The Wisdom Thing And Why I Don’t Think I Have It

Day 15—I have been part of an FB writing group for the past three weeks or so. The challenge was to write at least 500 words a day for 30 consecutive days. This post is specifically addressed to those participating group members.

I’ve gotten a couple of very kind comments from members of the group that indicated that they thought I possessed some kind of wisdom or insight, and it’s a label I’ve always been uncomfortable with. I know part of it comes with age. I think I may be the senior member of our group from what I can tell, and just because I’ve lived though a few more life transitions than others doesn’t make me feel qualified to impart anything to anyone.

I told my wife I was struggling on how to approach this topic, and she suggested I try to define what I felt wisdom was.

Reading all that you have shared about your lives, I’m always so impressed by the depth and breadth of your experiences. You have traveled so much and so adventurously. I’ve never even seen the inside of a hostel. I can get lost walking out the front door.

In addition, you’ve worked in so may fields, had big failures, big successes, or are still trying to make your way, still inventing yourself, still figuring it out. I admire that. You’ve experienced a multitude of relationships, and I feel awful when I read about how painful some of them have been for you, but you keep finding your way through, showing a resilience that is admirable. In time, you will have a breadth of experience to share that I think really approaches wisdom.

My “wisdom” is deeply rooted in a lack of experience. I’ve been married for 41 years and we’ve been together for 43+. She is the only woman I have ever been with. What do I have to tell you about relationships? I have lived in the same house since 1980. I worked at the same job in the same high school for 36 years. Notice the pattern here? And, of course, only I am aware of just how fallible and foolish I can be, about my epic failures of judgment, about my continued and sometimes purposeful acts of poor judgment.

When I taught I school, I always felt deeply honored by students who came to see me as a mentor of sorts. One of my classroom rituals was to shake hands with each student in every class every day, just to say hi, offer them a greeting, cajole them about their work, tease them about the bad hair day they were having, whatever. Sometimes, I’d see a change in mood or demeanor and I might stop and ask if they were OK, or hit them up later and check in with them. Some sought me out on their own. Some simply came into my room and dissolved into tears over their latest crisis.

I got to be pretty good in these moments to just let them talk, to be an active listener, and to qualify any advice I might give them with the disclaimer that I was completely unqualified to give advice. In truth, I don’t think it mattered much what I said. What mattered most was they had found a caring adult who would stop everything for the moment and listen to whatever they had to say without appearing shocked or judgmental, even though they sometimes shared incredibly intimate details of their lives. I think it was especially important that I was a parent, but not their parent. If I gave them anything, it was reassurance, not wisdom. Those experiences have continued to this day with students who have chosen to stay in touch with me. I feel very honored by those relationships.

A small group of my students once got into a heated discussion before class over whether I was more like Gandalf (the wise and kindly wizard of The Lord of the Rings) or Albus Dumbledore (the wise and kindly wizard of the Harry Potter franchise). I found it a little disturbing. I didn’t like them having a perception of me that was so different than the perception I have of myself, as complimentary as it might have been. I told them it was the dumbest conversation I had ever heard them have, and that they should sit down so I could get class started.

(The answer, by the way, is Dumbledore, always Dumbledore.)

 

Bookshelf

Completely bereft of an idea for today, I started to stare at the large bookshelf that hangs over my desk—the desk where I often sit thinking about how I don’t have anything to write about.

Mary and I have been getting rid of stuff that we have not touched in 10 or 20 years and that we have finally decided we should really let go. The urge to purge really came from two sources. One was that we had to empty bookshelves, closets, china cabinets and more because we were having all of the flooring in our house replaced and we had to protect as much stuff from breakage and dust as we could. We enriched the local thrift stores with a truckload of boxes and bags, but half of my garage is still taken up with boxes that we have not had the time or the will to tackle.

And then 5 years ago, my sister and I had to empty my mother’s mobile home out and put it up for sale when we realized she could no longer live on her own and had to move her into a board and care home. It took us the better part of a month to sort through the decades worth of crap that my parents had held on to. I hauled bag after bag of items that were once useful and meaningful to them off to the dumpster including at least 10 ashtrays (they had both stopped smoking over twenty years ago). It was weird. It was like throwing away someone else’s life without their permission. I decided that I would try not to do the same to my own kids.

So on my bookshelf I can see there are really three categories of books: books I will never read, books I have read many times but cannot yet bear to part with, and books I have purchased or have been given to read but haven’t gotten to yet.

The “never will read” category includes Joy Kogawa’s Obasan, which should have gone to the thrift store, but I felt guilty because some people think it’s a modern classic and I always meant to read it. Same goes for Camus’ The Plague and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I mean, really. When am I going to be in a good enough mood to want to read shit like that?

The “cannot bear to part with” section is probably the largest. There are the classics like my copies of Hamlet, Pride and Prejudice, Catch-22, The Poisonwood Bible, and Fahrenheit 451, each filled with years of notes crammed into the margins from the time I spent teaching them. They each carry all of the memories of those years of my life, especially of the days when a discussion went well. And tucked away in a corner is a little gem of a book entitled If I Never Get Back by Darryl Brock. It was his first book, and I’m pretty sure it’s out of print. It has romance, time travel, Mark Twain, and the history of baseball all put together in a story I fell in love with.

The “yet to read” section is filled with gifts from family and friends, most especially from my son, a fellow writer. High on my list is Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity which I hope it is just as funny as the movie was, and Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. I can’t figure out why I have not yet tackled Khaled Hosseini’s book And The Mountains Echoed because his first two books were so terrific (The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns).

So, I’m faced with the dilemma of what books to save, to toss, or to give away. It’s a tough one for a former English teacher. Each story seems to carry it’s author’s history and a little bit of my own.