JIM DODSON: Field Guide to Authentic Life
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It was raining hard, and the philosopher was late for lunch.
This was OK by me. It gave me time to finish both my coffee and his book for the second time that week.
"Excuse me," a woman seated at the next table in Starbucks said, leaning over. "I couldn't help noticing the book you're reading. The title intrigues me. May I ask what it's about?"
"A cure for Tom and Katie's wedding album," I replied. "Or maybe a Christmas shopping season that seems to come earlier every year."
She smiled, possibly recognizing a fellow curmudgeon. I handed her Ed Welles' "True Spirit, True Self." My copy was already dog-eared from constant opening and closing and being attacked by the point of a fountain pen.
She flipped through the pages, and I saw her eye catch on an underlined passage. She nodded, slowly turned the page.
"This is wonderful," she said. "Where did you find it?"
I explained that the author had sent it to me. "He wrote it for his sons. One son was entering college, the other just finishing. I think of it as a field guide for helping someone you love find an authentic life in the age of MTV."
"I see what you mean," she agreed, reading on with visible interest. "Oh, I love this." With no prompting, she read the passage out loud.
Gratitude is such a vital frame of mind because it is so easy to take good things for granted. People who have too many things and treat their possessions and gifts cavalierly court eventual poverty -- if not of the pocketbook, then of the soul.
"I have a daughter going to graduate school," she said after a few moments more of browsing. "I'd love her to have this. Do you know where I can get a copy?"
"It's self-published," I explained. "But if you don't mind the underlined parts, go ahead and take my copy. I can get another."
"Are you serious?" She seemed surprised and even touched.
"Absolutely," I said. "I plan to give it to several friends for the holidays. Even my teenage children are getting copies from Father Christmas. They had their cute little consumer hearts set on brand-new iPods."
She grinned and stuck the book into her handbag before I could change my mind.
"Thank you very much," she said. "I'm lucky I ran into you."
"Good books have a way of finding the right hands," I said. "I'm just happy to pass it along."
A Parent's Meditations
Ed Welles arrived only moments after she disappeared into the rainy afternoon.
He was slender, sandy-haired, with a kind face wrinkled nicely by life. We shook hands and then walked across the rainy street to grab lunch at a brightly lit bistro. We both were running late that day, but I was determined to have an hour getting to know him better.
A month before, I'd never heard of Edward O. Welles. But that's the mysterious beauty of his little book and how it found its way to my hands. "True Spirit, True Self" is a parent's meditation on life's most essential truths about family, work, spirituality, love and loss, rebirth, personal friendship, poverty and wealth, sex, health and illness, life's tender impermanence, championship tennis, the healing power of humor, the value of listening, and a dozen other related topics that reveal how the flow of days well spent can result in a life well lived.
Written in classically direct prose, deftly weaving personal experience with the wisdom of ancient sages and modern athletic coaches, this slim book powerfully reminded me of another father's simple reflections on life -- "The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius" -- a little book that informed the moral thinking of the Western world and of the early Christian church. It was written in 167 A.D..
If you believe, as I happen to, that there really are no coincidences in life -- only messages we either choose to heed or ignore to our folly -- it was happy destiny that Ed Welles found me over the Internet after casually picking up and reading a book I'd written about my dying father while he was attending his own dying father in Washington, D.C. Somehow my book had found its way from his father's bookshelf to his hand, and he'd been struck by the remarkable similarity -- almost parallel nature -- of our lives.
Both had once been senior writers for award-winning Sunday newspaper magazines on separate coasts and been offered similar writing posts at Inc Magazine, the award-winning business periodical.
Ed, 56, had two college-age sons and had been divorced and was now happily remarried; he resided on 15 acres of woodlands he was in the process of restoring near Lake Placid, N.Y. The son of a well-traveled CIA man, he grew up in exotic places like Greece, Ethiopia and Morocco. He now spent his day writing essays, walking his woodland retreat, and working as a personal professional life coach.
For what it's worth, I'm divorced and happily remarried, too, the father of two college-bound teenagers, who spends his days writing books and a harmless Sunday column while walking the neighborhoods of the Sandhills. I grew up in exotic Guilford County. All similarities more or less cease there.
Whatever else may be true, Ed's book -- with its clear and timeless insights -- couldn't have arrived a moment too soon. As both my teenagers will attest, the older I get, the less I seem to know much of anything.
But I'd underlined a passage that gave me hope.
Wisdom is about consciously getting in touch with the quality of experience. It is not about the obsessive gathering of knowledge. It is about gaining awareness; quieting the mind in order to open the senses. Wisdom occurs when we take authentic (truthful) actions.
'Strive to Live Right'
As our sandwiches arrived, I asked Welles how he came to write "True Spirit, True Self," pointing out that it would probably be on my bookshelf next to the meditations of the Philosopher Caesar, when my own son showed up to see me off to the shores of some distant golf paradise.
"It started out simply as a way for me to say a few things I felt were important to convey to my sons as they prepared to enter their grown-up lives," Ed said. "As a journalist of 30 years, I'd spent many years listening to a number of highly accomplished people talk about the things that influenced their lives and thinking, both good and bad.
"When I decided to leave that world behind -- which I did quite suddenly, by the way, suddenly knowing I needed to put my house in Boston on the market and move to the woods near Lake Placid, a place where I'd always felt a strong spiritual connection -- I realized that I had also spent years accumulating thoughts and experiences of my own that might have some value to others. That was the seeds, the beginning of this book. I knew it was time to do other kinds of work."
The best a person can do is keep working on himself -- strive to live right, every day. Many people are inclined to work on others, not themselves. It is easier to judge, criticize, and control others because it spares us the hard and often painful work of turning an exacting eye on ourselves.
But when you quietly work on yourself, you, typically, head in the opposite direction -- toward virtue. Notice how people who refrain from judging others project serenity and a dignified sense of limits. They know their bounds.
Prior to his retreat to a three-legged philosopher's stool in the Adirondacks, Welles was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma.
"It probably sounds like a clich to say, as many have," Ed said over his smoked turkey, "but I now consider that the mass that appeared in my neck was as a blessing in disguise, in some ways the impetus for the change I needed to make. In spiritual terms, my energy was blocked up and my life was stymied."
In order to heal and liberate himself from the cancer and release the blocked psychic energy he sensed was crucial to charting his life's new course, "I thought of my immune system as a bank," he writes, "into which I could make daily deposits. Happy thoughts and positive, kindly actions would be 'deposits' or 'credits.' Negative thinking, emotions, and actions would amount to 'withdrawals.'"
I asked Ed if his sons appreciated the gift he'd given them. The elder one is a car salesman in Boston, the younger is studying stem-cell technology at Bucknell University.
The reluctant philosopher smiled.
"They've read it but not commented upon it very much," he said. "Maybe they haven't made their minds up yet. It's only been out a short time. In any case, I don't think they expected such a thing from their father. The same is true with friends and family. Some people who know me as a journalist seem a little surprised I would have these kinds of thoughts, maybe even embarrassed."
"Well," I pointed out, "it took Marcus Aurelius a thousand years or so to be appreciated."
So much of what's in his book, he concedes, runs directly counter to the messages our society and culture broadcast to young and old alike.
"Many people don't want to step back and honestly consider their inner lives," he said. "There isn't anything here that hasn't been said for millennia, but it's not a message you hear much in popular culture. And yet, I think it must resonate with some people. A man I've never met recently got in touch to say he's read the book a dozen times already. He's apparently going through a difficult time. As I know from my own experience, such moments are sometimes the wake-up call we need for pursuing a deeper awareness. I'm thrilled if it gave him something useful to think about."
To most Americans, "the Good Life" derives from personal achievement and the accumulation of wealth and power. Welles, like Marcus Aurelius 2,000 years before him, promotes the genius of quiet service to others and the joy of personal apprenticeship as the path to true fulfillment.
He also equates openness with the innocence and youthfulness of spirit, and reminds his sons -- thus us -- that rigidity of any kind is the true enemy of faith, while confidence born of, and nurtured by, well-considered action, will energize any life. When we stay open, we stay young and flexible of mind, he writes. Playfulness is a positive attribute. Cultivate a mirthful spirit, and you will summon good cheer into your life.
Life, like lunch, is far too brief.
It was raining harder and we each had places to go in our busy, demanding lives. Ed was heading to see his son in Boston, I was hitting the rainy highway back to the Sandhills. But at least I was bringing along several copies of his radically simple field guide to pass along to friends and family -- determined this little book should have a much wider audience -- grateful to pass it from my hands to theirs in a season of authentic Thanksgiving.
Best-selling author Jim Dodson, writer-in-residence at The Pilot, can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com. Ed Welles can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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