Being an American . . . Not as Easy as Perhaps We Thought

Storms are a Reminder of our Insignificance

Hello from my study on the acre,

As I grew up in the early 6os and into the 70s, certainly our country was coming of age, so to speak. We were in a different world and the United States was understood quite differently than it had been certainly up through the First World War and coming out of the Second. We were a world power in a different way and the 48 contiguous states that were America when I was born the country was still figuring out what and who we were. That might sound a bit unreal to many who are coming of age today, but it is true. In my life, in terms of a national identity, as a younger elementary student, we had elected our first Roman Catholic President and yet, this young vibrant person (or at least that is how we understood him) would be President less than three years before he was assassinated. There have been attempts on Presidents’ lives since, but fortunately, we have not lost another President to assassination. However, that was a turning point for our country and certainly for the Democratic Party. Much has been written about that (e.g. President Kennedy was not as civil rights minded as we might think, until he had no choice; he was a hawkish President in terms of the military and Vietnam, Cuba, and the Russian Missile Crisis bear that out; and many of today’s social issues would have been non-starters for the Catholic President, partly because he was just that, and also because those issues were criminal at that point in our country.), but I believe the fact that the next non-incumbent to run on the Democrat’s ticket was Senator George McGovern and he probably ushers as many of the liberal traits of even present day Progressivism as anyone. It might also be worth considering that the next two Presidents after JFK were both forced from office – Johnson by Vietnam and Nixon by Watergate. By the time President Carter is inaugurated in January of 1977, America is a very different place. We no longer trust our government; we no longer believe we are undefeatable (both from Vietnam and from the soon to occur hostage crisis in Iran) and the Cold War with Russia has many in the country wondering if we are headed to an unwinnable war with our Soviet adversary. By the time I was in my 20s, it seems our vision of our country as a place to be proud of had taken some significant hits. As I move forward, this is in some rather broad strokes, but

I remember by the early 80s being told when we were in other countries as tourists it was not a bad idea to have a Canadian flag lapel pin on your jacket for safety. I can say I considered it, but I could never bring myself to do it. That is not a slap against our Northern neighbors in anyway, but rather as a Marine veteran, I could not do it. I remember being told that we would stick out as Americans as we stood on the corner in East Berlin without saying a thing and that we needed to be careful (this was 1985). I found myself wondering why being American was problematic, but then for the first time I wondered what is the image of America? The 1990s had some elements that were a somewhat redux of the 1960s though we do not perhaps see it as clearly as we should. I have read and watched a number of news pieces and videos the also put the events of the last four years squarely unto what happened in 1995. Again, there are a number of news stories across the political spectrum that have made connections between Timothy McVeigh and what happened in Washington DC in these past weeks. Likewise, 1994 makes the benchmark when the GOP captured the Southern White vote, and that has not really been pushed until Georgia in this past election. I have noted this in a number of posts, but I know that most of my generation believes we are strong, patriotic, faithful, hardworking, caring, and fair people (and I will note that would be white people, which of course, identifies me). And yet, let me put it in a different situation, and one I know personally.

Kris, my younger biological sister, and the one adopted with me into our new family, was a lesbian. She did not identify as such until 1978, but that was still much earlier than many people, and she was forced to do so because someone was going to out her in her unit in the Army. So she left the service, having served with distinction, and was, in fact, the Outstanding Service Person on her base the year before. She never really managed life with that degree of success the rest of her life. Neither of our parents were prepared nor were they capable of accepting her for who she was. I know looking back that this was something she struggled with from puberty on although growing up I did not understand why she seemed so different to me. My mother’s way of facing Kris’s sexual orientation was to not face it. If you did not speak about it, it did not exist. What my mother did not realize is that her unwillingness to face Kris’s reality was an unwillingness to accept Kris. On the other hand, my father, somehow believing he was being a faithful Christian, was determined to get her to repent of her sin and be a heterosexual. He thought he could somehow convince her to change. Again, what that did was create a sort of bifurcation of their relationship that was untenable.

Back to the GOP and the South. The white takeover of the South was nothing new; the difference was a certain arrogant honesty about the racism that the 1960s questioned and (as I post this at the end of a week celebrating the Reverend King and the inclusion of an incredible 22 year old poet laureate.) even the progress of the 1960s Civil Rights could not overcome. It is interesting to realize that both Jesse Jackson and David Duke ran as Democrats in 1988, but by the 1990s Duke, the former KKK Grand Wizard would be a force in Louisiana politics. I believe the 1990s is as schizophrenic a time in our politics as we might have ever faced, but because the economy was doing well, and there was still some modicum of bipartisanship, we failed to see what America was becoming as most of us were content in our little bubbles. In the 1990s, some of the people who found their way into the establishment of politics were campus agitator Bernie Sanders, the late Congressman John Lewis, Bill Ayers gets a PhD, and William Jefferson Clinton was an anti-war protestor who becomes President (Pulver, 12Jan2019). By the time 2000 comes along, I believe we have entered a new political situation that creates a tension in this country that most Americans are incapable of understanding or managing. The rise of specific events that asked/required white America to face their marginalization of non-whites, and primarily blacks (e.g. Black History Month, MLK Day, as well as the significant change in the music culture). The Conservative Right as well as the Evangelical Christian movement combined to fight back. Pat Robertson, and evangelicals like Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy Bakker create difficulties for the Christian Right and that continues even today with the fall of Jerry Falwell Jr.. It is amazing to me how many people argue conservative Christian ideals, but subscribe to as well as practice a Puritanical Religiosity. I realize that phrase might be a bit surprising to you, but consider what each terms means and think about how often what we profess in public and practice in private do not correspond. When I raise this issue with many of my students and then offer an example of how it might work, they are generally shocked by the truth of the argument.

There is a theology noted as liberation theology and certainly elements of the Roman Catholic Church, Protestant faiths, and more recently, the black AME Church or others, have raised the importance of the social justice element of faith. Jesus regularly took on the powers of the church and their own religiosity. Most of the Sermon on the Mount has a strong liberation theological bent to it. We are more comfortable in hearing a warm fuzzy God, if you will in the Beatitudes, but they were not meant to be comforting nor should they be today. I believe there is a strong parallel in what is happening politically and religiously at this moment. And all of those who want to shout “separation of church and state” need to come to the simple reality that that phrase is nowhere to be found in the constitution. We cannot march God out when God serves our purposes and put God way when we do not want to hear or listen to the prophetic words that might convict us in our arrogance. The same is with our politics. We cannot argue we hate socialism when we have Medicare, Medicaid, stimulus checks, PPP, unemployment, SNAP, or a host of other things. Some of those including Federal or State Financial Aid for college or any other things that are distributed by our governmental agencies. We too often want all the benefits, but wish not to pay for them. We are too often simply selfish. That is our human nature, and our sense of entitlement, something we accuse young people of, is engrained in our America First attitude that was so supported in our recent past. We are not better than anyone else, nor are we worse. We are simply a nation to whom much has been given and earned, but we are also accountable because of that. That is scriptural also. The words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer again come to mind for me. As Bonhoeffer was knee deep (or what would be neck deep) in the assassination plot of Hitler and imprisoned, he began to consider the role of the church in a profoundly serious manner. On the occasion of Hitler’s 50 birthday, the Reich Church swore an oath of allegiance. Loyalty to Hitler was paramount. Bonhoeffer and members of the Confessing Church would do no such thing, but Bonhoeffer saw the church as a servant community and one that needed to be involved in the secular issues of human life, not as a “dominating” or I would add a policy seeking entity, but rather as a calling to servanthood, existing for the good of others. That is not an easy calling, and I believe it is one we too often mistake as believing it is our duty to lead rather than serve. The same can be said about our politics. Leading in the world is not dominating the world, but serving as a resource and, perhaps, yes, that beacon or lantern that is part of our incredible Statue of Liberty. Liberty is not liberty if it only provides to the few. I heard this on NPR the other morning, so the words are not mine, but they are important. Someone said, “A great experiment takes great determination.” And so it is. If we are going to come together, we will not agree on everything, but we can still respect and realize that an election of another President in part of what our country has done for over 240 years. There will always be a winner and a loser in our elections. That is how America was formed and developed. I know that I felt kicked in the gut both in 1980 and in 2016, but I accepted the result. I would question when I believed it necessary and I will not agree with everything President Biden does. As I have noted in a number of my recent blogs, I want to reach across the aisle. It is important to realize that Congress has its same people, with some difference in the power structure. Will the two branches of our government really work for the good of the people? That is a difficult question because I do not believe that has happened for the better part of 20 years. Perhaps we need to as people model for them. Perhaps, we need to consider what we want in all branches of our government and not just in the Oval Office. It is difficult being an American because it is complex. Or so it seems, but perhaps being decent, thoughtful, and fair with everyone we meet might be a start. I know some of my former classmates and students are not happy with the change in administration, but it is where we are. Can we see if a Biden administration really does get a pandemic under control? Can we see if the Congress might work in a more bipartisan manner than they have over the last decade plus? Can we believe, regardless who appointed the Associate Justices, they will adjudicate in a thoughtful and fair manner considering all the complexities of a case? If we are willing to treat each other with the sort behavior we would hope of them, perhaps it could set an example. It is difficult to be an American, but I am glad I am. I think of a song by Styx way back in their early time where they were considering the Bicentennial of our country and what 200 years meant in terms of responsibility. We do have a responsibility to ourselves and the world . . . in the terms of Bonhoeffer, we need to live together.

Thank you as always for reading and I wish you a blessed time as we work together for a better world.

Dr. Martin

“Life is hard, but so very beautiful”

Hello from my office at the University,

It is a difficult day in the history of our country. This is not a partisan statement nor is it meant to be political; it is a simple statement of fact – because the House of Representatives has voted, for a second time, to impeach President Trump. This vote was more bipartisan than any other impeachment vote in our history, but that is not to say there is some great bipartisan effort to move in this direction. Let me begin by saying this. I believe that every person who stood outside the Capitol and protested the counting of the Electoral Vote had the right to do so. It matters not whether I agree with them that the election was somehow fraudulent, for they believed it to be so. A number of people believed what was provided by certain members of both the Congress, the media, and by President Trump himself, and they stood up to argue this part of our electoral process. Again, the comments made by all people since November 3rd have had some effect on what culminated as the event at the Capitol on January 6th. It is for those reasons indeed our national life is hard. We are divided and we are hurting, but there are some things to consider in all of this. I am not a Constitutional Scholar though I have spent a lot of time considering the role of argumentation as a Rhetorical Scholar. The arguments made on both sides of the political divide have consequence. If there is anything I struggled with today is how many Congressional people today voted as they did because of fear. I note that because some of the 10 Republicans who chose to join the Democrats noted they chose to not be intimidated. There is also what is being reported about soon-to-be Former Senate Majority Leader McConnell position and what he is saying about an impeachment and trial. There is so much more, but I have just listened to the video statement of President Trump. I have only one word: yes! It was one of the most Presidential statements he has made in four years. Under duress? Yes, and are there things still missing? Yes, but for the moment, it is what we have. Perhaps we can hope for more. Maybe that is my idealism that seems to always appear. However, I agree . . . no more violence. We can make arguments about timing, but I am fine with where we are. This statement was important. I want to say this for those who believe I cannot support him, I completely support what he said about violence and will leave it at that.

Now comes the difficult part. Can we move beyond him? Can we move toward being citizens, regardless political persuasion, who are willing to consider country before party? Of course, some will, and to some degree appropriately, ask what does that mean? For me it means this. Our elected people in the Legislative Branch will have to do what they do. We have elected them and what they do is supposed to be in the interest of all of us. I understand the difficulty of that statement at this present time. I need to focus on what I can to do reach across that aisle for those I care about, but who see things differently than I do. I need to ask their opinion and be willing to listen before I speak. I need, when necessary, to disagree, but do so kindly, carefully, thoughtfully. I need to think about the country it seems we want our young people to have. Certainly, where we are now with the lack of decorum, respect, or simple decency is not what we need. I am not afraid of honest debate about where we are as a country. I am willing to say we have a serious problem. The lack of trust, be it in the other, in the media, or by the willingness to see conspiracy behind every blade of grass creates a dangerous atmosphere. It undermines more than trust in something, be it the individual or the social fabric, it destroys hope in something positive or the possibility of anything better. It would be easy to give up; the actions of our country for more than just the last five years seem to indicate we have lost our ability to work together for the mutual benefit for either ourselves or our children and their children, but I refuse to believe that. Why? – – because I know the beauty of people if we allow them to do what is in their better heart of hearts. I have been the recipient of that goodness more than once in my life. One of the most important things I understand in my life at this point is our mutuality, our interdependence. We do not accomplish anything of substance without the help or input of others. That is a fact. If anything good is to come from our lives it is through our interactions with others. It is through our willingness to work with the other. This does not mean that all of those interactions are planned, expected, or even necessarily pleasant. That is how complex this idea of beauty is. Sometimes it is out of the depths that our cries fall upon the ears of another, a person kind enough, wise enough, courageous enough to lift us and listen to our pleas for help. Sometimes, it is us being willing to be attentive enough, kind enough, and yes unselfish enough to see the needs of the other before our own. If this past year and our battle with COVID has revealed anything to me, it is our interdependence and the profound reality that we are in this fight against this invisible enemy together.

Earlier, while listening to a statement from the World Health Organization and the critical things occurring all around us, the running comment thread had numerous comments about COVID being a hoax; that no one has really die; that everything about the virus is a lie. These comments absolutely stun me; I am simply speechless. If it is not true and there is a hoax, or no one has died, how does that square up with the obituaries, the refrigeration trucks, the nurses, doctors, and anyone else working within the medical sector who merely goes to work each day? . . . can you honestly in some bizarre stretch of imagination say they are all in on the hoax too? For God’s sake?? I am beyond words. I am convinced we have entered a time where most things we have held dear, reasonable, or appropriate are suspect. The time-honored traditions of being thoughtful, discerning, and open to possibility have been trampled, but the how and why are not as clear to me. So many times I have listened to students say they believe life was easier or it used to be and my general argument has been that is a just a perception, and we know the significance of perception. And generally I was not convinced they were accurate. However, as I write this today, I find myself reconsidering that statement. Perhaps it is more difficult, but why? That is a very different question. I think it is, in part, the consequence of information overload. This has been of concern for some time, but is it really there is too much? I think it gets back to something I speak with my students about every semester. When you are researching something, it is important that you look behind the sources themselves. Who wrote it? What makes that person credible? Who is paying for their information (and that is not necessarily money paid to the writer, but also to who is bankrolling the site)? What is the purpose of the article and who is the intended audience? All of these questions need to be considered before you are willing to post that somewhere. That is why there is so many issues with what is posted. So it is not the voluminous pages as much as it is the quality or veracity of it.

In the aftermath of our Epiphany Day (January 6th)- and it seems so ironic that the attack on the United States Capitol happened on Epiphany – there is so much that has happened, and it seems we are only getting started, but the suspension of President Trump from a variety of platforms is an incredible double-edged sword. I understand the rationale of the platforms in our national situation at this moment, but the role of social media and its power is currently immeasurable. That is the reality of the social media-verse. Therein lies the problem because they are private companies. They have the right as a private company to do what they do, but that makes the Zuckerbergs, the Dorseys, the Bezoss, the Torbas, the Matzes each the ultimate puppet masters of sorts. Once they decide and do what they do, is there any reconsideration, and how is that decided? This is a serious concern. This makes life much more difficult because we have become so dependent on their platforms. The internet developer noted that he was not particularly pleased with what was created, and I can certainly appreciate that reticence. Yet, we are certainly not putting that genie back in the bottle, but can we step back from our technological dependence and once again fathom writing in a more “old-school” manner? I took the time to write and send Christmas cards this year, the first in quite some time. It was a labor of love because it required me to think about each person who whom I send a card and understand why they were important in my life. I should have sent more, but I ran out of cards. And I made two trips to the post office for more stamps.

I should return to the quote that I have chosen to use for this blog post. This is a quote from Abraham Lincoln. It might not be one of his most famous, but it is perhaps one of the most substantive when you consider what his Presidency was trying to manage. What I appreciate as I read more and more about Lincoln is this rather meek, or at least introverted, man had an incredibly strong sense of principle. If you research his presidency, you will see he was trying to balance a desperate world and a profoundly difficult personal life. I can imagine there were moments he had no place to turn except to his God. I can imagine this tall and somewhat formidable person falling to his knees wondering if divine intervention might be possible. The struggles of the Union in 1860 have more parallels to our world now than some might realize. If you take the time to do some research, you might be stunned at the parallels. We have a divided country, one between rural and urban America. We are divided between those who believe we have a right to a white society and those who believe we are a much more complex tapestry today. That was slavery in the 1860s and it is a remnant of Civil Rights still not realized today. That is the reality of our racial divide. We are racially divided, plain and simple. That is a difficulty and it is something we must figure out as a country. It is something we must figure out as humans. It is something we must be honest about. I believe the most profound consequence of COVID is many of our inequities have been exposed to a degree never before seen. There is no where to hide. There is no carpet big enough to sweep it under. And that is good, but it is simultaneously painful. We must step back and consider what it means to be a country of equity, fairness, justice, and yes, a country of law and principle. Each of those terms are ideographic, which means they are complex and they have immeasurable baggage behind them. We need to understand more completely what they mean if we are to move beyond this difficult time.

This is where Lincoln was, and is still, so profoundly wise. In difficulty there is beauty. What does that mean? It means it is necessary to see the goal and understand that the path to things like equity, fairness, and justice are necessary to create something that makes it possible for people to dream and believe in hope. It means that we are truly a society of human beings who desire a society that allows all who put an honest effort in to see progress. This is not simply some idealistic end game. It is building on the belief that we are all equal in the sight of something bigger, a Creator if you will. Scripturally it goes like this: “To whom much is given, much will be required” (Luke 12:48). This is a tough verse. It does not begrudge your success or your wealth, your talents or your abilities, but simply says if you have it, you are expected to be gracious with it, even more you are required to be gracious period. We have lost that attribute too often. In our propensity to reach our ideal of individual freedom, we believe what we have accumulated is ours. Our incredible selfishness is contrary to the gospel. That is simply the way it is. The beauty of our lives is to be shared. That is something I believe Lincoln had somehow figured out. In spite of the difficulties he faced as our nation’s President, he was able to find the beauty in life. Can we step back in the midst of this difficult time and find the beauty in our lives? And then can we share that beauty with those around us no matter who they are? I know it is easy to become disillusioned, but I refuse to give in and not search for the beauty. I know it is there because I experience it daily. As America we must realize we have been given much, but much is required. It is interesting to me as I listened to an old song by REO Speedwagon the other day, it seemed like it could have been written during the past year. From their live album a song called “Golden Country.” I remember blaring this out of the widows in Holling Hall many an afternoon.

Thank you as always for reading and I wish you peace.

Dr. Martin

Why argument/debate/questions are crucial

Hello from my office (at home that is),

It is almost 10:30 in the evening and I am beginning a new post. First that is abnormally late for me to begin, and I am quite sure I will not finish, but I have also just finished dinner, which is also uncharacteristically late for me because I seldom eat late at night. So how did this happen? I got my second shingles shot on Friday and it has turned me pretty upside down. It is not as much a pain thing, which is what happened the first time, but it has caused me to be lethargic, feeling run-down, and caused me more indigestion (almost like a flu) than anything I have ever experienced from a vaccination. I am not regretting the two-part process, but getting through it has not been enjoyable. So, I have taken multiple naps each day, which has thrown my entire sleep pattern out of kilter. If you thought I ran crazy hours before, it is now beyond that. One of my former students, debate and forensics team members, and generally all-round good guy texted me at about 4:00 a.m. this morning and I was awake. The student called and we spoke until after 5:00 a.m. That is not the first time someone has tried to contact me in the last week at 0-dark-thirty and I was awake to take their phone call. So as I spoke with another former Wisconsin colleague this evening while cooking dinner, we commiserated our national atmosphere and we spoke honestly and thoughtfully about where we are, trying to come to terms with both the where and the how. I am not sure that we came to any earth shattering conclusions, but we did agree that these are difficult and desperate times.

Today, in a continued thread between, and with, a former colleague classmate and me, I saw something I have realized, but finally saw it more clearly for what it is. We grew up in the same area of the state of Iowa, in terms of both in the Western third, though I was more northern and he more southern. We are similar in age, and I believe he probably grew up more affluently than I. I do not know that for sure, but knowing his family background, it is a relatively safe assumption. We have disputed a number of issues over the last few years and at one point, we were no longer connected on Facebook, and I believe I reached out to him. Since reconnecting, our conversations have been cordial at times, respectful of the other, and then in terms of politics not so much. In fact, he argues that my requirements for writing correctly, thoughtfully and carefully smack of academic elitism and that because I ask him to be clear, I am being disrespectful or unfair. As a writing professor, I guess I can argue it is an occupational hazard, but that is not really what I feel. What I do feel is something I say to my students regularly, and this is true particularly in my professional and technical writing classes. Unclear writing or communication is unethical. I believe this because it affects the person reading it and trying to make sense of it in ways that have consequence. The same can be said about argument in general. The reason – and this is often the case – there is a struggle when debating another is you are at a point of stasis. What is that? It is where you have a point where little can be accomplished because you are not really arguing the same point. For instance, let’s remember when we were younger (or if you are college age now) and your parents argued when you came back home you needed to be in the house at a certain time. Coming home, returning from college, it is always difficult to be back under the rules you were earlier in your life. So your parents tell you to be home by such and such a time. You are restricted like when you were in high school, and you believe you are beyond that. What is the rationale you use to disagree with their requirement? What is the reason they use for the requirement? Let me begin with them. After you disagree with their request, they might argue something like “as long as you live under our roof and we are paying your college tuition, you will do as we say.” Is that a valid argument? Well, no, but not for the reasons you might think. The reason it is not a valid argument is it is not an argument at all. It is a statement from a position of power, and it has nothing to do with the reason they want you home at a certain time. Likewise, if you say, I do not come home to some curfew at college, so I am old enough to not have to do it at home is also not an argument. It is you trying to exert your power. There is no winning an argument from other side because it is about power, and as parents, particularly if they are still supporting you, you do not win. But then there is that issue too. What is the purpose of an argument, it is not about winning, it is about coming to consensus. It is about the facts of something and seeing where there is commonality, where you can from a place from which to move forward. Arguments are based on fact, and in our national debate right now, there are sound-bytes, inaccurate telling of facts, and little listening to the other, regardless which side of the argument you seem to fall right now. Honest, even passionate, debate is essential at this point in our national conversation, but honest debate requires research and backing one’s self up with carefully and thoughtfully structured debate. That is time consuming, but it is beyond just necessary at the moment. The fabric of our democracy hangs in the balance. I do not believe that to be a hyperbolic statement. This past week has revealed that in an overwhelmingly desperate way. Someone sent me a video yesterday, which I guess has been making the rounds. It was the video of Ashli Babbitt,. the Air Force veteran, who was shot and died inside the Capitol. It was stunning to me. It was tragic to me. It was perhaps even life-changing for me. I have listened to some of her Twitter rants and read some of her material and I certainly do not agree with much of her political leanings, but this is a 30-something veteran who has now lost her life. I understand what she was doing was dangerous, and I believe incredibly ill-advised, but I am still devastated that a young woman died at the hands of the very law enforcement those many in that building probably believe they support. That is a pitiful irony of her death.

My college classmate wants to argue that because I come back with facts and arguments based on research that I am an elitist, and by that implies that I disrespect them. I would assert precisely the opposite. Because I believe arguments need to be challenged and any argument I put forth needs to be challenged I try to make sure that my position is based on fact, but I am simultaneously passionate about it. There are times I have had to concede points and that is what true argument accomplishes. It moves us to a place of consensus and establishes a position from which all involved believe they were heard and valued. It is always difficult to admit when you are passionate about something that you are misguided or misinformed, but that is because we have been trained to win at all costs. Independence is not about winning and neither is individualism. Independence comes at a high cost, but that is what democracy allows. Individualism is based on support of the collective whole as well as the trust that individualism does not erode the collective good. There are a number of ironies that are inherent in the struggle we are currently engaged in as a country. I also realize that is from my viewpoint, and there are many who will disagree with me. I continue to struggle with the reality of last week’s Capitol siege, but I struggle with the aftermath as well. And that is on a number of levels. Currently, my thoughts about the reason it occurred are all over the place, and I am not currently willing to put that into writing. I need to keep thinking and listening to both sides. Just as importantly, where we go now is just as muddled for me. I understand the validity to some extent in almost every argument that is currently posited in terms of what is the best course of action in the next 10 days, the next 100 days, the next four years, and the list could go on, While I have never been interested in political office, I am surely not interested now. My heart goes out to anyone who must deal with the consequences of last Wednesday.

It was not lost on me that it was the actual day of Epiphany when all of this occurred. The day where light shown into the darkness. Nothing could be more accurate. There is a darkness in our nation and there is a hatred that we are all guilty of, that is not a political thing, it is a human thing that uses politics to express it. I have read pretty vociferously since last week and I made myself read Newsmax to understand more from those I do not generally hear from. It was an important thing for me to do. I have read FoxNews for some time, because I enjoy reading it? NO, but I need to read, listen and think. I read things from people I respect and have known for years, but I wonder how they are where they are, and I believe they probably think the same of me, but as I noted in my last post, it is imperative that we find out individually how to listen to the other and be willing to engage. Argument and debate are fundamental to democracy, but respect and decency are foundational to being able to argue or debate. How have we become so disrespectful and hateful? That is not as difficult a question as one might think. If one feels disenfranchised, devalued, disrespected, and ignored, they become angry. They believe they have little to lose in their vitriol. However, none of us are righteous enough to believe we have the moral high ground for some righteous indignation. None of us. What I learned as a student at a number of levels, undergraduate, seminary, or working on a PhD is the more I knew the more I realized I do not know. There is so much more to any argument that what is initially revealed. There is so much more to the other side than we are generally willing to hear. We are in a difficult position as a country. That is true. We are divided in ways perhaps not as extreme since the election of 1860. Abraham Lincoln faced an untenable choice in his desire to preserve the Union. His standing on principle split the country and a Civil War ensued. And yet, we know, and at least I hope we know, that was the correct choice. Some images from this past week are evidence that not everyone agrees, and more accurately, they never have. My classmate identified as a white nationalist today, rather than disagree with them, I asked what they believed that identification meant or implied? I asked the consequences of that identification. I want them to come to terms with that moniker. I know what I believe, and I am quite sure I know what many of my Black, Latino/a, or Asian, Middle Eastern, Indian, Bengali, or Turkish students might respond. My whiteness gives me privilege, but it does not give me the right to abuse that privilege. In fact, I will argue it gives me more responsibility to be fair because I am afforded things undeserved because of my skin color. I will assert there has not been a more profound moment in my life to speak out on behalf of those who are not given privilege for no other reason than they do not fall into the place of privilege.

I believe we need debate; we need heart-wrenching soul searching. I watched a number of videos today of arrests all over the country in response to last week’s events. Again, the irony of law and order arguments as they were on the receiving end of that were quite stunning. It cannot be swept away with all the other things left behind that 5 people died in the process of that day and the next. It should not be ignored that a veteran of the Capitol Police took his life later that week. The video of the black police officer allowing himself to be chased up flights of steps to lead them away from an unguarded door should not be ignored. There are numerous people who were heroes that day, and that cannot be argued. We will never know most of it. The argument of who we are and what we have become is certainly up for debate, but as important is the debate of who we want to be, who we hope to become from all of this. I know there are good people on both sides of this political divide. And while we are divided, I believe there are many more of us, regardless of party who hurt deeply by what is happening. It is time for all of us to listen first, ponder and then try to figure out a way forward that includes the greatest number of people working for the greatest good. It is not an easy task, but it is a worthy one. I am reminded of the Prayer of St, Francis and its significance for now is palpable.

I wish you all peace and comfort in this difficult time.

Michael

Out of the Depths, O Lord . . .

Weathering the Storm

Hello from my study,

There are a multitude of thoughts, emotions, concerns, and fears as I reflect on the pictures of our national Capitol yesterday. I do not mean that to be a political statement, it is a statement of one single individual, a former pastor, a Marine Corps veteran, a person who has Republican leanings (particularly in terms of finances, fiscal policy, and what has been typical defense policy), and yet, in his practice with others, more Democrat and a strong supporter of social justice, caring for the other, and in terms of our environment and education. I lay all that out because I want to be as honest as possible as I try to compose this blog post. One of my long-time friends noted that I have become more political in my speaking and more pointed in my commentary. And while I will agree with him, to some degree, I do work hard to see the other side. There is one former classmate who regularly accuses me of hatred, but I really am not a hateful person, nor am I a bitter person. I know all too well what either of those emotions do, both to the person expressing them as well as to the people around them.

It is easy to point fingers at the other side at this moment, but I choose not to do that. There are processes and things that will have to play out in response to yesterday from at a number of points as well as in considerations of a multitude of levels. What I do hope is that the majority of the American people find what happened yesterday, at the point they broke into the United States Capitol, unacceptable. I noted here, and in other social media, that the violence or looting that occurred last summer was unacceptable. I would note when others do things that are violent, hijacking what was peaceful, that too is unacceptable. At no point, have I condoned violence either toward law enforcement or by law enforcement. I lost what was a significant friendship because I was unwilling to engage in a shouting match about this. I realize that my opinion about the election does not square with everyone else’s, but it is an opinion that has been supported by former Attorney General William Barr, by Republican Governors, Republican Secretaries of State, and by a number of Federal and Supreme Court Justices, a number appointed by President Trump himself. Again, I offer this as a way to be as transparent about my biases as possible.

So where are we? It would be easy to point fingers, lay blame, and explain, or attempt , why I believe my position is reasonable, correct, valid, and you can insert the next work to provide justification, but I choose not to do that. Instead, I want to look at the consequence of a long list of difficulties I believe we face, again, I do not want to put out a laundry list. Let me merely say something that I believe most can attest is accurate. We are hurting as a county, regardless your political persuasion; we are mistrustful as a people, again, regardless your background, education, or economic status; and finally, we have little sense of how to fix it, arguing too often about why it is the other person’s or side’s fault. And unfortunately, we want to believe this problem is something that is on relatively recent in terms of our country’s persona or fabric. Our struggle with equity, justice, and liberty for all (and I mean all) is an aspiration and yet, seldom more than that. Much like the Israelites as they attempted to follow their role as God’s chosen, they were temporarily faithful at best. If you look carefully at the prevalent pattern in the historical books of the Old Testament, they were faithful when they were happy, when they believed they were getting what they wanted or deserved. The lament Psalms are there or a reason. It is what happens when things do not go so well, or they are held accountable for their selfishness, their desires to be God’s chosen, but on their own terms. Throughout scripture, we are reminded how hard it is to be faithful when our faith is tested, how difficult it is to be charitable when we feel we have been maligned or mistreated. We are pushed to forgive when the people we need to forgive have hurt us and mistreated us, and seem to have little desire to change.

While there is more than enough blame to cast on the events of this past week, I choose to stay away from blame, and I would wish instead to consider my own struggle with what it means to be faithful to God, a God who is the God of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, and not more or less to any of them, and second what it means to be a citizen of a Constitutional (Federal) Republic. I have realized for some time, even back to when I was on the clergy roster that I was more universalist in my understanding of the Creator than many. To this day, I find it difficult to believe the Creator who is responsible for all of us, is capricious enough to doom the Taoist who might have never heard of Jesus, but practices their faith more profoundly than I could ever hope. If that is the God we have, we are in some serious trouble. Think about it logically for a moment if you will. Even when our country was in the gripes of the Civil War, both sides prayed to their same Christian God, many believing in their heart of hearts they were being faithful. The arguments that have been appropriately made about how many actions of Jesus would fall into what a number of people would deem social justice (and by extension, socialist) are legion, and not in some demonic sense. The Creator will not be put into a box and be used by either side and thinking it is possible is not only foolish, it is dangerous. The righteous indignation on either side of the political aisle at this moment has some appropriateness, but it also has its limits. Perhaps, the greatest of all the commandments needs to be reconsidered carefully, completely, and literally. Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. That is an extreme commandment. It requires some serious reconsideration of our personal requirements. It is difficult to love others; it is difficult to forgive others; it is difficult to see beyond our own personal blinders. Before you believe I am asking for some naive kumbaya manner, which is not as naive as we might think, I am not. I am asking us all to step back and be willing to listen before we act.

There is little doubt that a significant number of people believe our government has left them behind, and for a multitude of reasons. And yet, how many of us struggle with the role we want the government to play in our lives? Again, before you discount the question, think about it. What do we want our government to do? Social Security, Medicare, any Social Welfare programs that fall under the Federal Government are socialism. That is not a value statement it is merely statement of fact. If you have collected unemployment, assistance of some sort, federal grants for education, it is socialism. It is the government uses the taxes they collect for the social good of the Republic. This is simply what is happening. If you have ever filed for unemployment, if you have received any Federal assistance for your college degree you did not have to pay back, you have been willing to act in socialist manner. Again, I received grants for my education (and there were loans that were paid back). There was a period in the early 1990s where I received unemployment, and I was encouraged by my employer to seek it. Again, I offer these points to try to be transparent in my own participation. When Government offers some Federal program to help the masses, it is socialism. You can justify it however, but it is for the social good, which is the distribution of goods or services regulated by the whole (the Federal Government). Certainly, one can argue they are not part of the Federal whole, but your citizenship eliminate that argument. Certainly there are those who refuse to pay taxes and participate, but they use the things taxes help establish, so again, their house of cards is in danger of falling. What I am trying to say here is pretty simple. We are in this together. We are Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Conservatives, Progressives, and somewhere along the spectrum throughout. Our States’ Rights versus Federalism complicates it all, but it is what we have.

I do believe a number of Americans, even within the almost 71 million who voted for President Trump are aghast at the events of this last week. I am sure that there are those who wonder where we go from here, and I am among them. One of my most ardent trollers, a college classmate, believes I hate Republicans and the President. First of all, I do not hate Republicans, and I believe we need probably more than two parties, but we certainly need a strong, thoughtful, and principled Republican Party. The same can be said for the Democrats, as well as those who find it difficult to claim membership in either party. I’m back to where I began some of this. All American citizens who believe in the power of the ballot box, and I am not trying to get into the arguments of this election, but rather that the argument that the ballot still matters. Again, personally, I do not believe the election was stolen and I am glad that every single case (86 of them at this point) was adjudicated. Again, to be honest, I have found President Trump’s actions difficult to stomach on a number of levels, but this is not about him either. It is about us as citizens, as humans faithful to a Creator, one I believe cares for all people. For the good of the country, for the good of the world, we must step back and cry out as the Psalmist, “How long, O Lord?” If you believe in the power of prayer, I believe it is time we fall on our collective knees and ask forgiveness for our arrogance, for our selfishness, for our own usurping of a gospel that is about all people. Can you pray for the good of all the citizens of the nation and ask that God’s will might be done versus our own? While it is easy with the all the video that has bombarded us, to point fingers and blame. Again, I understand the need for laws, and for consequences, but let’s try to allow all the members of Congress to be heard. While I certainly do not support the entrance of the Capitol Building or the actions therein, I am hurt to my core that a woman, a veteran, lost her life. I am sad beyond words that a Congressional Police Offers was bludgeoned by a fire extinguisher, and subsequently lost his life. If he had a badge on that said I voted for the President would it have saved his life? Just today (and it is now Sunday) a second CPO, has died of suicide. Tragic! Violence begets violence. This is an example of a balanced equation.

There is nothing that can bring anyone who lost their life this past week back to life. Their families will deal with the aftermath of Wednesday’s events for the remainder of their own collective lives. Their Psalms or cries of anguish and lament are justified and understandable. Those who believe that armed insurrection is the way to manage our differences are, in my opinion, wrong. Do I understand frustration? I do, and for more reasons than I need to enumerate. Do I believe we need to step back and reconsider how we debate, how we speak, how we post, how we come to our own conclusions? Without a doubt. But in each of these things, it begins with us, with a careful, honest, and thoughtful inventory of who we are, and the acceptance that we are accountable for everything we say or do. That has never been more apparent than it is now. At this point, we are our own huddled mass. We are wretched refuse in more ways that we would ever hope to admit. When I grew up as a small child in NW Iowa, I was taught some very simple rules: be honest, be polite, be respectful. Those rules might serve us well now. I had many adults in my neighborhood who served as surrogate parents. They all watched out for us kids in the neighborhood. That was the reality of my life. My father would have put it this way: keep your nose clean. That had nothing to do with my nose, it had to do with my actions and how I acted on a daily basis. As I became a student at Dana College, what I know now much more clearly, and appreciatively, was our Professors pushed us to see beyond the words and lessons. They wanted us to take that liberal arts education and become citizens, and actually global citizens. They prepared us to make a difference in a world that has struggled for equity and justice since creation. It is all connected. Nothing happens in a vacuum. In a conversational thread this past week, one of my FB connections asserted it is too late, we are beyond repair (that is a paraphrase, but it is the substance). My response was I am not willing to give up on us. But it has to begin with me and with introspection. Certainly, I have felt some indignation at some of what I have listened to, read, or watched, but I have my own blind spots. As I cry out with my own lament for the world, I pray I can open my heart and mind to those I do not understand and try to see the validity in their view. As I cry out for the hurt we feel as a country, may I find ways to bind up the wounds of others, particularly the ones I may have caused. It is not too late, if we can dig deep and believe we can create a better world. Again, this is not some polyannish wish. I am not hoping with some idealistic sense of miracles. What I am hoping for, willing to work toward is exponentially difficult, but I wish it for my friends’ children and their future children. I am reminded again of a video I have used before, but out of respect for what my parents taught me. Thank you, Mom and Dad.

The Beauty of Art: It Reveals Our Humanity

Hello from my study,

It seems a bit more than ironic that has I have spent the last 5 days writing all day long, finishing a chapter for publication that I would need to write, but I do. My brain is fried with sentences about gender, chronicity, stigma, IBDs, CRC, hegemonic masculinity, and the list could go on. So I want to write about something more enjoyable, and perhaps as important as this just completed chapter. When I arrived at Dana College the fall of 1979, I was already a few years (or more) out of high school, and even though I had some life experience, I knew very little beyond the basic Three Rs of the educational process, and I am not sure I knew them nearly as well as I had believed. After my first semester, I found myself in the first of a three semester Humanities sequence (Hum 107) and in lectures about early Western Culture that changed my life. It was not only the content of those lectures that fascinated me, it was how the various professors who lectured us helped us synthesize the world of the past, but connect it to the thoughts and actions of our present. That is an incredibly difficult thing to accomplish, but it is a profoundly necessary thing if you are to create a carefully thinking, critically reflecting, and appropriately active citizen of the world in which they live. That is what this almost daily three semesters of humanities did for me.

Yet, as importantly, it exposed me to elements of our life that were not common place in my simple blue collar upbringing in NW Iowa. That is, in no way, to say the education or life I had was lacking for most of the basics, but things like painting, architecture, classical music, or philosophy were not a part of my upbringing. The program developed by Dr. John W. Nielsen, and supported by so many brilliant faculty members as well as the incredible Parnassus staff, provided an education that was literally rated 2nd in the country at one point. Yes, that is true. We were afforded access to a class, a series of classes, or a program that rivaled any Ivy League program in the United States. The title of the class was more than apropos. Humanities are essential if we are to be a society of civilized reasoning people. Those twenty Humanities points required every semester allowed us access to cultural opportunities that helped us see how our lectures occurred in real life. Again, that is synthesizing what you learn, but it also influence who you become and how you perceive the world around you.

What I remember is it was a rigorous class, and because of that rigor, some people treated it with a certain disdain, arguing they did not need to know those things. Little could be further from the truth. If you are going to do more than be an automaton, you need to be part of as well as be able to reflect and comprehend the world in which you live and work. The gift of being an advisee of both Drs. Nielsen and Jorgensen was their ability to both challenge and support you in that challenge at the same time. They taught me how to learn, not what to learn. It is something I work hard to achieve with my own students today. They probably epitomized and lived Luther’s law/gospel dialectic as well as anyone I have ever met. In addition, there were profoundly talented faculty like Jim Olson and Alan Brandes or Sid Kieger. My appreciate for art, music, and theatre was informed by their lectures and their classes. Alan Brandes was a prodigy and one of the most profoundly brilliant, and yet tormented souls, I have ever met. And yet, it was not only the faculty.

We had students around us who exhibited brilliance and talent beyond what most might believe would be at a small liberal arts college on the bluffs of the Missouri River. There was an incredible talented and brilliant student who pushed me in ways more important than I realized, both as I struggled with Greek and hope to retain more for my Brandes’s Music History class. She was more of a blessing than I ever realized for more reasons than I have fingers. There were the men on the floor of the Promethians, they were thinking, capable students, engaging and simultaneously supportive of this 24 year old freshmen trying to figure out his life. I remember getting to know one of our Danish exchange students, between my trip on interim and her, I believe I can trace a line to the fact that Anton was my exchange son last year. She was smart, personable and beautiful, but she taught us all so much more than she realizes. I remember studying in the library with another on my humanities packets regularly. I still have some of the notes we wrote back and forth as I have all those Humanities materials in my office yet.

Art is such a complex, but essential part of who we are. I tell my students that all art reflects the culture that creates it. This is simply the way art works. Our creative minds are influenced by what we see, hear, feel, imagine, or believe. When I teach my Bible as Literature course, one of the things I stress, besides that it is a literature course and not a religion course, it that the Bible is contextual. It was written by real people at a particular point in time, and they were influenced by the world around them. One of the most mind-blowing things for my students to see is a timeline of when things were written and what was happening in other places at the same time. It is again, teaching them to synthesize their world. It is something we need to do regularly, daily, thoughtfully. I think of some of the music I listened to as a high school/ early 20-something person. I remember my mother’s unfavorable attitude toward things like Jethro Tull, Black Sabbath, James Gang, or Led Zeppelin. I wonder what she would have done if I chosen to listen to Beethoven, Bach, Prokofiev, or sometime atonal like Bartok or Schoenberg? I think she would have been more worried, but it was my fellow student who pushed me to be able to identify things like Berlioz or the other classic B named composers with a sort of name that tune. More was done to create an appreciation than they ever knew.

When I went to Europe that January of 1981, it was the time of a new President, it was the time when after 444 days hostages were released from Iran. As I had walked through the crypts of St. Peter’s Basilica or viewed the Raphael paintings in the Vatican, my head and heart raced. I was living Art Through the Ages, the art history text used for so much of our class. Almost 35 years later I would do it again, but this time I would be the professor. It was amazing to me how the feelings of walking in Garmisch-Partenkirken some decades before would return as I walked in the snow of Kraków and spoke with students about the world they were experiencing that day. As Anton came to live with me in August of 2019, I could not help by think back to the Danish exchange students who attended Dana, or my German exchange student friend from high school. I also tell my students that after education, the best or most incredible way to spend your money is to study or travel abroad. It is a cultural, as well as profoundly personal, education. As you work to find your way around, as you take the time to learn to converse in another language, as you eat the food, or sit in a church and listen to the music, your life is changed. You cannot be the same person. Again, I remember when I went to Europe in Seminary and we listened to the incredible organ music of Holm Vogel, the East German, who played Bach’s organ concertos for us in the very church where Bach is buried. While the music was phenomenal, it paled when one realized the person playing it was blind from birth. To this day, I do not believe I have been so overcome with emotion by what I experienced. I remember sitting in the cathedral in Lübeck in Northern Germany and listening to the music of Dietrich Buxtehude, played in the very church where he had served as an organist. There is nothing that can prepare one for such an experience.

Luther once said, “Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise.” I think it is true. And yet the architecture of Europe, of all of Europe, and certainly in Moscow, provides such an insight into the engineering ingenuity of humans. There was no rush to build things, but as that humanities class questioned in a unit essay once, just how did the architecture of the cathedrals reflect the view and reverence people had for God? Certainly, the astounding size, the detail, the geometry and physics involved is mind boggling. The incredible writing of those from Greek and Roman times to the authors of today, it is impossible to not reflect on the world about which they write. Today photography and the eye of the photographer astounds me. They can take the mundane and it is no longer that. Artistry from the kitchen to those who brew or create beverages, there is so much beauty in what we experience, if we will merely take the time to ponder and examine it.

This past month has been a time for me to reconnect as some of my blog posts have noted. That reconnection continues to various degrees, but I am grateful and blessed by each one who has offered that chance or accepted that invitation. I am who I am today because of each of you, and you have blessed me beyond measure. As I write this is it the 11th day of Christmas. This week brings Epiphany and Orthodox Christmas. Each of those events provide a time to again take stock in who we are and what we value. As I write this, here in America, the week will move us forward toward the next step in our tattered democracy. I do not write that with any sense of pleasure, and I am not sure where I currently stand in terms of hope. As one of my mentors from graduate school noted so accurately and aptly. Being a Democrat and practicing democracy are not the same things. The same can be said for Republicans. It really returns us to the idea that we are first and foremost Americans in a Constitutional Democracy. How we make that democracy work will always be at question, but making it work is what we have done for 244 years. It is my hope we can step back and ponder, believe that we are in this together and move forward and do it again. I am not naive and believe it will just happen, it will take every branch of our government, and it will take all of its citizens.

To those who have reached out anew this week: thank you. To my beautiful cousins, family, and friends from all times in my life, I am blessed to have you in my life. Blessed Epiphany. May the light enlighten us all.

Thank you as always for reading and blessings to each of you.

Michael

Something New or Merely Continued

Hello, and welcome to a new blog posting year,

It is the second of January and we are enamored, if you will, at the idea of a fresh start, and in light of our past year, the hope that somehow this trip around the sun might be a bit less traumatic, a might bit less chaotic, and, finally, a return to some idea of normalcy from what the last 9 months unleashed upon our world. It is easy to want a do over, but how much would we honestly change from what we have done? Certainly, television shows and movies have taken on that theme more times than we have fingers, but how much is actually changed? In a written conversation with someone I only know through writing, they noted they are not a big New Year’s Eve celebratory sort of person because they see things as more of a continuum. I would have to agree with them on a number of levels. Part of my desiring to be more of a home body than a bar person on NYE is because I was a bartender. Most bartenders will refer to the 31st of December as Amateur Night. There are way too many people who believe the only way to celebrate a new year is to raise their BAC to a ridiculously unhealthy level and spend the next 24-36 hours feeling like trash. Not for me. That is not to say I have never been there, but it is certainly in my past.

The idea of pushing the proverbial reset button is not entirely without merit, that is for sure, but by extension somehow believing we will automatically turn over a new leaf, be healthier, atone for all of our shortcomings, or finally hit the lottery is about as likely as being able to start our lives over, mentally emotionally and figuratively. If we could even go back to the previous January 1st, I believe we might find we have become Bill Murray or Andie MacDowell in the movie, Groundhog Day, and that is if we are lucky. I have often noted this: I do wish I knew what I knew and understood now about 30 years ago. I think I would have made my life much less painful. I wish I understood the reason for my struggles with various things more clearly earlier in my life and I would not have let them be such a debilitating influence in how I thought or related to other people. One of my students from last semester, one with whom I am working through an incomplete with at the moment noted in her own blog that she wishes she had been allowed to think more independently earlier in her life and lamented the idea that they are taught to believe their parents are perfect or not allowed to be questioned. That was an important insight on her part. I remember leading a seminar for parents about thirty years ago and noting the most important thing we can teach our youth people is to be honest and admit our mistakes. I believe that even more profoundly now. If we are incapable of admitting our failings, we send a message that you must be perfect and anything less is wrong. In addition, we model that lying about something when we fail is a reasonable response. Neither is what we hope is telegraphed to or modeled for others; and yet, too often it is exactly what we do.

While I have noted this before, perhaps it is worth noting again. The word for sin in Greek is hamartia ( I wanted to write it in Greek, but WordPress will not cooperate). It means to literally fall short or miss the mark. Think of shooting an arrow and landing short of the target. That is our lives too often as we have the infamous good intentions, but we do not manage it as we should. The reason we cannot merely start over is our failed good intentions, our less than good intentions, and our simply (or complex) failings never occur in a vacuum. We affect the other. Therefore, even if we had the opportunity to start anew, the consequences of our actions or inactions are there. It reminds me of the confessional part of the liturgy. We confess both the things we have done and left undone. In both cases it is an active voice verb. We are not being made to fall short in some sort of Flip Wilson way. For those who are not old enough to manage that idea, Google away. Someone made you do it. I know of one thing I fell short on this last semester and I need to work on that yet, but I am the one who failed to get it completed. It is no one else’s fault. Mitigating circumstances? Perhaps, but it is still on me and no one else.

There is the continuum if you will. John Locke does not magically appear each December 31st at the stroke of midnight and like some sort of Santa wipe the slate clean so we can begin anew, but that does not mean we have to carry the baggage of failure forward either. While I sometimes believe there might be more deterministic to what happens than we want to admit (Clifford Hanson is probably laughing at me yet for this), we do have a brain and we have freedom of choice. How do they all fit together? In a much more complex manner than I want to delve into at the present moment. Some of my more philosophical colleagues might have a lot to say about this, but they are much better than I to take one such a difficult idea. On the idea of continuum, perhaps I should turn to my mathematics colleague, and incredibly brilliant friend, who continues on his own continuum of navigating more estrogen than he perhaps knows what go do with (and it will become more entertaining as the continuum advances, I am sure). I have thought at times of letting him speak with my cousins and they might have advice for him on a number of realms. Their father was a math professor also and he was outnumbered 7:1. There is some more math for you my dear friend. So, if I cannot get my version of tabula rasa, the chance of my being in a movie with Andie MacDowell is highly unlikely (damn it!), and my failings did not just magically disappear about 36 hours ago, what might the best option be?

Perhaps it gets back to the idea of honesty and self-reflection. On the backside of one of our campus buildings above a main entrance on that side, the phrase Wisdom is the Fruit of Reflection stands there for all who approach. Reflection requires honesty if it is to truly reflect our situation. I know when I am honest and take accountability, it is both painful and freeing. It is not possible to change our past, but taking the time to reflect and understand is the beginning of wisdom, but it is a process. It seems anything worth reaching or achieving is a process. That makes our impatient selves a bit more frustrated, to be sure, but like most things that mature, once you are there, it is worth the time. All of this sounds cliche to some degree, and perhaps that is why it seems both logical and easy, and yet, it is anything but either of those. The first person to help me understand that was Dr. John W. Nielsen (The Pope). He had this particular way he would peer at you when he inquired about something of substance, and a sly smile would slowly appear on his face, and he would stand or sit quietly as he allowed you to come to your senses. I remember a night in our Eurail coach as he asked me questions about my background and listened intently to every story I told him. When I told him about my older brother’s passing and my exclamatory response of “Fuck!” when the doctor informed us they had lost him. My eyes filled with tears as I recounted that story as it was only a few years in the past then. He looked empathetically and knowingly as only he could, and said, “That might be the most profound prayer you ever uttered.” All I could do was stare. He compared my vernacular despair to the 22nd Psalm and asked me how it was different? It was at that point, I realized both the brilliance and saintliness of that man. Now, exactly 40 years later, I find myself respecting and admiring him all the more. He as much as anyone in my life taught me to think, to ponder, to imagine the possibilities. There is no amount of thanks I can offer for that life-changing teaching. Thank you to Robert Coffey for the picture used at the beginning of this post. The amazing replacement cross above the Dana Campus is a reminder of our faith is something beyond our pain and laments.

As I have reached a mile-stone age, I am continually asked what next, again like there is some new direction or new beginning I need to consider. I am not sure I will ever stop being a professor, a teacher, a pastor, and for some a character. There are certainly things I have failed at in my lifetime. Being a husband comes to mind or is at the top of the list, and I must take my part of the blame for that failure. That failure has created a much different life than I expected. It has kept me from ever being a biological parent, but on the other hand it has allowed me to have an incredible number of surrogate children, and one exchange son. It has created times of loneliness, and simultaneously provided the opportunity to travel and meet people all around the world. It has made times of solitude, but that solitude has offered moments or occasions to reflect and understand things more fully, more completely, more accurately than if I was merely flying by each thing. It made it possible to care for things and people in ways that would have never happened, and even now it allows me to spend time on working to be the best professor I can.

There seems to be a sort of oxymoronic quality. There are times I am melancholy, I remember I student at Stout using that word to describe me, and yet, I am generally optimistic at the same time. Perhaps it is because I see the continuum of things. Perhaps it is because I have no need to start over. I am honest about things, but I believe we continually have an opportunity to reflect and learn from our circumstances, but I simultaneously understand there is no quick fix for much of anything. I think that is some of our struggle now. The continuum we are in seems to be at a nadir level, but if that is so, there is room for optimism. Each day I read about more division, and while I know our current President will neither disappear nor will a new President simply pull us together, I am buoyed by the reality that Congress, in spite of some struggles, will do its job and continue to demonstrate there is at least a hint of sanity inside the Beltway. Our judiciary has listened to an incredible number of questions and as I read today the current tally is 60-1. Our nation is also a continuum, we cannot undo what has been done. We can reflect, be honest with what has occurred and try to learn, regardless our political leaning. Another of my former students, one with whom I have had significant conversations and messages, asked, honestly and inquisitively, if there wasn’t just a simple way to look at all of this. While my answer to her was no, that our political situation is undoubtedly complex beyond words, there is a simple answer. We are selfish. We want our way. We do not want to see the other side. Those are the simple answers, but then there is the question of why we have become so? Then it gets complicated once again.

So I will continue on my continuum and try to make appropriate and thoughtful adjustments to make the lives of those around me as well as my own life better, believing if I do so, the consequence will generally be positive. I wish you each a blessed New Year. May we all be kind in our reflections both of others and ourselves. May we believe that falling short is not the final answer, and may we feel a newness in this year that makes our world a better place for all people.

Bless you and thank you for reading,

Dr. Martin

90 Pounds of Energy, Intelligence, and Sass

Among the Hydrangeas

Hello from my study on the Acre,

There are only a few hours beyond a day before we finish this year, marking a fifth of the way through this 21st century. Twenty years ago we were panicking about something known as Y2K, wondering if our technological world would come crashing down and create mass chaos. As we approach this new year, we have been living mass chaos for months. While some prophesied the somewhat shit-show our national politics are, few could have imagined the lockdowns, the isolation, the quarantines, the remote teaching, the trauma of illness and death that has befallen us like an Old Testament plague. There can be little wonder if the Psalmist might find themself writing a new lament, or perhaps, the words of the 22nd Psalm, cried out by Jesus on the cross are words enough. Because of either the divided nature of our country or the alarming rising death toll from COVID-19, I believe we can aptly recall the words of Shakespeare in his work, Richard III, “[n]ow is the winter of our discontent.” There is certainly more than enough discontent to go around. There are good people (and some not so good) on both sides of the political aisle who argue they care deeply about this country and yet they cannot meet somewhere in the middle on most anything or remember that they represent the American people. Then again, unfortunately, perhaps that is exactly what they are doing, representing our collective spirit of discontent, of suspicion, of unwillingness to engage with the other, or finding it possible to accept the truth of the other, to believe there is some simple answer to all of this. Humans are not simple (at least when it comes to figuring them out). This is not really the purpose of this blog; as the last blog of this calendar year, as I am sitting at home working on a chapter, trying to manage a deadline, and wishing I was once again in Poland for the holiday – but not really because of the present global concerns – I am reminiscing about this time six years ago.

I had barely finished a 12 day vigil at the bedside of Lydia, undoubtedly one of the most profound people I ever met, as she ebbed away from the long-term effects of dementia. The tickets to Poland had been purchased and the reservations for staying five days in Kraków were booked long before I went home that 14th of December. I knew she would have a doctor’s appointment on the 18th, but there was little that could prepare me for the shell of a woman waiting my return. Dementia had hollowed her mind, her body, and her ability to care for herself, but it had not vanquished her stubbornness nor her ability to make her desires known. In fact, it might have heightened both. And yet, this once proud and meticulous Austrian woman struggled to manage everything about herself, and the seizures experienced were debilitating and painful. While she would not remember the pain or the seizure, the way they exhausted her after their occurrence was as painful as an observer, and more so for me because I saw their consequence. I remember that Saturday morning, following breakfast, when she asked to go back to her room; she wanted to go back to bed. This was not her usual routine, though there was little normal to what she did those last days, besides move slowly along in her wheelchair or fall asleep. Nonetheless, she was insistent she wanted to go back to bed. In retrospect, it was amazing because she never really left her room again. However, if you think she merely retreated to her room, nothing could be further from the truth.

While I would stay with her for 10-12 hours a day, one morning as I returned from sleeping on the Circle, I walked into her room to see her with her hands wrapped in a caretaker’s hair and she held the poor girl head, her face smashed into the mattress so she could barely breathe. I asked the caretaker if she was okay, and in a muffled voice, she gasped, “Yes.” I told Lydia she needed to let her up, and she responded with a firm and insistent, “NO!”. Long-story, short, it took me five minutes or more to untangle the young woman’s hair from Lydia’s fingers. Of course, then there were the times she would slap a water glass completely across the room or refuse to open her mouth, or use her now two favorite words, bitch or bastard, to refer to something or someone about which or whom she had some disapproval. I remember on Christmas Eve Day as she looked into the corner of her room and spoke in Polish. I asked her gently if George was there, and she nodded affirmatively. I asked her again, softly, “Are you ready to go home?” She responded with as much energy as she had done in a couple of days and firmly said, “No.” And she meant it. I remember being petrified that she would die on Christmas Day and haunt me the rest of my life. You see, Lydia did not really appreciate Christmas. I never really found out why. However, she would live for another week.

As I walked around Kraków with Robert, Marysia’s father as my tour guide, I met up with Dr. Polyuha and some of the Bloomsburg students, some who are still around after finishing graduate degrees, but on the 30th, 6 years ago today as I write this, we visited the Cathedral Church in Kraków, where Karol Józef Wojtyła (Pope Saint John Paul II) had presided as the Archbishop. There, in spite of my Lutheranism, I lit a votive candle for Lydia and I prayed. I prayed both to God and in hopes that George would hear and believing they could. I knelt and prayed a simple prayer. Please convince her it is time to come home, and with that I raised back up to my feet and walked slowly from the church. Within 36 hours, Lydia would pass. Even today, I do not some times consciously comprehend that external circumstances can make the gift of a day seem to be a burden rather than a something to be cherished. I understand that there are extenuating events that impinge on that block of time overwhelming us and causing us to lose sight of the opportunities which might be presented in that time. Yet, how many times do we, in the normal course of events, lament when a period of time is coming to a close, wishing that somehow we might have managed that time better? I believe this might be how many feel about this year. I remember believing each day I sat beside Lydia wondering if the end would happen that day, but I also remember she waited for me to leave versus waiting for me to be there. I think she desired my presence to tell me she loved me and for me to spend that last Christmas holiday with her. I think the manner in which we choose to leave the world, particularly when something is not accidental, is more in our control than we often imagine. I think about my brother waiting until I came home from Ames and passing that night or my mother holding on until I came back from Pennsylvania. I believe with all my heart Lydia wanted time with me, but refused to die with me there. I remember, during one of her periods of lucidity, telling her I loved her again. She responded in her Austrian accent, “No kidding?” as if my words of care were as she often said, stupid. She understood it, and I will say I remember her eyes lighting up as she spoke her in characteristic tone and manner. Even in her last days, that sass never left her.

Lydia was no ordinary person, and while I did not know her during her earlier life, there are a couple of stories she loved to tell. She came from an educated family as an only child, but I believe she was probably quite precocious. She tells of sneaking up into the pantry to eat the caviar they had in the house. Another time, when she was young, going to Catholic School, she noted she was supposed to kneel at some point, but refused to do so. When she finally slammed herself down in disgust, she cut both of her knees open to the point of needing stitches, but refused to move as she knelt in her own blood in some also stigmatic way. Likewise, I never met George, but there was a significant period of time when he lived in Oak Park, IL and she was in Menomonie. They had a commuter marriage of sorts long before anyone considered such a thing. When her Stout colleagues once asked who George was, her response, “That is Mr. Rutkowski to you.” When he moved to Menomonie, they renovated two houses and he created a deck closer to the lake as well as a path all the way down the hill. She would not go down there, and from the stories, he went there for refuge. Supposedly, he would sometimes walk around the yard muttering, “Oh my God, that woman.” She was going to do what she wanted and no one, regardless of gender or size was going to persuade this amazing two-digit-midget (no offense intended to small people). Likewise in her stubborn, independent nature, she crawled along the gutters of her three story house regularly, intent that you could eat out of them should there be such a need. It mattered not who admonished her or worried about her, she continued to do so. Even the neighborhood dog would walk below the gutters when she was up there in case she fell. One of my many responsibilities was to drive her around (imagine Driving Miss Daisy except she sat in the front passenger seat). When we went clothes shopping, she purchased her polo shirts in the children’s section. Her front closet, in fact most of her closets, could have been an LL Bean warehouse. There is so much to be said about Lydia, and her incredibly brilliant blue eyes and her indefatigable smile were mesmerizing. When she lived on the Circle, she was often up before 6:00 a.m. and the miles she walked with her broom and extended dustpan daily literally wore out her shoes. She made sure every single leaf was accounted for once they fell. If she was behind, she would exclaim with her never-lost accent, “It looks like a slum.” Heaven forbid such a calamity.

It is hard to imagine she has been gone six years. I am still grateful to Nathan and Theresa Langton and the entire family because they gave up much to care for her too. Without them, undoubtedly, the care accomplished for her, her property, and even for the residents of COH would not have occurred in the manner they did. She might have been less than 100 pounds, but it took two of us to manage her, and that does not include the unparalleled staff at Comforts of Home. She was one of the first two residents in that facility 10 years ago and they, almost without exception, did everything they could to care for her. To this day, I am in contact with some of them, and blessed to have them in my life. One of the things I have thought about many times this year is how many grandmothers or grandfathers, mothers or fathers, or siblings are now isolated from anyone. Carissa, her former administrator and I have spoken a couple of times this year about what it would have been like to get Lydia to wear a mask or manage isolation. Oh my goodness, that would have been a battle to end all battles. Nonetheless, there are tens of thousands of people who are living that struggle now, and my heart breaks for both those confined and those who cannot see them. We need to think about what people need and contact is essential to us because we are innately communal. Again, the deep-seated sadness this causes me is immeasurable. To anyone doing this work as an aide, as a meal attendant, as someone cleaning, please accept my prayers of praise and thankfulness. If you know someone, reach out to them. If your loved one is there, create a prayer circle to support them and yourself. To all those caring for those who struggle with agedness, thank you for all you do. I know you are not paid nearly enough and the thanks you get is seldom enough.

Back to Lydia, as tough as she was, when she trusted someone, by extension, she loved them. In spite of the fact she never weighed more than 100 pounds until the last couple years of her life, and ended her life under 5’0″ tall, her heart must have taken up most of that space because it was incredibly large and strong. I also think it is what kept her alive during her last days. To this day, I am grateful to the entire staff of Comforts of Home, but particularly to Carissa, who treated her as her own relative. Carissa came in on that New Year’s Day and spent three hours on her day off to be with her. What I know from the bottom of my heart, Lydia came to love Carissa and it was evident in the way Lydia looked at her. In fact, Lydia’s entire affect changed when Carissa would come near. Finally, Lydia, as I told you six years ago,”Sie wurde die Mutter, die ich nicht hatte, und ich werde geehrt und demütigt, um einfach und liebevoll zu ihr zu sagen: ‘Lydia, ich liebe dich und auch heute, sechs Jahre später, bist du immer noch meine Mutter.’

Lydia, after leaving the Sudentenland, moved to Vienna. She would grow up there until eventually leaving for London and then to the states. She loved the Vienna Boys Choir. To all of you who read this, I wish you a blessed continued Christmas season, a good new year, and hopefully a 2021 that is safer, saner, and happier.

Michael

Five Hundred Twenty-five Thousand, Six Hundred Minutes

Hello from my study on the Acre.

The first time I saw the movie version of the musical, Rent, I was almost speechless by the end of the show. Since then, I have watched it numerous times, but it still can bring me to tears. While it is well-known, there are certainly those who are probably unacquainted, but based on Puccini’s La Boheme, with a late 20th century upgrade on subject matter, it looks at a group of friends getting ready to face the last year of the millennium and what happens to them in that year. The song most are probably acquainted with is the title of this post. It is the number of minutes that compose a year. Last Christmas I was helping a newly minted seventeen year old try to feel somehow like Denmark was here on some small fashion, but Anton was experiencing his first Christmas in America, but as importantly, he first Christmas away from home. A few days before Christmas, we had a dinner with students and friends, and there was certainly a multicultural flair to it. Anton’s traditional Danish Christmas dessert, called Risalamande, or a Almond Rice Pudding with a Warm Cherry Sauce was quite the hit. In fact, people are still talking about it. And Anton made it himself. His mother would be proud of what he did. In addition to having a very nice Christmas together, we were invited to another home for a Christmas brunch, which was quite incredible and Anton spent a significant amount of time with his friends as they planned what his Spring Semester would be like. During all of this, there were some interesting stories about a virus that was occurring in China, but we did not pay much attention. It seems this was the case at a number of societal levels, and now, at least if what is reported is true, some should have been much more serious about this particular problem. As we all know now, that little virus has changed our world. In the 525, 600 minutes since Christmas a year ago, there is little that seems untouched by all of this.

Yet, there is so much that has continued in our normal daily lives that is simply what we do. We get up; we hopefully have a job to go to daily or regularly; we are able to live our lives with all the restrictions, but somehow life continues affected, but unabated. And yet, 2020 has changed who we are; it has altered our perception of education, of work, of socialization, and expectations (and that is across a wide spectrum of things) of what basic life will be like when we finally find ourselves on the other side of this, which, of course, is still open to interpretation both what it will be as much as when, or even if, there is an other side. This is something I have pondered. Much like what has happened to air travel post-9/11, airports have never gone back to where they were. I am pretty convinced, we are in the same situation now, but we are not sure what all of that means. I know that the consequences of acting like there is nothing to be concerned about has resulted in the infections of millions as well as the death of hundreds of thousands. I am not making a political statement, and I have some people I care for deeply who believe that they have the individual right to refuse a mask. I have others who are incredibly careful, and they are not elderly as I am. I have appreciation for all of them, and I certainly do not care less for them. What I am trying to note is this year has changed our lives in ways before unimaginable. As I try to understand what will happen, I find myself realizing two things. We must try to manage whatever it is, and at the same time, we must live our lives. Again, it returns me to Rent. I remember two scenes that are more poignant for me. The first is when the members, who are dying then of AIDs/HIV, are at a meeting and talking about if they will be remembered. The line “will someone care? Will I wake tomorrow from this nightmare?” The second is when the same members of the group note, “I am used to relying on intellect, but I try to open up to what I don’t know because reason says I should have died three years ago. There’s only us; there’s only this. Forget regret or life is yours to miss. No other road; no other way. No day, but today.” I have used that last phrase as a signature in one of my emails for some time.

Today is the 27th of December. Twenty-three years ago, Kris, my sister, called me to let me know she was taking our father to the hospital. He had been in hospice for a few weeks and he was losing his battle to liver, kidney, and pancreatic cancer. He would pass the next morning. It is, at times, difficult to live with the reality that all of my immediate family, the other four of us are all gone, but that is the life I have. This is not a lament, but rather a realization that for some reason, one that I still do not understand, is I am still here. This is no hyperbole when I have been told by some of my doctors that the reason they do not know what to do with me is that most people with all my issues do not live this long. I remember the first time I heard this. My response was a typical Michael response. I responded to my doctor with the simple statement, “So I am special.” The doctor’s response was as simple, “Yes, you are.” There is so much we can be grateful for, and none it has to do with the stuff we have. I am more amazed at how our bodies are such incredible mechanisms, miraculous in their ability to self-regulate if we allow them. It is not simply cliche to say that from the moment we are born we move toward the end of life, and this year is certainly made it apparent that there are things outside our control that can hasten that process, but we are not merely victims of morbidity. There is so much more in-between. As I have reflected and reminisced on my childhood for a variety of reasons during this past month, there are so many reasons to be thankful.

In the past year, I have remained working, albeit in a different style, and one that takes incredible work and energy, but as with every semester, I am blessed by such talented people in my classes, and their talent is not always represented by the grade they receive. My colleagues, the unparalleled staff who support us, and an administration who works tirelessly to figure out our ever-changing situation make my life much easier. While I have not been able to meet some people in person, Zoom calls, phone calls, and drop-offs of various goodies remind me of their profound presence in my life. Happy voices and wishes for time together mean more than any words can express. Love from the parents, who are both special to me in ways I cannot enumerate, remind me of the goodness this year bestowed in spite of the distance requirements. While March seems long ago, a birthday dinner for a dear friend and with another dear friend, before the reality of a changed world hit full-force, is a reminder that there is another side to all of this. Each minute we proceed through another revolution around the sun is too often taken for granted, taken as some kind of entitlement, but we are never enfranchised to anything. It is a simple and profound gift. It is only through the loss of that time we become acutely aware of time’s giftedness to each of us.

As I finish another year, I have been given the gift of a life that is beyond anything I might have imagined for the little NW Iowa boy. I made it far beyond what some told me I would do or beyond what I was deserving. I know this in such a profound way. I have been blessed beyond measure by so many. Some of those earlier blessings in my life have reappeared and like the beacon of the Epiphany star, I feel a glow and light I have not felt for many years. Thank you to each of you, the five remaining beautiful cousins who have been kind enough to embrace me after all this time. To Jeff, our other cousin, for reaching out. To my nephews and nieces, great-nieces and great-nephews, over the years you have made me feel loved and cared for. I am still grateful for your presence in my life. I realize that family is exactly what you make it. We are all fragile, flawed, and carefully faithful in our belief that we can love in spite of our foibles, but life has demonstrated it is possible, regardless the time that has passed. Five hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred multiplied since I last spoke to the beautiful Pilgrim daughters would be an astronomical number. It is over 20 million minutes. That is beyond thought. It is about half my life. So many opportunities lost, but I choose to consider the possibilities ahead. As I move in my own spiritual life from the pensive and reflective season of Advent, I find the carols continue to play on my devices. As I begin through this season of Christmas, it is my prayer that I can become a better family member, a better person, a more thoughtful person.

In my piety, and in my understanding of God, it is difficult to not be humbled by the chances we are given daily to make some small difference in the lives of others. I have been profoundly blessed in that most of my life I have been placed in situations where somehow I can make a difference in someone’s day. From waiting tables and serving as a bartender, from being a parish pastor to a college professor, there is always someone who is affected by what I do. I think perhaps it has been a vocational calling to simply make someone else’s life a tiny bit better. It is not about profound or expensive things, it is about simple goodness. As I complete this year, this segment of my life, I am well aware of the profound difficulties in our country and in the world. I am completely conscious of the uncertainty that confronts us as we try to move beyond what this global virus has done. There is little I can do on a big scale to change that situation, but I believe I can do what is necessary to make sure those I love and care for know they matter. That is my commitment as I move into this new year. I am not saddened to despair or overcome by a sense of powerlessness. I believe simple goodness and trying to meet the other where they are is a beginning. Will it always be simple. No, there is little simple in all of this, but I fail to believe all is lost. I will hold on to the love and goodness of this holy season and recommit to my own personal efforts to make the lives of those in my orbit a bit better. To all who have taken the time to read my blog this past year, and there are been more than I could imagine, thank you. May you have a blessed Christmas season. Those friends, who have an Orthodox faith, as you move toward Christmas, I wish you a continued blessed Advent. To all who have other faiths, may your new year, whenever that occurs also be blessed. I leave this version of “Seasons of Love” because of my own work with this incredible show this past year. To all who mourn the passing of one you love, be assured you will never mourn alone.

I wish you all a blessed and successful 2021.

Michael (Dr. Martin)

Deciding to be Solitary or Lonely

Hello from my study,

Today I followed through on a decision pondered for a while, but it is a decision that requires me to be more intentional, more thoughtful, and more disciplined about what I do. After multiple urgings as well as the life-style change COVID has brought, and some thoughts about my own long-term plans, which are certainly not cemented in some non-changeable manner, I sold my BWM 328xi back to the dealer from where I purchased it, and made the decision to function by “ten-toed express” for some time forward. How long, you ask? I am not sure. It will depend on inoculations, sabbatical plans, and other possibilities. However, I realized I was spending a great deal of money on insurance in spite of the very few miles I was putting on my car. Ironically, due to some weird Pennsylvania regulations, it is necessary for me to maintain some car insurance, even without a car. Otherwise, if I am without vehicle insurance for over a certain period of time, I would be put on high risk insurance. What a racket that is!! There were a couple of other considerations too. If I decide to get another vehicle or lease on because of some longer term plans, I will probably stay with the same brand as it was probably the most amazing car I have every owned. I enjoyed it a great deal and while it was a 300 series, it actually got great gas mileage. It is sort of an interesting feeling of freedom and the lack of all rolled into one. This change will also force to me to focus on some things I need to be working on and running an errand to just procrastinate yet again will be much tougher.

This morning, I spoke with another of my cousins on my mother’s side of the family, which created yet another Colorado connection. If I do some real counting, there must be a dozen people minimum who have moved to that state from all across the country. I could probably do a two-week road trip to Colorado and remain busy the entire time. The past weeks have compelled me to understand, or become reacquainted with the fact that someone can always have a profound influence. Often when you least expect it. It is an incredible thing to speak to someone who knew you in your childhood, and then simultaneously try to fill in the blanks for three decades. It was the wonderful work of connecting dots once again. Families are such dynamic, metamorphic, engaging, or even numinous entities. As I face a three decade lapse I must reasonably question how did that happen? There was no falling out, problem, or specific reason we lost touch. What I seem to comprehend was a lack of some mechanism in my immediate family that engaged us with the extended family once the previous generation moved beyond this life. I am not sure why that was, but I must believe it had something to do with my own immediate family in Riverside and some of the difficulties in that family. Perhaps it was because of some of the struggles our family perhaps, innately understood, but no one would ever mention. Perhaps it was because as I moved away from that struggle and particularly from my mother. As a consequence that side of the family was lost and I must take responsibility for my own decision to move away from all of it. What I am coming to terms with is how much I have lost in all of this. Again, perhaps, what I know now is merely that I am fortunate enough in finding it possible to reconnect. What these past three weeks have laid out for me so clearly, so profoundly, is that those decisions, either conscious or subconscious are exactly that: decisions made . . . and like any decision, there are reverberations. And yet, this was no conscious decision in terms of any termination or result. This outcome was a collateral one, and one mostly unrealized, one considered from time-to-time, but as with many such repercussions, how to manage it seemed difficult. So now I am working, as noted in the last blog to connect the dots and the decades.

What I discern more completely at this point might be something quite different. Being family, either by birth or adoption is not something over which we have a lot of choice. In fact, there are a plethora of memes, cards, or magnets that state just such a thing, but what does it imply? It means too often a sort of deterministic idea of “it just is” and deal with it. What I am realizing is family is much more . . . as noted above it is a complicated thing, but, at least for me, it was, and more importantly is, something I need if I am to understand who I am, from where I came, and why I might be the person I am. Certainly there is a lot that can be read into those things, but I am considering it on a more simple basis. As I have chatted with my cousins, they are kind enough to tell me things about what they remember and for me that validates much about my childhood. It is even more treasured and respected because they are speaking their own truths of that time in our lives. That is a precious thing to me particularly when I am the only person in my immediate family still here. I am not necessarily lamenting this, but rather being the solitary one has weighed on me in different ways. I realize I have a sort of tug-o-war existence with being on my own; I am simultaneously comfortable with the sort of control it gives me over my existence and confounded by what it has left me as someone alone at 65. There is a sort of never actually having all we want, which, of course, is incredibly selfish. I have noted that I feel more like my father’s elder brother-in-law at times than I could have ever imagined.

As we begin a Christmas week, memories of childhood naturally come to the fore and I appreciate how the family dinner and the gathering of people are so essential to our feeling of how we matter. For me, and as the theme of being an individual has permeated much of this blog throughout the years, I think it is important to perceive the difference between being solitary and being lonely. Too often we do not imagine or comprehend the important difference in them. One can be solitary, while being content, happy, or even fulfilled, but this is not about things as much as it is about people. It is our interaction with people that creates a sense of community; keeping us from being lonely. I think much of my earlier life I chose to be lonely, though seldom recognized it. Lonely was not something new to me, it was how I often felt growing up. I remember being in Sioux City’s Children’s Community Theatre and each Christmas we would perform Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Eventually I was Ebenezer Scrooge. I remember Scrooge’s lines when approached about the person collecting for the poor. Having been asked if he wished to remain anonymous in his giving he retorted,

wish to be left alone. Since you ask me what I wish, sir, that is my answer. I
don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make lazy people
merry. I help support the establishments I have mentioned…they cost
enough…and those who are poorly off must go there.”

A Christmas Carol

What is interesting to me is I have some of the wishing to be left alone part of Scrooge in me, and yet on the other hand, I love the Christmas holidays and giving to other people. Somehow I got some of both. I think the Christmas spirit, as noted many times, comes from my Grandmother Louise. I believe in the magic of this season, and for me, it requires really little effort to make other people’s lives a bit nicer. Simple politeness, a mannerly help with the door, making allowances while driving, or even thinking of the other’s needs before your own is not difficult. I think it merely takes some time to be willing to consider the other before one’s self. And simply, it is putting into practice what we learned as children: share, be polite, use your manners, and be kind. There is nothing too arduous about it, but it seems that such traits are in short supply in our current national attitudes. What I have begun to grasp as I have reflected this month and reached out to my cousins is they had those traits in their immediate household. Don and Virginia were gracious and welcoming, and in spite of the elapsed time, certainly the conversations with various members of the family seem to demonstrate they have carried on that practice with great proficiency. It is really a gift to be included in their conversations and thoughts again. What I am witnessing in my own life is how my choice to be solitary at times created more loneliness than I expected. There is a thread in my life that has that solitary trek of a person searching with no real sense of purpose, but searching nonetheless. I am not generally aware of it, but I remember many times being on my own. Just today, a Jagiellonian University student I was blessed to meet in the Main Square Costa Coffee shop in Kraków, and someone I speak quite regularly on FB messenger, chatted by messenger yet again. Today she reached out asking if I was alone for Christmas and worrying about me. It was incredibly sweet of her, but again it reminded me of my time in A Christmas Carol. When Scrooge is required to see his past he is reminded of his choice to not go home for Christmas and he ends up alone.

Brother, dear brother! (She kisses Child Scrooge.) Dear, dear Fan, Scrooge
answers. She responds, I’ve come to bring you home, home for good and
ever. Come with me, come now. (She takes his hand and they start to run
off, but the spirit stops them and signals for the light on them to fade. They
look at the spirit, aware of their role in the spirit’s “education” of Scrooge.)

A Christmas Carol

If you are aware of the story, in two different cases, Scrooge ends up alone and sad. The melancholy that is such a part of Scrooge was not because of his being solitary it was because he chose to be alone. Choosing loneliness is one of those things that does something very different that choosing solitude. Solitude is about peacefulness, ironically one of the themes of the Advent Season. Solitude is about reflection and assessment. One of the things I have often considered doing is returning to the Upper Peninsula and doing a spiritual retreat with the Byzantine monks at the Jam Pot. I think it would be a really good thing for me to do. What this month of reconnecting, recollecting, and reminiscing has accomplished is it has pulled me out of a shell that I created, albeit unknowingly. With the exception of a sandbox buddy, there are few people who remember me when I was that smaller-than-normal, spectacled, butched-hair cut, large-eared person who kept a smile on his face regardless what was happening in his life. The picture above is my first graduation from kindergarten. What registers so clearly now is that there was no solitude in my home growing up because there was fear as a prevailing theme too often. I was more often lonely because I was afraid. As I have gone through my life, either married or single, what appeared to be and the reality of the world I saw were very different. Even in my marriages I found it difficult to be unguarded. This is an incredibly difficult admission to make. Likewise, it caused problems because it was not something I ascertained, and certainly did not comprehend at those times. As I reach out now, I do it knowingly, and yet desirous of something that moves me toward a more healthy style of solitude.

In someways it seems my cousins in their kindness and beauty, their honesty and graciousness are like the three spirits who visited Scrooge that Christmas Eve night into the wee morning hours of Christmas Day. While I have never been Scrooge-like in my Christmas spirit, there are certainly times I have found myself wishing to be left alone during other times of the year. As I often say in my Bible as Literature class, God often works in spite of us. And then in my sort of caustic manner I add . . . and sometimes to spite us. I am not sure that there is anything spiteful in the events this past month, but God has again knocked on a door and it is up to us to open it. This season is often a time when people stress because of family obligations. This season of Advent has been a season of joy and peace, of hope and love like none I have experienced in my life. I wish for all of you a blessed week of this Nativity. To Kim, Paula, Julie, Mary, and Martha, and Randy, by extension, but now also to Jeff: Tusen takk fra hjertet for at du tok imot meg tilbake etter alle disse årene, og jeg ønsker hver og en av dere en velsignet jul. I leave this as a call out to our Scandinavian heritage.

I wish each of you a blessed holiday as we finish this unprecedented year of realizing we are never solitary; we need each other.

Blessings,

Michael

Imagining Decades and Connecting the Dots

Hello from my upstairs study,

It is Sunday evening and even though it is barely 8:00 p.m., it seems so much later when it gets dark so early. Over the last couple of days, I was so aware of that rapidly setting sun and when it is cloudy, it is even more apparent. I do not remember this sort of darkness as a child. In fact, I think the first time I remember it was when I was in seminary and would be walking from campus back to the Burntvedt Apartments. It was always dark on the way home shortly after 4:00 p.m. during the winter. Of course, then there was living in Hancock/Houghton and even Laurium in the Upper Peninsula. While the summer was glorious for the incredibly long days, the converse was the case in the winter. I remember driving up the hill past Quincy Mine and you could see the sun setting in the rearview mirror, but by the time I got eleven miles north, it would be dark as if it were midnight. I think this is the first time since then I felt it got dark so quickly. Perhaps it is just the cumulative effect of what 2020 has done to all of us. It is hard to believe that we are 3/4 of a year into this new world.

As I write this, it is less than two weeks until Christmas, but that too will be different. I know there are a lot of people who are trying to figure out how to manage all of this. This weekend, Pennsylvania just reimposed some restrictions on public places and public gatherings. I know there are people all over the board on these things, but I choose to keep myself pretty locked down and do what is necessary to keep myself as safe as possible. . . . As is often the case, I got some things started the other day, but I am behind. It is Wednesday and as predicted a significant snowstorm is baring down on Central Pennsylvania. It has been snowing for about 5 hours and as I sit in my study again, within the last 24 hours I did significant work outside to get things ready for what was coming. I also got all my Christmas decorations out, both inside and outside, made sure the snowblower will work, and finally turned the heat on upstairs during last night. I work up and it was about 63 degrees, so I figured it was probably time. So at this point, I am pretty hunkered down and ready to ride this 18-22 inches of snow out and see what happens about 24 hours from now. I remember when I was small, living in NW Iowa and we got incredible snowstorms. We would build tunnels throughout the yard and with our snowsuits, boots, mittens, hats, and scarves, we could play for hours. We would come in long enough to warm up and our clothes would be thrown in the dryer. After the clothes dried and were warm, we would be at it again. We were heartier people then or what? I cannot imagine that now. Of course, then there was living in the Upper Peninsula, and that is where I really learned about snowfall. I remember someone asking when I moved there if I liked snow. I said, “Yes, it’s nice.” They responded, “No; do you LIKE snow? Because we get a lot of it.” They were not kidding. My first year at Michigan Tech, and I had been in the U.P. for three years then, we received about 346 inches of snow. I lived in Laurium, about 11 miles north of Houghton, and I did not own a snowblower. It was incredible. I remember having a front-end loader in the yard to push snow back because I could not scoop it any higher. And yet, the snow was generally light, fluffy, lake-effect, but it snowed almost every day. Then, as noted above, it got dark very early. There were times I shoveled more than 4-5 hours a day. It was a pretty strenuous workout.

It has already been over 20 years ago that happened. As I have reached out to my cousins these past weeks, I have been keenly aware of the time and the length of time that has passed since we were last in touch in any manner. It is stunning to me how months turned to years, turned to decades. We were kids or young adults and somewhere we missed the entire middle portions of our lives. We are now in 50s and 60s, older than our parents were when we would see each other regularly. That is a shocking reality, but more importantly, we are here to do it, though on both sides of the family there is an entire two generations gone and now even some of our generation. There is the line from On Golden Pond, which again comes hearkening back: “Don’t you think that everyone looks back on their childhood with a certain amount of bitterness and regret? It doesn’t have to ruin your life!” And so it is . . . Do I have regrets? Of course, but when I take the time to connect the dots, I am compelled to remember that I hav been so profoundly blessed throughout my life. I did not take the normal childhood route. Being on my third family before the age of five, struggling too find my place as someone who felt unwanted or frightened more than I allowed people to know, and trying to manage both my professional and personal baggage throughout my life was not an easy task, but I refuse to focus on that. In this season where we hear words like hope, peace, and joy, it is hard to overlook those people who have been there throughout my life. I think of people like Frank and Margaret Sopoci, of Bud and Janet Reese, or Jacob and Marge Goede. These three couples were, along with my grandmother and the cousins that were central in my last blog, were the people who helped me see beyond the things I heard too often. They provided the sense of hope that is essential for human existence. Following high school and the service, I again struggled to find my place. I had returned home, but it was not a place that was ready for me, nor was I ready to be back in it. It was then my pastor and his family that would have such an essential influence on my life. Between having a close friend, being enamored beyond words with his sister, and then having their parents be as much of parent to me as anyone, I had less than an inkling of how important they were. Father Fred, as David and I called him, made me accountable. It is an accountability that has lasted four over decades to some degree, but it might be one of the most important lessons in my life. It is astounding how hurt from someone can create the consequence in a completely different circumstance. I think that is the lesson that has finally become clear to me. What I am aware of in these past couple weeks is how individuals, families, our own family, and those who come into our lives by chance can be influences far beyond what we realize. We absorb their lessons and our mutual experiences into the fabric of who we are, seldom realizing the influence the significance they have become in our own journey. This past couple of weeks in reconnecting with my cousins has been a most unexpected and profound gift. From texts to messages, from Zoom calls to phone calls, the catching up on decades of our lives has been an incomparable joy. It causes me pause and compels me to ask what was it about these cousins? Was it their beauty and comprehensive personalities that were so different among the six of them? Yes, that was part of it. Was it the enjoyable times we shared as children whenever we were together? Yes, again, that is part of that picture. Yet is that enough to connect the dots after decades of losing touch? Perhaps, but I think there is more. It is what has come through in our conversations during these past weeks. They accepted and loved me. They accepted their undersized, rather nerdy cousin with his butch haircut, glasses, and over-sized ears who would not become comfortable with his image until he was in his thirties. That is where the gorgeous might come in. They were so beautiful, but they were also kind, accepting, and gracious. That was what it was. Now, decades later, they are still beautiful. The twins look decades younger than what they are. Kim, the current eldest, is as beautiful and kind as I remember, and conversations with her are such a joy. I have gotten a bit of an idea about Martha and Josh and Mary is stunningly beautiful, but seems to be an observer more than a talker. That is part of what makes all of them so incredible, both individually, but also collectively.

As I sit in my study, listening to Christmas instrumentals, looking out at the snow as the sun sets, my heart is full and my life seems to be blessed beyond measure. It is a very different Christmas than a year ago with Anton, and I miss him, but I know he received his package today. That makes me very happy. I have another one, but it will go out after the first of the year. The other package to Russia should be available tomorrow. I miss Anastasiia also; I remember taking her to JFK about this time to go home for the holidays. It was a time when having people around for the holidays helped make the acre more homey. I love decorating the house, both inside and out. The people here in Bloom tell me they wait to see what I will do. I do not feel that profoundly different in what I do, but I know that I do believe in the magic of the season that seems to bring out people’s better angels. We desperately need all of those angels. In spite of the unparalleled sorrow this year has brought, there is hope. There is an opportunity for peace, and if we search our hearts there is room for joy. That is what the Advent season is for. It is to prepare our hearts. I am reminded of Bonhoeffer’s words when he wrote to his co-conspirators during that December of 1942. In the midst of a regime that disregarded the Jewish people or anyone who did not fit their Aryan profile, engaged in a propaganda campaign that convinced people that the Reich was doing what was best for the German people, and co-opted a good part of the church, Bonhoeffer noted that their actions would need to be judged by history. Instead of absolution he wrote, “Only the one for whom the final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all these, when in faith and sole allegiance to God he is called to obedient and responsible action: the responsible person, whose life will be nothing but an answer to God’s question and call” (After Ten Years). Bonhoeffer had the opportunity to remain in America, but returned to Germany believing he had little right to be there after the struggle, a different battle than Hitler had written about, if he did not go through the trial with them. In a letter to Bishop Bell in London, Bonhoeffer would lament honestly and bleakly. He wrote, that “freedom is not something that occurs just within the church, but it attacks the very roots of National Socialism. The point is freedom. . . .” He was one of the few in his church to demand protection for the persecuted as a necessary political step the church must take. Confronting the consequences of that alliance would put Bonhoeffer at odds with his church and it was a struggle of conscience. Bonhoeffer would question the role of the church and its relationship to the Jews. This was not a rejection of Judaism as much as it was about the unfinished questioning of the Christian Church itself. The tragedy of the plot to rid Germany and the world of Hitler was not just that they failed in their execution, but that their failure revealed the extent to which they were incomplete in a much larger sense.

In spite of the recalcitrance of many to accept this election outcome, I believe there is much more at stake as we watch those on both sides of the political divide, be it here in our country or in other countries. Freedom and disagreement, even passionate disagreement, are part of our democratic process. My understanding of the Christian message, and by extension the Advent message is simple. We have a Creator that meets us where we are in our brokenness and bids us to come. As I say in my Bible as Literature course, do you do what you do so God will love you or because God loves you?” I choose to be the person I am now with all the dots beginning to demonstrate a pattern, with the decades of loss in contact being erased. Indeed because of so many people I am blessed beyond message. The message in the midst of difficulty for Bonhoeffer was a message of honesty and hope. The message of all Advent is about preparing for each day of our lives with a sense of purpose, a sense of hope, and with that a sense of peace. To my cousins, Kim, Julie, Paula, Mary, and Martha: thank you for the hope and joy you have brought back into my life. I wish you each a sense of peace in this time as we mourn the loss of such an incredible elder sister. To Randy: you remain in my thoughts and prayers and it was wonderful to speak with you too. I wish you all a sense of comfort in knowing how special you were to each other. To our parents and our families from the generations. I hope you are proud of the work you did and the amazing people you created. I leave this song with reminds me of how blessed I am and how I wish I might have shared that better earlier in my life.

To all; as always thank you for reading and I wish you all a blessed conclusion of this most extraordinary Advent season.

Michael