Understanding One’s Heritage


Hello from somewhere close to Charlotte, NC,

As seems to be normal, I am writing this as I am moving at 500 mph and sitting 30,000+ feet above the earth in the 6th row. We got out of Wilkes Barre shortly before the Vice President was arriving. I know we are close to Charlotte because we just did that “hit the brakes” in midair, so you know they are starting to slow down before hitting the runway at warp speed. I am continually amazed each time we land and they apply the brakes in such a way that it seems if we were sans seatbelt there would be no option but to be propelled forward so that we will all be in the first class section of the plane. I am on my way to the Conference on College Composition and Communication in Tampa, Florida. I am delivering a presentation on incorporating experiential learning into my upper level professional writing classes. It is interesting to me that I have been working with this concept and practicums or internships for 12 years (and before that if I include graduate school) and in the past 5 years it has really become a serious buzz word.

I am now on my second flight and got a couple of people contacted and some emails and messages as well as an important telephone call managed during the 45 minute layover. As I got on the second plane, the number of academics on this plane is outrageous. In the row in front of me, behind me, and with me are probably 90% filled by people headed to Cs. It is actually my first time at Cs; I had submitted things back in graduate school, but I was never accepted. I am quite enamored with the opportunity to present there, and somehow going to Tampa after the winter we have had is simple a bonus at this point. It will be a bit of a whirlwind of a trip, but I do plan to get some work done in my room. I will have a lot of things I want to work on yet tonight after arriving, but I am reminded of one of my MTU mentors? She would present two or three conference papers at a conference and be writing them while she was there, and she could write circles around me anyday, anytime.

Yesterday I ordered another version (language) of Rosetta Stone. I ordered the software in Irish. I spoke with one of my colleagues and he noted there is a Strong movement to revive the language,so I might have jumped aboard the train at the best time possible. I have noted issues of my heritage at other times as I have blogged and I must offer some appreciation for the Galans as they have really influenced my focus on issues of culture and heritage. It is interesting how their family considers that heritage differently, mostly  generationally, but I do not think they are unique in that generational response. It was interesting to me that questions of opportunity showed up on Facebook again from some of the other non-Caucasian students in the past day. It brings to the fore another significant question. What do the terms equality, justice, or opportunity mean? Who decides? What do these terms imply? Again, to whom? And how are those terms defined, by concept or action? Those questions are all for another blog post I think.

Where and when did the idea of becoming an American mean that someone was required to give up or discard their national ethnic heritage? I know that each generation has struggled at times to fulfill the dream of coming to this country and find acceptance. I have enough historical study in my background to know that even my own heritage, one of primarily Irish and Norwegian, struggled to find acceptance in this country. I actually want to do a bit of study on this before I write more here, so I think I will take a break from this post. The break has gotten longer than I anticipated. It is a week or more later, but managing all the pieces seems to be bit crazy. I am actually back in the Midwest at the moment, but it is for not much longer than that. I have come back to visit my life-long friend, Peter. It will be an emotional, but important day. Visiting him, a person who knows my background as well as anyone, is another example my heritage. What is our identity? Who are we and how do we become that person? It is somewhat ironic that this is something I asked my students all the time. Understanding exactly who we are and what that means requires critical thought. It requires us to be honest with ourselves and sometimes that is difficult. It forces us to look into the mirror and in the manner of speaking to leave herself naked and vulnerable. In our nakedness we are unprotected, but I believe we can be cleansed. It is in our vulnerability that we can finally be honest and rid ourselves of our flaws. Cleansed and remade we can move forward with hope and confidence. To some, this sounds perhaps a bit maudlin or idealistic. It is anything but that. To be honest with ourselves and take stock of who we are is tremendously difficult. It requires that we meet our flaws, our failings, our foibles. To know that I’m going to see my friend, my lifelong friend, for probably the last time is shocking to me at this moment. Once again I’m forced to face my mortality. . . . I got to spend 5 hours with Peter yesterday and, out of fairness to him, I will not say much about the progression of his struggle with ALS. I will say while I was not surprised by what I experienced, the reality of seeing him in person was terrifically painful. I am grateful for every minute we spent together. It is shocking to see someone I have known my entire memorable existence in the throes of losing his life. Again, the stories we were able to share go back to our elementary years and throughout most of our growing up. The time into our early 20s was a transforming time for both of us and we went our separate ways because of geography, but somehow we always managed to reconnect and appreciate that history.

Heritage is history; it helps create an identity and offers an opportunity for us to reflect on who we have become, but also how we have become that person. One of the things I have often wondered is how much DNA has a part in our history. We hear stories of those who have been adopted or removed from a family and yet there are uncanny similarities between the removed and their biological roots. I have found some ironic similarities between my biological father, with whom I have spent less than probably a total of 72 hours with my entire life after the age of two. He was in the Marine Corps (as was I), but I never knew that. I know that he went to college at one point and did extremely well. He studied English and Spanish and it is eerily similar that I have become an English professor and have such an interest in languages in general (and I am working on Spanish pretty diligently as I write this). I know he was married twice as was I. I know he traveled a bit as have I. Those are the things I know and while I have never really tried to find out  much else, I think it is a bit komisch or raro for us to have such an overlap. One of the most important things for me in my heritage is to understand what I value and from where those values have come. Some of it is certainly the consequence of an upbringing and the geographical places that have influenced me. It is a bit strange that I have seemed to gravitate toward a particular element or nationality of my rather mixed ethnicity. I know that I have Norwegian, Welsh, English, German, some Native American, and finally Irish. It is the Irish upon which I want to focus. I am not entirely sure I can place a finger upon why that is, I merely know it is. I think it has to do with some of my melancholy nature. I think it is perhaps because it is the particular trait or background that has been traced furthest from the present. Perhaps it is because I have a sense that what I might find there might help me understand myself. I am not sure I have yet figured it all out. Some might question why I think I need to do so, but others will not find that need surprising in the least. I think perhaps some of it is because I have often felt like I had to fight and work tremendously hard for whatever I have achieved, and I would not I am not upset by that because those lessons have served me well. I think it is perhaps because I feel it is that particularly part of my background that has caused me to always see that one needs to pick one’s self up and refuse to quit regardless the situation.

Over the past weeks I have thought about the past year and how much has changed. At this point last year, I was in the last part of trying to write my tenure application for its first review and I was terrifically stressed. It was a difficult time and there seemed to be more than I could handle, but it got accomplished. There was a trip for Lydia and somehow she managed to pull through. There was finishing up a amazing year and learning much about another culture and family. There was the change in diet and health that has had significant consequences in how I have managed my life for almost a year. Today, a major part of the reason I came to Bloomsburg was approved at the university curriculum committee and hopefully a second piece will be ready for approval in the next week or so. That is the revision of the minor, the addition of two classes and the hope that a certificate will be approved before the end of the semester. It has taken 5 1/2  years of work, but it is accomplished. I am grateful to Dr. Dan Riordan, my former colleague and mentor. He continues to serve as a mentor and friend to me and I could not me more fortunate. I am grateful to my colleague, now assistant department chair, and amazing friend, Dr. Mark Decker for his insight and support before I even got to Bloomsburg and the vision he had. Finally, I am grateful to my colleagues in the English Department here at Bloomsburg University for their insistence that we create an interdisciplinary program and a program that would support the department as well as add to it. Both my former chair, Dr. S. Michael McCully, and my present chair, Dr. Tina Entminger, have been supportive beyond measure. There is still more on the horizon, but the cooperation of many people at a number of levels have made this growth possible. I think all of this is part of my heritage also. It is always interesting to reflect on how things occur and all the components necessary to make something happen. Two years ago when I thought I had some things figured out, I found out that was not the case. It took more time, more conversations, and more thought and investment to get to this point. It simply took patience and time. That might be the most important lesson I learned in all of this. What I also learned is that I have the skills to get something accomplished and bring to reality something that was a concept at best when I arrived.

Lydia, I hope you can see this is why I had to leave Menomonie the summer of 2009. I know that was a traumatic change for you (it was for me too). When I think of people back there I need to thank for this, what I know is there are numerous for a variety of reasons. I need to thank Erica Mathieson who was willing to live in the little house and try to manage Lydia and the things Lydia did that were difficult both generally and sometime very personally. I need to thank Tom and Elaine Lacksonen, who are still dear to me for all they have done over these years. I need to thank Nathan and Theresa Langton and Caddie and Maggie for all the time and effort they have put into helping care for Lydia and the house during the last 6 years. I am grateful to Amy Fichter and Charles Vandermuelen for their friendship and the gift they are in my life and how they are always there to support me whenever I find my way to Menomonie. I am feeling relieved and even a bit exhausted as it is now 10:30 and I am still in my office. I think I might go home for a bit of a nap and then be back bright and early. There is still grading and there is Spanish to work on. It has been a bit since I have posted, but it might actually make it to press tonight. Next week I will be back for some tests, but I am hoping that I have turned a corner in a positive direction. I think there are things that need to be considered here also, but I am headed to Jim Thorpe over the weekend to ask some questions. In the meanwhile, it is back to work or maybe to sleep for a nap and then back to work. It took two weeks to get this done, but thanks for waiting.

Thanks for reading.

Michael, Dr. Martin, adopted person, colleague, friend, surrogate parent, and any other subjectivity I can imagine (Thanks to Dr. Patty Sotirin for that reading I had to do on Anthony Giddens).

Creating Closure

Grace at Celtic Woman

Good Morning from Pennsylvania, from the Upper Sanctum, from an airport, from Fog and Flame,

I have been working on this blog for more than three weeks, but there have been so many things on my plate that it got pushed off the stove. As I write this part, I am here in Menomonie, having been here since last Wednesday evening. My life is been a whirlwind of emotions since arriving. The burial of George and Lydia, the memorial gathering for Lydia this past Saturday, and actually realizing that my time in Menomonie, and the actual need to be here, has come to a close, forces me to admit that the significant chapter in my life will soon be closed in some ways. My time here in Wisconsin was the longest time that I had spent in any one place since graduating from high school over 40 years ago. I will actually surpass that later this year in Bloomsburg. In spite of that, Menomonie and Wisconsin will always, in some aspect, be my home. It was the home of my predecessors, my ancestors. The memories and the time both professionally and personally shaped many of the things that I now hold valuable. Lydia taught me what it meant to give, at least in giving as far as resources. While I have always been a giving person as far as time and energy, it was in the giving of resources that she changed my life and I have worked to change the lives of others. That is my lasting legacy to you Lydia, to give as you did. I also need to listen to you more carefully as you used to admonish me to be careful in my giving.

The cascading emotions that I’ve gone through in the past week as I walked the places we had walked together, be the hallways of COH or Lammers grocery store, while they memories were joyful the emotions were sad and I cried. Anyone who would’ve seen me in the grocery store the other day would have come to the conclusion that I probably had significant problems. I’m staying away from fast food, but I had to go to Burger King last night because it’s the first place you and I had ever eaten together. I could see you clear as day wrapping up the remaining fries for “the little ones”. If you were watching us, as I’m sure you are, I’m pretty sure you know we are overwhelmed trying to imagine the best way to manage your estate. I know that Nate and I have very different concerns and different needs. I’m glad that you chose to give the house to him. I’ve been fortunate to have people in the little house. As I walked around the property in your yard I could see you with your broom. I was pleased when people told me that I have kept the property up in a way that you would’ve been proud. I’m not totally convinced of that as far as the yard, but then again it is winter.

Last evening I said my goodbyes to a variety of people they all asked if I would be coming back. There’s still stuff to do and I have to pack some things to move to Pennsylvania now, so the last part of May I will be in the house. However I know that will be the last time. Thank you for sharing such a magnificent place with me. Thank you for sharing such an astounding life with me; thank you for allowing me to share my life with you. When I have spoken with people these last days, the thing I heard repeatedly was how we took care of each other. I don’t know that I saw it as taking care of you, but rather we cared about each other and we grew to love each other. I know that you became a parent, a mother, to me as I told you that last night. When you whispered to me ” I know.”, the last words you spoke to me, I knew that hearing as your last words as such an affirmation was an unequaled gift to me. After the trip in May and the completion of gathering my belongings, a chapter of my life, a paramount portion of my life, will be completed. There will no longer be either a responsibility or requirement for me to return; yet, I cannot imagine never visiting there again. There are fond memories of people and events. What I have realized this past week is it is not about the things, in spite of some of their stunning beauty, it is about people and the memories created.

It is almost the end of spring break when I realized I’ve pretty much gone through the motions for the last three months. I’ve gotten done what is absolutely necessary and yet not even that’s true. What I’m realizing is that losing Lydia has affected me more than I knew. Even though I’ve been 1000 miles away for the past six years, part of my heart was still Menomonie. That too has had consequences. I have realized that from time to time.The other day someone wrote a post of the following meme: “you know how deeply you loved by how deeply you grieve.” Last night I went to see Celtic Woman for the third time. While I greatly enjoyed each concert I have attended, last night was special. First, I was able to go with Grace, who was kind enough to step in and use my second ticket. We had a wonderful time. Second, the concert itself was phenomenal. There was more Irish and Gaelic than previous concerts;  there was more dancing. Two of the three main primaries, I had seen or heard before. The newest member, Mairead Carlin, at least to me, was sensational. The two men dancing astounded me. Somehow it’s apropos that I went to see them only a few days before St. Patrick’s Day. It is still one of my deep desires to travel to Ireland and if I could make it happen when they were there performing and see them in concert there, that might just complete my bucket list. A year ago I was writing about culture and ethnic background. I wrote that blog sitting in the Fog and Flame, and ironically I plan to spend a good part of the day there today. It is time for me to get more disciplined more focused and to make some tough decisions. Yesterday I had the opportunity to speak with a former colleague and she pushed me to think about things in ways I’m generally unwilling to do so. She was insightful, honest, and helpful. What is it that allows us to feel fulfilled, to feel accomplished,  or as I noted before, to be content. You might note that the first two of the previous list were to feel, the last one was to be.I do not want to feel content, I want to be content. I believe it is so much more than just checking things off or completing a bucket list. I believed to be truly content would allow someone to be truly happy. Through my conversation yesterday, I’ve been awakened or realized once again that maybe giving does not automatically create or equal happiness. There is more to understand. I am in the Fog and Flame now and I am editing and proofreading before posting. There is a concept; it is something I preach, but need to practice.

It is now three weeks since I have posted and what I realize is that life is unpredictable regardless how much we might plan. I’m quite sure that she did not plan her life to end quite as it did. I can actually imagine that she would’ve been content to go to the garage and turn on the car as she had threatened to do and she fallen off the roof. Again, I feel compelled to consider the letter someone sent arguing that she should’ve been allowed to live in her house until her last days. How do I allow that to happen when the consequence was likely would’ve been more tragic than being in a place where the caregivers actually cared for her and loved her? I know with all my heart that I did the best for her I could because I promised to do so. It’s only three weeks from now that Lydia would’ve been at COH for four years. So much as happened in that time; and there were a myriad of things to attend to both around the property and in her immediate care. Again, in both cases, I worked to do the best I could to keep the promise made almost 8 years ago sitting at Perkins one morning eating breakfast. There are still things I must do to complete all that’s been asked, all that was promised. Some of those who have known her for years told me that I had done really well and II had done an outstanding job of providing care for her. While their words are meaningful, and I am certainly grateful, ultimately, what matters is what she thought. I think they are summed up in the last night I saw her living. As I cried on her shoulder and I told her she had become my mother all of the sudden she began to rub the back of my head, and as I looked into amazing blue eyes one last time she whispered softly, “I know.” Those two words are perhaps the most amazing gifts I’ve ever been given.

Last night during the concert they sang the song I most appreciate about immigrants and those people coming to this country to make a life for themselves. It is actually one of my favorite Celtic Woman songs, “Isle of Tears,”  and as the music began before the lyrics (and I am not quite sure of the name of the instrument which creates a sort of a mournful oboe tone – it is called Uilleann Pipes) I told Grace that I dedicated this song to Lydia. I’m hoping I might find a YouTube video of it and I will post it at the end of this blog. While I’ve had to start over my life from time to time, it was not when I was 15 or 17 or to come to a new country and learn a new language. When I generally take time to ponder and think about what Lydia accomplished, I am more and more astounded by this amazing little woman (4’10” and 90 pounds). From time to time I complain about such minor things in comparison. It is interesting to me that the persons who become closest of my life are those persons who understand their heritage, live and celebrate that heritage, and understand the complexity of our diversity. What I’ve realized again is how little I know how much there is yet to learn. And learn is what I want to do. I want to learn languages;  I want to learn the culture; I want to learn what’s important to them and to me. To understand the differences and appreciate those differences. I want to help people realize through my own actions that reaching out to those we meet bridges gaps, provides understanding and opportunity, and makes our lives better.  While there is much more I could write I need to focus on some work and I should get something posted as it is been too long. Lydia I will continue to work diligently to complete the things I promised. Grace thank you for going to the concert with me last night. To all of you who continue to read this blog and follow me I’m grateful for each of you.

I will actually share two videos with you. This YouTube video I created of the University of Wisconsin-Stout remembering Lydia, an amazing educator, a phenomenal intellect, and a woman who changed by life. I miss you, Lydia. The second video is the video of the song I dedicated to you last night as I listened to the concert.

Michael (Dr. Martin)