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)

Traditions of Christmas

Scan 757Hello on the day retailers go into the Black,

I am probably not helping them make any goal today and I am grading and attending to matters that somehow once again seem beyond my control. I do not plan to do much shopping, if any today, and I have other things I want to try to manage. I sometimes wonder if my attention to detail is something wrong or merely something that causes me difficulty, or perhaps both. The picture here is of two of my seminary friends when they came to Pennsylvania when I first lived in this state a quarter century ago and was a parish pastor in Lehighton. They are in the house I lived in and their names are Tim Christensen and Sandra Van Zyl. I miss them, but still know where they are (in Montana).

I did have a nice Thanksgiving, though a bit untraditional and a bit traditional. I spent part of it on the road taking my Midwest guests back to the airport and spent some time in a traffic jam. Then I went to a family’s house for dinner. They had extended family there and it was nice to meet them. It always it interesting to be around a group at the holidays. I listen to comments and conversations and one learns so much. It was the “cousin” comments which taught me the most and gave me new insights.

I didn’t finish all of this yesterday and last evening (it is 4:00 a.m. and I have been awake for over an hour, so I write) I was at the Decker’s. I had a nice time watching Grace in a parade and seeing Caroline and Rose scramble for candy. Mary always brightens my day because of her amazing love and beauty. Max, Mark and I played a card game following the parade (which Max beat us both) and Ethan, Christian (the Clark nephews who were visiting), and Gayle worked on a jigsaw puzzle (which they pulled an all nighter and I just got the completed picture as a text). It was interesting that advice both Mark and I gave Grace last night, I need to take for myself. It really dawned on me as I was saying it. In fact, I noted that point and Mark and Grace both noted it back to me.  It is a bit ironic how we tell others not to put up with what we ourselves are putting up with. So, now comes the hard part: doing it and continuing to say that impoliteness is not reasonable nor acceptable, regardless of what the other does to justify. I realize that I put up with a lot more of this than I should and then when the consequence is my generosity or kindness (in any form) is taken advantage of, I am always surprised (I should not be). What I am learning is what I offer or think about a person’s intentions or character is not as pure as I want to believe. If one’s heart is not selfish, it is almost impossible to act selfishly. This is the adage I must remember.

Tonight when I got home I pondered (yes, again I am pondering) why it is that Christmas music so profoundly affects me. I am not sure if it is because I grew up singing from the time I was small. I am not sure if it is because I remember recording an LP (do your remember those things?) with the Sioux City Children’s Choir. However, it was actually trying to listen to Christmas music on Thanksgiving evening and a comment from the cousin that gave me the most insight into things I have watched, but perhaps did not really understand. In addition, it also got me thinking about the music. The station I was listening to was probably the most traditional of any Christmas station one could ever hope to find. John Rutter and Robert Shaw have probably done more arranging and composing of Christmas music than any other two people in the world. It is their Pandora stations that play the most amazing Christmas music one could ever hope to hear. Check it out; I am quite sure you’ll be glad you did.

This coming Wednesday, I am going to see Mannheim Steamroller’s Christmas concert in Bethlehem. I have not seen them live since I was in seminary. I got two tickets way last summer, but the plans I thought of have changed pretty dramatically, and I am really fortunate to be going with a former colleague. She has a “bit of a musical appreciation” so going to see the concert with her will be amazing. She is also one of the people for whom I have great admiration. I am looking forward to it. Next weekend I am going to hide out in Jim Thorpe for the weekend. I plan to see the Bach and Handel Chorale there (and probably do some grading).

When I grew up every Christmas was at my Grandmother’s house. This is the same person with whom I lived until I was about four and a half. I have mentioned her in my blog many times, and she is my hero. She is probably the most loving and giving person I ever met. She had a much more difficult life than I have really taken the time to imagine. She grew up on a farm in the depression and the dust bowl years in South Dakota. She did go to college, at least for a period of time, but she did not finish. I never learned the story behind that. I’m not exactly sure how she ended up married to my grandfather, but I think that deeply loved each other. He died when she was only 45 years old. So what I’m realizing that she spent the rest of her life, the next 19 years, as a widow. Another one of those ironies, Lydia has been alone also for 19 years. I think with me this is me the most about my grandmother is that she overcame her alcoholism. I did not know she was an alcoholic, but I remember as a small child going to the liquor store with her. From what I understand, my grandfather also had a drinking issue. It was really after I became an adult that I understood what it happened. Long story short, AA changed her life. I think she quit drinking when I was seven years old and she never drank again. For the rest of her life, she focused on her ownership of the bakery and she was active in Eastern Star. She eventually was the Worthy Matron of her chapter. I remember in high school being amazed as I watched these elegant women do the things they did at installations. It reminds me of someone, a person who worked at the bakery. I wonder where she is today.

Christmas at my grandmothers house was amazing. She owned a bakery – the one I worked at from the time I was 12 – and everything that was made there was delectable. Both she and her older sister, Helen, where the most amazing cooks in the world. So between her bakery and her culinary skills Christmas dinner has never been equaled. However, that was only the beginning. Grandma pulled out all the stops at Christmas and her generosity was unparalleled by anyone. I do not come close for those thinking I am like her. I only wish I was. I can still remember her kindness, her smile, and how happy she was that everyone was in her house. Perhaps the best part of Christmas was that we got to stay at her house the week that followed. My favorite breakfast every day consisted of two poached eggs, a half a grapefruit, and toast. Hanging out at the bakery is a small child and working later in my life was something that I love to do. I still remember the present of a toboggan and sliding on her hill. The house she lived in the rest of her life with the house I had spent my first years in. It was a place of safety; it was a place of love. Perhaps that’s the most important gift she gave me the gift of unconditional love. While I’ve tried to emulate her all too often I fail miserably. However I still have her example to remember and to cherish.

In spite of the craziness at the end of the semester, regardless a number of things that can get in our way, it is the time to remember the things that matter. No matter how busy we are or how much we have on our plate simple acts of courtesy and kindness or what Christmas and traditions are about. I am blessed by my traditions from earlier my life and the memories I have. I’m grateful for the things that I have learned this past year. I’m not sure what the future will bring or how long with future is, but I do know that I have been blessed. Even when I don’t understand all the reasons or even the actions of others, I can still find some blessing in those experiences. I’m grateful for my traditions, for my heritage. While I will not leave children behind, I was reminded again this week by an email that somehow I make a difference. While I love the traditions of Christmas perhaps my most important legacy is in the classroom. It is one of the places my gifts really shine. I hope you can find time to create new traditions and begin new things. I’m looking forward to Christmas and having some people at my house to share to learn together, and perhaps create a new tradition, at least once. Well, it is 5:30 a.m. – time for a nap.

The link is from one of my favorite group, the concert I will see this next week. The song is titled “Traditions of Christmas”. I hope you find it as meaningful as I do.

As always thank you for reading.

Dr. Martin

Understanding Friendship

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Good Sunday morning,

I was hoping to be in Virginia last night and driving back this morning, but once again, my body seems to have its own plan. I guess a more efficacious consequence was I slept longer and more completely last night than I have for a while. I need to do some cleaning this morning and then I am going to spend some time in Jim Thorpe today. I need to touch base with my nutritionist and chat about some options. I will also get some school work done. There are two things to get off my plate this week: programmatic things and grading as well as some logistics.

The last weeks have pushed me to reflect on the true nature of friendship and one of the repercussions of attending last week’s conference has me considering the complexities of this relationship as well as to ponder what it actually means to say someone is a friend. I have long been cognizant of my own distinctions in terminology as well as how I practice the relational differences between friends and acquaintances. There are also connections we make between family members. What I am sensing for myself at the moment is whether we are talking about those we truly consider as friends (and those individuals are most rare) or those we are biologically, “adoptive-ly”, or even maybe “terminologically” offered the honor of family, being a family is a tough thing to accomplish.

Those are two different relationships and very different issues for me, but they are both paramount to me, especially as I am in a new phase of my life. If I consider my life in its entirety and determine friends, I think I have two life-long friends. These are persons I have known for 2/3s of my life and we have remained in each other’s lives. They are the two, who, no matter the space or time between our contacting each other, will know and understand me and vice versa. They have been there through all the phases of my life. One of them from preschool. There are a few people I have met later in life, and they have held more than one role in my life, often straddling the personal and the professional, but they have become treasured people. One in particular is a colleague, now one of my bosses, a brother of sorts, and a person I admire and trust without limits. There is a person who I met through Lydia, he worked for her and helped her with so much more than things around the house. He has also helped me and he is so gracious. He is a fabulous person and incredibly knowledgable and intelligent. I am blessed to have him in my life. Finally there are some people in my old neighborhood “on the circle”, they are astounding because of their care and love. They are people on whom I know I can depend. I have been blessed. Then there is my actual family. They’re people from my adopted family (the extended Martin family). There are my “technically” second cousins and two of those “cousins” are more important than any words will ever really explain. They really do get me as I get them and the one knows me so well that I am actually a little frightened and wish I could figure things out better than I have as of late. There are some immediate family members (or the closest I have at this point), a nephew and a niece and their mother. I am so blessed by them. What I realize is that I have richly honored to have so many amazing people in my life. Rob has worked so hard and is doing really well. Jennifer is an amazing woman in every sense of the word. Friendship is a gift and something that, much like trust, is earned over a period of time. It is something that is tended to and cultivated. It is something on which you can depend. It is there and it is as unconditional a thing we can create or as we can muster as the fallible humans we are.

It is now Monday and I am still writing. Today I was speaking with some staff people on campus about a former student who should have graduated two years ago. Some transfer credits and a PE course. Still working on it for her. Then I was in the ACT101 area and two people asked me about my work with a former Bloom student I have helped. It felt good to say that he is in a better place. It was interesting to hear some more pieces from last year that I did not know. While some of it caught me a bit off guard, some reflection on my part forced me to admit that part of his difficulties were because of his kindness and willingness to be influenced by others around him. I am saddened to hear some more of the pieces because it shows that I need to be more discerning on how much I trust. I have learned this lesson the hard way earlier in my life and now again I am compelled to realize I trust people too completely or I am willing to see the good and ignore the obvious flaws more than I should. The consequence is pain on my part and a sort of shaking to my core that requires me to face the reality of our human selfishness. Sometimes their selfishness is immaturity; sometimes it is a particular thought process that is a bit short-sighted. Those two things can be remedied. Sometimes people are not really good people, plain and simple. Those are the people you need to be able to be watchful of, the people who should probably be relegated to a safe place (I.e. moved to a marginal position which cannot cause you harm). It is a difficult thing for me to do that. Even when warned time and time again by one who knows, I continued to offer chances. It was today that I was actually hit figuratively square in the face, I did not bring this person up at all, but the individual was brought up in the context of the larger conversation. Things I have witnessed again and again, but did not want to admit to myself the obvious flaws, were noted by these two faculty/staff. I actually said little, but mostly nodded in affirmation. It was sad for me, but I tucked it away. It will be sadder for this person and that consequence will be sooner rather than later. While I do not generally wish anything bad on someone, the reality of continued bad decisions is going to cause some even bigger issues. I am glad in this case that I am not the parent. I think God was wiser than I (not surprisingly) as I am ending life childless. While I am not always as forgiving as I might be, the picture for today is about that need. Such power we have when we fail to forgive, but the damage we cause to ourselves and others.

I am crazy-busy as some call it at the moment, but I am making progress. That is all that matters at the moment. Tomorrow I am taking my Bible as Literature class to the Lutheran Seminary at Gettysburg to research. I am also working on some of my own research. I am looking forward to the trip and chapel. I am also looking forward to seeing my colleague the Rev. Dr. Mark Vitalis-Hoffman. I have work to do in the morning before meeting students at 5:20 a.m., so I hope to be in bed shortly.

Thanks for reading.

Dr. Martin