Hello from my office,
It is a bit after 9:00 p.m. and I have spent about 20 hours or more the last two days working on my Winter Term online Technical Writing course. It is amazing what we have available in terms of technology and how we can reach out, from either direction. It is so much more manageable now from when I first taught those online classes at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. While some things remain the same (and it is not the song), certainly technology has made bridging the gap that exists from the missing of regular lecture much more possible. I remember teaching classes from Sturgis and from California, and while I made them work, there was an intentionality demanded of everyone involved. Some of that exists still, but the ability to do things because of apps, software, bandwidth, and other options in a Course Delivery Tool, or Smartphones is exponentially ahead of where I was a decade ago. I remember when I was interviewing at Stout being asked if I had taught online. My answer then was “no,” and it became sort of basic fare there, when I arrived at Bloom, that was not the case. However, it is just now beginning to take off here like what I experienced in Menomonie. One of the things that does remain the same is the amount of upfront work that is necessary if you are going to do more than merely take a traditional class and throw some technology at it.
I had great intentions of finishing this in a day, but that did not quite happen. It is now Christmas Eve day. It has been an unpredictable week; between unexpected house guests to working on class, from shopping to organizing things for next week, it seems my days have been packed beyond anything I had planned for. A very different experience from either 20 years ago or three years ago. The idea that life passes us by, or certainly keeps marching on, whether we choose to be part of it or not, has become increasing apparent to me. I remember sitting in Lydia’s room three years ago keeping watch over her as the last days of her life were becoming more and more apparent. That Christmas Eve afternoon, as she lapsed in and out of some sort of consciousness, she began to point at the corner of her room and speak in Polish. I asked her if George was there and she shook her head yes. She understood my question; I followed up with another question, “Are you ready to go home?” She looked at me and quite emphatically shook her head no. She would live beyond the time I had to spend with her. In fact, I prayed on New Year’s Eve Day, while in Krakow, Poland, George’s homeland, that George might convince her it was okay to let go. She passed on New Year’s Day. Twenty years ago my father was quickly losing his battle to cancer. He would pass away on the 28th of December, which was barely more than a month after he had been diagnosed with cancer. I remember having three church services to officiate and preach that day. The prayers were brutal and while I had held it together during the morning service up that point, I could maintain no longer. My voice wavered as I began to tremble and I could not hold back my tears. I remember the congregation being so understanding and supportive that day.
As I am now on Christmas Day, I have come to my office to do some much needed work for both my Winter Term class and to get as squared away as possible. Last night was a long night again. I have managed to get a double ear infection and my left ear would not quit draining the entire night. It did it significant job on my stomach and I am struggling more than I certainly wish I was. In addition, the flu shot seems to have done more to my stomach than I have ever had before. I am wondering if it is a combination of the shot, the infection and 1750 mg a day of an antibiotic. I was invited to Christmas dinner, but had to decline. I did spend the morning at the Decker’s house. It is so fun to watch Caroline and Rosie; they were so excited to see things and to share their experience. I love watching Max and Mary, who are not only siblings, but good friends. They cooked the most amazing dinner for us last night. It was fabulous. What was more outstanding was their excitement in doing it. It again reminded me of what can happen when two people care about the other and are willing to cooperate and work. There seems to be so little of that in today’s world. Our selfish and self-indulgent behavior, which is modeled at all levels of our country and world, make even the most small, but kind gestures seem almost miraculous.
That is what brings me back to my favorite Christmas memories. It is simple. On Christmas morning, we loaded the car with the presents that needed to be taken to Grandma’s house and it was the beginning of a most wonderful day. My grandmother was a loving and giving person, more so than anyone I have ever met. She never seemed to give with an agenda. She gave and shared what she had out of the profound love that seemed to be instilled in every pore of her being. Walking into her simple and humble house on Christmas Day was like walking into a fairy tale. The aromas from the Christmas dinner, the smell of all the freshly baked breads, rolls, and pies (she owned a bakery) were what greeted your nose as you walked into her house. What greeted our eyes were her smile and opened arms happy that we were there for Christmas. As we carried in our gifts and our dinner offerings, there were hugs, kisses, and a feeling of warmth and joy I have seldom felt since. When we made it through the dining room that had a table and buffet that had more food than anyone could ever imagine, we would walk into the front room that was the width of the house. At the far end, always, there was the most wonderfully decorated tree and more presents and gifts than one could fathom. We would add our wrapped packages to the menagerie of presents and soon dinner would begin. We sat in our same seats generally and aunts, uncles, and cousins were there to complete the day. My grandmother and her elder sister, my (great) Aunt Helen used their South Dakota farm background to cook a meal that was unequalled to this day. There was everything you could imagine for Christmas dinner, and it was prepared to perfection. It was not flashy, it was just plain, but it set the standard for me and the rest of my days.
After dinner, my older brother, who played an amazing trombone, my younger sister, who was the vocalist, and me, a pretty decent trumpet/cornet player would do a short Christmas program where we handed out small Christmas song books and we would do a sing along where my brother and I created the music and everyone else sang. It was a sort of yearly Christmas gift back to those there for the day. The picture for this blog is that song book. As we aged and became more accomplished musicians, I think we actually felt really good about what we offered for the Christmas Day festivities. I think as I look back that we felt it was our gift to our family and beyond. I am glad to think about that. As I am typing this, I am listening to George Winston version of “The Velveteen Rabbit,” narrated by Meryl Streep. It is one of my favorite pieces; you might one to find it on YouTube. What does it mean to be real in today’s world? In the story, it is about being loved. I think that is really the message of not only Christmas, but of life. What does it mean to be real? What does it mean to be truly loved? What does it mean to be a little child? I think we need to hold on the that little child with all our might. Over these last days I have watched someone who has lost that childhood and so much more. Knowing them since they were a child, it has been difficult to watch and try to help. It has been incredibly painful to see the hurt in all of them.
It is amazing what seems so insignificant at the moment can have such profound effects on us. I have always realized that in my own background (and many of my previous blog posts address this) how some of those events still affect me and how I understand both the world and myself. What I have learned is that we always have an option. We can continued to be victimized by our past or we can learn from it. I have worked hard to do the latter. Yet, the question persists, do we ever get beyond those things? It is sort of like our ability to forgive. We are imperfect. I think our best example of forgiveness is when we no longer let the past events control our reactions to that person. That is not an easy thing to accomplish, but it is incredibly important. When we hold on to those past hurts, those difficult events, we are held back from living our lives in a healthy productive manner. I know this because of my own background. It took me literally decades to get beyond some of it. So much wasted time on hurt, sadness, and being bitter. In my last blog I noted some who have hurt me and how it is difficult to get beyond some of that, but I need to do so. To hold on is hurtful and it serves no good purpose, but to make me sad. In fact, I made myself send them a Christmas greeting because all the positive things they did more than outweigh the issue at hand. Grudges can decimate our spirit and our sense of hope. That is what I have witnessed first hand too many times during these past days. People I love deeply are hurting because of things in the past. We cannot change that, we can only move forward.
That is what Christmas and the spirit of the season is about for me. Much as my grandmother was willing to give beyond measure and then give more, she exemplified that it meant to love unconditionally. Lydia had much of the same heart, and while she did not show it as readily, it was there. She cared deeply for so many things and she was so intellectually astute about so many things. I think what saddens me the most is her fear of the unknown ( as well as things that had so influenced her understanding of the world) created a sort of reclusiveness she never overcame. As I sit in my office at a computer and listening to Christmas music, much like I did three Christmases ago, I still miss her. I miss her accent asking when I came around the corner or into the house, “Michael, is that you?” Lydia, indeed it is still me. It was such a different thing to see where you lie when I came back to Menomonie this past May. It was such a difference to see what was happening to your house. I am not sure you would approve, but I am sure that they are trying to bring the amazing house into the 21st century. They have a great dane, and I am trying to imagine you meeting him. I think his name is Sam or something like that. He weighs like 160 pounds. You could ride him. I can see the look on your face when I tell you that, but I think it is true.
I want to get this posted, but there is much more I could write. What I think I want to leave people with is the realization that life keeps moving and if we let it, it will most certainly pass us by. This is what I have tried to keep from happening. Tomorrow for the fourth year, I am headed back to Eastern and Central Europe and this time with even more students. I will be visiting two new countries: Slovakia and the Ukraine. I am excited about those possibilities. There is so much world to understand and there are even more things to learn. That is what my first trip to Europe as a sophomore in college taught me. There is so much to absorb and ponder. So much to realize that is beyond the borders of this country. So much culture and history. I am blessed to go back again to learn something new yet again. I will leave you with one of my favorite scenes from the movie On Golden Pond. Chelsea, the daughter has struggled with her father all of her life.
Thank you as always for reading and I wish each of you who celebrate this holiday a Merry Christmas. To my other faith friends, I hope you can feel the love I have for you on this day and all days.