The Blessings (perhaps) of Memory

Good very early morning.

As is often the case, I have slept for a while, but I am awake after 1,036 miles of driving over two days and falling asleep at 7:45 earlier this evening. It is now a few minutes after midnight. The drive was long, but generally uneventful, which is also a very nice thing to say. Currently, I am in Chassell, blessed by the generosity of a mentor, and tomorrow is a day to take Micheal (spelled correctly) and Anton to see things that will hopefully be significant for one as a future place to call home and as yet another part of an American year for the other. During the trip here and back, they have been subjected to meeting former classmates as well as other people I am blessed to still call friends, to eating at some of my former haunts and places I worked, and walking the streets and pathways of a place that fundamentally changed my life.

Over two short, but incredibly, profound periods, I lived in the Keweenaw Peninsula and moved from what I believed I had been called to do to a something quite unexpected, but yet another calling nonetheless. When I arrived in Hancock in 1992, I would find myself in a professional situation that I realize now was untenable. Three full-time positions that created overlap that was unmanageable were not what I realized I would do, but I jumped into it full steam ahead. As I look at it now, I am painfully aware of how many ways I failed to do it well. Of course, going through an expected divorce at the time did little to contribute to my stability or capability to manage. Perhaps the distance made me believe I could manage this change, but looking back I realize I failed miserably. While I know I did some really good things in the classroom as a pastor, and even when I came to larger church relations issues, I stumbled in all three areas at the same time. What I realize now is going through the divorce consumed me much more than I could ever imagine. I think much of that realization came through watching an incredible friend, colleague, and someone I value beyond words experience a similar struggle. As I left that position I had little idea what I would do and I remember someone telling me as I headed back to the one thing I knew how to do, which was to bartend and serve, that I was probably the most educated waiter or server they had ever had, The next months, I headed back to the food and beverage industry and that’s a difficult time. While I did not drink a single drop of alcohol the whole time I was at Suomi, I still exhibited many of the behaviors that people who drink too much regularly do. I can see that so much more clearly now. However, once I began to drink again, it seems I made up for lost time.

Over the next year, there were way too many times the consequences of my drinking caused me problems; I would say that being involved with the person who would become my second wife would help keep me on track. As I waited tables again,   working at The Library, I had the fortune of waiting on a table of two couples. One of the women at the table that evening was a professor by the name of Dr. Carol Berkenkotter. The upshot of that meeting would be my interview in and being interviewed by various people in the Department of Humanities at Michigan Technological University. Accepted into a second Master’s program would lead me down a very different path, an eventual PhD and becoming a college professor. While my professional life was beginning to take shape my personal life was still struggling. It was during that time that I found myself in a relationship, which to this day still confounds me. While I had known this person when I was a campus pastor, I did not really get to know her until after I had left that position. She is smart, capable,  attractive, and profoundly complex. She is probably the person I loved as deeply as anyone I have ever loved. I have said many times in my life and even today if she showed up on my doorstep I would be a basket-case. I know that I would manage because I am much more thinking than perhaps I was. I remember a friend warning me to not get married (which happened before both times I was to become a husband). So many things happened in the four years we were married. I ended up in jail after pleading no contest to a domestic violence charge. The story is complex and my counselor, who told me he had work-shopped my case throughout the office, told me how ironic it was that I would be the one to end up in such a circumstance. Simply put, he noted I had been in an abusive relationship for some time. While I will not get into all of the particulars, it was probably a low point of my life. To call it The Tale of Two Cities is so far beyond an understatement there is little to try to explain. Even my counselor of 6 years continually asked what I was thinking. It is not easy to admit he said I was the smartest man he ever met that could be so clueless about women and relationships. What I must say, however, is I failed miserably and completely in my attempt to be a husband. I am not asking for pity or anything, but rather attempting to take accountability for my failure. We would leave Houghton and move to Oakland County and attempt to salvage and repair the damage done. I have spoken of my failings more specifically in other blogs, but the truth is I still could not manage the things like I should have. There are problems and some struggles both ways, but I am only responsible for my part.

I have learned much about myself since then. In fact, there is so much I manage much differently today. However, this would begin my third part of the Houghton puzzle. The move to Oakland County would not be as life altering as either hoped. When I went back to Houghton in 2000, a divorce was almost completed. The way I have often described that time is everything I owned fit in a pick-up truck and I did not own the truck. I would head back to Houghton on my own to finish my education. I continued to do counseling for the next three years. It is hard to believe it is almost 20 years ago all this happened. I had spoke with my ex-wife a couple of times, but the last time I had heard from her, in spite of the fact she had initiated the contact, she told me she never wanted to speak to me again. I spoke again with my counselor at the time and he asked if I was surprised. He had a way of making me looking at the complexity of most everything that occurred. I think I am still alive because of him. In fact, I know that is the case. Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned in that two decades is that I am comfortable at being on my own. Certainly during the past two years, things have occurred to make me wonder if I could be involved in a long-term relationship ever again. I think I’ve learned that I can be rather selfless, and I am able to care much more about the other person than myself.  and yet that is not always a healthy thing to do either. I am also much more thoughtful and committed to what I say I will do now. I have not always been as successful at that as I am now. What I know now about myself is simply I am content, at least the great majority of the time. I am much more matter-of-fact about my life; I am much more dependent on logic and thought than emotion and worrying about what if. Perhaps that’s what age has done. More likely it is that I have no immediate family or that I have had to manage more health things, which will continue to be part of my life.. All of the surgeries and all of the changes to my gastrointestinal track have created consequences, but I just learn to manage and keep going. I am simply blessed to be here, have a job I love, and live in a lovely house and do mostly what I want. Certainly, my position as an associate professor and as a program director keeps me more busy than I sometimes wish, but I actually love my work. The move this past year that has been in the process of being appointed as an Associate Adjunct Professor of Gastroenterology at the Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine is a new thing that will push me to connect my health and my academics. As I tell my students often, being a professor is not what I do, it is who I am. It reminds me again of a time when I tried to explain the difference between a PhD and other degrees. Again I failed miserably in my attempt and my rhetorical strategy was a complete flop. To this day I’m not sure I’ve been forgiven for that.

As we finish yet another year and this time, another decade,  it seems that I wonder about where things will go and how long I will be part of this a bit more carefully than I did once upon a time. 20 years ago was the beginning the Millennium and I would have to work New Year’s Day because of Y2K, Cell phones were a new thing and technology was just really beginning to take off. There was no idea, at least generally of apps and all the things that permeate our lives. Little did we know where it would all go. Even now little do we know where it will go. The world seems so much more precarious today than it did at the beginning of the century. One decade ago I had just moved here to Bloomsburg and I was busy running back-and-forth from here to Wisconsin to take care of Lydia.

As I write this it was 22 years ago today that my father passed away. I can remember that morning as if it was yesterday. It was early and I would have to preach three church services yet that morning after receiving my phone call. Being in charge of my father’s estate would reveal a number of things and many of them difficult. Ironically I think it was also the beginning of the end for the marriage, which I believe we both desperately wanted to hold onto. It is always interesting to me how we can look back and understand to a more complete manner how foolish we were and how shortsighted. for the first time in about six years I’m not in Europe for a New Year’s Eve. Anton is out with friends and the driving 2100 miles in less than 96 hours has taken its toll on this aging body.  definitely the return to the UP has conjured up a number of memories. The memories are always simultaneously a blessing and a curse, but that is the nature of our frail, fractured, and imperfect existence. As I complete a decade, I’m not sure that I live through another one. What I do know is that I have learned from my mistakes, I have been blessed in so many ways and by so many different people. Even when things didn’t work out because of my failures. I can only hope to do better and learn. I wish all of you will read this peace and health as you move into a new year. I am grateful to so many people for the blessings they have given to this extraordinary life. Over the past days I have been reminded of all of the people we have lost from where I went to high school, including my own sibling. This song by Dan Fogelberg is an incredible song about our memories and this version was posted the day following his passing.


Thank you as always for reading. 

Dr. Martin

Imagining And Pondering Christmas

Hello from my living room,

It is late afternoon or early evening and I am sitting quietly; the tree is lit and the snow people and Santas are inhabiting the space to remind me of what is to come. I hear the traffic whizzing by the house and John Ritter’s carols are playing on my Google home device. It is a somewhat sleepy day, but that is fine as I am readying myself for the morning trip to Geisinger for a routine procedure. I love the season of Advent and the idea of preparing for Christmas. Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanza are all celebrations of different faiths and backgrounds, but they have very different meanings. That is for another time. Christmas is as much about our various cultures as it is about the Christian celebration of Jesus’s birth. Certainly the Christian celebration is engrained in my background, from growing up attending Sunday School Christmas programs standing as a shepherd in my bathrobe or reading Luke’s Christmas gospel. It is a time that I remember the incredibly long day as one of the pastors at Trinity Lutheran in Lehighton and spilling communion wine on the fair linen at a Christmas Eve service. I was sure the industrious and reverent altar guild women were going to kill me. Another year, not long after the first Mannheim Steamroller Christmas Album, I used their music for a Christmas monologue sermon. I think to this day it might have been one of the top two or three sermons I ever preached. What made it a memorable service was how it seemed to touch the heart of the people who attended that service we called “The Animals’ Christmas.” As I write this I think of all my clergy friends who put so much energy into that evening and the organists and choirs. There is something magical about the carols, the candles, and the seemingly one time of the year when people think more about giving than receiving.

I think that spirit of giving is what gives Christmas such a prominent place on my radar. It is rather amusing, and at time a little embarrassing, how many times little children have called me Santa, and not just at Christmas time. When I was out at the tree farm picking out a tree, some small children smiled and pointed in my direction as we rode the wagon out to the fields of trees. I merely smiled and asked if they had been good. Last summer I was in Kraków, Poland and sitting in a Costa on Ulica Florianska and small children smiled and pointed. Their parents noted they thought I was Santa down for a visit I guess. Earlier I spoke with my former church organist; while I have been gone from Trinity for many years, she is still there. She is an incredible woman. She paid me a very profound compliment. It was a compliment to both my colleague and senior pastor, the Rev. Guy Grube, and me. He was an talented administrator and pastor/preacher/teacher. She noted that worship and preaching had a quality and skill not matched since we left, and that was 25 years ago. While I think we did a number of things well, I believe the work the three of us did on worship was extraordinary, and Christmas Eve services were perhaps the pinnacle of what we achieved and the spirit that occurred. Even though it has been so many years ago, that was a really significant thing for me to hear.

There are times I wonder and imagine what I might do were I still ordained? I struggle with worship even today because much of the preaching I hear is substandard. I do not mean to sound judgmental or arrogant, but Luther stated emphatically, “The word of God is powerful; and both law and gospel have moral force.” For me, that is the power of the Christmas story. It is the breaking through or the breaking into our dilemma-ed existence with a sense of giving that undoubtedly passes our understanding. Yet, we are back to the sense of giving, but this is no easy pick-it-off-the-shelf or hitting Walmart on Thanksgiving night or a cyber-Monday-sitting-at-the-computer. The giving of one’s self for the other without expecting something in return is something few are capable of. I know this pain too keenly when I have offered help, be it emotionally or financially and the emotion or care is not reciprocated or the money is never paid back. Too often I have found myself feeling hurt, and that hurt is followed by anger and the anger by a sense of betrayal which leads to bitterness. Regardless the expectation, the giving was not really giving with a spirit of selflessness. I am sure some will argue with me on aspects of that assertion, and you are welcome to do so. What I am realizing, sometimes too late, and many times too often, is that truly giving means that I cannot expect something in return. If it is financial, and this one has been particularly difficult, if I can not afford to lose that resource, it is probably best not to give it in the first place. Even then, I struggle if I am only giving what I can afford to lose, how deeply am I giving? This is something I am still trying to wrap my head around.

The spirit of Christmas for me is when I am willing to go without so that others may have. There is something about the humility of the Gospel story in Luke that speaks to me in ways I did not realize when I was a parish pastor. Perhaps I caught a glimpse of it when I focused on the animals for that Children’s service. Perhaps it is those we call the dumb beasts that we can learn the most about sharing. If Jesus was born in a cattle stall, I am quite sure the animals were not consulted about sharing their sleeping chambers. I am sure if all the commotion that occurred as we read it did indeed happen, the animals got little or no sleep, but I wonder if they held a grudge because their peaceful night existence was interrupted? I wonder if they will willing to give up their feeding trough to provide a bed for a young mother’s newborn child?

Too often we ask those with little to nothing to somehow give more and yet, we selfishly hold on to our abundance. Over the past two weeks through the hard work of four or five people we were able to make sure a student was able to travel on the Central/Eastern European Study Abroad trip. It was interesting to me how thoughtfully and willingly we all communicated to make something happen that will change that student’s life. It was much like what a couple did for me all those years ago. I believe with all my heart that their gift and that study abroad experience is fundamental to my becoming a professor. To walk in, but not nearly fill, the footprints of the Nielsen family, and there were many of them at Dana, is humbling and beautiful.

Dr. John W. sent out a Christmas greeting (a poem, a verse, something memorable) that he usually composed himself and his keen insight into our complex world was at times hopeful, at times reflective, at times much like another John’s voice crying in the wilderness, but whatever it was it was always profound. It was instructive and illuminating. As I reach an age that I thought once to be the age of old people, I find how much I still am learning about that education I received on the Nebraska bluffs along the Missouri River. Little did I know I would be at the feet of giants as I sat in Pioneer Memorial, Old Main, or the Old AMA. Little did I realize the spirit of giving they provided or instilled in so many of us.

I know now how blessed and fortunate I was to be on the receiving end of such a giving faculty. They had gone without raises, without sabbaticals, and incredible professors with PhDs from Oxford, or Duke, or Harvard were on that hill in Blair. And there were people like Phil Pagel, Verlan Hansen, and so many workers who day in and day out worked to support us. Talented, brilliant, classmates, who were also good people and created a cohort of people who still matter in my life. I think of 5 people, my fellow Dyaks, all successful and giving to this day. I think of talented and good people like Monty and Troy, who helped a history and humanities major survive Anatomy and Physiology. I think of those who were seniors or upper class men when I was an older freshman: Barb, Nettie, Tim, Peter, Mary, Lynn, Merle, Jim, Tom, who welcomed and accepted me. They gavel so much more than they realized. Dana had a spirit of giving that permeated every aspect of that little college on the hill.

I believe with all my being that Dana built on the foundation my grandmother had created for me when I was small. She was the most selfless and loving person I could have ever met. She loved unconditionally. I understand that so much more clearly now. Dana taught be how to take that sense of giving and make it a lifestyle, a life philosophy if you will. How often is it we fail to realize the blessings we are provided daily because they are all around us? How often is it we forget to thank those who give to us so selflessly? Too often we take the giftedness of our daily lives for granted or we fail to reflect on the profound things we believe to be mundane, taking them for granted. As I imagine Christmas this year, having a Danish exchange student has transported my thoughts back to choir rehearsals and preparing for Sights and Sounds. As I have the Danish hearts on my Christmas tree and Anton’s parents have sent Danish treats, my thoughts are wondering up to the cross and down to the barn below campus. As I prepared a Danish Christmas dinner with roasted duck, stuffed with dates, apples, and lemon and Anton and I made Risalamande for dessert, the spirit of Veritas Vincit is not far removed.

Christmas is the time to imagine and ponder. It is a time to remember and give thanks. I am so thankful that I found my way to that small college on the hill. I can only hope to give in the same fashion it gave to me. I wish each of you who read this a sense of hope, peace and joy as we celebrate this season of real giving.

Blessings to you all and thank you for reading.

Dr. Michael Martin ’83

I Wonder as I Wander

Hello on the first night that seems like Winter,

When I was small, I wondered about what seemed to be important things. I wondered about what might happen at school day in and day out. I wondered about what I might get for a birthday or a Christmas present from my grandmother because she always gave amazing (and unexpected) presents. I wondered if I would ever be big or large enough (as I was generally the smallest boy in my class) to play any kind of sports (it was also not helpful that coordination was not one of my stronger attributes). I wondered what I might do or become someday, but I never really seemed to settle on anything toward which I believed possible. On the other hand, I wandered around the neighborhood, riding my bike up and down our T-ed alley and circumnavigated our block again and again on my 20 inch red Schwinn bicycle at every chance. Riding because I felt free and safe. I wandered the aisles and peered intently through my brown framed rather-thick glasses at the shelves in the public library, checking out as many book as my little arms could carry. Often as I read those books, my thoughts wondered about and wandered among the places I read of; could something like that happen to me?

Wonder often provides us a sense of hope; it creates the possibility and allows our imagination to see beyond our present circumstance. It offers us the ability to believe in what the book of Hebrews call things hoped for and the conviction of that which is unseen. Of course, the writer of Hebrews was speaking about faith, but wonder and faith are not unrelated, at least for me. Wandering, on the other hand, offers exposure to things that might have been unseen or only imagined. It provides new experiences or data to support things about which we may have wondered.

The Christmas carol that provides the impetus for this blog post, has an interesting story behind it. That is not unusual. This particular carol, written by John Jacob Niles, was a fragment of a poem and one line of a song he heard at a sort of tent revival in North Carolina at the height of the depression. I imagine much like the Jewish people had done, and would do again, the depression caused many God-fearing people to wonder where God had gone. What had they done to invoke such an economic wrath upon the country and particularly the poor? This song has a lament quality to it, both in terms of word and tune. As a former student once said to me, ” You have a [propensity] to be somewhat melancholy.” I imagine it is that predilection which creates a somewhat inclination toward hymns in minor keys in music; and yet I also love the resolution that can occur when we move from the minor tonic to a Picardy third. I remember the first time I mentioned such a musical thing to a friend studying music and he marveled that I knew such a thing. I continually realize what my humanities major did for me.

This weekend is that time before Christmas that brings back both joyful and, on the other hand, so difficult memories. In my first years here in Bloom my wandering took me back to Wisconsin on regular sojourns to care for and support Lydia. The move made from her incredible home to COH was a challenging, unfortunate, and necessary one. The decision made to allow her to pass 5 years ago today was troublesome, arduous, and again necessary. I cried both times. It began a watch and time that I struggled, I wondered how to understand what it meant to care by simultaneously holding on and letting go. So much of our lives are about that. We wander in and out of others’ lives and sometimes we feel this need to hold on. How much of that holding on is from fear or selfishness? I know there are cases where I am trying to figure out the difference between loyalty and fear or selfishness and fear. Am I the ornery person that is spoken of in the carol? One thing, of which I am most sure, was one of the least selfish acts I have done was to let Lydia go. I went back to the Circle that night and I prayed and I cried. The hours spent in her room that period were so significant as I tried to carry out the promises I had made to her some years before. I wonder at times how it is we wandered into each other’s life. She still permeates more of my existence than I am readily cognizant. There are things I do in my own home that remind me of her (and of my own grandmother, but I have noted some of their similarities). There are things I want and ways I go about them that remind me of her. There are times I wish my grandmother would have lived longer; she was such a loving and giving woman and I think I would have enjoyed hearing the stories of her South Dakota farm-girl upbringing.

My wandering had taken me to almost every state in the union and also to most of Europe and even Southeast Asia. I have been fortunate to explore some small parts of the Caribbean, but there is still so much to learn. I wonder if I can ever be satisfied that I have gotten to experience all I can absorb or if I can somehow believe I have had enough opportunities to learn. I somehow doubt it. There are moments I wonder what created this desire to wonder or wander. I grew up in a family that did not seem that adventurous, but I think that was because of financial constraints rather than a lack of wanting to try something or do something. I have pondered this and I do not think it came from being in the Marine Corps as much as it was the consequence of being allowed to travel with Dr. John W. Nielsen during that interim class. Through the generosity of Dorothy and Harold Wright, I was provided an opportunity to wander around Europe for almost a month. The wonder that trip created has never been extinguished. In fact, subsequent trips have only provided the embers of that first European travel to grow into an astounding, passionate, fire. The difference is that I not only want it for myself, I want it for others.

For the first time after 5 years, I will not be in Kraków this New Years Eve. Perhaps that is appropriate, for the travel/study abroad trip will be in Warsaw instead. It will be very different to not be there, however. Yet that initial trip to Poland, and the possibilities garnered because of it, have changed my life, both personally and professionally. To go to Poland the next times are not so much about learning, but learning and teaching, absorbing and professing. I know as the little Northwestern Iowa boy, I could have never imagined my wonder and joy of learning would take my wandering to teach at a Polish University, where I would teach in the streets and rooms that might have housed Copernicus and St. Jon Paul II; that I might spend time teaching in a university that was founded in 1364. It is a long journey from Riverview Elementary School. Lately, I have found myself reconnected with some of those Riverview classmates. What a tremendous gift to have them reach out and to be able to share thoughts. I posted a new profile picture today that is from early summer, so not ridiculously old, but one particular classmate noted she would probably not recognize me. It is true, I do not look anything close to the last time I saw her 46 years ago. She was someone I admired in so many ways. She was smart, personable, kind, and I thought she was so beautiful. One of the persons I always wondered what had happened to her. Low and behold, in the last year paths crossed again. That is the reason I appreciate social networking.

As I wonder and wander now, I think my tasks have taken on a different kind of urgency. There is a great deal I still feel called to do, but I realize the time in which to do it all has dwindled. Such a reality can be disconcerting, but it can also create focus. The past few days were more difficult than I revealed. The sense of loss on certain levels was painful beyond words, but the ability to maintain is also a gift I value. It caused me to wonder once again about myself and not only who I have become, but as much how I have become that person. Introspection, reflection, and analysis are something that seem to be foundational to me. Perhaps what my wonder has created most importantly is to learn to be accountable for my choices. The sequelae of my actions and life are mine to ponder on and wonder about. I guess that is sort of meta-wondering if you will. I am not sure if it is the holidays that bring forth this sort of proclivity to be pensive or if it is merely my innate nature. Perhaps it is some of both.

As I look toward the week of Christmas I am reminded of a wandering couple soon to become parents. I know from the stories chronicled in the gospels that they certainly wondered about their unexpected circumstances. I know as I worked with my Bible as Literature class this fall, they too wondered about the story of Mary and Joseph and what they must have been trying to wrap their own heads around their call (her call) to be a parent. Being a parent is an entirely different wonder to me as Anton and I prepare for Christmas. Soon half his time in Bloomsburg will be up. He was in a band concert last night, and it brought back memories of my own high school band concerts. He has begun wresting and I think his aching muscles have him also wondering what he is doing. There is so much to do as I am working through the first week of a winter term class. Some of my students are wondering and wandering. I wish all of you who take time to read my musing a blessed holiday season, whatever your faith or piety calls you to. I leave you with the carol which inspired this post.

Thank you for reading.

Dr. Martin