Hello from my study on the Acre.
The first time I saw the movie version of the musical, Rent, I was almost speechless by the end of the show. Since then, I have watched it numerous times, but it still can bring me to tears. While it is well-known, there are certainly those who are probably unacquainted, but based on Puccini’s La Boheme, with a late 20th century upgrade on subject matter, it looks at a group of friends getting ready to face the last year of the millennium and what happens to them in that year. The song most are probably acquainted with is the title of this post. It is the number of minutes that compose a year. Last Christmas I was helping a newly minted seventeen year old try to feel somehow like Denmark was here on some small fashion, but Anton was experiencing his first Christmas in America, but as importantly, he first Christmas away from home. A few days before Christmas, we had a dinner with students and friends, and there was certainly a multicultural flair to it. Anton’s traditional Danish Christmas dessert, called Risalamande, or a Almond Rice Pudding with a Warm Cherry Sauce was quite the hit. In fact, people are still talking about it. And Anton made it himself. His mother would be proud of what he did. In addition to having a very nice Christmas together, we were invited to another home for a Christmas brunch, which was quite incredible and Anton spent a significant amount of time with his friends as they planned what his Spring Semester would be like. During all of this, there were some interesting stories about a virus that was occurring in China, but we did not pay much attention. It seems this was the case at a number of societal levels, and now, at least if what is reported is true, some should have been much more serious about this particular problem. As we all know now, that little virus has changed our world. In the 525, 600 minutes since Christmas a year ago, there is little that seems untouched by all of this.
Yet, there is so much that has continued in our normal daily lives that is simply what we do. We get up; we hopefully have a job to go to daily or regularly; we are able to live our lives with all the restrictions, but somehow life continues affected, but unabated. And yet, 2020 has changed who we are; it has altered our perception of education, of work, of socialization, and expectations (and that is across a wide spectrum of things) of what basic life will be like when we finally find ourselves on the other side of this, which, of course, is still open to interpretation both what it will be as much as when, or even if, there is an other side. This is something I have pondered. Much like what has happened to air travel post-9/11, airports have never gone back to where they were. I am pretty convinced, we are in the same situation now, but we are not sure what all of that means. I know that the consequences of acting like there is nothing to be concerned about has resulted in the infections of millions as well as the death of hundreds of thousands. I am not making a political statement, and I have some people I care for deeply who believe that they have the individual right to refuse a mask. I have others who are incredibly careful, and they are not elderly as I am. I have appreciation for all of them, and I certainly do not care less for them. What I am trying to note is this year has changed our lives in ways before unimaginable. As I try to understand what will happen, I find myself realizing two things. We must try to manage whatever it is, and at the same time, we must live our lives. Again, it returns me to Rent. I remember two scenes that are more poignant for me. The first is when the members, who are dying then of AIDs/HIV, are at a meeting and talking about if they will be remembered. The line “will someone care? Will I wake tomorrow from this nightmare?” The second is when the same members of the group note, “I am used to relying on intellect, but I try to open up to what I don’t know because reason says I should have died three years ago. There’s only us; there’s only this. Forget regret or life is yours to miss. No other road; no other way. No day, but today.” I have used that last phrase as a signature in one of my emails for some time.
Today is the 27th of December. Twenty-three years ago, Kris, my sister, called me to let me know she was taking our father to the hospital. He had been in hospice for a few weeks and he was losing his battle to liver, kidney, and pancreatic cancer. He would pass the next morning. It is, at times, difficult to live with the reality that all of my immediate family, the other four of us are all gone, but that is the life I have. This is not a lament, but rather a realization that for some reason, one that I still do not understand, is I am still here. This is no hyperbole when I have been told by some of my doctors that the reason they do not know what to do with me is that most people with all my issues do not live this long. I remember the first time I heard this. My response was a typical Michael response. I responded to my doctor with the simple statement, “So I am special.” The doctor’s response was as simple, “Yes, you are.” There is so much we can be grateful for, and none it has to do with the stuff we have. I am more amazed at how our bodies are such incredible mechanisms, miraculous in their ability to self-regulate if we allow them. It is not simply cliche to say that from the moment we are born we move toward the end of life, and this year is certainly made it apparent that there are things outside our control that can hasten that process, but we are not merely victims of morbidity. There is so much more in-between. As I have reflected and reminisced on my childhood for a variety of reasons during this past month, there are so many reasons to be thankful.
In the past year, I have remained working, albeit in a different style, and one that takes incredible work and energy, but as with every semester, I am blessed by such talented people in my classes, and their talent is not always represented by the grade they receive. My colleagues, the unparalleled staff who support us, and an administration who works tirelessly to figure out our ever-changing situation make my life much easier. While I have not been able to meet some people in person, Zoom calls, phone calls, and drop-offs of various goodies remind me of their profound presence in my life. Happy voices and wishes for time together mean more than any words can express. Love from the parents, who are both special to me in ways I cannot enumerate, remind me of the goodness this year bestowed in spite of the distance requirements. While March seems long ago, a birthday dinner for a dear friend and with another dear friend, before the reality of a changed world hit full-force, is a reminder that there is another side to all of this. Each minute we proceed through another revolution around the sun is too often taken for granted, taken as some kind of entitlement, but we are never enfranchised to anything. It is a simple and profound gift. It is only through the loss of that time we become acutely aware of time’s giftedness to each of us.
As I finish another year, I have been given the gift of a life that is beyond anything I might have imagined for the little NW Iowa boy. I made it far beyond what some told me I would do or beyond what I was deserving. I know this in such a profound way. I have been blessed beyond measure by so many. Some of those earlier blessings in my life have reappeared and like the beacon of the Epiphany star, I feel a glow and light I have not felt for many years. Thank you to each of you, the five remaining beautiful cousins who have been kind enough to embrace me after all this time. To Jeff, our other cousin, for reaching out. To my nephews and nieces, great-nieces and great-nephews, over the years you have made me feel loved and cared for. I am still grateful for your presence in my life. I realize that family is exactly what you make it. We are all fragile, flawed, and carefully faithful in our belief that we can love in spite of our foibles, but life has demonstrated it is possible, regardless the time that has passed. Five hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred multiplied since I last spoke to the beautiful Pilgrim daughters would be an astronomical number. It is over 20 million minutes. That is beyond thought. It is about half my life. So many opportunities lost, but I choose to consider the possibilities ahead. As I move in my own spiritual life from the pensive and reflective season of Advent, I find the carols continue to play on my devices. As I begin through this season of Christmas, it is my prayer that I can become a better family member, a better person, a more thoughtful person.
In my piety, and in my understanding of God, it is difficult to not be humbled by the chances we are given daily to make some small difference in the lives of others. I have been profoundly blessed in that most of my life I have been placed in situations where somehow I can make a difference in someone’s day. From waiting tables and serving as a bartender, from being a parish pastor to a college professor, there is always someone who is affected by what I do. I think perhaps it has been a vocational calling to simply make someone else’s life a tiny bit better. It is not about profound or expensive things, it is about simple goodness. As I complete this year, this segment of my life, I am well aware of the profound difficulties in our country and in the world. I am completely conscious of the uncertainty that confronts us as we try to move beyond what this global virus has done. There is little I can do on a big scale to change that situation, but I believe I can do what is necessary to make sure those I love and care for know they matter. That is my commitment as I move into this new year. I am not saddened to despair or overcome by a sense of powerlessness. I believe simple goodness and trying to meet the other where they are is a beginning. Will it always be simple. No, there is little simple in all of this, but I fail to believe all is lost. I will hold on to the love and goodness of this holy season and recommit to my own personal efforts to make the lives of those in my orbit a bit better. To all who have taken the time to read my blog this past year, and there are been more than I could imagine, thank you. May you have a blessed Christmas season. Those friends, who have an Orthodox faith, as you move toward Christmas, I wish you a continued blessed Advent. To all who have other faiths, may your new year, whenever that occurs also be blessed. I leave this version of “Seasons of Love” because of my own work with this incredible show this past year. To all who mourn the passing of one you love, be assured you will never mourn alone.
I wish you all a blessed and successful 2021.
Michael (Dr. Martin)