Spring- Finally

Spring took forever to arrive this year. ( As in 30 inches of snow in April, as in the buds are just now on the trees…)

But here’s a poem to celebrate spring:

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Kneeling in Thin Places

Just an hour after I called to say
I had seen the first trillium of spring
I saw her outside my window
in genuflection
sun streaming onto her hair
like a medieval-painted Mary kneeling
at holy beauty

In pews
stained-glass
light
covers
those who bend

I knelt today in my garden
planting seeds
It will be prayer
to eat
the first tomato

 

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Oh, Europe.

We have returned to our small peninsula after being in Europe for just over two weeks. Oh, Europe.

Flowers. They are everywhere. In shop windows and apartment windows, on every table in every café, in planters on every street.

There are flower stands in every market, and in the Netherlands, especially, there are tulips. Glorious fields of tulips.

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It’s hard not to love a culture that loves flowers.

The age of things. The streets are old, and the doors are old, and the buildings are old.

Old in this case does not mean dingy or dilapidated; somehow these Europeans make even more classy those structures that have stood already for hundreds of years.

The hotels where we slept and the cafes where we ate and the cathedrals and the castles all told silent stories of the multitudes of people that have breathed within their walls. I walked the same city fortress and climbed the city tower where people who lived in ­­­­­­1386 also walked and climbed.

We ate in a café where people have chatted and eaten since 1572.

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In Cologne, we saw a gorgeous mosaic floor that had been installed by the Romans. (Probably 1st century)

In the face of history like that, what is there left to be except humble?

Small Spaces. We Americans love our large spaces. Europeans seem to be content without large homes and large yards and the amassing of material possessions that must inevitably fill up our large houses and large yards. Even among the wealthy, living quarters were small- a flat of 900 square feet was normal. Yards were uncommon.

And the ramifications of that? More leisure time.   Instead of spending time to maintain large homes and yards, they meet friends in cafes, they gather in parks or along river banks.   And they linger for hours. The pace of life seems less hurried.

Water. Their public drinking fountains are better than our public drinking fountains.

The cathedrals. So impressive. I think the next post might be devoted to them.

The kindness of strangers. As much as we loved the river cruise, we also loved the days where we were away from the organized tour and able to explore on our own. The flip side meant we were left to make our own mistakes- like the time we got on the wrong train, or the afternoon when we ended up somewhere different than we intended.

“Come with us,” a couple said, when we asked for a little help. “You will love our little town, and if you walk with us, just this way, we will show you the best cafe… ”

Travel is always about learning, about growing, about seeing things from new perspectives. The contrasts between the places we know and the new ones we experience are intriguing, and for someone like me who has wanderlust, beguiling.

There is more pondering for me to do as I continue to reflect on our time away. But I’ll finish for now with  just a few of my favorite pictures from a place that felt wonderful, that felt good.

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A Poem for Palm Sunday

In this week of marches and protests, I’ve been thinking about activists. Why does it feel scary to join in? In contrast to so many other times in history and places around the world, we are free in this country to gather, to protest, to march.  The worst that could happen to us is an arrest; in other regimes we could be tortured or killed if we gathered to walk the streets with signs or if we shouted slogans and asked for change.

These words from Luke 19 about Palm Sunday seem particularly fitting today.

 “…they threw their coats on the colt and put Jesus on it. As He was going, they were spreading their coats on the road.  As soon as He was approaching, near the descent of the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the miracles which they had seen, shouting: “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord; Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Him, “Teacher, rebuke Your disciples.”  But Jesus answered, “I tell you, if these become silent, the stones will cry out!” 

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I imagine a woman in that crowd, I try to put myself in her shoes. She was likely illiterate; her culture would not have valued her; it was a time of oppression and fear. Hailing allegiance to Jesus would have been a defiant, brave act.

Even Stones Cry Out

As I walked they thrust palms in my hand
so close I could touch Him
and the mangy ass.
For once I did
a brave thing, too
shouted Hosanna 
called out King
I had never heard the sound of my voice so lifted, loud.

I took off my coat, put it down.
Scared as shit, I
joined the throng
We moved through streets
crowds growing
all of us caught up in
laughter
in possibility

Caesar’s guards watched
blood hungry, spears ready

This is no place for risk
I live in confines
I breathe under the weight of ugly rules.
When I go back for my coat will they take me?

Strange how this Jesus
gives me what I cannot give myself
how He makes me more than I am

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Photos courtesy of Karen Heyse

A Study in Contrasts

We’re spending a little time in Port Aransas, Texas. After three years of Wisconsin winters, we‘ve learned that winter lingers there into March (and April, to be honest.) As much as the snow is spectacularly beautiful in Door County, we weren’t eager to see more of it nor continue to dread walking the dog in the 10 degree morning air with the possibility of slipping on ice, so we searched the internet for places we could go with great birding spots (Dave), a beach to walk on (me) and a rental with a view of the water (both of us.)

In other words, we were ready to see a little less of this:

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and a little more of this.IMG_0653

It’s a long drive to southern Texas, but we stopped along the way to see a few attractions (Crystal Bridges in Arkansas) and cousins in Austin who were great tour guides.  Both of those visits were pretty great.

We’ve been in this little beach town for nearly a week. But we live in a beach town,too, so it’s a little hard not to draw contrasts.   Here’s a few of the most obvious differences:

1. Snakes. We’d never see this sign on our beach.IMG_0650

Yikes! If it weren’t about 50 degrees warmer here than at home, I might have been tempted to turn around and head back to Wisconsin. But the good news? We’ve been here a week, and haven’t seen one snake.

2. We have this lovely view from our condo balcony.IMG_0615

But guess what’s between this sand dune and the water? A beach with sand that is driveable, so there’s a beach road, with cars that drive back and forth all day long.IMG_06433. And not only do these cars come to drive, they come to park. They stay for the day, and sometimes they stay for several days and nights. Here, there’s great public access to the water. But it’s taking a little getting used to for me to share my beach space with thousands of strangers.IMG_0648

4. I have to say, though, that the wide, wide beaches here are a plus. They go on for miles and miles. I love to walk at the water’s edge, and I can do that for a long way. I think I could walk 18 miles here if I wanted to (which I don’t.) In contrast, Door County’s beaches are lovely, but they can be rocky in spots, sandy in others, turn to bluff along the water’s edge, or are just too overgrown with vegetation to walk. So despite the fact that there are more people than I’m used to, the walking here is pretty nice. (Especially in the morning, before the crowds come in.)

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5. Both places have ships. Port Aransas sits at the mouth of the canal where large freighters come and go to Corpus Christi. So we’ve been watching huge freighters, just like we do in Door County. IMG_0614The ships in both places are huge, and somehow it doesn’t get old for either of us to watch them up close. But on this score, Door County wins. Our canal is prettier than their canal. No oil rigs like these ruin the views in Door County..IMG_0622

6. Salt water. (yuck)  Give me the fresh clean water of Lake Michigan any day.

7. Hurricanes. This one’s just sad.  Natural disasters can happen anywhere, but I can’t imagine anything destroying Door County in the way this town was destroyed last August by Hurricane Harvey. Many stores and businesses were completely ruined, and many but certainly not all have reopened after months of heartache and hard work.   We’re not particularly big spenders, but every cup of coffee and trip to the grocery store or dinner out helps each business owner just a bit, and we’re glad to do it.

In this little study of contrasts, I’ve tried to be objective, to see the good in both places. But I’m afraid Door County has spoiled me for other places, as it is just too close to perfect. Its only problem is that it’s perfect for only part of the year.  For example, it snowed 7 inches this week in Baileys Harbor.  Unlike Texas, it’s going to be months before I can sit out on my beloved Wisconsin beach to get some color on my legs. So for now, I’ll be happy to be near water, to walk a beach, and to wear one layer of clothing instead of three or four. For the next week while we’re here, I’ll likely continue contrasting the two beach towns. And most certainly,  Door County will keep winning.

Sometimes getting away from home only makes me like home more.

Walking on (Frozen) Water

It’s been a cold winter.  I’ve complained about the long stretches of single digit temps and the brutal winds that blow across the lake and the bay.  But here’s one advantage: the harbors and bays and inland lakes are frozen in. There are icefishing shanties and snowmobilers out on the ice, and it is apparently safe to walk across the frozen water where in the same place we boat and swim in summer.

I’m grateful to the ladies who invited me along for a walk yesterday, this week taking to frozen water. The setting was spectacular, but the sun on our faces as we basked on the ice? Here’s a poem to celebrate the morning.

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Walking on 24 Inches of Ice

Snowshoes latched
we intended to walk
to the island

but talk of currents underneath
made us stay close
cracks possible
and the mention of Johnny D
who went down, went under

instead of across
we followed the shoreline
chattered
while winds bullied
remembering
summer water open and blue

out around the point
we reached the warmth of the sun
lay down in the light, faces up
backs cold in the snow

saying
here I am

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Water, Not Everywhere

I live near water. We luxuriate in the beauty of this great lake that surrounds us. We swim and boat and walk its shorelines, we skip pebbles and wade in the waves on sandy beaches. Even now, in the winter when we are not delighting in the blue beauty, we talk of “lake effect snow” and gaze at the ice-shoves and crystals that shine in the winter sun. We sometimes complain of the pervasive dampness, the humidity that persists in each season. Water in every way affects our lives.

In contrast, I have been reminiscing this week about a place where water was sparse. Northern Uganda had fertile soil and plenty of rain, but that did not translate into enough water for everyday living. In the house where we American teachers stayed, there was running water most of the time, but we needed to conserve. This meant hair washing every third or fourth day, showers (cold) every other day and only for a minute or two.

But for most Ugandans, water needed to be carried. One teacher friend lined up at the well each morning about ½ mile away from her house to carry home her 5 gallons before school. Most days this would be barely enough to wash and drink and cook and clean. Every other Saturday she would wash clothes, and she dreaded it- the long walk twice or even three times in a day- the heavy hauling, the time.

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We can hardly imagine it- every drop precious because every drop means hard work, means time spent. No faucets flowing freely to wash hands, wash dishes, wash hair, wash sheets or towels. No sprinklers for our lawns, no hoses to water our tomatoes or wash our cars. The high school where I taught had one working well in a far-off corner of the campus. That’s six hundred kids who not only learned at the school but also lived in dorms on the property with no drinking fountain, no water for toilets, no working faucets in their science labs or their cafeteria or kitchen. There were no showers. To wash themselves, the students took sponge baths from small plastic washtubs. They got used to being thirsty.

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The thing I most remember feeling in Gulu was dusty. There was dust in my shoes, the grit rubbing blisters between my toes. Dust under the straps of my backpack. Dust on my schoolbooks. Dust in my eyebrows. There was never enough water to wash it away.

Shortly before we left after spending a summer in Gulu, we invited all our Ugandan teacher-partners and their families to a celebration. We planned to play games, eat food; there would be dancing. One of our program leaders schemed a special treat for the kids: he first borrowed tarps from the World Food Program (which was literally keeping people alive with twice weekly distributions of rice.) Then, with buckets and a gerry-rigged hose, he let water flow freely down those tarps in a make-shift “slip ‘n slide” for the children.

Shy at first, the children held back. And then, one child ran, slid on the slippery tarp, laughed, came back for another run. And then another, and another, until all of them were running, sliding, drenched with water and dripping in the sun. There was laughter and shrieking, giggling and glee.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I suppose some might think that poured-out water was a frivolous waste. But every single person I met in Northern Uganda had seen atrocities of war, suffered the sadness of loss or the guilt of surviving it. The weight of that war was heavy on the adults, and their children felt it, too. If an instant can traumatize a person, can one instant heal? For these beautiful children whose life was regularly one of parched landscape, thirst, and sorrow, I am glad that we gave them this glorious gift of a slide in a river of water, temporary though it was.

I have loved traveling, but one problem is this: it painfully illuminates the inequalities of our human experiences. I live in a country of swimming pools and flowing fountains and beaches while other people I have known trudge through their lives without luxury in a dusty and parched land. In Northern Uganda for a time, there were years of slaughter in the middle of the night: machetes, abductions, horror. I have never feared such a war in my own backyard.

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Such questions lead me two places in my Christian faith: 1) to want to work against injustice and 2) to believe, sometimes waveringly, in the promises of God that say He will bring about justice on this earth.

Regarding the first, there are all kinds of sorrows on the earth, and all kinds of ways to work to alleviate them.  In a hundred ways we can make differences. If you, like me, think about water, you might investigate these three organizations.

Regarding the latter, the place of faith that helps me answer deep questions, I take some comfort in these words from the last book of the Bible.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal… on either side of the river, the tree of life….and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. (Revelations 22:2)

The inequities on this earth are too big and the contrasts are too enormous for me to understand or fix. We can play a little part in addressing them, but all that we do will not be enough. God, however, says He will make things right in the end. He will inexplicably make this earth into heaven. And thankfully, in that place there will be water — apparently clear and clean and plentiful enough for everyone.

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Home for Christmas

We’ve had a delightful holiday. Our sons and wife and girlfriend came from far away so we could all be together at Christmas. On the day after, nieces and their families arrived, making us a perpetual party of 19.  For most of the summers of my sons’ lives, their cousins came to visit here in Door County, so it seemed right to gather again in this place, even if the water was not swimmable and the leaves  were not green.

We had been together in the summer, but like so many places in this country this week, the temperatures outside were subzero.  We had to scrap the plans for roasting s’mores in the firepit or even of building snowmen.  We did take one fairly long hike of over an hour,

and we ventured out to the local tubing hill on another day.

Three of our heartiest went fat tire biking. On our last day together we walked to our favorite lighthouse across an icy causeway that was beautiful but soooo cold.

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And so we spent most of our time inside. We played games and ate, played more games, and ate some more. We put together a puzzle, did a few crafts. Our adult children stayed up late with their cousins, just like they have done for most of their childhoods and teen years together, only this time the parents among them had to get up early.  These people I loved as children have grown into adults that I admire.

New people have been added to our family: spouses, girlfriends, children.IMG_0242

IMG_0111As I watched our family interacting, I realized that one of the best things a family can do is let more people in.  The women in my sons’ lives have made them better. My nieces’ children make us all happier.  Among the 19 of us, there were the occasional irritations, differences of opinion, some tears. ( Really, isn’t that to be expected?) Yet even those, I’m convinced, can save us from the curse of being too fixed, too set in our ways.

We did some looking back- remembering old times, holidays past. But the better part was the new and continuing interactions, the realization that we can be different today than we were in the past and still be loved.

People change us, if we let them. New people change us more than old ones, perhaps because there are no well-worn patterns in which to fall, perhaps because doing things the way “we’ve always done it” isn’t a good reason for doing anything.

My children, et al, are back to their own lives in their own states, far from here.  I’ve spent the day since they left soaking up the quiet and reading a book from start to finish.

I am grateful for the time we had together as a smaller family and then a bigger, extended one. Traditions are well and good, but nothing stays the same, and today, I’m very glad that’s true.

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