Be a spark or get tossed

Sometimes we get into a cleaning, sorting, trashing, unloading kind of frenzy when we’re feeling burdened by stuff and stuff’s attraction, demands, care and maintenance. 

When Sue Ellen hits full frenzy fury, I chain myself to a post to make sure I’m not tossed into a box subconsciously labeled “of no further use,” or as an item that “no longer sparks joy,” in Marie Kondo’s terminology. 

Some few things have outlasted every purge in our 44 years together. Thankfully, I’m one of them. 

But this week Oskar died. 

Oskar was a small food chopper and came as a wedding gift in 1975. It endured several super glue fixes in recent years before finally throwing up its blades and sighing, “Please no more nuts, carrots, celery for salads, or styrofoam bars to make snowflakes for kids’ plays.”

When we think of “things” that have lasted the duration of our lives together, now that Oskar is gone, we can name three. 

First is a sleeping bag I bought when I got out of the Army. Mine was to be a wild and free life after the olive drab constraints Uncle Sam put upon me. That sleeping bag, and a tent that turned out to be a portable rain forest, so impermeable it turned my moist breath into morning showers, along with a 1964 International Scout that had a mind of its own, were my tickets to adventure. 

I still use the bag. 

We married while I was still finishing my degree at Oklahoma Baptist University. Summers were stifling and neither our apartment nor our car had air conditioning, so we bought a Gott cooler and a bigger tent and spent many weekends at the lake. 

We still use the cooler

It often carries goodies as we travel to see our children, none of whom were conceived at the lake. Every time we pack it up, I marvel that it has been with us for so long. Yet, it still regulates the temperature of the items it contains, like the thermos I once gave a secretary. When I saw her using it the next day she told me she appreciated its capacity to keep hot things hot and cold things cold. 

I asked her what she had in it today. “Coffee and a popsicle,” she said. 

Sue Ellen was just 20 when we married. She worked at a bank and had her own apartment after moving out from a home with six siblings, and had neither time nor money to accumulate much of a trousseau. But she had started her dish collection of the then popular Yorktowne pattern from Pfaltzgraff. 

For 21 years, these were our “good” dishes, pulled out to impress company and only after the kids were old enough to know dishes were not suitable as heavy Frisbees. When my mom died we inherited her china, which became our company dishes, and the Pfaltzgraff became our everyday dishes. 

Funny how the exceptional loses its aura when pressed into common use. 

The Pfaltzgraff is heavy, and hard to spell. We can always peg the length of a friends’ marriage within a year or two if they feed us on Yorktown pattern Pfaltzgraff. 

Sometimes we look at new dishes, brightly colored, modern patterns, disposable. They might brighten up the kitchen table and provide a fresh perspective. But, they wouldn’t hold our food any better.

I confess I hold this feeling much more closely than does my wife, but there is something endearing and enduring about the consistency of an everyday implement that has been part of our lives together – every day. Not temporary, not disposable. Just consistent. Present. Available. Useful. Non-demanding. 

There is a fourth thing that we brought to our marriage, but it is more intangible. We each brought a part, insufficient of itself, but required for the whole – like the final spark plug required to make a dead engine roar to life. 

That, of course, is love. Our love for each other, a love we thought fuller and richer in the first blush of our infatuation than ever known by previous humans. Yet, it has grown with time into intimacy, interdependence, tolerance, forgiveness, adoration and the mystery of oneness into a force to overcome many an onslaught. 

When my mother died in 1996, my dad stood in the window as the hearse pulled away, kissed his hand and put it to the glass. I know our birth canal opens toward death, but dad’s slide toward the inevitable started in earnest that day. Losing mom wasn’t just grief for dad. It was an amputation. 

They had been married 47 years. I’m older than dad was at mom’s death and when I survey my environment, the accumulation of things around me and consider those few things that have been with Sue Ellen and me our entire lives together, it’s easy to dismiss the sleeping bag, the cooler and the dishes. 

The one constant that matters for 44 years has been my partner, my heart, my life. We’re closer now to the end than to the beginning, but every day still dawns a treasure. 

Happy anniversary, Sue Ellen. 

You won’t regret it, if you live

Next to a 5,000 lb. bale of cotton in eastern North Carolina

I ride a bike. A lot. I’m within spitting distance of 5,000 miles this year. 

Some days on the bike are sheer joy. Like when the wind is at your back, the sun on your shoulders, fields’ fertile pheromones filling your senses as you flitter by, cars giving you a wide berth and hitting 45 mph on a nice downhill and you’re smiling so much you get bugs in your teeth.

Some days are agony. Getting caught in a cold rain, or dark descending before you get home, or a friend crashing or another idiot throwing his Dairy Queen cup out his truck window at you makes you glad to reach your own garage.

But when I get home safe and sound, my skin tingling, my legs gorged with blood, every sense in heightened alert I’m always glad I went. Witnessing my children and grandchildren at the moment they learned to defeat gravity with that one extra push of the pedal to stay upright, stick out among my happiest memories. 

I remember the day I learned to ride.

I must have been 8 or 9 years old. We had no bike at home and we lived in the country where I never really saw cyclists, so it wasn’t like I lived longing to swing my leg over a bike saddle. That is, until we were visiting some family friends who lived in a tiny town and all of Richard’s buddies and him were zipping around the neighborhood like cowboys around their herd. 

On a bridge over the New River near Todd, NC

They weren’t shackled to the picnic table listening to the adults chatting. My sisters were talking boys or playing dolls with Richard’s sisters and I was going to have a long, boring, lonely day if I couldn’t latch onto the guys on their bikes. 

As much as I was intimidated by their easy rider skills, I ventured that it would be better to risk and fail than to consign myself to the outside looking in. Because the Almes had lots of kids, there was a spare bike and Richard encouraged me to come with him. 

Not having yet adopted the mantra “fake it ‘til you make it,” I confessed I didn’t know how to ride. “We’ll show you,” he said. And they did. 

I think the potential embarrassment of failure prompted my determination to succeed and I knew they didn’t intend to waste their afternoon teaching me a skill they were itching to employ. So, within probably 20 minutes, I was gallivanting around the neighborhood with all the vigor, confidence and windblown thrills of the gang. 

My legs still tingle remembering that critical moment of revelation when I trusted Richard and pushed the pedal one more time as I was about to fall over, instead of putting my leg out to catch myself. Risk, push, success. 

In a moment, I went from a near knee-scraped, broken-armed failure to being a rider. That day remains one of my favorites. I rode the wheels off that thing and when the other boys went home, I didn’t want to stop riding. 

And now, many of my favorite memories involve a bike. Riding with my kids and grandkids, RAGBRAI, hitting 50 mph down a hill, organized charity rides with friends, packing a clean jersey and a pair of shorts and riding for six days to the North Carolina coast, watching the fields we pass regularly transition from fallow to plowed to planted to harvested. 

A bike will take you to places, at a pace, you simply can never achieve on foot because you can’t go far enough or behind the wheel of a speeding vehicle because you can’t go slow enough. On a bike you’ll smell the teeming, loamy fields and the fresh cut grass – and people’s dryer sheets – and feel the warm womb of a wet breeze that heralds a coming storm.  

Deer won’t know whether to dart in front of you or hang by the ditch. Kids on porches wave and shout as you pass. And car-bound mortals fuming at stoplights as dusk falls shake their heads behind headlights and windshield wipers and mutter insults at the women who gave birth to such crazy guys in garish garments.

Still, any day on the bike is better than a day on the computer at which I write this. I concur with Mark Twain, who said, “Get a bicycle. You will not regret it. If you live.”

The wisdom of Bill

I was facing a big life decision recently so I went again to talk with my friend Bill. He’s the strong, silent type and a great listener but when he speaks, his voice always slices like a knife of insight through the goop clouding my thinking.

Bill’s place is very comfortable; shady with a great view of nature from where he rests – woodlands, pastures and now a large stand of loblolly pines that one day will be harvested. I laugh with him to think that when those trees are cut, people that have been driving by them for a generation are going to gripe and complain that the forest was cut down in pursuit of the almighty dollar.

They won’t remember the trees were planted 20 years earlier specifically as a cash crop to benefit the work of Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina, where Bill grew up, and lived and worked most of his career.

I can hear him chuckling and shaking his big ol’ head, rubbing the bald pate once forested with hair. The more time I’ve spent with Bill the more I realize he’s always understood people at a level much deeper than his easy-going nature typically revealed. He’s not snowed by the self-important preening of others who gathered around his table, even when it looks on the surface like he takes their words at face value.

I tell Bill how much I appreciate him, how he and his wife, Louise, took us in and showed us the ropes when I started working where he worked. I was a generation younger, in a higher “position” on the organizational chart and from another part of the country. None of that mattered, only that we respected each other, each worked hard and we all loved our children.

Bill doesn’t say much, but I know he cares. But, I digress.

I told Bill about the decision I faced. Comfort is cool; change is hard. His expression was stone cold, waiting for me to continue. The more I told him, the more I heard myself talking it through, the more it became clear which direction I should take.

I just chuckled. He’s always like that now, waiting for me to talk it through between us, without saying anything, knowing that eventually I’ll make the right decision.

With that out of the way, I tell him I know that he and Louise are enjoying their time back together again after several years apart, due to circumstances beyond their control. I catch him up on the kids, and sense his pride in them, as he’s proud of every kid who grew up at Baptist Children’s Homes, also due to circumstances beyond their control.

Bill acts as if he has all the time in the world, and I’m reluctant to leave him, but…life goes on. I thank Bill for his time and wisdom, rise to my feet, brush the fallen oak leaves from his headstone, and close the gate to God’s Acre behind me.

Thanks again, Bill. You’re always there for me.

Mother’s Day 2019

HS graduation

Mom, left, at my high school graduation. Sisters Denise, and Linda, and Dad.

I know special remembrance holidays are fabrications woven to sell cards, flowers and candy. But this Mother’s Day is Sunday and something today about the beautiful weather and lunch with the mother of my children made me pause and remember my own mother, Barbara, who died at age 64 in 1996.

She was a lovely woman and a wonderful hostess, always ready for company no matter how late or how unexpected. I realize now we didn’t talk a lot, but she was always ready if I wanted to open up, not that she ever did. I never knew how ill she was until 19 days before she died.

Our night time ritual was for me to give her a kiss when I headed upstairs to bed. She was usually reading on the sofa and had a toothpick between her lips. She’d somehow make it disappear into her mouth while we exchanged a quick peck on the lips and then it would reappear.

I can still remember the night – and the look on her face – when I decided I was too old for that ritual. I had thought about it for a while and I agonized all day. Somehow, I knew what it meant. When I headed toward her, I saw her pop the toothpick into her mouth.

But, then I turned to go upstairs. Surprised, she said, “No kiss?”

“Ummm, no,” I said. She never mentioned it again but I think dad caught her eye and nodded, acknowledging silently that I’d climbed another rung on the ladder toward adulthood.

Mom was very prudish, embarrassed if anyone talked about body parts and she certainly didn’t tolerate her kids walking around in any state of dress that would not be considered “fully clothed.” On the day of my wedding she took me aside and confessed she probably ought to tell me about the birds and bees, “but you probably know more about it than I do, anyway.”

That, in its entirety, was her version of, “the talk.”

So, it was quite surprising when eight months later I brought my new bride home from Oklahoma to Wisconsin to meet the extended family. On the first night in my childhood home as a married man I found an apple on the bedside table. I picked it up, looked it over, shrugged, and put it back.

The next morning, I asked mom why she’d put an apple by the bed.

“It’s a contraceptive,” she said.

I laughed. “Was I supposed to eat it before…or after?”

“You were supposed to eat it instead,” she said.

I told that story in her eulogy. At the Lutheran Church in Rio, WI where we all grew up, population 788. My dad told me the population stayed at 788 because “every time a young lady has a baby, an older man leaves town.”

I delivered dad’s eulogy in the same room, 21 years later. It was the room where I preached the youth sermon – from the wrong pulpit, I learned later. In our divided chancel, only an ordained minister got to preach from the big, ornate pulpit that was high and lifted up. I could use that one legitimately now, if I ever get invited to preach there.

It’s the same room where I acted in Christmas plays – vying to be a speaking star, or an announcing angel and not just a silent, costumed figure filling out the scriptural cast. It was the room where I wore the costumes mom made, and later the coat and tie she picked out.

It was the room where she sat as the bride’s mom when my sister married, and as a grieving daughter-in-law when my grandparents were buried.

When I was a high school junior, I came home from a dance after the football game and woke my parents up to tell them, “I’ve committed the ultimate sin.”

They shot straight up out of bed and took a second to compose themselves before mom – who gave birth to my sister before age 18 – asked me tentatively, “Um, and what was that?”

“I asked a freshman to the homecoming dance,” I said, not understanding until later their audible expulsion of relief.

I know special holidays like Mother’s Day are made up. But, at least it’s a reminder to do or say something special to your mom at least once a year. Take advantage of it.

By the way, kids, Father’s Day is June 16.

Sometimes you hit a wall

beach tideWhen the ocean is warm, I like to wade toward the waves from the shallow edge of the beach, my feet scratching a hold into the sandy bottom, feeling the water slide around my ankles, then shins, then knees. About the point when it gets really sensitive, I have to decide whether to keep walking toward London, or jump in headfirst and get soaked all at once.

If I dive in, I come up sputtering and shaking the water from my eyes. If I decide to keep walking, I lift my shoulders as if I can tiptoe past the sensitive and somehow get soaked without getting wet.

When I’ve reached water about waist depth, I can pause and enjoy, feeling the ebb and flow of the ocean, rolling to the beach to fill the little sand castle moats built by kids with red plastic shovels, and then drag them flat. When I turn to do a little body surfing, or at least to challenge the waves a little further out, I fight the water’s resistance, plodding resolutely forward where the surf breaks.

That is where the short walls of water curl up, spitting little white caps, and burst over me, whacking me backward and I have to retrace a couple steps just to get back to where I was.

In a windy spring season like this one, cycling sometimes feels like those days in the waves. Invisible walls of wind roll out from the horizon and buffet me. Side winds are most dangerous as they can make me wobble and lean the wrong direction at a most inopportune time.

Leaning over the handlebars, trying to carve a lane through the curtain of steady wind, a sudden burst hits me with every bit the force of a wave of water. It doesn’t knock me backward, but it feels like my wheels suddenly rolled into a vat of mush and I have to grind on the pedals to regain momentum.

Sometimes my daily news feed hits me like that.

Learning this week about the suicides of two young people who had survived the Stoneman Douglas High School massacre in February 2018 hit me like that blast of wind. In the same day, I learned the father of a child who had been slaughtered at Newtown had taken his own life after six years of dealing with his awful pain. Combine that with news of a dear friend whose life is suddenly upside down and my typically stoic countenance flipped onto its back, as well.

How much can we feel? How wide an opening should we tear in our hearts to absorb the world’s pain, in the vain belief that by doing so, we can somehow soothe it?

Much, if not most, of the information that hurts, enrages, mystifies, baffles and saddens would have passed unknown to us a half generation ago. But now, we know. With how much of what we know, can we engage? I don’t have the capacity to empathize with all the sadness of which I’m aware.

Yet, I want to share the pain of those I love because sharing is a salve that hurries the healing of open wounds. I want my ears to absorb their sorrows and my shoulders to offer pillows of comfort.

But, a hurting world is too much. Its pain is a flood. If I allow each swell of sorrow to whack me like a wave of wind or water, I’ll never move forward.

Each of us has capacity to care. None of us can carry the burdens of the world. Nor should we feel we must.

Because social media and news outlets pour into our senses a steady stream of pain, theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, says too many pastors –those called to care –are “a quivering mass of availability.”

What to do? I’ll not cloak myself in a curtain of despair because I know that God loves His creation – so much so that He took on the form of man to help us understand the depth of that love.

Rather than be paralyzed by any tide of tears, I will try to let myself be moved only by those things about which I can do something.

And then, I will do something.

 

 

 

 

Didn’t we just DO this?

Ornaments

Photo ornaments trigger memories worth lingering over.

“Didn’t we just DO this?” I asked my wife rhetorically as I opened the plastic bins containing our Christmas decorations. Appropriately for the season, they’re big red bins with green covers.

I’d already hoisted the gloriously pre-lit Christmas tree and assembled its three parts to reach seven feet toward the ceiling. An old friend, now in at least its fifth season with us, it brings unalterable joy because when I insert pole A into receptacle B, the lights come on. Glory.

Married nearly 43 years, we’ve accumulated lots of ornaments for our tree. Glass, plastic, wood, hinged, felted, furred, tacky and holy, most carry special meaning because of who gifted them to us, our circumstance in life at the time and because each ignites a special memory.

Of all our special ornaments though, none are more precious than the very simplest. Prompted by a children’s project at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas where we attended when I was a seminary student, we’ve made simple paper ornaments with our children’s picture on them – and now our grandchildren’s.

This night, as I sorted through the decorations, untangling hooks and surreptitiously dropping the Mickey Mouse ornament back into the bin, I reached for a nearly ragged paper ornament featuring a tow-headed 10-month old. I reached to hang it onto the tree for the 39th time and a realization of how quickly time passes washed over me like a fog rolling in on an early morning bike ride.

I’m not sentimental about things. I’m not a big historical preservationist. If there’s something in my closet you want, take it. But moments that seared themselves like a hot grill into the raw meat of our minds are precious and I’m going to keep them, and I’m going to cherish them.

I don’t know what brings certain things to mind. Circumstances, events, smells, accidents, the way sunbeams, thick enough with dust to walk on, lay a slanted beam across a field. But when that precious memory comes, when it invades your conscious self and demands that you stop whatever you’re doing and linger there awhile, do it. Don’t resent it. Don’t hasten its passing. Don’t regret the time you devoted to it when you could have been doing something “more productive.”

We hang nice ornaments, too. Colorful glass, embossed and shiny plastic, wooden figures. But it’s the simplest ornaments, made by the kids or featuring the kids, that we appreciate most. Simple, like the manger.

I’m kind of a scrooge until the last couple of weeks before Christmas. I resent the trinketized trivialization of the season. But if I will trudge through the motions riding the momentum of tradition it will hit me. That moment when I realize how much I’ve lived and what a glorious wonder each of those photo ornaments represents.

And my ice coated Scrooge heart melts and I’m awash with the blessedness of Christmas again. Merry Christmas to you, and may every happy memory be a carol in your heart.

Smoke, Flame and Memories

relatives

Relatives in one of the many photo albums stored in dad’s office.

Dad’s sudden death in March left a home office crammed to the brim with files of records, boxes of old photo albums, crates of special event greeting cards and birthday wishes he’s received over decades.

My siblings and I sorted through cassettes of his favorite polka bands, remembering polka tunes like “Fortunes of War” by Ray Budzilek, “Red Wing” by Marv Herzog or “She’s Too Fat” by Frank Yankovic. Video cassettes of movies, and promotional pieces I’d done for clients through the years filled boxes but would never be seen again because no one has a video cassette player.

We found thick newspaper files of cousins’ high school graduation notices, boys going off to war and anniversary announcements. He saved confirmation programs and programs from funerals. Dad was executor for the estates of several relatives who died decades earlier and all their paperwork was still there in the cabinets.

Over every dusty file we shook our heads and asked dad why in the world he saved all this stuff. I never knew he was such a collector of this memorabilia.

We went through everything because we dared not miss clues we needed to settle eventually his affairs. Of course, we saved not one percent of the items, which included old National Geographics and lovely calendars from the last century.

Because my sister who is estate executor didn’t want anything taken to the dump that had on it people’s names or personal information, she insisted we burn them. After an aborted attempt to incinerate the goods in the cornfield on the old home place – an attempt that quickly attracted an audience that for some reason arrived on fire trucks – we scaled down the conflagration to a pleasant, hand warming experience in the backyard barbecue pit of my cousin Bobby, who coincidentally is the local fire chief.

As I’m feeding the pit with decades of detritus I voice my frustration with dad’s having saved all this stuff – a practice over decades that now requires my attention to dispose it.

“Our parents save this stuff because they think it will mean something to us someday,” Bobby said. We acknowledged the simple reality – with a healthy dose of reverential head nodding – that it doesn’t. At least it doesn’t register meaning to us at the level our parents probably thought it would.

I later expressed that thought to my wise and insightful niece Stacy who said we were doing exactly what dad expected us to do. He knew we wouldn’t save all of those items, but he knew we wouldn’t just haul a truck up to the door and start pitching drawers and files into it, either.

Stacy reminded me that we went through every file and photo page by page, each page a memory. Some we flipped through, some made us pause and share and talk about it, laughing or crying as we recalled that moment, friend, or relative.

We were kids again, each sharing incidents the others didn’t recall, expanding our memory banks with new deposits. When finally we made our way through the last of them, determining which to save, and with which to feed the fire, we were able to close a chapter, like the slap of a leather cover against the last page of the last album that we saved.

Thanks for the memories dad, and thanks mom, for putting all those photo books together years ago.

Our children will enjoy going through them.