When 2+2 = Something other than 4

Hello on a Sunday evening/Monday morning,

It is late and I need to grade; I also need to sleep, but my mind seems to foggy to do the former and is yet too awake to accomplish the latter. So I will begin by reflecting on the last few days. Moving into 5th week, the first real batch of hard core grading is upon me. The busy pace of the semester has caught up and the reality of what happens to most students when pushed outside their comfort zone became evident to me in some shape or form in each of my classes today. This was the beginning of the blog, but it got sidetracked.

. . . I cannot believe almost a month has gone by and I have not had a moment to get back to this blog, but then again, if I consider the time it is now (about 1:45 a.m.) and this is when I am writing, I guess that pretty well explains the semester. While I do not have as many students as I might generally have, I have more work than ever, or so it seems. I think I laid awake for a while, finally deciding to make some use of the time because my brain is trying to make sense of all the things happening at the moment (and for the last month). It was about four weeks ago I had to make sense of why a inanimate object could cause me such emotional struggle. I sold my 2014 Malibu this past fall, and perhaps it is because I sold it to someone I know (and thus still saw it regularly) that it is such a struggle, but it was totaled in an accident. Fortunately, no one was injured. Even more importantly, the circumstances surrounding the accident, which are a bit crazy to say the least, ended up with some tickets and a check for the value of the car (which was thousands more than he paid). The consequence of all of it could have been much worse.

What is difficult for me is how the loss of something that was no longer mine was so much more emotional than I expected. Yet that sort of non-logical response caught me by surprise. Sometimes I seem pretty cognizant and not a lot catches me off guard, then there are those moments where things come flying out of the proverbial left field. I think the reason I am seldom caught off guard is because students have a way of hitting you with the unexpected. In fact, it is such a common thing that the unexpected is the norm. That has been the case much more often than I would wish as of late. Four of my present or past students have lost someone important to them in the last three weeks. In some cases a bit more expected and in a couple cases completely the opposite. Death is such an incredible equalizer. I have noted in the past that at one point earlier in life I found the concept of my demise to be frightening. Now, that is not really the case. Certainly some of that is because of my life-long battle with Crohn’s and my frequent encounters with some serious challenges related to it. Perhaps some of it is because I was a parish pastor. I am not sure. Today was another one of the unexpected days. From my morning cluelessness to an evening conversation, I was required to see things from another perspective. What I realize is how much I have conditioned myself, albeit unwittingly, to merely take things as they happen. I have noted at times if I have no control of a situation, or believe I have no control, I respond by not spending time fretting about it. This was something a self inventory at a picnic table in Paducah, KY was well as a 1,000 mile-move, forced me to encounter. I still remember the day I left on my motorcycle as Erica and Lydia stood at the top of the driveway in tears. That was a difficult day for me. It is also a rather logical, and perhaps easy way out of facing things that are neither easy nor logical. As I often have counseled others, emotions are not rational; neither are they convenient, but they are real.

What I am obliged to consider yet again is how I might have to face them on more than one front. It is interesting to me how we can work so intentionally to manage things and yet whatever plan we have (and I was reminded today that I am not a planner) can be swept aside in the second proverbial reference and cliché, that blink-of-an-eye. The range of emotions a single event can illicit from various individuals is quite astounding. I reacted with some profound joy for two people today, knowing that the same news would be astonishingly difficult for another person, who is a surrogate child for me. As two of my former students are growing accustomed to being new mothers, another has said goodbye to her grandfather. Yet, the logical side of me believes it is simply the days doing what they do. It is our living of life and trying to make sense of the equation.

I think it is that sort of face-whatever-comes-my-way that has made me not a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants, but more spontaneous and willing to see what is around the next corner than most (way too many hyphens in that sentence). Perhaps it is because since I was in my 20s and my battle with Crohn’s and at times praying to die that I learned to take nothing for granted. Perhaps it was being told I would never amount to much that caused me to not believe in the future much past what I could actually see. The result, it seems has been to take the day for the day. In a scriptural manner, it has been living that passage out of sixth chapter of Matthew at notes “we should let the day’s troubles be sufficient for the day (6:34). I would reverse it a bit and say let the blessings of being alive for the day be enough for the day. I remember how exasperated Lydia would be when my response to her inquiry about my state would be “I have no complaints.” And yet it was true . . . I was simply content to be alive and healthy to whatever degree my unique body would allow.

That is the latest of the reality checks this 60-something has to manage. After more than one experience of trying to figure out what was happening, in spite of inquiries of my PCP, today I got a call on a Sunday afternoon from the same often MIA doctor. After blood tests and an ultrasound late last week, my doctor believed it necessary to call me on a Sunday to tell me I need more tests on my liver. This is not the first time my liver has been a point of concern (and she mentioned my kidneys, which have also been an issue in the past). It seems there will be more tests in the near future on the liver. The kidneys will require a bit of a medications change. Certainly, livers are of importance and both the blood work and the ultrasound seemed to indicate some significant issue. I have been referred to a gastroenterologist or hepatologost. Seems we are on a new adventure.

Certainly gastroenterologists are nothing new. In fact, I have been in touch with them for a variety of reasons over the years, and recently met with two incredibly talented doctors, who are at the front of treating IBDs. Through an unexpected contact from a wonderfully caring person from the Geisinger Foundation, I had a meeting with the head of gastroenterology of the entire system as well as the head of gastroenterology Danville, which is their flagship location. To make the long-story shorter, a wonderful exchange has led to a new opportunity for me to able use my experience of suffering with Crohn’s in a way that might hopefully make a difference for others. Geisinger’s School of Medicine has offered me an appointment as an Adjunct Professor of Medicine in Gastroenterology. This is both stunning and humbling to me. It is one of those unplanned, but unparalleled, opportunities to make some small difference. It is yet another path opened for the unassuming Iowa boy, who has never really anticipated anything much beyond what he could see. In fact, if I can think out loud for a moment. It seems the times I have tried to plan things more intentionally, they seldom happen.

I planned on going to law school and ended up in seminary instead. I planned on being a parish pastor and ended up in the academy instead. I planned on staying in Wisconsin, but ended up back in Pennsylvania, which I had left once never believing I would return. I planned on having a family (the traditional being married and having children and such), but I only have surrogate kids. I planned on a sabbatical at one point and it was not selected. I applied for a Fulbright and was not selected. Now there are new plans regarding both, but no guarantees as well as a different attitude by me regarding them. I think that is what I have been strong-armed to face again and again. Regardless, at least for me, planning with too great an expectation of it coming to fruition is a bad plan. It leads to disappointment and a sense of failure, something that frightens me beyond words. I have lived a much more successful and fulfilling life than I was ever allowed to believe possible. In spite of all the logic I can muster, I have been blessed beyond any measure I could have imagined. Sometimes just when it seems I have it figured out or planned something comes along to remind me that I have less control over the bigger picture than I want to admit. So the plans for now are to prepare for the week, the month, and even the next year or two in a manner that matters and hopefully makes my life even more blessed than it has been. That means travel to Europe yet again and some new adventures and new countries. I have never been owed anything and that is still the case. I am merely one simple and unassuming person. One who has been able to make 2 + 2 add up to something other than 4. It has never been boring, why should that change? Dreams and a sort of persistence of time (Dali) are things that have been part of my life. This video imagines both.

Thanks for reading as always.

Dr. Martin

Walking and Wondering

Good early (sort of) evening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks as always for reading,

Dr. Martin

If I had Known . . .

Good morning from my office,

As a way to catch most up concerning the outcomes of appointments and tests, I think I will offer information here. Thank you, first of all, to all who have inquired about the continuing issues of managing the Crohn’s and its consequences. I have been to more doctors’ appointments (yes, the plural is accurate in both cases) and there are more doctors’ appointments yet on the horizon (again accuracy in the plurals a second time). The easiest way to explain everything that seems to be sort of crashing in upon me at the same time is this. First, the removal of a large intestine in 1986 and 30 plus years of not having the main water absorption organ in my body has caught up with me. Second, the removal of the J-Pouch, which was created after the colectomy, which was a significant portion of my ileum, a part of your small intestine, as a consequence of that surgery never really working, has created a different absorption problem, that being primarily B complex vitamins. Together, both the combination of these issues and their cumulative effect on my body (and that includes extensive parts of my body (e.g. organs, blood supply, nervous system . . . you get the picture)) had me in much more dire straits than I realized. Fortunately between my CPC, a phenomenal neurologist, an outstanding gastroenterologist, and some thoughtful nurses and PAs in December, I might have the best chance to be honestly healthy I have been since the beginning of all the surgeries over 30 years ago.

So what have they done, or are they doing? As of yesterday, I am getting B complex vitamin shots on a daily basis for two weeks. Then I will go to once a month for the rest of my life. My last blog gives some idea of why this is so important. Second, I have another test (MRI) of my mid small intestine coming next week to make sure that the Crohn’s is not currently active. Third, I am meeting with a GI nutritionist to see what is the best way for me to get some other vitamins and minerals into my under-absorbing body. I could go back to the U.P, steal copper and chew on it, but I am not sure that is a good plan. I am now taking 50,000 units of Vitamin D a month, Folic Acid, a statin, and aspirin daily to manage the other issues that have been deemed problematic because of this absorption, or lack thereof, issue. The shots are not difficult (I got one last night and another this morning). Taking pills is not one of my favorite things, but again, it is not that difficult. There are two issues to which I need to attend once again. I need to lose 30 pounds (and 40 would be better), and I need to get my blood pressure back down. It is once again up above where it should be. Some good news included the levels that point to kidney issues, which popped up in December for the first time, seem to be back to normal. The next, new, issue is a cardiac issue. It appears my heart is beating too slowly and that too seems related to the B complex vitamin issues, which is again related to surgeries because of the Crohn’s. It seems my body is adverse to absorbing most everything, which causes me to wonder how it is I need to lose weight. How can it be I have gained weight when I cannot absorb, but then again lack of energy and an increased amount of sleep might be the culprit. Seems a logical question, without a logical answer beyond what I have just offered. Yet that has often been the case with the somewhat  normal, and profoundly abnormal, way I have been required to manage my modified digestive system. As I noted in my last post, there has been little that seems I can do to change what my body will or will not do. I should probably be astounded that I have made it as far as I have.

What I sometimes wonder is what if they had diagnosed me with Crohn’s in elementary school, when they believe I probably contracted, though I am not sure one contracts it; of course, there is the doctor who told me I was probably born with it. In some ways I would be more comfortable with that as my reality. If one has it from birth, it just is. One can still question the why, but as I have learned, there is still much that is not known about Inflammatory Bowel Diseases (IBDs) and their causes. Immune issues seem to come up the most often. Of course, there is a question about what treatments might have been available to me (or more accurately for me because it would have been my parents’ job to help me manage something). I do wonder, again as I have noted, what it would be like if they had been able to keep my body intact. That seems to be the most significant or problematic topic or puzzle (we’re  back to that) currently. Yesterday, I had three doctors call and it was actually very satisfying to tell the neurologist that his appointment time and conversation with me might have been the best two hours I had ever spent in front of a medical professional. The care, detail, and willingness to answer and explain was like nothing I had ever experienced. For the first time in over thirty years, I believe I have a clear sense of how all the parts of the body interact and why the surgeries that I have endured were not the end of the story. Logically, I knew that, but I am not sure I have ever really considered what might happen. “It astounds me as I write to realize how much of my life is controlled by this 4×4 wafer and 10” pouch. The struggle to be seen as more than someone with a serious illness confronts me emotionally more than most know” (Martin 2011). When I wrote these words I was still coming to terms with my personal struggle. I also wrote, “So what is my identity? Who am I? I am a [61] year old male who was born prematurely and that early arrival had consequences; it might have more of which I am not even aware of at this point” (Martin 2011). This is surely the case as I spent almost 20 minutes placing doctors, nurses, and other specialist appointments into my calendar last night. It is surely the case when the majority of phone calls received today were from scheduling people at Geisinger (I think I had 5 calls today). The consequences are currently daily trips to the doctor’s office for injections, taking more medications, and wondering how to manage an HSA that seems to ask for more documentation that ever, all under the guise of blaming the IRS. When I was working on my comprehensive exams, one of the books I read was an astounding book by Arthur Frank, titled The Wounded Storyteller. There are moments I feel that is what my blog has become as of recently. I am able to accept the reality that I am affected and wounded by the fact that I am missing more intestine than I have left. “It is in that wounding I am reminded that I am still capable, or more accurately that I can still fight this with all my might. It is in suffering that I know that I am present  . . .  I am a person with an insidious and chronic disease. It is fighting to control me,  but differently from times earlier in my life, where I let it control me, now I refuse. It is taking more time than I wish, but for the moment I will give it its due, but I am coming back. I believe through these injections and managing motility, I will once again beat it back.

I am pretty sure that it is best that I did not know where all of this would lead because I am not sure I was strong enough earlier in my life to stand strong. As I noted once again in that paper, the role of telling all of this is a sort of testimony and the role of being able to tell a story, particularly a story of illness does allow  one to suffer, not in loneliness, but in a pedagogical way, a teaching way. Perhaps that is not surprising because I am both a storyteller (ask my students) and I am a teacher, but not a memorization person. I am one that pushes people to analyze and think about their situation. I am a firm believer we are all teachers in our own way, just like ministry can occur in many places outside the Sunday sanctuary. When we use a negative experience pedagogically, we are not allowed to wallow in sadness, but we are managing reality forthrightly and honestly. The narrative, the story, changes. This narrative as noted by another author on the chaos of illness speaks about a narrative of restitution. Restitution is paying back for what which has happened. Certainly, the trail of what has happened between my partner-in-life, Crohn’s and me is long. It has been an epic battle and the battling continues. Earlier in my life, the narrative was of embarrassment and rejection. I refuse to allow such a narrative to take hold of me ever again. It is ironic that I continue to address my personal, and intensively private, intestines in such a public place, but again, it is what I teach. How do we use computer mediated communication or our own social identity to come to terms with our personage? It is through this writing that I begin once again to make sense of what is a chaotic body-self dualism. The first time I struggled with the consequences of surgery in a most public way, someone who should have been supportive was incapable of doing so. I did not understand. In my frailty, I could not understand their reaction. What felt like rejection when I needed acceptance perhaps more than ever before was profoundly injurious, but that injury was not as readily apparent as my altered self. However, before I am too hard on the other, it is important for me to realize I could not accept myself at that point. Part of that was how weakened I was from fighting Crohn’s when it was decimating my body. At this point, it is not the Crohn’s, but the consequences of it. While some might not see a difference, I do. If both were problems at the present time, I think this would be exponentially more difficult.

So if I knew what 30+ years would have offered would it have been easier? No way . . . I can say with even more certainty that I do not believe I would have been strong enough to endure it, knowing it ahead of time. What I know even now in the throes of more issues that I still believe this is manageable. This is another battle . . . it is a war, and at some point, I even know I will lose, but I am okay with that. I am just not ready to lose yet. In fact, I am still making plans and putting plans into motion that will affect the next three or four years. In other words, I do not plan to allow these latest struggles to derail the desideratum I am working hard to create. There is much more I could write, but I think it is time to get to the work that is insistently calling for my attention. I would like to give a shout out of thanks to my friend for listening to so much of this story and much more this past week. You have inspired me to hang in there and keep trucking along. Generally, I am able to do this pretty well on my own, but it has been nice to share and for the gift of your insight. I offer this song on your behalf. Well back to Hobbit-land! 🙂

To the rest of you, thank you as always for reading.

Michael

 

 

 

 

Temporalities

Funny little man: Voltaire writing

Hello from the Detroit airport,

I am quite sure that this post might be a tapestry of thoughts, emotions, and memories. As I sit in the airport my mind seems to be a conundrum of possibilities and requirements, opportunities and necessities, remembering the past and imagining the future. I have my earbuds in and ironically the song from Neil Diamond’s The Jazz Singer titled “America” is playing. I will write more about irony later in this post. I am remembering the first time I heard that song, I was in then what was West Germany and traveling as a student with Dr. Nielsen on the interim titled Auguries of Loneliness. As I sit here lonely among the people crowding around me gathering for the last leg of a cross-country flight, I am content in my solitude. It is always sort of a game to try to imagine what the stories are of the people around me. While someone told me this week I am an academic and I seem like one (not sure if that is a compliment), I most often see myself as an Iowa kid who grew up blue collar and worked hard. I have been fortunate to have people who cared and loved me step up along the way. Without their help I certainly would not be where I am. One of the things that I believe makes me a bit different than most is I do not forget people, and I reach out to them from time to time to help them know they still matter and that their assistance was neither forgotten nor expected. I think that is my grandmother’s admonishment to be a gentleman put into action.

The temporality of our individual human experience is something I have been pushed to consider these past weeks. It is not quite a month ago that I needed to fly home for Lydia and to help make decisions on whether the quality of life she had been reduced to from the long-term consequences of dementia was the life she wanted. When is mere existence no longer life? Sitting with her family physician, a man I respect beyond words, said, “Michael, it makes no sense to try to prolong her life.” Those were both difficult and freeing words at the same time. This brilliant woman, strong-willed and yet loving, determined and yet fragile, had lived an amazing life. She was no longer living, she was marginally existing. To move toward palliative care was a change that was done out of love and not out of selfishness. “Another day goes by and I thank God that I am alive” (Nico and Vinz). I am not sure Lydia could say this any longer. While her temporality saw much more than many in her 90 years, 4 months and 27 days, I am forced to see her and myself as temporal.

Before you read what follows as fatalist, let me tell you simply, please don’t. I know I am temporary. At one point I chose to ignore, perhaps even foolishly argue against, such a notion. I wonder why do we struggle so desperately to hang on to this life? I think I have realized that life has a quality and maintaining that quality is not always an easy thing to do. That does not suppose that we should merely disregard what we can do, but what really matters when we hold onto our existence, even somewhat dramatically or even more sadly desperately. Is it because we believe we must still accomplish something? It is because we foolishly believe that we make such a profound difference? Again, I am not saying that those things do not have value, but are they such astounding things that our lack of physical presence will cause them to totally disappear. Lydia is no longer physically here, and while I cannot actually hear her voice or see her amazing eyes, I can say unequivocally they are still present and they affect me. I can see both her smile of approval and her scowl of the opposite as if she were still here. What I am pondering more carefully and thoughtfully is what is my purpose from this point forward? Again, please do not see me as falling of the cliff of sanity, but I know that much of my purpose this past decade was to care for and follow through on the promise I made to her.

It is certainly a good thing that I have my position at Bloomsburg and a program to continue to grow. It is a good thing that I have the Decker family. Tenure removes some of the temporality of that position and provides some security. Having the continuity with the Deckers from Wisconsin to Pennsylvania is more profound to me than they probably realize. To watch their family grow, evolve and to be treated with the respect and love they have given me again has affected my life beyond measure and in a way that is indescribable. In addition some of my other colleagues have become treasured people in my life. My former chair and present chair are astounding people. The colleague with whom I started in the department is more of a friend that I am sure he realizes. The person who was my acting chair my first semester and his wife are such a blessings to me. The English Department at Bloomsburg University is really a wonderful position to be placed in at this point in my life. Then there are the students. Speaking about temporality, they come and they go more quickly than we can even seem to manage. I have watched two sets of students complete their studies and watched them mature from wide-eyed freshmen to young professionals, still wide-eyed, but in a different way. Every once in a while I find that what I have done has had some profound positive effect. Those moments are fleeting, but they are precious. I have also learned that not everyone is as genuine as I might have hoped, but those are important life lessons too because they remind me that I have really very little control of anything but myself. Those moments are equally precious. They remind one of what is true and upon what or in whom we can believe and trust. There are very few in whom we can actually trust and perhaps even fewer in whom we can hope to believe. That brings me to a different concept. It is the concept of giving my word. Following through on to my promise to Lydia to care for her to the best of my ability was something I felt strongly about, and I still do. My word to someone, regardless who they are, needs to be trusted, to be believed. I know there are times I could be more comprehensive in making this happen, and those times affect me more than most might realize. I think this comes from my father. I know that his word to someone was almost sacred. I tried to care for Lydia as I watched him care for others, without a sense of reward, and during this time I have continued to give to others like I believed she would. What I know is the help we offer others is temporal in more than one aspect or manner than we might think.

I remember once writing a practice sermon for a preaching class in seminary. The text was the poisonous serpent text in Numbers and I titled the sermon “temporarily faithful.” That seems to be predominately who we are as humans. We hold on to things that we either value or things we believe benefit us. When the value is deemed minimal or we believe we might need to put more into something that we receive, it is easier to discard it. There have been moments in my life I am guilty of this practice, and for those times I must humbly ask for forgiveness. There is one person, a person I have loved beyond measure most of my life, I have run away from because I was frightened and felt guilty. I am not sure if I can repair this situation or not, but ignoring it is not the right thing to do. It is amazing how we can decide things or believe things that are perhaps not accurate,  but we do it and we box ourselves into something less than ideal. Over the weekend, I did have the opportunity to speak with one of the people to whom I have referred from time to time. It was an interesting, and helpful, conversation, but there are still things that do not make sense to me. As hard as I try, I cannot wrap my head around that fundamental concept or the manner in which he (and my extension, they) use this concept, word, or philosophy. I wonder what that particular word means and the two synonyms used do not connect for me. Again, I am not arguing against that position,  but I cannot see it as possible, either logically or emotionally and therefore I cannot see how it is actually practiced, particularly when the actions taken do not seem consistent with what I understand that term to be. I guess I will continue to struggle to understand. More importantly, I will continue. I know that the value and joy brought to my life far outweighs anything negative. I am not sure that is always portrayed as well as I might and for those times, again, I must ask for forgiveness.

Tomorrow I begin another semester, so it is now Monday. I am still struggling with my health and it appears after another appointment that I might have coughed so hard that I had a minor stroke. I do know exactly when that occurred as the pain I had in my head was unbelievably intense. Perhaps, ironically, that coughing finally helped because I am actually feeling a bit better, though I must admit every time I go into a coughing spell, my head is very tender and it hurts pretty badly. Again, all of this reminds me pretty clearly that we have much less control over what happens than we might think. While I have worked hard for the better part of seven and a half months to improve my health, there are some things I cannot predict or change. I will admit, as I did yesterday that the last month has not been stellar as far as taking charge of my health, and I am changing that again, the work I have done this past 3/4 of a year has been pretty darn significant. As I look toward the semester and what is on my plate, there seems to be little doubt that it will be busy and continuous, but that is nothing different. What I need to do is be smarter and more intentional about each and every thing I do. This past year, and most of my life, I allowed people I believed cared to have more control than I should. That is because I have a tendency to put others before myself. Again, I know from where that comes and while I have made some progress in that realm, sometimes it seems like two steps forward and one step back. That is better than one step forward and two steps back, but I need to make sure that I do not go backwards at all. It is such a balancing act for me. I have heard from more than a handful of people that I need to take care of myself. I am sad that my time over break was influenced by illness as much as it was. That kept me from enjoying some things, places, and people, that, or who, are so important to me. Time is fleeting and I know that is cliché, but it is cliché because we note it and then too often ignore it. We allow things to affect and influence us, turn us upside down, and then we wonder on the other end “What the hell happened?” Sort of what the Green Bay Packers are wondering this morning. As a Packer fan, I must say, I am still in a state of shock. The point is, we have opportunities to make a difference. Even in the fleeting moment, we can positively influence another persons life. Sometimes what we might do could be significant or appear significant. Other times, it might be something very simple or even mundane, but the point is we affect, and are affected by, those around us. Each of these moments are opportunities, changes to change both our own life and the lives of others around us. Too often we are selfish, narcissistic, or just plain clueless. I am so fortunate because I am, through my position in the university given entrée into others lives. I am gifted to be able to share what little I have to offer to make a bit of a difference. What I am realizing again, it the temporal nature of that chance, of that opportunity. Ultimately, I hope in the coming weeks, both in the semester, and in my life, I can focus on the gifts I have and try to share them as unconditionally as I can humanly muster. I fail there too often, but as Lydia demonstrated in her life, one can still care. I have been asked a couple times lately about the purpose of my blog and why I write as I do. I noted that writing is always contextual. I am grateful for the questions and indeed, I do go back and edit at times. Sometimes those edits are for bad writing. Sometimes those edits are for poor practice. Sometimes those edits are simply editing and proofreading.

As I told one person, I hope in my writing I reveal my soul (if so, you might catch a glimpse of who I really am), but I also hope to protect my life. I am reminded of a seminary professor that once said, while it does note that the shepherd lays down his (and I would add “her”) life, and when I was a pastor the shepherd analogy was probably more apparent, no where does it say the sheep take his (her) life. What I have learned since is if we let people, they will take more from our lives that we can afford to give. Off to a new semester.

Thanks as always for reading.

Michael (and tomorrow again, Dr. Martin)