Hello from the One Acre to Many Acres,
As our lives inch their way back toward some sense of interactive process, I find myself questioning so many things I took for granted: teaching in a classroom, walking down the street and greeting entire faces, being next to someone at a distance of less than six feet in any space, seeing a cashier without plexiglass in front of them. What will our daily routines consist of as we move toward some sort of post-isolation existence. While there are places I have grown to feel more benefits than detriments during COVID-19, I also realize there are some places I was initially content in my isolation, I evolved in those opinions over the last 16 months. Isolation when desired is one thing, when it is required, it is something quite different. It seems I fluctuated in my degree of tolerance based on things that were most often outside of my control, which, of course, is not the best way to manage anything. However, I imagine I was not unique in that difficulty. This morning, I was out and ran into a former student and it was really quite wonderful to catch up and chat with them. I think the last few weeks have reminded me of some of the difficulties all of us have faced in this time. From family and friends to students and colleagues, the consequence of isolation and the requirement of managing our lives within our protective bubbles (the necessity of social distancing) has been arduous.
In a couple of weeks, I am going to take a bit of a trip, traveling on my own, but doing a bit of a take-two of a trip two years ago. However, this time I am connecting with family that I have not seen in almost 4 decades. That is a really difficult admission, particularly when they were so important to my childhood. There are another group of cousins I will catch up with later in that trip also. I was the youngest among the one family and a bit older than the other, but so much of life has gone by in the meanwhile. In my conversations, not surprisingly, we have all changed and life has thrown things our way that we could not have anticipated. What I find myself trying to discover is how the person I remember is still in there. The most endearing qualities are often their personality, their kindness, their foundational goodness as a person, and without exception it is there. Those traits are what binds us together. It is the thing that keeps some sense of identity, that continuous thread connecting us to our past.
Life as well as all the clichés that we attach to it is more profound, indeterminate, and yet simultaneously predictable, if we will take the time to examine it. And even when we do, it is difficult at best to understand the path it seems to take. If you seem confused that I seem to be arguing both sides at the same time, you are not confused at all. However, it is not life’s episodic nature that makes it so laborious or burdensome, so strenuous or incalculable. I believe it is our inability or unwillingness to examine ourselves and our choices in that journey. We are too often willing to play victim to our own decisions. We willingly blame the other for what happens. Our incredible propensity for pointing our fingers has seemed to multiply over the past two decades. My somewhat arbitrary date is an entirely different post, but suffice it to say I do believe our blaming actions have become more common and more problematic. This morning, in conversation with a local business owner, we lamented some issues, and then the conversation moved into the reality that businesses cannot even hire people right now. There is a new eating establishment ready to open and they cannot because they cannot hire enough people. What’s up with that?
This gets us back to the move from isolation to normalcy. While I do believe people need help, I am not okay with people sitting home and not looking for a job merely because they want to do nothing. If we are to get back to some degree of normalcy, we are all dependent on each other to create that new status quo together. What is the new normal? I have no idea, but a simple willingness to be less selfish might be a good beginning. If the past 16 months has revealed anything, at least to me, it is we have an impossibly inequitable world, and that is in every element of it. I struggle more and more with the concept of free market. During the past week, as I am now on the road and visiting relative, I was on Lake Geneva for the first time. I went on the mailboat run with a dear childhood friend. As I listened to the narrative of our hosts on the boat, the opulence, the wealth, and the ostentatious display of money that was around that lake boggles my head. I do not begrudge what those innovators, business people, and others have accomplished because many of those things were part of my everyday life. I can appreciate ingenuity and I am sure there was an incredible amount of hard work that went into their lives, but I struggle when I think about how many people worked for them at minimum wage and eked out a living as they grew wealthier and wealthier. I am reminded of my father working as a journeyman electrician, and for years working 7 days a week and 12 hours a day. Indeed, he made overtime, high-time (for working up in the air), and double-time, but he was never wealthy. And yet I think he believed himself to be successful, much as his son does at this point in his life, but my chances to have multi-millions or a lake house worth millions, where I might spend 3 months a year is not even a pipe dream. When is enough a enough is perhaps what I am asking? When does it become more display than something someone uses or even enjoys? Certainly their understanding of normalcy is a bit different than mine.
And yet, I am well aware of how fortunate I am. I have an incredible job, amazing colleagues and friends, and I am presently reminded of how beautiful my family is yet again. As I watched my cousins and listened to three of them last night, the love and care they have for each other is so apparent, but also so natural, so effortless. Kim, now the matriarch of the family is focused, dedicated, and has a beauty that radiates in all she does. As we walked around their beautiful property with the corn field in the distance, the Icelandic sheep in two pastures, and an bountiful garden (of which I was profoundly jealous, in a loving way), she noted other things in the yard (e.g. trees, native grass and flower garden) each planted in memory of a family member. She is so introspective, appreciative, and insightful. Then the twins asked us to join them to kayak and paddle-board a stretch of the Upper Iowa River. In the spirit of transparency, I had never been in a kayak, and I managed to roll it. Fortunately, it was not a deep spot and besides a scrap on my knee and getting a bit wet, no issues. However we transferred to a paddle board, which was a bit more stable and the rest of the paddle went without incident. What a wonderful evening! One of the most relaxing even though I was exercising for over two hours. Later today, Mary, the second youngest of the amazing sisters will be joining us. I am excited to meet her again. We are missing one for the visit. Martha, with appropriate caution, has decided to not travel, which is a reminder we are not quite back to normal. She is missed that is for sure. As I drove across the Wisconsin/Iowa border, there was a sense of serenity I have not felt in some time. I was going back to one of the things that offered normalcy. I was leaving the isolation from family that I am probably most responsible for creating. I am not sure that creation was a conscious thing, but it happened. That is something to ponder. As I look out of my Air BnB, quaintly dubbed as Acorn Cabin, I look out at a small pasture that is filling now with sheep. They are out for their morning graze and there are three little ones that are quite adorable. There is a cleanness to all of this. There is a reminder of my childhood and the state in which I grew up and began to form the person I am today. There is only a minuscule possibility that I could have expected where I am today from when I was that young boy in Iowa. Perhaps I should have my mathematics friend/colleague help me try to figure out that possibility. It is ironic that he actually interviewed here at Luther before he took the job at Bloomsburg. It is also ironic that Don, the father of these amazing cousins, was the head of that department at one point.
During the past month, like so many, we have poked out headed out of our Tortuga shells, trying to imagine like post pandemic. This trip is a move from isolation to normalcy on numerous levels. I have come home to the state I lived in from 2-18. And while I have been back at other times, this times seems different. It feels like I have realized the need to reconnect with what I knew so long ago. I have isolated myself from that past perhaps more than necessary. I have resuscitated a part of my life that seemed lifeless . . . I am not sure how I will feel at the end of the trip, but I know, perhaps, this rehabilitation of my childhood is essential for me to put all the pieces of who I am into some connective line.
My mind is filled with thoughts and conjecture and my heart is filled with gratitude for the ability to get back to an early sense of normalcy . . . spending time with a set of cousins, whose memories are all about happiness and joy. Last night was a wonderful reminder of the love and care they exude in all they do. I think I will remain for a few more days and soak it up with every pore of my being. I hope for all of you who read this, you are also finding an ability to move out from your isolation. May we all find some normalcy that brings us peace and comfort.
The past two days (even though it took me a month to get this posted) have been an incredible memory-provoking time. I am missing those who are not among us any longer. I hope they are watching us and realize how much we still love them too. I hope when they saw us yesterday reminiscing about our earlier lives they saw how much they are still here for us. There is so much that makes us who we are. Perhaps there is no isolation if we look beyond it. Perhaps it is just life and that is normal.
Thanks as always for reading.
Michael (the cousin, the brother, the son, the nephew)