Gratefulness 40 Years in the Making

Cześć w chłodniejszy poranek z Krakowa,

What I have said is “hello on a cooler morning” from the sort of intellectual capital of Poland, the former capitol city, Kraków. It is actually by 7th time to this city of a little over a million people. With sites like Wawel Castle, the picture at the top of this post, Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter of the city, Oskar Schindler’s factory and the second oldest university in Central Eastern Europe, each day is a living, walking-tour through 8 centuries of history (or more), but the importance of Kraków as a trading, political, and religious hub begins in the 13th century. Each time I return, I am amazed by some source of beauty and what seems to be of significance that I might have missed on a previous visit. My trip to Kraków comes on the heels of 5 days in Moscow, a first time for me to be in Russia, and before I begin another Polish language immersion for 7 weeks. In 1980/81 I traveled to Europe for the first time, allowed the opportunity by the yearly interim travels of Dr. John W. Nielsen, and the generosity of Harold and Dorothy Wright, who unexpectedly and through no deserving on my part, paid my way to participate on that class, appropriately titled “Auguries of Loneliness.” There was so much to learn on that trip and part of it was health things, which I now know were a precursor to what has happened since.

That trip was more than merely reading Hemingway and Mann for me; it was infinitely more than traveling to places I had only observed or pondered in our Humanities art or religion lectures. It was a life-altering experience; it was an awakening to learning how to learn. It was a realization that America, in its youthful arrogance, was much more a product of millenniums of progress than we might care to admit. From sitting in a pub with a shot of aquavit and an elephant beer to walking through St. Peter’s Basilica, from listening to the music of Buxtehude, the Danish/German organist at the Cathedral in Lûbeck, to tromping through the snow in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, my life was going through a daily transformation that provided an astounding foundation for the person I am today. When I went to Europe as a sophomore student at Dana, I was not a typical sophomore, I was 25 years old and I had already spent time in the Marine Corps. As I have previously noted, if it had not been for a couple other veteran students (Mike Keenan first comes to mind because we both ended up on 4 North Holling as freshmen), I am not quite sure how that first year might have gone. Yet, as a person beyond the typical college age, there was so much to learn both intellectually and academically (and they are not the same), but I did not realize what that even meant at the time. It was more than memorizing and then regurgitating what I had studied. It was so much more about synthesis and integration and understanding that we are products of our historical and cultural background. That is what professors like Drs. Nielsen (all three of them), Olsen, Brandes, Bansen, Jorgensen, or Stone would teach me. That is what Hum events, a student church council, and choir tours would engrain in me.

This summer I am back to Kraków for yet another visit. While more of them have been in the role of the Pope and bringing students, this one is again (for a second summer) about being a student and taking a Polish language immersion class. It is about preparing for an event that is still more than a year away. I have been invited to teach technical writing at the School of Polish Language and Culture at Jagiellonian University. The university is the second oldest in Eastern/Central Europe and the alma mater of Nikolas Kopernikus (Polish spelling), and Pope John Paul II. It is overwhelming to consider that I am walking in the same hallways as such people and being offered the opportunity to teach in the spaces. I am reminded in a world that has become increasingly nationalistic that the faculty of this university were all imprisoned when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. The Jewish Quarter in this town is next to Oskar Schindler’s factory, and the town of Oświęcim is nearby (you know it by it more infamous German name: Auschwitz). After education, travel and cultural immersion are, I believe, the best way to spend one’s money.  Through the immersion of being in that place, the cultural experiences and learning the language of the other helps one begins to understand how they think and what they value. That realization came from sitting in Bodil Johnson’s German class for me. It came from the struggles I remember in Dr. Delvin Hutton’s Greek course.

I remember the day I received a message that Dorothy Wright wished to speak to me in Parnassus. I walked from Holling to PM and trudged up the to the second floor late afternoon on a rather blustery fall day. Dorothy pulled me aside to sit at one of the tables and told me she had known my grandmother. If you have read this blog with any frequency, and one post just recently, you know that my grandmother was (and is) my hero. Dorothy and she were acquainted somehow (I think Eastern Star). She inquired about my going to Europe with Dr. Nielsen for interim. I had attended the interest meetings, but because I was paying my own way through college, there was no way I could afford the $1,500.00 the trip would cost. When I informed her that I had decided not to go, she asked if finances were an issue. I told her (somewhat lying) that it was one of the issues. In reality it WAS the issue. Then she informed me that she and her husband, Harold, were willing to pay my way. I was dumbfounded. I asked her if I could think about it for a day. She said, “Certainly.” And I was allowed to go. I do not think my feet touched the ground all the way back to Holling Hall. The Wright’s generosity changed my life. Through that interim class of 1980-81, both the places and some of the people, I was transformed into a person who wanted to be a sponge and learn everything I could. I have often noted that trip is what encouraged me to believe I could eventually go on an get a PhD and (want to) become a professor. This past year, through the generosity of yet another amazing woman, I was able to endow two travel abroad scholarship funds where I presently teach. One is in the name of that latest benefactor and the other is in honor of Harold and Dorothy Wright.

I was in Blair one day in early June for only a few hours. I did stop to see Dorothy, who is still alive and quite well. I wanted to thank her in person for what she had done for me almost 40 years ago. We, as Dana alumni, speak regularly about what was (and is) called the Dana Difference. Harold and Dorothy Wright are a prime example of that difference. They reached out to a young man who was not a typical student, but who was, much like many others, trying to figure it all out. If it were not for an incredibly brilliant man, who began at Dana and obtained his PhD from Oxford, and his willingness to do all the tedious and laborious work to arrange such interims, 100s of students would be less culturally aware than they are. Dr. Nielsen’s insatiable passion for teaching others both in the typical and the global classroom is still affecting me. He set the bar high for those who want to emulate what he did. There is a bit of an irony that 46 years ago to the day as I write this, I was taking my first plane ride to MCRD (Marine Corps Recruit Depot) in San Diego, California. Certainly my time in the Marines would shape many of the attitudes and practices I still hold today. However, there have been so many plane trips since then. Dr. Nielsen took me on my first trip to Europe. This trip is my thirteenth, and has included five days in Moscow to visit the Russian student I had in class this past year. While it was only a layover, I was also in Finland for the first time. Beginning next week, I will be taking Polish (a second immersion class) 5 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 6 weeks. The plan is to do the same next summer. While I will teach the fall of 2020 in English, I want to be able to communicate on a normal level with my students in Polish.

Slavic languages are inflection languages meaning that the endings of the words are changed to reflect how the word is being used in the sentence (a quick example in Polish is the word for cheese. Ser is the word for cheese, but to denote something with cheese it would be serem). It has not been difficult to understand the grammar for me, but there are seven cases instead of four and there are sounds that our English-speaking mouths are not used to creating. There are also sounds that my 60+ year old ears have some difficulty ascertaining. That is part of the fun. While I can say simple things from my first foray into the language, it is my hope that the summer course will create a more profound foundation usage of this language, one that overlaps Czech, Slovak, Russian, and Ukrainian. Grammatically there is a lot of similarity, but the Latin versus the Cyrillic alphabet creates an additional learning curve. I am also grateful to my Bloomsburg colleague, Dr. Mykola Polyhua, who has been so gracious in creating the foundations and relationships I now have here. Gratefulness is not something that occurs once and disappears. It is something that becomes part of who we are. It changes us, and allows us to hopefully change the lives of others. What I know as I am into my 60s is I have learned so much, and yet there is still so much to learn. I was thinking about it as I walked the streets of what is called Stare Miasto (Old Town) today. If all goes according to plan I will turn 65 when I am in Poland next year for a six month trip of more language and teaching. Some ask me when I am going to retire. It is one of the questions I guess people feel compelled to ask as they see my white whiskers and grey hair. I have no plans, at least presently, to do so. I am so blessed to be able to do what I do and love doing it. Again, the very fact that I can say any of that is because of Harold and Dorothy. Their generosity changed my life. I had no idea that a requested meeting in Parnassus would be so life-changing, but it has been exactly that . . . and for that I am grateful beyond words. As I work at the table in my little Air BnB, I am still astounded by the fact that I am able to be 4,400 miles from my home doing what I love to do and having a job that allows and encourages me to do so. Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, where I teach and direct a Professional and Technical Writing program, has been so supportive of my work and continues to be so. It is yet another place to which and whom I am grateful. I feel undeserving of such blessings, but somehow, I have been blessed beyond measure. I hope to be half as much a blessing to others. My thoughts about a sort of paying it forward as they say. Somehow this song came to mind.

Thank you always for reading.

Dr. Michael 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


Being Blessed

مرحبا على السبت الأول الجميل من الخريف,

or in letters more of you can read, Hello on a beautiful first Saturday in Autumn. If I were to transliterate the Arabic above it would read: marhabaan ealaa alsabt al’awal aljamil min alkharif.  Language fascinates me. I tell my students regularly, learning another language or even studying another language will change your world. It opens doors, promotes understanding and provides an opportunity to begin understanding another person, but much more than merely recognizing and translating their words. That understanding includes a more inclusive realizing how they think and seeing what they value. I have finally come to know what it is I wish I had done with my education and where I think I might have truly been most satisfied if I had studied something in particular, not saying I regret what I know or what I teach in any such way. However, if I had a chance to begin again, I would study linguistics  and I would want to be moderately fluent in as many languages as possible. If I were independently wealthy, I would travel and try to live in a country for about two years to learn their language to at least a degree in which I could communicate and speak with the native population more than just adequately and then move and do it again. I love how words, word order, sentence structure, or issues of syntax, etymology, and dialect can reveal so much about both an individual or a culture.

I have a colleague who amazes me by his ability to move seamlessly between cultures and countries because of ability to speak multiple languages. He is the most adept polyglot I have ever met. He is also a former medical doctor and specialist. That raises an entirely separate issue about people who immigrate here with professional degtrees, and their credentials are often not accepted here, and that can be anything from engineering to law to most any kind of medicine. They bring so many skills and levels of ability, talent or expertise, and it seems all too often we ignore or merely discount what they bring. This is both arrogant and foolish, or at least it appears so. Even if we required some sort of trial period or internship, which might still seem a bit elitist, at least it provides some opportunity for them to continue to use and offer their particular expertise to their new homeland. In addition, we have a skilled group who often is bi- or tri-lingual. This would be a much better use of people, and also give those who come a sense of welcome and appreciation versus an attitude of “you offer little,” and we are doing your sorry-ass a favor. How foolish can we be?

As previously mentioned in my more recent blogs, I have had the opportunity and more accurately the honor to have a house guest the past five weeks. It truly is an honor to be trusted by the extended family to have her in my home. She has brought such joy and a sense of comfort and goodness to this house. Those who know me, know I have worked diligently, and thoughtfully, to create a welcoming space for anyone who visits, be it for a few hours, a few days, or even a few weeks. I have had people here for a few months. Again, I have noted there are also times when I enjoy my solitude, and my ability to close the world out, while still providing access to the outside, but only if and when I make a decision to do so. However, the last five weeks have been such a positive thing, I must say, I am not looking forward to her leaving. She has made my house feel like a home in a more profound way than perhaps I have ever known it to be. She is gracious and hard working. She is polite and thoughtful in everything she does. She asks for nothing and is instantly ready to give. She has been the ideal house guest, housemate, surrogate daughter, or blessing I could ever hope to have. We have both gotten to know each other more completely, more openly, more, profoundly, which was expected by both of us, but more effortlessly than I believed either of us could have hoped for.

This weekend, the extended family came to visit.. What a fabulous thing it has been to have three generations of her family here. Yabba, as their father or grandfather is called, is a stately, slender, and kind gentleman who loves his family with all of his being. He has thinning hair, if you can see that high because he is very tall, a gray mustache and twinkling eyes that express both wisdom and mischief. While he wears a hearing aid, do not believe for a second he is not cognizant of what is happening around him. He has stories and he was a wise, albeit too kind, businessman at times, or so it seems. It was both an honor and joy to meet him. His daughter, and the mother of my house guest, is an outstanding story in her own right. She has endured so much more than either her appearance or demeanor would ever reveal. She is the center of the family in any way you might consider. She simultaneously cares for Yabba, who has some serious issues, and is, of course, elderly, and she keeps better tabs on four offspring than I think even they realize. It is evident she relishes her role as both mother and daughter, but she is so much more. She is a faithful member of her community; when she visits, she brings enough wonderfully prepared food to feed a regiment, and she is always in control of her situation. After spending the weekend, she had purchased everything she could imagine to take to her next destination where her two sons are living. Finally, a sister and cousins were here. While they are certainly a normal family with personalities and some bumps and bruises, what was most evident was an abiding and unifying love that was the core and center of all they did. It was fund to hear so many speaking Arabic, though I understood basically nothing. They were the most gracious house guests one could ever hope to have.

It is hard to believe that a five week rotation will be ending in less than 48 hours. While I was excited to have my former summer student come back, there was a sense of surprise when it got here. Not because of the unexpected, but rather because I knew, in many ways, what to expect, but the surprises were to learn more about Islam, and, perhaps, more significantly, to see this person for whom I have such great respect, live this faith (with amazing faithfulness, I might add) and understand more fully what it means for her to be Muslim. We both believed we would learn to know each other more completely through sharing a living space together. While the truth of such a statement is obvious, the reality of what that means is still being determined. What it has meant for me is that having a person to share my house once again has made it a home. As noted, she is almost the perfect house guest (at least for me and my idiosyncrasies) because she is incredibly neat, communicates what she is thinking and doing, and totally self-sufficient, but willing to work together on things. I will miss her more than any words can express. Her rotatioN has been trying and demanding, but not surprisingly, she has managed it well, and I am quite sure her final evaluation will be quite stellar. I am glad she has felt comfortable enough to express her joys and concerns about that experience. I think my being a professor and academic has offered insight at times she might not have had. I have tried to do some little thing each day this week and through out conversations, I think we have both grown to appreciate and love the other in ways that make our surrogate father/daughter bond something all that more profound than it already was.  Ertainly a strong bond was there before she arrived in late August. Now it is beyond what I think either of us imagined. Not that we walked in imagining anything in particular, but now I think I have been blessed to become part of another family. Blessed beyond measure as the saying says. Before her grandfather left, he hugged me and thanked me for caring for his granddaughter; before she left, I was invited to accompany them to Egypt. What gifts I have been given by such amazing people.

As I write this I am reminded that 40 years ago I lost my own grandparent, the grandparent who had been my mother, my protector, my supporter. I have written about her before, but it is hard to believe that it was 2 score years ago. I am approaching the age she was when she passed. I remember at that point thinking she was not that old, but certainly old enough that death seemed to be a reasonable possibility. It is so much different as I approach that age. I noted in a recent blog about decades and one of my newer students let me know quite emphatically that I should plan to be around for more years than a decade. That is sweet of them to think that. I find myself imagining life in the more finished that ongoing manner, but that is not to say that I want to be finished. There is still much to do and much I hope to accomplish. I think the difference is I do not feel as if I have not lived life. I do not feel as if there are things I have to do, but rather they are things I hope to do. That is a good thing, or at least I think it is. I still remember receiving the call that my grandmother had passed. I was in Ames, Iowa and it was just months after the loss of my older brother. It was stunning to me, but it was also the first time in my life where I had to be accountable for what seemed to be a rather benign choice. I had promised her I would visit her the last time I was in Sioux City before I returned and then failed to do so. I did take the time to call her from a phone booth (remember those?) on Highway 71 in Carroll, IA before I got back to Ames, and I am glad I did. Before I would get home again, she passed away. I was devastated by that loss. It was warm in the cemetery that day, much like it has been this past week. I remember crying and sobbing more than I ever had before, and probably since.

Amazing how our lives move us forward and simultaneously remembering the past. I am blessed by so many things in the present, but in looking back, those blessing that have had significant influence on me in the past also come to mind. I am much like what Norman Maclean notes in his final words of his novella, A River Runs through It. He wrote what is in the video below. It is one of the most profound scenes in any movie I have ever watched. The book is equally magnificent. I am grateful to Timo Koskinen, my former colleague and friend, and somewhat of a mentor to me, for introducing me to the novella.

Thanks as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

El lado melancolía de la esperanza 


Buenas Domingo Dias,

es un día al grado, pero ha sido una mañana y pensar que lo que me parece que gastar una gran cantidad de tiempo haciendo aquí últimamente. Recuerdo que uno de mis ex estudiantes señaló que tengo un lado melancólico a mi personalidad y de acuerdo con ella. Aquellos de ustedes que están siguiendo mi blog con alguna regularidad probablemente notará, al menos, que siempre me pregunto al tipo de ¿qué pasa si? tipo de pregunta. Todavía me pregunto cómo tengo esta sensación de tristeza, a pesar del hecho de que todavía estoy aparentemente contenido y agradable para la mayoría de la gente que conozco. De hecho, cuando Lydia me preguntaba cada mañana cómo estaba, me generalmente responder, ‘No tengo problemas. ‘ Ella respondía con su ceño fruncido típica y luego decirme que yo era demasiado amable o demasiado feliz. Sin embargo, no estoy seguro de si estoy del todo feliz. Me gusta la gente y me gusta ver y aprender de la gente, pero me parece que llegar nunca al lugar donde estoy relajada y totalmente satisfechos con dónde están las cosas. Casi siempre me siento que hay algo aún por hacer, o más exactamente, algo que debería estar haciendo. Creo que es esa sensación de no estar terminado o todavía necesitan hacer algo de manera más eficaz, más eficiente, más bien, que es mi más potente némesis. Me hubiera gustado que me podría encontrar ese lugar donde yo puedo decir, ‘Está bien. ‘ De nuevo, si has leído los blogs escritos anteriormente, usted sabrá de dónde viene esta enfermedad.

Creo que la consecuencia más importante de esta sensación de ‘debe hacer mejor’ es que yo no soy capaz de dejar ir o relajarse. Además, yo no celebro los éxitos de mi vida; No me tomo el tiempo para ser tan agradecidos por todo con la que he sido bendecido. Eso es triste, y yo lo saben (o yo no estaría escribiendo sobre ello), pero parecen incapaces de superarlo. Hay muy poco que realmente me abruma, ya sea positiva o negativamente. Eso también podría ser una consecuencia de esta necesidad de seguir luchando por la mejora, por algo mejor. Parece que hay un poco de diferencia de ‘verano de mi corazón descontento ‘en los últimos tiempos. Creo que es, en parte, el paso a una nueva década. He encontrado a mí mismo preguntándome qué si yo hubiera trabajado más temprano? ¿Qué pasa si yo tenía mi proverbial ‘mierda juntos’ antes? ¿Tendría todo resultó diferente? Esto no quiere decir, en manera o forma que no soy afortunado o agradecido. Más bien, se preguntaba si yo podría haber sido capaz de ayudar o hacer más. Una vez más, me doy cuenta de que eso significa que estoy haciendo la pregunta de ‘¿es siempre suficiente?’ La semana pasada fue una semana donde me sentí como si estuviera colgando de mis dedos y las uñas se inclinaban más de lo habitual. Incluso le dije a mi jefe de departamento que me sentí abrumado y es muy raro que tengo que admitir ese tipo de cosas, incluso si ocurren con más frecuencia que quisiera admitir.

Ayer hablé con un par por quien tengo el mayor aprecio. Han pasado por mucho para trabajar juntos (incluso conseguir juntos) como pareja. He aprendido más de la lucha que están teniendo con uno de los hijos. Me encontré a mí mismo diciendo cosas mucho más difícil en la medida como una respuesta a este joven de lo que hubiera creído. Yo estaba dispuesto a decir que tiene que salir de la casa si él no está dispuesto a hacer cualquier cosa para mejorarse a sí mismo. Creo que hay mucho que ha hecho de la historia antes difícil, pero no puedo cambiar el pasado. Sólo pueden hacer frente a la actual.Aprendí de nuevo cómo es posible que alguien que ha llegado al país de manera legal y trabaja duro para convertirse en parte de este tejido cultural que llamamos América es tratada como menos porque no son blancos. Es desalentador para mí. Es una de esas cosas en las que quiero levantar mi voz aún más de lo que tengo y decir ‘prestar atención! Todas las vidas son importantes. Sé que hay conversaciones sobre aspectos específicos y puedo apreciar los hashtags, pero en última instancia, cada vida tiene valor. Tenemos que entender eso. Necesitamos creer eso, y entonces tenemos que practicar eso.

Good Sunday Monring,

It is a day to grade, but it has been a morning to drive and think, which what I seem to be spending a great deal of time doing here lately. I am reminded that one of my former students noted that I have a melancholy side to my personality and I agreed with her. Those of you who are following my blog with any regularity will probably note, at the very least, that I am always wondering the sort of what if? sort of question. I still wonder how I have this sense of sadness, in spite of the fact that I am still seemingly content and pleasant to most people I meet. In fact, when Lydia would ask me every morning how I was, I would generally answer, “I have not problems.” I think it is that sense of never being finished or still needing to do something more effectively, more efficiently, more perfectly that is my most potent nemesis. I do wish that I could find that place where I can say, “It is okay.” Again, if you have read previously written blogs, you will know from where this malady comes.

I think the most significant consequence of this feeling of “must do better” is that I am not able to let go or relax. In addition, I do not celebrate the successes of my life; I do not take the time to be as thankful for all with which I have been blessed. That is sad, and I know this (or I would not be writing about it), but I seem incapable of overcoming it. There is very little that actually overwhelms me, either positively or negatively. That also might be a consequence of this need to keep striving for improvement, for something better. There seems to be a bit of difference to “summer of my hearts discontent” as of late. I think it is, in part, the move to a new decade. I have found myself wondering what if I had worked harder earlier? What if I had my proverbial “shit together” earlier? Would it have all turned out differently? This is not to say in way shape or form that I am not fortunate or grateful. Rather, it is wondering if I might have been able to help or do more. Again, I realize that means that I am asking the question of “is it ever enough?” This past week was a week where I felt like I was hanging on by my fingertips and the fingernails were bending more than usual. I even told my department chair that I felt overwhelmed and it is very seldom that I will admit such things, even if they happen more often that I care to admit.

Yesterday I spoke with a couple for whom I have the greatest appreciation. They have gone through so much to work together (to even get together) as a couple. I learned more of the struggle they are having with one of the sons. I found myself saying things much harder as far as a response to this young man than I would have believed. I was willing to say he needs to get out of the house if he is not willing to do anything to better himself. I think there is so much that has made the earlier story difficult, but one cannot change the past. They can only deal with the present. I learned again how it is that someone who has come to the country legally and works hard to become part of this cultural fabric we call America is treated as less than because they are not white. It is discouraging to me. It is one of those things where I want to raise my voice even more than I have and say “pay attention!” All lives matter. I know there are conversations about specifics and I can appreciate those hashtags, but ultimately, every life has value. We need to understand that. We need to believe that, and then we need to practice that.

Okay . . .  I am going to finish this post in English. I have worked hard on my writing and understanding of Spanish, but I need to do a lot work on my speaking and listening yet. I wish I was fluent. It takes practice and time, it is the time and the place I need to be where I am forced to work on it with no options but to learn. Again, I have come a long ways, but I want more. I want to be better. I am not satisfied. What does it take to be satisfied or content. I have noted this once before in a blog, but I find myself here again. I think that is probably why I am told regularly I might have the tightest shoulders and neck that anyone has ever seen. When I was in the Dominican Republic a little over a year (see a blog in August 2014 titled “Michael Jackson and Chocolate,” I think), the masseuse that worked on me said I should go to a massage therapist once a month or so. If I did that I might help myself, but the purpose of this blog is actually to consider the reason for the stress to begin with. I think the issue is simply that I cannot find a sense of contentment. I do believe contentment leads to comfort and relaxation, which can lead a person to being genuinely happy. I think it is the issue of being genuinely happy. There are many who pretend to be happy, but it is a facade. I would not say that what I do is a facade, and in fact, I try my best to be genuine. I think it is that I think too much. Yet, I am not sure that one can do that. Perhaps it is that I think too much about what I can do little, but wish I could do more. Might it be, by so doing, that I set myself up for disappointment, disillusionment, or worse? Sometimes this is what it seems, or definitely feels to be happening. I am realizing two things as I sit here and type. It was on this date in 1973 that I graduated from Marine Corps Boot Camp. It was also on this date, four years later that my hero, my Grandmother Louise, passed away. The graduation from boot camp was quite a thing for me because boot camp was difficult for me. There was certainly more than one time that I was not sure I would survive those 80+ days of training. I was not an amazing boot camp participant. I will say that I was pushed to my limit, but to be honest I survived, but there were times that “barely” would be the appropriate adjective. The day I received the call that my grandmother had passed away, I was devastated. She, as, once again, previously noted, taught me more about manners, about being a gentlemen, about love than any person I know, or have ever since met. Lydia would be the other person to be considered in the same sentence or thought process. These two women have done more for me and done more to shape me (there is also my adopted father, Harry Martin) than any other person. There are times I have cried in my life, and I would even admit that those times might only be rivaled by John Boehner, but I sobbed at my grandmother’s funeral. It might be the hardest I have ever cried in my life. To this day, it is hard to verbalize how much I loved her. She is one of the persons I hope might be proud of what I have accomplished.

I do wonder what those forbearers, those ancestors of mine might thing. Recently, I joined, but I am not sure why or what I think I have learned. I need to spend more time, but then again, there is that word . . .  I need more time in everyday, but  I am quite sure I would not get more sleep. I have been sleeping more, and one of my more understanding or insightful friends have merely noted that it is something I need. However, I hate admitting that. . . .  I think I have either wandered or regressed. What is melancholy? I tell me students to not merely use the dictionary and put it into their paper and therefore I will not use that . . .  but the synonyms of pensive or lugubrious come to mind. For me, there is a reason, in spite of the fact that for many others it is not obvious. A year ago I was struggling to understand the concept of privilege and how that privilege created a chasm between me and someone for whom I had unparalleled appreciation. I have learned that sometimes you need to let people go and in the distance both learn. I think what I do is hang on to those I have lost and I mourn that loss more than most might realize. I realize that the normal changes in our lives create the reality of both loss and opportunity. Yet, I desire to hope. I think listening to Pope Francis this past week I have learned a great deal about the idea of hope, hope that is based on understanding, believing in the power of human dignity, and an unfathomable deep and abiding faith. I wish I might have been in a position to see him in person, even if it were from a distance. I think he is a Pope that I do want to see. It is a combination of his Jesuit background as well as his native Spanish that also intrigues me. It was fun this week to listen to some of his words and being able to understand some of the Spanish I was hearing.

Hope is something we all need as humans. We need to believe that there is a possibility of something better, but I think too often we are shattered by crush of our daily lives to see the future. It is interesting to me that we have more access to information and the ability to understand our world than ever before, but the consequence is we become overloaded, overwhelmed, and ultimately over stressed. Yet, hope is fundamental to our life. The couple of whom I was speaking earlier in the post and I had a conversation about this very thing yesterday. When people have no sense of hope their actions in the present are very different. They do not think or worry about the future because they see no sense or purpose in so doing. Therefore they fixate on the present and that becomes a selfish wanting in the here and now. I see this in many, but fortunately, I see something different in many of my students. Their hard work, their inquisitiveness, and their belief that what they are doing matters gives me hope. Perhaps there is hope for a future. Students today are much more open to diversity, to inclusiveness, and to accepting the other than my generation. Those things give this melancholy spirit something to hold on to, to believe in, to pin myself to something more than a pipe dream . . . thank goodness.

As always, thanks for reading.

Dr. Martin

Saying Goodbye to an Unequaled Love


Good Christmas Morning,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading.