I do not want a do-over

Hello from the corner of my room,

I am sitting in the chair in my room, which is a comfortable and thoughtful place in my home. It is a sort of safe place too. I have learned that I am a person who needs a quiet and safe place. I am not sure I have always been cognizant of that desideratum, but I am pretty sure it has been a requisite from early in my life. While I have absolutely no inkling, memory, or shadow of any recall of life with my biological parents, their neglect probably affected my sense of security or my need for contact in ways I have never connected to any particular event. It is also interesting how it affects others. Certainly, it always seemed to have affected my sister more than me. There is an irony to that because if we were at our grandparents’ house by the time I was two, Kris would have been less than 9 months old. Yet, she was entirely more obsessed than I was when it came to finding those very parents who neglected and left us alone for hours. I also imagine part of that was because our adopted mother was so much harder on her than she was on either the older brother or me. It is quite logical that she hoped somewhere else might be safer and she would be treated better. Part of reason she is on my mind is the 10th anniversary of her passing will be here in only a few days. So much has happened in the decade since I got that stunning phone call at about 5:30 a.m. that Tuesday morning. Hearing my niece sort of blurt out that they found her dead on the couch is still more clear in my mind than I perhaps wish it was. More to say about that.

I did not know I would be leaving Stout and Wisconsin at that time. I did not know that I would come back to Pennsylvania and resettle myself barely over an hour from where I first became a parish pastor, which is 30 years ago. It is also even more than that when I address my initial graduation from high school or undergrad (which have a LCD of 5 also). I wonder how that can be the case that things in my life seem to happen in years that are in multiples of 5. In a mathematical purist way, the only thing in my life divisible by 5 is the year I was born. It is also the point that in terms of family heritage, I would become the only surviving member of my immediate family. So much has happened in a decade. Yet, I believe that is how life happens if we truly try to live it with all the hope and involvement we can.

That brings me back to the title and what I have been pondering these past few days. I imagine such rumination is the yearly occasion of impending graduation, the watching of another group of students, who a few short years ago were wide-eyed freshman. Yet, now they find themselves even more unprepared, or aware of complexities of life in a more profound manner, which can feel as if they are underprepared. However this present ocular unsophistication is more about accepting responsibility for themselves in a much grander, more consequential manner, and they are realize the safety net that is college is no longer an option. There is grad school, and a few move in that direction, but with a average debt load approaching $40,000.00 for undergrad, many to not believe that adding to that is a reasonable path forward. If you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you will know that I have noted I did not expect to become a college professor. I have stated regularly I had little idea what I would become or do with my life, and certainly that has not changed (which may seem like a strange admission for someone in their 60s). And, in spite of where I am, or even the path it took to find myself as a tenured professor, there is little I would change. Veritably voiced, I do not want to go back, even knowing all I do, and try it all over again. I can wish that I had not been born with Crohn’s as they now believe I was. I can wish that I had lived a more non-peripatetic sort of adulthood. I could try to imagine how it would be had I somehow been given the opportunity to have actually fathered a child. Any of those changes would have significantly altered the life I have lived. Certainly, I ponder the what ifs as I noted in my last blog, but that does not mean I need or want to go back and do it all over. It reminds me of my first host family, Lee and Judy, two of the most phenomenal people I have ever been fortunate enough to meet. They are somewhat accidental in that I ended up on a Lutheran Youth Encounter team sort of last minute. They were my first host family, which is also more random than some might realize. For me, that randomness is anything but. It is the Holy Spirit doing what the Holy Spirit does. Intercession and intervention when we are mostly or totally unaware. What Judy would share on a later visit, much after that initial week, has always remained. She once noted that relationships have more to do with context and timing than emotion. Those were not her words, but the foundational belief in her words. As I have continued to age, I have understood the profound truth in what she said. Her advice or reflection, and my father’s warning about placing expectations on something, ring true for me and serve as thoughtful and careful warnings. Warning is not a pejorative term here, but a sort of safety net.

There have probably been consequences for that sort of shying away from any kind of relationship that involves something long-term. There have been other factors that have kept me in my own sort of tower, but I have generally been comfortable in that solitude. So again, would I change any of that which has already occurred? Not in anyway that immediately seems apparent to me. I have learned that sometimes the best things happen unexpectedly. That reality aligns with my father’s wisdom about all relationships. Whatever happens with happen. This is more accurate than l often imagined possible. Perhaps that is why I have lived most or my life without expectation. Perhaps that is why I am a firm believer in grasping onto the present and not imagining the future as much as some might think I do. I also realize a sort of incongruence, but one I can somehow find comfortability with, regardless the oxymoronic presence in this situation. Perhaps some of that living in the moment has been because of health issues. Some of it harkens back to the adopted child in me. There have seldom been guarantees in my life, and while I believe that is true for most, I was told that in so many words on numerous occasions. The impact of those words created more than one existential crisis for me. Yet I am blessed to be where I am and in how my life has evolved. I know this in ways I could not have imagined. One of the things I have managed is the ability to overcome most any difficulty in my life. To learn that there are always options and learning from our life challenges is an opportunity to move beyond whatever that obstacle might be. We always have a choice: to quit or move ahead. I have noted that there are moments I seem to learn a bit slowly. More accurately, I am being stubborn. If I allow myself to realize my accountability in any situation and go beyond. I am probably going to be alright. Listening to the counsel of those we trust is an important part of that learning. Sometimes those teachers, those sages, if you will, often insight and clarity when we least expect it. Sometimes we are offered profound wisdom from another when we did not even see it as a possibility. I have been blessed to have such a person (and there have been a number of them) throughout most of my life. What is needed from such a person is the ability to trust and believe in their intent, and the willingness to be vulnerable with or before that person. That has happened again in the most unexpected way and with a sense of timing that defies logic. Yet, what I am realizing is I should not be surprised. This is because it seems that most of the things that have created a positive outcome for me were not planned, or at least did not happen in a manner that illustrates a long term structure to create said outcome. Getting into Michigan Tech or returning after I left would be two examples. Meeting a present colleague at a previous institution, which would lead to a return to Pennsylvania, is yet another. Meeting someone as a sort of by chance encounter on a sideway during a summer day seems to be the latest thing that has me scratching my head by the initial randomness, and the subsequent path it appears to have taken. I am a firm believer that something larger than I watches over me in ways too amazing for words. God, Holy Spirit, guardian Angels, something other: not sure what it is, but for it I am grateful. It is for all of these diverse and random things that I need no do overs. It is for this sort of always in the middle of things that I have no desire to start again and imagine something different. What I am quite sure of is I am more than blessed and where I am at this point is beyond what any adopted little NW Iowa boy could have ever imagined. The two siblings with whom I grew up did not have the opportunity to see such a long life. Bob, my eldest brother, died at 26. While he was a father, something I have not experienced, I am often reminded that I have a number of surrogate offspring. As I write this, it is 10 years to the day that my full biological sister passed from this world. That was a stunning day for me and I remember over the next days trying to figure it all out. So much that contributed to her being barely in her 50s when she passed on. In the time since, I have faced the reality of being the only living member of the family with which I lived my childhood on more than one occasion. I have had family members reach out and some back away. Families are living, breathing entities that get caught out in their own individual lives and time and distance can do a number of things to those relationships that they claim are thicker. I am not sure they are as thick as we might want to believe. That is not a value judgement for me, but rather experience. Certainly adoption played a significant role in all of that for me.

What I know now is I am content. I am not sure where things are going, but I am blessed by the presence of others in ways I could not have imagined. I am blessed by having a job that means more to me than I can express in words. I have people in my life, both family and friends, that remind me of what is important. I have people who have taken the time to really get to know and accept me. There are no words to express my gratitude for that gift. I have learned so much in the last weeks and months, both about myself and what I might hope to yet accomplish. There are really no do overs, but what I know is I do not want or need one. As the amazing musical, Rent, notes so well: there is no day but today.

Thank you as always for reading,

Dr. Martin

525,600 Minutes

Lydia_posed_3 sized

Hello from my dorm room in Krakow,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meine Liebe Lydia,

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

Ihr sohn,

Michael.

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

My dear Lydia,

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

Your son,

Michael

To everyone else, thank you for reading,

Dr. Martin