Op/Ed

Clippings: Polishing some pearls of wisdom

KARL LINDHOLM

My sainted mother, the original Jane Lindholm, had an aphorism for every occasion and loved to trot them out. She was a regular Ben Franklin, and I was a gold mine for this predilection, given my adolescent indifference to manual labor and disciplined effort.

It got so that I could anticipate which helpful maxim she would offer for my improvement: “I meant to bring in the trash cans, Mum, really, but I got busy. I know, I know, ‘The streets of hell are paved with good intentions.’” 

If I put something off, I would get, “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well / It were done quickly,” and then as a bonus I would get a brief summary of its source and an appreciation of Shakespeare in particular and MacBeth specifically, and perhaps a full rendition of a MacBeth soliloquy: “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, life creeps on in this petty pace.”

In my own old age, I too have adopted this habit, to a much lesser degree to be sure. My aphorisms are much less learned than my mother’s and less intended to improve the listener. 

Given my foibles and flaws, I ask, how am I qualified to proffer wisdom to others? My aphorisms are not inclined to the didactic; they run more to the whimsical and ironic. 

But I do try to make a point. 

I tend to avoid Rumi, Kahlil Gibran, Thich Nacht Han — the all-star team of quotable sages. For me, they are too sober. Not much Mary Oliver either, though she is everywhere these days. 

My luminaries are more likely to be George Carlin or Kurt Vonnegut or Yogi Berra or Bob Dylan, pillars of popular culture and offhand wisdom (though Emerson or Dickens can sometimes slip in there).

I have friends whose every email communication, however banal, is punctuated by a profound saying intended to move me deeply — one that would undoubtedly improve my life if enacted upon, force me to consider my wayward ways, and inspire me to action. 

I hope instead for a smile or a nod of the head.

I have asked the Independent to do a special edition that includes all of the tentative words of wisdom, hundreds of them, the aphorisms, adages, and maxims, that I have gathered over the years. The Indy brain trust, alas, has demurred.

So, for you, dear readers, I will share, for your edification, in this very space, a few of my favorites:

On Friends: “Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can: all of them make me laugh.” — W.H. Auden

“You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.” — A.A. Milne

“My friends are my estate. Forgive me then the avarice to hoard them!” — Emily Dickinson

“Fan the sinking flame of hilarity with the wing of friendship; and pass the rosy wine.” — Charles Dickens

“Yes’m, old friends is always best, ‘less you can catch a new one that’s fit to make an old one out of.” — Sarah Orne Jewett, Maine writer

“It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

“A man deserves a second chance, but keep an eye on him.” — John Wayne

On Writing: “You can’t just turn on creativity like a faucet. You have to be in the right mood. What mood is that? Last-minute panic.” — Bill Watterson, “Calvin & Hobbes”

“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” — Red Smith

“Do you want to do this thing? Sit down and do it!” — Ann Patchett

“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” — Mark Twain

WITH THE SAGE advice of a French novelist in mind, we present here a patch of sky the writer could see when looking east over the Green Mountains at 4 p.m. on Nov. 28. 
Photo by Karl Lindholm

On Friends who are Writers: “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.” — E.B. White

On Friends who like Sports: “You can’t win all the time. There are guys out there better than you are.” —Yogi Berra

“Throw strikes. Home plate don’t move.” — Satchel Paige

On Aging: “As we grow old, the beauty steals inward.” — Emerson

“I ain’t the man I used to be, but who the hell is?” — Dizzy Dean

On Gender: “Here’s all you have to know about men and women: Women are crazy, men are stupid. And the main reason women are crazy is that men are stupid.” — George Carlin

On Perspective: “Don’t have to be ashamed of the car I drive; I’m just glad to be here, happy to be alive.” — The Traveling Wilburys

“Where there is love and inspiration, I don’t think you can go wrong.” — Ella Fitzgerald

“If you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note you play that determines whether it was good or bad.” — Miles Davis

“If I knew the way, I would take you home.” — Grateful Dead

“I am still encouraged to go on. I wouldn’t know where else to go.” — E.B. White

 “Just when I discovered the meaning of life, they changed it.” — George Carlin

“And how should we behave during this Apocalypse? We should be unusually kind to one another, certainly. But we should also stop being so serious. Jokes help a lot. And get a dog, if you don’t already have one.” — Kurt Vonnegut

Now, when I find myself tossing and turning at 3 a.m. (my affliction!), sometimes I just have to fall back on the advice of a Nobel Prize winner in Literature (Bob Dylan) who counseled “Don’t think twice, it’s all right!” 

I defer too to Proust, here in my Vermont bower of bliss, who reminds me: “Always try to keep a patch of sky above your life.”

—————

Karl Lindholm, Ph.D., is the Emeritus Dean of Advising/Assistant Professor of American Studies at Middlebury College. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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