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)

The Warranty is Broken

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Good early morning from my study,

In a little over an hour, I have to leave and take my niece to the airport. She has been visiting for about a week, with a short trip to New Jersey, and presented at my Writing for Multiple Media class the other evening. She is an amazing person. She is intelligent, witty, insightful, multi-talented, and one of the very few people I might trust as completely as we conditional humans are able to do. She is also my God-child, and somehow, I guess perhaps it is that difference that has made us close. I am not entirely sure. I will have to pull out a picture of her when she was small (three or so) and post it here if I can find it. 

During the past few weeks I have been reminded of the frailty of life again. It is amazing to me as I was writing something else earlier this morning that I have come this far in life. What does such a statement mean? “What does it mean to be successful?” I found myself writing earlier. What does it mean to say, “I have made it.” Is there truly even such a possibility? Is making it something that needs to wait for the afterlife? Do we make it in this life? What is “it”? While the cliches about life abound and both poetry and writing are full of them, it seems that perhaps life has little meter or rhyme. One of my students, who has been accepted to graduate school will sometimes come into my office and say, “Dr. Martin, you seem melancholy today.” Or more than likely, she has just deemed me as such. What is interesting is she is correct. There is a certainly degree of melancholy that never leaves me. Is it because I was adopted and told I did not belong there? Is it because I have failed in two marriages? Is it because I struggle with a chronic illness and will never have a “normal” body? It is all of these things, and none of them. 

I sometimes wonder, perhaps more often than I should, why does it all matter? and yet, then I find myself trying to work harder, be better, understand more completely, live more successfully . . .  I keep striving to improve my existence and the existence of those around me . . .  sometimes “one sentence fragment” at a time. Ultimately, I do believe it matters in the lives of those I touch. I do believe that somehow making their lives better, more manageable, more hopeful, more prepared is the right thing, the moral thing to do. As someone who works hard, and worked hard to get to where I am (and that is not to say I have done it alone. The names of those who have helped me is legion, and I do not mean that in an evil sense for those who would recognize that reference.). I think that is why I have always seemed to work in, be employed in, perhaps, thrive in, positions where I was around other people. Yet, in my older age, I have also learned that I appreciate my solitude. That is perhaps why it is a good thing that I might miss that which I have not had. It is not the missing, it is the not having. Sometimes, in spite of what people think, I am not as giving as it appears. So perhaps at this point, I am sounding a bit like a selfish bastard, if you will. No  . . . it is not that I am innately selfish or even self-centered, it is that I am not sure I can believe that people will ultimately be there when the chips are down. Perhaps it is that I believe too deeply in Luther’s dyad: “simul justus et peculator”. 

Perhaps it is because at this point I too wonder, in spite of an MDiv, in spite of my life being spared more times than I might even be aware, where is God in all of this? Or is there? While I find myself believing in the divinely inspired nature of the scriptures, I am not that person who believes the Bible to be inerrant or infallible. As a person trained in historical critical method  of biblical interpretation. I do believe in the contextually of those texts, and I already understand that believing that does not have to get me to the point where I question God or God’s intentions. I am not sure I am questioning intentions or even existence. I am merely wondering things that push me beyond the easy “platitudes” of why something is the way it is. I am not content to merely ask the question of why do we find ourselves in the circumstance in which we do – neither do I find it comforting that things seem more temporal that I wish they were. The response that “it just is” seems to be the easy way out. 

So at this point, of what am I certain, you make ask? My answer is “that I seem certain (note the qualifier already) that nothing is certain”. Is that qualifier a sign of hope? A wistfulness that is might be something better, and that if I search long enough or hard enough, or I merely have enough faith, it will happen? No . . .  as I write this I believe that we are merely confronted with circumstances and those circumstances offer opportunities. Perhaps the more important question is what do we do with our opportunities and how do they affect us? I believe too many times we let our opportunities escape, either because we do not realize them or we are afraid to step up and use them. When people do step up and use them, we might accuse them of being selfish or unfair. I believe that people react or respond the way they do because of their own experiences. As I have been working on an article about the “rhetoric of place”, and if you have been following this blog, that is not a new focus, it is a reoccurring one for me, you know that I wonder about what give someone a sense of belonging. That is how I understand place.

When Jennifer, that is the niece of whom I wrote earlier in this post, was barely four years old, her father had already passed away. I was baby-sitting and a man came to their doorway. That salesman asked if her mom or dad was there at the time. She looked up with her amazingly beautiful brown eyes and said,” Mommy is shopping and Daddy died and he does not live here anymore.” The man was stunned. I came to the door and he stuttered apologies. I said, “it is okay; she is merely telling you about her reality.” She had accepted that her father was no longer in her life. A pretty astute acceptance for a four year old. Earlier today I told someone how I understood what it meant to be successful. I then followed it up with I have not been successful, but that I had accepted that. Acceptance is not fatalism. Acceptance is understanding the reality of our lives or in this case our existence. 

I wonder if we have been conditioned to believe that there is some warranty, some promise that if we just do the right things it will all work out and we will be successful. I guess what I find myself believing is that we can do the right thing; we can have the right job or the right relationships, but none of that means we are successful or that “we have made it”. My father used to say, “There are no free lunches.” I find myself once again being my father. It is not a case that the warranty is broken. I believe perhaps (again I am qualifying) that there is (or was) no warranty to begin with. I tell my students that their tens of thousands of dollars invested in an education does not educate them; it does not guarantee them a job upon graduation. There is no what ifs, in spite of what we are always thinking. There is only life . . .  there is only this. It is what we have. It is for that very reason it is valuable.

Perhaps it is our inability to even attempt to understand the difference between the conditional and the unconditional. Perhaps it is unwillingness to think beyond the surface. Too many are willing to go through their lives merely following what has happened or becoming the victim. While there are genuine victims, even then there is a choice (and certainly not an easy one to accomplish many times). We have the choice of continuing to be victimized or the choice to work to move beyond. Moving beyond is not allowing experience to make your decision for you. It is a difficult thing to work with or on, that is for certain. As noted, I could be the victim of this disease called Crohn’s and at times I have certainly felt like one, but that would make my life more difficult. It would make me more difficult (and we know that is not needed). I am all about moving forward. I am all about living with what I have been given. I am happy to go to school today and see what might happen. I am temporary, but I am okay with that. Knowing is most times better than not knowing. 

The picture is a sketching of a picture from the day at Stomp with Melissa and Jordan . . .  it is a nice memory. 

My pondering for the day. Thanks for reading.

Michael