Being Thankful

Hello from my kitchen in the morning,

Hard to believe it is already Wednesday of our break. Harder to believe it is almost the end of November; and perhaps hardest of all to come to terms with we are finishing the second decade of a new millennium. I was speaking with Al, the person in charge of technology for my department (and building) and reminiscing over our experiences of Y2K. This morning I am realizing that the great majority of my freshmen did not live in the 20th century. Yikes!

As I sit in my kitchen, breakfast pretty well prepared, I am waiting for a 17 year old to manage to get up. In spite of the fact, we agreed on a 9:30 breakfast, he does not like to get out of bed, so I am being productive and working on this blog. Thanksgiving, being the latest day of the calendar it can occur, seems to usher in both Advent and the holiday season this year. It also brings back all those memories of holidays gone by, and causes me to ponder how differently I might understand the holidays and their significance at this point in my life. As a child, it marked a school vacation and Black Friday shopping. My parents put money away every paycheck to help have money for the Christmas tradition of buying presents. They never owned a shopping credit card. My father had one gas credit card, and that was it. Thanksgiving was an incredible meal, especially if we make the trek “over the river” (there were no woods) and went to my grandmother’s, sister’s house. I have noted on many occasions how those two were the most fabulous cooks.

While I have often lamented some elements of my being raised as an adopted child, perhaps the occasion of this Thanksgiving is a time to consider the fortune of being raised in the Martin household. As I realize now (and that is not a first time realization), I think there were different hopes from the two people who had a adopted a first child and then a pair (being my sister and me). In the late 1950s, having children and being a family was part of being successful and living the American dream. As I look at my parents, I am not sure parenting was appreciated equally or was the desire to be a parent on the same plane. Regardless, knowing all the things I know, I believe I was overall fortunate. I was speaking with my sister-in-law recently and she noted that my older brother and she considering adopting us (as a second adoption) to get us away from some of the struggles we had endured. Though I am sure if that attempt had been made it would have been an undoubtedly tense and ugly situation.

In spite the myriad of issues, we still had some relative stability. I had the essential things I needed to be healthy and cared for on the basic levels of food, shelter, and opportunity. I had extra things provided like private music lessons, the chance to participate in a variety of events, and both a good school and church family. I understand and perceive things so differently now. Perhaps most important, I knew that even when I was lacking emotional support at home, I had surrogate parents who gave me a lot. I had a church youth group where I found acceptance. I know now there are things I lacked and it is interesting that I find myself trying to provide that for Anton, even though he is only in my care for a year. Tomorrow that year is already 1/4 complete. Amazing that three months have come and gone. What I know is I have been so blessed by people in my life. Growing up in Riverside, I think of the Sopoci family and their basement recreation room, where I spent many an hour. I think of Sheldon and Janet Reese, who always demonstrated care for me, listened to me and showed me I mattered. Of course, Marge and Jake Goede were like a second family to me. I realize now how much my church youth group did to keep me healthy emotionally. In addition, as I got older and worked at my grandmother’s bakery, I was fortunate to be around a person who loved me deeply and unconditionally. That was the most incredible blessing perhaps ever bestowed. She taught me how to give and to treat others with kindness. She was always willing to go above and beyond in her giving to others. I would like to believe I emulate her to some degree.

As I moved beyond high school, I had so much to learn about the world. To my parents’ credit, and perhaps at times to my detriment, I was not very prepared for the Marine Corps – though you might ask, is that possible – or even life beyond. I would come back trying to figure out who I was, and being blessed by yet another family outside my own. A new pastor had come to Riverside Lutheran. Little did I know how impactful they would be. The eldest was not around, but the next three would be central to my trying to acclimate back to being a civilian. I know now that is much harder than one realizes. Fred, the pastor, became a surrogate father and did more to help me mature than perhaps anyone could have. Ruth, had more of a hate/love relationship with me (and my ’71 Chevelle) than one would hope. She petrified me, and simultaneously caused me to think about who I wanted to or should be. David is still a friend I treasure and Barb found her way deep into my heart beyond anything I had known. She was that first love, and I had no idea how to manage that. Trial and error would be an understatement, but I am thankful to this day. Nancy, the youngest was smart, kind, and did not know what to do with her brother and me together. I will forever be indebted to the Peters family. Even to this day, I realize the integrity of Fred and how blessed I am by him.

I would eventually go from Ames back home and that was a difficult time due to the death of both my brother and my grandmother. Somehow, on a lark, I was blessed again; this time to be offered a chance to travel and work for an organization called Lutheran Youth Encounter. This was also the time I was spending significant time with a 2nd cousin. She was a very good influence on me and again I was blessed by her love and care. The year of travel caused me to do a lot of self-examination, as well as a time to grow, and I enrolled in college. This was a second time, but this time would be different. I wanted (needed) to prove to myself I could be successful. It was the begging of a process that has led me through seminary, to the parish, back to the academy, eventually a PhD, and from Wisconsin back to Pennsylvania.

These previous paragraphs are rather broad strokes, but what is consistent is there have been people every step of the way who cared for me, who cared about me. I did not get here on my own. It has been because of dozens of individuals. Some have moved in and out of my life and I have lost touch or one side of the relationship moved beyond. Some have remained and some have re-emerged. Our lives are an astounding number of threads woven together, sometimes tightly, sometimes with some sense of order, but loosely. Other times, the threads become tangled, snarled, or even frayed. Yet they all matter because they illustrate the complexity of who we are.

As you know by my last blog, a superb teacher, professor, and colleague has passed. I have pondered his passing from a variety of views. He was only four years older than I. To be honest, that disturbs me; it frightens me a bit. On the other hand, he left a profound example of what it means to be here for his students. I hope I can work to carry on some of that in my own teaching in a more successful manner. Last week as we honored him and students spoke about him, I tried to imagine what he might say. I think he might say, “Awe, shucks! Thank you for your words.” And he would leave it at that. Dr. Riley was (and is) another reason to give thanks, both for the time he was with us – also by what he has left us. Before we return to classes, we will have a memorial service. The weather, as can often be the case “when the gales of November come stealin'”, and move us into December, does appear to be an issue. And yet, we will gather to give thanks for a colleague who taught us to never be complacent, to never quit striving to learn and implement new things. As I finish this we are completing a Thanksgiving break. In spite of the craziness in so many places, and inside the Beltway perhaps being the craziest, I find myself wanting to focus on being thankful. There are so many people not mentioned here, but you each matter. Bless each of you for your kindness and the gifts you have shared to make this small, adopted, struggling, boy from Northwest Iowa be able to grow, flourish, and be allowed to live a blessed life.

Thank you as always for reading,

Michael (aka Dr. Martin)

Becoming Norman . . . Pleased or Chagrined?

Hello on the weekend,

It has been an emotional couple weeks, and if you have been reading the blog, you have some sense of why that is, but I think there is more. There are times, and their frequency seems to be increasing at an alarming rate, that I feel like I am simply not as capable as I once was. While that might seem like a normal aging process ~ even if a reasonable explanation ~ I do not like it . . . and more so, I do not have to like it. While the GI tract stuff is a normal part of my life, some of the aches and pains logical, I have been often respected for how well I remember things, and that is where I am struggling. If I do not write it down and then follow it rather explicitly, it seems I am not as apt to remember it. Last week, and regardless the number of classes, committees, or other things, I found myself wandering around the parking lot looking for my car, for more than a half hour. In fact, in the spirit of total transparency, I wandered around two parking lots, and I could not find my car. I eventually remembered I had parked in a third possibility, but that scared me more than I have words.

The concern of some kind of memory loss concerns me more than most might realize. My father, while my adopted father, is a relative. He was a first cousin to my paternal grandmother, so that genetic tree is pretty strong. My father, each of his brothers and the daughter of a brother have all have significant difficulties with either dementia or Alzheimer’s. The number of times I have forgotten where I have placed my keys, my glasses, my phone is a number that would need an exponent. I wonder when it is time to question and if there is a reasonable way to ask about taking a benchmark level memory test. The fact that I have hydration issues, which seem to have negative outcomes for most of my body, might also exacerbate brain health. I remember going home once to check in on my father, after receiving a concerning phone call from my sister. My father was livid that I had come “to spy” on him as he angrily told me at lunch one day. Knowing what I know now because of his experience, as well as the progression of Lydia’s dementia, I have a much clearer understanding of some of the early symptoms, the markers, that might provide some earlier detection. While I certainly do not need another health battle, if I am going to battle something else, I want to take it on headfirst and with everything possible tool in my arsenal managing it the best way I can.

One of my favorite movies, certainly in my top 5, is the Academy Award winning On Golden Pond. It is an incredibly touching story of a retired professor (Henry Fonda) and his wife (Katharine Hepburn) who are spending the summer at their vacation home. They are visited by their daughter (Jane Fonda, who, of course, is the daughter of Henry). The struggle of grown adults managing their parents (as well as perhaps vice versa) and the portrayal of dementia before it was a common word as it is now is superbly done. Henry, as the cantankerous Norman Thayer Jr., is both heart-warming and frightening. I have often said to those who know me best here in Bloomsburg, that I want to be just like Norman when I get to that age. One of my former students actually refers to me as Norman because of this very movie. It is a term of endearment from her. There is hardly a time, and I have watched the movie multiple times, that I am not moved to tears as I watch it.

There are other ways I find myself becoming Norman. I seem to have less patience with absent-mindedness, or simple oblivion characterizing or plaguing some people. When something is forgotten once, I can generally find some graciousness. When it happens again and again, on a weekly (almost daily) basis, I find myself being less than charitable. That bothers me because I feel hypercritical and unfair. One of the things I have struggled with most of my life is boundaries. I know that does not make me unique, but I have a tendency to allow people the benefit of the doubt, and then I allow it again, and then again, and then  . . . you get the idea. Ultimately, I get frustrated. As I have pondered this characteristic, it seems that this time of the year is particularly when I find myself at my wit’s end. I do find some progress being made, even in my current dilemma. I made myself step back and ponder and do some analysis (and that meant working through six months of a checkbook, statements, and other items to make sure I was being fair). In addition, rather than merely hitting someone broadside, I have also stepped back and am working to manage the circumstance thoughtfully and in a way that demonstrates both appreciation for the progress made and help offered, but simultaneously to look at the reality of the situation. Of course, there are always things that seem to be tossed in to make the current state of affairs more contextually complex. Then again, I was once asked by a counselor if I ever did anything the easy way. I think my response, almost 30 years later, would be the same: probably not. There are undoubtedly times I still seem to learn slowly. What I do know is there is a genuinely caring and good heart involved in this situation (and that is on both sides). I also think there are also good intentions (again, on both sides). Part of this is merely seeing a larger picture, and when one has not really had to do that too often, knowing how to do that is not a simple or readily achievable outcome.

I am reminded of the young person who is left with Norman and Ethel for the summer. He is not sure what to do with them and they are not sure how they will manage him. Again, I see parallels. I often wonder what I would have done had I been a parent. I was petrified to do so, mostly because I am not sure I had good role models. I think some of that fear persists. I try to do what I think is best, but sometimes (often) it seems I either enable or I have no ability to allow for mistakes. I know there is a happy medium somewhere in the middle, but I struggle to find it. I think some of my concern about what I feel now is a predicament is because there is a history. There is also experience. Undeniably, that experience, be it over the years or the last months, demonstrates a consistency from both. Again, at the same time there is progress and I have to give credit for that. One of the things I am forced to come to terms with is that I created this dilemma because I allowed it. I cannot blame anyone else for that. Again, the rationale for allowing this goes back to where I usually find myself. Someone needs help and I offer said help. The problem is I do not know how to be consistent in pushing adherence to what I said needed to happen from the outset. The question is why am I willing to allow myself to step back time and time again from what I laid out. It is my inconsistency that creates the problem and I cannot blame the other for my mistake. The anger comes, I imagine, from my realizing that I again engendered the present dilemma. I also enkindled the complications. In the movie, there are ups and downs, and at the end, there is a mutual respect produced. I am praying for something similar. I am not sure it will happen immediately. In fact, if it happens immediately, I will once again find myself believing in miracles. One of the things that most frustrates me are things I find myself doing, particularly when I fall short. Over the last months, I have worked hard to be on time. When I was growing up, I had a father who believed if you were not 15 minutes early, you were late. I am not sure that I am there, but I do try to be a few minutes early whenever possible. That is not always easy when you are dealing with other people’s needs and their schedules, but again, discipline and planning will help. The second thing I am trying to be more intentional about is remembering that I do not live in a vacuum. What I do affects other people. Therefore, my choices do also. That is probably my biggest frustration at this point, be it students or in the house. If you say you are going to be somewhere at a certain time, then just do what you say. If your schedule changes, please let someone know. That is where I have been particularly pained by the actions of others as of late.

I have a ton to get done yet tonight, but it has been a pretty productive weekend. I am always amazed by what can happen when I am frustrated. The energy in that can be channeled into some very positive outcomes. My house is pretty spotless and I got some things cleaned and organized that have been on the back burner for a while. I think there is always a fine line between helping and enabling a person. Being the co-dependent person, and one who was much more so earlier, I still struggle to find that balance between helping and hindering. It is always complicated when there is a history. Again, it reminds me of the movie. In the movie, Jane Fonda, as Chelsea, struggles with the relationship she currently has with her aging father. What I found interesting in my research about the movie is that as real father and daughter they were estranged. This movie brought them together. She, in fact, produced the movie to allow for her father to act in it. As I research things, it is interesting to see how our history and the events that cloud that history affect so much more than we are aware of.

One of the other things I have been forced to consider is how people come into and move out of our lives. In the past, I worried when people moved out of my life. I think now I see the reason for that. I do believe we lose something in their moving on, but at the same time it allows for a refocus of sorts. Perhaps the most important thing for me is learning to let go. That has never been a strength, and what I have done in the past when doing so is to walk away and say little or nothing. That is also a problem because it is more like running away. Again, On Golden Pond comes to mind. In one particular poignant scene (and again a scene where some say this is where the two Fonda family members made amends) the dialog goes something like this:

Chelsea: I don’t want anything; it just seems you and I have been mad at each other for so long.

Norman: I didn’t think we were mad; I just thought we didn’t like each other.

Chelsea: (with tears in her eyes) I want to be your friend.

Norman: This mean you would come around more often? It’d mean a lot to your mother (and you can tell he is struggling as he covers his own eyes)

Chelsea: I’ll come around more often.

Norman: Well . . .

I find this part of the movie particularly difficult because my mother and I never accomplished this sort of absolution in our relationship. I often tell students now when they say they are struggling with their parents, or note they are not speaking, that it is best to try to manage that separation. I have two or three of those situations to which I must attend even now. The question can often be what does one risk in reaching out. I think the more important point is to know how to let things go so that the separation is a reasonable one rather than merely running away. Sometimes those separations happen because people change. Sometimes they happen because locations change. I think one of the things I have been more likely to do is remain in touch. Perhaps that is why I am teased that I know everyone from everywhere. There is both a blessing and a curse to that, as it the case with most things in our lives.

By the end of the movie, the summer has passed and the Thayer’s get ready to leave Golden Pond. Sometimes we fail to comprehend how our lives are interwoven into the fabric of others. Sometimes, the fabric becomes tattered and worn, but that does not make it less valuable or important. Sometimes, we need to hold on to the things that remind us of who were are and from where we come. Other times it is reasonable to look for something new. As most things in life, there is no recipe, and much of what we do is by trial and error. Sometimes I am more like Norman that I perhaps expected to be. Sometimes, I wish I was even more like him. Here is some music from the movie. If you have not had an opportunity to see this amazing show, do yourself a favor. It is worth the time.

Thank you as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

 

Remembering Two Brilliant Siblings and Fifty Years

Good morning from the Acre,

It has been a productive and eventful week, though not always in the way I had planned or expected. We have finished the third week of classes and things are not (nor expected to) slow(ing) down. Students are beginning to settle down and focus a bit better than their initial week’s attentiveness also. This is all par for the course. On the personal front, there is some more work being done on the house and that has been planned for a while, but both managing the pieces and deciding how to proceed always take more time than I ever expect. That is a good lesson for me, however; a reminder that we seldom have control over external factors, and it is best to roll with the proverbial punches. That is the second part of the personal story for the week. This past Tuesday I went to the upper yard to take care of an issue that was a consequence of winter (at the moment, we have no snow). Coming down through the yard to the far end of the wrap-around porch, I found out a bit too late that things were both more slippery and much muddier than I suspected. By the time I realized what was there my feet were above my head and I body slammed myself into the soggy, muddy, cold, but nonetheless, still hard ground. After the obligatory lying in the mud that covered half of me, while I did a mental inventory of what hurt, I determined that except for some embarrassment and what would become aches and pains, I got up and trudged into the house. Fortunately a couple of people were here and I walked straight to the washing machine and threw everything in. A shower and nightshirt later, I was back at it. A bit sore, but doing okay. The remainder of the day was uneventful, but about 5 hours later I realized I was dealing with the bathroom much more frequently than usual (sorry if that creates images you would prefer not to have.). My modified digestive system, which, of course, allows more space in my abdomen than I often remember, seems to have shifted from the fall. Much like a kinked garden hose, it seems my intestine twisted created a blockage. I can assure you, such things are unpleasant. Suffice it to say, it was an intensely painful and excruciatingly uncomfortable next 8 or so hours. I was wiped out enough that I actually took a sick day and stayed in bed all day Wednesday. I slept, got up and drank more fluids, continued by restroom trips and slept more. I did get some soft poached eggs in Wednesday night and Thursday was pretty soft food also. It is now about five days later, and I am still gimping around with a pretty sensitive stomach. All in all, however, we avoided a worse fate, and I am back at the normal daily routine.

Today I awoke thinking about the two siblings with whom I grew up. I note them this way because there are more half-siblings out there, but that is an entirely different storyline, complicated, painful, and rather overwhelming if I really think about it. So most of the time, I choose not to. My older brother, who was about 5 years older than I was an unbelievably talented person. When I was small, I wanted to be just like him. He was mechanical, precise, methodical, patient when you would least expect it, and driven to succeed in ways I could only dream of. He was good at math and science, a phenomenal musician, and would excel at anything he put his mind to doing. I remember as the younger brother admiring most everything he was capable of doing. He was the most amazing model car builder I have ever met. He would analyze every piece, considering how to paint them in advance, how to sand the pieces of any excess plastic so they fit perfectly, and how we had the patience to wait after getting one task done and letting it set before beginning another. He would often build two or three at a time so he could be working on another model as the other was in process and needed to set up. I remember when he worked on waxing our toboggan before we would take it out for the winter. He used Johnson’s Paste Wax and a cloth before he would use the electric drill with a buffer pad on the disc. That toboggan glistened and it was faster than anything on the hill. No matter what he did, he would do it above and beyond what anyone could imagine. The more amazing thing was the rather matter-of-fact demeanor he had as he went about all of these things. He did not seem to believe anything was that extraordinary. As a small boy, I watched with captive interest when he spend time in our basement playing with his Lionel and American Flyer trains. He had a gargantuan train board that was a village with trestles, roads, building, mountains and most anything you could imagine and he would have the trains running in both directions. I could sit and watch him for hours, always hoping he would let me run the controls for even a few minutes. Sometimes, he allowed his pesty little brother to play and I would be the perpetual over the moon for that evening.

The one thing we did do together from time to time was our music. He was a much more famous trombone player than I would ever be as a trumpet/cornet player, eventually inducted with the other members of his band into the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Yet, by the time I was in sixth grade, I was the first trumpet, first chair in a city-wide orchestra in a town of 100,000. I was inspired by my high school brother to try to be as amazing as he was and he both encouraged and supported my hard work. As we spent time in high school band together, it was the one time I began to feel I could make him proud of that little brother. In the time after he left for college, got married, became a father, and eventually an electrician, there were many twists and turns, but he was a profoundly passionate person about anything he did. He would eventually follow our father’s footsteps and work toward becoming an electrician. Then one January afternoon, shortly after lunch, he fell off a ladder at work and would suffer a traumatic brain injury from a fall that did not seem so incredibly terrible. Unfortunately, he hit his head on a sharp corner of something. He would live for an additional five weeks and never come out of the coma. He passed only a few months after his 26th birthday. It was 42 years ago on the day I began this blog. As I consider him how, he graduated from high school 50 years ago this coming June. He was a brilliant student in math and sciences and an astonishing musician, something that gave him great joy. Yet, he was also a father of three young children and the husband to a woman who was as talented as he was. I am blessed to still have his children and his wife in my life as I write this. So much has happened in all of our lives since then, but something remain . . . for me that constant is the admiration I have for the incredibly talented and passionate older brother.

I have noted my sister at other times (and she was, contrary to him, a biological sister). She was fourteen months younger than I, but probably closer to my brother than to me (and I believe the same could be said for him.). I think she too, as noted in an earlier blog, was intelligent beyond words or measure, but she struggled mightily with how to manage that ability. She too was musical. She had a very lovely voice, an alto, and she was a talented piano player. She could sit down and with a bit of practice play most anything her teacher gave her to play. As I think back, I am not sure what she really enjoyed about school in terms of academic interest. She could do most anything, but she needed to be convinced by herself that it was worth her effort, and that was regardless the subject. When we were in elementary school she was in hot water at least one or twice a year when grades would arrive because there was something she had not done. This was both to her consternation and to the exponentially higher level of my parents. In fact, twice rather than to deal with our mother’s wrath for poor grades, she ran away. That raised a different issue about the two of us, who were siblings. She always had an deep-seated need to find our biological parents, something I really never experienced. That issue would affect her for the remainder of her life in various ways. The other thing that I believe vexed my sister was her sexuality. She came out to her immediate family by the end of the 1970s, which was long before this was considered a typical process in anywhere. As a person who had twice been awarded the Outstanding Soldier of her base, being a lesbian in the service was not something acceptable. Her way of managing that dilemma was to leave active service. The consequence of that decision had more far-reaching effect that I believe she had ever anticipated. It was not something we understood either.

What I know now was my sister was bipolar (I also understood this while she was alive) and this would eventually cause her to be placed on SSD. I helped her at that point. However, I believe both the issue of sexuality and mental health were something she had faced even in her middle school and high school years, but at that point our society was neither prepared or willing to be able to help anyone facing such dilemmas. Those issues kept her from reaching her potential because she was consumed fighting battles to merely exist and try to be herself. She was a phenomenal artist as well as a creative spirit that went beyond what most could comprehend. In spite of her struggles at 39 she made the decision to become a mother. While I did not know this was part of her thinking or conversations, I remember the phone call and conversation when she called me that April morning in 1995, telling me I was to become an uncle. Kris had an incredibly loving heart that merely wanted to love and be loved. Most of her life she battled this need because of her choice in whom she was attracted to, but I think more profoundly, if affected her ability to feel loved, particularly by her own family. This is not a unique things for those who identify as LGBTQA, but identifying as outside the heterosexual norm as early as the 1970s was even more significant. What I know as she continued her life, her becoming a mother was the thing she was most proud of. I think she wanted for her daughter the possibilities she never was given the change to experience: things as simple as love, acceptance, the ability to become whomever you felt compelled to be, and a child who knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that her mother loved her. All things she had lacked growing up.

The thing that also made Kris’s life more difficult was she seldom took the easy path to accomplish anything. I have noted from time to time that she did not do the different drummer path, but created her own band path. I think she would actually be proud of that characterization. Her rebellion against any force that tried to corral her would characterize the rest of her life. Unfortunately, one of those habits, the addiction to nicotine, would become her undoing. When she passed away at the age of 51, she had smoked two-packs plus of cigarettes for years. An autopsy revealed she had already suffered a previous heart attack. In addition, she had chronic COPD and severe artherial sclerosis. All of those factors would lead to her being found dead on an early April morning. She was a beautiful woman who had a perceptive ability to empathize beyond any level most could understand. She was intelligent, reflective and capable also beyond measure. She was artistic and a strong writer. I wish she could have realized all her gifts and how she had so many more gifts that most ever knew.

In the case of both the siblings I was fortunate enough to call my brother and sister, they were lost before their time. There are times I try to understand why I am the one still here. There are times I feel guilty for the way I have been blessed to be able to live my life and have opportunities beyond anything I have ever earned. I have often said, and believe with most every fiber of my being, they were the more talented of the three of us. I was merely fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. Before you think I am fishing for something, I am not. I do not believe I am incapable. I do not believe that I have not worked hard. What I do believe is I wish they had an opportunity to live longer than they did. I wonder what they would think. I wonder what it would be like for us to be in our 60s and reminisce about a life that had made it through six decades? I wonder what we would like about our lives and how we would relate to each other at this point. Would I be the sort of outsider of the three? I think I was always the sort of anomaly, but how would that all work out? What I know on this week of a passing anniversary is that I miss them both. It is a bit lonely at times. I know that the relationships I still have with the children of my siblings (some closer than others) is an important part of my life even though I am still away and alone. It remembers me that there is something more to my life and that I did have two wonderfully talented and brilliant siblings.

After all I wonder how it all works from time to time and I realize I have no answers. As I worked on this blog posting I listened to the music of the phenomenal and troubled artist, Whitney Houston. She was such a talented vocalist. She reminded me of both Bob and Kris, and I leave this video of hers for you to ponder. It is not the most known of her incredible repertoire, but it seems appropriate as a sort of inclusio.

Thank you always for reading.

Dr. Martin (the other sibling)

When Times Were Simpler . . .

Hello on a bitterly cold night,

As I lie here in my warm bed and my house is heated to a comfortable temperature, it is impossible for me to get the news headlines and stories out of my consciousness of people throughout the country who stand a real chance of freezing to death because they have no where to go to stay out of the cold. Then there are those who are indoors, but perhaps have little insulation and even less money for heat. The university has closed tomorrow because of the cold, requiring only essential workers to show up, keeping heat and other essential services available as students are still on campus and buildings and such need to be heated. As I crawled into bed I could hear the wind and I could actually feel the cold in the walls of my house (welcome to an old farm house). I have certainly done things to the house to manage some of that 1905 plaster and draftiness, but there are still issues. I have felt like it I was transported back to Wisconsin, Minnesota, or some of the previous climes in which you needed appropriate clothing and a hearty breakfast before heading out. Yes, it seemed that even though I survived that sort of cold, it was not nearly as dangerous, and I did not read headlines like I did this morning that a University of Iowa student died in that cold. Those things hit close to home for me. I was a student there and I have a great niece who attends there now. It is not some far away place (well it is in terms of distance at the moment), but it is a place I have walked around, a place I know all so well. News stories note the air temperature in Iowa City was about -21 at the time the student was found and the wind chill was -55. What a tragic ending for a student, a family and a community. I remember frost on the insides of windows when I was in the Upper Peninsula. I remember playing in the snow when it was very cold, or at least it seemed cold. Was it that I did not understand the complexity of that cold as a small boy? I remember driving across South Dakota and Minnesota in whiteout conditions and being a passenger in car on Eastbound I90 when the driver of the car slammed into the back of another car that just plain stopped in the lane of traffic because of visibility. Maybe it was I felt more invincible then. Maybe I have gotten a wee bit wiser in my older age.

Yesterday as I sat in my office, at one moment I looked out the window and it was cold and windy, but bright and beautiful. In less than five minutes it was snowing so hard and the wind was blowing just as hard and I could barely see outside the window. It was a crazy day and as I had to walk across campus, depending on the direction, there were certainly some marked changes in how difficult and painful that walk was. I remember cold and wind again as a child, growing up in the upper Midwest, we know about negative temperatures and wind chills. Some of the places I have lived since have somewhat typical wind chills of -35, which on a January morning is not uncommon. Where I went to graduate school, the average winter snowfall is 270 inches or so, or about 9 meters. That is serious snow blowing and shoveling, and to prove, perhaps for once and all that I am abnormal, I rather enjoyed all that snow. In fact, I just Facebook messaged someone about how I missed it as I looked at their pictures. Even as a 40 something, being out with the snow blower on winter mornings in Laurium, Michigan with Don, the retired school superintendent, and Mack, my media mogul neighbor, was like three little boys cavorting, while building snow forts. As soon as the sun was up, we were at it. It was simple and clean (though a bit noisy, and perhaps not as clean as I would like with our gas powered engines.). . .  the end of the week got to me with business and an office that had a ceiling leak and now no heat, so things were not simpler on the first floor of Bakeless. So, it is early on Monday morning and we are into February already. I want to try to finish this before I leave for an almost insufferably long day. It is my normal Monday (and that is for most semesters). A three hour Monday night course makes for a long day, particularly when I am usually awake before 6:00 a.m..

We are already into the beginning of the third week of the semester, and it does not get simpler for either professors or students about this time. We are trying to get students to perk up and engage and many of them are still in holiday break mode, sometimes sort of sleepwalking through their first few classes, hoping against all hope that they will not miss anything. There are a couple of things that contribute to that in terms of schedule also. Since we do not begin classes until Tuesday, the MWF classes miss a class in the first week and the shortened week makes it easier for students, and sometime professors, to buy into the so-called “syllabus week.” My students are not so fortunate, but I have found that while I enjoy teaching the winter term, the finishing of that class, while simultaneously beginning the spring semester is a bit brutal. I think that is where the simple got lost in childhood. As small children, and even as what they now call middle school, we have a rather Pollyanna-ish understanding of time. We have so much time on our hands, there is little that demands attention, and there is always tomorrow. Procrastination is instilled because there is little consequence for waiting or taking things a day at a time. In fact, we are generally encouraged to not be in a rush. Don’t grow up too soon. Allow yourself to relax, you have the rest of your life to work. Now before you get to upset, believing I am all about child labor, that is not what I am espousing. Where is the happy medium for teaching the value of time and still allowing someone to be their age? I think it probably varies from person to person (of course, says the man who has never had children).  I have noted at other times in my blog that my favorite and happiest times when I was a child were at my grandmother’s home. Perhaps it was because she made things simple . . .  not unrealistic, however. She was up early every morning to get ready to go to the bakery. Even when we stayed with her, she made us breakfast, which is today still my comfort food (two soft poached eggs, a piece of toast, and a half of grapefruit), and we were out of the little house on Harrison Street before the sun was up. She would stop at two grocery stores on the way to the bakery in the morning, both to front things (straighten her sections where the bakery items were sold), and to take inventory for that day’s anticipated orders. In addition, we would be at the bakery until almost 6:00 p.m. at night as she would sit at her office desk and work on the business aspect of being a bakery owner. We seldom got home before dark and the reverse of the morning would happen on the way home. We would, again, stop at the same two grocery stores to manage her inventory. As I grew, got my drivers license, and did delivery for her, I would do much of this on my own. So really, there was nothing simple about owning your own business, but her cheerful attitude and the inexhaustible storehouse of love she had and exhibited for my sister and me sure made it seem simple.

What amazes me as I write this is the profound change I have witnessed in my life. That is not unique to my generation and what has happened to the generations before me. Certainly the industrial revolution had 20th century consequences that were beyond the imagination, but as we continue with the technological revolution, which I believe we are still merely beginning to understand (e.g. AI or VR), I cannot even fathom what my students will experience in their lifetimes. About two weeks ago, the mother of my sandbox buddy, as we have often called other, lost her mother. She was 103 years old. That is an amazing age. She was born in the middle of WWI. She graduated from high school in the middle of the Great Depression. She has daughters who are now retired themselves. In the century of her life, she witnessed incredible change. However, did all we have done and created to make our lives more convenient make them simpler? I am not so sure it has. We certainly have gadgets to make our lives more convenient. I can tell my phone to turn lights off and on and even set them to a certain percentage of brightness. I have someone ring my door bell and tell who they are because I can see their picture. I can connect my computer to my other computer and my phone or my television. I can turn on speakers in my house to manage sound and music that comes from my phone or computer . . . and the list goes on. No, I have not gotten an automatic vacuum cleaner or a robotic maid (yet), but one never knows. The fact that I have only recently finally updated my phone was surprising to some and even though I call my residence the technologically savvy farmhouse, I still enjoy being away from it all at times. Those who know me are painfully aware that sometimes I leave my technology at home or in the office or in the car. Those who know me are sometime excruciatingly exasperated when I fail to get back to them in a timely manner because we are to be connected 24/7. Then there are other times when I am grading and commenting at 3:00 a.m. So is it all simpler. I think the jury is still out, but it is not looking good. We certainly have more access than ever. We can find out most anything by our handheld futuristic Alexander Bell devices. We are more connected to the world in which we live than my friend’s mother could have ever anticipated as a girl. Simultaneously, we are more isolated. Instead of speaking with someone in an interpersonal manner, we will text them. Instead of calling someone to come over, we will snap them or FB them, or Instagram them.

This past week I had a student come to me noting that they were surprised to be on academic probation. They had a difficult first semester to put it rather mildly. When I asked about their situation at some point I asked, do you have friends here? They answered, “No, I have no friends: I am alone.” I do not think they were being hyperbolic and that answer cut me to the core. No wonder they are struggling to do well if they are completely alone in the middle of 10,000 other people. No wonder they cannot succeed academically if they go back to their room and shut the door and stay in their room overwhelmed and all alone. There is much more I could say, but I need to be careful to not reveal too much, but this student is not unique. What have we created societally in causing students to believe the only way to succeed is to excel in college, and only if you are willing to spend 100K on something that guarantees nothing can you find happiness and success. That is ridiculous, but we have surely drank that Kool-Aid. And I say this as the college professor. That does not make life simpler. So, what are the answers to a simpler life? I think it is not simple, but I know that the time in my life that was most simple was when I knew I was loved and that someone had my back no matter what. Now, six decades later, I do not think the answer is much different. Perhaps I wish I realized that so much earlier. With that, I leave you this song. Those of you who know me well, know I have a sort of melancholy side to me, in spite of my general optimism. I leave you with this, one of my favorite songs.

As always, thank you for reading,

Dr. Martin

Life Marches By

Hello from my office,

It is a bit after 9:00 p.m. and I have spent about 20 hours or more the last two days working on my Winter Term online Technical Writing course. It is amazing what we have available in terms of technology and how we can reach out, from either direction. It is so much more manageable now from when I first taught those online classes at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. While some things remain the same (and it is not the song), certainly technology has made bridging the gap that exists from the missing of regular lecture much more possible. I remember teaching classes from Sturgis and from California, and while I made them work, there was an intentionality demanded of everyone involved. Some of that exists still, but the ability to do things because of apps, software, bandwidth, and other options in a Course Delivery Tool, or Smartphones is exponentially ahead of where I was a decade ago. I remember when I was interviewing at Stout being asked if I had taught online. My answer then was “no,” and it became sort of basic fare there, when I arrived at Bloom, that was not the case. However, it is just now beginning to take off here like what I experienced in Menomonie. One of the things that does remain the same is the amount of upfront work that is necessary if you are going to do more than merely take a traditional class and throw some technology at it.

I had great intentions of finishing this in a day, but that did not quite happen. It is now Christmas Eve day. It has been an unpredictable week; between unexpected house guests to working on class, from shopping to organizing things for next week, it seems my days have been packed beyond anything I had planned for. A very different experience from either 20 years ago or three years ago. The idea that life passes us by, or certainly keeps marching on, whether we choose to be part of it or not, has become increasing apparent to me. I remember sitting in Lydia’s room three years ago keeping watch over her as the last days of her life were becoming more and more apparent. That Christmas Eve afternoon, as she lapsed in and out of some sort of consciousness, she began to point at the corner of her room and speak in Polish. I asked her if George was there and she shook her head yes. She understood my question; I followed up with another question, “Are you ready to go home?” She looked at me and quite emphatically shook her head no. She would live beyond the time I had to spend with her. In fact, I prayed on New Year’s Eve Day, while in Krakow, Poland, George’s homeland, that George might convince her it was okay to let go. She passed on New Year’s Day. Twenty years ago my father was quickly losing his battle to cancer. He would pass away on the 28th of December, which was barely more than a month after he had been diagnosed with cancer. I remember having three church services to officiate and preach that day. The prayers were brutal and while I had held it together during the morning service up that point, I could maintain no longer. My voice wavered as I began to tremble and I could not hold back my tears. I remember the congregation being so understanding and supportive that day.

As I am now on Christmas Day, I have come to my office to do some much needed work for both my Winter Term class and to get as squared away as possible. Last night was a long night again. I have managed to get a double ear infection and my left ear would not quit draining the entire night. It did it significant job on my stomach and I am struggling more than I certainly wish I was. In addition, the flu shot seems to have done more to my stomach than I have ever had before. I am wondering if it is a combination of the shot, the infection and 1750 mg a day of an antibiotic. I was invited to Christmas dinner, but had to decline. I did spend the morning at the Decker’s house. It is so fun to watch Caroline and Rosie; they were so excited to see things and to share their experience. I love watching Max and Mary, who are not only siblings, but good friends. They cooked the most amazing dinner for us last night. It was fabulous. What was more outstanding was their excitement in doing it. It again reminded me of what can happen when two people care about the other and are willing to cooperate and work. There seems to be so little of that in today’s world. Our selfish and self-indulgent behavior, which is modeled at all levels of our country and world, make even the most small, but kind gestures seem almost miraculous.

That is what brings me back to my favorite Christmas memories. It is simple. On Christmas morning, we loaded the car with the presents that needed to be taken to Grandma’s house and it was the beginning of a most wonderful day. My grandmother was a loving and giving person, more so than anyone I have ever met. She never seemed to give with an agenda. She gave and shared what she had out of the profound love that seemed to be instilled in every pore of her being. Walking into her simple and humble house on Christmas Day was like walking into a fairy tale. The aromas from the Christmas dinner, the smell of all the freshly baked breads, rolls, and pies (she owned a bakery) were what greeted your nose as you walked into her house. What greeted our eyes were her smile and opened arms happy that we were there for Christmas. As we carried in our gifts and our dinner offerings, there were hugs, kisses, and a feeling of warmth and joy I have seldom felt since. When we made it through the dining room that had a table and buffet that had more food than anyone could ever imagine, we would walk into the front room that was the width of the house. At the far end, always, there was the most wonderfully decorated tree and more presents and gifts than one could fathom. We would add our wrapped packages to the menagerie of presents and soon dinner would begin. We sat in our same seats generally and aunts, uncles, and cousins were there to complete the day. My grandmother and her elder sister, my (great) Aunt Helen used their South Dakota farm background to cook a meal that was unequalled to this day. There was everything you could imagine for Christmas dinner, and it was prepared to perfection. It was not flashy, it was just plain, but it set the standard for me and the rest of my days.

After dinner, my older brother, who played an amazing trombone, my younger sister, who was the vocalist, and me, a pretty decent trumpet/cornet player would do a short Christmas program where we handed out small Christmas song books and we would do a sing along where my brother and I created the music and everyone else sang. It was a sort of yearly Christmas gift back to those there for the day. The picture for this blog is that song book. As we aged and became more accomplished musicians, I think we actually felt really good about what we offered for the Christmas Day festivities. I think as I look back that we felt it was our gift to our family and beyond. I am glad to think about that. As I am typing this, I am listening to George Winston version of “The Velveteen Rabbit,” narrated by Meryl Streep. It is one of my favorite pieces; you might one to find it on YouTube. What does it mean to be real in today’s world? In the story, it is about being loved. I think that is really the message of not only Christmas, but of life. What does it mean to be real? What does it mean to be truly loved? What does it mean to be a little child? I think we need to hold on the that little child with all our might. Over these last days I have watched someone who has lost that childhood and so much more. Knowing them since they were a child, it has been difficult to watch and try to help. It has been incredibly painful to see the hurt in all of them.

It is amazing what seems so insignificant at the moment can have such profound effects on us. I have always realized that in my own background (and many of my previous blog posts address this) how some of those events still affect me and how I understand both the world and myself. What I have learned is that we always have an option. We can continued to be victimized by our past or we can learn from it. I have worked hard to do the latter. Yet, the question persists, do we ever get beyond those things? It is sort of like our ability to forgive. We are imperfect. I think our best example of forgiveness is when we no longer let the past events control our reactions to that person. That is not an easy thing to accomplish, but it is incredibly important. When we hold on to those past hurts, those difficult events, we are held back from living our lives in a healthy productive manner. I know this because of my own background. It took me literally decades to get beyond some of it. So much wasted time on hurt, sadness, and being bitter. In my last blog I noted some who have hurt me and how it is difficult to get beyond some of that, but I need to do so. To hold on is hurtful and it serves no good purpose, but to make me sad. In fact, I made myself send them a Christmas greeting because all the positive things they did more than outweigh the issue at hand. Grudges can decimate our spirit and our sense of hope. That is what I have witnessed first hand too many times during these past days. People I love deeply are hurting because of things in the past. We cannot change that, we can only move forward.

That is what Christmas and the spirit of the season is about for me. Much as my grandmother was willing to give beyond measure and then give more, she exemplified that it meant to love unconditionally. Lydia had much of the same heart, and while she did not show it as readily, it was there. She cared deeply for so many things and she was so intellectually astute about so many things. I think what saddens me the most is her fear of the unknown ( as well as things that had so influenced her understanding of the world) created a sort of reclusiveness she never overcame. As I sit in my office at a computer and listening to Christmas music, much like I did three Christmases ago, I still miss her. I miss her accent asking when I came around the corner or into the house, “Michael, is that you?” Lydia, indeed it is still me. It was such a different thing to see where you lie when I came back to Menomonie this past May. It was such a difference to see what was happening to your house. I am not sure you would approve, but I am sure that they are trying to bring the amazing house into the 21st century. They have a great dane, and I am trying to imagine you meeting him. I think his name is Sam or something like that. He weighs like 160 pounds. You could ride him. I can see the look on your face when I tell you that, but I think it is true.

I want to get this posted, but there is much more I could write. What I think I want to leave people with is the realization that life keeps moving and if we let it, it will most certainly pass us by. This is what I have tried to keep from happening. Tomorrow for the fourth year, I am headed back to Eastern and Central Europe and this time with even more students. I will be visiting two new countries: Slovakia and the Ukraine. I am excited about those possibilities. There is so much world to understand and there are even more things to learn. That is what my first trip to Europe as a sophomore in college taught me. There is so much to absorb and ponder. So much to realize that is beyond the borders of this country. So much culture and history. I am blessed to go back again to learn something new yet again. I will leave you with one of my favorite scenes from the movie On Golden Pond. Chelsea, the daughter has struggled with her father all of her life.

Thank you as always for reading and I wish each of you who celebrate this holiday a Merry Christmas. To my other faith friends, I hope you can feel the love I have for you on this day and all days.

Dr. Martin

 

Saying Goodbye to an Unequaled Love

Lydia_posed2sized

Good Christmas Morning,

As I sit in Lydia’s room, my brain flashes memory after memory of Christmases past through the movie screen inside my head. My earliest memories of Christmas are always at my grandmother’s house in Sioux City, IA where I grew up. My grandmother had a sort of an old farm house out at what would have been the edge of town at that time  with a couple of acres of land and a barn for her garage (ironic that I just considered the parallel for the first time). Her home was not spacious, but it was welcoming and her care and love made that place even more so a haven of comfort and safety. It was her care and love that has influenced my life more than I could have ever imagined. She fought her own demons and she was a widow at 45 years old. I have not really considered that carefully before I began writing this blog. While I am well aware of our lengthening life span, even in the late 1950s to be a widow in your forties would have been the exception and certainly traumatic. As I noted in my last blog, losing a person before what is considered a full life has to always be a shock and exceptionally difficult.

Yet, and while I remember many things from that time in my life because I was actually living with them at this point, I do not remember my grandfather’s passing. I do remember his being ill and in a bed, but I do not remember his death. I also do not remember any of my grandmother’s struggle in the immediate years that followed. What I remember is sitting in a mixing bowl and being pushed around the bakery they had owned together. What I remember is sitting on the bakery table and rolling out pie dough with my own little rolling pin. What I remember is a morning breakfast of a soft poached egg, a half of grapefruit, and a piece of toast made of the best bread in the world. I remember smiles, hugs, and love that was shown without measure, and that was just the everyday thing. I remember birthdays that had the most amazing birthday cakes in the world (she was a cake decorator). I remember sitting in her station wagon and yes, I remember that she smoked cigarettes. In fact, just a week or so ago I got in someone’s truck and the smell of smoking in the car brought me back to that salmon-colored Studebaker. In, fact, I told him so. My Grandmother Louise, more than perhaps any other person in the world modeled what it meant to love and care for the other. Her willingness to give was apparent each day as she allowed us to be around in the bakery as small children, probably under foot, but all her workers were like our aunts and uncles. I remember playing with the adding machine for hours on end. The amount of adding machine tape I wasted could probably have filled a corner of a landfill. I would punch numbers and pull that handle for hours and I never grew tired of it either. Another thing I never grew tired of was the amazing items to eat. It is a wonder I was not the fattest little toad on earth. As I grew, the times I got to spend at her house, usually beginning on this day and completing the Christmas break, were the most precious times of my childhood. Her care and love for my sister and me was so readily apparent in everything she did.

As I got older and I worked in the bakery, I am sure she lost money on me. While I worked hard, I ate more than my fair share of bakery items. As I have noted in other blogs, she insisted that we be polite and that we always treat the other person with respect. She would tell me you cannot both love someone and disrespect them. I think I took that lesson to heart more than any other she might have offered. I think that is why I have such an issue yet today with disrespect, either received or when I might engage in it. I will admit, I am not perfect in this area, but it is something I do try to do. Sometimes my smart mouth and wicked turn-of-a-phrase can get me in trouble. What I also remember about my grandmother was the elegance and beauty that was such a central part of her. She was always, even when in the house, in a dress or skirt, and even if it was gingham or calico, she was elegant. Her smile radiated warmth and her care of those around her was readily apparent. She and her older sister, my Great-aunt Helen, together could make anyone feel appreciated and happy.

When she passed away, I think that was the hardest I had ever cried in my life. She was not very old (64). I look at that very differently now as I am approaching that decade. If there is a person, up to now, that I hoped might be proud of the person I have become, it would be her. As I think of various things, I am astounded at the parallels I see between Lydia and Louise. Perhaps I should not find it ironic that Lydia’s middle name is Louise. They both had a sense of decorum and elegance that few women I have met ever have. They both were interested in the world around them and paid attention to both the big picture and the little details all at the same time. People who can do both are a rare breed and that certainly describes both of them. They were both frugal, and yet incredibly giving. My grandmother pulled out all the stops at Christmas and she was always willing to help a person who needed something. Most people have no idea the number of ways Lydia gave to other people. Because of her reclusive nature and her accent, many found her unapproachable, and I must admit she did little to change their perceptions, but she was an amazingly kind person. Once her neighbor was struggling in a significant way and Lydia came to her rescue. Because of Lydia’s generosity, her neighbor kept her house.

It is now 9:30 Christmas evening and Lydia seems to hang on by a thread at moments and then with more tenacity at others; it might even be a frayed thread, but she clings to it with all her might. She has had visitors the last three days, and earlier this evening she did tell one of the caregivers that it was George. I am hoping that is the case and that George can assure her that life beyond here is not something of which she should be afraid. I have often said she was here out of fear. I noted that in an earlier blog, but I think I have witnessed it first hand in the last days. When she has clung to my hand or anyone’s hand the strength with which she held on was phenomenal. The other event, the one of tragic nature, of which I wrote earlier has really taught some things. I have been corresponding with Lydia’s doctor and he and I have had the most amazing conversations about the spiritual manifestations of our humanity, both in the here and now and in the beyond. What he shared with me in the past day was amazing. and it connects directly to the idea that God, at least the God in whom I believe, does not wish for us to fear our physical death, nor does God want those of us left behind to grieve or worry about our loved ones who have passed before us. I am well aware that often such conversations can become maudlin, if you will, and I do not wish to engage in anything of the sort, but the question of what is on the other side is such a significant one for so many. In spite of everything, I guess I do not worry about it, at least for myself. When I was a parish pastor, I remember saying I did not have to worry about the what ifs on the other side, but rather I needed to be faithful in the here and now. I think I still try to live my life in that manner.

It is now December 26th and while I sit in Lydia’s room the best way to describe the affect is that it is peaceful. She sleeps most of the time and somehow she hangs on. She opens her eyes at times and there are moments she seems distant and then there are other moments when she is perfectly lucid. She continues to show us that she is incredibly strong and she is in charge of what she will and will not do. No one, including her doctor expected she would hang on this long. I now believe she is waiting for me to leave versus waiting for me to be here. I think she did want me here to tell me she loved me and for me to spend the Christmas holiday with her. I think the manner in which we choose to leave the world, when something is not accidental, is more in our control than we often imagine. I think I had at least an inkling of that before recently. Then I read a book this past year that was a gift from my friend and brother, Jose. Now I have watched Lydia over this past week. I have watched her interact with people I cannot see, but she can certainly see them. She has at times seemed to be in conversation with him, her, or them; she has at times seemed to push or shoo them away. At this moment, she is actually up and out of bed for the first time in 6 days and Carissa and Mindy are washing her up. She managed that well and now she is resting comfortably. She actually looks like a completely new person. There is not a single person on staff that can figure her (or this) out at this point. I think it gets back to what I noted previously. She will leave when she is ready. Over the past hour she has carried on somewhat of a conversation with three of us and actually ate a little ice cream. It is the first food she has managed since last Saturday morning. From my past as a hospital chaplain, this sort of rebound is not uncommon, but I think it is a bit different when she has been so far away for so long and the doctor and others expected she would not manage this beyond a couple of days. A bit a go I told her again that I loved her and she was amazing. Her response, with color in her azure blue eyes was simple, “No kidding?” She is now again asleep and that is how things go with her.

Earlier, Nate contacted me and he and his wife and two girls are on their way here. They are going to drive straight through and hope to be here by tomorrow afternoon. Knowing that I had to leave, he felt he could not leave her without one of the two of us here with her. I understood that and while I have been here 16-18 hours a day for the past week, it might be as my one colleague noted. That she does not want her loved ones around when she decides it is time to pass over. Earlier in the week, the times I had tears coming down my face were legion, but now I am simply ready for whatever comes. While I will still cry, I think the fact that I have had an opportunity to spend this time and we have noted how much we love each other, I have been given yet another example of the love and care she has. She did not want me to see her fade away; she did not want me to remember her looking sad and worn out. So today she is looking more like the Lydia I have always known: a smiling face, wide brilliant eyes, and a manner than demonstrated how incredibly enormous her heart is and how immeasurably she loves those for whom she cares. At this point, she is again sleeping and actually sleeping quite soundly. She does cough from time to time, but for the most part, her sleep is deep and undisturbed.

I am quite sure when I leave later today, she will be sleeping and I will not see her on this side again. It is about 6:30 on Friday evening, CST, and I have just cooked dinner for all the residents here at COH. I have done that from the time Lydia first came to reside here. The difference now is she was not following me around in the kitchen. She would get so upset that I would not sit with her soon enough. I remember one time I cooked and everyone raved about the dinner, except her. She said it was “so-so”. Lest I ever think of myself too highly, she would bring me back to earth. Earlier this afternoon as I told her again that I loved her, she looked at me and smiled and said, “No kidding?” It was both the accent and the look on her face that made the moment unforgettable. While she is against everything everyone said, still here, I do believe she is soon to pass over . . . . she told me today that she saw both George and her parents. She will look at one point and stare intently. When someone asked her if that was George she said, “no” and pointed to a different place in the room. It is apparent that those who love her are ready for her and hope to give her a sense of comfort as she begins this new journey. What I know as I get ready to leave and allow her to pass on her terms that I will miss her terrifically. I will miss her amazing smile and her intense and knowing eyes. I will miss her compassion for those less fortunate (especially her four-legged friends) and her willingness to give to those who needed help. I will miss her accent and those phrases that made her so endearing. I will miss and cherish the love she have given me. Earlier tonight as I knelt by her bed again, I cried and told her she was my parent and that I was thankful for everything she had done for me. She opened her eyes and looked at me and said, “I know.” Indeed she does, and so do I. I love you, Lydia, with all my heart and I hope your journey to that better place is wonderful. There is more I would like to say, but there are no words.

Thanks for reading.

Michael

Traditions of Christmas

Scan 757Hello on the day retailers go into the Black,

I am probably not helping them make any goal today and I am grading and attending to matters that somehow once again seem beyond my control. I do not plan to do much shopping, if any today, and I have other things I want to try to manage. I sometimes wonder if my attention to detail is something wrong or merely something that causes me difficulty, or perhaps both. The picture here is of two of my seminary friends when they came to Pennsylvania when I first lived in this state a quarter century ago and was a parish pastor in Lehighton. They are in the house I lived in and their names are Tim Christensen and Sandra Van Zyl. I miss them, but still know where they are (in Montana).

I did have a nice Thanksgiving, though a bit untraditional and a bit traditional. I spent part of it on the road taking my Midwest guests back to the airport and spent some time in a traffic jam. Then I went to a family’s house for dinner. They had extended family there and it was nice to meet them. It always it interesting to be around a group at the holidays. I listen to comments and conversations and one learns so much. It was the “cousin” comments which taught me the most and gave me new insights.

I didn’t finish all of this yesterday and last evening (it is 4:00 a.m. and I have been awake for over an hour, so I write) I was at the Decker’s. I had a nice time watching Grace in a parade and seeing Caroline and Rose scramble for candy. Mary always brightens my day because of her amazing love and beauty. Max, Mark and I played a card game following the parade (which Max beat us both) and Ethan, Christian (the Clark nephews who were visiting), and Gayle worked on a jigsaw puzzle (which they pulled an all nighter and I just got the completed picture as a text). It was interesting that advice both Mark and I gave Grace last night, I need to take for myself. It really dawned on me as I was saying it. In fact, I noted that point and Mark and Grace both noted it back to me.  It is a bit ironic how we tell others not to put up with what we ourselves are putting up with. So, now comes the hard part: doing it and continuing to say that impoliteness is not reasonable nor acceptable, regardless of what the other does to justify. I realize that I put up with a lot more of this than I should and then when the consequence is my generosity or kindness (in any form) is taken advantage of, I am always surprised (I should not be). What I am learning is what I offer or think about a person’s intentions or character is not as pure as I want to believe. If one’s heart is not selfish, it is almost impossible to act selfishly. This is the adage I must remember.

Tonight when I got home I pondered (yes, again I am pondering) why it is that Christmas music so profoundly affects me. I am not sure if it is because I grew up singing from the time I was small. I am not sure if it is because I remember recording an LP (do your remember those things?) with the Sioux City Children’s Choir. However, it was actually trying to listen to Christmas music on Thanksgiving evening and a comment from the cousin that gave me the most insight into things I have watched, but perhaps did not really understand. In addition, it also got me thinking about the music. The station I was listening to was probably the most traditional of any Christmas station one could ever hope to find. John Rutter and Robert Shaw have probably done more arranging and composing of Christmas music than any other two people in the world. It is their Pandora stations that play the most amazing Christmas music one could ever hope to hear. Check it out; I am quite sure you’ll be glad you did.

This coming Wednesday, I am going to see Mannheim Steamroller’s Christmas concert in Bethlehem. I have not seen them live since I was in seminary. I got two tickets way last summer, but the plans I thought of have changed pretty dramatically, and I am really fortunate to be going with a former colleague. She has a “bit of a musical appreciation” so going to see the concert with her will be amazing. She is also one of the people for whom I have great admiration. I am looking forward to it. Next weekend I am going to hide out in Jim Thorpe for the weekend. I plan to see the Bach and Handel Chorale there (and probably do some grading).

When I grew up every Christmas was at my Grandmother’s house. This is the same person with whom I lived until I was about four and a half. I have mentioned her in my blog many times, and she is my hero. She is probably the most loving and giving person I ever met. She had a much more difficult life than I have really taken the time to imagine. She grew up on a farm in the depression and the dust bowl years in South Dakota. She did go to college, at least for a period of time, but she did not finish. I never learned the story behind that. I’m not exactly sure how she ended up married to my grandfather, but I think that deeply loved each other. He died when she was only 45 years old. So what I’m realizing that she spent the rest of her life, the next 19 years, as a widow. Another one of those ironies, Lydia has been alone also for 19 years. I think with me this is me the most about my grandmother is that she overcame her alcoholism. I did not know she was an alcoholic, but I remember as a small child going to the liquor store with her. From what I understand, my grandfather also had a drinking issue. It was really after I became an adult that I understood what it happened. Long story short, AA changed her life. I think she quit drinking when I was seven years old and she never drank again. For the rest of her life, she focused on her ownership of the bakery and she was active in Eastern Star. She eventually was the Worthy Matron of her chapter. I remember in high school being amazed as I watched these elegant women do the things they did at installations. It reminds me of someone, a person who worked at the bakery. I wonder where she is today.

Christmas at my grandmothers house was amazing. She owned a bakery – the one I worked at from the time I was 12 – and everything that was made there was delectable. Both she and her older sister, Helen, where the most amazing cooks in the world. So between her bakery and her culinary skills Christmas dinner has never been equaled. However, that was only the beginning. Grandma pulled out all the stops at Christmas and her generosity was unparalleled by anyone. I do not come close for those thinking I am like her. I only wish I was. I can still remember her kindness, her smile, and how happy she was that everyone was in her house. Perhaps the best part of Christmas was that we got to stay at her house the week that followed. My favorite breakfast every day consisted of two poached eggs, a half a grapefruit, and toast. Hanging out at the bakery is a small child and working later in my life was something that I love to do. I still remember the present of a toboggan and sliding on her hill. The house she lived in the rest of her life with the house I had spent my first years in. It was a place of safety; it was a place of love. Perhaps that’s the most important gift she gave me the gift of unconditional love. While I’ve tried to emulate her all too often I fail miserably. However I still have her example to remember and to cherish.

In spite of the craziness at the end of the semester, regardless a number of things that can get in our way, it is the time to remember the things that matter. No matter how busy we are or how much we have on our plate simple acts of courtesy and kindness or what Christmas and traditions are about. I am blessed by my traditions from earlier my life and the memories I have. I’m grateful for the things that I have learned this past year. I’m not sure what the future will bring or how long with future is, but I do know that I have been blessed. Even when I don’t understand all the reasons or even the actions of others, I can still find some blessing in those experiences. I’m grateful for my traditions, for my heritage. While I will not leave children behind, I was reminded again this week by an email that somehow I make a difference. While I love the traditions of Christmas perhaps my most important legacy is in the classroom. It is one of the places my gifts really shine. I hope you can find time to create new traditions and begin new things. I’m looking forward to Christmas and having some people at my house to share to learn together, and perhaps create a new tradition, at least once. Well, it is 5:30 a.m. – time for a nap.

The link is from one of my favorite group, the concert I will see this next week. The song is titled “Traditions of Christmas”. I hope you find it as meaningful as I do.

As always thank you for reading.

Dr. Martin