Water Everywhere

When a person lives near water, it’s easy to spend a lot of time looking at it.

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The water changes. A lot.

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IMG_7571When this area was full of sailing ships in the 19th century, sailors were rightly wary of the changing lake. They knew storms could rage in a matter of hours; that a calm morning meant nothing as there could be eight foot waves by afternoon.

But I love the changes. From still, to choppy, to calm again- all in a day.

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And the colors? There are not enough names for them.

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Finally, it is summer. The tourists are here in full force. Today there was a parade which we attended, and there are bands playing, food stands, and craft vendors. There will be fireworks tonight, and we will be glad to go. But the best part of our life here in this place of so much that is good? For me, it’s the water- the always changing, always beautiful water.

The Communion of Saints

The language in this post’s title may be a bit off-putting for some of you.  It’s a Christian term used in the Apostle’s Creed and in other churchy places.   Many of my readers, I know, have bad associations with “churchy things,” but please, read on.

I flew to St. Louis two weeks ago to attend the memorial service of a friend. She was 51, and for 29 months after she was diagnosed with a brain tumor, she tried really hard to live.

For most of those 29 months, I was away from her. She and her husband came to visit us twice here in Wisconsin, and I was not as good as I would like to have been about keeping in touch while she fought through first one surgery and then another one, through chemotherapy treatments and drug trials and then hospice.

But here is what I do know. For those 2 1/3 years, people loved her and her husband and her children well. Hella and her family were part of a church that helped them. Warren, Hella’s husband, taught at a Christian high school where he coached soccer and taught Biology. (The same school where I used to teach.) Many of his students, even the ones that weren’t necessarily the best and brightest, sent cards, reached out on FaceBook, came to events on Hella’s behalf. There was financial help when medical bills piled up. There were countless meals. Hella was able to take a few trips with her daughter. The school gave Warren time off so he could care for his wife..

As the tumor grew, it increasingly affected Hella’s ability to speak, to form words. For the last few months she could respond but not talk. And though most of us would prefer two-way conversations, people kept coming in; people kept helping out. Church members, work friends, and family members visited her, sat with her. They affirmed that she mattered, voice or no voice, words or no words.

Hella was a servant kind of person- a quiet person who preferred more to listen than to assert herself. She preferred to help others rather than be helped, and I can imagine this was difficult for her to let others care for her in her long decline. But she did it, and in so doing she let the compassion of a community encircle her and her family. In doing this, she also showed to the watching world something that mattered to her: there is value in the church, there is beauty in what people of faith can do.

The night she died, the word got out that she was near the end. Students and teachers and friends came with guitars and with candles to stand on the front lawn of Hella’s house to sing, to pray. Seventy-five people gathered on the grass to sing her out of this life and into the next one. Warren told me: “the juxtaposition of that moment was striking: it was all that is wrong with the world right next to all that is right in the world.”

Churches and Christian communities are often filled with wacky people, and though I am a Christian, I shudder sometimes at what some of my fellow believers do and say and believe. Really, we shouldn’t be surprised: Jesus reminded us that it is the sick people who need a physician, not the well ones. I’ve always thought the best analogy for a church community is a hospital.

For a Catholic, the term “saint” is associated with those special people that have been canonized for their miracles or extraordinary spiritual acts, but in my protestant church, I always associated the term “saint” with ordinary Christians who have somehow managed to live their faith well: to love, to do justice, to be humble, to serve.

So back to my title: The Communion of Saints. It refers to the gathering together, or the union of members of the Christian church, both living and dead. Some of you readers are in a church community; some are not. If you are in the former group, I hope you can see the value of staying. If you’re in the camp of those who are not, please read this as a reminder that despite the bad press that Christians get, despite the many mistakes we make, sometimes we get a few things right. Hella believed in Jesus, and this belief bound her together with other believers, and the communion between them was sweet. People will miss her. I will miss her. But the communion of saints makes the grieving easier.

Road Trip Report (#2)

Most of us fall comfortably into routines. We like drinking our morning coffee in the same chair, or having a particular salad dressing for our lettuce, or stacking the plates in a specific direction when loading our dishwashers.   Some more than others of us are prone to repeating these routines; we like things done in a particular way. And pretty soon, we get “set in our ways. ” The danger of this is that we insist on our preferences to the point where we become  rigid, unbendable, unlikable. But travel works against these tendencies.

Travel makes us ask what’s important. When we’re out of our routines and away from the places where we have control over the details of life, we are forced to be flexible, to care less about trivialities and more about what really matters. No, the hotel coffee isn’t as good as our own. The rental cabin’s kitchen is lacking a good knife. The heater is hard to regulate, so we are alternately hot, then cold at night.

But really, how much do those things matter? In Jackson, Wyoming, our hotel wasn’t fancy, but we were right across from acres and acres of a wildlife refuge for elk. We watched herds graze. There were moose!

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The mountains across the valley turned purple at dusk. And in the morning we drove just seven miles into Grand Teton National Park to watch the sun rise on the mountains, turning the white snow on the peaks into silver.

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Things go wrong; how will we react? Not all travel experiences are beautiful. We had a flat tire. This forced us to spend a morning at a tire shop in Lincoln, Nebraska getting four new tires.

I had altitude sickness. I did not want to be sick, but I was. How rude of me to decline a lovely meal that our friends in Colorado prepared for us; how sad to miss such great conversation over the meal while I slept off my nausea.

After driving for hours through desolate landscape, we were more than ready to stop for the day in Casper, Wyoming. However, at the first place we stopped, we learned there were no hotel rooms left in town. ( An Elton John concert. We had not thought to plan for this. Really? It was a weekday in the middle of March.)

But the problems? We got through them. We waited for our car to be fixed and we drank coffee, together. I adjusted to the altitude and we had fun strolling through the streets of Salida the next day. And together, we left Casper behind us and got through another long, difficult 100 miles of Wyoming before finding a hotel.

Like every other disagreeable event in life, problems test a relationship. Will we choose cheer over anger? Will we turn away from blame? Will we be kind to the other in adversity and walk through to the other side of this problem together? If we (or you) can answer  yes  both in travel and in marriage, these are the ways to survive, to flourish, to love.

Decisions, decisions. Meals, lodging, activities: multiple options confront at every turn. This hotel or that one? What do you feel like eating? Which café?  Should we turn off here? Drive that far,  see this site? Are you up for the sunset? Is this a good spot for a picnic?  Again, the way we handle all these little travel decisions is a metaphor for the way to handle life together.

Here’s what we’ve learned after years of practice: we voice our preferences, and then we gauge the degree to which these things matter to the other. Sometimes he or I feels strongly. If it matters to him, we do what he wants; if it matters to me, we do what I want. ( If it matters to neither of us, well, we plunge in and take our chances….)

The southern entrances to Yellowstone National Park were closed, still buried under the winters’ snows. Dave had it in his mind to drive the 32 miles to where the road was closed- to get as close as possible to the park. I thought the plan was foolish, but it was important to him, and really, why not? To get to a sign that said ROAD CLOSED,

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we drove through gorgeous forests on empty roads with lovely mountain views.

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Sometimes I like to wander into book stores or galleries in little towns. Not interested, Dave waits outside, preferably in the sun.

Like all good friendships, honesty matters. And so does a little bit of sacrifice.

So as I report on our trip, it seems I have also reported on marriage. I’m glad I’m taking trips with my husband, David. Travel makes it clear that who we travel with, whether on road trip or in life is a pretty big deal.

 

Road Trip, Part One

My husband and I returned last night from a little road trip. Well, not a little road trip. In fact, we drove 4,900 miles.

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Please wait a while before asking me to get back in my car.

Now that I’m back, I am doing some reflecting. Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” so I’m spending some time thinking about what I’ve just experienced. Writing about it helps in that process.

Here are a few observations:

Getting away can be helpful. We were starting to be too preoccupied with a few of our problems. The grey and gloom of winter, combined with a few months of some medical s**t had made us start to see things in a negative light. Getting away changed our focus. We thought about people other than ourselves. We saw blue sky and felt warm temperature, and we remembered that we’d someday have those again. We saw spectacularly beautiful sights – beauty is always solace and grace for a soul.

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We saw some rather plain sights, too, which made us remember that where we live is pretty wonderful.

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It would have been lonely to just sightsee.  We loved that we had some days to ourselves to explore, but spending a few nights with people  was pretty great, too. There’s something good about being on the receiving end, not being in charge, learning to be flexible. We had good conversation, comfortable beds, nice tours of local sites. And we connected differently with the people that we stayed with because we were on their turf instead of ours. Friends, family? These relationships are great gifts worth nurturing, cultivating, holding on to. I love to travel to sightsee, but I’m glad we could spend time with good people, too.

There were pleasant surprises when we slowed down. It’s easy to be destination-focused when you look at a map and just want to get to point B from point A.   On our third day we weren’t in a huge hurry, so when we started seeing flocks of hundreds of birds overhead, we realized we might be somewhere important  (in the bird world) and in the middle of something good. So we stopped, chatted with locals, and learned we were witnessing the great Sand Hill Crane Migration. We made a phone call to the local Audubon center to find out just where we could drive for a good view of the nearly 140,000 birds that were in the area that day. 80% of the world’s Sand Hill Cranes (about 650,000 birds) will migrate through the Nebraska flyway this spring. And we were there to see part of the aggregation.  If you are a regular reader, you might know that I am enchanted by cranes, as we have a pair that hangs out in the land behind our house.  So to watch cranes  ( and snow geese) congregate was pretty wonderful.  Yes, we made horrible driving distance that day, but taking that little sidetrip was one of our highlights. Watch 18 seconds here

One other example: thankfully we were driving slowly on a road without traffic when this guy flew down from a nearby tree. We were able to stop and watch him, long enough to take this picture.

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 We didn’t need half the stuff we brought. It’s always hard to know what to bring. We knew we’d need stuff for a variety of activities and a variety of temperatures. But truly, we overpacked. Did I really need six pairs of shoes? ( uhh… no.) Dave pretty much wore the same three sets of clothes the entire time. There are washers and dryers in people’s houses, in hotels. We brought about 30 lbs of dogfood, but our dog was adjusting to new places every night or two so he didn’t feel like eating. ( As if we’d forgotten there are grocery stores?) We spent more time re-arranging the excess items in our car than actually using them.

And here’s a revelation: we lived just fine for three weeks with half of the items that fit in about three suitcases and a few extra containers and bags in our car. So why , really, do we need all the stuff that we own?

I’ll stop here but add more  in the next few days, as there is too much for one post. I’ll write about our national parks, because they are wonderful. And another post, perhaps, about traveling companions, as in my husband, who is great. And maybe another about spending time with one’s grown children. Until then, here are a few pictures from our trip.

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Meals, Thanksgiving and Refugees

For much of the year, we’ve seen heart-wrenching pictures of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Desperate, they sold whatever they could, left the people they loved, and climbed onto a boat with the barest of possessions. Many people have died in the process. Who among us can forget the image of that little child washed up, dead, on a beach?

I am struck today, by the parallels to our country’s Thanksgiving story. The people we hail as forefathers were also immigrants who climbed into boats to escape the horrors that they faced in their homes. The Pilgrims started in two boats and had to turn back because one boat was too leaky. They crowded together in the Mayflower, which took longer than anyone expected to arrive. There were storms in their crossing, too. Conditions were bleak.

Then, with fortitude and determination they planted themselves in this new land so they could worship the way they wanted, so they could build a new life.

A third of those new arrivals died that first winter. (Read here for my thoughts on that.) There is no dispute that without the help of the Native Americans who were already here, none of them would have survived. We celebrate Thanksgiving as a feast to celebrate that collaboration of Indian and Pilgrim, or put another way, that generous help by Americans to newly arrived refugees.

You can probably guess where this biased writing is going next. I have known modern day refugees and immigrants. To a one, they are not people of whom we need to be afraid. They have told me their stories of fathers taken in the night, of friends murdered in the streets, of fear to sleep at night because of nighttime raids. They enter this country (after a lengthy screening process) because they cannot go home. They are desperate, needy but brave. I am saddened by those among us who are closing their hearts to these needs, by our country’s growing animosity to immigrants.

My daughter-in-law teaches at a charter school for refugees and immigrants. As you might imagine, the result of last week’s election was disturbing and terrifying for her students (and thus for her as well.) Will they send me away, Ms?

Sadly, her kids and their families have come from places where selfish and egotistical and intolerant leaders reigned. Having already witnessed torture and maiming and killing by those in authority in their homelands, they are of course disturbed (as I am) by the trends here toward intolerance and xenophobia.

One of Amelie’s students was forced, with his siblings, to stand against a wall in the Congo and watch his parents be killed. Now he lives here with relatives, has learned English and will graduate next year. P___ said this last week: “Miss, I want to invite Donald Trump to my house for dinner. I want him to sit down at our table and eat our food and see that we are good people. Then he would change his mind, Miss. I know he would.”

 Well, I am skeptical that P’s request is realistic. But I do believe that hearing stories around a table and eating together is powerful. It is the story of our first Thanksgiving- sharing a meal with people different than ourselves, the native-born sharing what they had with the newcomer.

I am guilty of hypocrisy as I write this-  I’m having dinner today with people just like myself. But how beautiful, and how first-thanksgiving-like, if all over our country today, Americans  were sitting down together with those who are newly arrived.    We could listen to each other, laugh.  We could celebrate together, different but the same.

 

 

Poem for The Day After

I am stunned, sad, disappointed, and fearful of our future.  But if ever there was a time for good people to be good, for kind people to be kind, it is now. Here’s my offering for today.

The Day After (Election Day)

There was so much noise in the cataclysm
when the waters of anger flowed, rose
rushed in to ruin, divide.

We ran to our separate banks
watched the river
flood.

We were afraid we would drown
in those mucky waters

but instead
we survived.

Oh, but here is mud and sludge.

With sunwarmth beating
in drywinds breezing
we pick through what to save.

Our neighbors arrive.
A child will find her missing toy
a boy, his truck.
The drenched recliner will mildew, cannot be spared, must go.
We save our photographs of the past
smile, remember.

We hug our children, say
Look, we’re alive. We have each other. That is all that matters.

We take shovels.
We take buckets of clean water. Soap.

We must hum, have songs on our lips
Our children are watching to see if we believe what we say.

~ Ann Heyse

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Home and the City?

Last weekend, I was back in the city. I returned to St. Louis to attend a wedding of a dear friend, and it was great celebrating with her. In addition, I spent time with my son. I caught up with friends, I ate good food and drank good wine, I enjoyed the company of people I have loved but now don’t see often.

And for the most part, being back felt very normal and familiar. (Although waiting at stoplights? And traffic? And the sound of sirens? – I’m not so used to those things…)

But of course people asked me how life is for us now that we have moved away. They asked if we are happy in Wisconsin. (The answer was Yes.)

Do we miss city living?

That was a little harder to articulate.

I did go shopping for a dress for the wedding. It was nice to have hundreds of choices instead of just the few that can be found in a smaller town.

I was also aware of an elegance that’s missing in a small rural town. I’m not really an elegant person, so in general such things don’t matter too much to me, but the elaborate chandeliers in a historic building trimmed with wood, and the valets that parked my car were not something I see in the cherry orchards…

And I did like seeing variations in skin color everywhere I went. There isn’t enough diversity here.

 On the other hand… There are tensions in the city. One can feel it in the traffic- the angry horns when someone doesn’t move quite fast enough through an intersection, and the cars that cut in and out of lanes to get where they are going just a little bit faster…

And fear is always lurking. As I left the downtown wedding reception late at night, sirens were howling as emergency vehicles rushed to some nearby scene. In light of recent nationwide shootings and unrest, the first thing on our minds was: Has there been another shooting? If so, am I in harm’s way? Am I safe?

When the Bible speaks about the return of paradise- about the time in the future when all broken things will be made right again and we live in a place that is like today’s earth but better, it speaks in terms of a city. I’ve never really understood (or wanted) that, because I’ve always thought seashores and mountains were holier places than cement sidewalks and bricks. But maybe scripture, in the use of this metaphor is telling us this: EVEN our cities will be fixed. Remarkably and inconceivably, even our cities can and will become places that are holy and pure and good.

Could we dare to imagine it? No inequality of educational systems where in the suburbs kids have computers and fieldtrips and libraries and enough well-paid teachers while across town, in run-down buildings other kids languish in dirty, sparse classroom where the only thing they have enough of is asbestos and lead.

No jails in that new city will be weighed down with the rampant racism of today’s “justice.” No homeless shelters will be necessary; no mentally ill people will wander the streets shouting incoherent ramblings at street corners that make me nervous while I wait for the light to change. All parks will be green, all air will be pure, alleys will not smell like urine, and no concrete will be littered with broken glass.

Instead, the concert halls and museums and libraries will be even better than the best ones that exist in today’s cities. There, then, wise men will be wiser, and creative people will be even more creative. Better yet, we are told that egos won’t get in the way. In that place that we long for, all skin color and all ethnic differences will be beautiful. And equal.

The best part of visiting the city was spending time with the people who inhabit it. Yet they, more than I, are heavy hearted with the pains of a broken world. I’m back home now, where daisies and black-eyed susans line my driveway, where I see little need to lock my doors, where I watch seagulls fly into the sunset across a lavender sky. Many of my city friends are doing the hard and important work of addressing injustices and problems from which I am now far removed.

I am no theologian, so I am not claiming I understand rightly what the Bible says on the subject of the world to come. I do know the references to heaven are few and rare in the Bible, so we have to surmise, to imagine. And so I imagine a place where even the cities are safe, are clean, are fair. And going there will be just as good, and in fact even better than, going home.

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