Being Grateful is both Singular and Plural

Good morning as I move toward the end of another journey.

The past few days have been packed with activity, and I have been blessed to spend time with a friend Who hearkens back to when I had barely begun my time at Michigan Tech. I am sitting in the airport in Alicante, continuing my culinary love affair with local cuisine. It seems I find something gastronomically inspirational from each place I visit. Breakfast of eggs, potatoes, and Iberian Ham, with one more cappuccino fit the bill as I begin the two day journal that will return me to the Acre. It was a bit more expensive than Rome’s airport meal, but so much cheaper, and with so much more quality than my American airport experiences. As I have posted over the part three weeks, I have been so fortunate to be treated so kindly in every single place I have visited. However, being treated with kindness is not a surprising thing, in spite of the current tenor that seems present in many more places than the United States or Washington D.C. Trying to learn enough to greet someone in their native tongue, to say a simple please and thank you in their language is neither difficult or overwhelming. In fact, I will assert it is simple common courtesy, or should be. It is what we were taught (hopefully) soon after we learned to speak at all. While gaining access to the other’s language at one point took some effort, it is so easy today with apps and your phone, to not do so is incredibly lazy, and, at least in my opinion, insufferably rude. Each place I visit, I take the time to read about their history and their customs before arriving. Again access to such information is only a swipe or so away. It’s not rocket science, and it demonstrates some sense of appreciation for the welcome and the kindness you are bound to receive. Seriously, I have been treated with incredible kindness and with a willingness to assist me if needed. I think there are times I surprise people because I greet them upon arrival in their language and I try hard to listen to understand as much as possible. I have been asked twice in the last 24 hours if I was Spanish, Polish, or American. When I hand them my American passport and say, dzień dobry; jak (pan/pani) się masz? (hello sir or ma’am, how are you?) the double-take is always amusing to me, My phenomenally kind host in Ascoli Piceno FB messaged me and noted that I was polite and kind. It is what my grandmother taught me as a small boy. One was to use their manners always, no exceptions. In fact, the one thing that might have caused me to see her angry was if I had been dishonest or had been rude to someone. As a small boy, the one thing I was forbidden to say was to tell another person to “shut up.” While I was not aware of the infamous F-word yet, telling someone to shut up was probably as egregious to my grandmother.

This really does get me to the crux of this posting. Gratitude is to me a sense of profound thankfulness. It is understanding that the kindness you receive is not owed, but rather freely given. Gratitude is something I believe each of us possesses and it is a gift, a gift which we are tasked, if you will, to provide to/for another. It is not by accident that I start with the idea of giving someone this gift rather than being the recipient of someone’s gift of gratitude. When we choose to be grateful and display that feeling of gratitude to another, what we say indirectly is that we have been blessed by that person. It creates an interaction that can serve to uplift each person. There is also another important thing here. If it is something given, for gratitude to work as a gift, there is always the other. Like any gift unless given and received, the giftedness does not happen. What astounds me is how difficult it appears expressing gratitude has become. I hear the word entitlement thrown around like the blinking line in that initial game of pong, but most often it is aimed at those who fall into my students’ demographic. Yet one must ask from where did they learn this? Furthermore, I have some incredibly hardworking students who demonstrate graciousness on a regular basis. From where one learns this sense of always being the customer or that they are always right comes from example. We are not born with a sense of greed or entitlement; we are not born with a sense of privilege; in fact, our habits and our attitudes, each and everyone of them are learned. I could go into the social-psychology of all of it, but suffice it to say, we have created our own problems when it comes to how we treat, act toward, or encounter the other. Our seeming lack of decorum, civility, and complete inability to act in a gracious way has been learned by those around us.

Our sense of privilege or the argument that has been posited, and rather summarily rejected this past few days, that Western Civilization (as well as some other terms) is the only valuable, or most valuable, in history or the correct one is certainly one of the more egregious examples of this sort of behavior. For some time I have found the actions of the United States Representative from Iowa’s fourth Congressional District appalling. My justification for my attitude was not only the incredible insensitivity and intransigence of his speech, but the fact that he was from the state in which I was raised, and I was not raised in any way that could find his statements palatable. I remember raising my concern in the past. While I have not been particularly ardent in my support of most anything Republican, I am impressed that the Minority leader in the House and the Republicans stripped him of his committee assignments and there is move afoot to censure if not move toward his expulsion from the Congress. That is a significant move, and while it still causes me some personal embarrassment for my home state, I will be more impressed if he is sent packing. Again, gratitude and goodness is not only a Western thing; gratitude and goodness is not only a Christian thing; gratitude and goodness is not a male or female thing; and it is certainly not an American thing. It is a human thing. More importantly, it is the correct thing.

Today as I was sitting in the Schippol airport in Amsterdam on two separate occasions, a stranger reminded me of something or realized something I had not. In the first case, I would have left my credit card. He caught me before I have even moved and I thanked him profusely. In the second case 20 € had fallen out of my pocket and a person behind me realized my loss and let me know. In both cases, neither person was American, they were simply doing the gracious thing and in both cases I told them thank you more than once. They smiled and told me they were glad to help me. I could tell from accents that one was probably Dutch and the other perhaps Spanish. As I noted in both a FB posting and in a previous blog, each place I spent any significant time during this journey, I was provided the most wonderful support by persons I had met earlier in my life, some as long as two decades ago, some within the last four years. Yet, again in each place I was introduced to still more people who blessed me with their kindnesses day in and day out. This trip I was both on my own, but never really alone long. In fact, today was the day I have been most on my own. As I write this, we about to land in Kraków. It is after 10:00 at night and I have one last ride to my hotel. We have just been informed it is 0 C and snowing, so it is the January Kraków I know and love. Indeed, it looks much more like winter than when I left only about two weeks ago. My Uber chauffeur said it had snowed quite a bit the last two days and it was supposed to snow for a couple more. However, by the time I got to Warsaw, the snow was gone. Perhaps one of the things I have found l perhaps less appealing about travel is the actual flying. I remember when, once upon a time (and it certainly feels fairytale like) that getting on a plane was exciting and rather sophisticated. Those days are gone for sure. I think the change post-911 has a great deal to do with that. In addition, navigating lines, smaller seating with more people and quicker turn around times all seem to raise the stress of this formerly exciting adventure. Today I am on a truly international flight as the plane is AirItaly, but the flight is managed by Polish Lot. We are on an Airbus 330 and it is an incredibly full flight. As I write now we are about 6 hours into a 9 hour flight. Perhaps 45 minutes off the coast of Newfoundland. I think I have been aboard a flight of the most restless individuals ever. The man behind me, who is a towering presence, and whose son must me next to me has spent more time standing in the aisle with his hand on the back of my seat than sitting. When I got up to go to the bathroom, it was impossible to get by him and he stood there and is so mammoth, he really could not move out of the way. He could have sat back down, but that did not seem to occur to him. On the way back to the bathroom, I encountered the same issue twice and when I returned to my seat, I waited in the central emergency door area waiting for the same man to move away from my seat. Twenty minutes later I finally returned and had to softly say, Proszę, paproszzm. Seems what I wrote a few hours ago has come back in spades to quote the saying. I think it must be exponentially more difficult to serve as a flight attendant when there is so much expected. To be continually gracious when the majority of those encountered are not takes some terrific discipline. Again they provide a gift of grace and gratitude as they often attend some who are less than graceful and absolutely less than gracious.

It is still about 6 hours or so before I will make it home. It is usually the case that I am up about 24 hours on these westbound trans-Atlantic hops. I remember two years ago being pulled over by Pennsylvania State Patrol because I wandered across a lane marker at 1:00 a.m on an early Saturday morning. Both Dr. P and a student were with me. I was 2 1/2 miles from my I-80 exit. Fortunately, I think this is where age assisted me. I told the trooper that I have begun the day in Poland and was a bit tired. I noted I had crossed the line. He took my information and when he returned he noted my insurance card had expired the week before. He was certainly gracious and issued no tickets. I was polite and thanked him for his kindness. Tickets, troopers, and traffic stops are definitely a time to use your best manners. I can say with the no milking of doubt that I have never gotten rude when being pulled over. It does not happen often and even less often as I have aged, but being gracious has saved me dollars and points in my license. In fact, twice in the State of Kansas, it probably kept me out of jail. Seriously!! Amazing how fast 280ZX could travel on flat open highway at 3:30 a.m.. I have made it home and it is about 1:00a.m. and contrary to the immediately prior sentence, there was no reason to pull me over. I am a bit more judicious about my driving at this point in time. In the spirit of transparency, there was a time I did end up in jail because of a traffic issue and even then I was told as I was released that I might have been the most polite temporary inmate they ever had. Even later when I dealt with the fallout of that transgression, I was honest about the circumstance, and polite, and the city attorney responded that he was sorry he even had to charge me. He was incredibly understanding and allowed me to postpone the reduced fine and sentence for 6 months in order to manage other issues I needed to manage.

The point of this post is simple, but, in light of our present national atmosphere, also of utmost urgency. What will it take to become a country, where currently anger, vitriol, and figure pointing are the order of the day, to return to a place where manners are commonplace, that even spirited discussion can create a common goal, or we choose to look for goodness rather than discord is the norm rather than the exception. It is something we are taught early on to be polite, to listen first, to question, but do so respectfully. What happened? I think the answer is complex and multi-faceted, but I also believe it begins at home. Teaching tolerance and acceptance, modeling love and gratitude, demonstrating charity and generosity are a beginning; then expecting that it be practiced (and that means required) regularly would go miles in reorienting our present national direction. I believe in freedom of speech and the right to assemble, but when what comes from such speech or assembly is ranting and unrest, it only exacerbates the problem. Too often mob mentality becomes the rule, but it goes back to this idea that gratefulness is a gift to be given. Anything we have has been given; yes, you have worked for much, but someone offered you the opportunity to work, regardless your station. You have perhaps saved and gone without, but someone helped you along the way. None of us gets where they are (if you have moved forward) alone. Somewhere someone helped you. Someone was gracious and gifted you. If we might all begin to gift back, what could we accomplish? Who might we collectively become? Not the usual sort of musical offering, but there is much more to Marley than some think.

Thanks for reading as always,

Dr. Martin

Life Marches By

Hello from my office,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Martin

 

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

Creating Closure

Grace at Celtic Woman

Good Morning from Pennsylvania, from the Upper Sanctum, from an airport, from Fog and Flame,

I have been working on this blog for more than three weeks, but there have been so many things on my plate that it got pushed off the stove. As I write this part, I am here in Menomonie, having been here since last Wednesday evening. My life is been a whirlwind of emotions since arriving. The burial of George and Lydia, the memorial gathering for Lydia this past Saturday, and actually realizing that my time in Menomonie, and the actual need to be here, has come to a close, forces me to admit that the significant chapter in my life will soon be closed in some ways. My time here in Wisconsin was the longest time that I had spent in any one place since graduating from high school over 40 years ago. I will actually surpass that later this year in Bloomsburg. In spite of that, Menomonie and Wisconsin will always, in some aspect, be my home. It was the home of my predecessors, my ancestors. The memories and the time both professionally and personally shaped many of the things that I now hold valuable. Lydia taught me what it meant to give, at least in giving as far as resources. While I have always been a giving person as far as time and energy, it was in the giving of resources that she changed my life and I have worked to change the lives of others. That is my lasting legacy to you Lydia, to give as you did. I also need to listen to you more carefully as you used to admonish me to be careful in my giving.

The cascading emotions that I’ve gone through in the past week as I walked the places we had walked together, be the hallways of COH or Lammers grocery store, while they memories were joyful the emotions were sad and I cried. Anyone who would’ve seen me in the grocery store the other day would have come to the conclusion that I probably had significant problems. I’m staying away from fast food, but I had to go to Burger King last night because it’s the first place you and I had ever eaten together. I could see you clear as day wrapping up the remaining fries for “the little ones”. If you were watching us, as I’m sure you are, I’m pretty sure you know we are overwhelmed trying to imagine the best way to manage your estate. I know that Nate and I have very different concerns and different needs. I’m glad that you chose to give the house to him. I’ve been fortunate to have people in the little house. As I walked around the property in your yard I could see you with your broom. I was pleased when people told me that I have kept the property up in a way that you would’ve been proud. I’m not totally convinced of that as far as the yard, but then again it is winter.

Last evening I said my goodbyes to a variety of people they all asked if I would be coming back. There’s still stuff to do and I have to pack some things to move to Pennsylvania now, so the last part of May I will be in the house. However I know that will be the last time. Thank you for sharing such a magnificent place with me. Thank you for sharing such an astounding life with me; thank you for allowing me to share my life with you. When I have spoken with people these last days, the thing I heard repeatedly was how we took care of each other. I don’t know that I saw it as taking care of you, but rather we cared about each other and we grew to love each other. I know that you became a parent, a mother, to me as I told you that last night. When you whispered to me ” I know.”, the last words you spoke to me, I knew that hearing as your last words as such an affirmation was an unequaled gift to me. After the trip in May and the completion of gathering my belongings, a chapter of my life, a paramount portion of my life, will be completed. There will no longer be either a responsibility or requirement for me to return; yet, I cannot imagine never visiting there again. There are fond memories of people and events. What I have realized this past week is it is not about the things, in spite of some of their stunning beauty, it is about people and the memories created.

It is almost the end of spring break when I realized I’ve pretty much gone through the motions for the last three months. I’ve gotten done what is absolutely necessary and yet not even that’s true. What I’m realizing is that losing Lydia has affected me more than I knew. Even though I’ve been 1000 miles away for the past six years, part of my heart was still Menomonie. That too has had consequences. I have realized that from time to time.The other day someone wrote a post of the following meme: “you know how deeply you loved by how deeply you grieve.” Last night I went to see Celtic Woman for the third time. While I greatly enjoyed each concert I have attended, last night was special. First, I was able to go with Grace, who was kind enough to step in and use my second ticket. We had a wonderful time. Second, the concert itself was phenomenal. There was more Irish and Gaelic than previous concerts;  there was more dancing. Two of the three main primaries, I had seen or heard before. The newest member, Mairead Carlin, at least to me, was sensational. The two men dancing astounded me. Somehow it’s apropos that I went to see them only a few days before St. Patrick’s Day. It is still one of my deep desires to travel to Ireland and if I could make it happen when they were there performing and see them in concert there, that might just complete my bucket list. A year ago I was writing about culture and ethnic background. I wrote that blog sitting in the Fog and Flame, and ironically I plan to spend a good part of the day there today. It is time for me to get more disciplined more focused and to make some tough decisions. Yesterday I had the opportunity to speak with a former colleague and she pushed me to think about things in ways I’m generally unwilling to do so. She was insightful, honest, and helpful. What is it that allows us to feel fulfilled, to feel accomplished,  or as I noted before, to be content. You might note that the first two of the previous list were to feel, the last one was to be.I do not want to feel content, I want to be content. I believe it is so much more than just checking things off or completing a bucket list. I believed to be truly content would allow someone to be truly happy. Through my conversation yesterday, I’ve been awakened or realized once again that maybe giving does not automatically create or equal happiness. There is more to understand. I am in the Fog and Flame now and I am editing and proofreading before posting. There is a concept; it is something I preach, but need to practice.

It is now three weeks since I have posted and what I realize is that life is unpredictable regardless how much we might plan. I’m quite sure that she did not plan her life to end quite as it did. I can actually imagine that she would’ve been content to go to the garage and turn on the car as she had threatened to do and she fallen off the roof. Again, I feel compelled to consider the letter someone sent arguing that she should’ve been allowed to live in her house until her last days. How do I allow that to happen when the consequence was likely would’ve been more tragic than being in a place where the caregivers actually cared for her and loved her? I know with all my heart that I did the best for her I could because I promised to do so. It’s only three weeks from now that Lydia would’ve been at COH for four years. So much as happened in that time; and there were a myriad of things to attend to both around the property and in her immediate care. Again, in both cases, I worked to do the best I could to keep the promise made almost 8 years ago sitting at Perkins one morning eating breakfast. There are still things I must do to complete all that’s been asked, all that was promised. Some of those who have known her for years told me that I had done really well and II had done an outstanding job of providing care for her. While their words are meaningful, and I am certainly grateful, ultimately, what matters is what she thought. I think they are summed up in the last night I saw her living. As I cried on her shoulder and I told her she had become my mother all of the sudden she began to rub the back of my head, and as I looked into amazing blue eyes one last time she whispered softly, “I know.” Those two words are perhaps the most amazing gifts I’ve ever been given.

Last night during the concert they sang the song I most appreciate about immigrants and those people coming to this country to make a life for themselves. It is actually one of my favorite Celtic Woman songs, “Isle of Tears,”  and as the music began before the lyrics (and I am not quite sure of the name of the instrument which creates a sort of a mournful oboe tone – it is called Uilleann Pipes) I told Grace that I dedicated this song to Lydia. I’m hoping I might find a YouTube video of it and I will post it at the end of this blog. While I’ve had to start over my life from time to time, it was not when I was 15 or 17 or to come to a new country and learn a new language. When I generally take time to ponder and think about what Lydia accomplished, I am more and more astounded by this amazing little woman (4’10” and 90 pounds). From time to time I complain about such minor things in comparison. It is interesting to me that the persons who become closest of my life are those persons who understand their heritage, live and celebrate that heritage, and understand the complexity of our diversity. What I’ve realized again is how little I know how much there is yet to learn. And learn is what I want to do. I want to learn languages;  I want to learn the culture; I want to learn what’s important to them and to me. To understand the differences and appreciate those differences. I want to help people realize through my own actions that reaching out to those we meet bridges gaps, provides understanding and opportunity, and makes our lives better.  While there is much more I could write I need to focus on some work and I should get something posted as it is been too long. Lydia I will continue to work diligently to complete the things I promised. Grace thank you for going to the concert with me last night. To all of you who continue to read this blog and follow me I’m grateful for each of you.

I will actually share two videos with you. This YouTube video I created of the University of Wisconsin-Stout remembering Lydia, an amazing educator, a phenomenal intellect, and a woman who changed by life. I miss you, Lydia. The second video is the video of the song I dedicated to you last night as I listened to the concert.

Michael (Dr. Martin)

Ending Life (or anything else) with Dignity

Scan 775

Good evening,

If you are wondering who that person is with the dog, it is me when I was about 25 years younger. That was a cocker spaniel purchased when I lived in Pennsylvania the first time. As a Lutheran pastor at the time, I named him Luther, so his name was Luther Martin. Sad, I know, but I did it. While I need to grade I cannot concentrate and I feel it is not possible for me to give students reasonable feedback at the moment. For the third time in 4 days I have received a call from Wisconsin about Lydia. She is fading and her doctor actually told me that I should be prepared for that phone call. While I am sure that is what she would wish for herself at this point if she were cognizant of what has become of her 90 years, and it is truly want I want for her, I am realizing how hard it is to let her go. While I am not her son, I have become the son she never had. I have noted this before and I believe it to be true with all of my heart. I wish I could have a conversation with her that would tell her how much I love her and appreciate who she is and what she has accomplished in her life. I wish I could see those sparkling eyes once again brimming with all she knew and understood. I wish I could see the radiant smile that she had once again, in spite of the fact she never thought she took a good picture. I learned so much merely watching her and sharing time with her. It is hard to believe I have been part of her life and she mine for more than 10 years.

From the time when I was a parish pastor, not all that far from where I now live, I remember that I probably did more funerals around the holidays than any other time of the year. I wonder if she realizes it is almost Christmas. Lydia did not really like Christmas or any holiday for that matter. I am not sure why that was. I think it was probably because it is a time we remember family and the way in which she lost her family was pretty horrific and so I imagine it was related to those connective experiences. She did like Good Friday. That was the one time she asked to go to church and she lit her candles and said her prayers publicly. I also remember that trying to buy a present for her was pretty difficult. The only thing she would not take back was crystal. I learned that she liked it and she was happy to receive it. I once tried to purchase a new wrist watch for her. She had me take it back three times before we could find something she deemed acceptable. Once I bought her a birthday present and she took it back and I did not even realize I had a significant credit at that place for months. She was so eccentric in that way. During the past months (and actually years considering her situation), I have pondered if it is worse to become a shell, merely existing and having your mind disappear or is it worse to have control of your faculties and some other sort of disease ravages your body and you are aware of your demise. I have watched Lydia for over three and a half years at Comforts of Home and the person she was when she first began her residency there and the person she is now does not resemble the person she was then, either physically or mentally. It is actually tragic. I am quite sure that I have a different feeling about the young woman who decided to end her life on her terms. At one point, both the pastor and the human part of me would have regarded such a path with disdain. I lived in the Detroit area when Jack Kevorkian was on his mission to help people end their lives and I remember being really conflicted with what was happening. He seemed ghoulish to me. As I have watched Lydia progress and lose so much of who she was, it is unbelievably challenging to watch and see the person she has become. Let me note that the care she receives is outstanding for the most part, and the administrator of her particular COH is a phenomenal young woman who cares deeply about the people in that facility. That does make Lydia’s situation more tolerable for me, especially when I am 1,000 miles away.

It is Thursday of finals week and things are drawing to a close. It is always an interesting time to observe everyone, students and faculty alike. As students it is amazing to see how they step up to the plate and try to put on a game-face, if you will. Some have done their work throughout the semester and you can see they have a clear sense of purpose and trying to finish up, ending the semester in as strong of a manner as humanly possible. There are the other students who have been less than stellar at claiming the opportunities of the semester and the last week and a half is their desperate attempt to make up for their sins of omission. One student in particular stopped by the office today wondering where his grade was headed. I can honestly say (as I did) that I did not know. While I think I did some outstanding teaching this semester, I think the place I fell down was in my grading in a timely way. I am paying for that now, and it is why I will stay up  as late as my somewhat weakened body will allow. I have been in bed earlier over the past month than I have probably since I was in elementary or middle school. The number of nights I have been in bed before 10 would shock most of you who have known me in the past 35 years. The days of 3 or 4 hours of sleep do not happen any longer. It frustrates me to no end, but it is my reality. Another student said that he or she hoped their hard work now would at least get them passing grades. That is a very sad statement, for a number of reasons, but the one I am going to note is an economic one. To merely be average, which is what I tell students from the very first day of my Foundations class (FYC) is not a good plan. Especially when there are 15 million college students between the ages of 18-23 in college at the moment. The competition for a reasonably well paying position, particularly after spending 100K (on the low end) for a bachelors degree, has never been greater. While I try to relay that message from the get-go to my students, there are many who simply do not pay close attention to it. Some end up leaving with an unbelievable debt and not much to show for it; some think transferring to another school will take care of it (one stopped by my office today and is actually transferring back). The only thing that takes care of the things needed to succeed in college is hard work (discipline to do hard work, perhaps more succinctly). I must say, this semester I think I have had some of the most insightful students I have had in a long time. This morning as I gave my Bible as Literature Final, it was gratifying to see that group of students and the sort of family they have become in that class. I referred to them as the Faithful Remnant. They are an extraordinary group. I will miss them greatly. I think there might need to be a sort of gathering at a 40 day mark of something . . . sounds Biblical enough. Yet, I had quite a similar experience in my capstone class, Writing in the Professions. They worked terrifically hard on two major projects during the semester and they created strong and professional work. Experiential learning  is such a different sort of process when you are working for actual clients and you are responsible to each other as well as to a professional situation outside the class. I am always stunned at what they accomplish and what they learn ( I am not surprised that they do the work, but rather at some of unexpected learning moments along the way) . In that class there was also the sense of a small company or a group of people who cared deeply about the other people, about their colleagues. It is so enjoyable to experience. It is fun to see the lights turn on and they get excited about real positions or internships and moving beyond the classroom.

I think about Lydia in the classroom and I have tried to imagine what she must have been like. I know there were times when we would be out and people would come up to her and recognize her and say, “Professor Rutkowski . . . .” She was always shocked and she would say to me in her Austrian accent, “Michael, I do not know how they recognize me.” It was always so cute because she was so befuddled. My response was simple. “I have no problem understanding why they recognize you.” She was not pleased by that response, but it was what it was. If I posted a series of Lydia pictures here, you would understand completely why I might respond as I did. I have actually taken the time to look at some of her notes. She was meticulous in her preparation for class, and to say she had command of her subject matter would be a gross understatement. There are local people in Menomonie who had her in class and they say she was unbelievably tough, but they learned so much from her. I think she and I have some similarities. I have been told similar things. Yet, like her, I am not nearly as tough as people think. That is one of my downfalls, however; I have been too willing to give. I have learned that lesson the hard way and it is one of the things I am working on changing. While I do not want to be a hard-ass, I have learned that giving to people unconditionally can lead to a lot of hurt and difficulties. One of the things I know is that I have spent a lot less money eating out the last three or four months than I did the previously. There are a couple of reasons for that, but I have certainly noticed the difference. In addition, I have learned the hard way once again, in more than one situation, that others best intentions are generally not more than that.

The next year I will deal with things very differently across the board. I do want to end what I have been doing with a sense of dignity, however. That is not to say I won’t help people, or I will, in political terms, become isolationist, I have spoken with a couple of people about a particular mutual situation, but as I did once this past year (and most of my life), I will not be as understanding when their word is not kept. I have never really been a person to push the other, but I have learned this past year to do some of that. In fact, as I had a colleague over for dinner tonight, the person I put into the legal system (or more accurately, she put herself there) stopped by with another payment. I anticipate it is going to happen again (probably more than once). I will try my best to not be rude; I will merely stand up for myself. If people think I am being harsh or unreasonable, I guess that is what will happen. On the other hand, I need to continue to work on some things both professionally and personally. I will be focusing on three things this coming semester: my teaching, directing the program and shepherding the revision process, and writing for publication. Having gotten one of the hurdles cleared this week, I can focus. The second thing is to work on my personal life. There are a couple of important components, but I hope to continue to make progress in the one battle. The second component is working with a situation that is important to me in a number of ways and I hope to do some of that initial work during the break. Finally it is to make sure that I take care of myself across the board and end my own issues with dignity. It is possible and important for me to do so.

Well, I am going to go back to my grading. My mind is clearer and I am ready to focus. As always, thanks for reading.

Michael (and in the grading realm, Dr. Martin)