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)

Walking and Wondering

Good early (sort of) evening

My intentions of writing more this month have been hijacked by the end of a semester, managing my health yet again (I know it has daily requirements, but it has created yet another dilemma), and attempting to get ready for some holiday things, which have all gone by the wayside as the health issues have taken center stage yet again.  As I write this I am in my at home office upstairs between 5:00 and 6:00 a.m. trying to get some things accomplished before the day gets hijacked by other requirements. IF I am to be completely candid, parts of what followed began last summer, and I will try to work them into this entry, but then again, doing so might reveal how randomly my brain seems to work, and that might not be the best thing into which I should offer insight being as some of my followers here are my students.  One of the times I was working on this blog was while students were filling out evaluations; I actually do not worry about evaluations and there is so much that can be learned by them. I also realize the difficulty in the use of such instruments on a variety of levels, but there is no simple way to have students respond to an opportunity to give some sort of response when it is one of the few times they have power (and they really do). They believe all too often they are the customer in what has become our business-based educational system. It is not by accident that we have an Education Secretary, one who is immersed in the Republican Party, charter schools and voucher programs, and has made her fortune with her husband through Amway, perhaps the most Ponzi-ed of all companies in American history. I do know people in Michigan who have directly benefited from the charter schools she has specifically implemented, so I need to also be truthful in that disclosure. However, the idea that students are customers-first is fundamentally flawed for me (another blog posting).

As is the case for most of us, the end of the year creates a time where we often reflect, ponder or imagine what might be in the future. There is so much I have pondered as I have considered the year that is almost over. I began the year in Europe and I will end it there. Yet that is not anything particularly new; it is, I realize, how I have begun every year for the last four, and a few earlier in my life also. On this day four years ago, I began a journey of a different sort. It was the day when I began a final journey with Lydia. It was the day she crawled into bed and really did not get up or eat again. It was the day when I began a watch that I could not finish. Thank you even today to Nathan Langton and his family for doing that. I think about the life you lived and how your life of travel and destiny took you places that you perhaps never imagined. Traveling has become my second education, and integral to my life. I know that some of you will say that seems to be a normal process for me, but it has not always been so. I grew up not knowing much outside my own little town of Sioux City, Iowa. Travel for me was across town and a big trip might be 50 miles away to Beresford, South Dakota. Seldom did I get beyond the tristate area of Sioux City, South Sioux City, NE or North Sioux City, SD, one could be driven to in 10 minutes and one could be walked to in 10 minutes. My first plane ride was to MCRD, San Diego.

One of the times I attempted to create this post, I had just returned from a leisurely three-plus mile walk around the Mayberry of the Eastern Shore. Cape Charles, VA, also known as Cape Chuck or simply by its zip code of 23310, is a sleepy, but waking-from-its-slumber town that offers a place with beautiful scenery, quaint little businesses and a changing landscape that seems to illustrate that its ability to stay off the radar day has perhaps come to an end. Through the graciousness of a colleague and another mutual friend, I have had the opportunity to visit here four times over the last 2+ years. Even in that time the development had picked up and businesses have sprouted up in once abandoned store fronts from a post-WWII era. Once a harbor on the Chesapeake, it no longer had the influx of people and commerce and got a bit forgotten. Somehow the rediscovery has changed both the view and the visitors. I think that is how life works. We discover ourselves and we are discovered by others, sometimes in spite of ourselves. I am still, at times, trying to figure out who I am and what I want. What I believe more and more is we are a somewhat dichotomous, contradictory, paradox (how is that for redundancy, but done intentionally). We both want and push away; we both yearn for and reject the very thing we desire. I think this is the thing I have most realized about myself. Is my life little more than a phase, traveling, both literally and figuratively, from one thing to the next, seldom cognizant of where we will end up? Certainly we can breakdown our lives into phases or segments. Surely we can imagine those what if?moments where a single decision could have moved us in a very different direction than what has occurred. My first philosophy professor is probably smiling from wherever he is as I wonder how much determinism is actually who we are.

This morning up early, I have been working on multiple things as I write this: a winter term class, a Facebook post, course content, managing recommendations. There are those who believe we are on break now so there is nothing to do. I have done some relaxing (mostly sleeping and recuperating) this past week, and there will be some more, but there are so many things I still want to accomplish and explore. I think that has always been my difficulty. It is more than merely a cliché phrase of “too much to do and too little time.” It is not an imperative that is imposed upon me, it is me wanting to do what Robin Williams noted for his students in Dead Poets Society . . . it is about believing I have something to contribute. I am not always sure what that is, but I am passionate about figuring it out. This past week I received in the mail my offering to the Facebook empire through the form of a picture album of the time I have been on this social media country. I had inscribed on the first page: “If I make the lives of others more meaningful, I make my own life more meaningful.” It is something I have said for quite sometime, and I can say without hesitation, it is my life. There are times I have lost sight of that. There are times when I have helped others expecting something back. That is a problem and something I have noted in these posts, before. Help with expectation is not really help, it is self-serving. It is something I am trying to change in myself. It is also about boundaries and there again is another post. We are certainly the products of our past. The baggage we carry from all sorts of ways can keep us from reaching or even attempting to reach our potential. More significantly, it can keep us from imagining such potential.

I see this on a daily basis when students are either not willing or incapable of seeing beyond the immediate. When I hear something like “but I tried really hard,” and their work does not demonstrate an end product that even reaches mediocre. Some might question my standards and expectations, and that is fair, but I expect little less than the best they can do. Why? It is all about what my previous provost noted is potential. She noted that all people have potential, and on that I will agree. It is encouraging, motivating, requiring them to use that potential that I believe education is about. Again all three of those adjectives are necessary if potential is to be even within the realm of becoming reality. I think this is what John Keating (Robin William’s character) was trying to get his students to realize as he asked them to gather round. There is an irony when he asks what verse will they contribute a Ethan Hawke was in his first real starring role. Robert Sean Leonard, who plays the tragic character of Neil Perry (and is almost 50, what the heck??), has done quite amazing things from that first acting gig. Gale Hansen, who played Charlie Dalton (Nuwanda), has gone on to be a film executive. I took the time to look up some of the others as it was known to some that Robin Williams wanted to work with beginning actors in this amazing film. I have read that there was a grave concern about the movie even being accepted and I listened to a funny quip when the screenwriter was told by someone the title was made up of three terrible words. The significant part of the movie for me has always been Keating’s push to make the students think for themselves. Something outside the norm in the crackerjack 50s where everything was to be predictable and measured. I am not sure we are that different now. While there are certainly a lot of things that are open for consideration that were beyond the imagination in 1959, there are still too many cookie-cutter ideas that control who we are and what we think. Go to college! Study the right things! Do what is successful and will make you money! As I have asserted in other posts, there is so much in our system that screams out . . . just do what you know works. Do not think for yourself, merely jump through the educational hoops and it will all work. I know students who do remarkably well in college and they hate their lives. They are studying something because their parents told them this is what they will do if they want their parents to foot the bill for their education.

As someone who straddles the line of a liberal arts background, and with apologies to my dear colleges in Mathematics or Sciences, and as someone who wants to puke every time I hear STEM at the expense of the liberal arts. I teach writing for the real world, a world in desperate need of qualified individuals from every background who are necessary if we are to have a cooperative and thoughtful world. I teach students how to become people who will use their communicative skills in vocations across the spectrum. The importance and use of critical thinking and thorough analysis is not the property of the STEM academics. It is a liberal arts foundational principle. Sorry! I guess my rant side came out for a moment. I was blessed to teach a Bible as Literature course this fall and I had a terrific group of students. More importantly, a number of them spoke about how much they learned in the class and how they will take what they learned about both study and critical thought with them long after the course. That is what I hope happens in all of my classes. I tell them regularly, I do not want them to memorize things; I want them to synthesize things. I want them to think and analyze things. I want them to question, albeit respectfully, but I do expect them to use their brains, their voices, and their determination to become something more than they were when they came into my class. As I write this, I just heard that General James Mattis has submitted his resignation as the Secretary of Defense. This four-star Marine General certainly has a widely considered history as a Marine officer, but he demonstrated today that he is principled. He is considered an intellectual combat officer and one who is both thoughtful and eager to engage and defeat enemy. It will be interesting to see what follows in terms of replacement and the condition of the Pentagon. The reason I raise this issue is we live more and more in a world that seems to have lost its direction, either in terms of a moral compass or in sense of any consistency.

All of this has me walking, wondering, and weighing what might happen next. I am concerned because there is little long-term consideration of the consequences. I speak regularly about the importance of understanding what it means to claim something, to be actively involved in it, to determine some of the possible outcomes, but also to understand what others might do in response. This is what I study most. How does what we do affect the audience for whom it is intended? Those of my student who might read this are probably rolling their collective eyes. As you consider this over next few weeks, I hope you have a blessed and memorable holiday season.

With that I leave you this scene from Dead Poets . . . enjoy.

Thanks as always for reading,

Dr. Martin

Languages, Locations, and Learning

Hello from our traveling classroom,

We are currently on the bus after about 48 hours away from Kraków and off to the Ukraine. As we left Lviv, in the Western Ukraine today they were celebrating Orthodox Christmas. A number of students commented on how differently they celebrate the day. While we gather with family in homes and around a dinner table and tree. The people of Lviv were out on the streets in force walking around, purchasing things in the Christmas Markets, and celebrating the day. The importance of the holiday and its significance in the church year was also well noted by the music coming out of many of the churches. I am always amazed by the differences that culture and history bring to the holidays. I remember my first trip to Germany during the holidays, and the importance of Advent for Advent and Christmas for Christmas. Some things remain the same. The excitement in children’s eyes and the hope that their dreams of whatever they hoped for might come true.

What many students noted was how the Cyrillic alphabet made them feel so much more out of their comfort zone. While only a few speaking any Polish whatsoever, many feel they can somewhat figure things out. Of course, the few students taking Russian classes at Bloomsburg could barely contain themselves as we crossed the border. As they saw their first Cyrillic signs, their excitement was palpable. The second thing most will remember is the time spent at the border crossing. Friday night’s crossing took about three hours as our passports were gathered and stamped twice within about 200 meters. Today while it still took significant time, and even though we were required to get off the bus at the Polish checkpoint to have our passports stamped, we spent less time. However, I will admit, it did seem interminably long. The last time I felt so examined at a border was when I traveled to East Germany in 1985.

I think what most impressed me with our weekend was how different the atmosphere between Lviv and Kraków is. Our tour guide noted that Lviv, which has some strong ethnic connection to Poland, is about 10 years behind the post-satellite revival of Kraków. Certainly those things were evident. For students, they noticed the difference in both what I would would term infrastructure and in personality. In Poland, with attempts to greet and thank others in Polish, the people are gracious and will help the predominately English-speaking student. A few students noticed a marked difference during the weekend in Lviv, and yet others felt the people they met to be quite kind. Lesson learned? Each person who travels will have their own experiences and perceptions. That is the case with life in general, but I think the reality of that is heightened when traveling abroad. Perhaps, the more diverse the language and location, the more profound the learning will be. For James Slavinsky, a Language and Cultures major, with a concentration in Russian, the chance to meet and speak to a person with whom he has been writing for some time, the time in Lviv will be life changing. As eight of us joined together for dinner shortly after our return, the joy on his face was undeniable. He said, “I’m ready to pack my things and move there tomorrow.” One cannot promise such an experience for everyone, but creating and maintaining relationships with people you might meet can create life-long possibilities. Last night I had dinner with Robert and Katarzyna Para, the father of Bloomsburg alumnus and former student, Maria Para. For the fourth year in a row we found time to get together and share a meal and conversation. Amazing what a dinner with a student and her father at my home in Bloomsburg has evolved into. What a wonderful relationship has been developed from these journeys.

Being open to the possibilities is essential. As Dr. P (his moniker or perhaps term of endearment, and I do mean it is used fondly) noted during our walk back to Bydgoska yesterday, it is about the experience and the big picture. As someone who gets caught up in the details and needs to understand things too completely at times, it was good to be reminded of this. Going with the proverbial flow is the rule of the trip. This is particularly the case when there are 50 people scurrying from place to place and country to country. As this is written, I am sitting in a little breakfast place we discovered two years ago. It is the best place for breakfast in all of Kraków, and that is saying something in a town of fabulous restaurants and over a million people. Called Castor, it is a bit understated, a bit nouveau, a bit hipster. But the food, which you can watch being made in the little kitchen, is astounding. These are all experiences one can have during the time outside of classes. Oh yes, the classes, more about those in the next posting. In the meanwhile, thank you for reading.

Dr. Martin (the traveling professor and foodie)

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

 

Watching, Listening, and Learning

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Good morning (at least it is in Kraków) and welcome to a blog cooperatively composed,

Alexandra Miller, a senior honors student who is studying ASL and Spanish,  is jointly working on today’s entry to provide a dual perspective on this trip to the cities of Eastern and Central Europe and the time spent in classes at the Polish School of Language and Culture. This is the 5th year for the joint venture between here and Bloomsburg University, and the number of students traveling to receive credits for their class work at Jagiellonian University has grown to 40, after a first year of about a dozen. Bloomsburg’s Dr. Mykola Polyuha has almost single-handedly grown this amazing venture in terms of contacts and logistics, and the Global Studies office has provided invaluable assistance. This year a significant continent of honors students are also on the trip.

The first thing many might ask is if they are required to speak Polish. While the classes are taught in English learning how to say things like good morning (dzień dobry), thank you (Dziękuję) and thank you (nie ma za co) are a good place to begin. Having some background in another language is certainly helpful according to Alex, who speaks both Spanish and German. She finds herself wondering about the connections between the different families of languages. Whatever the case, you will certainly be able to manage in English in major cities. It is always strange to not be able to read signs or understand things in the grocery store without a picture; however, when the Polish złotys are about 4.23 to $1.oo, there are two things happening. If currency conversion is something new, it takes some time to get a handle on it, but this exchange rate makes being in Poland very affordable. Alexandra, Clarissa, and I had dinner and a drink along with mineral water for about 30.00 total between the three of us. So . . . finding something to eat at a great price is commonplace. Second, when the Christmas Market is still in full force, the food at the street vendors is beyond anything you might ever imagine at the Bloomsburg Fair, and, not to sound snobbish, both better and cheaper.

The Christmas holiday and New Year’s Eve are quite an experience. First, Europeans celebrate the 12 days of Christmas for exactly what it is: the Christmas season. Encountering one of the most important events of the church year in a country that is 95% Roman Catholic certainly is different than the typical American season. Again, in our conversation today, a reflection of this difference was aptly stated as “while Christmas in America is about commercialism, Christmas in Europe is about culture.” People from around the world, but even more so certainly from around Europe come to Kraków for New Year’s Eve, cramming 150,00 to 175,000 revelers into the main town square. The friendliness of people and the number of languages you will hear screaming out Happy New Year in this relatively small space is unlike anything I have ever experienced and students each year walk away with life-long memories. However, there is more to this experience than food and people. Most days after breakfast, the 40 students and 3 faculty  here this year gather at the university for two classes, which meet for about 3.5-5 hours almost daily, including some Saturdays.

The first class, starting mid-morning is titled History 405 Jews of Europe and is taught by Dr. Annamaria Orla-Bukowska, a world renown social anthropologist for her work in this area. Her encyclopedic knowledge of the Jewish question will astound and captivate you. The second class, titled Russian 214 East European Film, Literature, and Culture is perhaps the more difficult class as the 16 films watched both inside and outside of class are in foreign languages (mostly Slavic), with subtitles. As we spoke at dinner among ourselves, the work to wrap our heads around what some of the films are saying or what we should understand certainly takes work. Certainly some of the challenge is language, but the film genre is so different from the typical RomCom or Drama/Action films to which we are generally accustomed, these films are realistic and much darker than some might find even comfortable. The professor for this class, Dr. Maciej Stroiński, is both avant garde and brilliant. He is considered to be one of the best film critics in all of Europe. Pushed to think a bit differently than many of the classes taken back in their own majors, students are asked within a few days to come up with a significant paper proposal for the Jews of Europe class, with at least a pretty thoughtful outline. In addition, they are to write two critical reaction papers. After returning to the states, there will be a 8-10 page paper due by the end of the month. Similar requirements are due in the East European Film, Literature and Culture course, with a major paper due at the end of the month. The film writing is perhaps the most difficult because very few students understand the significance of a post-Soviet understanding of the an individualistic or transnational Eastern Europe. From my experience last year, however, both professors are simultaneously academic and kind in their responses to the Bloomsburg students.

It is interesting to me as a writing professor to see how students, most of whom are strong students in their majors back at Bloomsburg (if I am not mistaken, all students on the trip this year have GPAs above 3.0), work to manage the compact schedule of academic requirements while trying to experience the remainder of the immersion called Kraków or Prague has. In addition, there is the reality that coming to Europe and spending time is a literal walk through a history book. For instance, Jagiellonian University was established in 1364. That means it has a few centuries on any university in North America. Trips to the Wieliczka Salt Mine in the next day or to the Jewish Quarter, Schindler’s Factory or Auschwitz are not something you ever forget. Too many times students believe that study abroad is too expensive or not worth the effort, but as the three of us spoke at dinner this evening, nothing could be farther from the truth. As I have walked around this city for the third time, and am working on arrangements to come back for an extended period, I have been once again reminded that there is so much that is happening in the world that matters, but we have little to no clue about.

What has happened in our own recent politics, or perhaps not as recent as we might think, actually mirrors much of what has happened in a number of countries here in Europe, and while I am certainly not a social scientist, nor a political scientist, it seems that our sort of xenophobic/right-leaning/nationalism is the consequence of something we use every day. Globalism is more than an economic phenomena; it is a social phenomena and the ability to reach across borders, continents, and time zones effortlessly has had consequences unforeseen and perhaps unimagined. That might be one of the most important things that students on the trip might learn. Whether it be Budapest, Vienna, (two cities added to this years itinerary), Kraków or Prague, most people are merely trying to make their way in the world, but a world that finds people from different cultures, languages, and religions reaching out on a New Year’s Eve or on an U-Bahn, or standing on the corner hoping for a world with less violence and more understanding. Sharing dinner with students who appreciate another language, having breakfast with our Russian Fulbright Scholar (did you know we had one at Bloomsburg right now?) or listening to students who are studying Russian are great reminders that the world is much larger than the drive from your home to school and back, or from home to a major city. We live in a complex and amazing world. 40 students and 3 faculty are living that reality each morning as they face both experiences and classes during this Winter break in Poland.

Dziékujé za przeczytanie i pozdrowienia z Polski.

Alexandra Miller and Dr. Michael Martin

Memories of Days and Years Past

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Hello from the Fog and Flame,

It has been a morning of mishaps, but I guess that is to be expected as I am attentively, and somewhat in intensely, trying to make sure I have covered all my bases before the day is out. However, I need to relax and is often the case, my way to do that is to turn to my inner-self and write about it. However, before you read my blog this time, I am going to ask that you do what I am doing. If you have a pair of ear-buds or some other private listening device, please put them on or in and turn on your favorite Christmas or Hanukah music. As I write this, it is both Christmas Eve day and the beginning of Hanukah. The heavens and the calendars have united this year. Perhaps it is the harbinger of good things to come and unity can somehow find its way into other elements of our country and our world.

What are your first memories of Christmas? What made the season magical as is often the word used to describe this season, which is actually the season of Advent until tomorrow for the Christian? What made your Hanukah Celebrations memorable and how does Hanukah with differing dates change the anticipation for those who celebrate this Festival of Lights? My earliest memories of Christmas do not really begin until I was in elementary school. While I lived at the place by fondest memories of Christmas occurred, in spite of the fact I lived in that house until I was almost five, I do not remember Christmases there as a toddler. I do remember living there,  but I do not the holidays. I do remember all the amazing things that were created in the bakery as a small child and I know that the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas were tremendously busy. The pies and pastries, the amazing breads and various things that I somehow never tired of eating were setting out in every direction. What I remember about the Christmas holiday was spending a week at my Grandmother’s house beginning with Christmas, and usually until the end of the school vacation. Mornings of poached eggs, amazing toasted breads, and a fresh grapefruit were, and are, still my comfort food. Christmas Eve was always spent at church with multiple services and singing in choirs and we would open family presents between services. My mother was the most phenomenal Christmas cookie and candy maker and she would spend pretty much every waking moment from Thanksgiving to Christmas making more candy, cookies, peanut brittle, divinity, as she called it, Norwegian Christmas cookies, and anything you might imagine. Seriously, no one could touch her when it came to all of these Christmas treats. Christmas Eve meant getting to bed late, but not too late,  because Santa still needed to come and late nights jeopardized the visit. Christmas morning meant making oatmeal for breakfast and then packing the car to drive to Grandma’s house for a day of amazing food, a Christmas program of carols and music (me playing my trumpet, by older brother playing his trombone, and my sister, Kris, leading the singing of carols. This was our yearly gift to our relatives. Sometimes I must admit I did not want to do it, but at the end I was always glad I did. The Christmas dinner guests were my family of five, my Great-aunt Helen and her husband, Melvin, my Great-aunt Martha, who could still speak Norwegian, my Aunt Martha, my Uncle Claire, and sometimes, a few cousins. What I remember about the Christmas was my grandmother pulled out all the stops and was so happy that we came back to her house every year. She had an acreage and hills and tobogganing was a staple as well as games of hearts after dishes were done and somehow coming back to eat more, usually turkey sandwiches and more pie before everyone would leave, but that really began the holiday for my sister and me as we stayed at Grandma’s house for at least another week. I loved that house. It was not a rich or large house, but it was filled with love. From the old fashioned kitchen to the warm and toasty den, it was the place I felt safe; the place I knew I was loved. I was fortunate to have that through my high school years. I am not sure Christmas has ever been the same. That is not to say that there have not been additional memories that mean a lot to me.

When I was first married, Susan and I were pretty poor, but somehow I began to collect Dickens Houses for Christmas. Somehow they were all lost in a divorce. To this day, I am not sure what happened to them. I have always loved sitting in front of the Christmas tree in the dark with only the lights of the tree and music playing softly in the background. To this day, that has not changed. What has changed is that the holidays are special, but when I get to see the smiles and the excitement on face of others. A second important realization of Christmas for me was when I was in East Germany and Germany before Christmas in 1985. The German Christmas Markets and the fact that they celebrated Advent for Advent really impressed me, but merely as an issue of beauty, but as an issue of piety and appropriateness. Another significant Christmas memory for me was my second Christmas as a pastor in Lehighton, Pennsylvania, not far from where I live now. We did a special service for families called “The Animals’ Christmas” and everyone brought a stuffed animal to put in the chancel area. I did a monologue to my teddy bear and used the first Mannheim Steamroller’s Christmas music. It turned out well and when the lights came back up, parishioners actually had tears in their eyes. It was one of those times I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit at Christmas in ways I seldom have. I remember some Christmases in the Southern Black Hills of South Dakota with Susan’s family. Her parents were always terrifically kind to me and they are very good people. Christmas when I was a pastor was very different because of the amount of work that goes into Christmas services. Christmas Day when I was in the parish was a time to finally relax and decompress. If I was to consider the most important thing I have received from the Christmas holiday is finally a time when people seem a bit kinder, a bit more gentle and a time where perhaps they step back and realize what matters. While the giving and receiving of gifts is always amazing, it is the giving and receiving of care that really makes this time magnificent to me.

Two years ago today I was sitting vigil at the bedside of one of the most amazing people I have ever been blessed to know. She was actually somewhat Scrooge-ish when it came to Christmas and I think there a number of reasons for that, and not all of them are clear to me, but at this point I had sat by her bedside for about 5 days when it was expected she might live for 3. Instead on this day she laid there and pointed into the corner, speaking in Polish. I asked her George was there for her and she said, yes. I asked her if she was really to go, and she shook her head, rather empathically, I might add, no. During those days, I learned how important another family was, the Menomonie family that had supported me while I cared for her over the years. Then there was her COH family, the amazing workers, cooks, nurses, and administrators, many who had watched her battle with the terrible disease of dementia as this brilliant and forceful little tornado slowly lost her battle to know who and where she was. The one thing she never lost was her forcefulness, her amazing eyes and infectious smile. The vigil I held for that 8 days before I had to leave to fly to Poland taught me as much about myself as it did about others. To allow someone to leave when you desperately want to hang on to them is a difficult thing. I remember thinking she was waiting yet again to do things on her terms. During those days I merely worked on the computer in her room and played John Rutter’s Pandora station. To this day, it is my favorite Christmas station. For me, Christmas is the music; the profound way in which it is able to reach into the core of my being and remind me of the emotions and pull images from Christmases past unto the internal video screen that runs through my mind provides a sense of comfort that is unequalled by any other experience. . . . much like two years ago (and it is now late on the evening of the 27th if you are in Pennsylvania, but early morning on the 28th if you are with me in Budapest), I had to leave to travel. That traveling was to Poland and I would be walking around Krakow (as I will be in a day or two once again) and praying in St. Mary’s that George might convince Lydia that leaving this world for the next was both reasonable and preferable. In the past week I read an article about the increased mortality for ourselves during the Christmas holidays. Why is it we find leaving this world for the next during this sacred time of year? It is for that very reason, its sacredness? Is it because we know that the memories of this time are so significant for many of us? As I write this, it is about 5:40 a.m. and I awoke to the news that Carrie Fisher has left this world at 60. It is interesting how there is this sense of immortality among the famous, and I do not think I realized that she was a contemporary (at least chronologically) for me.

I know that remaining in touch with some of the beautiful people from COH is one of the ways I think we all continue to grieve and celebrate Lydia’s memory and the profound influence she had. I still do not believe she would hold herself in such esteem. She was always stunned that people would still (after 20 years) come up to her and introduced themselves to Professor Rutkowski. “Michael,” she would say, “I do not know why they still recognize me.” I still wonder if she did or not, but she was a force and I told her, always smiling, that I had no problem determining why she was recognizable. Aging is a cruel and uncompromising reality, but she fought it and beat it for most of her 90 years. It was not until those last three years or so (and I will blame it on the dementia) not on her aging. I remember how elegant she was, even after the first year she was in COH. She worried and was, in many ways, both cognizant and petrified of what was to come. She knew and yet she fought it gallantly. Even in her last days she wanted control of what was happening. She was only willing to go when she decided. I believe that is her most lasting legacy to me. She was a do-er and she decided what she was willing or not willing to do. This is not to say she did not have her fears (and some of them were abject or acute), like storms. I think she also worried more about others because of her size and her accent, which I found to be one of her most endearing qualities.

As I sit and compose at my computer again this morning, I am wondering what it was like for Dr. Nielsen when he had all the students with him year in and out. What students learn as they are on this trip is also somewhat fathomless, or should be. I remember the sense of walking through a history book. As Americans our understanding of “old” in terms of buildings, history, or time is so nascent. While those who know me, and my Marine Corps background, should be aware, I have a deep-seated patriotism for the what America does and stands for; however, I am also rather recondite when it comes to how long we have been a country and how dependent we are on the history of those before us. That is where I come back to the idea of memory and our own heritage, be it nationally or personally. Be it in the grand scheme or when it comes simply to my distinctive or particularized experiences of this time of year, I know that I am the cumulative product of the heritage and experiences which came before me. As I often say, none of us gets where we are without the help of another. As I consider once again the heritage of the little tornado  or the national identity of her town when later today and tomorrow I will be in Wien, her adopted home, I hope I might view and experience it with a sense of her elegance. I hope I might feel her walking beside me with her little Austrian accent and that purposeful walk. Lydia, even now, two years later, I am much of what I am and I am able to do much of what I do because you loved me.

Ich kann mich noch an den ersten Tag erinnern, als ich dich fragte, ob du Deutsch sprechen würdest und du sagtest kurz: ‘Natürlich bin ich ein Österreicher.’ Wenig wusste ich, dass meine erste Reise nach Polen und jetzt Wien ein Teil von wem ich werden würde. Wenig wusste ich, dass ich in der Lage war, Ihre Stimme immer noch zu hören. Heute, während ich durch deine Stadt gehe, hoffe ich, dass ich dich in meiner Nähe spüren und mich anleiten werde. Ich sagte dir vor zwei Jahren warst du jetzt mein Schutzengel, und es ist wahr. Du bist. Ich hoffe, dass das Sie lächelt und immer noch bereit ist, mich zu informieren, dass ich Ihr elendes Geschöpf bin. Ich liebe dich immer noch.

For a translation of the last part, I have written: Today as I walk through your town I hope I will feel you near me and directing me. I told you two years ago you were now my guardian angel, and it is true. You are. I hope this finds you smiling and still willing to let me know that I am your miserable creature. I love you still.

To the rest of you, thank you for reading.

Dr. Martin (aka: the wanderer)

 

When Days Turn to Hours Turn to Minutes

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Hello from Comforts of Home in Menomonie,

I am sitting at Lydia’s bedside and she continues to amaze us as she has slept, but continues to simultaneously fight and fade. I use those words in that order intentionally because up to this morning that was the order in which I would say things have occurred. This morning, however, there is a change. I think there is much more fading and significantly less fighting. In spite of my background as a former parish pastor and with my experience in hospital chaplaincy, the process of leaving this world for the next is such an individual experience, both for the person passing and for those watching. When I came back to Wisconsin this time, I did not expect that this would be a final visit to Lydia. She is sleeping almost constantly though from time to time she opens her eyes and looks around. This morning, her eyes were bright and she gave Carissa the biggest smile as Carissa came into to  greet her. It is now about 2:00 in the afternoon and she is resting comfortably. A bit ago she did open her eyes and looked at me. As I told her I loved her, she nodded her head yes and mouthed the words “I love you” in return. It reminded me of 17 years ago almost to the day that I told my father on the phone that I loved him and he responded that he loved me also. He passed away about 12 hours later.

During the past four days I have had a lot of time to reflect on what I believe a life well-lived might resemble. As I have noted at other times, Lydia (and George, her late husband) was/were quite the story. While I was never fortunate enough to meet him, I have heard some stories. Together they created a life that spanned countries and continents, languages and cultures. From his time in a concentration camp to her losing members of her family as a consequence of WWII, the war than encompassed a generation and most of the world. I am pretty sure that George and she had no idea what their coming to America and Chicago would have in store for them. I remember that she told me that they both worked two jobs when they first got to Chicago and worked hard to make this new country their home. At one point when she was a student at Northwestern University, she remembered working hard on her English to get rid of her Austrian accent. It never happened. That accent stayed with her for the rest of her life. I used to tease her when I would encourage her to say words with a “th” sound. Of course, I could get her laughing hysterically when I tried to say German words that contained an “umlaut o”. She, of course, could make that sound with no difficulty.

Today, the 23rd, has been another lesson in reality and fragility. While Lydia hangs on to her life, the son of her doctor, the person who has been so supportive of her, and the person I noted as brilliant texted me about 5:00 p.m. this evening to tell me that he had lost his son in an lake mishap on Lake Superior. His matter of fact statement that he would be distracted was heartbreaking. Here Lydia is hanging on, but she has lived her life and at 90 is ready to depart this world. I am not sure how old his son is, but the doctor and I must be contemporaries at least within a few years and I would imagine his son was probably in his late 30s. There is no reasonable time to lose a child, but to lose them unexpectedly, tragically and two days before Christmas is beyond what any person should have to bear. My heart goes out to him. We had the most wonderful talk this past Friday. It is ironic that I have the title for this blog I do because what I have learned is he went into the water and could not get out. Another person also died trying to rescue him. One of the lines in the song, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, is “does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?” It was that very song I was thinking of when I reversed those words for the title. He lost his son on Lake Superior, which is where the Edmund Fitzgerald sunk in 1975. I remember the first time I ever saw my father cry was when my older brother passed away. Parents are not supposed to bury their children.

It is now about 8:00 p.m. and I am still sitting in the room with Lydia and merely keeping her company. She has opened her eyes a few times today and she has actually seemed more lucid than she has the last few days. I remember these sort of swings in patients when I was a hospital chaplain. The body is an amazing thing and each of us go about leaving this world in our own unique way. While this past day has helped me come to terms with her passing, it has also exhausted me. I do not feeling this completely tired for a very long time. I remember one person in particular who had gone through so much in the hospital before the doctors were willing to let her go. I am going to go home and try to get some sleep. . . .

It is now Christmas Eve day and about 9:30 in the morning. I had some breakfast before coming back to COH and when I got here, I found, I guess not surprisingly, that Lydia continues to defy odds. Her vital signs are actually better and yet, she is noticeably weaker this morning. She does not want water and has had no food since Saturday morning. I remember flying back to Sioux City over 25 years ago to watch as my mother passed away. Her situation was much more difficult because she had been put on life support and that had to be removed. In this case, there are no IVs, no tubes, and nothing to prolong Lydia’s life, which were her wishes. They are the same wishes I would have for myself. I think there is a time for the body to merely let go and be allowed to stop.

What I am realizing in the last day is the tenuousness of our existence. I have found out that her doctor’s son was 40 years old and his brother (and I think wife) had to witness this tragedy. I cannot imagine the trauma of having to watch someone struggle to live and lose their life in such an unexpected way. The cliches that are possible do nothing to explain the unexplainable. As I watch Lydia fade into a new life, we are in her room alone and it is actually peaceful. I am listening to Pandora and I have it playing classical holiday music. I have been told that our hearing is the last sense of the body to quit working at the time death arrives. If this music can help her be more peaceful, I am more grateful for the time we have had these past 5 days. Yesterday she was quite lucid and actually was able to answer questions at least minimally. When I showed her a picture of George, which is on her headboard bookcase, from his younger days, she got the largest smile on her face that I had seen in a while.  When we consider carefully what we are offered daily, it seems that too often we do not see it as an offering or a gift. I do understand that external circumstances can make the gift of a day seem to be a burden rather than a something to be cherished. I understand that the extenuating events that impinge on that block of time can overwhelm us and cause us to lose sight of the opportunities that might be presented in that time. Yet, how many times do we, in the normal course of events, lament when a period of time is coming to a close, wishing that somehow we might have managed that time better. I am not sure if it is because I have approached the ending of another decade of my life that I have found myself reflecting on what time means and feeling perhaps a sense of urgency for those things I have not yet completed. On the other hand, I find myself with a sense of calmness that I have not often felt. I am actually pretty content. I have been pushed to consider mortality in more than one way this year, but I believe our mortality is always something we must, or at least should, appreciate and ponder. What does our humanness offer that no other creature, at least to our knowledge, possesses? I think it is both the ability to remember as well as the ability to imagine. Remembering, of course, offers us a glimpse into our past; imagining offers us the possibility to wonder about the future. In both of these we begin to understand who we are, but also why we are. This returns me to the phrase with which I began the post: a life well-lived. Whether we have an opportunity to grace this world for 90 years and leave it compassionately or we have 40 years and our life is ended tragically, each person has the possibility of having a life well-lived.

I think as we continue our lives and our days become hours and our hours become minutes, we always have the opportunity to love and care for those around us. Too often we fail to recognize those possibilities and chances. Too often we concentrate on ourselves, worried about the morrow. This past year I have been given many opportunities to share with others. Sometimes I have succeeded in those moments and other times I have failed miserably. Nevertheless, yet today, tonight, or tomorrow, I will be afforded yet another chance. How do I know this? I know it because I see it in the smile of someone who is leaving this world, but still recognizes my voice and the words “I love you.” I see it in the amazing caregivers who tend to her needs and care for her gently and lovingly. I received it in a video tonight telling me I was missed. As I have been reminded of again and again, love is the most unparalleled gift we can offer another person. In the past 10 years I have been graced with the presence of one of the greatest personalities in the smallest of frames. I have been confounded by her stubbornness and blessed with her boundless love all at the same time. As she rests quietly in her bed this Christmas Eve, she still recognizes me and smiles knowingly at my presence. She has told me on more than one occasion today that there is someone in the room coming for her and she points to their presence. Perhaps what she sees is the coming that all Christian believers celebrate this Christmas Eve, the incarnation of the Christ child. Perhaps it is appropriate that as we move into this most holy of nights in the Christian calendar, Lydia points to something much like the shepherds must have pointed or the Wise men must have pointed. Perhaps she knows better than any of us when her time to leave this world is and she will, as she has always done, decide just how this will be managed. When I once told her that I was not sure that God would be ready for her and that he might have to clean some things up, she responded knowingly, “I will take my broom.” Those of you who really know her, know just how true that statement is. She managed her life and she was always in charge. To allow God to be in charge will be something difficult, but then it is difficult for most of us. As I leave her for the moment to attend Christmas Eve services, I hope should she leave before I return that she knows how much I love her and how grateful I am for her presence in my life.

To all of you reading, I wish you a very blessed Christmas.

Michael