Being Grateful is both Singular and Plural

Good morning as I move toward the end of another journey.

The past few days have been packed with activity, and I have been blessed to spend time with a friend Who hearkens back to when I had barely begun my time at Michigan Tech. I am sitting in the airport in Alicante, continuing my culinary love affair with local cuisine. It seems I find something gastronomically inspirational from each place I visit. Breakfast of eggs, potatoes, and Iberian Ham, with one more cappuccino fit the bill as I begin the two day journal that will return me to the Acre. It was a bit more expensive than Rome’s airport meal, but so much cheaper, and with so much more quality than my American airport experiences. As I have posted over the part three weeks, I have been so fortunate to be treated so kindly in every single place I have visited. However, being treated with kindness is not a surprising thing, in spite of the current tenor that seems present in many more places than the United States or Washington D.C. Trying to learn enough to greet someone in their native tongue, to say a simple please and thank you in their language is neither difficult or overwhelming. In fact, I will assert it is simple common courtesy, or should be. It is what we were taught (hopefully) soon after we learned to speak at all. While gaining access to the other’s language at one point took some effort, it is so easy today with apps and your phone, to not do so is incredibly lazy, and, at least in my opinion, insufferably rude. Each place I visit, I take the time to read about their history and their customs before arriving. Again access to such information is only a swipe or so away. It’s not rocket science, and it demonstrates some sense of appreciation for the welcome and the kindness you are bound to receive. Seriously, I have been treated with incredible kindness and with a willingness to assist me if needed. I think there are times I surprise people because I greet them upon arrival in their language and I try hard to listen to understand as much as possible. I have been asked twice in the last 24 hours if I was Spanish, Polish, or American. When I hand them my American passport and say, dzień dobry; jak (pan/pani) się masz? (hello sir or ma’am, how are you?) the double-take is always amusing to me, My phenomenally kind host in Ascoli Piceno FB messaged me and noted that I was polite and kind. It is what my grandmother taught me as a small boy. One was to use their manners always, no exceptions. In fact, the one thing that might have caused me to see her angry was if I had been dishonest or had been rude to someone. As a small boy, the one thing I was forbidden to say was to tell another person to “shut up.” While I was not aware of the infamous F-word yet, telling someone to shut up was probably as egregious to my grandmother.

This really does get me to the crux of this posting. Gratitude is to me a sense of profound thankfulness. It is understanding that the kindness you receive is not owed, but rather freely given. Gratitude is something I believe each of us possesses and it is a gift, a gift which we are tasked, if you will, to provide to/for another. It is not by accident that I start with the idea of giving someone this gift rather than being the recipient of someone’s gift of gratitude. When we choose to be grateful and display that feeling of gratitude to another, what we say indirectly is that we have been blessed by that person. It creates an interaction that can serve to uplift each person. There is also another important thing here. If it is something given, for gratitude to work as a gift, there is always the other. Like any gift unless given and received, the giftedness does not happen. What astounds me is how difficult it appears expressing gratitude has become. I hear the word entitlement thrown around like the blinking line in that initial game of pong, but most often it is aimed at those who fall into my students’ demographic. Yet one must ask from where did they learn this? Furthermore, I have some incredibly hardworking students who demonstrate graciousness on a regular basis. From where one learns this sense of always being the customer or that they are always right comes from example. We are not born with a sense of greed or entitlement; we are not born with a sense of privilege; in fact, our habits and our attitudes, each and everyone of them are learned. I could go into the social-psychology of all of it, but suffice it to say, we have created our own problems when it comes to how we treat, act toward, or encounter the other. Our seeming lack of decorum, civility, and complete inability to act in a gracious way has been learned by those around us.

Our sense of privilege or the argument that has been posited, and rather summarily rejected this past few days, that Western Civilization (as well as some other terms) is the only valuable, or most valuable, in history or the correct one is certainly one of the more egregious examples of this sort of behavior. For some time I have found the actions of the United States Representative from Iowa’s fourth Congressional District appalling. My justification for my attitude was not only the incredible insensitivity and intransigence of his speech, but the fact that he was from the state in which I was raised, and I was not raised in any way that could find his statements palatable. I remember raising my concern in the past. While I have not been particularly ardent in my support of most anything Republican, I am impressed that the Minority leader in the House and the Republicans stripped him of his committee assignments and there is move afoot to censure if not move toward his expulsion from the Congress. That is a significant move, and while it still causes me some personal embarrassment for my home state, I will be more impressed if he is sent packing. Again, gratitude and goodness is not only a Western thing; gratitude and goodness is not only a Christian thing; gratitude and goodness is not a male or female thing; and it is certainly not an American thing. It is a human thing. More importantly, it is the correct thing.

Today as I was sitting in the Schippol airport in Amsterdam on two separate occasions, a stranger reminded me of something or realized something I had not. In the first case, I would have left my credit card. He caught me before I have even moved and I thanked him profusely. In the second case 20 € had fallen out of my pocket and a person behind me realized my loss and let me know. In both cases, neither person was American, they were simply doing the gracious thing and in both cases I told them thank you more than once. They smiled and told me they were glad to help me. I could tell from accents that one was probably Dutch and the other perhaps Spanish. As I noted in both a FB posting and in a previous blog, each place I spent any significant time during this journey, I was provided the most wonderful support by persons I had met earlier in my life, some as long as two decades ago, some within the last four years. Yet, again in each place I was introduced to still more people who blessed me with their kindnesses day in and day out. This trip I was both on my own, but never really alone long. In fact, today was the day I have been most on my own. As I write this, we about to land in Kraków. It is after 10:00 at night and I have one last ride to my hotel. We have just been informed it is 0 C and snowing, so it is the January Kraków I know and love. Indeed, it looks much more like winter than when I left only about two weeks ago. My Uber chauffeur said it had snowed quite a bit the last two days and it was supposed to snow for a couple more. However, by the time I got to Warsaw, the snow was gone. Perhaps one of the things I have found l perhaps less appealing about travel is the actual flying. I remember when, once upon a time (and it certainly feels fairytale like) that getting on a plane was exciting and rather sophisticated. Those days are gone for sure. I think the change post-911 has a great deal to do with that. In addition, navigating lines, smaller seating with more people and quicker turn around times all seem to raise the stress of this formerly exciting adventure. Today I am on a truly international flight as the plane is AirItaly, but the flight is managed by Polish Lot. We are on an Airbus 330 and it is an incredibly full flight. As I write now we are about 6 hours into a 9 hour flight. Perhaps 45 minutes off the coast of Newfoundland. I think I have been aboard a flight of the most restless individuals ever. The man behind me, who is a towering presence, and whose son must me next to me has spent more time standing in the aisle with his hand on the back of my seat than sitting. When I got up to go to the bathroom, it was impossible to get by him and he stood there and is so mammoth, he really could not move out of the way. He could have sat back down, but that did not seem to occur to him. On the way back to the bathroom, I encountered the same issue twice and when I returned to my seat, I waited in the central emergency door area waiting for the same man to move away from my seat. Twenty minutes later I finally returned and had to softly say, Proszę, paproszzm. Seems what I wrote a few hours ago has come back in spades to quote the saying. I think it must be exponentially more difficult to serve as a flight attendant when there is so much expected. To be continually gracious when the majority of those encountered are not takes some terrific discipline. Again they provide a gift of grace and gratitude as they often attend some who are less than graceful and absolutely less than gracious.

It is still about 6 hours or so before I will make it home. It is usually the case that I am up about 24 hours on these westbound trans-Atlantic hops. I remember two years ago being pulled over by Pennsylvania State Patrol because I wandered across a lane marker at 1:00 a.m on an early Saturday morning. Both Dr. P and a student were with me. I was 2 1/2 miles from my I-80 exit. Fortunately, I think this is where age assisted me. I told the trooper that I have begun the day in Poland and was a bit tired. I noted I had crossed the line. He took my information and when he returned he noted my insurance card had expired the week before. He was certainly gracious and issued no tickets. I was polite and thanked him for his kindness. Tickets, troopers, and traffic stops are definitely a time to use your best manners. I can say with the no milking of doubt that I have never gotten rude when being pulled over. It does not happen often and even less often as I have aged, but being gracious has saved me dollars and points in my license. In fact, twice in the State of Kansas, it probably kept me out of jail. Seriously!! Amazing how fast 280ZX could travel on flat open highway at 3:30 a.m.. I have made it home and it is about 1:00a.m. and contrary to the immediately prior sentence, there was no reason to pull me over. I am a bit more judicious about my driving at this point in time. In the spirit of transparency, there was a time I did end up in jail because of a traffic issue and even then I was told as I was released that I might have been the most polite temporary inmate they ever had. Even later when I dealt with the fallout of that transgression, I was honest about the circumstance, and polite, and the city attorney responded that he was sorry he even had to charge me. He was incredibly understanding and allowed me to postpone the reduced fine and sentence for 6 months in order to manage other issues I needed to manage.

The point of this post is simple, but, in light of our present national atmosphere, also of utmost urgency. What will it take to become a country, where currently anger, vitriol, and figure pointing are the order of the day, to return to a place where manners are commonplace, that even spirited discussion can create a common goal, or we choose to look for goodness rather than discord is the norm rather than the exception. It is something we are taught early on to be polite, to listen first, to question, but do so respectfully. What happened? I think the answer is complex and multi-faceted, but I also believe it begins at home. Teaching tolerance and acceptance, modeling love and gratitude, demonstrating charity and generosity are a beginning; then expecting that it be practiced (and that means required) regularly would go miles in reorienting our present national direction. I believe in freedom of speech and the right to assemble, but when what comes from such speech or assembly is ranting and unrest, it only exacerbates the problem. Too often mob mentality becomes the rule, but it goes back to this idea that gratefulness is a gift to be given. Anything we have has been given; yes, you have worked for much, but someone offered you the opportunity to work, regardless your station. You have perhaps saved and gone without, but someone helped you along the way. None of us gets where they are (if you have moved forward) alone. Somewhere someone helped you. Someone was gracious and gifted you. If we might all begin to gift back, what could we accomplish? Who might we collectively become? Not the usual sort of musical offering, but there is much more to Marley than some think.

Thanks for reading as always,

Dr. Martin

Making Sense of Immigration as I feel like One

Buongiorno dal mio piccolo caffè mattutino ad Ascoli Piceno,

I am back for my morning cappuccino, shot of water, and croissant. It must have rained during the night or earlier this morning, as there were puddles all around and the stones were beyond a little slippery for this aging person. However, as I walked down the main thoroughfare from my little place and through the Piazza del Popolo, there was a clothing market set up. I can imagine a few people having a heyday browsing through this morning. In fact, I sent a picture and a note to let them know they were thought of.

It is about a day or so later and I am on the bus to the airport in Roma. I have been stunned by the beautiful as we travel laterally across this peninsula known as Italy. The number of tunnels as we make our way through the central mountains is staggering. The civil engineering needed to complete the passageway/highway had to be extraordinary. I am taking pictures as I ride the bus, but there are some relatively low clouds so it is impossible to see these mountains in all their grandeur at the moment. Currently I am in a tunnel that is over 10km in length or about 7.5 miles. While I can make much more sense of what I read, perhaps not as much of what I hear, I still work to use my manners and my greetings spoken in Italian. My Air BnB person told me I was both polite and kind. That means more to me than money. It is what a grandmother taught me as a pre-schooler. Manners and appropriate behavior were not demanded, but they were expected. That eventually became a self-expectation. The older I become the more it is ingrained in the fabric of my being. Those of you who know me know I have a smart-ass side to me, but if you know that, either you have had me as a professor or you know me quite well. As I write this, I am in the aeroporto in Roma. It will be a very long day by the time of get to Murcia, but I am excited to see Elena and meet there in her hometown.

I believe that Rome might have the cleanest, most accommodating airport I have ever been in. From the bathrooms, which were spotless and smelled pleasant (yes, truly did), to resting couches to free charging areas everywhere, it was the most enjoyable time I have spent in an airport, perhaps ever. I had an incredible meal, the most attentive service and an astonishing price for what I had. I think there are a number of airports who should take some lessons. As I traveled through the airport, I think, once again, I saw the most diversity in one place I have ever experienced. From Africa to the Middle East, from Northern Europeans to those from maybe Serbia or Montenegro, from Americans to Russians, I think there was a bit of it all . . . and the airport was efficient from baggage, through security, to boarding. Again, impressive beyond words. The thing I found most mind-boggling was the politeness of every person I met.

It is that diversity and politeness that is worth considering. As an American, we have long prided ourselves on being that beacon of diversity, of welcome, of opportunity. I grew up as someone proud of claim citizenship in one of the most beautiful, significant, and incredible democracies the world has ever known. Certainly, there was more of a veneer to what I saw than a child of the 60s realized, but nonetheless, the American dream with hard work and persistence was achievable. My parents certainly epitomized the example of wanting their children to succeed beyond what they had, and as blue collar people, they were successful. They bought a house and a bigger house in time. They were not ones to spend foolishly, but they did save for the rainy day, and, as I have noted, while I did not have everything I wanted growing up, I always had what I needed. My father worked overtime, sometimes from a distance, but always had a work ethic that I have grown to admire and now one I hopefully emulate. It is interesting for me to ponder what he might think of our present political situation. I know he would be incensed with the shutdown and hardworking people being thrown out of work. As staunch of a Democrat as he was, I am sure he would have some choice words for our current administration and even more so for our President. He would tell all in Washington to get their proverbial “caca” together. I know this, he would have no use for the arrogance, the bullying, and the lack of truthfulness that is currently rampant from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Over the past few weeks I have found myself also more incensed with the shutdown and the politics of Washington (that is a bipartisan statement). While I have honestly tried to give the President some benefit of the doubt, it becomes harder to do so daily. He had an agreement in both houses of Congress before the shutdown and he pulled the plug, backing out at the 11th hour. In a meeting with then Minority Leader Schumer and Minority Leader Pelosi, and yes, now Speaker, he arrogantly said he would take the mantle of the shutdown (I should note every time I have written this word, the first two or three times it typed out as “shitdown” – hmmmmmmm). Now he says it could be weeks months, or years, and walks out of a meeting in the last 24 hours because he is told no. There is money for extended and additional personnel and electronics. Even people in Texas, the longest-length border state, are not completely, supportive of this wall. The Republican Representative from Texas who had chaired Homeland Security is not supportive of the President’s actions. In the meanwhile, a person for whom I have the deepest respect (and his remarkable family whom I love) is unpaid because he is in the United States Coast Guard, which falls under Homeland Security rather than the DoD. Not fair. We are a country of immigrants, and yes, primarily legal ones. Studies, and there are numerous, but I am flying so I cannot access them, that illustrate that illegal immigration is actually down. Certainly the more robust work of ICE (which is another issue for another time) and border control has made a difference. Again, studies show that more illegal drugs come through actually ports of entry or tunnels, which a wall would not stop, so that argument the other night rings empty. Simply, we have a bully in the bully pulpit. We have a tantrum-throwing 72 year old toddler occupying the most powerful office on the globe.

What if we opened the entire government, with the exception of Homeland Security (sorry Nathan) as a first step. Then fund the Homeland Security Department for 90 days. There is a reprieve for all of TSA, the Coast Guard and whomever else the department affects (FBI, CIA). What if the Congress (both parties) work on an immigration compromise until they actually get it done, with the following caveat. They cannot pass any other legislation until that is accomplished. In other words, get it down, immigration, DACA, border control. All of it. If they do not come up with something in 90 days, I think that explains just how out of touch they all are. I actually feel badly for all the new members of Congress; they must feel like what the hell is this?

It is again another morning and I am in another country. My former student from over two decades ago, and now friend, Elena, was kind enough “to fetch” me from the airport at 11:30 at night and take me to my hotel in Murcia. I fell asleep relatively and got in reasonable time. Murcia is a metro area of a little more than 400,000 and we spent some time walking around the city center. One of the more fascinating parts of the day was visiting an archeological site discovered when they began to clear an area for a new parking ramp. In the process, they discovered a centuries, in fact almost a millennium old Muslim village, including a boarding house, two more aristocratic “mansions,” more simple dwellings, a cemetery, and a mosque. It is an active dig, so we were able to watch both experts from a company hired to manage the site along with archeological faculty and students from the Universidad de Murcia. They explained how they were determining issue of age of the remains by DNA testing, isotope testing and a number of other incredible things. I thought of Dr. David Fazzino back at Bloomsburg over and over and imagined him working here. We walked this tour with a group of professional tour guides so it was interesting all the things they heard to be able to lead others. Elena translated for me, but I was able to understand more than I expected.

The connection to immigrants here is the Moors or Arabic people occupied this area for a long time before the Christians had come southward, but the conquistadors and eventually Ferdinand and Isabella we’re determined to wipe the Muslim influence from the area. The significance of the Mosque they are unearthing is that it is probably the only mosque not destroyed and then to have a church built in its place. The significance of this Arabic culture is found throughout Murcia and it is astounding and beautiful. It reminds me of the beginning of movies like Robin Hood. Please do not judge me on that, but I am reminded of how little we know about the Arabic culture in American and what a terrible lack that is. Second, there have been terrible consequences for our lack of knowledge. We stereotype and believe things that are actually completely contrary to what Islam is all about. It brings up, however, another important concern.

The belief that Christianity could be the only true faith has a long history of atrocity, all implemented under the guise of faithfulness, using an incredibly arrogant interpretation of the great commission. Often immigrants themselves, they used the money and power of the church to socially or militarily conscript people into accepting the faith. Ironically, the means used were not all that in line with the greatest of all of the commandments. Perhaps a greater, and even more problematic “sin,” if I am be so blood, is the seeming evangelical take of the Christian Right today is much of the same: preach what serves your needs and ignore things that are glaring contradictions to a gospel that is supposedly good news. The Rev. Dr. Chuck Currie, the university chaplain and assistant professor of religious studies at Pacific University, claims this “blind support is theological malpractice.” I found a myriad of article that claim the inconsistency between belief and the President’s glaring moral turpitude is beyond stunning, and I agree. More importantly the idea of loving your neighbor is nowhere to be found. At some point, even within our own borders, we are immigrants. If I were to pick up and move lock, stock, and barrel to Montana, I would feel like a foreigner. If I were to move to Texas, even though I was born there, I would feel alien. If I begin a new job in a new place, simply because I wish for a better life, I would be the “newb” trying to fit in. I would be an immigrant. As I have noted before, and at the beginning of this blog, I am not against legal immigration. Let’s do the humane thing, let’s try to actually love the other. Let’s open ourselves to making democracy truly democratic and not merely for the rich. As I was reminded so poignantly a few years ago, I am privileged, but I do not own that privilege. As I have traveled and tried to speak, listen, and learn, I am reminded of how much of the world is more accepting and open than a country that was initially created as we conquered those there before us. We were a nation of immigrants hoping for something better. Our idealistic idea of pilgrims and Quakers is not as benign as we want to believe. Our present administration’s practice of implementing and creating a systematic hate or fear mongering of those (a great majority who are simple people) hoping to find safe haven in a country that has long been the beacon of opportunity and fairness is wrong and it is against my reading of the gospel. Kryie Eleison!! I remember when I first heard this song and Dr. Donald Harrisville Juel and I spoke about it so many times and listened to it together. I still miss you Dr. Juel.

Thank you as always for reading my thoughts, written as an American citizen, a professor, a traveler and former Lutheran pastor.

Dr. Martin

Back after 38 Years

Hello from my flight to Amsterdam,

This will be my first time to be in Amsterdam in an fashion. It is a city that I have always wanted to visit, and yes, for many of the reasons everyone hears of, but it is another country to add to my list of places traveled. As I have noted at other times, I was not a traveler as a child. There were numerous reasons for that, but it was most often because of money or time. The very first time I would board an airplane would be in June of 1973 on a flight terminating in San Diego, California and then a short bus ride to the infamous yellow foot prints of Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD. I was the closest thing one might be to Gomer Pyle sans a North Carolina accent, and perhaps even more frightened. My life I’d travel, outside the military, would begin in the last days of December 1980, when I traveled as a member of Dr. John W. Nielsen’s interim travel class of that year.

Traveling to Europe that year after two semesters of taking Dr. Nielsen’s inspirational and, at least for me, life-changing humanities class, it is ironic as it is, I spent the morning at the Museum of Archeological History here in Ascoli. It was like walking through my Hum 107 class in person. The artifacts in this museum dated back to the 10th century BC. I thought of some of my classmates and how the Humanities sequence was such a difficult thing for them. I found it fascinating and certainly that first trip to Europe, which included Italy and Spain, two of the countries where I am presently traveling, made it all real to me. That was, as I have noted previously, when I learned that learning was experiential and not merely memorizing. Learning was being a sponge as I say . . .  it was soaking it all in. Yesterday I walked up a set of steps to a university that had stones in the walls that were inscribed with upper case Latin letters. Some of the writing I saw in the archeological museum today came from as early as 2500 BC. It is a cross between a script and pictographs. Some of the writing looked like it was Elamite in form (look for Elamites in the Old Testament). However the upper case Latin script was probably from the early Renaissance and those stones were probably excavated and reused. There are medieval churches here on Ascoli that have incorporated standing Roman columns into their architecture. Today, I say pottery, metal works, jewelry, tools, burial items and a host of other things from as early as the 10th century BC until the Roman Empire period. It was fascinating and stunning for me to realize that I was walking among where there had been civilization for 3,000 years. It made me feel very miniscule. My 3 score + 3 is not even a blink of an eye in all of that. Later this week I will be in Spain, in an area that will be new to me yet again, and once again, I am fortunate enough to know someone who lives there. It makes the travel so much less stressful and enjoyable to share all that will happen. It is like having a personal tour guide. I know Elena has provided some things already that I am incredibly excited to see. I think the area of Spain to which I am going has a rich and glorious history of its own. Murcia was established in the 800s by the Moors it seems. It is known as the orchard of Spain, so I have a feeling there will be a lot of fruit eaten in the next week!! That makes me happy. My reading about it shows it has a rich history and a rather multicultural foundation and the wars between the Christians and the Muslims were difficult on the area during that time. It has a very temperate climate and speaking with Elena, it has been in the low 20C the last week, which is in the 70s. That will be a change. She noted it also has gotten to about -7C in during the night, so that is a significant range in a 24 hour period.

Today in Ascoli, the weather was pleasant, not warm, but also not any sort of biting cold. I did not wear gloves nor a hat and I was not chilled at all. Again merely walking around and looking at the buildings and the streets is a treat. There was a significant earthquake here two years ago, and many building now are reinforced to keep them from crumbling. It is quite interesting. I will post some pictures on my Facebook illustrating this engineering feat. Today, I think there were two things that amazed me. First, it was simply that there were artifacts from 3,000 years ago and they were from this area, so that explains how far back civilization in this part of Italy goes back. For a reference point. It is about the same time that David was the king of Israel. This is one of the things I note in my Bible as Literature course. That the Hebrews were not the only people in the world and what was happening to the Hebrews was in a larger global context. The second amazing thing was listening to Gia and Carlo after they came home from school and listening to everything they are required to do each day. Gia has learned to write cursive, and she has beautiful handwriting already, and she spends significant time on her Italian and mathematics. Carlo has learned to speak Italian quite well also, and they certainly do not sound like Anglophiles with their accents. It is really quite wonderful to see how they are absorbing the language. I asked Gia if she was dreaming in Italian, and her response tickled me. “Yes, she responded, but they are nightmares.” I hope she was kidding, but her father noted that sometimes in her restless dreams she is speaking Italian. Language is such an incredible process and tool. When I was in the museum today, there was a graphic that illustrated the connecting threads of ancient alphabets to the succeeding languages. It was fascinating to me and I thought of our amazing linguistics professor back in Bloomsburg, Dr. Angelo Costanzo, and how I wished he were standing next to me. With my rudimentary Spanish, it was interesting to see the connections to Italian and I wonder how all of that happened. Certainly, I wish I would have had the opportunity that Gia and Carlo have now. They have no idea how this will change their perspective on life, themselves, others, and travel in general. It is great fun to listen to Marco, who  is quite proficient as we go from place to place.

While I am sure that Italy and Spain have changed in the 38 years that have passed since I came to these two countries as a college student; I imagine I have changed more. Italy has such a rich and robust culture that dates back to the beginning of our Western Civilization as we understand it, but as I learned today, it has so much more before that. When I was in Barcelona in January 1981, Franco had not been dead that long (six years or so) and the militaristic aspect of Spain was quite apparent. I still remember being stopped on the border as we crossed from France and being searched because I was sniffling, had long hair, a beard, hiking boots, a down vest and blue jeans. I spoke no Spanish at that time and I was petrified as they searched all my belongings. I think my introduction to Spain this time will be quite different. Being a sexagenarian probably has its benefits at this point, and the gray hair and white beard (which more often than I would care to admit) has some calling me Santa – and that is not just those who know me and do it in jest. Oh well . . . again what astounds me is the sense of history that surrounds every step I take, every breathe I take (and I am not trying to quote any song at this point). Each day I see something new; each day I find myself pondering the fact that I am walking where people have walked for 1,000s of years. And I began this blog thinking 38 years was a long time. Certainly it is when it comes to a proportion of my life, but it is merely a blink in the eons of time that I am traipsing through on my own little journey. That is also the great thing. It has been quite a journey. I have been richly blessed by so many things, experiences, and people. Little did I know that a visit to a winery in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, and north of Sacramento would still be affecting me today. Little did I know that a class I took in college in the Spring and Fall of 1980 would prepare me for some of the things I observed today. Certainly the farthest thing from my mind as a graduate student, teaching a second semester writing class to an entire class of foreign students, would create the opportunity to have an amazing connection with a student who is now a student with a PhD from Sudan, or to stay in contact with an astounding engineering student from Spain, who has now welcomed me to visit her and was kind enough to visit me in Poland two years ago almost to the day. Quite unexpectedly, life comes around and things that happen have long-term ramifications. One of the things I have always tried to do is maintain those relationships. Certainly, it does not happen with everyone, and there are times people move on and out of our lives. That is normal; then again, there are times where those past experiences create the foundation for new ones.

So once again, I am traveling and learning. Once again, I am connecting with the gifts, the people, who I was blessed to meet sometime earlier. One of the things positive about all of this social networking, including this blog, has been the ability to stay in touch in meaningful ways with those from my past. All the way back to my roots in Riverside, I am fortunate to be in touch with so many people. Life continues and the journey for me has never been boring. It has been a life of learning and pondering. It has been a life of wonderment and adventure. It has been a life of challenge, but also a life where I have been gifted by amazing people who have helped me with the challenges. I think of Lydia once again. She took an enormous chance with George to come to America, leaving behind the relatives and world she knew, but she survived and thrived. That is what challenge and opportunity offer: a change to survive, a change to thrive, the opportunity to change and grow. I hope I will continue to grow and learn about this amazing world in which we live. There is so much more to be thankful for and as Americans it seems we have lost some of that ability to see what the rest of the world offers. Perhaps we will find it again. The picture at the beginning of the post is looking out over the city of Ascoli Piceno. The video is my hope for the world in which we live. While the later part of this amazing musician’s life was clouded in controversy, the message of this song rings true. Please take the time to watch the video; it is a bit idealistic? Of course, but as I watch two amazing little American children learning Italian, I want this for them.

Thank you as always for reading and I wish you a blessed new year.

Dr. Martin

 

Prayers Answered

Hello from Costa on ulica Karmelicka,

It is always interesting to return to somewhere you have been before. The change in perception that occurs from familiarity is a difficult thing to quantify, and if the return is more than once, understanding the changes that occur go beyond mere perception to emotion. I think of how Riverside, the blue collar suburb of sorts where I grew up in Sioux City was my home for the great majority of my childhood. Yet, in a sort of reverse of what I am alluding to, it has been so long since I spent time there that some of the memories of places that no longer physically exist (like my grade school). How much of our emotional, spiritual attachment is based on the physical experience? How is it that memory is evoked by movement, sight, repetition? These are things I lay awake sometimes and ponder. I am sitting in a coffee shop I came to my first time in Kraków. However, a barista from my summer work here who worked at a Costa I had immigrated to is now at my original Costa hang out. Each Costa carries memories with it. I was unaware that Mariusz had transferred, but he saw my Facebook post and let me know. It was nice to connect a familiar face from my extended summer to the Costa of the past 5 years.

More importantly is how my geographic awareness of Kraków is so much more acute than in my previous visits. It is interesting to me how summer for me leaves more lasting impressions for me. Is it because of language? Is it because I walked so extensively and spent so much more time taking in things. I also think the light of the summer and the longer days also affect my ability to assimilate things. I think part of it is that I am happier and more energetic.

However, as I walked to Dom Profesorski this morning, the memories of students from each year I have been here came teeming back. To see some of my own students on this year’s trip as well as long-time colleagues here for the first time was quite a boost to my morning. I am only here for not quite a week, but even the few days of refacing my summer steps in the winter season has come something to assimilate this Krakówian (a sad attempt to connect Polish with an English adjectival ending) experience even more. As I sit in Costa and work on my last blog of 2018, I realize things still do not slow down.

Yet, I cannot remove the poignant memories of my first visit to Kraków and Poland. I had left Wisconsin and said an incredibly emotional final goodbye to an amazing woman who had become my mother and so much more. I was coming to the ancestral country of her husband, a person I had not met. I remember Lydia’s Christmas Eve Polish conversation with the spirits in them corner of her room. I had asked her if George (Zdzislaw) was there. She nodded in the affirmative. I then asked her if she was ready to go home. She shook her head decidedly and sternly in the negative. She knew what she wanted to the very end.

Four years ago I was wandering across center city Kraków for the first time being shown around by Robert, Maria’s father. Ironic, how a student connection created what had become an integral part of my life. It was a day much like today, a bit grey an while chilly and damp, not anywhere really cold. We went into the church where Saint Pope John Paul II had served as the Archbishop of Kraków. I lit a votive candle and prayed. I actually took the time to reach out to George specifically in the prayer. I asked him to convince her it was time to come home. It was the first time in my life I wanted to let someone I do loved go. It was the first time in my life I remember reaching out to someone I believed to be beyond the bonds of this life to request their intervention into the world I knew. In spite of my theological foundation, I wondered the how, but believed more in the reality of its possibility. As I raised my petition, i remember my eyes filling with tears, but also feeling a sense of calm, believing it was time to let her go. Again, for the first time in a very long time, I prayed for what was best for the other. I remember telling Robert what I had done as we left the confines of this holy space. The remainder of my day was preparing for a New Year’s Eve that would be spent with the Paras.

What happened in the next 24 hours or so still amazes me. I would go to sleep on the first of January, ready to imagine a new year. I had not been long when my cell rang. It was Nathan telling me that Lydia had passed away. It was still January 1st in Wisconsin. To this day, and particularly on this same day of the year, four years later, I am as convinced as ever that my being in Poland, George’s ancestral county an in the parish of the former Archbishop had consequences for the simple, yet fervent, prayer of a dutiful, surrogate son. This fall my Bible as Literature students asked me how I understood the workings of faith. When I am asked such things in that class, my default is to remind them it is not a religion class, but rather a literature class. Yet much like my confessions professor in seminary as we pushed him on his opinion about something about the Lord’s Prayer, I allowed for an answer. I said both simply and humbly that faith for me is best understood through the single verse out of Hebrews. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). This has been my foundational verse for most of my life, and even more so as a seminary student, pastor, and beyond. To pray requires faith. To pray requires both a sense of assurance and of hope. To pray to that unseen requires a strong conviction (or maybe even a simple one) that your words actually are heard and make a difference. Then there is a belief that what happened in the next 24 hours were a consequence of the said prayer. The very fact that I am recounting it four years later illustrates that somehow I have the assurance of this thing hoped for.

Today as I sit in Costa, I cannot help but remember the various student groups who have been here in this amazing city on the last week of December into January. My first year, there were three students in particular. Joe had been a student in my Foundations class and would go on to graduate school, not just anywhere, but in Israel. I am quite sure that what he learned from Dr. Annamaria Orla-Bukowska had a profound influence on what we would study. The next sure I was fortunate to come along in a different way, as part of the faculty-led program. Again, some of the most amazing students were on the trip. I think of a veteran military student who would come back in Krakow the following summer to study Polish and work on his dual citizenship. I think of another student with aspirations to go to work in the Peace Corps and was accepted until his health created a difficulty. I think of a young woman who was both an outstanding student and absorbed every cultural event or exhibition we visited like a insatiable sponge. There were students the next year who are now here for the third time leading others, that is how much Krakow has influenced them. Last year, we were blessed to have the president of the Alumni Association for the university come and accompany us on part of the trip. During those years, I was fortunate enough to visit places like Budapest, Lviv, and Prague. Twice I have gone to Austria, and Lydia’s beloved city of Wein, but I need to go back on my own and spend some time. As I returned for this trip, I have met the group at their accommodations on ulica Garbarska, but I am not traveling with them. In fact, I am traveling on my own  with a most dear person and on Thursday will be flying to Italy to visit my great friends, Marco and Belinda and their two amazing children. It will be the first time I have been in Italy since 1981. After a week there, I will be going to Spain and visiting my friend, Elena, a former student at MTU, and one who visited me on my second trip here to Krakow. This visit is a promise kept. I think the important part of all of this is how the amazing connections and people I have met have changed my life and made is such a blessed one.

As I finish this blog, I am reminded of that first journey. It is now still the first of January in the States, but it is early on the morning of the 2nd here in Krakow. I walk up this morning about 2:00 a.m. It was exactly the time Lydia passed on four years ago. I did not realize it at the time, but the time corresponded to my answered prayer. It is interesting how I believe those spirits and powers outside out lives work both in ways too subtle for us to realize and sometimes in ways to obvious to miss. I know that the people who I met from Comforts of Home, Lydia’s abode for the final almost four years of her life, still influence me. Carissa, the administrator who treated Lydia as her own grandparent if you will, Angie, Breanne, Leah, Leighann, Marissa, Mindy or Stacey, and others whose names escape me at 6:00 a.m., will always be dear to me for the care you provided her. It is now the beginning of yet another year. I wonder what prayers are being offered even today as those individuals in the twilight of their lives are struggling with the most simple of tasks. I wonder about those amazing caregivers who give more of themselves than even they realize and for so little monetary compensation. I wonder about even my own existence when there are sometimes more maladies than I could have ever imagined to manage for an aging, but still small-child at heart, traveling professor who seldom grows old of learning something new. What are the prayers I will offer as I finish this blog. I think my prayer is simple and yet profoundly difficult.

As I read the news in America from here in Central Europe, I pray that our elected leaders can learn to listen to those who have elected them (and I realize the cacophony of voices is difficult and painful to hear for all the disharmonious sound) and act for the mutual benefit of the country that has elected them. I pray that a President who was duly (and embarrassingly at times) elected might realize that the tweeting that he does has consequence, whether it be some random thought or his real intention, and when he puts things in public, it is done as the President. I pray that we can see a global and civilization that needs care and mutual respect for all people, that the desire to have freedom and the ability to thrive is a human desire not a gift that belongs to only certain people on the winning side of a wall. As I travel and see students from Bloomsburg once again, I hope they will see the profound goodness of the places they visit and remember the profound evil that we as humans can unleash given the right circumstance (their visit to Auschwitz this weekend). It is all here in this beautiful country called Poland. I pray for all my friends and even those outside that realm that they might be blessed with health, with a sense of happiness or contentment, and that the things they do will be a blessing to those around them.

Welcome to a new year and bless you all. Thank you for reading.

Dr. Martin

Out of the Darkness

Good early morning,

It is around 4:00 a.m. and I have been awake for a while. It is the shortest day of the year, the Winter solstice. It is the beginning of the break from both college and public school; it is the beginning of the excitement for small people that will end up on a Christmas morning for those who celebrate this holiday. It is the beginning of the Christmas season after tomorrow that will continue on until January 7th for my Orthodox friends, students, and others when they celebrate Christmas. It was for me that time when I would soon be spending a week or more at my Grandmother’s house for part of the Christmas holiday. I think that week was as important to her as it was fun for my sister and me. I think it was a week for my older brother where two younger and annoying siblings were away and he had a respite and the house to himself. I don’t think I ever really considered that until now. I think it is the memories of those weeks at 4547 Harrison Street between Christmas and New Years that most affected the person I would become, the person I am.

While I have spoken of my Grandmother Louise Lynam on a number of occasions in this blog, I am not sure I have every written a blog just about her. She has been an integral part of my life for most of the 60+ years I have been alive. A portrait of her, which graces this post, sits on my desk in my office to this day. It is an 8×10 picture that was probably colored or tinted after the fact. I believe it is a picture taken in her late teens and possibly a picture that was created when she went to college at what is now the University of Northern Iowa, I believe then Iowa State Teacher’s College and the Normal School for the State of Iowa. I think she hoped to be a teacher, but having graduated from high school in 1931, the depression made it impossible for this South Dakota farm girl from remaining in college and she returned to the farm. She was the youngest child I do believe. I think she was also perhaps the free spirit in the household. This sort of free-spiritedness, if I can make that a word, would be both a blessing and a curse to those who loved her. At least that is what I imagine. She was an incredibly talented and brilliant woman, and I believe she was also quite beautiful. One did not really think that of their grandmother, but looking back, I see an elegance and beauty that was enhanced by her wonderful love and care. As a little boy, I only knew she loved me deeply and I believe I was probably spoiled a bit by her. Some would say that is a profound understatement, but I only know she loved me unconditionally. I have spoken of that before. It is now Christmas Day and I am back at this.

What I realize now, as a person who has lived almost as long as she, is she had some difficult times. My grandfather, Stanley, would die of cancer in his forties. She would be a widow at the age of 43. She owned a business, which they ran together, and somehow she needed to take it all over and manage it in her grief. They had also taken on two children (my sister and me – aged perhaps infant for my sister (less than six months) and 18 months for me. They were serving as surrogate parents because my father and mother had less than ideal parenting skills. Before I would turn 3, my grandfather would die of cancer, and I vaguely remember how ill he was. So now, she was a widow, caring for two pre-schoolers at a time when there was no such thing as daycare or in-home babysitting, and trying to manage a bakery business. I cannot imagine how she must have felt. Her decision at that time to turn to alcohol to assuage her pain is understandable, but that too would have consequences. It is probably what (the third time I have edited this word . . . what the heck?) pushed her to consider the adoption of my sister and me, which would change the trajectory of our lives. It was also a decision she regretted for the remainder of her life, for a number of reasons. What I realize is that her incomparable love for others created a person that would give first and ask questions later. Her desire to make other’s lives better was often done at her own expense; and when she was devastated and hurting by loss, with the exception of an older sister, who had an incredibly giving husband herself, she felt alone and overwhelmed. Yet, she soldiered on and try to manage what life had presented her. Again, I think her decision to allow for our adoption was because she wanted what was best for my sister and me. Then when I was about 7, she turned to AA and she never drank again. She would throw her life into her business, loving her family and Eastern Star. She would eventually be the Worthy Matron of her the Azure Chapter of Sioux City, Iowa. Her best friend, who ironically had the surname of Martin, would become Worthy Grand Matron of the State of Iowa some years later. I remember going to installations of officers and watching them all move around in a ritualistic way in their flowing grown and reciting their pieces. She was always overjoyed when we attended these events.

To manage this all, over the next 17 years of my life, she became the person to whom I could turn regardless the circumstance. She was my confidant, my protector, my heroine, my mentor, and the person who taught me as much above giving, being loving, and being a good person as anyone. I remember at the age of approximately 8, she stated rather succinctly, “Michael, always be a gentleman.” As noted above, she made Christmas, what I still believe Christmas to be. Going to her house on Christmas morning was like walking into that magical space where “all your troubles (honestly) seemed miles away.” It is still amazing to me that a mere 25 minute ride could transport me to a world where I could feel safe and happy. Her three acres of land had hills for tobogganing and an old barn at the edge of the property that served as a garage. I think at one time it had been a horse barn. When you walked into her house, it was not ostentatious or stunning in its décor. It was homey and inviting. It was a wonderful place that did not even have a full bathroom now that I think about it. Somewhere I have pictures of my sister and me in a large sort of horse trough metal tub, which was how we took baths. Memories of eating breakfast, of playing in a yard, or listening to a great horned owl hoot from a telephone line in the dusk of a fall evening are things that stream into my consciousness and cause me to smile and feel the safety I once felt as a child. I think that is what Christmas at my Grandmother’s created for me most importantly. The love and safety felt when I entered her house has never been replicated for me ever again in my life. Yet, as I ponder and analyze, it is something I believe I have tried to replicate in my own house now. The house I am blessed to live in was built around 1905 and it is a modest, but nice farmhouse. It would have been outside of town at the point it was built, and it had a similar barn and not quite as much property. It added what would have been a summer kitchen at some point and it has an amazing wrap-around front porch. I am not sure how long the street in front of the house has been a state highway, but that is the one drawback; there is significant traffic, especially twice a day. However, the view across the Susquehanna River Valley is quite spectacular. I have done some substantial work inside the house, but I have also tried to maintain the old farmhouse ambiance. If you follow me on Facebook, you have observed some of what I have done. This past year, it received a bit of a sprucing up, and it has been a joy to come home to in the evening.

What Christmas is for me, even yet, was established by how my grandmother invited people into her house and how she welcomed them once they were there. She had an amazingly large kitchen that could host enough people on its own, but it was moving into her dining room that made you feel most welcome. Her wonderful dining room table, with more chairs at Christmas than I had fingers, as well as the matching buffet and the lace doilies and table cloth were both simple and exquisite. Her dishes were simple and elegant and she had all the appropriate serving dishes and utensils to make managing the meal no chore at all. Then there was the food. The South Dakota farm girl, along with her elder sister, my Great Aunt Helen, could out cook any Food Channel celebrity chef of today. There were the staple items, but there were also relish trays, breads, rolls, and other delights from her bakery, and it you could imagine a pie, it was there. There was no rush in eating because everyone chatted, shared, laughed and smiled, filled with the joy of simply sharing a meal. If there had been hand-held technology at the time, I can assure you it would not have been at the table. My grandmother believed in sharing and conversation. She was a wonderful listener and she cared deeply about what we did and our success.

My older brother was an outstanding trombone player and I held my own as the younger brother/trumpet player. My younger sister, the one who was actually my sister, had a wonderful singing voice and we would lead the entire family in a musical concert of Christmas carols following dinner. It was something I realize was more important to all than I might have understood. We all sang together as I would play the melody and my brother, on his trombone, played an alto or tenor line. Sometimes I might even do a descant and he would do the melody. It is something we practiced before we would arrive on Christmas Day. I realized later how important that all was when he had grown beyond being there for Christmas and the concert stopped. We would often hear even then the wistful comments of “remember when . . . .” I think what I know now it was our giving back for what we were about to once again receive. It was the giving, the loving, the going beyond the expected that epitomizes what happened at my Grandmother’s house. It was her wanting people to be happy and carefree for at least a day that I believe is the most important gift she gave, and she loved to give gifts. Her living room spanned the width of the house and the Christmas tree at one end would be surrounded by more presents than I would even begin to imagine possible. And she was an excellent gift giver. I do not remember one gift that she gave in all of my life that I was ever disappointed in. Clothes, toys, books, coloring books, early technology (I remember getting a cassette/radio from her one year), you name it and she would find it. It is amazing, but I can tell you the last Christmas I spent there (1976), and it was as special to me as the ones spent as a little child. I had no idea, of course, it would be the last. The next year would bring stunning changes in my family, but that seems so long ago now.

I think what is important for me is the memories she created, the love she demonstrated and the unequalled ability to give without expectation that have most affected me. Even as I write this, I realize how much she affects me even now. I realize  how much I try to emulate the life she lived in my own life. I miss her to this day. She would be 105 if she were alive today. She has been gone for four decades, but her legacy lives because she taught me so well by her selfless example of love. As you gather this Christmas, I hope memories of peace and joy can come wafting back to you like the smell of her amazing baked goods and Christmas pies. As you gather this Christmas in a world that seems more bent on discord than harmony, you can take pause and realize the goodness we all have in ourselves if we only let it shine forth out of the darkness. Much like the lights on a Christmas wreath or tree shine out in the darkness of our present difficulties, I wish to show something that provides hope, that provides an experience that will create a memory of goodness and joy. Thank you, Grandma, for being that beacon of light that shined in my life for 22 years while we walked the earth together. Thank you even more for continuing to be a beacon upon which I can reflect. Realizing the love you had still exists in and through me today, and for that I hope I can be even a smidgen of the gracious and wonderful person you were. Bless you all this Christmas. I offer this Mannheim Steamroller Christmas piece that most reminds me of her.

Thank you for reading and Blessed Christmas to all,

Michael (What she always called me)

Walking and Wondering

Good early (sort of) evening

My intentions of writing more this month have been hijacked by the end of a semester, managing my health yet again (I know it has daily requirements, but it has created yet another dilemma), and attempting to get ready for some holiday things, which have all gone by the wayside as the health issues have taken center stage yet again.  As I write this I am in my at home office upstairs between 5:00 and 6:00 a.m. trying to get some things accomplished before the day gets hijacked by other requirements. IF I am to be completely candid, parts of what followed began last summer, and I will try to work them into this entry, but then again, doing so might reveal how randomly my brain seems to work, and that might not be the best thing into which I should offer insight being as some of my followers here are my students.  One of the times I was working on this blog was while students were filling out evaluations; I actually do not worry about evaluations and there is so much that can be learned by them. I also realize the difficulty in the use of such instruments on a variety of levels, but there is no simple way to have students respond to an opportunity to give some sort of response when it is one of the few times they have power (and they really do). They believe all too often they are the customer in what has become our business-based educational system. It is not by accident that we have an Education Secretary, one who is immersed in the Republican Party, charter schools and voucher programs, and has made her fortune with her husband through Amway, perhaps the most Ponzi-ed of all companies in American history. I do know people in Michigan who have directly benefited from the charter schools she has specifically implemented, so I need to also be truthful in that disclosure. However, the idea that students are customers-first is fundamentally flawed for me (another blog posting).

As is the case for most of us, the end of the year creates a time where we often reflect, ponder or imagine what might be in the future. There is so much I have pondered as I have considered the year that is almost over. I began the year in Europe and I will end it there. Yet that is not anything particularly new; it is, I realize, how I have begun every year for the last four, and a few earlier in my life also. On this day four years ago, I began a journey of a different sort. It was the day when I began a final journey with Lydia. It was the day she crawled into bed and really did not get up or eat again. It was the day when I began a watch that I could not finish. Thank you even today to Nathan Langton and his family for doing that. I think about the life you lived and how your life of travel and destiny took you places that you perhaps never imagined. Traveling has become my second education, and integral to my life. I know that some of you will say that seems to be a normal process for me, but it has not always been so. I grew up not knowing much outside my own little town of Sioux City, Iowa. Travel for me was across town and a big trip might be 50 miles away to Beresford, South Dakota. Seldom did I get beyond the tristate area of Sioux City, South Sioux City, NE or North Sioux City, SD, one could be driven to in 10 minutes and one could be walked to in 10 minutes. My first plane ride was to MCRD, San Diego.

One of the times I attempted to create this post, I had just returned from a leisurely three-plus mile walk around the Mayberry of the Eastern Shore. Cape Charles, VA, also known as Cape Chuck or simply by its zip code of 23310, is a sleepy, but waking-from-its-slumber town that offers a place with beautiful scenery, quaint little businesses and a changing landscape that seems to illustrate that its ability to stay off the radar day has perhaps come to an end. Through the graciousness of a colleague and another mutual friend, I have had the opportunity to visit here four times over the last 2+ years. Even in that time the development had picked up and businesses have sprouted up in once abandoned store fronts from a post-WWII era. Once a harbor on the Chesapeake, it no longer had the influx of people and commerce and got a bit forgotten. Somehow the rediscovery has changed both the view and the visitors. I think that is how life works. We discover ourselves and we are discovered by others, sometimes in spite of ourselves. I am still, at times, trying to figure out who I am and what I want. What I believe more and more is we are a somewhat dichotomous, contradictory, paradox (how is that for redundancy, but done intentionally). We both want and push away; we both yearn for and reject the very thing we desire. I think this is the thing I have most realized about myself. Is my life little more than a phase, traveling, both literally and figuratively, from one thing to the next, seldom cognizant of where we will end up? Certainly we can breakdown our lives into phases or segments. Surely we can imagine those what if?moments where a single decision could have moved us in a very different direction than what has occurred. My first philosophy professor is probably smiling from wherever he is as I wonder how much determinism is actually who we are.

This morning up early, I have been working on multiple things as I write this: a winter term class, a Facebook post, course content, managing recommendations. There are those who believe we are on break now so there is nothing to do. I have done some relaxing (mostly sleeping and recuperating) this past week, and there will be some more, but there are so many things I still want to accomplish and explore. I think that has always been my difficulty. It is more than merely a cliché phrase of “too much to do and too little time.” It is not an imperative that is imposed upon me, it is me wanting to do what Robin Williams noted for his students in Dead Poets Society . . . it is about believing I have something to contribute. I am not always sure what that is, but I am passionate about figuring it out. This past week I received in the mail my offering to the Facebook empire through the form of a picture album of the time I have been on this social media country. I had inscribed on the first page: “If I make the lives of others more meaningful, I make my own life more meaningful.” It is something I have said for quite sometime, and I can say without hesitation, it is my life. There are times I have lost sight of that. There are times when I have helped others expecting something back. That is a problem and something I have noted in these posts, before. Help with expectation is not really help, it is self-serving. It is something I am trying to change in myself. It is also about boundaries and there again is another post. We are certainly the products of our past. The baggage we carry from all sorts of ways can keep us from reaching or even attempting to reach our potential. More significantly, it can keep us from imagining such potential.

I see this on a daily basis when students are either not willing or incapable of seeing beyond the immediate. When I hear something like “but I tried really hard,” and their work does not demonstrate an end product that even reaches mediocre. Some might question my standards and expectations, and that is fair, but I expect little less than the best they can do. Why? It is all about what my previous provost noted is potential. She noted that all people have potential, and on that I will agree. It is encouraging, motivating, requiring them to use that potential that I believe education is about. Again all three of those adjectives are necessary if potential is to be even within the realm of becoming reality. I think this is what John Keating (Robin William’s character) was trying to get his students to realize as he asked them to gather round. There is an irony when he asks what verse will they contribute a Ethan Hawke was in his first real starring role. Robert Sean Leonard, who plays the tragic character of Neil Perry (and is almost 50, what the heck??), has done quite amazing things from that first acting gig. Gale Hansen, who played Charlie Dalton (Nuwanda), has gone on to be a film executive. I took the time to look up some of the others as it was known to some that Robin Williams wanted to work with beginning actors in this amazing film. I have read that there was a grave concern about the movie even being accepted and I listened to a funny quip when the screenwriter was told by someone the title was made up of three terrible words. The significant part of the movie for me has always been Keating’s push to make the students think for themselves. Something outside the norm in the crackerjack 50s where everything was to be predictable and measured. I am not sure we are that different now. While there are certainly a lot of things that are open for consideration that were beyond the imagination in 1959, there are still too many cookie-cutter ideas that control who we are and what we think. Go to college! Study the right things! Do what is successful and will make you money! As I have asserted in other posts, there is so much in our system that screams out . . . just do what you know works. Do not think for yourself, merely jump through the educational hoops and it will all work. I know students who do remarkably well in college and they hate their lives. They are studying something because their parents told them this is what they will do if they want their parents to foot the bill for their education.

As someone who straddles the line of a liberal arts background, and with apologies to my dear colleges in Mathematics or Sciences, and as someone who wants to puke every time I hear STEM at the expense of the liberal arts. I teach writing for the real world, a world in desperate need of qualified individuals from every background who are necessary if we are to have a cooperative and thoughtful world. I teach students how to become people who will use their communicative skills in vocations across the spectrum. The importance and use of critical thinking and thorough analysis is not the property of the STEM academics. It is a liberal arts foundational principle. Sorry! I guess my rant side came out for a moment. I was blessed to teach a Bible as Literature course this fall and I had a terrific group of students. More importantly, a number of them spoke about how much they learned in the class and how they will take what they learned about both study and critical thought with them long after the course. That is what I hope happens in all of my classes. I tell them regularly, I do not want them to memorize things; I want them to synthesize things. I want them to think and analyze things. I want them to question, albeit respectfully, but I do expect them to use their brains, their voices, and their determination to become something more than they were when they came into my class. As I write this, I just heard that General James Mattis has submitted his resignation as the Secretary of Defense. This four-star Marine General certainly has a widely considered history as a Marine officer, but he demonstrated today that he is principled. He is considered an intellectual combat officer and one who is both thoughtful and eager to engage and defeat enemy. It will be interesting to see what follows in terms of replacement and the condition of the Pentagon. The reason I raise this issue is we live more and more in a world that seems to have lost its direction, either in terms of a moral compass or in sense of any consistency.

All of this has me walking, wondering, and weighing what might happen next. I am concerned because there is little long-term consideration of the consequences. I speak regularly about the importance of understanding what it means to claim something, to be actively involved in it, to determine some of the possible outcomes, but also to understand what others might do in response. This is what I study most. How does what we do affect the audience for whom it is intended? Those of my student who might read this are probably rolling their collective eyes. As you consider this over next few weeks, I hope you have a blessed and memorable holiday season.

With that I leave you this scene from Dead Poets . . . enjoy.

Thanks as always for reading,

Dr. Martin

More than a Dirt Nap

Hello from my office on a Friday afternoon,

Between meetings and a couple of other things (including grading), I am considering some things in light of my Bible as Literature course and wanted to write. This past week, my Bible as Literature student have asked interesting and thoughtful questions about life (and beyond), and while it is not a religion class, when you are using the Bible as one of the central texts of the class, it is not surprising they might ponder and ask things that demonstrate they are trying to figure out questions of context, authority, and authorship and how those concerns might push them to consider what they have heard (either within their church background or without a specific church background), be taught, or as part of their own maturing and growing process. I think I have been pondering a bunch of things in response to their inquiries.

Certainly, an element of that is understanding one’s mortality. If my adoptive mother were alive, she would be 98 years old tomorrow (she lived to the age of 68). In terms of my own life, it is 32 years tomorrow that I had my first major abdominal surgery, while I was an intern pastor in Big Lake, MN, at the hospital in Coon Rapids, MN. I still remember how terrible the prep was for all of that and how I learned quite positively that I was allergic to erythromycin. Most assuredly, other things have happened since then to remind me of my own mortality, and that is more a case of reality that I would have ever imagined. Today as I searched another situation, I found that another person for whom I have an unparalleled appreciation and to whom I owe so much for their care was my cousin, Joanne Wiggs. I found out that she has passed away and joined her husband Jim, who had passed only 9 months before. They were both so good to me. I am sad more than some know that so much had changed in a situation that I was not involved in either service. They were one of the last few people I visited before leaving the Midwest to come back to Pennsylvania. They had grace and charm (both of them) in ways few people ever have, and I imagine ever will. It gets back to some of what I addressed in my last blog about civility and decorum. I remember my father thinking that Joanne was the most consummate hostess ever, and he was correct. I am sorry they are both gone. The picture at the beginning of the post is my picture of them about 9 1/2 years ago.

That was a slight digression, but an important one. It is sad to lose people. This morning what I woke up thinking about was the idea of religion and dying. It was not a morbid idea for me, but rather one of systematics. I do have students in my BAL course who claim to not believe in God, are unsure there is a higher power, and imagine nothing occurring when one passes except we bury them and continue on with our life. Hence my rather stark title. What actually happens when we die? Do we end up in some sort of purgatorial, soul-keeping holding cell until a second coming? Do we die and immediately we are away that there is something beyond, be it heaven (or some kind of eternal bliss) or hell (for me, the condition where there is an absence of anything good)? Certainly the fact that a number of students take a Bible as Literature course can be traced to a number of reasons (and some of it is getting credits to graduate), but I think for many it is their first foray into making whatever faith they come to college with their own versus it being merely what their parents tell them to believe or model for them. I think what I realized this morning in my early morning puzzling was a sort of if there is no real God and there is nothing beyond our demise, then it really is a dirt name, and nothing else need be considered. One of the students working on their paper stopped by yesterday and asked me how teaching the Bible as Literature affected my own personal faith. This is another thing I have deliberated upon a number of times. However, I think for me that is one of the amazing things about faith. From where does it come (which I, of course, have some specific thoughts ~the power of baptism), but assuredly, there are those who argue that it comes from our own human frailty. It was interesting to listen to one of my students from another class address some of that very thing this past week. Because I no longer wear a clergy shirt, and formerly being a pastor is not something I generally address, when students find out that is part of my background, I get a wide variety of questions.

Yet as I have noted, teaching the Bible as Literature class might be the thing that most affects my own piety as well as the practice of that. Faith is best described for me in Hebrews 11:1. I said this when I was in seminary; I stated it as a pastor, and now as the professor, it has not changed. I think back to when I was  a Sophomore in college and one of the freshmen students told me they could prove that God exists. They thought they would have an ally in this bit older pre-seminary student. They were not sure what to respond when I told them they were full of S____T and that I did not believe them, promptly followed by challenging them to do so. There is little one can say, calculate or demonstrate that proves God with any finality. It simply does not work. However, that sort of logic also works the other way, there is little that can be calculated or reasoned that proves there cannot or is not a God. In addition, I will go as far to say that much of the damage done to faithful people or their faithful attempts to be faithful are done by well-meaning (and sometimes less than well-meaning) Christians. I call them evangelical bulldozers. They think they can rollover or flatten any dissension about one questioning how God works. Their arrogance frustrates me (my rhetorically correct response to them). Posolutely, throughout Christian history, the role of the church by its arrogance, its abuse of power, and its dissemination of doctrine that instills fear more than most anything else, has created more questions than it has perhaps answered.

This semester I focused on the issue of contextuality in terms of the Bible being written by specific people at a particular point in history, noting that all writing is affected by the culture in which it is created. I tried to help my students see some of the things they merely accept without question because it is in the Bible and why that can be problematic for them. I think the response of a student this semester to the temptation story in Genesis 3 will be a life-long memory. Suffice it to say when I asked how it was Eve spoke “snake” or the snake spoke “human,” my student was a bit perplexed. She placed her head into her hands and shook her head overwhelmed by the indubitably unexpected consideration my question created for her. My comment to all my students is the same, but in this BAL course, the statement is a bit more profound. I tell them regularly that God gave them a brain to do more than hold their ears apart, and furthermore, they should use it. I wonder in my own piety which God would I like to meet? What I mean by such a statement is that I know the Bible demonstrates (or figuratively illustrates) both a powerful and complex God. What are those specific moments when we would hope to have our Moses-type encounter with God? Where is God at those moments? Who is the God we would hope to meet? I think for the most part, I would like to meet God and speak with him at those times when most of what I see does not make sense. I think I would like to meet (and yes, arrogantly ask) God when I am those times where things seem the most unfair. Those are the times when I question God’s power or ability to intervene. Those are the times that the consequence of our supposed sinfulness most vexes me. I wish our selfish arrogance did not have so many consequences.

There is much more to say about all of this, but as we head this Sunday into the liturgical season of Advent, the paraments (the colored cloth in the chancel area) will be blue. Blue is a color of both comfort and hope. It is a season where the haunting music that foretells the Christmas story reminds us of what is coming. While I am not a proponent of Christmas in the stores at Halloween or before, after Thanksgiving the Advent season is actually one of my favorite times. I think that was something that started earlier in my life, but it was something that really was instilled in me when I traveled around Germany during the advent season in 1985. There is something about organ music and chorale music that will always life my spirit in ways few things can. Awake, Awake for Night is Flying, O Come, O Come Emmanuel, Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming, Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, Comfort, Comfort Ye My People are some of the things that come to mind. I think there is something haunting, and yet the melancholy of the season also has an undertone of hope. That returns me to my cousin, Joanne and her husband, Jim. The two of them created an amazing marriage and the love they had for each other was something all of us can only hope to find. They were married for 62 years and only apart for 9 months after his passing. The unquestionable affection and love they had was never someone could not see or feel. The way in which they made you welcome in their home was encompassing. Their home on Summit Street was more of a home to me through the years than my own. They were also people of immense and prodigious faith. They attended mass every morning and I learned much about my own faith watching them practice theirs. . . . this little exercise had me searching cemeteries back in Iowa. I remember going to Graceland Park and Floyd cemeteries before every Memorial Day growing up to clean and do yard work on the graves of the family, my father’s in Graceland and my mothers in Floyd, which for those not from my hometown is named after the only person to die on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and he is buried above the Missouri River a bit south of my hometown. So indeed, they are all in the dirt, some in caskets and vaults and some cremated. Is there a purgatory type of thing happening there on the Morningside portion of Sioux City and what was called the South Bottoms where Floyd Cemetery is? Is there something more? Is it merely a dirt resting place and there is nothing more? There are times I struggle yet to understand how it all works and what it all means, but as I enter the season of Advent and I remember the birthday of a mother tomorrow and an older brother on Tuesday, I find that for my own piety, I believe there must be something more. It is more than ashes to ashes and dust to dust. Indeed, as I once intoned, “Almighty God, source of all mercy and giver of comfort: Deal graciously, we pray , with those who mourn, that, casting all their sorrow on you, they may know the consolation of your love . . . ” (Occasional Services Book). With that I offer the following in this season of Advent. I hope you might find peace and comfort in its music.

Thank you always for reading.

Dr. Martin