Didn’t you used to be somebody?

The entry alcove to our house features glass panels on either side of the solid wood door. It’s a nice touch that enables me to see who is at the door before opening it. The panels also provide a tall, narrow view to my neighborhood and at least twice a day I find myself standing by them, peering out. 

I say “find myself” because I didn’t really intend to go over there like some watcher in the woods. The world outside the glass just drew me. I watch nature’s cycles on the maple tree, from buds, to leaves, to color to bare again. 

Sometimes I see people out there: kids waiting for the school bus, adults getting into cars on their way to work, someone putting a card or letter or bill payment into the mailbox and flipping up the red arm that reminds the mailman not to pass by this box. Often there is a dog walker with a small, warm bag dangling from his hand as if he had just discovered a treasure to which only his dog could have led him.

Mustard’s mug, retired at the local diner, along with his brother Marv’s — my dad — and everyone else whose funerals meant they no longer needed the mugs.

My uncle Donnie – Mustard, to those who knew him from youth – was a Norwegian bachelor farmer right out of Garrison Keillor’s tales from Lake Wobegon. He scratched a living from the sandy loam of southern Wisconsin where he raised corn, alfalfa and oats to feed the 19 head of dairy cows whose milk fed him. 

He didn’t always trust God and nature to do their jobs after he’d worked so hard to prepare the soil for planting. He’d give God a few days to breathe life into the corn seed and then, if he saw no green shoots, he’d nervously walk down to the field, look for the little arched rows of dirt left by the planter, and scratch away the soil just to reassure himself.

Maybe the planter wasn’t working. It put the seeds directly into the ground so you didn’t really see them being distributed, unlike a grass spreader that sprays seed so you know it’s going where it needs to be. Maybe this year the seed was bad. It’s never been bad before, always come up before. But this year, maybe the seed is bad. 

And it’s been dry. Has the seed dried up before a good rain could come germinate it? Or, it’s been really wet. Maybe the seed has drowned. Donnie would scratch at the earth until he found the seed and reassure himself it had gone into the ground and was just fine. From then on, he had to trust. And God never let him down.  

When I stand at my window I feel like Uncle Donnie checking out the field, making sure everything is as it ought to be. I spotted a service man walking around the neighbor’s yard once when no one was home, and I called the neighbor at work to tell him about it. It was OK. He had an appointment and the neighbor was late. 

This morning, on my birthday, I looked out the window and wondered if I would be there to look out the same window in 20 years. If so, I’d be the age of my dad when he died. How would my life be different in 20 years? That’s not a long time. 

I’m reminded of the cartoon my wife and I, both fitness advocates, posted for years on the refrigerator. A couple, about our age, were exercise walking and one said to the other, “What do you say? Two more years and we’ll let ourselves go?”

I don’t intend to let myself go, but stuff happens. I consider myself exceptionally healthy because at age 67 I eat well, take no medicine and can still ride my bike 100 miles in a day. Then I remember I’ve had two emergency surgeries and a broken neck and cracked skull. My mom died of cancer and my dad had a heart attack and bad kidneys. 

I’m also old enough to appreciate my father’s wisdom. When he was finally retirement age I was in the thick of raising my teenage children and spare time was more rare than spare change. I told dad he must appreciate the way days surely linger for him now that he’s older, with fewer responsibilities. 

Instead, he told me, “The older I get, the faster time goes.” I didn’t believe it then. I do now. 

Someone speculated that time goes faster as we get older because each unit of time is a smaller portion of our life than it was when we were young. That last month before Christmas for a five-year-old is a huge, slow moving portion of his entire life. He’s only had 60 months. A month to wait for a 60-year-old is but a blink. He’s had 720 of them. 

I think of my older friends whose social calendar revolves around doctor visits. It’s their excuse to get out and it’s a time when someone important is looking for them, expecting them, preparing to receive them. 

And I think of my friend Cliff who had a very significant career in church ministry and administration across several states. Visiting him at age 92 in the sad, shared room of his nursing home after his wife died, he looked around at his narrow bed, the few pictures taped to his wall, the closet with just a few items hanging there, and said, “I used to be somebody.” 

We assured him his life mattered, that it had counted for good in the lives of his children and in the many he touched through his work and devotion. 

I think of that this morning, standing at my window, staring out at the corn rows of my neighborhood, and wonder if in a few years my friends and neighbors will look at this house, scratch their heads and try to remember the somebody who used to live there.

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.”

Climb a tree

Farm winter

The uppermost pine tree provided a new perspective on a familiar world to a boy willing to take a risk and climb to the top.

A newly enhanced, freshly framed aerial photo of the Wisconsin farm on which I grew up now adorns a bookshelf in easy view. Of course, every time I look over at it, I’m struck with an indistinct nostalgia.

Aerial photos are nothing now, with the advent of drones making common what once was a rare perspective. But this winter view of the farmhouse and out buildings where I roamed, explored, risked and discovered was unusual in the 1970s.

Entrepreneurial pilots provided such shots. They got them by leaning out windows with their cameras, and then taking the pictures to the farms they’d photographed to try and sell them to the farmer. Judging from the aerial photos I saw hanging in the kitchens of my friends, the pilot/photographers were adept at making the sale.

One of the features in the aerial photo of my home place is a row of very tall pine trees, forming a windbreak on the west side of the buildings. They were very, very tall trees when I was a kid. Now, they’re just tall.

Limbs on one of these trees grew almost like a spiral ladder, making it easy to climb. I scurried up that tree often and each ascent lifted me to a new perspective. Oh, not as dramatic as the aerial photographer provided, but still, a new look at a familiar world.

As I got older and braver, and my experiences at lower heights confirmed my ability to climb higher, I ventured onto the thinner limbs above me. These limbs were not as strong or secure. I didn’t feel supported and when the wind blew, the top part of the tree to which I clung swayed.

I wondered if it could support my weight, or if the thin trunk here would snap under me. I actually wondered sometimes if the lower branches would break my fall or even stop me from hitting the ground, or if they would break under my accelerating body mass should I plummet toward the ground.

I was nervous, yes, because I was clinging to an uncertainty. Yet the certainty learned from previous experience lay beneath me, just a step away.

Of course, mom and dad didn’t know I was climbing this high in the old pine tree. They did know I climbed it to a “safe” height. I built a tree house in it that I proudly showed them. But if they knew I was climbing so high, they would have been very nervous, and might even have forbidden me to do it. Or, they might have encouraged it.

That’s how we learn, isn’t it? By how we stretch the boundaries of what we know, of what we can be certain? By taking a risk?

It’s safe to learn to ride a bike when dad is running beside you with his hand on the seat. But you’re never actually riding a bike until he lets go.

It’s safe to learn to swim in deep water with mom’s hand under your belly. But you’re never actually swimming, until she lets go and you kick and paddle your way to the side, discovering on the way, that you no longer need to fear water.

You learn it’s safe to jump across the creek because wading at the edge taught you it’s not very deep anyway, and if you fall in, you’ll only get wet.

You learned to climb a ladder because you climbed a stepstool. You learned to pull yourself up on the monkey bars because daddy held you up at first. You take risks based on confidence achieved at a lower level.

We need to let our kids take risks.

I know, danger lurks around every corner in a parent’s mind. To let them risk climbing a tree might result in a broken arm. To risk learning to ride can result in a scraped knee.

But the alternative is a clinging, insecure child who will not venture out of sight of his parents. Translated to an insecure adult who will never reach for opportunities the next limb higher.

Let’em ride fast down the hill, jump the creek, camp in the back yard, run ahead of you on the hiking trail, attend the college out of state. You can’t protect them from every risk. You don’t want to.

Let’em climb a tree.

 

 

 

Handling Grand Things

Nature awes us at points where it convulses, where it snorts, sneezes and shudders, shaking its head to rise above the “ordinary” and astound us with a glimpse of grandeur.

Gentle waves sooth us, but we are awed when the ocean flails its fury against beach walls.

Rolling hills comfort us, but our mouths drop open when we first see a July cardigan of snow lying across the shoulders of Pikes Peak, which rises above Colorado Springs like Neptune from the ocean.

A cool breeze refreshes, but when winds wrap around themselves and drag a furious funnel tail through a city, we cannot comprehend its power.

We live in the womb of nature and pattern our lives on its dependability. We install no furnaces in Key West homes; no air conditioners in Juneau. We wear shorts in July and store our lawn mowers in November.

Predictable nature comforts. For awe, we search the fringes of nature for majesty, grandeur, depth, color, number or brilliance.

One summer almost 20 years ago I rafted the Grand Canyon with extended family members. During our first day down the icy Colorado River we stared until the wind dried our eyes.

Sheer rock walls towered 1,400 feet and more above us, close enough to touch. Frigid, 48 degree water poured over boulders that had crashed off the mountain walls maybe centuries before, forming rapids over which ran water in a volume of 24,000 cubic feet per second.

Big horned sheep scampered down barely visible scars across the rock face to pull juicy tufts of grass from sandy bars at the canyon floor. It was all new. It was all amazing. We wore out the ball bearings in our necks arching, craning and turning to absorb it all.

In a day or two, we settled in and motored mile after mile before the hum of a 30-horsepower engine. We huddled in rain suits to fend off the deluge of water cascading over us from the rapids, and we sat with backs to our equipment and watched the walls slide by on either side.

The canyon was every bit as majestic on the fourth day as it was on the first, maybe more so. The rapids were as big, the sheep as entertaining, the night sky as brilliant. But because our senses were so completely saturated with the marvelous, the equally marvelous had no chance to elicit a higher degree of awe. The next turn presented merely another incredible view.

Grand things lose their grandeur with familiarity. Proximity to things precious renders them ordinary.

That is something of what Jesus meant in Matt. 7:6 when he warned us not to throw our pearls to pigs. We handle precious things too casually.

We polish a new car every week. By the second year, we’re barely changing the oil.

Babies make us coo, giggle and jump with every sound. Six months later we roll over and moan a prayer that they will sleep through the night.

Newlyweds get cavities from their sweet, sugary murmurings. Before the first anniversary wives seethe restlessly, feeling ignored.

Those hungry cries that brought us quickly to our child’s room in the middle of the night mature into a pained cry as our teenager struggles with identity or a broken heart or embarrassment at school. But we’re too tired to stay up and talk, or too busy to give them our attention.

How does the grand become so mundane?

The car, the child, the wife, your worship become ordinary. We’ve floated that river for years. Where once we craned our necks and laughed, cried, cooed, huddled and prayed, the grand became ordinary with casual handling.

When we handle grand things with casual touch, our pearls are downtrodden and we become the pigs.