A Conscious Decision or the Consequence of Many

Dzień Dobry from my little room in Garbarska,

It has been a productive day and a day where I decided to focus on my own work rather than the needs of the group. That is not always an easy thing for me to do, but it is something I should learn to do more often, or at least more effectively. One of the syllabi for the Spring is completed and the course shell for the course will be done yet today. The specific act of solitude today is also something that is relatively new for me. While I have noted for some time that I have learned to appreciate, perhaps even crave, my alone time, there are moments I ponder the consequence of it also. Over the past few days, as those on Facebook can attest, I have posted a couple of scanned photos from my earlier (and some have reminded me “much earlier,” – thanks Michele Meier) lives. I note lives because I am often questioned about how I have done so many different things. I guess I have not really considered it all that different, but rather a sort of a continuum. There is always the need to be looking at or preparing for what is ahead and simultaneously we are reminded of our past and connected to what has made us who we are.

The past couple days I have begun to take stock of what matters most to me, what it is I most value, but also to ponder those things that might have been. I am not sure if it is a growing old thing or if it is wondering at times how it is I am where I am (well I do not it is some of that because I am certainly not where I expected to be, but I do not say that in a regretting or lamenting manner). If I were to address the things that are most surprising to me, the first is this solitariness that characterizes me personally. It is more than merely being single, it is a matter of wondering at times where I belong or where I fit. I have always been, and certainly more than most realized, including myself, the lonely-in-the-middle-of-the-crowd person. I have fit in many places, but often felt like I fit in no where. Generally, it is not something that bothers me, at least, when I am not thinking of it, but there are times like now when I wonder what might happen to me, and for whom that might be an issue. This is certainly not a call for pity or others to tell me I am valuable, so please do not worry. One of the things I have been able to do in three score and one years is understand my strengths and weaknesses, and be pretty comfortable with who and where I am. I guess this is more a pondering of what if something different might have occurred.

If you have read this blog with any consistency, you are probably aware that I get in these rather pensive moods, where I need to figure it out, even when, perhaps, there is nothing to figure out. I can see Melissa staring at me now and then shaking her head. It is that melancholy underpinning that seems to be part of my make up. While I did not get married until later, even then, what I know now is perhaps I was not ready to be married, but is one ever?? What would it mean that you are ready? What I know now is that my first marriage to Susan was done because I thought it was the next reasonable thing to do. That is not her fault in any way, it is mine own. I do believe perhaps the happiest time of being married to her was when we were first in Omaha Village and actually pretty broke, but we depended on each other and I think we believed things were as they were supposed to be. Yet, what I know is the summer before the wedding my CPE unit had raised serious doubts for me in if I could ever be a good husband or father. Perhaps I should have postponed and thought more. There was also my own struggle to understand what it meant to love someone in such a way. I know what I often told couples as a pastor, that the love they had the day of the wedding, which seemed so amazingly complete, was not nearly enough to see them through the remainder of their lives. It is something that has to mature, be tested, and endure. I can say that, but can I do it? I am not sure I learned how, but then again, it is by example or is it from something inside of you? Yet, there was, as many know, a second marriage to Theresa, and if I ever believed I was in love with someone, it was her. She pushed me away more than once, but I returned on both ends of that marriage. Many, to this day, call me a bit deluded for staying involved as long as I did, but then again, I am at fault for a number of things in the failure of that marriage.

Yet, significant time has passed since being involved in either situation. In fact, from the time that I left almost 17 years. In my blogs I have noted that sense of did I expect to be here at this point in my life, and the answer is a pretty unequivocal “no.” Yet, what did I expect, or do we have the right to expect anything? I want to offer a shout out to a few people who give me hope. My undergraduate classmates, Keith and Kathy, Paul and Lisa, Scott and TC, Mark and Kay, they have all made it, so to speak. I know there have been health issues and significant things that I am sure have tested them, but they provide a sense of hope for me. I admire each and everyone of them. I am not sure how I would even begin to think of being married to someone at this point. I did spend significant time here in Pennsylvania with someone I have known for 30 years now. She is a wonderful and beautiful person, but both the distance and commitments seemed to be hurdles larger than we could manage. I wonder if I was perhaps meant to be a single person. Certainly the last decade and a half has taught me how to be on my own and manage it. Certainly a job that consumes me (and I am always astounded by my colleagues who manage families and the academy) does not seem to offer much option to take on something else, and yet there are times I believe it would probably create a better sense of balance than I currently have.

Perhaps it is really a combination of circumstances, inability, limitations, and a lack of knowledge or skill. There are two or three people in my life that have so totally amazed me, and that somewhat complete astonishment has continued over the decades; the four person fits that category, but I have already confessed that failure. One goes back to early in my life, one from when I was in college and one after being gainfully employed. In each case, I can imagine the proverbial growing old with them, but such an imaginary journey is not a reasonable expectation for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, none of them live in Pennsylvania. I also think there is an issue of imagining the person as you remember them versus what might be their present reality. There is only one case where I believe I have a reasonable understanding of the other, but there is still an issue of distance and the need for someone to make a significant change, or that one occurred. All of those things would be hanging on to a dream, and that is certainly not reasonable. I wonder if sometimes, my baring my inner most fears causes others a sense of fear or vulnerability. For me, I do not feel vulnerable, it is freeing to ponder and wonder all of this through my fingers. What it seems to me is that as I have entered this decade, one that I am not completely sure in a more profound manner I might not finish, I find myself reflecting more on the what ifs of my life. I have noted if I could go back to school, doing it over, I would probably go into linguistics and cultural studies (focusing on languages). That is not something I grew up ever imagining. I was never encouraged to know another language or consider life outside of Iowa. There are times my Midwestern heritage still stands strong and I miss the friendly nature of those who I grew up or where I lived in both Minnesota and Wisconsin. It has been too long since I have made my way back to Sioux City. I did make it to about an hour away late last March. I want, desperately, to get back there, perhaps at the end of the academic year and before summer school.

I also have noted the significance of having a very different understanding of what seems important, even paramount, to me and how that differs from earlier in my life. I have learned that I am more of a walking oxymoron that I have perhaps realized. While I am profoundly patriotic, I am more globally influenced and enamored than I was ever aware. While I love to travel and learn, I am wishing, even as I sit here in Poland, once again learning phenomenal things, I would be more content at this moment sitting in my house. I want to learn more and more and keep working, but there are moments, where I wish I could merely retire and relax. I wonder if all people my age wonder some of this. Perhaps I am not as far out there as I sometimes think. Well  . . . so how do I answer my question. I am sure that where I am is a consequence of a decision, or a couple of major ones. It is also the consequence of things that were, and are, part of my flawed humanity. It is my humanity and its flaws that still stupefy me at times. I wish I could manage all the flaws, which seems contradictory of me saying I am comfortable with my weaknesses. What it says is I understand the some of the reasons for the flaws, but I wish I understood them more completely. Perhaps it would be possible to change some of those things, but for the time being, it simply is.

It is now late evening and I am about to sign off, but I had the most wonderful dinner this evening with Robert and Katazyna. I am very blessed to have them here in Kraków when I come here. It was wonderful to see the progress made since two years ago and it was wonderful merely to catch up and spend time. I am looking forward to seeing them again. In the meanwhile, I will continue to ponder and wonder some of my what ifs and merely keep on. As that is what we do.

Thank you for reading.

Michael, the solitary one.

525,600 Minutes

Lydia_posed_3 sized

Hello from my dorm room in Krakow,

Most of you will see this title and instantly think of the Broadway play or the movie of the same title, Rent. It is actually one of my favorite movies and the song ranks right up there also. But this measure for me as I begin to type this next entry in my blog is because before I probably finish it, it will be a year to the minute that I got the call that Lydia had passed from this world. I am both stunned that the year has come and gone so quickly as well as wondering what the future holds as I continue through my own years. I am stunned even now that someone who mean so very much to me in life, and in a relatively short time frame so profoundly changed my existence. I would note that if it is possible, her life and memory means even more in her absence. I am grateful for some of the people I still have in my life because of her, all those COH people who cared for her so tirelessly and lovingly. I am blessed yet today that I have been given so many opportunities to care for others and give because of what she gave me. I remember after the phone call I spent the first hour making the appropriate phone calls to the United States and then laid in my bed and sobbed because I had lost yet another parent. However, this mother was the closest thing to what it seemed a mother should be. She was the most loving person I had in my life since the time of my grandmother, who had been my mother (because I had lived with those grandparents) when I was small, had been. Lydia had an incredible capacity to love and give that was actually very different that the demeanor that most perceived her to have. She loved those for whom she cared profoundly and boundlessly. The stories I could tell about her love for the “little ones,” as she called every four-legged critter that was blessed enough to find her backyard. They were fed as if they were the king of the forest and there was not enough dog food that could be bought to care for them. You could have fed three or four people in the early days of hunting from the size of the squirrels that roamed her back stoop. The crows were the size of eagles. Lydia loved to have lunch at Burger King, and while I do not think she ever saw a potato she did not love, she would keep extra fries so she could take them back to the house and feed her menagerie with a different treat.

There have been moments I wished I had met Lydia earlier in her life. The pictures of her in her 30s and 40s illustrate a person with that same forceful and determined attitude, but she was elegant. Her colleagues at UW-Stout noted that her appearance was always impeccable and she always had her hair done weekly. She never changed those habits. When I met her she would work in her yard and spend long hours daily with her broom and dustpan, but if we were going out, she would change into presentable jeans and a clean LL Bean button-down or a polo shirt. I once went shopping with her and we had to buy children’s polo shirts at Old Navy. I remember her once wanting me to go bra shopping with her when she had advanced in her struggle with dementia. I told her I drew the line there; that was not an option. She told me I was being stupid. I ended up doing camisole shopping for an 88 year old woman. Oh my!! Every Tuesday before she went to live at COH, I took her to Georgie to get her hair done. Georgie, bless her heart, continued to come to COH long after Lydia was there to still care for her hair needs. Even after Lydia moved to COH, she had her own way of doing things, all the way down to which hallway she would walk down, or push her walker down (and she was cruising let me tell you), or eventually which hallway she would push her wheelchair down. She had her own particular way the table should be set or how the napkins should be folded or how things would be set up in the middle of the table or where she would set her Wall Street Journal. And heaven forbid you think you could or should change it. She could give a look that would melt ice from 50 feet away.

I remember spending the day a year ago with Robert and Katarzyna. We had been out on New Year’s Even together and this year I was in the same place with students from the trip. I have been trying to catch up with Robert since coming this time and that has not happened yet. I know they have also had a difficult year. She too is an elegant person and Robert has a kind heart and an optimism that is unparalleled. We went out the day after I went to Auschwitz that one last night. It was so enjoyable. I remember talking with them about Lydia and I cried. I could not share what I wrote without tears welling up in my eyes. That still occurs for me at times. How do you measure the moments in a year as the song asks? What do we remember and what fades into the blur of events that somehow get lost deep in the recesses of our mind, if they even get there? There were some really difficult moments for me this past year. The first was when I went back in March to do Lydia’s committal service. The burial was a small and private service and I conducted it. I maintained until I had to commit her to the ground. It was extremely cold that day and was trembling from both the cold and the reality of her passing. As I knelt down on the cold snowy ground and kissed the urn, my tears fell and probably froze before they could touch the snow. Earlier that morning I had gone to her room at COH for the first time. That was when things really hit me. Her room was empty and the chair I had held vigil for her in December was still there. I sat in that chair one last time and I cried. It felt good to cry in that place. It felt good to be among the people who had cared for her so caringly and unpretentiously. It felt good when two days later we had a memorial service at the facility and those terrific caregivers who had become her family were there to celebrate this amazing woman. She would have been disgusted that a fuss was made over her, but that service was not for her, it was for them, and her colleagues and others who understand, and still understand, and loved, and continue to love, this marvelous woman.

The next time I went back was in May. This was going to be the difficult time because it was the time that I was going to really say good bye to Wisconsin. Here is that rhetoric of place issue once again. Menomonie had such a wide range of memories and experiences for me to process. Her amazing home and become my sanctuary when I was back there. I called that room on the third floor “The Upper Sanctum.” I knew when I packed a truck and emptied that room, it was finished. My former colleague, and friend, Barbara Button sent me a note in the days following noting sadly that my energy had left that little space on the circle. It was a profound statement. Indeed, 10 years of connection to the town was ending. While I have important friends there yet, and particularly the Lacksonens and Amy, Charles, and Simon and some others on the circle (or not far from it, Barb and Larry). I have an amazing mentor in Dan and former colleagues in Jane, Susanne, Beth, or David, the requirement to return there is not the same. As I got into the U-Haul truck that day, again I cried. In fact, I wanted to get back before the end of the year and that did not happen. Shortly after returning, summer school began and I have been in class somehow ever since. There was not an inkling that I would be here in Poland again for New Year’s but it happened.

As I watch the students who are along on this trip, I have been given an amazing gift. There are some wonderfully intelligent and thoughtful students here. They have been serious about the classes and they have been enjoyable to observe and speak with. It is one thing to be capable, and many of them are; it is another thing to be a good person, one with some standards and a strong moral foundation. I have witnessed that among a number of the students and they seem to get along well. That too is impressive. I am pretty sure that none of them thought about going to Poland a year ago, but I know that none of them will be the same after they return. That is the amazing thing about traveling. If you honestly attempt to become part of the culture in which you are living and breathing substantive things will happen. There are two students who are Political Science and Russian majors. They are both phenomenal. There are Speech Path students and they are working hard and thinking carefully and they are all good people. I have two students that I have had in classes previously and it is fun to watch them here and relate to them in a different manner than in the typical classroom setting. I know there are some specialized biology students who I can only admire with their intelligence, work ethic, and goodness, or accounting. There are more, but I cannot remember all 30. The point is that the gift they have given me is hope. I am sure that our world has a chance when I see them and listen to them and that is important.

525, 600 minutes, how do you measure the moments in a year? Indeed, how about love? In this world that seems to want to exclude, ostracize, blame, or anything else that marginalizes could we change our frame of reference? As I have listened in my Central European History class this past week, the consequence of marginalization for the Jews began much earlier than I realized, but anyone not living under a rock for the last 80+ years certainly knows the result of the final solution. Tomorrow I will visit Auschwitz for a second time. This too is related to Lydia and George. George spent time in Dachau, another notorious camp (but for anyone held in any of the camps, the belief would be the same) as a political prisoner. I need to work on how long he was there and get more specifics, but how did he measure the minutes in a year under such duress? Lydia was sent to live with relative in Wien (Vienna) to escape what would happen to those with German or Hungarian citizenship at the end of the war? How did she measure the minutes as she and 1000s of others walked from the Sudetenland to Vienna (I think in a straight line it would be about 200 miles or over three hundred km)? How did she measure the minutes when she never saw her parents again? Why is it we spend so many minutes hating or despising or separating ourselves from those around us who are also human? I am reminded of Sting’s song, “If the Russians Love their Children too”. I have actually posted the video in an earlier blog. It has been a year since the world lost a phenomenal lady. She understood hardship, but she persevered. She understood loss, but decided to continue and strive to move forward. What I know of Lydia and many of the others who came to America in the 1950s is they left the continent behind them, seldom speaking of it, and worked to begin a new life, but the world they left behind has amazing culture. It has phenomenal beauty. It is a treasure to merely walk the streets and soak up the centuries of history. The minutes of time that amount to so much more.

Lydia, I am in Poland and the Czech Republic in a few days because of you. You taught me about this world by your stories and the things you shared with me. You have left me, but you are here with me. I wish I could be walking these streets with you. I wish I could hear what you might say about your life in this world in the 1920s and 1930s. I know the decade of the war was horrible for you. I know it scarred you, but as you seemed to always do, you put your head down and kept going. You never complained or felt sorry for yourself. When I was blessed to hear your accent that first time I walked up the driveway, I had no idea how much you would become a part of me. It has been a year and now a year and a day since I got the news that you had left this world. The minutes since have been a blur at times. They have been difficult and I still miss you. I still wake up and imagine you standing there looking at me and asking if I am awake. I still hear the soft patter of your feet coming up my steps. You make me smile even yet. The 525, 600 minutes have not been the same without you. There is no denying that. I hope I can change a few lives in the minutes I have left as you have changed mine.

Meine Liebe Lydia,

Es ist ein Jahr her, seit Sie Ihre strahlenden Augen geschlossen, dass die letzte Zeit. Ich war nicht da, und ich bedauere, dass immer noch. Es ist ein Jahr her, seit ich fühlte deine Berührung und Ihr sagt mir, Sie wüssten, dass du meine Mutter waren. Es war ein Jahr, und die Schmerz und Verlust bleibt. Ich liebe dich noch immer und immer. Segne euch meine Mutter, jetzt und immer.

Ihr sohn,

Michael.

For those of you who do not speak German, I offer this.

My dear Lydia,

It has been a year since your radiant eyes closed that final time. I was not there and I still regret that. It has been a year since I felt your touch and your telling me you knew you were my mother. It has been a year and the hurt and loss remains. I love you still and always will. Bless you my mother, now and always.

Your son,

Michael

To everyone else, thank you for reading,

Dr. Martin