Hello from my little working table,
I am finishing a sample paper, organizing the next two weeks as well as Winter Term, and still commenting and grading. Welcome to my life in a metaphorical nutshell. And yes, it seems nuttier than usual. As I noted with some, when posting a previous blog in another venue, trying to wrap my head around retirement is more complicated than I thought it would be. Additionally, I’ve been enheartened by the support of my college classmates. One of the things that has most puzzled me is what gives someone a sense of place. As a person who did not venture far from their Iowa town, except for two vacations in all the years of growing up, once I began to travel, it seems it has never stopped. There is always a double-edged consequence of most anything, and undoubtedly, all of my travel has changed my perception of the world and of people, but the most significant consequence is my understanding (or maybe my confusion) about myself. Of course, my first significant travel or trip was to MCRD in San Diego, California to Marine Corps Boot Camp. For anyone who is a Marine, be it Parris Island or San Diego, that first night as a recruit is life-altering. Returning to NW Iowa was a shock to me, even though it was home, I was not the same person. Then as a sophomore in college, a trip to Europe for an interim changed my life. I did not know it at the time, but that literal walk through a history book, from the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican, the Olympic track in München or wading through the snow in Garmisch, which would eventually lead to my own excursion on my own, I would never be the same person. Spending time with a German exchange student’s family in Bergisch Gladbach where I learned more German in two weeks than two years and eventually finding my way back to my group before returning to the States create a fire, a desire of wanderlust that has never been extinguished. I think it might be a bit less intense than the 20 year old ready to try anything, and that might surprise some of you, but I think I wish I was a much more culturally prepared person today than I was then.
There was a 20 year period where I did not really leave the country, but the desire was always present. Now for the last decade, the quest to learn, to understand, to experience has been on a sort of auto-pilot regularity that is even a bit shocking to me. As I write this from another country, plans are being made to visit yet a couple more. I have noted this before, but I believe the best money one can spend after education is through travel, which I refer to as a cultural education. I remember the first time I asked students to define culture. I think I was a graduate student teaching composition for the first time. Dr. Diana George, one of the most amazing composition scholars I have ever met taught me so much about teaching first year writing. Between the sort of triumvirate of amazing women scholar of Elizabeth Flynn, Marilyn Cooper, and Diana George, I had no idea at the time how blessed I was to be in their classes. To this day I give them credit for my ability to teach first year writing. I continue to evolve, but unlike many of my colleagues who see FYW as a sort of pedagogical hazing of being an English professor, I love teaching it. And it is because of the things I learned from the trio above and the rhetorical foundation I have in everything I do.
Understanding one’s self is essential if one is to be successful as a student, as a professional, or even as a basic human being. I am not sure I understood that until the last few years. I think that is perhaps one of the positive things that came out of COVID for me. The isolation and the requirement to work remotely forced me to think much more deeply about what I did, but as importantly why I did it. Perhaps it was the time where all the elements of my life really came into focus and I have finally both been able to understand and accept the person I am, the strengths and weaknesses I have. I remember once telling my mentor the most important thing I had learned at one point was to be comfortable with my weaknesses. I wish that were a consistent thing, but we are such fragile people. Fragility is the great humbling reality of each of us. Fragility comes in many shapes and appears for a multitude of reasons, but I have been pondering what emotions fragility evoke. Fear is perhaps the most significant one, at least for me. It makes me wonder when is the time in our lives that we would hope to be most secure? Is there a time? Is fragility affected by our solitude, in our singleness? It seems that might be the case.
I was telling someone just yesterday that I feel more and more like the elderly uncle that was born in the last years of the 19th century. I have written about him at times in this blog. He became a widower in 1960 or so, and he lived for another 30 years. He was the person that was always invited, our perpetual Sunday dinner guest, a curmudgeon if there ever was one, and yet a complexly brilliant and caring person. I think I will be that person who is invited because someone feels sorry for me. Not that I do not have things to offer, but rather it is that people do care enough to want to include me. Here is another element of that . . . I have been told more than once, I am difficult to buy things for, that I have everything. I guess there is some truth. It is not that I have everything, it is just I do not have a specific need for anything significant. I am blessed in that way. When it comes to my Uncle Clare, even though he stayed at home most of the time, I am not sure he left our hometown much in the last 10-15 years of his life, he was rather legendary because of his exterior brusk nature. He was not adverse to using whatever words came to mind, and his gruffness did much to hide is actually kind heart. Sometimes, I think I might have more of him in me than I want to admit.
I sometimes wonder who people say I am, and there are times I might even worry about it. And yet that worry is a different worry then earlier in my life. As a boy growing up, and I am sure this is a consequence of my own home, I desperately needed people to like me. I still fall into that trap occasionally, but not to the degree I once did. It reminds me of my telling someone that no one could make them happy, it was a task they must do on their own. It is much the same way. If I do not like myself, how could I expect others to like the real person. There does seem to be a connective theme through my last blogs: some serious self-reflection and trying to come to terms with the person I am. That forces the question of who do people say I am? But as importantly, who do I say or think I am? What I realized for many years, was pretty simple. Various parts of my life did not seem to be chronologically aligned. In some ways I certainly felt my natural age. In other places I feel stunted or like somehow I was behind. And then again, there were other places I felt like I had been forced to be something I was not yet meant to be (at least in terms feeling even more ancient than I perhaps am, even now). What I now realize most times is something more comfortable. I feel like I am pretty much all in the same place. I feel like somehow the stars have aligned and there is a reasonably connectedness to the various elements of my existence. Somehow it seems sad that it took me until my latter 60s to get there. And that is perhaps why I am pondering it all. Is it perhaps more the way it is supposed to be. Is it that where I am now is where I should be . . . ready to close a chapter, or perhaps much more like a section, and begin a new section and create new chapters? It is that all of this is a foundation for what is to come?
Who am I as a professional? That part seems easy for the most part. Who am I as a person within a larger community? I think I have that part figured out too. Perhaps I have been most consistent there. My Great-Aunt Helen noted in my thirties that even as a two year old I was happy and I wanted other people to be happy. I think the latter part of that statement is still profoundly accurate. I wish happiness for other people. I can specifically think of two or three people that what I wish for them is a sense of peace and happiness. Additionally, I have noted that the time when I was 2-3 years old where happy times for me. I felt safe and loved. I am not sure I have been able to consistently feel that for any prolonged period since. That does not mean I have been perpetually sad or melancholy, but melancholy is a word that has been used to describe me more often than not. And yet there is that individual me . . . I am self-critical to the point that I wonder if I can ever measure up. I have noted from time to time that I know I no longer have to live up to the impossible standards I felt most of my elementary and adolescent years. I know that I no longer have to prove my worth to a person in whom there was no possibility of being worthy enough, so one is forces to ask from where do those standards come at this point? They must come from me, and that is a frightening thing. As I have noted more than once, the words of my incredible professor, Dr. John W. Nielsen come harkening back, “Michael, your theology of grace works fine for everyone but yourself. That is a problem . . . and it is serious. I know that, and I even understand it theologically, so what prevents that incredible grace to roll over me like the river of justice as noted in Amos 5:24. What makes me worthy of grace? As I noted in a recent blog, the answer is nothing makes me worthy. There are times I have found myself relating to both Luther and Bonhoeffer, two people I admire beyond words. One I studied in college and seminary, and the latter I would eventually write a dissertation on. More time has gone by once again, and weeks have passed. Time to post.
The other night I watched the movie Agent of Grace, the movie about Bonhoeffer and as he walked up to the platform to be hanged, I cried. The movie poignantly used his words that looked at his ethics, his understanding of discipleship, and his view and hope for the church. He was revolutionary in so many ways. It is something I find myself needing to return to. While in Tegel Prison, before he was implicated in the plot, he found himself being a pastor to those imprisoned with him. In his poem, “Who am I?” he wrote.
Who Am I?
Who am I? They often tell me,
I come out of my cell
Calmly, cheerfully, resolutely,
Like a lord from his palace.
Who am I? They often tell me,
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me,
I carried the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one who is used to winning.
Am I really then what others say of me?
Or am I only what I know of myself?
Restless, melancholic, and ill, like a caged bird,
Struggling for breath, as if hands clasped my throat,
Hungry for colors, for flowers, for the songs of birds,
Thirsty for friendly words and human kindness,
Shaking with anger at fate and at the smallest sickness,
Trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Tired and empty at praying, at thinking, at doing,
Drained and ready to say goodbye to it all.
Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today and another tomorrow?
Am I both at once? In front of others, a hypocrite,
And to myself a contemptible, fretting weakling?
Or is something still in me like a battered army,
running in disorder from a victory already achieved?
Who am I? These lonely questions mock me.
Whoever I am, You know me, I am yours, O God.
This poem speaks to me on so many levels. What I know is whatever I am it is a gift from God and when I am less, it is me failing to use the gifts I have been given. There is so much to realize and learn from our experiences and our world. And yet in this season of Advent, this last week before Christmas arrives, I am asked once again to prepare. Prepare for what? I sometimes ask. What can I do differently to be a better steward of the gifts I have been given. I think the answer to the question of who is this: I am becoming . . . I am always in the process of becoming. And so I can only ask as the haunting carol does “O come O come Emmanuel.”
I wish you each a blessed Advent as we await the coming once again as a daily sort of renewal and with a promise of hopefulness.
Thank you as always for reading.