Being Blessed

مرحبا على السبت الأول الجميل من الخريف,

or in letters more of you can read, Hello on a beautiful first Saturday in Autumn. If I were to transliterate the Arabic above it would read: marhabaan ealaa alsabt al’awal aljamil min alkharif.  Language fascinates me. I tell my students regularly, learning another language or even studying another language will change your world. It opens doors, promotes understanding and provides an opportunity to begin understanding another person, but much more than merely recognizing and translating their words. That understanding includes a more inclusive realizing how they think and seeing what they value. I have finally come to know what it is I wish I had done with my education and where I think I might have truly been most satisfied if I had studied something in particular, not saying I regret what I know or what I teach in any such way. However, if I had a chance to begin again, I would study linguistics  and I would want to be moderately fluent in as many languages as possible. If I were independently wealthy, I would travel and try to live in a country for about two years to learn their language to at least a degree in which I could communicate and speak with the native population more than just adequately and then move and do it again. I love how words, word order, sentence structure, or issues of syntax, etymology, and dialect can reveal so much about both an individual or a culture.

I have a colleague who amazes me by his ability to move seamlessly between cultures and countries because of ability to speak multiple languages. He is the most adept polyglot I have ever met. He is also a former medical doctor and specialist. That raises an entirely separate issue about people who immigrate here with professional degtrees, and their credentials are often not accepted here, and that can be anything from engineering to law to most any kind of medicine. They bring so many skills and levels of ability, talent or expertise, and it seems all too often we ignore or merely discount what they bring. This is both arrogant and foolish, or at least it appears so. Even if we required some sort of trial period or internship, which might still seem a bit elitist, at least it provides some opportunity for them to continue to use and offer their particular expertise to their new homeland. In addition, we have a skilled group who often is bi- or tri-lingual. This would be a much better use of people, and also give those who come a sense of welcome and appreciation versus an attitude of “you offer little,” and we are doing your sorry-ass a favor. How foolish can we be?

As previously mentioned in my more recent blogs, I have had the opportunity and more accurately the honor to have a house guest the past five weeks. It truly is an honor to be trusted by the extended family to have her in my home. She has brought such joy and a sense of comfort and goodness to this house. Those who know me, know I have worked diligently, and thoughtfully, to create a welcoming space for anyone who visits, be it for a few hours, a few days, or even a few weeks. I have had people here for a few months. Again, I have noted there are also times when I enjoy my solitude, and my ability to close the world out, while still providing access to the outside, but only if and when I make a decision to do so. However, the last five weeks have been such a positive thing, I must say, I am not looking forward to her leaving. She has made my house feel like a home in a more profound way than perhaps I have ever known it to be. She is gracious and hard working. She is polite and thoughtful in everything she does. She asks for nothing and is instantly ready to give. She has been the ideal house guest, housemate, surrogate daughter, or blessing I could ever hope to have. We have both gotten to know each other more completely, more openly, more, profoundly, which was expected by both of us, but more effortlessly than I believed either of us could have hoped for.

This weekend, the extended family came to visit.. What a fabulous thing it has been to have three generations of her family here. Yabba, as their father or grandfather is called, is a stately, slender, and kind gentleman who loves his family with all of his being. He has thinning hair, if you can see that high because he is very tall, a gray mustache and twinkling eyes that express both wisdom and mischief. While he wears a hearing aid, do not believe for a second he is not cognizant of what is happening around him. He has stories and he was a wise, albeit too kind, businessman at times, or so it seems. It was both an honor and joy to meet him. His daughter, and the mother of my house guest, is an outstanding story in her own right. She has endured so much more than either her appearance or demeanor would ever reveal. She is the center of the family in any way you might consider. She simultaneously cares for Yabba, who has some serious issues, and is, of course, elderly, and she keeps better tabs on four offspring than I think even they realize. It is evident she relishes her role as both mother and daughter, but she is so much more. She is a faithful member of her community; when she visits, she brings enough wonderfully prepared food to feed a regiment, and she is always in control of her situation. After spending the weekend, she had purchased everything she could imagine to take to her next destination where her two sons are living. Finally, a sister and cousins were here. While they are certainly a normal family with personalities and some bumps and bruises, what was most evident was an abiding and unifying love that was the core and center of all they did. It was fund to hear so many speaking Arabic, though I understood basically nothing. They were the most gracious house guests one could ever hope to have.

It is hard to believe that a five week rotation will be ending in less than 48 hours. While I was excited to have my former summer student come back, there was a sense of surprise when it got here. Not because of the unexpected, but rather because I knew, in many ways, what to expect, but the surprises were to learn more about Islam, and, perhaps, more significantly, to see this person for whom I have such great respect, live this faith (with amazing faithfulness, I might add) and understand more fully what it means for her to be Muslim. We both believed we would learn to know each other more completely through sharing a living space together. While the truth of such a statement is obvious, the reality of what that means is still being determined. What it has meant for me is that having a person to share my house once again has made it a home. As noted, she is almost the perfect house guest (at least for me and my idiosyncrasies) because she is incredibly neat, communicates what she is thinking and doing, and totally self-sufficient, but willing to work together on things. I will miss her more than any words can express. Her rotatioN has been trying and demanding, but not surprisingly, she has managed it well, and I am quite sure her final evaluation will be quite stellar. I am glad she has felt comfortable enough to express her joys and concerns about that experience. I think my being a professor and academic has offered insight at times she might not have had. I have tried to do some little thing each day this week and through out conversations, I think we have both grown to appreciate and love the other in ways that make our surrogate father/daughter bond something all that more profound than it already was.  Ertainly a strong bond was there before she arrived in late August. Now it is beyond what I think either of us imagined. Not that we walked in imagining anything in particular, but now I think I have been blessed to become part of another family. Blessed beyond measure as the saying says. Before her grandfather left, he hugged me and thanked me for caring for his granddaughter; before she left, I was invited to accompany them to Egypt. What gifts I have been given by such amazing people.

As I write this I am reminded that 40 years ago I lost my own grandparent, the grandparent who had been my mother, my protector, my supporter. I have written about her before, but it is hard to believe that it was 2 score years ago. I am approaching the age she was when she passed. I remember at that point thinking she was not that old, but certainly old enough that death seemed to be a reasonable possibility. It is so much different as I approach that age. I noted in a recent blog about decades and one of my newer students let me know quite emphatically that I should plan to be around for more years than a decade. That is sweet of them to think that. I find myself imagining life in the more finished that ongoing manner, but that is not to say that I want to be finished. There is still much to do and much I hope to accomplish. I think the difference is I do not feel as if I have not lived life. I do not feel as if there are things I have to do, but rather they are things I hope to do. That is a good thing, or at least I think it is. I still remember receiving the call that my grandmother had passed. I was in Ames, Iowa and it was just months after the loss of my older brother. It was stunning to me, but it was also the first time in my life where I had to be accountable for what seemed to be a rather benign choice. I had promised her I would visit her the last time I was in Sioux City before I returned and then failed to do so. I did take the time to call her from a phone booth (remember those?) on Highway 71 in Carroll, IA before I got back to Ames, and I am glad I did. Before I would get home again, she passed away. I was devastated by that loss. It was warm in the cemetery that day, much like it has been this past week. I remember crying and sobbing more than I ever had before, and probably since.

Amazing how our lives move us forward and simultaneously remembering the past. I am blessed by so many things in the present, but in looking back, those blessing that have had significant influence on me in the past also come to mind. I am much like what Norman Maclean notes in his final words of his novella, A River Runs through It. He wrote what is in the video below. It is one of the most profound scenes in any movie I have ever watched. The book is equally magnificent. I am grateful to Timo Koskinen, my former colleague and friend, and somewhat of a mentor to me, for introducing me to the novella.

Thanks as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

 Considering Success or Has it Returned?

Hello on an early Friday morning,

It has been a long week . . . starting out with a sinus infection, one of my patented fevers, and deciding to take a day and a half off as sick days, now for the second night in a row, I have managed to sweat through sheets and wake up freezing.  It is reminiscent of three years ago, and that scares me. I need to probably call my doctor and get in for a check up, but I am not sure I want the answers. What if what I suspect has returned? It astonishes me how much more I seem to need sleep than I used to – I am often in bed before 9:30 and while I might wake up, as I am now, I still get back to sleep and I am often sleeping  7-9 hours versus what was a life (at least from my mid 20s until now) of 3-4. What frustrates me is I still have enough work that if I were sleeping the lesser amount, I might be more caught up than I am. Certainly the early week’s unexpected day and a half hiatus from any meaningful work has taken its toll and the coming  weekend will need to be sufferingly sedulous. That is if I hope to make next week any less than unbearable. And it is not my classes, my time spent n class is sort of my personal oasis from the rest of the craziness that permeate any tenure-track or tenured faculty person’s life. Those three areas that make up our professional week have no limits or time constraints. The two outside the classroom sit there in front of you almost taunting you to attempt to thwart their impending time-drain on your daily calendar. They are the service items on your CV, or the extra-mile that so many faculty go to make a difference in a student’s academic or personal existence as they spend their four years (more or less) on campus and in our offices. They include the scholarly work that is both exhilarating and exhausting because you need to shoe-horn it in between all the other requirements.

As I am less than 24 hours from another commemoration of entering this world, I find myself pondering where I am and what seems to be different from even a few short years ago. Certainly, there are many ways or points by which one can make the comparison.  However like the theme of my Google Map, I think the “auguries of loneliness” phrase still fits my life quite aptly. This journey of a sort of melancholy can be examined by a consideration of the number 10. I think I might do a bit of it by each decade . . . from 2 to 62. Just this morning I was noting that hopefully someone would not remember what happened to them at the age of two – something for another blog posting. Amazingly, I do remember something about being two. By the time I was two, I and Kris, my younger sister was less than a year had traveled more extensively than we realized. I had traveled from Texas to California to Nebraska. Now we had been moved in to live my paternal grandparent’s house. It is the house I have in someways tried to model my home now after. That sort of hominess that comes from making what is natural to the home come alive. That house in the Leeds area of Sioux City was the last house on the hill located on Harrison Street, sitting on a small acreage as it was called then. I remember a breakfast of poached eggs, a half grapefruit, and a piece of toast that was toasted from bread made in their bakery. That breakfast is, to this very day comfort food for me, but more importantly, that house was a house where love reigned supreme, or it sure seemed so to me. It was the house where by two, I already attempted to dress myself and make my bed. Where I went down the steps from my bedroom and sat there waiting for everyone else to get up. See that sleep thing began much earlier in life. It was the place where my grandfather sat with me on the back steps showing me that I did not need to be afraid of the great-horned owl who visited us nightly. Looking back, it was a time where I felt safe and loved . . . What more can a two year old want?

By the time I was turning 12, life had changed drastically. After losing my grandfather shortly before my third birthday to cancer, and I remember him being ill, but certainly not understanding he was dying,  Kris and I would be adopted by a couple who were still family. My adopted father, of whom I have written often in this blog, and my grandmother were first cousins. As I noted can in my freshman classes today, explaining how they might approach an element of their Google Map/Memoir assignment, the day I left Leeds and moved to Riverside as an adoopted child was a life-changing event. There is much that has been written on his topic in former blogs also. By the time I was 12, what was evident is I would be one of the smallest and shortest people in my class. What was also painfully evident, though I did not understand it then, was my mother’s forced single-parenting because our father worked in Northern Minnesota 12 hours a day, and 7 days a week, made daily life in Riverside anything but ideal. On the other hand, there were some positive things. I had become one of the best trumpet players in a town of 100,000 people, and I was in both Sioux City Children’s Choir and the Choldren’s Community Theatre. While, I was not feeling really all that safe anymore, I did know that my grandmother was still there and I knew she loved me as much as ever.

By the time I reached 22, there were a number of events I remember that significantly impacted my life. My older brother had died tragically from the consequences of a construction accident. I had graduated from high school, enlisted in the Marine Corps, came home from experiences I never expected to have, did not understand who I was, where I fit, managed to flunk out of college, met the first girl I truly loved, and realized more fully that my adopted mother really didn’t like me. Does that sound disjointed? It should because that was my life. I had no direction; I was frightned and I felt like my life had little purpose. During that year (in fact, less than two weeks after my 22nd birthday) my grandmother passed away. I believe I cried harder that day than I have perhaps ever cried in my life. The one person who loved me unconditionally was gone. I felt a loneliness and fear I had never felt before. I was not even allowed in the house of my best friend because of my own immaturity and inability to handle another situation. It would take forty years to actually figure that all out, and thank God for someone giving me a chance to talk it all through. More about that to come. Again, not that far into my 22nd year, another potential tragedy served as a wake-up call, when a friend and work friend pulled a gun out one night. Suffice it to say, I grabbed the gun and it went off. He would end up in surgery to remove a bullet and I would end up rethinking the direction my life would take. What was missing at this point was that stabilizing force in my life . . . A person who truly loved me.

By the time I reached 32, the cascade of events that would influence where I might end up were so numerous, I could probably write a book about that decade alone. After wandering pretty aimlessly for a time, though some amazing skills were gained even then, I found my way back to college and even graduate school. I would be married and finishing seminary. I found that college actually “fit” so to speak. I loved learning and I loved the intellectual stimulation that courses and lectures created. I found that traveling and languages became a passion. I would end up working a great deal on my German and took Latin and Greek. Greek, after being the bane of my existence the first time I attempted ended up being something I loved and would end up teaching that summer before I was ordained as a pastor in the ELCA. Learning to be married was something I also worked at, but what I think my life would epitomize at this point was I was becoming successful professionally, but personally, not so much. Again, I think the lost of a grandmother even a decade earlier had still caused me more profound loss and sense of security than I had realized.

I feel in some ways like I am giving my typed version of the Zager and Evans song, “In the Year 2525,” for those of you who know that one-hit wonder, you will smile. If you really want to smile, look of the music video of that song on YouTube, the bustled-shirts, the pastel colors, the hair, and the sideburns are worth the look. What a terrible style we found appropriate at that point. By the time I was 42 my adopted mother would pass away. That was a difficult time for me. I would fail in a first marriage and be in a second one. So much can be said, and I have written about some of these things in the past. During the time I was in graduate school at Michigan Tech, my life was a whirlwind of events and health issues. The Crohn’s that I had fought since my late 20s seemed to be winning and the personal world that I had attempted to create with a second wife was crumbling and something that was much more traumatic that I had hoped for. In addition, my adopted father would pass, and if it were not for my schooling, I am not sure I would have survived. Schooling and weekly counseling by an amazing man named Don. I have told more than one person that those weekly sessions were my one hour of sanity. Little did I know what was still to come. I would become a troll as I followed my second wife to Oakland County Michigan and I would end up back in Iowa – back to Michigan – to Texas and back to Michigan, but this time back to the Upper Peninsula. The longing to be loved or feel lovable continued to be a struggle and what I realized in all of this was how much I felt my own inadequacies, and how devastating that was for me both personally and professionally. The words of not being worthy, good enough, smart enough, or whatever enough were my constant companions. I think I also, for the first time realized I would never be a father. That was more of a problem than I anticipated.

By the age of 52 I had achieved something I had never expected as that 17 year old who entered the Marine Corps because he did not know what else to do. I had finished by Ph.D, in Rhetoric and Technical Communication from Michigan Technological University and I held a tenure track position at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. I thought I had finally figured it out. While there were still health issues, I was single in a small Wisconsin town and thought I had finally achieved something. What I did not realize was there was still so much to learn. While I had learned more about church politics that I had ever hoped to know from my time as a parish pastor, I would soon learn that the academy was not really very much different. However, something new, or more precisely someone new entered my life. I gained a surrogate parent and somehow I would become the parent to her before it was all finished. What I have noted in my own piety is that I believe the position at UW-Stout had a dual purpose: first, it got me to Menomonie, WI, which was necessary for the second part yet to be explained; second, it also prepared me for the position I currently have, which is to direct a digital rhetoric and professional writing program, here in Pennsylvania. What I truly believe now is I was provided the position at Stout to meet Elaine and Tom Lacksonen, and by extension, Lydia. It is amazing yet how this little wisp of a person would change my life, yet again. When I talk to people about my life, which I seem somewhat fraught to do, and with more anxiousness than you might believe, they tell me I should be a few hundred years old. Yet, as noted above, I am only to the 50s of my life as I compose this chronological blog. Interestingly, Lydia took over my life; yet this is something I allowed/permitted/unwittingly encouraged. Even after leaving Wisconsin, my life was centered around trips that focused on her care and maintaining a promise made one more at Perkins as she devoured potato pancakes. Again, I have written much about her, so suffice it to say, “my life was Lydia’s life” for the better part of a decade.

Now I am 62 . . .  more changes seem to be on the horizon, but I am not totally sure what they are or how they will manifest themselves, but that is nothing new. I think what is new is they seem more significant, and I am not entirely convinced, if I were to write another decade of what has happened, that it will even occur. For the first time in my life, I think I can honestly say I am tired. I do not have the stamina I once had. I do not have the focus or ability to stay engaged hour after hour as I used to. This is frustrating to me, but is it perhaps my body trying to tell me something I do not want to hear. I am not afraid any longer to consider myself as getting old. This past summer at school, a colleague and I were watching the summer students and parents walk around. I asked in a pondering way, “I wonder what it means with the parents look young to me and the mothers are more attractive than their daughters?” His rather immediate response was “it means you are f-ing old.” Point well taken. This past year, as noted earlier, I had the opportunity to reconnect with that person from 40 years ago. Conversations, both through electronic media and phone ensued and I think it was the best thing that happened to me in a personal realm. It is amazing that we are such different people with so much life since then, but the conversations regarding our care for each other at that time will be held in my heart for the remainder of my days. We have not spoken lately, perhaps because neither have taken the time and life gets busy, but I need to reach out because I am grateful beyond words. All of which brings me to an important reminder or revelation that I need to remember in my own life.

We certainly go through seasons and phases and the relative importance of people changes. I know this, but it is always something with which I struggle. Yet, I do it to others as it is done to me, and I do not mean that it is intentionally done, but it is just the reality of things. One of my former students is living in my house during a five week pharmacy rotation. It has been a joy for that to occur. We have learned much about the other. It is her and I together in the picture above. She looks minimally different. Me . . . . well . . .  The past week has also been one of the times I am reminded of my fragility as someone, who matters beyond any words because of her care for Lydia, has seemed to retreat beyond what I expected. I understand busyness; I understand feeling overwhelmed. I understand rethinking something, but merely stating what needs to be said works better than avoiding. My fragility takes avoidance personally. That is my fault and I will own it. While I continually make progress in managing my fears, somehow they still find me. My newest, or latest more accurately, because it is certainly not new are the fevers that are back. My life is always a balancing act between healthy and less than . . .  but the wire upon which I travel is slender and frayed. I wish that were not the case, but it is. So as I countdown hours to another anniversary of arrival, I know that tomorrow will come and it will go. While there is little to physically show for that advancement, when I look at the 3 score and 2 years I have been here, it has been quite a journey. I am grateful to all who have played a role in making me the person I am at this point. I have been richly blessed and hopefully I have imparted to some significant degree as much for those who have been in my life be they in Wisconsin or California, Montana or Pennsylvania. With all of that, I offer this song. For those who have tried along the way and I was too stubborn or proud to listen, forgive me. I think this perhaps describes me too often. And still I miss her love . . .

As always thank you for reading.

Dr. Martin