pair of Cloud Atlas.  It enthralled me.  I read the book, a complex fantasy about time and connections, about as deeply and intricately as any book that I have ever read.  I fell in love.  It was a love as deep and wide as my love of Dickens or my love of Twain… even my love of Terry Pratchett.

It is like the picture on the left.  I can’t stop looking into it and seeing more and more.  It is plotted and put together like a finely crafted jeweled timepiece.

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And this new book is almost exactly like that.  It is a first- person narrative in six parts with five different narrators.  Holly Sykes, the central character, is the narrator of the first and last parts, in the past in the 1980’s, and in the future in 2043.  The titular metaphor of the bone clocks is about the human body and how it measures time from youth to old age.  And it is pictured as a clock ticking in practically all it’s forms, from a child who is snuffed out at eight years of age to horologists who have lived for a thousand years by being reincarnated with past lives intact.

Fantasy and photographic realism intertwine and filigree this book like a vast kaleidoscope of many colors, peoples, societies, and places.  At one point David Mitchell even inserts himself into the narrative cleverly as the narrator of part four, Crispin Hershey, the popular English novelist struggling to stay on top of the literary world.  He even indulges every writer’s fantasy and murders himself in the course of the story.

David Mitchell is the reason I have to read voraciously and write endlessly.  His works seem to contain an entire universe of ideas and portraits and events and predictions and wisdoms. And he clearly shows me that his universe is not the only one that needs to be written before the world ends.  Books are life, and life is in books.  And when the world as we know it is indeed gone, then they will be the most important thing we ever did.  Even if no one is left to read them.

And so, I read this book until it fell into pieces, its spine broken and its back cover lost.  To be fair, I bought it at a used book store, and the paperback copy was obviously read by previous owners cover to cover.  The pages were already dog eared with some pages having their corners turned down to show where someone left off and picked up reading before me.  But that, too, is significant.  I am not the only one who devoured this book and its life-sustaining stories.  Know that, if you do decide to read and love this book, you are definitely not the only one.  I’d lend you my copy.  But… well, it’s already in pieces.

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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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Wizarding Ain’t Easy

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A wizard selfie taken at Mad Ludwig’s Castle in Bavaria.

My quest to become a wizard began when I was but a kid reading comic books.  It got a boost when I became a middle school English teacher and realized the fundamental truth of the universe, human beings know practically nothing at all… about anything.  The only path to wisdom is the way of the fool.

So, I embraced it.  It made it so much easier to teach and manage a classroom full of teenybumpers to realize the only thing that works when they laugh at you and make fun of you, is to be able to laugh at yourself and make fun of them right back.

I learned along the way that things that hurt you and make you suffer cause wisdom to happen.  You walk under a ladder and the painter accidentally drops a paint bucket in your head, and you realize that walking under a ladder is a bad thing to do in the future… not simply because of superstition either.

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Drawing and painting wizards is something I began to do too.  I find it fascinating to try to draw a wrinkly old face and attempt to put some kind of intelligence in the eyes.  I can get vapid and stupid really really well.  I think I know what that looks like in the eyes of another far better than I know what wisdom looks like.  And how do you know it is wisdom, anyway, and not merely constipation?  Can you see understanding and intelligence in the eyes of another?  I think you can.  But looking into the eyes of young learners for so many years and searching for those things, I realized that the best you can do is guess.  You could easily be wrong.

That is what wisdom is.  Make your best guess, but remember that you are probably wrong.  It is possible to do great and powerful magic in the world if you are a wizard and you have wisdom.  But it will not be easy.  And you must work hard.  And when you have to decide whether to speak or stay silent, the wise man is always silent first, giving himself time to think before he speaks.

“Are you a wise man, Mickey?” you ask.

“…” Mickey says.

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Wisdom of the Mickey

 

 

MickeyOne must end the year on a note that is either upbeat or regretful.  A heartfelt, “Meh,” just won’t cut it.

So here are a few particles of wisdom from the dustbowl of Mickey’s imagination.

The world is getting brighter… also hotter.  If we continue to chill on the topic of global warming, soon we will be fricasseed.

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You should definitely pay attention to your teachers.  They are mostly old and cranky and undervalued, and it makes them sad when they realize that no one really listens to them.

I learned this from the poet Dylan Thomas, “Rage! Rage! Against the dying of the light!”  He cursed death, and then he promptly went out and drank so much liquor, he died at a very young age.  Thank God I have lived to be old.

You are also pretty much stuck with the face that you are born with, so you better get used to it, and it has many varied uses… especially in the comic sense.

And I would also like to re-iterate the wisdom of The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery;

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It is a bit of a disappointment to an artist to realize that what is essential is actually invisible to the eye… but I know it is true.  Truth resides in words.

The only wisdom I truly possess is the knowledge that I am a fool.

Since I was a mere stupid boy, and before I grew up to be a mildly stupid man, I always yearned to have wisdom.  And wisdom comes through experience and pain.  Now, years later, I realize what true wisdom is… I’d have been better off without all that pain.

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People are a lot like rabbits, except that they are not.

They can never eat too many carrots… unless they do.  And then their skin can turn orange.

There is no beast as noble as a rabbit… except for practically every other beast.

Turtles are not as noble as rabbits.  When you challenge them to a race, they cheat.

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People really ought to be naked more.  It’s true.  If you can strip yourself down to only what is fundamentally nothing but you yourself… you begin to know who you really are.  And it is not shame to let other people see.  Oh, wait a minute!  You thought I was talking about being literally naked?  Oh, no!  Metaphorically naked only!

One should be so opaque and obtuse that other people can see acutely right through you.  It is the only thing that makes nonsense into sense.

And we need to sing and dance a little more than we do.  A good song is healthy for the soul, no matter how badly you sing it.  And even if you are old and arthritic like me, dancing a good jiggity-jig keeps the bones loose and the heart thumping.

Everyone needs to dance with their children.  And talk to them.  You can learn more from them than they can from you.  They have more recently come here from the hand of God.  And they know things that you have forgotten… and will need to remember before you return to Him.

 

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I hope my anti-wisdom has not seriously screwed everybody up.

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Mickey is Retired

Dr Seabreez 3Okay, I have discovered that retired means re-tired… You now have to get tired all over again.  I live in a modest little suburban home in the suburbs of Dallas.  It is a place where kings and queens have their castles, but we are separated from them by castle walls.  While many don’t work in this city because they are wealthy enough that their money makes money, I have to get by on less and less of the pension I have earned because expenses keep going up.  I am smarting at the moment because the school’s clarinet teacher forgot to send me a bill for two months.  Suddenly I owe her $120 dollars, and it is over-due.  And she’s mad at me for being a dead-beat that doesn’t keep up with his bills.  But that’s a big lump of heart’s blood to surrender all at once.  I will squeeze it out of my budget by the end of this week, but I am already cancelling my medical bills before the visit to the doctor in order to get the dog her medical check-up.  I feel like she could at least be a little less grumpy about it.  I have paid $72 dollars already.  Doesn’t that at least earn a partial thank-you?

I recently painted the upper portion of the outside of the house, though the rain stopped me from putting on a needed second coat.

I recently painted the upper portion of the outside of the house, though the rain stopped me from putting on a needed second coat.

I have spent serious amounts of thought and energy on reducing expenses and living a simpler life.  I am doing all my own maintenance on air conditioning, house paint, and minor repairs.  I have stopped buying most of the optional items and even reduced the expenses for things like food and gas for the car and… toilet paper (something you really don’t want to run out of at the wrong time).  But you see, I had to retire because my health was too poor to continue teaching daily.  At this point, I am not really well enough yet to either do sporadic substitute teaching, or working at Walmart part time as a greeter to smile at the people coming and going with a big goofy grin to keep them from realizing I am watching them for signs of theft.  (I really don’t want to work for Walmart if I can help it because they still hate my car, but who else hires doddering old retired fools like me?)

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I guess that what it comes down to is that in retirement, I have taken up Daffy Duck’s purported profession of being a wizard.  I write, I read, I collect wisdom… and I use it to try to do magic, making money out of books and making people laugh.  Wizarding is not a lucrative field.  People really don’t pay much for wisdom any more.  I have gotten some attention and created some smiles with my work here on this blog, but it doesn’t generate much of anything beyond smiles and good feelings and people going “Hmmm, is that right?”  I’ll take it.  I’m satisfied that I have done my bit to make this world a better place.  And I enjoy the freedom to write and think that retirement provides.  But at the end of the day… I am still tired all over again.

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