Juggling or Staying Afloat

 Good early morning,

For someone who does not really enjoy water, it seems that the metaphors regarding it are enveloping my writing as of late. I noticed this trend even as I have been writing announcements in BOLT (really D2L), the course management system we use here at Bloomsburg. I got home last night and was in bed by 8:40 because I seemed to be fighting off something most of yesterday. I do feel reasonable at the moment though it is about 2:00 a.m., and I am pretty wide awake (thanks, Katy Perry, for the song running through my head). . . . Maybe I’m not as awake as I thought because I’ve somehow posted this unintentionally. So I guess I will stay up and try to finish the writing, a bit more promptly than originally planned. Such changes can be a blessing and a curse, but nevertheless this posting will perhaps get completed in one fell swoop.

As the last four days have ended, in addition to the loss of the fraternity brother mentioned in the last post, four other people to whom I am close have lost immediate family members, parents or siblings. In some cases I knew those parents or siblings and in other cases not. I do not remember another time in my life I’ve been aware of so many people to whom I am close losing loved ones. I do remember a week when I was a pastor at a parish not far from here. It was one of those weeks where there is so much on your plate and of course it seems there’s not a moment to do anything else and there would be multiple funerals. Ask any parish pastor and I am sure that they will tell you the same story. For me that week was the week of Christmas and New Year’s. In fact it started Christmas Eve day, and it continued into the first week of January. If I remember correctly there were five funerals in that time. One person was maybe in his late 40s or early 50s. Two were sisters, both in their early 20s. I remember telling the one funeral director that he should just have an office in our parish. What I did learn from those times was that death is always painful. No matter what cliché you try to use, when we as humans come face-to-face with the ending of life we are at a loss through that loss. To the family of Justin, to Antonio, and to my Dana  and seminary friends, Deb and Wilbur, my words and my thoughts are certainly not enough in this time, but they are what I have to give you, and in my piety, the God in whom I believe sheds tears of sorrow with you. Please know that you are not alone at this time in spite of the distance. As you will juggle your feelings and emotions in these days and weeks ahead, there are those of us who will try to help you stay afloat. Please do not hesitate to reach out. I know this from my own experiences and I know how important those words and those touches are.

As I think I have already noted this fall, I was granted a quarter release time. For those of you who might not understand what that means, it means because of another project I have on my plate, I was provided a release from one section of teaching. However I was not given one less prep. It certainly helps because there are fewer papers to grade, fewer essays to read, and fewer blogs to manage. However the project I’m working on seems big enough that I’m not sure I ended up with less work in terms of labor. Once again I think I have more work than I had planned. This is not really a complaint because I enjoy most of what I do, but it certainly makes for long days. And this is where it seems that my age is catching up with me. I used to be able to come home and just keep working; now it seems my pillow has become my favorite friend. It seems between meetings, office hours, grading, and more meetings, my nose is still above the surface of the water, but I certainly hope no one kicks up a wave or I’m confronted by some swell. I’m not a good swimmer and I hate when water goes up my nose. Somewhere between now and Saturday I have another paper to finish. I think it might be a long couple days. I think what is interesting to me is that when I was in graduate school I thought somehow after the comprehensive exams and the dissertations life would get easier. Then it was after the probationary period and achieving tenure, life would get easier.  Or is it then after promotion, I think I figured out it’s never really easy if you’re going to do more than be average. The words of my father come ringing back. “Anyone can be average,” he said to his lazy 16-year-old; “that’s why it is.” It’s almost 45 years ago he first spoke those words to me, and I can still hear them as if they were yesterday. As I’ve said many times, he was one of the wisest men I will ever know. I think somewhere I need to find a picture of him and post it. As I have often said to others, one of his most characteristic features was that he was always smiling, and he had perfect teeth. In spite of the fact that I perhaps finally will admit I’m not average, I still believe I’m perfectly normal, whatever that means. I’m imagining that any of my students who read this would want to debate that point.

Over the last couple days I have the opportunity to speak through Facebook with one of my Dana classmates. He was actually ahead of me, but because I was well beyond a teen when I got there I think I older than him. He now lives in another country, the country of my ancestors actually and another place that I’ve always wanted to travel (if you’re wondering, the country is Norway). We spoke about the education we had received at that little liberal arts college on the bluffs of the Missouri River, barely into the state of Nebraska. We reminisced about our humanities courses and how much we learned from that class. We spoke about the director of the humanities program, Dr. John W Nielsen. How blessed we were to learn from such an amazing and brilliant person. He taught me about so much more than just classroom material.  He also taught me about life. What I’m realizing now is that one of the best decisions I ever made, as I traveled on that Lutheran Youth Encounter team, was to attend Dana College. But along with brilliant professors,  I had amazing classmates. Indeed, the Tom Kendallls, the Merle or Karen Brockhoffs, the Scott and Nettie Groruds or Shelly Petersons,  the Leanne Danahys and Kim Nielsens,  the Joanne Hansens or Barb Kalals, the Kip Tylers or Peter Bondes. There were wonderful people who stunned me with their intelligence and beauty like Pam Poole or Jill Rogert. These are the colleagues or classmates I first met and who blessed me in so many ways. I hope that my mentioning some of you by name is not too bold. It is by no means an exhaustive list. Choir with Dr. Paul Neve and the humanities staff changed my life. I am a professor because of that small college. I am a professor because Dorothy Wright and her husband helped me go to Europe as a sophomore. To this day I love choral music; it was an experience like no other to spend my spring breaks on choir tour, eating ham, scalloped potatoes, and green Jell-O (every single day for a week). As I lie here and type away on my iPad, there are so many memories from Dana. In spite of the fact that it’s over 30 years and that Dana as an institution closed after its 125th year, the generations of us fortunate enough to go there were provided with an education that will rival anywhere. For me, one of the best things about Facebook is that I am still in contact with that amazing group of people. And while there were people from the other institutions I have attended who have been important, that small college on the hill affected me more profoundly than any words could ever explain.

As is often the case I’m not sure this is where I expected this post to go. But I think of my freshmen students right now. Your business LLC is much like some of the groups I was in when I was a student. Oh shared experiences and the commeraderie you now have will hopefully mean more to you as time goes on. As you juggle classes, events, and other requirements, you will find that these people will help you stay afloat. Perhaps that’s the same for today: learn to juggle; manage to stay afloat. Both skills are invaluable. I’m not sure I’ve always realized that, at least consciously that is. Yet, I think I’ve always practiced it. For those of you who have been reading, and if in Bloomsburg driving by, hopefully the next few days will see significant progress on the barn project. As my colleague, Dr. Usry, said yesterday, “You have big equipment yard again.”. It is my hope that in a few hours I will once again have a driveway. A little less dirt and mud will not hurt my feelings. At is as it is now somewhere between 3:30and 4:00, the question becomes: should I go back to sleep or just stay up? Perhaps I should just get up take a shower and go to work. That would certainly be more productive.  Would it help my  nascent juggling skills? Might it help me overcome my fear of water, or will I merely look like someone foolish dog paddling in 15 foot swells? I’ll let you know what I decide, and by the way, the picture is of my father when he was in the service. He was in his late 20s in this picture.

As always, thank you for reading.

The non- juggling and non-swimming professor.

Farewell my Friend

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Good Sunday morning,

It is very early and I am awake. I left town yesterday because of the yearly block party (I refuse to use it as a proper noun – pun intended). It was a wonderful day in Jim Thorpe and a beautiful day to be walking around. Early yesterday morning, I got a call from Stephanie informing me that Peter, the life-long friend whom I have noted as of late, had passed away earlier Saturday morning, ending his battle with ALS. It is a bitter-sweet thing to say I am both relieved that he no longer needs to suffer, but I am so profoundly at a loss because someone who has been my friend since the beginning of my life, and someone even younger (albeit only a year, almost exactly), has left this earth. As I noted a few posts ago, this is a very different feeling than the feeling I had with Lydia. While losing Lydia is still part of my daily thoughts, she was 90 and had lived an amazing life. Peter was 58 years old. At one point I might have considered that old. That is undoubtably not my reality now.

When I went to see Peter three weeks ago, he noted that he never really expected to grow old. That statement caught me off guard, but I noted that he probably did not expect to have to battle such a vicious and uncaring disease as ALS. I want to talk about the memories of this most amazing, yet profoundly human, friend of mine. Our mothers were best friends all of our lives and our families did most everything together. Peter, James, and John (Biblical sounding) were the three Goede boys and Robert, Michael, and Kris (I am the Michael, not trying to state the obvious) were the Martin children. Peter’s mother was our church organist and our two father’s, Jake and Harry, pretty much ran Riverside Lutheran Church when we were small. To walk into my house and see Marge, Peter’s mother, at the kitchen table having iced tea with my mother was as common as breathing. To see our fathers working on something at church was a common as listening to Pastor Anderson or Ofstedal, our two pastors from childhood through high school preach every Sunday. If it was the 4th of July, we were at McCook Lake and the Ike’s Club to celebrate with fireworks and picnics. When I was 17 years old, Peter saved my life when I almost drown in that lake. If he had not swum across that lake, I am am quite sure I would not be writing this post and he would be joining me rather than I being one of the many who has lost him.  His older brother, John, was instrumental in really creating a strong church youth group  and that youth group was a significant part of my growing up. I remember when the famous Beatles song, “Let it Be” was the theme of our homecoming growing up. It was that song and Pete’s singing of it that got his voice noticed and began a life-long gig with the garage band, The Establishment, who were eventual inductees into the Iowa Rock -n-Roll Hall of Fame, that would in someways identify Peter for the rest of his life. Whether it was their gigs or his grandmother meticulously braiding his almost waist-length hair; whether it was traveling to another high school homecoming dance or a weekend in Spencer, Iowa, where we spent hours listening to the latest 45 trying to figure out the lyrics to “Rocky Mountain Way”, his voice was in the process of becoming legendary. Growing up I walked beans on their farm; I spent moments driving around in our cars; hanging out wherever we might decide like the Runza Drive-in on Riverside Blvd. When I left for the Marine Corps after graduation, our actual time together was significantly less than our childhood years, but eventually, I was best man in his wedding and he was the same in mine. When I ended up in seminary, Whitney, their daughter was born and I sang at her baptism. He would sing at my ordination and he sang at my sister’s funeral. Our fathers passed away within two months of each other.

Even though our lives when through a myriad of changes, there was never the need to figure out who the other one was or who they had become. I remember going to Whitney’s high school graduation reception and what he told me that day was a bit shocking, but he was even then taking a sort of inventory of his life and what had happened. Peter was an unequalled when it came to working hard and not giving up on things. In the early days of he band he would buy their PA equipment, taking out loans in his own name to make sure they had what was needed and he and Flood Music became sort of business partners. He was one of the first to get into the hardware/software/networking area and he did very well. Even when it required changing companies and learning a new gig or thing, he was up to the challenge. Yet, he was a human and sometimes the habits we learn early never leave us. There were things he battled and as with many of us, he could be his own worst enemy. I understand this malady all too well. A couple of years ago, I sent him a letter. It was a letter that I had written as I was recovering from complications of yet another surgery and a letter than reflected much as I am now. As I battled yet another serious health crisis, I called and read him the letter before I even sent it. I cried that evening as I cry now. I am now more than grateful that I took the time to write to him and to Stephanie at that time. I am glad that I took the time to visit him three weeks ago. I am grateful for the conversations we had that day and the opportunity I had to speak with Stephanie a few weeks before that. We take so much for granted.

Later today, I will spend time watching a student be inducted into the national honor society. Quite a change from the beginning of their college tenure, but what it demonstrates is someone not taking anything for granted, but realizing it takes work and that no one owes us anything. That is such a difficult lesson. There is no promise of a long life; there is no promise of success, even with hard work. Each day is a gift and coming to terms with that is something that takes most of us a long time to realize, if we ever actually come to that realization. Each time I am shocked or jolted into this reality, there is little that can be said. It is yet another forced realization. To use the word “forced” demonstrates that we are so easily lulled into complacency or a sense of expectation. We have our plans (and heaven knows we need to plan), but we have little comprehension, nor do we want it, that the line between life and death is much more tenuous than we care to consider in any regular manner or given moment. I think some of our occupations require us to do so (medical or health care workers), but generally we make our long-term plans merely believing that those things will happen. I am quite sure that neither Peter nor I expected to incur some of the things that we have in the 40 years since high school. I do think he expected to have Stephanie in his life, and I am grateful to her for being the amazing person she is. I know the last time he and I spoke he talked about how important his children were and how proud he was of them. His daughter and son, while I do not know them as well as I might wish, are certainly incredible people. They are successful, but more importantly, they are also good people. What I know my friend is that as I think about our lives, I would not be the person I am without some of the things we shared and all the ways our lives were intertwined growing up. You have taught me what true friendship is. We remained friends during your entire life. When I told you three weeks ago that I loved you, I meant that from the bottom of my heart. In spite of your fragile condition, you were as gracious as you could be and we had a nice day together. We laughed and we cried. The tears streaming down my face now are tears of relief. They are tears of sadness and also tears of graciousness, for gratefulness, that we had the opportunity for some sense of closure. I promised I would come see you as soon as school was finished for the semester, but that was not to be. Instead, I am honored and humbled for the opportunity I have had to share together with you our lives, sometimes on a daily basis, sometimes at a distance, sometime with a passage of time, but regardless it was a friendship that abided change of time, distance, jobs, and anything else that might have happened.

I am not sure what the schedule will be this coming week, but I know that I am headed back to see you again, sooner than I imagined. This time to be there for your children and for Stephanie and to share with all the people who loved you. As I write this, ironically, I am listening to iTunes and “Dream On” came on. Your voice and your ability to be the show person you were will always amaze me. I hope you have a wonderful stage on which you can share. I know your parents and grandmother are there to welcome you. I am glad you are no longer suffering, but I will miss knowing that you are there in Eagan. I love you, Stephanie, and I love you my friend.

Bless you.

Thanks for reading.

Michael (Peter’s friend)

P.S. I have to add that I have now heard “Let it Be,” “Stairway to Heaven,” and “Free Bird”. Thanks for the messages, my friend.