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

The More I Learn . . .

Hello from the house,

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

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

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

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

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

To everyone else, thank you for reading.

Dr. Martin (Michael)

90 Years of Life and at 92, I remember

Lydia_posed_3 sized

Hello on a late Friday morning,

I am in my office and have been watching some videos of the Kennedy (JFK assassination) and listening to audio tapes from Jacqueline Kennedy that were released much later. I have always been fascinated by that time in history. Perhaps because I was a little boy at the time and it is such a memorable part of my 3rd grade year. Perhaps because it is a time, albeit somewhat naively, that we believed in our government. There is so much that makes me wonder about the fate of our humanity. There is so much dissension and discord, but that is nothing new, and I know that. Perhaps it is the melancholia that is part of my inner self. Today I received the most wonderful message from a former college classmate, a person for whom I have appreciation and even more so, admiration. She is wise, caring, and brilliant. She is philosophical and understanding, perceptive and caring. It was certainly a breath of fresh aire (in a sort of Mannheim Steamroller way). Yesterday was a long day with the ending of the session and it has been a long week because of other things. There are times I have to learn that caring gets me in trouble. I am reminded of the words of Norman Maclean in the novella, A River Runs Through It: “It is often the ones we live with and love, the ones we care about the most who elude us. Even now when I look back . . . on my youth I long to understand what happened there . . . and why.” I wonder at times why my mind seems to never stop its pondering. I wonder why I imagine things that never were and wonder why not . . . . sort of in the way Teddy Kennedy eulogized his brother, Robert, in St. Patrick’s Cathedral on that June day in 1968, a speech often considered to be one of the most rhetorically profound.

I was told again that I take on too much, but it is way my brain works and my emotions follow. It is a way that a pattern seemingly reappears in my life, but I seem not to learn. It is merely stubbornness on my part or a character flaw that I cannot manage to overcome? Is all of this because I am merely trying to imagine myself as old? I wish my Uncle Clare were still around. It would be interesting to ask him what it was like to be alone for such a long period in his life, though he was 64 when he became a widower. He lived to be 91 or 92, I cannot remember for sure. As some have found out, and for that I am truly sorry, when I get too close to a situation or to people I have a tendency (or a habit) of running away. And yet, I am not completely sure why . . .  I certainly have ideas, theories or assumptions, but I am not completely sure that I can say unfailingly, “This is why.” Today in a caring and reasonable way, I was told to extricate myself from a situation. While it is hurtful to hear that, it is certainly for the better. For me, the struggle is not necessarily going away, but knowing whether it is done with a sense of merely a change or having the door shut on me. Time will tell. I must also admit that I have done the same to others, so maybe it is karma coming back to bite me. As there is a sense that while I am losing something I valued, I am also being saved. Hard to tell onto which thought I should hold. Perhaps it is because the need for help has changed, but that would be a bit cynical and unfair. It is something that I need to merely be glad I helped when help was needed and now that I am not needed to learn that does not mean I am not cared for. That is my difficulty. Is it too much again to be that honest with my frailties? Is it being too honest with my thoughts and emotions? Sometimes I wonder, but then again, I do not believe that I am that different that I am the only one to struggle with such issues. I am hoping that two things might happen in this writing. First, it helps me figure myself out, but more importantly that it might help someone else who struggles in the same way. I know that the need for being around people and the need for solitude is a constant battle for me. I am sure that some people from my earlier years might find it hard to imagine me wishing for a sort of hermit-existence. I remember my pastoral colleague once telling me the worst thing that could happen to me was that I might be locked in my office alone with no phone. You can ask people, now there are times that I leave my phone at home and I am not really accessible. I will say that I do not do it on purpose, but I never, or at least seldom, feel that missing that thing in my hand or pocket is some trauma. I am actually adding to this. It is now Friday night and after a trip to my nutritionist today, I am feeling like perhaps I have a way to handle the latest of health dilemmas. It is not a new dilemma, and in fact goes back into the 90s, but it does seems to be a more pertinent issue now.

Yesterday was a long day because I know what I am doing when I worked on grades and responses to people in a program I am deciding things about their lives. I take this seriously and I really take it to heart. I was that first generation college student who once squandered the opportunity to be in college and had to figure things out. I say regularly that my parents wanted me to go to college, but they had little idea what it meant to prepare me either academically or financially. This is not to speak poorly of them, but there was no point of reference. College and the idea that people needed to prepare and go was outside of their scope of knowledge. It was something about which they had little or no preparation themselves. I saw college as something rich people were able to do for their children and I was not that person. My father was 44 when he adopted a 4 year old and his 3 year old sister. When I graduated from high school he was wondering about retirement and had a wife with a multitude of health issues. It was for me to figure out and while I know now that I was not an incapable high school student, I was a lazy student, doing things well when I was interested, but I did not follow through long enough or well enough. No school was knocking on my door to ask me to come there and I had little idea of what I hoped to do or why. I am not that much different from the summer students I have just spent that last six weeks teaching and mentoring (and it is both). While there are certainly some students who squander the six weeks they are here, there are others who try to understand what is being asked of them and also try to manage it, in spite of their lack of preparation. When I consider the students from the summer, I had everything from seniors to 15 year olds. In the group of students, one earned an A and two managed to fail their summer class. The rest were in the B and C ranges and covering everything in that range. Some took a bit of time to figure out what was happening. One student has things figured out as a 17 year old in ways I do not think I have even yet. She took three classes and worked 20 hours a week. Because of her own writing, I know her background and she is doing most of this on her own. She has figured it out on her own. Remarkable is the epitome of understatement.

Today is the anniversary of Lydia’s birthday. She would be 92 today. She still permeates everything I do and imagine. Honestly I still have tears when I realize how much I miss her and how much I loved her. She is the one person in the past 16 or 17 years that found her way into my heart and from whom I did not want to run away. How did that happen? I still remember the day I first met her and looked at the little house. She was so sweet and adorable. I did not realize at the time that she was as lonely as she was because she was so self-assured. She was stylish and refined, and that Austrian accent,something I never had a problem understanding, was merely another endearing quality of the little two-digit-midget. I have told some that I put my life on hold for her, but now I am not sure that was true. We lived our lives as a little family that was gifted to us in the most unexpected way. In the twilight years of her life I became the son she was never able to have and she became more of a mother to me, and the best one of the three I have had. I can remember the sound of her voice out her third floor window when I came home late from school or somewhere else. “Michael, is that you?” “Yes, Lydia,” I would respond. She would then tell me she just happened to look out. What I knew is she had been watching because she wanted to know she was not alone. That is not what I expected when I first came to the circle. I did not know that I would be the person charged with taking care of her in ways I could not have imagined. She hated (her words) when people paid attention to her for a birthday or a holiday, but I think she secretly liked that people fussed over her. She had been alone for so long and it was important for her to not be lonely, even in her solitude. What I have come to understand is that she had an incredible heart and actually enjoyed giving to others. She and I are similar in that way, but she wanted to be in charge of how that happened. I think I am a mirror image of her in this also. As I have been working on things in my yard and around the house this spring and summer I have found myself with a broom and dustpan. She would be so proud of me. I find myself picking weeds and plucking up the random twig or branch. I guess she has rubbed off on me more than I expected. As I think of you on the anniversary of your birth Lydia, I miss you. I still love you more than I have words.

Es ist schwierig für mich zu glauben, dass du so lange weg sind. Es ist schwieriger für mich zu sagen, dass ich immer noch Dinge für Sie zu tun haben. Ich werde es in der nächsten Woche zu erledigen oder so. Ich wünschte, mein Leben würde verlangsamen. Ich bewundere noch, wie Sie alle geschafft, Sie getan haben. Ich habe das Glück, dass ich in der Lage war, mit Ihnen ein Jahrzehnt zu teilen. Ich bin auch jetzt durch Ihre Liebe gesegnet. Wie Sie wissen, zieren Sie Ihre Bilder mein Haus ihr und ich sehe dich jeden Tag. Ich liebe dich, meine Leihmutter.

As I consider our temporary place in this world, I am reminded of my favorite Rock n Roll band and one of its most well- known songs.

To everyone else, thank you for reading.

Michael