18 August 2021
Old Dogs, New Tricks –– Keep on Learning
Many years ago, I had the good fortune to spend a year as
interim pastor for two small town Congregational Churches in eastern
South Dakota. It was one of the best times in my life. I had
parishioners to visit during the week and share with at Sunday
services. But, I was alone in a big parsonage until my brother Tom
brought his dog Henry up to keep me company. Henry, sometimes Henny or
just Hank for short, was a thirteen year-old, short-haired and
short-legged terrier. He was a bright animal with a warm disposition.
But, in previous weeks, he had penetrated forbidden territory and been
cited by the dogcatcher in our hometown. In lieu of a fine or
impoundment, Henry relocated 20 miles up the road and out of trouble.
Henny was a fine friend and did well in the little town. He and I
covered lots of miles walking around the town. Henry also got to ride
shotgun when we went to visit folks in the countryside.
While pastoring, I related my sermons to the calendar. But at one
point, I hatched an independent idea for a sermon, “Teaching Old Dogs
New Tricks.” I imagined bringing Henry to the front of the sanctuary -
the dog sometimes helped when I had occasion to do church cleanup -
during a Children’s Message and demonstrating tricks which Henry had
Although I did teach Hank some new tricks, I never wrote the sermon. It
didn’t fit well in the scheme of things and I wasn’t prepared to put
our work to a performance test. I’m sure Henry wouldn’t have minded
failing before the crowd, but I might have. Besides, Henry really liked
to explore the church when it was empty. No telling what he would have
done when it was full on an active Sunday morning.
Regardless, that 13-year-old critter did learn a few tricks - new
tricks for him. But, it is by no means an easy task. By persistence, we
succeeded. Henry had little experience of humanly taught tricks. My
brother just liked having a dog around his house. What did Henry learn?
To shake, lay, crawl, roll over and stand up on command. Of course,
treats helped his efforts.
Old Henry came to mind while preparing this essay at a time in the
writer’s life when strangely a host of new things are appearing,
lessons being confronted, and languages being learned. Robert believes
we should make the best of life to the last day. “Make hay while the
One way to do so is to continue learning until that last day of this
lifetime. Then, we will be more ready for what comes next. We are
constantly creating our tomorrows right here and now. Each day in our
lives individually and collectively results from how we have lived in
the past – in this life or previous ones.
Still, these are only his beliefs. Like Socrates, Robert says he
“knows” nothing. All the same, he has lots of clues that he has been in
a body in different climes and times. And that he will be back again
and again until … He suspects you will, too.
In the latter years of this lifetime, he has found himself learning all
sorts of things. In the last ten years, he may have learned more than
in the 60+ years before. Some of those new learnings might be called
languages. So, he thought to share some of his “adventures” in learning
new languages. It should be noted ahead of time that language is used
here in a broad as well as usual sense.
FRENCH: Robert by now features himself relatively proficient in reading
and translating the French language after several years of practice.
That even though he only took one year of college French decades ago.
Reading French became important for him to learn more about the
wonderful works of a man named Anton Mesmer who lived from 1734 to
1815. Mesmer, whose name is the source of the word mesmerize, came upon
the idea of the universal fluid or agent which he promoted as an agent
of healing. His most public work was done in Paris from 1778 to 1788
before the French Revolution.
Mesmeromania reigned then and
he was the talk of the town. He created waves of excitement and
titillation, wonder and healing as he shared his animal magnetism with
the sick and lame. You can read his story, a whole book at — http://bobsbestbooks.net/Mesmer/MesmerEyes.html
Rediscovering Mesmer and his work encouraged Robert to study French,
the language in which most of his writings and those of other
mesmerizers were written. But, where to begin? There were remnants in
his mind from college French, many similarities to the English
language, and troves of words with common roots. But, the project
required much work and learning.
He started slowly by reading a few relatively simple books in the
original French. Then, he progressed to taking on thick ones. The
translate.google.com website was a great help early on as he began to
translate books in digital format. Within a few months, he was able to
translate books with some numbering hundreds of pages while only getting
online helps for complicated sentences or unusual words. His favorite
read was called Le monde médical parisien au dix-huitème siècle [The Parisian Medical World of the 18th century], by Paul Delaunay, Paris, 1906. It tells the stories of several very unusual physicians of long ago.
Learning French opened up a new/old world to this student.
LATIN: Now, Latin is a whole different territory. A much more complex
language rooted to ancient times. Robert had two years of high school
Latin which was a great foundation for other languages, science and
medicine studies. But, those two years were not much help for reading
and translating medical texts from centuries past.
Following on his Mesmer researches, Robert wanted to learn from
philosophers and healers who had written about magnetism and the like.
Before Mesmer’s time, a large majority of medical and scientific
literature was written in Latin and never translated into English.
Thus, it became time to learn Latin.
Robert bought and studied through two sets of textbooks. One was the
Cambridge Latin Course, the other Wheelock’s Latin. After a time,
Virgil’s Aeneid presented itself to be translated – the first half of
it, anyway. Then, he went on to Nova Medicina Spirituum [New Medicine of the Spirits],
written in 1673 by a German physician named Sebastiani Wirdig. After
translating around 250 pages of text and thinking his work mostly done,
Robert eventually translated the introductory material and discovered
he had only completed the translation of the first of two books.
The second book is now in process of translation. The translation of
first book in the set is far from perfect, but reads comparably to a
similar text from 1657 long ago translated from Latin and found online:
Sal, Lumen, & Spiritus Mundi Philosophici: Or, The true SALT and SECRET of the Philosophers by CLOVIS NUISEMENT.
Learning Latin is a work in progress. It has also opened up fresh worlds of study and of thought.
GERMAN: Looking back, French was almost a “piece of cake.” But,
learning Latin, reading and translating it continues to be a quite
challenging project. Then, the German language has been all the harder.
Robert started working with a study book in German, but didn’t
get far the first time around: the language seemed so different from
English. So, he set German aside to focus on Latin for some time. But,
German had to rise again because he wanted to translate Anton Mesmer’s
final book called the Mesmerismus, published in 1814 a year before his death. The Mesmerismus is mentioned although slightly by early biographers, yet enough to wet the appetite of a real student.
So, translate.google.com came to the rescue. Robert found its use very
limited for Latin; it doesn’t handle Latin well beyond brief phrases.
But its translations from German to English are surprisingly good,
considering how difficult the language can be.
Taking on the Mesmerismus,
Robert let google do a large – very large share of the work. He simply
pasted two or three pages of text from the digital version of the book
at the translation page after making sure hyphenations and typos were
dealt with. Then, he reviewed the quick translation for grammar and
readability and understandability. Simple though this process was, it
took weeks, a few hours a day to complete a draft translation of the
700+ page book.
The next step was to read over the translation line by line. Then he
dealt with errors and grammatical problems. Along the way, the
translation had to make some sense of technical ideas, Mesmer’s unique
theories, and differences of centuries and countries.
Let’s move on to some different languages. At the same time, we will
turn from writing in third person to first person. Either of them can
PIANO: Growing up in a South Dakota family household, music was
largely limited to “playing the radio.” At the same time, I balked at
singing after the grade school principal, Harry Taplett, singled me out
during a rehearsal for a PTA musical program. He pointed at me and
basically said to “be quiet and mouth the words.” Interestingly,
decades later I had a similar experience during rehearsal for a
production of My Fair Lady. At one point, the musical director look
over at the curly-haired guy and suggested “to sing not so loud.”
It took many years for me to turn toward music after that first
experience. But eventually I did. In the latter years of my marriage
long ago, my wife was purchasing antique furniture and wanted more.
Having spent some time trying to make a plastic recorder produce a
decent melody, I decided to support her venture by suggesting we get an
antique with a keyboard.
So we did. We purchased an old pump organ. Kathy had an antique and I
had an instrument to begin the serious although slow learning of music.
In a few years, we parted ways and Kathy kept the pump organ and all
her antiques. I kept my interest in keyboard music. Thereafter, an old
Baldwin electronic organ and three or four electronic keyboards passed
through my hands. I presently have a Kawai ES-1 which has given me
hours and hours and hours of practice, learning, and even fun. Along
the way about 25 years ago, I bought an Ars Nova Practica Musica computer program and began to learn the elements of modern music notation and composition and even playing.
And now in the golden years with more time and interest, I have been
spurred to spend much more time at my piano keyboard. While collecting
piles of sheet music, I have increased practice to more than an hour
every day. I must admit, other things, like writing this article,
generally seem to come first.
But, I practice at practicing more each day. Sometimes, I look at my
hands going through their paces and am surprised what we have learned
to do. The hands seem on occasion to have lives of their own. It is
Then, I also stare at my fingers at work and think, “My goodness, they
are almost dancing. Dancing fingerboards bounding across those keys.
Now, I say, “I am still practicing.” It is much like “practicing
medicine,” as few physicians I ever met really mastered medicine. I met
maybe one or two doctors in my medical career who might have gone
beyond practicing medicine as most know it to mastering the “art of
I am still practicing, still learning, still beginning in many ways.
But learning this language has become something of an adventure. My
intention even at this point in life is to use what piano talents I can
develop to become an “Entertainer.” A worthy goal, I
think. I just finished a biography of Louis Armstrong who was assuredly
the greatest trumpet player of all times. But above all, he was an
entertainer. He laughed, smiled, joked and made people feel light and
happy for times. He brought healing into the world - one note and smile
at a time.
We need more of that in the world. John Doe and Mary Smith can do the
same again as in generations past before radio, television, records and
professionals became the only ones performing, sharing and giving.
Music and performance can be healing for everyone involved - bringing
people together in joy and expression.
Note: The next two languages are far more important ones. At the same
time, they are much more subtle and difficult to learn – at least for
people like me.
NATURE: It is my opinion – but hardly mine alone – that humans as a
race and as individuals have lost touch with Nature and become divorced
from it. Goethe, the famed writer-philosopher called “Nature the
Garment of God.” Since it seems quite so, Nature bears our respect,
attention and care.
Please consider that the whole of the Garment called Nature is not
visible. Much like physical science is now telling us that over 90
percent of the Universe is Dark Matter. Thus, by far the greatest
portion of life around and in us is quite invisible to us, even to
telescopes and microscopes.
The natural world is all around us and even within us, but so much of
it is hardly considered at all. If something isn’t tangible, material,
we ignore it or just take its effects for granted. With technical
advancement and what we call civilization, our appreciation,
relationship and cooperation with Nature have diminished, almost
Nature is not just the greenery and vegetation
around. But, it is much more - including the elements and substance,
the beauty and grandeur, the subtle and simple things which give us
life and rebuild it when ours is disturbed or damaged. It is also in
fact the angels and devas, fairies and spirits which we deny but
without which we ourselves would have no existence.
These latter are agents through which the higher forces bring us life,
breathe and feed us. For, “Man does not live by bread alone.”
It would behoove us all to learn some of the language of Nature,
regardless of age. Easy to say and rather hard to do. First, because
almost the whole society lives morning to night and morning again
enclosed in artificial worlds. Few of us spend more than minutes a day
outside man-made structures and vehicles. I get out every day, but a
few hours at most even in summer. Even farmers and ranchers spend much
of their “outdoor” time and chores in pickups and tractors, many of
which are air conditioned.
Being outdoors and in direct contact with the elements certainly can
draw us away from man-made distractions and toward the wonders of
Nature. But, we can also find Nature in the living things, beings, and
humans in our very own abodes.
I am still working on means to develop a personal curriculum to study
the language of Nature. Methinks a good way to do such is in group
settings and I fully intend to bring that situation into manifestation
in the near future. The endeavor will be to open all the senses – five
and then some – to Nature’s language, which goes far beyond words and
At the same time, I am reminded of another way to uncover Nature’s
language. There comes to mind the experiment and experience which Anton
Mesmer [mentioned above] undertook centuries ago:
Forty days has been the common time
of quest in the desert, midst the wilderness, on the mountain top. But,
Mesmer doubled that and then some. He came back with great reward for
his efforts in Nature.
In the midst of his meditations he
discovered, “A devouring fire filled my soul; I sought Truth no longer
with a tender yearning, but filled with the extremest disquiet. Fields,
woods, and the neighboring wilderness alone still retained charms for
me. There I felt myself nearer to Nature. In the most violent emotion
at times I believed that she wildly drove my heart from her. Wearied by
her vain enticement, ‘O, Nature!’ I exclaimed in such paroxysms, ‘what
dost thous desire of me?’
“Soon again, to the contrary, I
believed that I tenderly embraced her, or filled with the wildest
impatience, conjured her to fulfill my wishes. Fortunately, my
excitement, amidst the silence of the woods, had no witness but the
trees; since in truth I must have appeared greatly to resemble a
madman. All other occupations were hateful to me. Every moment which I
did not devote to my investigations appeared to me a theft committed
Mesmer expanded his study of Nature
and the Truth in a most extraordinary way. “Perceiving that whenever we
have an idea, we translate immediately and without reflections into the
language which is most familiar to us, I formed the bizarre plan to
free me from this bondage. Such was the growth of my imagination, that
I realized this abstract idea. I thought three months without words.
Having ended this deep contemplation, I looked with astonishment around
me: my senses deceived me no longer as in the past: the objects had
taken new forms ...”
Surely, there are many ways to learn the language of Nature. Maybe the reader has an idea regarding such a way to share.
SOUL: The language of Nature seems naturally to bring us to the the
language of the Soul. The Garment of God hides and also reveals the
essence of existence. But, it takes real Nature study to peel back its
layers and begin to learn its language and secrets.
Every human’s goal is ultimately to achieve an intimate, conscious
relationship with his/her own God Nature – called the Soul, the Christ
within, the Personal Savior, the Buddhic Principle, the Solar Angel,
etc. The great teachers and sages of all ages have taught that we can
all “go into our closet” and approach the Inner Light. Ask, Seek, Knock.
Meditation is the name for that practice. And it is a practice not just
of hours and months and years, but of lifetimes. To understand the
language of the Soul requires silencing the outer world as well as our
own loud and distracting thoughts and desires.
My own “practice” of meditation has covered decades in this lifetime.
Like I used to practice medicine, I now practice meditation. Maybe I am
an apprentice by now. I do not wish to scare people away from trying to
learn meditation, but it is neither a simple nor quick nor necessarily
a comforting project. I presently spend hours practicing meditation
There are all sorts of meditation, teachings about it, and even
“languages” of meditation. But, the meditation of which I speak is more
than silence, relaxation, visualization, attunement, mindlfulness. It
is about going beyond mind to the Soul.
With or without meditation, our Souls draw us into the inner worlds
nightly and after each incarnation. Ultimately, meditation leads us to
unlimited knowledge, Oneness with the Soul and towards true service of all beings.
There are many, many languages we can learn or work at learning at most
any age in life. These six are my recent and present curriculum. May I
suggest any and all who read this essay to take on a new language - or
retake an old one and give it new life. In later years, most of us have
time to burn. So, we just start - at any age - with a few minutes a day
on a “language” and gradually allow it to lead our steps into greater
knowledge, awareness, and goodness. So may it be.
Comments always welcome at
theportableschool at gmail dot com.