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)

REO, Starship, Fleetwood Mac and Memories of Holling Hall

Hello from my front porch,

It is a beautiful day in North central PA, and after a morning of meetings with students and grading, I am taking a break to enjoy my porch. I did some initial flower planting of Hyacinth bulbs, and now I am waiting for the UPS delivery and for a former student to stop by. One of the requirements of this new issue with my liver is to continue to lose the necessary weight to provide my liver the best chance to regenerate. That means cutting back to approximately 1,700 calories a day and walking at least five miles a day. I am working on the calorie plan, mostly to understand what consuming only 1,700 calories entails, and then figuring out creative and tasty ways to do that. The walking element is not difficult, but it is time consuming. However, after about three hours of grading this morning, I did manage to get 7 laps in around the quad. That is almost 2 miles. With the other walking today, my trusty phone tells me I am up to almost 3 miles for the day. I really quite enjoy a rather pedestrian sort of walk. I do not try to speed walk or set any sort of amazing distance; it is to manage a steady and comfortable pace. Most of the time I wear my Wi-Fi earbuds in an just enjoy whatever I choose to listen to, be it classical, folk or classic rock, and even at times country. If it were not for the grey hair and white beard, I might pass for one of the students and their technologically saturated lives (at least I can hope that is the case). Over the years, I have added a pretty wide variety to my repertoire of listening. I have give Sarah (Hansen ) Jacobs a great deal of credit for my interest and continuing love for classical music. I remember as a sophomore in college how she would give me clues about a particular piece as push me to see who it was by understanding the style and characteristics of a particular piece. She would provide hints. I remember her offering me classical Greek passages also as I was struggling my way through Dr. Hutton’s first semester Greek course. She was a sort of precursor to Dr. Brandes and my music history classes and certainly a bit more personable and enjoyable that the Greek class. Over the past few days, spring as definitely sprung here and I have been working in my yard. BTW, it is a couple days later since I began this post. Today was a day of cleaning, moving things, rearranging, and organizing. I need to be much more intentional about this. As I cleaned and organized, the duplicates I found of things are beyond what one might imagine, and there is a level of ridiculousness in all of that the defies logic in more ways that I probably have fingers and toes.

One of the things that happened on my walk the other day was a playlist that sort of warped me back in my first couple of years as a student at Dana College. I knew of REO Speedwagon before I was a student there, and certainly owned their two albums, You Can Tune a Piano and Hi Infidelity. I remember two students my sophomore year who lived on the floor where I was an RA. Bret O’Reilly and Frank Polich. Frankie, as he liked to be called was a serious Kevin Cronin fan (one of the latter lead vocalists for REO). That group and the others in the title were part of my life as a student at Dana. I can remember my junior year roommate playing “Time for Me to Fly” out the window of my third floor Holling Room. I will not offer the reason, and while I found it amusing at the time, it was a bit brutal. To this day, however, my favorite REO tune is “Ridin’ the Storm Out.” A second song that morning kept me right back at that little Lutheran liberal arts college. Jefferson Starship (and yes, originally Airplane, but definitely more pop than the Airplane was) certainly covered a wide-range of genres from the psychedelic of the 60s, when Grace Slick epitomized the Haight-Ashbury scene, to their more pop sound of “Jane,” which was a song without either Slick or Balin. I think “Jane” managed to keep the group relevant as things were changing. Slick would come back and iterations of the band continue even now, but the 1985 release of “We Built this City,” provided the sound of Starship to an entire new generation of listeners. The next song to be offered as I walked the quad was from the group Fleetwood Mac and their Rumours album. I did not realize that was their 11th album, but I listened to this album so many times that first year I was on 4th Holling Hall with my roommate, Peter Bonde. I did not know nearly as much as I do now, but I sure did appreciate their music. To this day, I find Lindsey Buckingham’s guitar picking astounding. When I later learned about the drama in the group, it was even more (and still is) phenomenal they could put out such a significant group of songs with the stress they had to be living in. Perhaps that album epitomizes just how much passion their is in good music. Passion is such an important part of our humanity.

Music has this unparalleled ability to transport us back to the place we were when we first heard the song. As I listened to these songs, I remember names and faces, and ironically since I posted some of them have commented on the FB page, one of the places I posted this. What this means is I am editing. It seems again, I have done some of my best proofreading after posting. I remembered floor shirts and intramural football games; and I remembered how music was my saving grace as I worried about whether or not I was smart enough to be in college. I remember playing my guitar for weekly campfires for Campus Ministry teams. I remember being blessed to have friends who still reach out. I remember David, a person on our floor from Kansas who would hang out in our room as he tried to get his bearing about him in being a college student. I was so fortunate to have a roommate that first year even though I thought I did not want one. I remember being welcomed by some wonderful people. The memories of travels to Wahoo, NE for a concert, a 25th birthday party thrown in my honor and classmates who stunned me in so many ways. I am still blessed to be friends with and to maintain those friendships through various social media outlets as noted, but those friendships are so much more dear to me now.  I wish at times I could go back to that little campus on the hill. That is an entirely different story for another time. One of the nice things about being able to remember Dana for what it was is how the people there honestly changed lives, and that was not only because of the outstanding faculty, but it was the incredible classmates I had in my classes. There were so many capable and intelligent people in that little college. Yet, music was central to most of it. Between my stereo, my love for music that was more complicated than a 1/5/4 chord progression (and groups like Kansas would fall into that category), and then my opportunity to sing in the college choir for Dr. Paul Neve was something that affected my appreciation for the diversity and complexity of music in so many ways I had never known. I remember sitting in the cathedral in Lubeck as I traveled during an interim and listening to the music of Buxtehude. This experience was heightened and more profound because Buxtehude had lived in that very town, the town known as the Queen of the Hanseatic  League, something that occurred with the rebuilding of Lubeck in the middle of the 12th century. I remember how I learned to appreciate Scandinavian chorale music from my time at Dana. It is something that gives me both pause and comfort to this day. I remember some incredible voices from my classmates from little towns like Fairbury, NE or from little Iowa towns. What I realize is the three semester class that was the highlight of my college career, and also the bane of the existence of others, was my Humanities course. What it taught be was to synthesize the world in which I lived. That is still the case today. As a child of working class parents, and please know that I am grateful beyond words for those parents – particularly when they adopted me, I knew very little about art, classical music, poetry, literature, or world history before the 20th century. I knew about going to church, working hard, basic meat, potatoes, and carrots, and jello salad or things at church potluck dinners. I knew about bakeries and working in a bakery and working summer jobs. I was exposed to some music between Sioux City Children’s Choir and church choirs, but I had little idea about how I would ever manage to go to college. In fact, I remember a serious argument my mother and I had because of the cost and her lack of knowledge of said costs. Yet, to this day, music, and practically any genre, is basic to my daily existence.

As I think about the first couple of years at Dana, my living space was in Holling Hall. The first year I lived on Four-North, the home of the Raiders. The second year I was on Two-North, where I was an RA. That was an experience of all experiences and my third year, I was on Four-South until I transferred to the University of Iowa. My last year, I would come back to Dana and stated out in Holling again, but would move to Rasmussen Hall, which to this day, I know it was a difficult, but necessary decision. That semester in Rasmussen was perhaps one of the best times of my life. Studying Physiology and Anatomy with two floor mates and another young woman was outstanding for a history and humanities major. My RA saving my life, probably literally when another young man had a breakdown is still appreciated. Living on campus was an important part of daily life at Dana, and I believe integral to understanding the culture of that small campus. It was always a bit different being an older student, even though the age was not tremendously older. Yet in an exceptionally traditional Nebraska place, being 24 as a freshman was outside the ordinary. I think that is why music was so important to me. It kept me both grounded in my past, but living in the present. When I was a freshman, there was a Navy veteran on my floor. He introduced me to Jimmy Buffet and Moosehead beer. I appreciate Jimmy Buffet more than the Moosehead these days, but that is no big issue. At the time, I found Moosehead beer quite stunning. It was so much better than domestic swill. Today, I consider and remember Dana with a certain wistfulness. What I received there as a student and what students received for 125 years is no longer available. It is ironic as I write this some of the things I learned in my Art History lectures comes flooding back to me as the Notre Dame Cathedral is burning in Paris. I remember being in Paris in January of 1981 and seeing this magnificent structure. I remember learning about flying buttresses. What a tragedy this is. I am reminded of a smaller fire, but nonetheless devastating to those who were fortunate enough be in Old Main, the central architectural building on the campus when I was a student. There are so many important memories and experiences that shaped the person I have become personally, intellectually, and professionally. Yesterday, my father would have turned 104 years old. Hard to believe he has been gone for more than two decades, but much like the memories that I noted here, it is as if he lives on also. When people tell me I am a lot like him that is a profound compliment.

As I move forward through another day, it is hard to tell what will spark a memory of the times that formed and molded the person I have become. What I know is I am the product of so many things: music, people, places, experiences. Each have contributed to the tapestry known as Michael Martin. Hard to tell what will create yet another design or layer. Yet, I am blessed to have time to create yet something that is a blend of the old and the new. That is the way things work. For the time being, here is a song from the past, and a shout out to my Navy classmate from my time at Dana. The picture above is from today and speaks to the fact that nothing is spared from the elements that create the world in which we live: fire, water, air, and earth. To those who have reached out in response to our mutual Dana memories . . .  to my Dyak friends, my college choir friends, and those who mean more than I have appropriate words, thank you!! Seems apropos that Jimmy Buffet grace this post, so to my Navy classmate, thanks for the introduction.

Thank you as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

More than a Dirt Nap

Hello from my office on a Friday afternoon,

Between meetings and a couple of other things (including grading), I am considering some things in light of my Bible as Literature course and wanted to write. This past week, my Bible as Literature student have asked interesting and thoughtful questions about life (and beyond), and while it is not a religion class, when you are using the Bible as one of the central texts of the class, it is not surprising they might ponder and ask things that demonstrate they are trying to figure out questions of context, authority, and authorship and how those concerns might push them to consider what they have heard (either within their church background or without a specific church background), be taught, or as part of their own maturing and growing process. I think I have been pondering a bunch of things in response to their inquiries.

Certainly, an element of that is understanding one’s mortality. If my adoptive mother were alive, she would be 98 years old tomorrow (she lived to the age of 68). In terms of my own life, it is 32 years tomorrow that I had my first major abdominal surgery, while I was an intern pastor in Big Lake, MN, at the hospital in Coon Rapids, MN. I still remember how terrible the prep was for all of that and how I learned quite positively that I was allergic to erythromycin. Most assuredly, other things have happened since then to remind me of my own mortality, and that is more a case of reality that I would have ever imagined. Today as I searched another situation, I found that another person for whom I have an unparalleled appreciation and to whom I owe so much for their care was my cousin, Joanne Wiggs. I found out that she has passed away and joined her husband Jim, who had passed only 9 months before. They were both so good to me. I am sad more than some know that so much had changed in a situation that I was not involved in either service. They were one of the last few people I visited before leaving the Midwest to come back to Pennsylvania. They had grace and charm (both of them) in ways few people ever have, and I imagine ever will. It gets back to some of what I addressed in my last blog about civility and decorum. I remember my father thinking that Joanne was the most consummate hostess ever, and he was correct. I am sorry they are both gone. The picture at the beginning of the post is my picture of them about 9 1/2 years ago.

That was a slight digression, but an important one. It is sad to lose people. This morning what I woke up thinking about was the idea of religion and dying. It was not a morbid idea for me, but rather one of systematics. I do have students in my BAL course who claim to not believe in God, are unsure there is a higher power, and imagine nothing occurring when one passes except we bury them and continue on with our life. Hence my rather stark title. What actually happens when we die? Do we end up in some sort of purgatorial, soul-keeping holding cell until a second coming? Do we die and immediately we are away that there is something beyond, be it heaven (or some kind of eternal bliss) or hell (for me, the condition where there is an absence of anything good)? Certainly the fact that a number of students take a Bible as Literature course can be traced to a number of reasons (and some of it is getting credits to graduate), but I think for many it is their first foray into making whatever faith they come to college with their own versus it being merely what their parents tell them to believe or model for them. I think what I realized this morning in my early morning puzzling was a sort of if there is no real God and there is nothing beyond our demise, then it really is a dirt name, and nothing else need be considered. One of the students working on their paper stopped by yesterday and asked me how teaching the Bible as Literature affected my own personal faith. This is another thing I have deliberated upon a number of times. However, I think for me that is one of the amazing things about faith. From where does it come (which I, of course, have some specific thoughts ~the power of baptism), but assuredly, there are those who argue that it comes from our own human frailty. It was interesting to listen to one of my students from another class address some of that very thing this past week. Because I no longer wear a clergy shirt, and formerly being a pastor is not something I generally address, when students find out that is part of my background, I get a wide variety of questions.

Yet as I have noted, teaching the Bible as Literature class might be the thing that most affects my own piety as well as the practice of that. Faith is best described for me in Hebrews 11:1. I said this when I was in seminary; I stated it as a pastor, and now as the professor, it has not changed. I think back to when I was  a Sophomore in college and one of the freshmen students told me they could prove that God exists. They thought they would have an ally in this bit older pre-seminary student. They were not sure what to respond when I told them they were full of S____T and that I did not believe them, promptly followed by challenging them to do so. There is little one can say, calculate or demonstrate that proves God with any finality. It simply does not work. However, that sort of logic also works the other way, there is little that can be calculated or reasoned that proves there cannot or is not a God. In addition, I will go as far to say that much of the damage done to faithful people or their faithful attempts to be faithful are done by well-meaning (and sometimes less than well-meaning) Christians. I call them evangelical bulldozers. They think they can rollover or flatten any dissension about one questioning how God works. Their arrogance frustrates me (my rhetorically correct response to them). Posolutely, throughout Christian history, the role of the church by its arrogance, its abuse of power, and its dissemination of doctrine that instills fear more than most anything else, has created more questions than it has perhaps answered.

This semester I focused on the issue of contextuality in terms of the Bible being written by specific people at a particular point in history, noting that all writing is affected by the culture in which it is created. I tried to help my students see some of the things they merely accept without question because it is in the Bible and why that can be problematic for them. I think the response of a student this semester to the temptation story in Genesis 3 will be a life-long memory. Suffice it to say when I asked how it was Eve spoke “snake” or the snake spoke “human,” my student was a bit perplexed. She placed her head into her hands and shook her head overwhelmed by the indubitably unexpected consideration my question created for her. My comment to all my students is the same, but in this BAL course, the statement is a bit more profound. I tell them regularly that God gave them a brain to do more than hold their ears apart, and furthermore, they should use it. I wonder in my own piety which God would I like to meet? What I mean by such a statement is that I know the Bible demonstrates (or figuratively illustrates) both a powerful and complex God. What are those specific moments when we would hope to have our Moses-type encounter with God? Where is God at those moments? Who is the God we would hope to meet? I think for the most part, I would like to meet God and speak with him at those times when most of what I see does not make sense. I think I would like to meet (and yes, arrogantly ask) God when I am those times where things seem the most unfair. Those are the times when I question God’s power or ability to intervene. Those are the times that the consequence of our supposed sinfulness most vexes me. I wish our selfish arrogance did not have so many consequences.

There is much more to say about all of this, but as we head this Sunday into the liturgical season of Advent, the paraments (the colored cloth in the chancel area) will be blue. Blue is a color of both comfort and hope. It is a season where the haunting music that foretells the Christmas story reminds us of what is coming. While I am not a proponent of Christmas in the stores at Halloween or before, after Thanksgiving the Advent season is actually one of my favorite times. I think that was something that started earlier in my life, but it was something that really was instilled in me when I traveled around Germany during the advent season in 1985. There is something about organ music and chorale music that will always life my spirit in ways few things can. Awake, Awake for Night is Flying, O Come, O Come Emmanuel, Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming, Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, Comfort, Comfort Ye My People are some of the things that come to mind. I think there is something haunting, and yet the melancholy of the season also has an undertone of hope. That returns me to my cousin, Joanne and her husband, Jim. The two of them created an amazing marriage and the love they had for each other was something all of us can only hope to find. They were married for 62 years and only apart for 9 months after his passing. The unquestionable affection and love they had was never someone could not see or feel. The way in which they made you welcome in their home was encompassing. Their home on Summit Street was more of a home to me through the years than my own. They were also people of immense and prodigious faith. They attended mass every morning and I learned much about my own faith watching them practice theirs. . . . this little exercise had me searching cemeteries back in Iowa. I remember going to Graceland Park and Floyd cemeteries before every Memorial Day growing up to clean and do yard work on the graves of the family, my father’s in Graceland and my mothers in Floyd, which for those not from my hometown is named after the only person to die on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and he is buried above the Missouri River a bit south of my hometown. So indeed, they are all in the dirt, some in caskets and vaults and some cremated. Is there a purgatory type of thing happening there on the Morningside portion of Sioux City and what was called the South Bottoms where Floyd Cemetery is? Is there something more? Is it merely a dirt resting place and there is nothing more? There are times I struggle yet to understand how it all works and what it all means, but as I enter the season of Advent and I remember the birthday of a mother tomorrow and an older brother on Tuesday, I find that for my own piety, I believe there must be something more. It is more than ashes to ashes and dust to dust. Indeed, as I once intoned, “Almighty God, source of all mercy and giver of comfort: Deal graciously, we pray , with those who mourn, that, casting all their sorrow on you, they may know the consolation of your love . . . ” (Occasional Services Book). With that I offer the following in this season of Advent. I hope you might find peace and comfort in its music.

Thank you always for reading.

Dr. Martin

The More I Learn . . .

Hello from the house,

Sometimes, it seems just as I think I begin to figure things out, I realize how little it is I seem to know; and more profoundly, or even more frighteningly so, the miniscule number of items or circumstances  I can actually control. This past week has reminded me once again of the intricate way the negative feedback systems and the various elements of our body are so interdependent. Over the past 96 hours, I have felt more vulnerable and more overwhelmed than at most any time in my life. Even in spite of some of the dire diagnoses and battles I have faced in the last two or three years, I have thought that my life and its existence to be more tenuous than ever before. Doctors’ appointments, prescriptions and the regiment of vitamins have seemed to overtake my life. To be frank, I don’t like it. The vulnerability I have felt since December is both beyond scope and severity than with any other battle I have faced up to this time. Well, on a positive note, I do believe my doctors are in good communication with one anothe. Furthermore, logically,, it appears there’s a reasonable path forward; some of the symptoms this past week honestly had me wondering if I wake up in the morning. That has been disconcerting, at the very least and then other times I have been damn  well frightened. I know these past months helped me understand my disease as well as the complexities and consequences of it more completely than I ever have. And perhaps it’s my age and what seems to be somewhat diminished strength to fight it that has me feeling more compromised than I have ever have. Perhaps it’s because it seems to be affecting a significant number of major organs none of which you do without. Perhaps it’s because two people I know well spending years around them have  either finished their days or seem to be nearly there. Mortality has hit me in a way that I cannot escape.

It’s also reminded me that there are things to do, pieces to finish up, and realizing that I probably will never get it all done. I’ve tried to reach out to certain people and they promised to get back, but busy lives get in the way and you realize where you  lie on the priority scale. Lest one think of oneself more highly than they ought, words or promises broken can remind us that we are not as important that we might want to believe. It might seem that one wants to wallow in self-pity, but that’s not the case. Is it more my willingness to give up some idealism, something I’ve held onto my whole life, which in this case might allow me to more easily let go of things that I do not often let go of. In some cases it’s things and in some cases it’s people. I learned long ago it is easy to let go of things. Two divorces and losing most of the worldly  possessions had taught me that things don’t really matter. In fact, I’ve accumulated way too many things again. It might be easier just jettison and dispose of some of them. People, on the other hand, are something quite different. One of the things that I’ve tried to maintain in my life, but not always perfectly, is to remain loyal and to reach out to people again and again. Maybe it’s because I’m tired, or once again maybe the stark reality of seeing life for what it is, I’m ready to let go of some things. Yet, I know myself, and even when I push away, most often I feel guilty. Maybe it’s because I’m trying to minimize the hurt, but releasing someone for letting go can also hurt them. If I focus on my own heart, my own hurt, am I being selfish, or merely attempting self preservation? I’m never quite sure. I certainly know there are persons to or from whom I’ve closed myself off, but they are few and there was surely some time between one incident (or person) and the event (or the relationship) that seems to have precipitated that distance. So I certainly know this is a two-way street, and to claim otherwise will be disingenuous. I also realize that some of this is busyness, if you will, but again on both sides that only goes so far. It is just a matter of priorities and intentions. For me, at times, it is a matter of fear, which creates a sort of paralysis. It’s a matter of embarrassment and trying to overcome a path or circumstance that was created as a consequence of my failure. I remember in seminary coming home one day and quite literally crying because I had been blown off, or so it seemed, by a classmate I considered to be a dear friend. This was no average person;  this is a person who is stood up at my wedding. It was one of those times that Susan, my first wife, provided me with a stunning insight. She said, simply, “You have a sense of loyalty to others and you expect the same from them. But not everyone is like you and you can’t expect him to be so.” The second sentence is probably a bit of a paraphrase, and more grammatically correct than initially spoken, but that’s my own quirk, which, by the way, is ironic as I am going through and editing this mistake-filled posting. This editing indicated I am feeling better and can focus a bit for the first time in a week. However, what I have realized in the many years since, she was correct. While many say I am still loyal, and perhaps to a fault, I’m not sure I still deserve such a moniker. Sometimes I believe it’s just my own insecurity or fragility that gets me in trouble.

I need only look at my own current situation and realize how focused I have become and the day-to-day tasks of managing my health and the necessities at school every day, feeling that there’s always more things on the list than the things I’ve accomplished. I’m quite sure that other people’s lives are the same. But there is still questioning priorities and for some reason I’ve always attempted to make people who have blessed me or caused a profound change my life to maintain a high enough priority to stay in touch with them. Much as Susan said, I cannot expect other people to do the same thing. I know this logically.  but emotionally I struggle. And when I take pause, the reason for such a struggle is not difficult to understand. It is that need to belong  and to matter. It is fundamental to we are as humans. Even the most introverted person needs community. We need to know that somehow we matter, we make a difference, and that what we have done was not done in vain. Yes, if we depend on other people for such validation, we create quite the dilemma for ourselves. In the past couple days, it would’ve been my father’s 102nd birthday. For anyone who has read my blog for a while, you’re aware of how profoundly he has influenced my life and many of my traits come from him, in spite of the fact that he adopted me. I remember speaking at his funeral, and noting that his three families were there: his home family, his work family, and his church family. Those were the significant elements of my father’s life. He always had something to say about the conditions of the world and the world around him. That was, in part, I think because he grew up in the depression and five children slept a little two bedroom house. He took little for granted and promoted hard work and keeping one’s word. While he lived his life somewhat simply, he understood the complexity of this world. Again I would imagine that was because he had been in the service and served in the European theater in World War II. It is hard to believe this year will be 20 years that he’s been gone. . . and as I’ve said before, I will repeat, he keeps getting smarter. He never stopped reading; he never stopped listening; he never stop learning. Certainly,  the Mike and the Mechanics song that I posted in my last blog would work for him today. I still smile when I think about him singing in church. He had a terrible voice, but he loved to sing. I smile when I think of our Saturday ritual of washing cars and shining shoes. I smile when I think of how often he worked in his yard and wanted it to be perfect.

Perhaps the best part of writing and thinking about my father is it has improved my mood. While my health is still a struggle this morning and breathing without congestion or wheezing seems to be out of the question, at least for the time being, it is a beautiful day and for the moment I am sitting on my porch staring at the traffic and wondering how I missed the person with whom I was to go to dinner. I have emailed him saying please come back, but he’s not the easiest person with whom to stay in contact. So I’m not sure what will happen. But sitting and relaxing looking at the trees just beginning to bud and things finally starting to green up, has done wonders to help my spirit. For the most part, it’s a good day. It is certainly my hope, that I can see notable progress in my current health situation. I hope the end of the semester goes smoothly and productively. There is still much to do, but I need to keep plugging away. I need to thank my traveling nurse for her continued help and willingness to offer her insight and wisdom. The help means more than words can express.

It is an Easter Day shortly after noon, so I will finish and hopefully get enlightened and inspired for the coming week. If you’re with family and friends,  I hope you have a wonderful day. If you’re alone, I hope you will know that you make a difference, even in your solitude. To my father, thank you for all you did in my life and for what you taught me. I still love you. This video is for you. You loved his music. I offer this to you and others who have somehow seen me as unforgettable.

To everyone else, thank you for reading.

Dr. Martin (Michael)

Where has 40 years gone?

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Hello from Fog and Flame,

While many feel there is a let down after the holidays, and there is some truth to that reality. However, the first part of February is, for me, a time of memories and events which have shaped my life in more ways than I am readily aware. The subconscious consequence of that February during my first foray into college has affected me and my outlook in more ways than my surface demeanor generally reveals. The second historical event of early February (and in fact his entire life) actually occurred before I was born, and had I not gone to Dana College and read the book, Letters and Papers from Prison, I would not be cognizant of the 4th of February 1906 and its significance, both for Germany, but more importantly perhaps for our present circumstances here in America. I need to write an actual editorial to the Press Enterprise in response to something published yesterday, but that will come. There is a lot on my plate today, but as is often the case, I need to organize my brain before I can proceed with the day’s tasks: grading, bills, responding to students’ needs (and yes that is the plural form), and getting the CDT ready for the coming week. I spent about 8 1/2 hours or more yesterday reading and commenting on others blogs, but some additional work is necessary today for I have completed that task.

It is early afternoon and many people are getting amped up for the Super Bowl. I am not even sure I am going to watch it, even for the commercials. I would be much better served just doing the work I need to do. If the Packers were playing, I must admit, I would be all over it.  Nonetheless, they did not quite make it, in spite of a rather ridiculous season. I am reminded when I had one of my graduate school officemates over to watch Super Bowl XXXI between the Patriots and the Packers. That was the year Desmond Howard ran back a kick off for a touchdown. There was also the first year I lived here in Bloomsburg, the Packers won the Super Bowl then too and I was in the middle of Steelers territory. Since then there have been near misses, but it is what it is. Ultimately, it is a game that creates a lot of hype and continues to be a cultural phenomena selling a lot of food and beer, and now demands $5,000.000.00 for a 30 second commercial spot. I wonder if that money might be spent more judiciously elsewhere? Again, I am sounding old, but that is becoming more the norm than the exception. The reality of age is front and center in a number of ways, be it in the morning mirror, in a conversation with my PCP this past week, or in the fact that I have scheduled-appointments with three different specialists in the next two weeks. Fortunately, since I came back from Poland, I have somehow been more focused and productive than I have been for some time. I am trying to figure out ways to “ratchet” that up to an even higher level. There is an interesting term: ratchet. It means something quite different today, no diva intended here. Language always fascinates me . . . it is dynamic and entertaining.

Part of my aging focus is remembering this week four decades ago. I had gone away to Ames, Iowa to be a student at Iowa State University and I was not managing that task very well. I had little direction, and, in spite of time in the Marine Corps, little discipline as I wandered aimlessly around that beautiful campus. I lived in the Towers, but did not really like the dorms. I had some seriously-partying-floor-mates and with them I was easily swayed, another example of my lack of direction. While the fall quarter had gone semi-reasonably, the Winter quarter was not off to a great start and when I got back after Christmas, my life was soon to get more complex. I had been foolish in how I responded to a breakup with the first girl I had actually ever dated. Her name was Barb and I was quite amazed by her. The fact that she was my pastor’s daughter, and the sister of my best friend, certainly did not help matters when I mishandled our demise. As such, I was already an emotional mess and decided that it was easy to simply assuage my broken heart through a bottle, a bong, or a blunt, or all of the above. Not a good plan. Within a week or so of returning to Ames, I received a phone call that my older brother had been seriously injured in a rather freak accident sustained while working as an electrician on a simple building project. The consequence was a massive brain hemorrhage and he had lapsed into a coma. My father, in his typical manner, encouraged me to continue with my studies and they would check in with me regularly and offer updates as needed. To be honest, I do not remember how I took that news beyond a rather sort of feeling sorry for myself instead of considering how it affected his wife and three small children. Consequently, I was now even more aimless and I chose to do nothing. I did not go to class, I did not ask for help, I merely drank and smoked more. Foolishness was not in short supply. The short story of what could be quite an entry was I finally went home on the 10th of February to see my brother for the first time. It was the end of the semester and finals were the next week.

As I got to the hospital that night, there was nothing that could have prepared me for what confronted me in that ICU cubicle. My brother was merely a shell of the person I had known. Between being totally assist-controlled and vented, his eyes had been taped shut to keep them from drying out. He had an enormous dent on the right side of his head where they had removed his skull to manage the swelling and he was down to less than 100 pounds left on his six foot frame. My sister-in-law, Carolyn, only 25 years old, was there, and that evening, I had gone to the hospital with my mother. In the five weeks my family had held vigil at his bed, my father, through tiredness and stress, had actually fallen asleep and sideswiped a guard rail on the highway, so they were down to one vehicle. What I realized was in my absence, they had tried valiantly to manage a terrible situation. In that room as I tried to make sense of the sight before me, I held my brother’s hand and spoke to him, hoping he might hear my inadequate and rambling attempts to tell him that he mattered and that I loved him. Yet, shortly after my first arrival that evening, he began to seizure from the complications of his injuries. We were ushered out of his space and they began to work with him attempting to manage those seizures. As we waited in a room for families, I called my father, who had stayed home because of a cold. I told him he needed to come to the hospital (about a 20 minute drive) and he noted he was leaving immediately. A few minutes later a doctor, one of the many attending at that point, joined us in that room as I held my sister-in-law’s hand. He spoke of complications and battles. There was little emotion, but some empathy in his words. Within a few minutes one of the nurses came into the room and they merely looked at each other. At that point, he turned to us and said simply, “I am sorry; we lost him.” I felt overwhelmed and helpless. I felt guilty and worthless. I had do nothing over that five weeks, and it seemed likely that my brother had waited until I showed up to leave this world. I looked out the window as my eyes welled up in tears and said in a voice above a whisper, but perhaps not as a shout, “FUCK!!” I had prayed in those weeks that he might be spared for a wife and children, and all I could see in my selfishness was an unanswered prayer. By the time my father arrived that night, my brother, Bob, had passed away. Again, in his wise manner, as his eyes filled with tears, he sniffed, and said softly, “It is better this way.” He was right, even though I did not want to accept that in the moment. I had to call my pastor that night, the same pastor whose daughter I had broken up with poorly. I had been banished from their house because of my previously mentioned foolish behavior. What I remember about that is Pastor Fred was an amazing pastor, and as the somewhat surrogate father he had become, he managed that side also. I still remember elements of that sermon, and he would eventually one day preach at my own ordination. Over the next couple of days, things are still a blur. I remember reaching out to another girl that I knew and I recollect that she actually went to the funeral home with me the first time I would see him in a casket. I remember needing to touch his hand to feel the coldness, the lack of body temperature, to believe I was not in the middle of a nightmare. I remember being at Carolyn’s house the next day with my Grandmother Louise, who is my hero to this day. That next day I walked out onto the porch experiencing a pretty warm day for a February in Iowa. I stood on the porch and cried. My Grandma held me like she had when I was small. Somehow, I felt safe in spite of myself.

From that time 40 years ago until today, my sister-in-law and I are still in contact and she is more like a sister than anything to me. She and I have both been through a lot, but we have maintained that appreciation for each other. She helped me when I struggled mightily that next year. The grandmother mentioned above would pass away only 7 months later and that was even more devastating to me. I had left Ames and was out of school. I was back home bartending and partying pretty much non-stop. Events that could have caused me a life of trouble were not far from my door. I would wander more, but Carolyn stood by and supported me and loved me, even in the midst of my stupidity. Ironically, in one major aspect I ended up ahead of her, completing my doctoral degree. She eventually did the same and I was able to help her, giving back as she had given to me. Those three young children are now middle aged adults themselves and growing up without their father has had consequences. I see that in ways perhaps they themselves do not. Yet, all three of them are very different; each intelligent and capable, but quite varied when it comes to how they manage their lives. All successful in many ways. Distance as well as my somewhat itinerate lifestyle has not allowed me to be as close as I should have been, but I do believe (or at least hope) they know I am proud of each of them and I love them. Fortunately, one of them has kept me in the loop quite well and for that I am grateful. I have often wondered how things might have been different if that tragic end to my brother’s life had not occurred. One can play hypothetical games and doing such is probably not that beneficial, but he would be retirement age now. I wonder what he would think of this world? He was an excellent mathematician and his two sons have that quality. He was an outstanding musician and I think all of the three children have that. Of course, Carolyn is an outstanding musician also. That is how the two of them met. He was a product of the late sixties and I think he might have been a life-long rebel or perhaps he would have finally settled down and followed our father’s footsteps of being the family person. It is fun to imagine. While he might have been bald, if he had hair yet, I can imagine it in a pony-tail. What I do hope is, wherever and however he might see this, is that he knows that I admired and looked up to him more than he ever knew.

The second thing I  noted in my intro was my college reading, and what eventually became a dissertation, on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. For those of you unfamiliar with him. He was a German Lutheran pastor involved in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. In fact, shortly before the camp was liberated, he was hanged in Flossenbürg in April of 1945 because of his involvement in that plot. Bonhoeffer strongly believed the church had the obligation to speak out against the discrimination and abuse of power that was happening in Germany in the 1930s. When referring to the church as the spoke that had to stop the turning of the wheels as Germany embraced the propaganda of the Nazis. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer wrote, “Christianity has adjusted itself much too easily to the worship of power. It should give much more offence, more shock to the world, than it is doing. Christianity should take a much more definite stand for the weak than to consider the potential moral right of the strong” (emphasis in original). When he noted the issue of the Jewish question, which of course is what the Nazis would call the Final Solution, Bonhoeffer wrote, “A state that threatens the proclamation of the Christian message negates itself. There are thus three possibilities for action that the church can take vis-à-vis the state: first, … questioning the state as to the legitimate state character of its actions, that is, making the state responsible for what it does. Second, is service to the victims of the state’s actions (again, emphasis in original). The church has an unconditional obligation toward the victims of any societal order, even if they do not belong to the Christian community. “Let us work for the good of all.” (Gal 6:10) These are both ways in which the church, in its freedom, conducts itself in the interest of a free state. In times when the laws are changing, the church may under no circumstances neglect either of these duties. The third possibility is not just to bind up the wounds of the victims beneath the wheel but to fall [ourselves] within the spokes of the wheel itself. Such an action would be direct political action on the part of the church. Bonhoeffer calls on us within the church to speak out strongly and to act powerfully against injustice, discrimination or executive orders when they create too little or too much law. Bonhoeffer’s call to action is relevant and important in this time. Seems I need to reread some of what I have read in the past. So much more I could write, but I will stop for now and leave you some thoughts about Herr Pfarrer Bonhoeffer.

To my nieces and nephews and to Carolyn, I am thinking of you this week, and I love you all. To the rest of you, thank you for reading.

Uncle Mike as you call me, Michael as I prefer.