Mondays with Martin: What My Students Taught Me

David Martin

 

In forty years of teaching, some unusual classes have come my way. In elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, community colleges, universities, graduate schools, business workshops, and retirement homes, the students have been challenging and pleasant, unpredictable and insightful, unprepared and inspiring. The following sixteen English classes gave me a true education, because the students taught me how to listen.

 

JOURNAL WRITING — “BIC 101”

For this class, knowledge was needed in athletic taping. There were a lot of wrist sprains because so much volume was produced. Assignments were graded by the pound. Just like chopping boards in karate class where the person swung his hand through the object, the journal writer wrote through the pain. Students learned to quickly switch to the other hand, when their normal writing fingers fell quietly limp by their side. I read every page, and they knew it, because all the writing came back graded, stamped, or commented on. No one could hide in this class, and usually, I knew more about each student than the school counselors did. Frequently, a counselor would appear at my classroom door and want to talk about “Freddie” or “Lilly,” because I encouraged all students to write about what concerned them at school, at home, and in life. This was a great way to “back into class” and informally work with student issues, while teaching composition at the same time.

 

GENERAL ENGLISH — “Duck”

Slow learners with low metabolism traditionally filled these classes. They often exhibited symptoms of chronic jock itch. Alex asked to be excused to the restroom every time I assigned in-class work. The last time he was in my class, I said he could not leave to avoid the classwork, so he stood in the middle of the room, loudly cleared his throat of more phlegm than I thought any human being could possess, and spit a large volume of sputum twenty feet over the heads of students through an open window, as they gagged and laughed. He earned an immediate pass to the principal’s office and never returned. Now, every time I hear someone clearing his throat, my impulse is to lower my head.

 

REMEDIAL ENGLISH — “Little Birds”

Corrective surgery was performed on an out-patient basis. Much physical therapy was advised. Once, under all the rubble, I found an honor student, who had fallen in disgrace, because she was brilliantly disorganized. She regained her throne and earned a scholarship to the Kansas City Art Institute. The journal I encouraged her to keep became the right side of her brain, where she could impulsively place her many thoughts, feelings, and ideas. Enthusiastically, she opened it every five minutes to jot down thoughts worth keeping, and every evening before bedtime, she organized them, so logical order entered her world before she went to sleep. Her grades improved within one week’s time. We are all little birds with broken wings. We just need someone to care about us and help show the way through the fog of life.

 

ETHNIC LITERATURE — “From Around the World”

Diane arrived in class at 8:30 AM dressed in buckskin and tennis shoes with a United States flag draped around her shoulders, alternately singing the national anthem and saying, “I don’t feel well.” I soon found out she was drunk, because an agency was removing her daughter to a foster home and committing Diane to a psychiatric hospital. She won a second place award in a city-wide essay contest titled “One Nation under God,” when she addressed the inequalities her Mexican American brothers and sisters were experiencing in this country. She was scared while she wrote the paper and asked me, several times, if she should give it to the judges, because she was afraid of being deported. I told her to do what she honestly wanted to do. She walked silently up to my desk, laid it down without a word, and walked out of class. I was as proud of her, then, as when she received the announcement that she had won one of the three prizes. Ethnic writers are probably the only true original writers we have left, because their eyes haven’t experienced cultural assimilation. Conviction, determination, and resolution can surface in our students at any age. We must be ready when it arrives.

 

ACADEMIC ENGLISH — “The Price Is Write”

Most of these students were college prep types. If they didn’t know the answers, Mom and Dad bought them wholesale. 

 

HONORS ENGLISH — “Are You Ready?”

I had to throw out the teaching style that says, “Follow me, guys.” I was forced to bring in a new format, “There it is, ladies and gentlemen. Go get it. There will be a test afterwards and pro scouts from Yale, Harvard, Vassar, Dartmouth, Wisconsin, Stanford, John Hopkins, and UC-Berkeley will be here to time your SAT sprints with hand-held stopwatches, so be ready.”

 

ENGLISH METHODS CLASS — “4 Steps”

English majors may acquire the essence of all Teachers College education through four easy steps. Simply put into practice the following: make your students believe that you see them, hear them, understand them, and will try your darndest to help them every day.

 

COLLEGE COMPOSITION CLASS — “Check Them at the Door”

I don’t have to stand when I talk to maintain silence, but this class got very quiet, when a uniformed policeman showed up to finish his degree. He brought his partner to patrol the hall, while class was going on. Eventually, I had to ask both of them to check their guns at the door, because a female student who was a tank driver for the National Guard was becoming annoyed. She stood up in class and said, “This is not Dodge City. You should not wear uniforms to class, and it would be a good idea to leave your weapons in your cruisers.” They did.

 

JOB CORPS ENGLISH — “It’s Part of My Job”

My football coach liked to tell his team, “When you make a tackle on defense, keep your head down but your eyes up. That way you can see which way the ball carrier is moving, and you will protect yourself from injury.” — Many years later, I had to tackle a student in front of his barracks and sit on him until the police arrived. He began sniffing glue in his room, came to class very high, and tried to set the building on fire after receiving the assignment “How did you spend your summer vacation?”

 

LAMAZE ENGLISH? — “Tell the Paramedics to Go to the Second Floor”

As varied as my experiences have been, at least, I did not have to teach the English class my friend taught to a junior in her high school. This teacher got to deliver a baby in the girls’ bathroom next to her classroom between passing periods. The student was so small that none of her friends noticed she was pregnant, and even her parents did not know she was expecting.

 

ADULT NIGHT SCHOOL — “No Empty Cups”

This simply meant fifteen-hour days. Sometimes, it is known as the “red-eye” class or “Caffeine-College.” Every ten minutes, I changed what we did in class, and every thirty minutes, I asked the students to stand up and move to accomplish a class objective. This kept them from falling asleep at their desks. I talked to them while they moved and got to know them better when the class “shifted.” They didn’t know I was still teaching, as we laughed and told each other stories about our families and what happened during the day. Universal education never stops.

 

BUSINESS ENGLISH — “Everyone Uses It”

Teaching a toilet paper salesman to write is a unique experience. All he was interested in was figuring volume sales, analyzing the folding technique of “crunchers” and “wadders,” the numbers of sheets per visit, and studying Thomas Crapper and Mr. Whipple. Wizards come in all shapes and sizes.

 

HOSPITAL ENGLISH — “It’s Time to Operate”

Here we patch and mend like a M.A.S.H. unit. After a period of time, we send the students back to the front lines. I remember Tommy not being able to write anything of consequence, until he started to trust me. When this happened, he allowed himself to cry over his mother’s death, a year before. Between the tears, he was able to scratch out an essay that would have earned a B+ in any teacher’s classroom. He did all the other class assignments, but he came into my classroom every Friday afternoon for two months, sat in his seat, and reread that paper, while I worked on student grades. Most of the time, the room was silent. Once in a while, he would ask if he could reread the paper aloud, because he thought he made an improvement or two. When I asked to see the paper and reread it like it was a first time submission, I gave it an A+ grade. I handed it back, and he smiled, then cried, again. He thanked me for listening to him, as he left the room for the last time. The rest of the school year, I saw him in the hall, frequently, and he always had that letter folded in his shirt pocket.

 

STRAIGHTJACKET ENGLISH — “Never Close Your Eyes”

Instructors of these classes try to keep the students awake without allowing them to injure themselves, fellow students, or teachers. John was up, down, and “off the wall” every day, but he never changed his blank, expressionless face. When I asked him to write on the class assignment, he looked at me and said, “Why would I want to do that?”

 

TERMINAL ENGLISH — “Do Your Homework, Then You Can Eat Supper”

Here the patients will not recover in their lifetimes. Teachers of these classes are like nurses in coronary wards. They must be rotated regularly to prevent burnout and severe depression. Bernie was a favorite student of mine. He misspelled words like “was,” “does,” and “God,” but he is now an athlete at a state college. Once in a while, I will receive a postcard or an email from him. The last time he contacted me, part of the message went like this. “Hi, Teach. I may pass my English class this year. The new, young teacher likes me, she said, because I make her laugh. Thanks for your help last year in that writing class. Can you send $100? I am getting too skinny.”

 

CEMETERY ENGLISH – “Her Last Goodbye”

Mary had writer’s block, because she couldn’t forget that her grandmother died on the family’s porch swing. She was Mary’s favorite relative. Her grandmother was resting on the swing and asked Mary to fix her a cup of hot coffee. Mary went inside to the kitchen, made the coffee, brought it to her, and set it on the table next to the swing. She forgot to bring the sugar and cream and had to return to the kitchen for them. When she came back to the porch, her grandmother was sitting up straight with the coffee steam spiraling upwards past the smile on her face. Mary could see the light was gone from those loving eyes. Fourteen-years-old and without another person in the home to help, she had to deal with the rescue squad, the police, and the coroner. Mary went on to win a national writing contest when she got over her writing block caused by this personal situation. She asked me to go to the cemetery with her to say her last goodbye. Her mother and father approved, so we both took our journals with us and wrote in them as we sat by her grandmother’s grave. Mary still writes to me, all these years later.

 

Listening is the most important part of any conversation, and most of us do not try hard enough to master this skill. People who were born to be “radios” need good listeners. I wish more of us would develop this talent. The students in these classes taught me so much, and thank goodness, I let them teach me about life. One girl said, “You seem to care more about us than other teachers do. You hear what we are saying.” Surely, that is the best compliment I have ever received. In every class, each student was a unique, bipedal poem.

 

“I will do what’s right.

I will do my best.

I will show others I care.”

-Argyle, TX, Elementary School

Mondays with Martin: This Moment

David Martin

 

I am a little bird 

with broken wings, afraid of the future.

My cracked dreams flutter, lack direction, 

and refuse to take flight.

 

When I struggle to find purpose, 

it is not necessary to travel 4,000 miles for a perfect photograph 

or seek answers in barbaric places where crisis rules.

Destiny will take care of itself.

 

It only takes 39 digits of pi 

to calculate the circumference of the universe 

to an accuracy the size of a hydrogen atom,

yet, I spend little time measuring the boundary of my heart.

 

When the community counts and respect for truth rules,

where people meet to find the best among them is holy ground.

The urgent must not displace the important,

and there is no substitution for amputated spirits.

 

Not yesterday. Not tomorrow.

Not history. Not mystery

Today is the focus. 

I am grateful, now.

 

I didn’t come this far to go somewhere else,

and my little corner of the world brightens.

In the trying, the healing happens.

This moment is the answer.

 

Mondays with Martin: Laugh My Way to Health

David Martin

 

A recent health study determined there are three primary reasons people cannot cope in life:

 

  1. They have low self-esteem. 
  2. They live in the past. 
  3. They don’t laugh enough. 

 

This study concluded that we need a minimum of twelve laughs a day to stay healthy! I must be suffering from undernourishment. Imagine that – twelve laughs per day. Who does that? My wife and family believe I have no sense of humor, at all, so they are already in shock to hear that I want to laugh more. When I was young, I wanted to become a marine biologist, but I could not keep my grades above “C” level.

 

When we were children, at least once a year, my father took my brothers and me to the best barber in town for a shaving, I mean a haircut. Jim Sefried was a good man and a good barber. How do I know? He was so good that as children, we sat still long enough for him to cut our hair. The most unusual thing was that we did not squirm in the barber chair, because we were listening so hard for the punch lines to his funny stories. He was a master storyteller, and we were amazed that he could get the grown men and the young boys in the shop to laugh at the same darned jokes. I learned at that early age, if you want to teach someone a lesson, it is a lot easier if they are laughing first before you give them the message. A good laugh goes a long way. A long way to what? To better health, that’s what.

“Two Quarters or a Dollar Bill?” is one of the stories I remember him telling us. 

 

A young boy enters a barber shop, and the barber whispers to his customer, “This is the dumbest kid in the world. Watch, while I prove it to you.” The barber puts a dollar bill in one hand and two quarters in the other, then calls the boy over and asks, “Which do you want, son?” 

The boy takes the quarters and leaves the dollar. “What did I tell you?” said the barber. “That kid never learns!”

Later, when the customer leaves, he sees the same young boy coming out of the ice cream store and says: “Hey, son! May I ask you a question? Why did you take the quarters instead of the dollar bill?”

The boy licked his cone and replied, “Because the day I take the dollar, the game’s over!”

 

Recent studies have found that facts and logic do not persuade people to change their minds, even when they are wrong. The more facts that are marshalled to prove their error, the more tenaciously most people will cling to mistaken ideas.

Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus, says, “Given the power of our prior beliefs to skew how we respond to new information, one thing is becoming clear: If you want someone to accept new evidence, make sure to present it to them in a context that doesn’t trigger a defensive, emotional reaction.” Studies at Yale demonstrated that emphasizing similarities in values prior to presenting the facts was much more likely to be persuasive.

Humorists have long been effective at pointing out the nonsense that frequently passes for wisdom or accepted truth. Think of Will Rogers. His humor was effective, because it wasn’t aggressive; whereas, George Carlin’s more caustic wit landed him in court and antagonized many. If you would change people’s minds, don’t try to swamp them with facts. Lead with values that are shared, preferably wrapped in gentle humor.

 

“I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.” -Will Rogers

 

Most of the time, I am adequate at what I do, sufficient for what is required, but I am not remarkable in many things. My whole life has been marked by a consistent overestimation of my abilities. In the past, I would pursue real life with crippling caution and my hobbies and goals with optimism that overreached the bounds of common sense. 

I regret my social phobias, but I do not regret my ambitions. Thanks to my father’s training, I rode my first horse at the age of five, knew how to swing a pitchfork, and started talking like a naughty adult with bad language to make myself feel older. At fourteen, I wondered if I should focus on my muscles, so I could work outdoors with my dad and be more masculine. Indoors, I thought I should improve my language and think more clearly, like my mother. Slowly, her influence took over my testosterone development, and I started reading widely for fun, as she did, and went to the library to help carry the books she brought home. This change in behavior taught me to be more thoughtful and strategic in my pursuits, but I still had a lot of my dad in me.

Today, I have too many commitments to manage. I listen to music, but never as much as I should to develop my own skills. I write something every day and “coach” students of all ages how to place their own ideas on the written page. These activities are more important than my hobbies and short-term ambitions, and they force me to prioritize my life. I enjoy what I do so much that it does not feel like work.

The future is something I have been planning for many years. I used to have clear goals for what was to come on the highway of life, but as time went along, those objectives shifted, as did my interests, but my passion for words and typed pages did not fade. Black-on-white ideas compete with my dreams. Tossing the right words on paper helps clear my vision, so I can see my chosen path as I proceed during life’s third act.

 

“Hello, God”:

A man climbs to the top of Mt. Sinai to get close enough to talk to God.
Looking up, he asks the Lord, “God, what does a million years mean to you?”
The Lord replies, “A minute.”
The man asks, “And what does a million dollars mean to you?”
The Lord replies, “A penny.”
The man asks, “Can I have a penny?”
The Lord replies, “In a minute.” 

 

Recently, I experienced writer’s block. The flow of words stopped. I didn’t expect this to happen, because I liked my topic, and I could see a happy outcome further down the page. Why did my writing freeze? Why now? Why here?

After enough time passed to enjoy two cups of coffee, I realized the previous flow of words related to my past life and how I fled from the “old me” with its pain and frustrations. I could write about those ideas for a long time. The past is history. My future was the mystery.

I started thinking about my son’s great Australian adventure, when he led fifteen people into the Outback for three months, and they received a semester’s worth of college credit for their time and effort. One day, his group was tired and thirsty, after walking for twelve hours in the summer heat. They knew they were getting close to a small river, and some of them let their guard down. They were thinking so much about getting water to drink, finding cool shade, and relaxing that they forgot about the dangerous creatures that lived there. The nine most lethal and venomous snakes on Earth live in that region, and so do larger animals who can eat humans for lunch. Brad reminded them of this and to keep moving quietly, while remaining alert. 

A short time later, as the group continued down the narrow trail they were on, the day’s student leader walked around a large boulder, while the rest of the group trailed behind him in single file. Because their forward vision was blocked by the narrow turn of the trail, they lost sight of the leader for a few seconds. To their surprise, they heard him yell, “Oh, good grief! Everyone, stop where you are!”

Brad hurried to the front of the group. As he came around the boulder, he saw a massive crocodile lying across the trail, asleep in the sun, and five yards away from the river. Now, that was a trail blocker, and Brad had to deal with it fast to keep everyone safe. Usually, when there is one croc, there are more nearby. The group’s thirst would have to wait, because everyone’s safety was the primary consideration on each day’s journey. This time, the huge croc took over as their main concern. Sometimes, a writer’s block is a small thing compared to a life block. All things are relative. There are blocks, and there are blocks.

 

“My therapist told me the way to achieve true inner peace is to finish what I start. So far, I’ve finished two bags of M&Ms and a chocolate cake. I feel better already.” -Dave Barry

 

“My husband wanted one of those big-screen TV’s for his birthday. So, I just moved his chair closer to the one we have already.” -Wendy Liebman

 

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” -Douglas Adams

 

Laughter is cheaper than a psychiatrist, and it is good medicine. It strengthens immune systems, diminishes pain, and reduces stress. Children laugh more than adults, and grownups who act childlike in this way live longer, have better relationships, and achieve more happiness. A really good laugh every day lightens our burdens, creates hope, keeps us focused, releases anger, and lets us become more forgiving. Smiling is contagious. Count your blessings. Think positively. Adding playful people to our lives is good chemistry. Take a laugh break. Laugh at yourself. Laugh at situations. Let loose of the negative. Yes, there is such a thing as laugh therapy. There are laughter-based exercise programs, and humor in the workplace increases productivity. Ah, well, it’s not as bad as they say it is, and I wouldn’t be paranoid if everyone didn’t pick on me. People have one thing in common. They are all different.

 

Genealogy:

A little girl asked her mother, “How did the human race appear?”

The mother answered, “God made Adam and Eve, and they had children, so Mankind was made.”

Two days later, the girl asked her father the same question.

The father answered, “Many years ago, there were monkeys from which the human race evolved.”

The confused girl returned to her mother and said, “Mom, how is it possible that you told me the human race was created by God, and Dad said they developed from monkeys?”

The mother answered, “Well, dear, it is very simple. I told you about my side of the family, and your father told you about his.”

Aunt Nellie Schock was one of my favorite relatives. She got polio when she was six years old, was forever paralyzed from her waist down, and could never walk again without assistance. She learned to use wooden crutches to go from one chair to another, upstairs and down, and outside. She would sit under the big cottonwood tree in her front yard on a small chair that she lugged from the kitchen table, while deftly leaning to one side at just the correct angle, so she would not fall down, as she moved one crutch at a time. 

Always wearing full dresses that reached her shoelaces with full sleeves, the only skin not covered was her face and fingers. Her home in Falls City, NE, let the light breeze enter through the raised windows, while others equipped with blinds kept the sunlight and much of the summer heat outside. Before home air-conditioning, she was “the coolest” of my relatives.

She hired someone in town to construct a five-foot-wide fishpond in the shade of that large tree, and she fed her fish every day, while she talked to them. They became her little friends and seemed to know her shadow on the water meant mealtime. After months of conditioning, they were not afraid to eat out of her hand. Those swimming playmates were given names, and their unique colors and sizes helped her talk to them when she needed company. 

Like floating ideas, they would hide in the pool’s depths and then rise to the surface, when they felt her presence and the time was appropriate. Nellie and her swimming spirits bonded over the flakes of communion she scattered on the water, as they shared their time together. I always wondered if the size of that pond allowed these special fish to flourish more than their cousins trapped in fish bowls around town. Does the size of an individual’s world matter to our mental health and physical consciousness? “Time is but a stream I go a fishing in.” -H.D. Thoreau.

Newspapers, magazines, and books were also her friends. Nellie read, voraciously. She was a clipper of articles, a scrapbook queen, a collector of history, and a saver of mankind’s ideas. Often alone, she was never lonely. Most of her life was spent in meditation. When I think of her, I remember the following story.

 

The Mysterious Monks:

A man’s car broke down as he was driving past a beautiful old monastery. He walked up the drive and knocked on the front door.

A monk answered, listened to the man’s story and graciously invited him to spend the night. The monks fed the man and led him to a tiny chamber in which to sleep. The man thanked the monks and slept serenely, until he was awakened by a strange and beautiful sound.

The next morning, as the monks were repairing his car, he asked about the sound that had awakened him.

“We’re sorry,” the monks said. “We can’t tell you about the sound. You’re not a monk.”

The man was disappointed, but eager to be gone, so he thanked the monks for their kindness and went on his way.

During quiet moments afterward, the man pondered the source of the alluring sound.

Several years later, the man happened to be driving in the same area. He stopped at the monastery on a whim and asked admittance.

He explained to the monks that he had so enjoyed his previous stay that he wondered if he might be permitted to spend another night under their peaceful roof. The monks agreed, and so the man stayed with them again.

Late that night, he heard the strange beautiful sound. The following morning he begged the monks to explain the sound. The monks gave him the same answer as before. “We’re sorry. We can’t tell you about the sound. You’re not a monk.”

By now, the man’s curiosity had turned to obsession. He decided to give up everything and become a monk, for that was the only way he could learn about the sound. He informed the monks of his decision and began the long and arduous task of becoming a monk. Seventeen years later, the man was finally established as a true member of the order.

When the celebration ended, he humbly went to the leader of the order and asked to be told the source of the sound. Silently, the old monk led the new monk to a huge wooden door. He opened the door with a golden key. That door swung open to reveal a second door of silver, then a third of gold and so on until they had passed through twelve doors, each more magnificent than the last.

The new monk’s face was awash with tears of joy, as he finally beheld the wondrous source of the beautiful mysterious sound he had heard so many years before.

But I can’t tell you what it was. You’re not a monk.

 

Life has been busy at school. I feel like Gabby Hays, Roy Rogers’s sidekick, prospecting in Death Valley for my elusive vein of gold, as I plod over one sand dune after another leading my mule behind me, the one that looks at me and seems to say, “And you think I am the jackass?” 

Surrounded by thousands of students, literally, the few who are truly interested, good ones appear like a green oasis on the horizon, as I wipe the sand from my eyes. The struggle seems worth the effort, when I can talk to the curious and thoughtful, before they run away for classes, projects, extracurricular activities, sports, and jobs. I am lucky to have time with them, but I revel in those moments when I do. 

Today, we had a readers’ theater in creative writing class, when students volunteered to share their own work of the week. Some of their journal writings made me laugh, and some brought tears to my eyes. They were all good. The students know when a piece is worthy. They involuntarily clap, laugh out loud, and compliment each other. They are good audiences, 98% of the time. More teachers should see them read, perform, and listen to each other’s artistry. I am proud of these creative authors. Write on.

 

The field of science gives us seven reasons to laugh.

  1. Lowers blood pressure
  2. Reduces stress hormone levels
  3. Works your abs
  4. Improves cardiac health
  5. Boosts T-cells
  6. Triggers the release of endorphins
  7. Produces a general sense of well-being

 

The Prairie Wind: 

It was hot and constant. After two weeks of this natural inferno without rain, the ground cracked, the crops turned brown, and the small creek running through the farm dried up, Mom’s fingers remained hard and rough, as her face became blunt and raw. Dad never seemed to be in the house anymore. He was always outside helping the livestock survive.

I never saw so many turkey buzzards fly over our place before. Usually, when we saw them, they were too high to be noticed. Now, they were lower and often landed on the ground. This was not a good sign. Their ugly faces woke me up at night and became constant features in my dreams.

Lady was my first horse, and I rode her every day. We went down to the river to escape the heat. We both were eager to get into the water and cool off. She seemed to anticipate my next move on our journeys, almost like we were brother and sister, while growing up together. 

Once a thin, young coyote came to the stream to drink when we were there, and my pal noticed the loping animal before I did. It failed to notice us, because it wanted water so badly. Lady quietly moved over to me and stood next to my left shoulder, as we faced the wild creature that was only a few feet away. After the animal drank its fill, it turned and saw both of us. Surprised to see a human and a horse so close, it stopped in its tracks. Its ears shot up, and its back was arched in fright. It took a long, slow minute to determine that we were not a threat, and it quietly slipped back into the shadows of the Missouri River bluffs. Lady and I looked at each other, and in our own ways, we laughed together at what we just witnessed.

There are so many ways to see the world. Knowledge is good, but wisdom is better. Our exposure to this wildness will always remain with me, and the memories of this snapshot of another world just out of my sight reminds me there is so much we do not know about life. Someday, I hope we will understand its purpose, beauty, truth, and grace.

Mark Twain is known today as America’s favorite literary humorist. His stories, essays, and novels are filled with lessons learned while his readers laughed. He chuckled all the way to the bank in the nineteenth century, and we still read his great books today. During his lifetime, however, he felt he was plagued by tragedy and hard times. Many people he loved died early deaths. He was confident that laughter was necessary for him to go on in life after his tragedies to survive the days that followed. He told friends and readers that he was sure there was no laughter in Heaven. When people asked him how he knew this was true, he said there was no pain in Heaven, so laughter was not needed.

 

“If you love something, set it free. Unless it’s chocolate. Never release chocolate.” -Renee Duvall

 

“For those who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they like.” -Abraham Lincoln

 

Mondays with Martin: Let Your Light Shine

David Martin

My best friend has always been Bubba, my journal. He listens to me, when no one else will. If I ignore him, he comes to me in my dreams and asks, “Where have you been? Are you coming back? I miss you.” He listens to me write about Mozart in the jungle, a high school junior offensive tackle who wanted to play fullback but was too slow for the backfield, how I got over my fear of facing the blank page, why I hunger for discovering how the drive for increased creativity affects some people and not others, why I laugh out loud when my personal muse finds me, the psychological differences between poetry and prose, introverts and extroverts, young authors and mature ones, why all forms of creativity are spiritual expressions, why certain people I meet become important to me, and why my interpretation of the American dream matters.

Bubba taught me to make time for what is important every day of my life. I use the precious moments of each twenty-four hour window for causes that matter. This searching has shown me that the most important answers to life’s questions lie inside us, and all we must do is let them surface. I write first and edit later. Wisdom windows appear between the lines of Bubba’s words. Each journal page is a marriage of whimsy and dreams with logical thinking and creative composition in the church of Standard English. All he asks is to be fed regularly. He is a work in progress, and he accepts this position. His job is to create a state of mind, remain open to new ideas, and make them visible. At times, he sounds like Leonard Nemoy in Star Trek: Write. Learn. Prosper.

True artists live lives of purpose. They live each day as a verb. They let their lights shine into the future. They are full of stories and must tell them or die. After every great sorrow is a great joy, but when we cut out all the dragons from our lives, our angels disappear. Art does not capture. It interprets. I want to live like this.

There are 3,000 possible expressions in the human face. Should we be surprised that 93% of all communication is nonverbal? The difficulty for writers appears when we try to use our 26 letters in the English alphabet to persuade, entertain, and argue on paper in that7% of communication. Growing our vocabulary helps to accomplish these goals. Incorporating style, grammar, metaphors, research, proof, facts, and knowledge of cultures come to our aid. All languages are instruments. Writers must learn to play them, not let them play us. What goes onto the page is an image, just the way an artist paints a canvas. Effective communication comes down to the use of creativity, as in all art.

Fareed Zakaria said, “Every year, 100 million children around the world never go to school.” What might happen to this civilization if everyone who wanted to was able to attend school every day? Writing is a living bridge that connects us all. Only 1% of the people on this planet have a four-year college degree.

Don’t fight. Create. To grow requires relinquishing control. Let moments happen. Give all gifts with joy to help others through their lives. Be a spiritual warrior with art. The spirit is in us. Perfection is not necessary. We are enough. Do our best. That will do. With hope and good editing, the best in writers will reveal itself.

Before the beginning of brilliance, there must be chaos. Before people begin something great, they must look foolish. Go ahead. Make mistakes. From these errors, learning begins.

Words matter. Look up the unfamiliar ones. Use the right word, in the right way, at the right time, to convey the right meaning. Eskimos have 40 words for “snow.” What is stopping you? Learn a lot about one thing. Learn a little about many things. Vocabulary is the best item in the writers’ toolbox. When I was writing about the lack of love in the world, Bubba pointed me to Cornell West, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

If we want to achieve, we must believe. Life is waiting. Be ready. See it. Touch it. Hear it. Taste it. Feel it. Smell it. Write it.

 

x x x

 

A few years ago, my son and I went to Fontenelle Forest in Bellevue, NE, and walked through the beautiful, changing colors that nature provides each year. In that peaceful atmosphere, as so often happens when I least expect it, an epiphany occurred.

While enjoying that moment for its own beauty, I noticed two ants, one large and one small. Possibly, they were a father and son duo, too. As I sat on a fallen log, I found them inside a hole in the bark. I spent twenty minutes watching them work and just be ants.

In the distance, an auto horn trumpeted, announcing my new found discovery. As I peered deeper into the ants’ world, I saw much more: their relatives, family, and concerns. It seemed their entire world was inside this log.

How like these ants, we are. Imprisoned by our bodies, values, and the inability of our minds to dream, our lives bordered by barriers stopping the growth of our spirits and developing our human potential.

I wondered if Mr. Ant noticed the tree tops of the forest where he lived. He could not know much about the world outside of his small existence. Was there a spiritual presence for him? Could a larger being and his son, greater than my son and me, as we are greater than the ants, look down through their hole in the sky and watch us, our world, relatives, family, and work?

Am I stuck in my place, in this body, and set of circumstances like that ant, hurrying to and fro, never bothering to look up? I was too high above the ants for a presence of closeness to affect them. I wonder if Mr. Ant would look up and wonder more often about things outside of his world, if he could imagine a totally different circle of existence around his log. Can we imagine a larger circle of existence around us?

This new year, let us use our words to reflect our tolerance of others and let our families and friends risk being themselves. Let them lookup or inwardly to find the spirit, warmth, and love they need to feel good about themselves and their passions. Let us take time to look through a hole in our own “hollow logs” to rejoice in the lives we live, to stand in awe of life’s immensity, mystery, complexity, and simplicity. Let us read between the lines of our lives, notice more than the words, and discover the wisdom that lies inside each of us.

This year, many things will happen to us, our country, and our world. Whatever occurs, let’s hold onto each other, be tolerant in our opinions, try to see the big picture of things, and remain open to the possibility there is a larger world that we do not comprehend at this time.

Like the ants, work hard and do what needs to be done; however, don’t forget to look up. You might see the tops of the trees in your forest and beyond. Let your light shine.

“Scribo, ergo sum.” –Marcia C. Forecki

Mondays with Martin: Winding Roads

David Martin

In 1829 the future President Martin Van Buren wrote to then President Andrew Jackson, asking him to slow down on his progressive moves to face the future in the young United States of America.

 

Dear President Jackson:

The canal system of this country is being threatened by the spread of a new form of transportation known as “railroads.” The federal government MUST preserve the canals for the following reasons:

ONE: if canal boats are supplanted by these new “railroads,” serious unemployment will result. Captains, docks, drivers and lock tenders will be left without means of livelihood, not to mention the numerous farmers now employed growing hay for horses.

TWO: Boat builders would suffer, and towline, whip and harness makers would be left destitute. 

THREE: Canal boats are absolutely essential to the defense of the United States. In the event of the expected trouble with England, the Erie Canal would be the only means by which we could ever move the supplies so vital to waging modern war.

As you may well know, Mr. President, “railroad” carriages are pulled at the enormous speed of 15 miles per hour by “engines” which, in addition to endangering life and limb of passengers, roar and snort their way through the countryside, setting fire to crops, scaring the livestock, and frightening women and children. The Almighty certainly never intended that people should travel at such breakneck speed.

Martin Van Buren,

Governor of New York

 

This letter, which was written three years after Thomas Jefferson died, might be the ultimate example of conservative thinking. Really, canal boats are better for the United States than railroads? Now, we know those roaring and snorting engines that “endangered” passengers in 1829 are still vital to our country’s economy, and fifteen miles per hour is no longer “breakneck speed.”

Mankind’s journeys have come in many fashions: horses, bicycles, boats, railroads, automobiles, airplanes, computers, cell phones, and space travel. Whatever our mobility mode, look for the roads less travelled. Life seldom follows a straight line from point A to Z, and our personal journeys add clarity to the telling of our stories. They allow us to have fun with the written word and build the creative corners of our minds that we did not know existed. Each paragraph we write acts like a railroad car of its own, carrying characters, messages, and a cargo of ideas across vistas that complete the breakneck train-ride of our lives.

 

Some people think Monte Walsh was the best western novel ever written (1963). Since the author also wrote Shane (1949), Jack Schaefer captured the timely saga of a dying way of life, where the lonely cowboy meets the changing modern way of living. It is ironic that the Monte Walsh movie of the same name takes place in Harmony, Arizona.

My father always wanted to be a real cowboy, like Tom Mix, Lash Larue, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Shane, and Walsh, but when he returned from WWII with three Purple Hearts, his legs and feet were so damaged by bullets and shrapnel that they were unable to do the hard riding and physical work a cowboy must do every day. He only took his boots off to sleep, because he could hardly walk without their firm, high arch support. I imagine him talking with one of these cowboys, and they are wearing their favorite pair of leather boots.

Dad’s favorite companion was a beautiful Morgan mare named Gin. She ruled every pen and pasture she entered. Her eyes were alert. Her ears were always up. When I looked at her, I could see her thinking about how to survive in a world of animals and humans. Gin lived for thirty-three years, which is old for horses. From her, I learned it is a mistake to assume all animals will react identically to the same stimuli. Some need rewards at every turn. Some only want encouragement to achieve superior results. People are the same.

 

Every day, Mom suffered, because she hoped for an educated life, one that provided a better living, one where people graduated from college and became professionals. She flinched every time she heard the song “Don’t Let Your Sons Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” That ballad was not her friend. While she let me work with Dad during the day, she made sure I spent an equal amount of time with her in the town library, at piano practice, and doing homework for school. She smiled the most when we had late night chats in the kitchen, puzzling over life’s questions and the abstract ideas I found interesting in the books I read. 

She let me find my own road in life. I wanted to be myself, but I had a hard time learning who that was. I searched for years to discover me. Many of my blue highways did not appear on maps. I rode horses in saddle club contests and learned cowboy lingo. I read Victor Hugo all night and loved the flow of his words. I coached young boys how to put basketballs into nets and took those skills into classrooms to score points with teachers who listened to me. I pumped gas and learned some of the oil business. I balanced a checkbook for the first time and took great pride in being thrifty. I drove grain trucks and felt the land’s treasure riding in the back. I delivered newspapers and brought the world news to my customers’ front doors. I wrote magazine articles, managed a church, studied philosophy, fed cattle, and learned how to adapt in life in order to survive. 

I was frustrated with my imperfections. However, when I discovered “perfection” was just another word, and there were no perfect human beings, no perfect Standard English, no perfect religion, no perfect student, no perfect teacher, no perfect parent, no perfect planet, and no perfect god, I relaxed. I stopped looking for and expecting perfection in myself and others. The word “progress” interested me. If I improved a little each day, that was enough. This realization gave me reason to ride more trains and investigate more winding roads. 

 

One day in my biology high school class, when I was dreaming out loud with friends, I said that I wanted to go to college and do something exciting, but I did not know what to study. 

My teacher heard me and said, “Oh, you are just your father’s son. You will be like him and run his gas station or one of his farms, someday.” I can still hear her tired, raspy voice say those words. They haunt me still.

She hardly ever talked to me, because she was my mother’s and father’s teacher, and she believed I was an average student, having known them. She did not see anything special about them or me, and I did not expect that she ever would. Still, this hurtful comment was not what I hoped to hear from any adult teacher. She was full of negativity, darkness, lack of hope, and I never felt inspired in her classroom. That day, I almost let her kill part of me, my dream of becoming the first person in my family to earn a college education. 

 

After school was out for the summer that year, I was working with Dad, one day, and we walked into his favorite saloon for lunch. He seemed so comfortable that a chill of premonition went down my spine. That bar represented his life and the status quo he liked. I just wanted to eat, get back on the tractor, finish my day’s work, and in the evening go to the library. I wanted to live my life, not his. In high school, I knew that if I wanted to write, I needed to read more. I felt like a little bird with a broken wing, because I could not get off the ground. When healed, I imagined flying high, soaring with words beneath my wings. Mom would like that.

I had plans to read, write about topics that were fun to investigate, and discover substantial information that would pull me into my future adult life. My pearls of joy were those books resting on the rows of shelves. Each volume was a treasure of its own, and I dreamed that one day my name would have a place on a shelf, too. 

That night, a librarian asked me, “Are you a writer?” 

She caught me off guard, and I blushed. “Well, I want to be one, someday, but I don’t know if I have what it takes to get started.” 

She said with a smile, “You won’t know until you try.” 

 

Winding roads have curves, and some have bridges. Forgiveness is a bridge between leaving the past and improving tomorrow. I learned to face difficult times, when I found chaos is where creativity is born. The more I read, the more I changed, and the toughest times taught me the most. Those books led me over rough waters, where I learned to forgive myself. When I opened the books, I imagined light erupting from the pages, and I walked forward into their light. One of the earliest self-affirmation bridges I experienced was when my passion for reading helped me through my toughest year. I read 150 books in 12 months. I felt more confident about a lot of things when that year ended. Those bridges taught me to not let my limitations define me.

Once, Dad looked at me, and without speaking, he asked, “Why do you want to be different?” 

I responded in the same way, “Some of me is you. Some of me is Mom. I just want to be me. That is who I want to be.”

He did not know what to say, so he said nothing.

Years later, I heard Bob Marley sing what I felt: “One love, one heart, let’s get together and feel all right.”

With these lessons, I grew page by page. I dug deeper. I thought harder. I saw further.

When I was lonely, I found puppies that took me in. Every dog needed a boy or a girl. Children liked their dogs, and dogs liked their boys and girls. Puppies helped me make the best of the way things turned out. They taught me to be humble enough to be coached, and I learned even the youngest and smallest in a litter can learn. The most stubborn puppy changed his attitude, when motivated to do so. When my furry friends were stubborn, I got down on the floor with them, let them lick my face, looked them in both eyes, told them what they had to do, and never let them do otherwise. They did not forget the look in my eyes, the tone of my voice, what I told them, and how much I cared for them. If they didn’t follow my commands, I did not care enough. 

 

Grandfather was a positive role model for me in many ways, and I felt lucky to be around him on the weekends, when Mother and I came for visits on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. When I was a little boy, maybe eight-years-old, reading did not come easily for me, and opening a book required much planning and effort. 

One day, I walked into Grandfather’s library, and there was a half-cut apple on the card-table next to his comfortable reading chair, a steaming cup of coffee, three open books lying next to each other, Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” playing on the big radio, and hand-written notes on a large, yellow tablet. As I sat down, the breeze outside ruffled the shades in the open window. 

He was the smartest man I knew, and his interests included agriculture, human evolution, politics, and the St. Louis Cardinals. There was no question I ever asked him that he could not answer. At that age, all I had to do was listen. When he talked, he kept me at the end of his out-stretched arms, and when he felt an important point in the conversation was about to arrive, he squeezed my shoulders for emphasis, so I would know to remember what he said.

We lived in a small town, and as far as I knew, no one important lived there. To most of the townsfolk, Grandfather seemed like any ordinary 60-year-old man, but he felt special to me. Although he farmed every day, I never saw him sweat. How is that possible? I asked my mother that same question. She said she did not know, so I watched him closely. After a few weeks of diligent observation, I could see that he never hurried. He never pushed. He smiled all the time, and he talked to all the animals on the farm. It seemed as if he had the best job in the world. What did this mean? 

Grandfather was an organizer, a planner, and he never did anything or spoke a word, unless he thought about his actions ahead of time. He always got up early, before the sun rose, and when it was the coolest part of the day, he did eight hours of work before noon. Then, he would eat lunch and take a nap. When he worked in the afternoon, he was in the shade, if possible, took ten minutes out of every hour for a cool drink, put his feet up, and rested awhile. His smile always showed up, because he enjoyed what he did. His love for farming was contagious, and we all wanted to help him. 

One day, after lunch, he and I sat on the shady front porch. His eyes were closed, as he rested, before he went back to the field to work. I was listening to a train going down the tracks in the distance, blowing its whistle.

I asked him a question. “Grandpa, will I grow up to be like you?”

He opened his eyes, slowly. “What did you say?”

“Well, you seem so happy all the time, and you like what you do every day. I don’t know anybody else who likes what they do so much. I want to be like that.”

His eyes got bigger, and he laughed. “If I help other people and do a good job at it, that is a good thing, right?”

“Yes.”

“We are a family, and we are supposed to help each other in as many ways as possible. Well, being a conscientious farmer is doing God’s work. Feeding people healthy food is one man’s way of praying. I often feel like an artist of the soil, when I drive my tractor during planting season. I plow, disc, till, plant, weed the rows, and harvest the crops. When I take care of the Earth, it takes care of me. Our heaven might just be below our feet.”

“I’m not sure I understand all of that. Last week, my teacher tried to tell us what a metaphor was. Did you do one of those just now?”

“Maybe.”

“It would be nice, if more people worked with those goals in mind, right?

He stood up to go back to work, arranged his hat, placed his hands on my shoulders, and squeezed them.

Then, he smiled and said, “In the future, instead of planting soybeans, wheat, and corn every spring, wouldn’t it be great to have a tractor that could plant truth, justice, and freedom for all? In the fall, we’d harvest knowledge, intelligence, and wisdom. Those different crops in the barn would come in pretty handy, when we needed them. We must never limit ourselves. We will never know what we can achieve, until we try.”

I replied, “I want a job like that.”

He hugged me, and I saw his eyes twinkle. 

“Don’t over think it, sonny,” he said. “Just begin.” 

Mondays with Martin: Best Friends

By David Martin

For most of his Nebraska farming days, Grandfather Edgar Schock had no tractor, and he said the smartest thing he ever did was buy two, black, Belgian draft horses, because they saved his life and farm, while providing for the family, when he was unable to do the work himself. Every morning and evening, he brushed them, lovingly. In turn, they protected his tuberculosis-scarred lungs.
Blaze and Lady always had good grain and hay to eat, and Gramps talked to them, when he was in their stalls, as they were his children. Their affectionate eyes watched him, constantly. Horse and human, their bond was sensitive, strong, and intuitive. Their ears followed his quiet sounds, as he fed them, but like radar, they went suspiciously flat when strangers were loud or got too close.
Although he was quite ill, Grandmother said that Gramps never seemed as sick after his friends arrived. He was awake before sunrise and could not get out of the house fast enough, after eating his own breakfast, in order to care for those two beautiful animals, his best friends, and give them their first meal of the day. Both horses seemed to know how important they were to this skinny, two-legged creature, who worked every day in the fields with them
and thought it was a privilege to join their team.
He became an artist of the soil and used these heavily muscled paintbrushes with bobbed tails to color in fields of corn, alfalfa, and nature’s unique composition. At the end of exhausting workdays, the four-legged corn eaters with broad hooves, soft noses, and gentle hearts stuck their mouths under the surface of the cold tank water and blew bubbles like kids, laughing together at a summer swimming pool.
The only time Mother saw her father cry was when the big truck came that cold day and took the horses to the sale barn. He could not say goodbye to his old friends. After they left the barnyard that last time, Gramps was never as cheerful or stood as straight in the sun.
“Farming was never the same after that day,” he said.
The next week, a red metal tractor appeared. The deliveryman said it could do the work of ten teams and would not need corn and hay for fuel.
Weeks later, one evening after we finished supper, he got up from the table and left the house without telling anyone where he was going. Grandmother looked at me and nodded her head, so I followed him. He walked down the path away from the house into the cornfield and disappeared. I walked quickly to catch up with him.
“Hey, where ya goin’ so fast?”
He was surprised to see me and slowed down, so I could catch up with him. He rubbed tears from his eyes with one hand and put the other on my shoulder.
“I wanted to go to the barn and pet Blaze and Lady, but they’re not here, now, so I’m going to talk to the corn. In the field, those horses, wherever they are, will hear how much I miss them. Life is not the same without my friends. Tractors get hot but are never warm. That pair nudged me in the back with their noses when we talked, looking for another wedge of hay at day’s end, and thanking me for loving them the way friends do. I’ll never have buddies like that, again.”
“Hey, Gramps, I can be your buddy.”
He laughed, coughed, and more tears rolled down his cheeks.
“I’d like that.”

Mondays with Martin: A Personal Trinity

By David Martin

 

  1. You Must Be There 

the music is playing 

and it sounds like heaven 

so you must be there

 

the night glimmers when 

you slip on that white dress and 

we hold each other close

 

our love moves to the rhythm 

and the temperature rises 

as the floor becomes ours alone

 

one two three one two three 

we keep pace with each other 

together our hearts create tomorrows

 

this is our song 

everything we feel we are 

let’s dance like we mean it

 

2.  Together 

 

Here he comes 

running into this moment 

we have on a sunny morning

 

from beyond the darkness of sleep 

from a time of warm shadows 

from the happy sprinting which moves

 

the dry pages of my book 

and drops the necessary facts of life 

like bones at my feet causing his black eyes

 

above a panting tongue and wet nose 

each holding a caring passion for me 

and I can almost hear his words in between

 

his rapid fire barking 

“ruff — ruff — ruff” 

let’s walk now

 

3.  Now Is the Write Time 

 

If Ted Kooser can send poems to Jim Harrison, 

now is the “write” time to compose a verse for Vince McAndrew.

He motivates me to elevate my thoughts.

 

I can’t explain this situation. 

I don’t even write rhythmical composition. 

It is a darned hard thing to do.

 

With Kooser’s model and Vince’s acceptance, 

I will write a poem every . . . , well, whenever I feel like it. 

Then, I am going to burden him with their interpretations.

 

It doesn’t matter if he comments or not,

because I know he will have better things to do, 

but having an audience is better than pitching horseshoes.

 

Beware: we have a poet-in-progress, and 

he is a card-carrying member of Over Writers Anonymous: 

No Fear — No Perfection — Only Progress.

 

This new poet may attempt William Kloefkorn’s  

“Snowball Theory of Composition: 

Inspiration, Perspiration, and Compression,”  

 

which will create little treasures 

without a Map Quest app to move molehills, 

if not mountains.

Mondays With Martin: This Moment

By David Martin

I am a little bird
with broken wings, afraid of the future.
My cracked dreams flutter, lack direction,
and refuse to take flight.

When I struggle to find purpose,
it is not necessary to travel 4,000 miles for a perfect photograph
or seek answers in barbaric places where crisis rules.
Destiny will take care of itself.

It only takes 39 digits of pi
to calculate the circumference of the universe
to an accuracy the size of a hydrogen atom,
yet, I spend little time measuring the boundary of my heart.

When the community counts and respect for truth rules,
where people meet to find the best among them is holy ground.
The urgent must not displace the important,
and there is no substitution for amputated spirits.

Not yesterday. Not tomorrow.
Not history. Not mystery
Today is the focus.
I am grateful, now.

I didn’t come this far to go somewhere else,
and my little corner of the world brightens.
In the trying, the healing happens.
This moment is the answer.