Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Harvesting Friendship & Learning

Yesterday I finally put away the deck chairs. I could have done that two weeks ago, but I kept hoping for another deck day.

It has been a beautiful autumn, even though the deck days ended too soon and too abruptly. They always do. You never know when you are sitting there, in dry air, that this day is the last one on the deck.

Autumn is so beautiful to get us ready for winter. Early retirement is like autumn, and we think it will last forever

As a child, of all the seasons, I loved autumn best. The dry air, the bright leaves, the smell of wood smoke. And school.

We lived in the country, without a car, so I rarely got to see my friends in summer time. School meant I got to see my friends again. School also meant that I got to learn new things, advance in knowledge and wisdom. Friends and knowledge—school meant life.

Now I still like autumn because winter follows, and my life is in winter.

Autumn is harvest time, but it’s also startup time. Autumn is the start of the fallow season, the season of rest for the soil, so that it is ready to spring forth into newness after winter.

Winter is the season of rest, but that rest is preparation for new life.

In the winter our world becomes smaller, closed in, and we get through it on what we harvest in the fall, what we harvested in friendship and in learning.

The farther we got into school, the more I learned. The farther we get into winter, the more I learn.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Right Age

Sometimes people have asked us, “Wouldn’t you love to have your children little again, like two years old, when they’re so cute, just for a day?”

I always answered, “No, this is their best age, because right now they are the age they are supposed to be.”

Sometimes it doesn’t seem that right now is my best time. There are lots of aches and pains and limitations that I haven’t had before. Still, this is the age I’m supposed to be, and there is no going back.

I saw this statement recently: “Things began to get better when I stopped praying for a different past.”

“THIS is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Winter and Acceptance

I saw Clark Brogan’s obituary today. He died at 91. In recent years he lived in Decatur, GA, but I knew him as a resident of Mattoon, IL, a retired printer who lived his Christian faith as a gentle but persistent voice on behalf of those Jesus called “the least of these.”

Around 20 years ago, when Clark was about the age I am now, I called on him in a hospital in Champaign, IL, by accident. I was there to see a member of my church. I try to avoid looking into patient rooms as I go down a hospital hallway. There’s little enough dignity for a hospital patient without strangers staring at you. Occasionally, though, you have to glance at room numbers for guidance. As I looked for a number, I saw Clark, sitting on a chair, hunched over in one of those awful hospital gowns. Since he was not a member of the church I served, I had not known he was in the hospital.

When I walked into his room, he looked up at me with such relief and anxiety at the same time. He reached out for my hand. “I’ve been trying to pray,” he said, “and I can’t. I can’t even remember what comes after ‘Our Father…’.”

“You’re in luck,” I said. “I know the whole thing.”

That got the smile I wanted. We prayed. We talked. With anguish he asked if he would ever be able to pray again. I assured him that it was just the anesthesia from his surgery and the pain killers after that had wiped out the rest of the Lord’s Prayer. It’s the kind of thing you know when your brain is whole, but which you forget when every cell in your body, including your brain, is depressed by anesthesia. I’m sure he prayed a lot in the 20 years since that chance encounter.

In the years of winter people are subjected to anesthesia and pain killers more often than in former years. And in the places of winter, in times of darkness and cold, people use pain killers more, too. [1]

When I was in campus ministry, one of my friends was Bill Toohey, the chaplain at Notre Dame. He told once of how a student came into his office one Monday and told about how he and his friends had partied all weekend. “Man, we were feelin’ no pain,” he said. “What pain were you not feeling?” Bill asked. The boy thought about it and said, “The pain of being me, I guess.”

That’s why we use pain killers, to take away the pain of being ourselves. Sometimes pain killers are a good thing. If my self is hurting because of some physical ailment, as when the tumor penetrated my bowel wall, I need something to kill the pain so that the physicians can take away the reason for the pain. On my birthday in 1990, my real self had a real tumor that caused real pain.

More often, the pains we want to avoid are emotional and spiritual and relational. We get used to taking away those pains of being our selves by using alcohol or drugs or gambling or sex or food or danger. As we become more like ourselves as we age, the addictions of spring and summer and fall are even more pronounced, and intractable, in winter.

Surrounded in winter by cold and snow, able to look back and forward better because of the slower pace that ice and wind require, that’s a good time to renew our faith in grace, that we are accepted, that we don’t have to be pained by being ourselves, so we don’t need to deaden that self-pain. God’s acceptance takes it away.

I think that’s what allowed Clark Brogan to live as one who was free to live for others. He couldn’t always remember what came after “Our Father,” but he knew he was accepted. [2]

[1] I suspect that’s why Alaska has such a high rate of alcoholism. Binge alcohol users in AK number over 115,000 in a month, more than 20% of the population. Or maybe they drink to forget about politics.
It’s also why the high school principal said in Brigid’s frosh orientation this fall that the drug and alcohol rate among UP teens is higher than the national average.

[2] Perhaps the best sermon ever, after the one on the mount, is Paul Tillich’s “You Are Accepted,” printed in his book of sermons, “The Shaking of the Foundations.” Tillich was a major figure in the NYC community of German immigrants who came here to escape the Nazis. Many of his fellow immigrants were Jews or atheists, but whenever he was preaching in chapel at Union Seminary, where he taught, he would call them up and tell them to be there. They came.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Using It All Up

Winter is coming in today with wind and rain and cold.

If I live winter right, on the first day of spring, I’ll dip the last tea bag, burn the last log, and my snow shovel will break.

The task through most of life is building up. The task of winter is to use up.

I was just a young father when my Grandma Mac began to give me old photographs. I didn’t want to take them. I knew they were precious to her. But she insisted. She did the same with her children and her other grandchildren. She knew the particular photos she passed on to each of us would be precious to us, too. It was time for her to use up her store of precious things by passing them on.

We have friends who have been married sixty years. They told us recently that they had burned their old love letters from their courting days. “There’s nothing embarrassing in those letters,” they said, “but they are just for us. Our friends and children and grandchildren will have their memories of us, but those letters contain memories for us alone.” It was time for them to use up the memories that were too precious to share.

When we followed our grandchildren to the UP, the land of winter, we “downsized,” which means simply getting rid of a lot of stuff we were hanging onto not because we needed it anymore but just because it was there. It was time for us to use up the unnecessary stuff by getting rid of it, mostly by giving it to younger neighbors who are still building up.

If I live winter right, on the first day of spring, I’ll dip the last tea bag, burn the last log, and my snow shovel will break.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Of Grandma Macs

In the posts of Sept. 30 and Oct. 24, I referred to Helen as “Grandma Mac,” as she is to Brigid and Joe. “Grandma Mac” is not just a title. It is a position. A “Grandma Mac” is the linchpin of the family, the one who holds it all together, the bearer of all knowledge, the hearer of all woes, the remover of all spots, the wiper of all spills.

The first Grandma Mac was Henrietta Ann Smith McFarland, my grandmother, the wife of Arthur Harrison McFarland. Even now, many years after her death, whenever anyone in our family says “Grandma Mac,” we know that they mean “Retta,” not any of her successors.

She was five feet tall, in heels, which she wore into her 90s, five feet of dynamite and fun. There was nothing she couldn’t do, including having seven children without ever seeing the inside of a hospital. Indeed, she was never in a hospital until she was dying at age 96. There was no one she couldn’t beat at Chinese Checkers. She was a great fan of her grandchildren and the Cincinnati Reds. She made work into fun. She was the quintessential grandma—laughs and cookies.

Grandma Mac was the linchpin of the family, the switchboard, the one through whom we all communicated, the one who kept track of eight children [she also raised a niece] and 22 grandchildren.

There are other Grandma Macs now. Aunt Gertrude, Aunt Rosemary, Aunt Edna—they are in the next generation of Grandma Macs after Retta. But my wife, Helen, is a Grandma Mac, too, in the next generation after the aunts, and so are Evonne and Carol and Jackie. So was Sandy.

They are the linchpins for their families. They are the ones who keep the clan going, who give it that distinctive family identity.

It’s strange, isn’t it, that these Grandma Macs, who give the clan its identity, were not originally Macs? They weren’t McFarlands until they married one.

Be kind to the immigrants in the family. They will become the linchpins.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Grandma Power

Last night we saw “Neil Berg’s 100 Years of Broadway.” It featured some remarkable Broadway stars, like Carter Calvert [It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues; Cats] and Sarah Joseph [Phantom of the Opera] and Ted Louis Levy [Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk; Jelly’s Last Jam] and Robert DuSold [Showboat; Mamma Mia] and Rob Evan [Les Miserables,; Jekyl and Hyde].

Berg said that his Broadway vocation was highly unlikely, since the only person in his family who had anything to do with show business was his grandmother, who told dirty jokes at an old people’s home. She was the one, though, who believed that he could make it in his unlikely occupation and kept encouraging him. Then Carter Calvert dedicated her recreation of “Memories” from “Cats” to her grandmother, “TuTu,” who every week, when Carter was getting turned down in all her auditions and thinking she should move back to Cincinnati and live with her mother, sent her an encouraging letter and “a check for just the right amount to get me through the next week or month.” [Helen says no one appreciated that more than Carter’s mother.]

That got me to thinking about the influence of grandmothers, and grandfathers.

Josh Hamilton, the amazingly talented outfielder of The Texas Rangers, while still in the minor leagues, got strung out on booze and dope. He went so far down, below the bottom, that everyone else gave up on him, but when Josh showed up on his grandma’s doorstep one bleak morning, without a prayer or a hope, it was she who gave him both and brought him back to himself. It was his white grandmother, “Toot,” that Barack Obama credits with raising him and loving him into an identity beyond the division of race. It was their grandfather who believed in his grandsons so much, the ones who called themselves “The Beach Boys,” although their new sound must surely have been strange to his Sinatra-listening ears, that he mortgaged his house to finance them. My cousin, Carole Ann, and her husband, David, are raising their now eleven-year-old great-grandson, even though they are pushing [or maybe even pulling] eighty years of age.

It set me to thinking about my own Grandma Mac, and how after my high school commencement, my mother complained that Grandma Mac clapped with embarrassing enthusiasm each time I received an award. During the Great Depression, my parents and older sister and I often lived with Grandma and Grandpa Mac, as did seven or eight other aunts, uncles, and cousins, although usually not all at the same time. From Grandma Mac, I learned that it is possible to be happy and hopeful even in the midst of chaos. And that it is okay to be embarrassing in your enthusiasm about your grandchildren.

When we lived with Grandma and Grandpa Mac, when my mother would spank me for some imagined infraction, I am told that my grandfather would go out into the back yard and cry.

The world needs more grandmothers who encourage the little ones, even when they aren’t little anymore, and grandfathers who weep over the pains of the little ones. Be not stinting in your enthusiasm, or in your tears.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Barren Landscape of Winter Minds

I have a friend here in the land of winter who is a staunch Republican. He lives on a corner and displays not just one yard sign for each Republican candidate but three or four signs for each one.

He is occasionally the program chair for a service club composed entirely of people in their winter years. About three years ago, in a non-campaign year, he invited our US Congressman, Bart Stupak, [retiring this year], to speak to the group. Stupak is a Democrat, although he is as firm in his commitment to guns and against abortion as any Republican could be. He single-handedly held up health care reform until he was assured no federal money could be used to help women get abortions.

My friend said that Congressman Stupak did a good job speaking to the club of old people. He didn’t talk about politics at all, but government, telling about what was happening in Washington and what it meant. Afterwards, though, my friend was approached by several members who were angry with him for inviting a Democrat.

“But he’s our congressman,” my friend protested. “He represents us. We need to know what he’s thinking and doing. And what better way to know what the whole Congress is doing than from our own Representative?”

He didn’t persuade them. Stupak was the enemy, and they didn’t want to hear anything from him, not even generic information.

Old people should know better. We’ve been around long enough to know that you often learn the most from those with whom you disagree. Brains shrivel with old age, but our minds don’t have to. There’s nothing quite as pathetic as a narrow-minded old person. Winter is mighty cold if you have no source of warmth but the fire of your hates.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

My Favorite Things

Men named Don apparently like Julie Andrews a lot. Don [and Gloria] Survant and Don [and Bev] Bielema both forwarded to me the “then and now” [49 years later-] pictures of Julie and the Von Trapp kids of the “Sound of Music” movie. [Helen and I once danced in the gazebo in Strasburg used in that movie.]

Each of those kids, though, and Julie, too, is not just 49 years older. Each is still the same person s/he was in the “then” photo. In God, everything is always “now,” the “eternal present,” in Paul Tillich’s term, and an eternal present, as in gift, in God’s terms.

The Dons also forwarded Julie’s new version of “My Favorite Things,” one now that she’s almost 50 years older:

Maalox and nose drops and needles for knitting,
Walkers and handrails and new dental fittings,
Bundles of magazines tied up in string,
These are a few of my favorite things.

Cadillac's and cataracts, and hearing aids and glasses,
Polident and Fixodent and false teeth in glasses,
Pacemakers, golf carts and porches with swings,
These are a few of my favorite things.

When the pipes leak, when the bones creak,
When the knees go bad,
I simply remember my favorite things,
And then I don't feel so bad.

Hot tea and crumpets and corn pads for bunions,
No spicy hot food or food cooked with onions,
Bathrobes and heating pads and hot meals they bring,
These are a few of my favorite things.

Back pains, confused brains, and no need for sinnin',
Thin bones and fractures and hair that is thinnin',
And we won't mention our short, shrunken frames,
When we remember our favorite things.

When the joints ache, when the hips break,
When the eyes grow dim,
Then I remember the great life I've had,
And then I don't feel so bad.

Despite the laughter, old age is difficult. We all have those old age maladies of which Julie sings. One of the best ways to deal with a problem, though, is to laugh at it, and to recall those “favorite things.”

Monday, October 18, 2010

When the Applause Fades

As an IU grad and fan, I had reservations about Larry Siegfried, the Ohio State guard on their 1960 national championship basketball team, who went on to win five NBA titles with the Boston Celtics.

I have no reservations, though, about affirming his observation, quoted in his obituary today: “As time goes on, the championship does not mean as much to me. The thing that matters to me is what coach [Fred] Taylor taught us and the relationships, those intangible things. The core values that made me who I am today, that’s what’s important to me.”

The awards, the applause, the power, the successes all fade away, for each of us. And we cannot replicate those. We get too old to win new championships. But we are never too old for the relationships and values that give us meaning.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Knowing Which Side You're On

My mother’s brothers were all handsome men. Even in that group, though, Uncle Jesse stood out. Curly hair. Sparkling brown eyes. A dazzling smile. And even nicer than he was handsome.

So it must have set the hearts of all the girls at Francisco High School to fluttering when he ran out onto the basketball court in the tight little shorts and skimpy singlet basketball players wore in the 1920s.

The problem was this: he wasn’t a very good basketball player. So he never got into a game. Until that night when all the other players had fouled out. To have five on the floor, the coach had to put Jesse in.

The score was tied, and the clock was down to the last minute.

“Don’t touch the ball,” the coach told Jesse. “Just stand there in bounds.”

Jesse did as he was told. But then the unthinkable happened. The ball went astray. It landed in his hands. What was he to do? The thing any player would do; he went for the basket.

He couldn’t dribble, but somehow he kept the ball going—one, two, three bounces toward the basket. The other players were chasing him. The crowd was yelling. He could see the clock down to its last second. He lofted the ball. It went through the net. The crowd went wild.

Then, though, Jesse realized it was the wrong crowd that was cheering him. It was on the visitors’ side of the gym. He looked at the scoreboard. He had won the game, but for the wrong team.

After high school, Uncle Jesse went on to a distinguished career in the Navy, as a pilot and flight instructor.

My mother’s family liked to tease a lot. So whenever there was a reunion and Jesse was present, the story of the errant basket was repeated many times. I was a teen-aged basketball player then myself. I could feel the embarrassment I was sure Uncle Jesse must have felt.

“How can you stand that, hearing that story?” I asked him.

He looked serious.

“All I did was make a mistake, Johnny,” he said. “You’ll make a lot of those in life, and sometimes it will help the wrong team. Maybe even win a game for them.”

Then he gave me that dazzling smile.

“But I always knew which side I was on,” he said.

In the years of winter, I’ve been around long enough to make a lot of mistakes, and sometimes they’ve helped the wrong team. Maybe even won a game or two for them. But the season isn’t over, and I still know which side I’m on.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Love & Hate

I love to paint.

I am painting the deck. It’s very satisfying to cover up the winter-worn and summer-baked bare spots, and to cover up the disgruntled old paint that thinks it’s better and smarter than the rest of the paint just because it was in a sheltered spot and survived the ice of winter and the glare of summer better.

I have to go to the paint store. The guy there sells me mineral spirits to thin the paint by 20% so it will get into the cracks better. I get it home and realize I don’t have a container big enough to mix paint and spirits. I search for one, can’t find anything, and decide I’ll just pour some spirits in on top of the paint in the can and hope for the best. The mineral spirits have an adult-proof lid that I can’t get off, though, so all my worry and searching was for naught. I’ll just spread on unadulterated paint, thus keeping the 7th commandment.

Then I have to remove all the furniture and flower pots and sweep the pine needles and leaves and dirt from the deck. I have to find the steel brush. It has disappeared, so I have to get a putty knife to scrape the old flaking paint off. Then I scrape. Then I sweep again.

I have to wait until the deck has dried adequately from the last rains. I have to watch the thermometer to be sure it’s above 50 degrees, which in Oct. in the UP is only a few hours per day. Of course, those are the hours when the deck is in the sun, and you’re not supposed to paint where the sun hits the new paint. So I paint in drips of time and spots of shade.

Finally it is done. Leaves and pine needles floated down while the paint was drying and stuck in it. I have to rescue them first in order to send them to the hell of fire. Now I’ll have to search for the receipt so I can return the mineral spirits.

I hate to paint.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

A Place to Fill

Fred Pratt Green was a British Methodist minister. He was 79 when he wrote “O Praise the Hidden God of Love.” It is # 2027 in “The Faith We Sing.” It can be sung to many tunes, but I love the name of the tune listed in TFWS, “O Waly Waly.”

It is the song of an old man who is searching well for final integrity. Here are the words…

“Now praise the hidden God of love, in whom we all must live and move, who shepherds us at every stage, through youth, maturity, and age.

Who challenged us when we were young, to storm the citadels of wrong; in care for others taught us how God’s true community must grow.

Who bids us never lose our zest, though age is urging us to rest, but proves to us that we have still, a work to do, a place to fill.”

Friday, October 1, 2010

Fred the Fly

In our family, we tend to give a personal name to anything in our lives that moves, animate or not. For instance, daughter Mary Beth’s car is Francesca.

Grandchildren Brigid and Joe picked this up but in reverse. When they were younger, Joe wanted to name his children LightSwitch and Lamp. Brigid wanted to name hers FreshCorn and Food. You can sort of see the themes of their younger years.

When Joe trapped a spider in a jar, he named it Fluffy. When it went to its reward and he trapped another, it became Fluffy 2.0.

Thus I have named the fly that bedevils me when I sit on our deck. “Fred the Fly.”

I really should not be so upset with Fred. He’s the only fly we have. That’s one of the great things about our part of the UP. Most north woods places have black flies and deer flies and mosquitoes the size of birds. Not Iron Mountain. We have a bat cave. Thousands of bats. They come out every evening at sundown and eat insects, especially mosquitoes. They are appointed by the bat bishop to various circuits. Our bat is named Walter, for Walter Batty, an old preaching colleague.

So what’s one fly who has managed to survive the summer and all those bats?

Well, deck-sitting hours are getting scarce now. We had a low of 35 last night. It’s noon now and the thermometer says it’s still too cold to apply the paint the deck needs. When I do get a chance to sit on the deck, I don’t want to be bedeviled by Fred.

It’s often “the ants around the ankles,” [Mark Twain’s phrase, I believe] that distract us most, that keep us from enjoying the moment. That’s especially true with old people. It becomes our only subject of thought and conversation. We sit and complain about the ants around the ankles.

I’m not exactly sure what to do about the ants around the ankles. They are real, and they are really annoying. I DO know, though, that I’m not going to let Fred keep me from enjoying my last days on the deck.