Hello from Danville,
I am in the town where I do the great majority of my medical appointments waiting on a lunch appointment. I have noted from time to time that I have lived my life with not much of a strict sense of where or why. Suffice it to say there was no grand plan or scheme. That might seem counter-intuitive for a person so process driven, but I am quite sure the most significant things in my life came about in a sort of happenstance manner. Let me offer some events that seem to support that contention. They begin with my very birth.
Again, as previously noted, I came into the world at 26 weeks of gestation and weighing only 17 ounces. No one expected or planned such an entrance into this world. No one planned a move before 2 to the grandparent’s house, so much so that we (my younger sister and I) were taken from our parents after yet another phone call. I am pretty sure the only full family member I possibly have does not know of my existence. You do not plan such things. Quite assuredly, there was no plan, at least in my 4 year old mind, that I would be sent off to another family, albeit adopted, and begin with a new family name, trying with all the brain power my little pre-school mind could muster to understand why I had a new last name. Certainly, the next years brought many lessons; I worked as hard as I could to be worthy of the new house and family, but to the contrary, I was told that I did not deserve to be there. I was told I would not grow up to amount to much. I was told at times I was worthless. It was difficult to understand how I could find my way clear of that, but I found a resilience and stubbornness to manage. I was blessed to have others who counteracted that philosophy of nihilism. A grandmother, who loved, demonstrated, and taught me I had value. Parents of some of my childhood friends who made me feel welcome and valued. By the time I was ready to graduate from high school, again I had no real plan for my life. Adoption had given me some stability in spite of the abuse, but the age of those who adopted me was not conducive to their support continuing past my own age of 18. In fact, because I graduated from high school at 17, that support would end even sooner. I had already lived out of the house most of the summer before and the fall of my senior year in high school. So, on one morning I skipped school and found myself at the Armed Forces Recruiting Station in downtown Sioux City. Within a couple of months, I would enlist in the Marine Corps and, at least for the time being, I would have some plan for my life. Yet, the growing up that occurred in the Corps is drastic and the experiences I would encounter took me far beyond anything I might have expected in NW Iowa.
As I came back chronologically an adult, and perhaps grown beyond my years in other ways, a significant part of me needed to catch up. I did not understand much about who I was or how I fit into much of anything. It seemed that my life was caught between two worlds, as was most of my own inner being. A GI Bill certainly offered some opportunities, but I had little idea even yet why I would attend college or university. However, there was little other I wanted to do, and working at Walgreens or some other such dead end job was not what I hoped for myself. Perhaps what happened in those years beyond my service helped me more than I knew. What I do know is again, I found an outside support because there was no support in my Home of Record (HOR). To be completely fair, however, at least they did let me live there, and that offered stability again that was essential. My first foray into higher education was an abject failure on a number of levels. I did have a good time, but I wandered rather aimlessly around the streets of Ames. Perhaps the most important thing I learned there was to wait tables and to serve as a bartender. Those skills have served me most of my life and that has been a fallback more than once. As I have noted in other blogs, the year 1977 was a difficult one. The death of both my brother and my grandmother would devastate me, particularly when the woman who had given me a sense of safety and hope my entire life was gone. Looking back, she was only 64, the age I am now. That is much too young to leave this world. Somehow, either by the grace of God, and some encouragement from a best friend, I would find myself on yet another journey. This one would take me around the Midwestern part of the country, from as far north as Birnamwood, WI to as far south as Houston. Forty-eight thousand miles in 9 months with four other people would change my life. How all those changes would manifest themselves is still happening. The long and short of that year traveling in an 1978 Ford Econoline Van, which we named Elmer, introduced me to the hills of Blair, NE and the campus of Dana College. It was those four years that created the first foundation that was bedrock solid. Up to that point, I had little sense of why or how. When I told my first host family during the travel year that I wanted to be a hair dresser, they encouraged me to think a bit more broadly. If they are reading this, I am sure they are smiling. It was not the first, but the second trip to Dana and the meeting of Merle Brockhoff and Gary Beltz, of Mimi Kotovsky (I think that is a correct spelling) and Mary Rowland, who would change my life path.
What made Dana work for me? That is a simple and complicated answer all at once. It was simple because I was allowed to thrive and find support, both students and faculty. It was complex because I had much to learn and a previous failure at college to overcome. Singing in the college choir was invaluable. Working with the campus ministry teams continued to create networks of people. In the classroom, I had Dr. Jorgensen for Freshman Writing. I think it was the only semester he ever taught it, but I was in his class. All the lectures from various professors, each in their field, in that Humanities class as a second semester freshman was a turning point for me academically. My Intro to Religion class with Dr. Nielsen blew me away. His intelligence and ability to engage his students was like nothing I had ever experienced. I was hooked, but more importantly, I found a place I wanted to be. That was no minor issue. Again, colleagues like Michael (Mike) Keenan, Robert (Bob) Schmoll, who were both veterans, were invaluable to my being able to acclimate to a place where most students were the normal freshman age. Yet, some of those freshman classmates like Shelly (Peterson) Grorud, Leanne (Danahy) Bruland, and Monty Scheele accepted me and made me feel like I had value. They had no idea how important they were and to this day how much I appreciate them. A student named Pamela Poole and her friend were important to my first year also from the very first weekend meeting them. To be in touch with Pan to this day means more than she realizes. There was a young incredible and brilliant student, who did not even finish high school before coming to Dana; her name was Sarah (Hansen) Jacobs and she taught me to value so many things that influence me to this day, particularly classical music and its importance in our world history. She was a special person to me in a number of ways. Because I was older and had an wonderful roommate named Peter Bonde, I was introduced to some more senior level students. Barbara Kalal Hawkins is still a valued friend. Others like Lynn Hohneke, who was so quiet and yet wonderfully sweet and caring, and whom I remember coming over with some others one Saturday night to get me out of my room as I was once again studying, made my first year at Dana such a profound blessing. Those relationships would continue and others developed as I continued my time in Blair. A project in a European Cix class on the French Revolution with Kristy Swenson, one of the smartest people I ever worked with, and Dixie Frisk was a highlight of my academics at Dana. A wonderful dinner with Kristy afterwards at Tivoli is still etched in my mind. What has continued to amaze me is the enduring nature of those relationships. I am no into my 60s and some of the people I appreciate the most yet today entered my life when I was a student.
I think what is so profoundly unique is that characteristic of maintaining is something that crossed every facet of the campus. Whether it was the women who worked in Parnassus, the people in the business office, the registrar’s office, students from any class and most certainly the professors, the idea of family was not merely something that served as an appropriate sound byte. The idea of an experience, the Dana experience was something that became part of our DNA, if you will, and as such, it was not limited to the time we were students. As a Marine, and anyone who has served knows this, “Once a Marine, always a Marine.” I believe for a great many of us, something quite similar could be said about our Dana roots. Those roots run deep and true. They were cultivated by every single person we met while there. Shortly before Dana would close, I had created a letter of application and was putting together a packet to apply to teach there. While I am blessed to be here at Bloomsburg, and it would have been a terrible shock had I applied to have the college close a year later, I guess that is another way that my taking what comes rather than planning served me well.
Even while at Dana, I struggled with where I should go. Was I called to parish ministry? What about being an attorney? What about maybe being a professor? I remember walking to my commencement at Dana with my father. He asked appropriately, “What can you do with your degree?” With a double major and a double minor, I told him, “Nothing; but go to more school.” He was speechless, proud of his college graduate son, a first generation college student, but stunned at my answer. I was headed to summer Greek class in barely two weeks. Seminary would follow because I believed with all my heart that is where I was called. What I know now is it were merely another step along the way. It was that first couple of quarters at LNTS that I would find a new battle to fight. A fight that has consumed much of my life since; a fight that would change both my understanding of myself as well as how I believed others would understand me. Crohn’s disease or its consequences have been a major component of my life since 1984, less than a year following my graduation from Dana. That battle has taken me to the edge of life and beyond. It has changed my understanding of wellness, my understanding of things like masculinity, pain, and so much more. It has been the one constant in my life since that January, and I have battled and fought it on a number of fronts before realizing it is not something to fight, but rather something to embrace and understand. It was a significant element in the failure of my first marriage and my struggle with what it did to my body and its affect on my identity and belief that I could be desirable would be a manor consequence in my second. I understand that now.
Again, could I have planned that? Most certainly not. Would I have wanted to know its plan for me? Again, definitely not. In the times that followed I ended up in a second Master’s and eventual PhD because of some of those consequences. Leaving the clergy roster and trying to figure out what next was a difficult time. Again, not something I expected nor wanted to experience, but experience it I did. In the times since, I have found myself in both the Upper and Lower Peninsula’s of Michigan, Texas, back to Houghton and then Wisconsin. From Wisconsin I have returned to a merely 70 miles from where I was following seminary. I can say quite assuredly that is anything I planned. I can say without reservation, when I left Pennsylvania the first time I was quite sure I would never return. Yet, this is where I have lived the longest since graduating from high school. It is the place I have felt the most settled and successful. It is the place I have been continually blessed by wonderful friends, colleagues, and students. It is the place I finally feel like I have battled long and hard enough to no longer need to battle. That is not to say there are not things I still wish could be different, but it is probably the firs time since I was at my grandmother’s house at the age of 2 1/2 that I feel safe and happy. I did not plan any of this, but that does not mean I took no agency or advocacy for where I am or who I have become. How is it we get where we go? How much of it depends on us and how much is merely that whimsical hand of fate moving us? Is it God or something else? I am not sure I have an adequate answer to all of that. What I do know is I continue to move forward, sometimes with at least a modicum of a plan, but most often with a sense of merely wanting to do the best in whatever circumstance confronts me. I am not sure that will change. I do have some plans for this year. A sabbatical will have me back in Poland this next fall teaching at the second oldest university in Eastern Europe. I am busy making plans on both sides of the ocean to manage that time. Now people are asking when do you plan to retire? I am not sure if that is out of concern or hope. Again, that will take a plan . . . I am thinking about the options, but I cannot say I am planning anything at the present time. I am merely living the life I have been blessed to have. It is the blessings that have been part of my entire life that have often moved me from one place to the next, from one possibility to another. It is the blessings and love of so many that have kept me optimistic and willing to take on whatever comes next. I guess it is how I will continue to live. It has served me well thus far. The picture is from my senior year at Dana.
Thanks as always for reading. Thanks for the many blessings so many of you have been part of.