Hello from my upstairs study,
It is Sunday evening and even though it is barely 8:00 p.m., it seems so much later when it gets dark so early. Over the last couple of days, I was so aware of that rapidly setting sun and when it is cloudy, it is even more apparent. I do not remember this sort of darkness as a child. In fact, I think the first time I remember it was when I was in seminary and would be walking from campus back to the Burntvedt Apartments. It was always dark on the way home shortly after 4:00 p.m. during the winter. Of course, then there was living in Hancock/Houghton and even Laurium in the Upper Peninsula. While the summer was glorious for the incredibly long days, the converse was the case in the winter. I remember driving up the hill past Quincy Mine and you could see the sun setting in the rearview mirror, but by the time I got eleven miles north, it would be dark as if it were midnight. I think this is the first time since then I felt it got dark so quickly. Perhaps it is just the cumulative effect of what 2020 has done to all of us. It is hard to believe that we are 3/4 of a year into this new world.
As I write this, it is less than two weeks until Christmas, but that too will be different. I know there are a lot of people who are trying to figure out how to manage all of this. This weekend, Pennsylvania just reimposed some restrictions on public places and public gatherings. I know there are people all over the board on these things, but I choose to keep myself pretty locked down and do what is necessary to keep myself as safe as possible. . . . As is often the case, I got some things started the other day, but I am behind. It is Wednesday and as predicted a significant snowstorm is baring down on Central Pennsylvania. It has been snowing for about 5 hours and as I sit in my study again, within the last 24 hours I did significant work outside to get things ready for what was coming. I also got all my Christmas decorations out, both inside and outside, made sure the snowblower will work, and finally turned the heat on upstairs during last night. I work up and it was about 63 degrees, so I figured it was probably time. So at this point, I am pretty hunkered down and ready to ride this 18-22 inches of snow out and see what happens about 24 hours from now. I remember when I was small, living in NW Iowa and we got incredible snowstorms. We would build tunnels throughout the yard and with our snowsuits, boots, mittens, hats, and scarves, we could play for hours. We would come in long enough to warm up and our clothes would be thrown in the dryer. After the clothes dried and were warm, we would be at it again. We were heartier people then or what? I cannot imagine that now. Of course, then there was living in the Upper Peninsula, and that is where I really learned about snowfall. I remember someone asking when I moved there if I liked snow. I said, “Yes, it’s nice.” They responded, “No; do you LIKE snow? Because we get a lot of it.” They were not kidding. My first year at Michigan Tech, and I had been in the U.P. for three years then, we received about 346 inches of snow. I lived in Laurium, about 11 miles north of Houghton, and I did not own a snowblower. It was incredible. I remember having a front-end loader in the yard to push snow back because I could not scoop it any higher. And yet, the snow was generally light, fluffy, lake-effect, but it snowed almost every day. Then, as noted above, it got dark very early. There were times I shoveled more than 4-5 hours a day. It was a pretty strenuous workout.
It has already been over 20 years ago that happened. As I have reached out to my cousins these past weeks, I have been keenly aware of the time and the length of time that has passed since we were last in touch in any manner. It is stunning to me how months turned to years, turned to decades. We were kids or young adults and somewhere we missed the entire middle portions of our lives. We are now in 50s and 60s, older than our parents were when we would see each other regularly. That is a shocking reality, but more importantly, we are here to do it, though on both sides of the family there is an entire two generations gone and now even some of our generation. There is the line from On Golden Pond, which again comes hearkening back: “Don’t you think that everyone looks back on their childhood with a certain amount of bitterness and regret? It doesn’t have to ruin your life!” And so it is . . . Do I have regrets? Of course, but when I take the time to connect the dots, I am compelled to remember that I hav been so profoundly blessed throughout my life. I did not take the normal childhood route. Being on my third family before the age of five, struggling too find my place as someone who felt unwanted or frightened more than I allowed people to know, and trying to manage both my professional and personal baggage throughout my life was not an easy task, but I refuse to focus on that. In this season where we hear words like hope, peace, and joy, it is hard to overlook those people who have been there throughout my life. I think of people like Frank and Margaret Sopoci, of Bud and Janet Reese, or Jacob and Marge Goede. These three couples were, along with my grandmother and the cousins that were central in my last blog, were the people who helped me see beyond the things I heard too often. They provided the sense of hope that is essential for human existence. Following high school and the service, I again struggled to find my place. I had returned home, but it was not a place that was ready for me, nor was I ready to be back in it. It was then my pastor and his family that would have such an essential influence on my life. Between having a close friend, being enamored beyond words with his sister, and then having their parents be as much of parent to me as anyone, I had less than an inkling of how important they were. Father Fred, as David and I called him, made me accountable. It is an accountability that has lasted four over decades to some degree, but it might be one of the most important lessons in my life. It is astounding how hurt from someone can create the consequence in a completely different circumstance. I think that is the lesson that has finally become clear to me. What I am aware of in these past couple weeks is how individuals, families, our own family, and those who come into our lives by chance can be influences far beyond what we realize. We absorb their lessons and our mutual experiences into the fabric of who we are, seldom realizing the influence the significance they have become in our own journey. This past couple of weeks in reconnecting with my cousins has been a most unexpected and profound gift. From texts to messages, from Zoom calls to phone calls, the catching up on decades of our lives has been an incomparable joy. It causes me pause and compels me to ask what was it about these cousins? Was it their beauty and comprehensive personalities that were so different among the six of them? Yes, that was part of it. Was it the enjoyable times we shared as children whenever we were together? Yes, again, that is part of that picture. Yet is that enough to connect the dots after decades of losing touch? Perhaps, but I think there is more. It is what has come through in our conversations during these past weeks. They accepted and loved me. They accepted their undersized, rather nerdy cousin with his butch haircut, glasses, and over-sized ears who would not become comfortable with his image until he was in his thirties. That is where the gorgeous might come in. They were so beautiful, but they were also kind, accepting, and gracious. That was what it was. Now, decades later, they are still beautiful. The twins look decades younger than what they are. Kim, the current eldest, is as beautiful and kind as I remember, and conversations with her are such a joy. I have gotten a bit of an idea about Martha and Josh and Mary is stunningly beautiful, but seems to be an observer more than a talker. That is part of what makes all of them so incredible, both individually, but also collectively.
As I sit in my study, listening to Christmas instrumentals, looking out at the snow as the sun sets, my heart is full and my life seems to be blessed beyond measure. It is a very different Christmas than a year ago with Anton, and I miss him, but I know he received his package today. That makes me very happy. I have another one, but it will go out after the first of the year. The other package to Russia should be available tomorrow. I miss Anastasiia also; I remember taking her to JFK about this time to go home for the holidays. It was a time when having people around for the holidays helped make the acre more homey. I love decorating the house, both inside and out. The people here in Bloom tell me they wait to see what I will do. I do not feel that profoundly different in what I do, but I know that I do believe in the magic of the season that seems to bring out people’s better angels. We desperately need all of those angels. In spite of the unparalleled sorrow this year has brought, there is hope. There is an opportunity for peace, and if we search our hearts there is room for joy. That is what the Advent season is for. It is to prepare our hearts. I am reminded of Bonhoeffer’s words when he wrote to his co-conspirators during that December of 1942. In the midst of a regime that disregarded the Jewish people or anyone who did not fit their Aryan profile, engaged in a propaganda campaign that convinced people that the Reich was doing what was best for the German people, and co-opted a good part of the church, Bonhoeffer noted that their actions would need to be judged by history. Instead of absolution he wrote, “Only the one for whom the final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all these, when in faith and sole allegiance to God he is called to obedient and responsible action: the responsible person, whose life will be nothing but an answer to God’s question and call” (After Ten Years). Bonhoeffer had the opportunity to remain in America, but returned to Germany believing he had little right to be there after the struggle, a different battle than Hitler had written about, if he did not go through the trial with them. In a letter to Bishop Bell in London, Bonhoeffer would lament honestly and bleakly. He wrote, that “freedom is not something that occurs just within the church, but it attacks the very roots of National Socialism. The point is freedom. . . .” He was one of the few in his church to demand protection for the persecuted as a necessary political step the church must take. Confronting the consequences of that alliance would put Bonhoeffer at odds with his church and it was a struggle of conscience. Bonhoeffer would question the role of the church and its relationship to the Jews. This was not a rejection of Judaism as much as it was about the unfinished questioning of the Christian Church itself. The tragedy of the plot to rid Germany and the world of Hitler was not just that they failed in their execution, but that their failure revealed the extent to which they were incomplete in a much larger sense.
In spite of the recalcitrance of many to accept this election outcome, I believe there is much more at stake as we watch those on both sides of the political divide, be it here in our country or in other countries. Freedom and disagreement, even passionate disagreement, are part of our democratic process. My understanding of the Christian message, and by extension the Advent message is simple. We have a Creator that meets us where we are in our brokenness and bids us to come. As I say in my Bible as Literature course, do you do what you do so God will love you or because God loves you?” I choose to be the person I am now with all the dots beginning to demonstrate a pattern, with the decades of loss in contact being erased. Indeed because of so many people I am blessed beyond message. The message in the midst of difficulty for Bonhoeffer was a message of honesty and hope. The message of all Advent is about preparing for each day of our lives with a sense of purpose, a sense of hope, and with that a sense of peace. To my cousins, Kim, Julie, Paula, Mary, and Martha: thank you for the hope and joy you have brought back into my life. I wish you each a sense of peace in this time as we mourn the loss of such an incredible elder sister. To Randy: you remain in my thoughts and prayers and it was wonderful to speak with you too. I wish you all a sense of comfort in knowing how special you were to each other. To our parents and our families from the generations. I hope you are proud of the work you did and the amazing people you created. I leave this song with reminds me of how blessed I am and how I wish I might have shared that better earlier in my life.
To all; as always thank you for reading and I wish you all a blessed conclusion of this most extraordinary Advent season.