Easter comes

A while ago I was talking with a friend who had recently returned from a trip back east for her mother’s funeral. Not long before she had been with her mother and they celebrated her mother’s 100th birthday. My friend is my age or perhaps a bit older. It doesn’t matter how old you are or how old your mother was, the death of your mother is a significant life event. During the conversation, she told me of being seized by an urge to give her mother a call. Before her mother’s death, she had made it a practice to pick up the phone and talk with her on a regular basis. It seemed so natural to do so since the distance between Washington, where the daughter lives and Michigan, where the mother lived was so great that she got used to the phone as a tool of relationship. Whenever she missed her mother or simply was thinking of her, she would pick up the phone after carefully checking to remember what time it was in Michigan. So, after her mother died, she would pick up the phone and nearly dial it before remembering that it would not longer produce her mother’s voice at the other end.

I could feel her grief as we talked but I also noted that a couple of times she had experiences that made it seem like her mother was still alive. She had opened a cookbook to find a card with a recipe that had been hand-written by her mother decades before and the sight of the handwriting made her so happy she went to work and cooked the recipe on the card that was familiar and delicious and made her so happy to have the recipe.

I reported that it has been a dozen years since my mother died and I am still finding treasures that bring her presence to my spirit. I didn’t go into detail about how it has taken me all of these years to get around to the task of sorting some of the papers my mother left behind and that process is filled with tiny moments of discovery and revelation. I did tell her that the story of the recipe seemed to me like a resurrection moment - a time when her mother’s life broke through the loss and grief to be real and present. I also suggested that she might want to write a journal or keep notes about the many resurrection moments that will continue to be a part of her life.

She was really taken with the label, “resurrection moment.” Each time I have seen her since that conversation, she has reported a couple more moments when her mother’s life and presence have broken through her everyday life and filled her with gratitude.

The gospels report of Jesus’ resurrection almost as if it was a sudden event, occurring on the third day after his crucifixion. John’s gospel gives us the sense of an early morning encounter with the women who had been keeping vigil for first light in order for it to be time to go and prepare the body. However, if you read the Christian Scriptures as a unit, with the Gospels and Epistles, you find many stories of Jesus’ disciples encountering his living presence after he died. I suspect that there is much of those disciples experiences that has escaped the words of the texts. It seems to me far more likely than their experience of resurrection being a single moment on a single day that they sensed his presence often over a long time. After all, there was significant time between their lived experiences and the writing of the Gospel texts. Storytellers often compress time in the expression of their craft.

Many times, over years of serving congregations I have commented that there is a reason why Lent is a 40-day season and Easter is a 50-day season. While we set aside 40 days each year to reflect on death, loss and grief, we set aside even more days to struggle with the meaning of resurrection. Resurrection is not the same as resuscitation. It is not the same as a dead body resuming breathing and eating and other life functions. If we are looking for resuscitation in the midst of our grief, we will be disappointed. Evidence that resuscitation is an uncommon thing that happens after death has occurred can make some say that scientific evidence disproves resurrection. Without engaging in argument, I note, however, that even after millennia of human grief and millions upon millions of deaths and losses, we are still here. Death is not the end of the meaning, the worth, or the power of human life. Even though we will all one day die from this life, the gift of life has the final triumph.

There will come a time, years from now, when there will be no one left who remembers my name or who can tell firsthand stories of having known me. Whatever writings or other items that continue to exist after I die will not last forever. They will be lost. I will be forgotten by those who are living. That does not, however, change the simple fact that I have lived. I have experienced art and culture and music in my own unique way. I have served others in the ways I was able. I have spoken of and witnessed to the presence of the holy in this life. And I have loved and been loved. It may sound like a cliche, but the biblical truth remains: love never dies.

I never met the mother of my friend. I cannot picture her in my mind. I do not know what food his detailed on the recipe card. But I know the service of the daughter who was a teacher and school administrator. I know her passion for justice and her commitment to helping others to become involved in working for fairness in life and society. I have seen the light in her daughter’s eyes when she speaks of her mother. I have glimpsed just a bit of resurrection in the legacy of her love that remains and is expressed.

Today is the beginning of Easter. A day when we celebrate the triumph of life even though we don’t fully understand it. Today is enough to remind us once again that love never dies. Like my friend, I am eager to discover new resurrection moments that break into my life.

A time for listening

When we were students at Chicago Theological Seminary, the seminary operated a preschool for children aged 3 and 4 years old. Susan and I both took a class in the Christian Education department that was based on the work being done at the school. In the class we had the opportunity to observe the interactions in the school and also the opportunity to work with the students under close supervision. In preparation for our working with the children, there were specific things that we had to learn. Susan later became an assistant to the director of the school and gained much more experience working with the children. I had an additional opportunity to spend time in the school when I visited to take photographs that were part of a study being made by the school’s director that were eventually incorporated into a book about teaching young children.

One of the skills we learned and practiced extensively before we were allowed to work directly with the students was active listening. We would practice with our peers the process of listening and then repeating what had just been said. The emphasis was not on parroting what we had heard word for word, but rather reflecting the meaning. When we practiced with other students they could give us direct feedback on how well we had listened and reflected what they had said.

Active listening involves more than just hearing the sounds that come to one’s ears. It also involves careful looking for non-verbal messages communicated through facial expression and body language. All of those signals then need to be processed in the brain of the listener before being reflected to the speaker.

I have used my active listening skills throughout my career as a pastor and have frequently been very grateful for the training and practice I was able to receive during the time I was being equipped for the ministry in school. Active listening has been important in areas of ministry well beyond education and faith formation. During my final years as a seminary student, I worked as a professional counselor with the Wholistic Health Center in Hinsdale, Illinois. I was assigned center clients by the center’s director and offered counseling as part of an overall health management program, working closely with a doctor and a nurse. When people came to the center, being able to carefully listen and accurately reflect what I had heard was an important part of the healing process for clients. I worked with both individuals and families, having previously trained as a family counselor during my clinical pastoral education.

One of the surprises that came to me early in my pastoral career was how critical active listening is to assisting those going through grief. I learned when visiting those who had experienced the loss of loved one to ask a few questions and do a lot of listening. As I did so, stories of their loved one began to emerge. Those stories were important information that i used in planning funeral services. Frequently my eulogies and funeral sermons were examples of active listening. I shared with the wider community the stories that the families had shared with me. After a funeral service, I learned to visit with those attending the funeral as they were sharing lunch or refreshments in the fellowship hall. I was frequently delighted to hear some of the stories that I had heard from the immediate family and then incorporated into the funeral service being told from fresh perspectives all around the room.

I wasn’t the only one who experienced resurrection moments in the storytelling. Grieving family and friends frequently reported to me that the process of telling and listening to stories about their family members was one of the ways that their beloved lived on in their lives.

Books about telling stories and storytelling workshops are quite popular these days. I have read many of the popular books and I regularly listen to several story telling podcasts. Midway through my career I did post graduate work at the University of Wyoming in adult education and I took an additional course on stories. As I reflect on the energy and time that I invested in storytelling over more than four decades, I realize that as important as are the skills of telling stories for pastors, an effective pastor has to be much more than a skilled storyteller. Before the stories are told, a pastor needs to be an effective listener.

The skills I learned as a student have been critical to my work as a pastor. They include simple, common sense things as facing the speaker. If you are listening to a child, get down on their level so that you can see eye to eye. If you are speaking to someone who is seated, sit down or squat so that your eyes are on the same level. Pay attention to gestures, facial expressions, and non-verbal clues as well as listening to words. Allow for pauses and silence without becoming anxious. Don’t interrupt. Lay aside judgments and do not rush to conclusions about what you are hearing. Don’t think about what you are going to say next. Don’t impose your opinions or solutions. Ask questions.

Active listening requires practiced focus. I learned early when I was working as a counselor that I needed to be awake and alert. A lack of sleep or an extra long day made focused listening more difficult. Sometimes I was too tired to be as effective as I might have been. Active listening is the polar opposite of multi-tasking. When counseling and planning weddings or funerals with families, I use a notepad to record some of our interactions. However, I am very careful to not get ahead of the process. I don’t start planning a wedding or funeral when i am with the family. I take time to carefully listen. The notes I write are specifically to remind me of the conversation we are having. I am careful to write what I am hearing, not how I am responding or what I am thinking.

As important as storytelling was to my career as a pastor, even more important was careful listening to others’ stories. In those stories is the hope our world needs today. In those stories is the experience of resurrection.

Good Friday

One of our professors who later served as a local church pastor stopped attending worship once he retired. I don’t remember all of the details, but basically serving as a preacher left him with standards about preaching and worship that made him disappointed in the pastors who served the congregations near where he retired. I’ve known other pastors who quit being active in the church upon retirement. I don’t want to become like them. I’ve known too many of my colleagues with outsized egos that somehow left them thinking that other pastors simply don’t measure up to them.

The truth is that lay people who are faithful to the church endure seasons of church life when the leadership of their congregation is less than perfect. They become disappointed in a particular pastor. However, they understand that they belong to the community of the church, not to a specific pastor. A congregation isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be, a personality cult surrounding a single individual. People belong to churches because they are committed to other members of the congregation, because they believe in the mission of the church, and because the church gives them an opportunity to serve others.

As hard as it is, I believe that the discipline of humility is a critical component of church life. I intend to be an active participant in the life of a congregation for as long as I am able.

Having said that, I have really been feeling out of touch this Lent. Today is Good Friday and it simply doesn’t feel like Good Friday for me. I have the Easter anthem that our choir will sing on Sunday in my head. Our church had a drop in service for Maundy Thursday. People were invited to drop by the church for an open time in the evening in which the labyrinth was available for personal meditation and communion was available in the sanctuary. The “take it or leave it” attitude with which the service was announced and the lack of any liturgy simply didn’t appeal to me and I decided to stay home.

For so many years, my life has revolved around the readings of the lectionary and the rhythms of the church calendar. That was really disrupted by the pandemic. It was Holy Week of my last year as a pastor when our congregation decided to shut down in-person worship. All of our Holy Week services were cancelled and replaced with short prayers that I led over Facebook. It wasn’t at all what I longed to have happen. I had so looked forward to sharing that sacred time with our congregation. We had developed a series of Holy Week activities that attracted a lot of visitors to the congregation and gave us, as pastors, opportunities to be close to our congregation. Praying alone in the sanctuary in front of a camera wasn’t the same at all.

The following year, now retired, our new-to-us congregation was still not worshiping in person. I preached for the Palm Sunday service by recording the sermon at home which was dubbed into the service by the church administrator and played over Facebook. It was especially strange to participate in online worship and watch myself preach knowing that there was no congregation in front of me when I delivered the sermon. For the next two Lenten Seasons we were back working as pastors, serving the congregation we had joined. Although our role was as Faith Formation ministers who planned educational events and not as worship leaders, I had responsibility for delivering moments with the children during regular worship and we planned Lenten activities including leading a group preparing for confirmation, family Lenten activities, and other events.

And now I am retired once again - perhaps this time for good although I say, when asked, that I am “mostly retired.” I still provide pulpit supply on occasion when asked by neighboring congregations. Holy Week came and I have just been out of touch with the cycles of the church. Part of my problem is that I am so used to the readings of the Revised Common Lectionary that I can’t seem to get into the rhythm of the texts that have been chosen for our congregation this Lent. They have seemed to me to be random readings from the Gospel of Mark rather than texts that lead up to Holy Week by recalling events in Jesus’ life as he prepared to enter Jerusalem and face his crucifixion.

I need to find ways to set aside my old patterns and notions and simply participate in the life of the congregation without criticism. It isn’t as easy as I had imagined it would be. After all, I’m more than a thousand miles from the congregation I led for twenty five years. I’m in a new church in a new place. And now I have lived here long enough for me to have become involved in a new congregation. Nearly all of my new friends in this place are part of the congregation to which we belong. I look forward to seeing friends each time I attend worship. I feel like I am a member of a community. I belong.

Sometimes, however, it feels like I’m not really plugged in. Sometimes it feels like that lack of involvement is what the pastor wants of me. I know it is just my outsized ego that wants to somehow still be the center of attention. I know that is far less than the humble role to which I aspire. The problem isn’t with the pastor or the church. It is with me.

As I live into the new realities of my life, I have at least maintained a sense of contemplation during this Lenten season. I confess that feeling a little down during Holy Week is part of the process of immersing myself in this season of the church. Resurrection is coming, but this week we are asked to be patient. Those following Jesus during his last week had their patience tested and were quite uncomfortable with what was happening to them. As a follower of Jesus it is appropriate for me to feel uncomfortable this week.

I will wait. I will pray. I will read the familiar grief-laden texts. I will remember. And once again I will be reminded that the mood of this week is not the final word on the meaning of life.

Responding to mental health crises

The last seven years that I lived and served in Rapid City, South Dakota, I served as a volunteer Sheriff’s Chaplain. I became interested in law enforcement chaplaincy through my long-standing service on Rapid City’s LOSS team. Local Outreach to Survivors of Suicide (LOSS) was a team of trained suicide first responders that worked in partnership with the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office. The Sheriff’s Office provided coroner services to the county, which means that deputy coroners from the Sheriff’s Office were dispatched to all unattended deaths in the county. When an officer determined that a suicide had occurred, the LOSS team was dispatched by the 911 Call Center to go and assist officers with providing support to surviving friends and family members. We responded at whatever time of day or night the call came. LOSS volunteers underwent rigorous training and were equipped with knowledge and resources from community organizations, information on access to support and mental health services, training in coroner procedures so they could assist survivors in understanding what was going on, and other resources. LOSS team members then provided follow-up services during the following year to make sure that survivors were receiving the support they needed. The parent organization of the LOSS team, the Front Porch Coalition, also provided a support group for survivors of suicide and sponsored an annual suicide prevention conference and an Out of the Darkness walk to raise awareness and funds for survivor services. I became a trained support group facilitator and served on the Board of Directors of the Front Porch Coalition.

For the most part, my volunteer hours with the LOSS team were scheduled during the night because I was working full time serving a church during the day. I often rose in the wee hours of the morning to respond to a crisis.I learned to be ready to be dressed quickly and respond to the location in the county dispatch directed me. My GPS was an essential tool, but I also knew that dispatch could provide directions as well as send officers to assist when needed.

Through my work with the LOSS team, I often listened to coroners and investigators at the scene of a suicide and frequently followed up with them a few days later. I began to realize that law enforcement officers were also survivors of suicide, having witnessed the scenes of multiple deaths and learning the circumstances that led up to tragedies. Every seasoned law enforcement officer becomes a trauma survivor and needs support services. For that reason the Pennington County Sheriff shared a licensed professional counselor shared with the Rapid City Police Department and the Rapid City Fire Department to provide support to officers. In addition the chaplains provided spiritual support to officers.

Through my work with the LOSS Team and Sheriff’s department, I became aware of several deficiencies in support services for those struggling with mental illness. During the years we lived in Rapid City, Rapid City Regional Hospital spent tens of millions of dollars expanding emergency room services. State of the art medical services were available to respond to virtually any health crisis that could arise. The Hospital provided level 3 trauma center services to the region. However, there was no corresponding service available for those who suffered from mental illness. While Rapid City Regional Hospital did operate a small emergency facility for in-patient treatment of mental illness, it was located across town from the hospital emergency room. If those suffering acute mental illness approached the emergency room for assistance, they were often left on their own to travel across town where they generally could not receive assessment or treatment for days or even weeks. When law enforcement officers responded to a call of someone in mental health crisis they often found themselves without the tools to respond. There were a few cases where those suffering were temporarily incarcerated because there were no other ways to keep that person or others safe. There was a running dispute between law enforcement and the hospital as to who should take responsibility for those suffering from acute crises.

With my familiarity with those issues and the problems faced by those suffering from mental illness and their family members, I have been paying close attention to a new health team that was first deployed in my new home, Whatcom County, last July. Dubbed the Alternative Response Team (ART) the service is staffed by six professional mental health professionals who are on call 24/7 to respond to mental health crisis calls. Members of the team are dispatched along with police or sheriff’s officers to respond when a crisis occurs. They are trained not only in providing immediate response to acute mental health crises, but also in the assessment and treatment of drug overdoses. They are equipped with medicine to treat acute Fentanyl overdose and can be backed up by EMTs as requested. While police and deputies wear official law enforcement uniforms, ART team members are identified by the logos on their hoodies, vests, jackets, and caps. The lack of an official uniform makes them less threatening, especially to those who suffer from paranoia and delusions of needing to run from officers.

Whatcom County’s largest city, Bellingham is approximately 20% larger than Rapid City and the county also has a larger population than Pennington County in South Dakota. I assume that because of the increased population, the need for ART services is proportionately larger than what might be needed in Pennington County, but a team of six seems to be minimal to simply provide 24/76 coverage.

In its first six months of operation, ART responded to 830 crisis calls clearly demonstrating the need of the team in our area. Full information is not yet publicly available, but it is safe to assume that they were able to significantly decrease the work load of law enforcement officers freeing those officers to respond to the calls for which they are trained. In addition, it is difficult to assess the impact of ART in the lives of those suffering from mental illness and their families. I am confident that the impact has been significant.

I’ll be paying close attention in months and years to come. I hope that the program becomes not only an essential part of community infrastructure, but also a model for other places with similar populations to observe and imitate. The impact of the team on suicide rates is not yet assessable, but I will be paying attention to those statistics as information becomes available as well.

So far it appears that the ART is a success and a necessary element in our community’s response to acute health care needs.

A warm woolen cap

One thing about the place where we live is that I often wear a navy watch cap. I think that the actual caps issued to members of the U.S. Navy are available at surplus stores, but it isn’t important to me to have one with an official designation. Some people call the caps beanies, and I think there are several other names. The caps are made from wool and fit snugly on the top of my head. My mother used to knit a lot and she made many, many similar caps. She was also a spinner and sometimes the caps were made from wool yarn purchased at the store, and other times from wool from local sheep, carded and spun into yarn by hand. Sometimes she would attach a pom pom to the top of the hat. I liked the pom poms when I was younger, but these days I prefer a plain cap.

The pom poms were a source of conversation in our family. Mother taught us kids how to make them out of scraps of yarn and one year, when she was making a large group of hats for children who lacked sufficient winter clothing she enlisted us in making pom poms for those hats. My father claimed that the pom pom had a practical use. He, as is now the case with me, was frequently bumping his head. He had a similar pattern of male baldness that I now have, and there were often bumps and scabs on his forehead from running into things with his head. He claimed that the pom pom would give him warning of overhead obstructions. We teased him, however, that they must not work because he kept bumping his head.

Whatever the purpose, I somehow have grown to prefer hats without the decorative or headache preventing items.

I hadn’t thought about pom poms for a long time, but this morning I read a news article on the BBC website that got me to think of them once again. However, I had to learn the British term for pom pom in order to understand the article. The writer of the article calls the item a “bobble.”

It seems that a very worried woman, in her sixties or seventies, was waiting at the Lower Moss Wood Nature Reserve and Wildlife Hospital, in Cheshire, when it opened one recent morning. In her hands she had a box, lined with newspaper in which she had placed a small dish of water and another with cat food. She told workers at the animal rescue center that she had found the baby hedgehog on the side of the road. It didn’t have any obvious physical injuries. It wasn’t bleeding and didn’t appear to been crushed. She told the people at the center that it hadn’t moved since she picket it up and it had not eaten nor passed any waste all night long despite having been given food and water and she was worried. She hoped that they might be able to save the tiny animal.

The box and the animal were taken back for the veterinarian to examine and shortly afterward the vet came out to inform the woman that it would not move because it was not a hedgehog. “What is it?” she asked. “A hat bobble,” was the answer.

You probably saw that coming after the setup in the opening of today’s journal entry. At least I now know what a hat bobble is. The article that reported the incident had a link on it to another article that reported that biologists have recently discovered five new species of hedgehogs. The pictures with that article show very cute, appealing creatures. I didn’t grow up in a place where hedgehogs are common, but I know they are kept as pets by some folk.

I still don’t prefer hats with pom poms.

I suspect there are several reasons why I now own multiple navy watch caps. One is that I live in a place where it can seem colder than the reading on the thermometer because our relative humidity is usually much higher than was the case in any other place that we have lived. I find that the wool caps are just what is needed to make me comfortable during the winter around here. I suppose that the fact that I have very little hair on my head these days adds to my sense of it often being cold up there. A second reason is that regular visits to the dermatologist in which I have multiple pre-cancerous lesions frozen combined with a couple of incidents when I had to have squamous cell carcinoma removed surgically to make me take seriously the doctor’s advice to always were a hat when spending time out doors.

Whatever the reason, I now keep a spare watch cap in my pickup and another in our car, along with a couple of extra floppy summer hats, so that I will always have something available to put on my head. In addition, I have another watch cap that is generally in the pocket of my jacket when I head outdoors. I’ll wear one under the hood of my rain jacket when it is raining. The wool keeps me warm even when it is wet, so if I don’t have a jacket with a hood, I don’t fear walking in the rain when I have a watch cap on.

I can now add another reason for preferring a cap without a pom pom. I don’t want to go around looking like I have a baby hedgehog on the top of my head. I know nothing of the poor woman who had tried so hard to properly care for what she believed was an animal in need. I suspect that she was completely well meaning and simply wanted to help another creature with whom we share the planet. I know that I am easily confused and that I’ve had that quality for decades, long before I became what I now recognize as an old person. I really hope that the staff at the animal hospital and the people who read about the incident don’t make fun of the woman.

I will continue to wear a cap without a pom pom just in case I might one day lose one and cause some other well meaning individual confusion and embarrassment.

Telling stories

Lately I have been pursuing a lifelong passion of mine. I recently finished reading, “How to Tell a Story: The Essential Guide to Memorable Storytelling from the Moth.” If you are unfamiliar with The Moth, one way to find out more is to check out The Moth podcast, available wherever you normally obtain podcasts. Founded in 1997, The Moth hosts opportunities for individuals to tell stories to live audiences. Moth stories are true, as remembered by the storyteller, and always told live. The storyteller stands in front of a microphone with no notes and tells a five-minute story on the theme of the event. Moth stories are not, however, told off the cuff. They are carefully rehearsed and The Moth provides professional coaches to storytellers to help them refine their stories and practice for events. The book is an excellent guide for those who want to tell stories.

I am currently reading “Between the Listening and the Telling” by Mark Yaconelli. Mark is a graduate of Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and San Francisco Theological Seminary who is well known in youth ministry circles. He was the keynote presenter at the Association of Partners in Education national meeting I attended earlier this year. His book promotes the telling of authentic stories and he gives special attention to the ways in which stories can enhance Christian ministry, including funerals and celebrations of life.

I have made storytelling a focus of my career. Part of the reason that I went to theological seminary and pursued ordination was the influence of Frank Elliott, who was a cabin counselor when I attended church camp as a junior high student and pastor of the church I attended in my college years and where we were married. Frank used to speak of “Mining our Moments,” referring to a careful process of looking at the experiences of life for their deeper meanings. He developed a guide to that process and shared it in his writings and in his sermons. He was a big player in our choice of theological graduate schools as we completed our college degrees. Frank had studied under Ross Snyder, who became a mentor and teacher when we studied under him at Chicago Theological Seminary. Ross spoke and published about “Lived Moments into Meaning,” a process of careful, structured retelling of stories that examine the meanings that come from life’s experiences.

I applied lessons learned from Frank and from Ross into my own style of ministry, employing careful storytelling into my preaching, crafting a careful distinction between oral and written language, and honing a style of preparing for special services such as weddings, baptisms, and funerals by carefully interviewing involved persons for the stories of their loved ones and experiences of love.

I suppose that part of my incentive for studying storytelling now that I am retired is that I have encountered several young clergy who show promise for ministry, but who seem to have somehow thought that any working without notes qualifies as effective ministry. Frankly, I have endured too many sermons that are simply delivered before they have been adequately prepared. Standing in front of a congregation and rambling on about one’s thoughts about scripture or a topic without having done the hard work of research, refinement, and practice, is, in my opinion, simply lazy. The one tip I would offer to these young pastors is to look at the video recordings of their sermons. I suspect that they are unaware of how poorly they are coming across.

But my role as a retired pastor is not to criticize those who are currently serving churches, and I don’t think any of them are likely to turn to me for advice. So, rather than continuing with my criticism, I have a story to tell.

On the most recent Sunday, we were blessed to sit in church behind a family with three young children. We know the children because they attended Creation Care Camp, a summer daycamp for children that we led during our time as Interim Ministers of Faith Formation. As a result we were shown their artwork and had bits of conversation with them around the worship service. After worship, the five and a half year old said to Susan, “I know you forever!” Thinking that he meant that he would recognize her in the future, she asked him if he thought he would know her when she turned 100 years old. He seemed a bit confused by the question. Perhaps imagining someone being that old was a challenge for him. After a few minutes he asked his father to take a picture of Susan so I will remember her. The father and Susan complied, taking a photo of Susan with all three children. The five and a half year old looked at the picture on his father’s phone and approved of it. Later, when telling me the story of the conversation and reflecting on the precious experience, Susan speculated that the child probably meant that he had known her for a long time. After all, he had first met her over two years ago when he was only 3 years old. For one his age, two years can seem like forever. When we announced that we would not be returning as managers of a church camp, campers much older than five years said to us, “You have to come back. You’ve been here forever!”

What a tremendous gift it is to have a child declare, “I know you forever!” What a deep joy it is to be so warmly greeted by children when we see them. The boy’s younger sister had carefully covered the black and picture on the worship bulletin cover and proudly showed it to me. When I told her how much I liked her coloring, she beamed. Seeing these children so at home in church is heartwarming.

And there are children we have known forever. We know adults that we first met at their baptism as infants. We have known them all of their lives. These long-term relationships give us hundreds of stories to tell when they are told with respect and caution. Not every story we know is one we have permission to share. There are reasons to be very careful when telling stories that involve others, even when those stories are of experiences that we have. Among those is keeping children safe from Internet predators. I do not include names or pictures of children on my website. It is one more reason why telling stories in public should be done with carefully chosen words. Storytelling, when well done, is a careful process that reveals deep meaning.

The promise of blossoms


When we first moved west to Washington, we lived for a year in Mount Vernon, Washington, in Skagit County. Then we moved one county north to Whatcom County and purchased a home in Birch Bay. Our mailing address is Blaine, which is a border town, with the US/Canada line running through the municipal area. There are two official border crossings in Blaine. Between those two official crossings a person can walk right up to 0 Avenue in Douglas, British Columbia. The only streets on which you can drive across the border are the official crossings, but there is no fence or barrier that would prevent a person from illegally walking right across the border. We can see Canada from our upstairs bedroom window.

We are happy in our new home, but there are some things about the city of Mount Vernon and Skagit County that make it a very appealing place as well. We really enjoyed our year of living there. The month of April in Mount Vernon and the surrounding rural area is the annual tulip festival. 85% of the tulip bulbs commercially produced in the United States are produced in Skagit County, primarily at four tulip farms averaging about 50 acres each. The tulip farms are open to the public year round and they have shops on them that sell bulbs and a variety of other products. This year, with Easter landing on the last day of March, the tulip festival has a slightly early start with festivities coming this weekend.

It is a delight just to take a walk through the tulip fields when the flowers are in bloom. In addition to selling bulbs, the tulip farms sell cut tulips and provide large quantities of cut flowers to markets around the country. They plant the bulbs in rows and the fields are striped with rainbows of bright colors. In addition to the tulips, there are fields and fields of daffodil bulbs. The daffodils are just reaching their peak blossom right now, with tulips to follow closely in the next couple of weeks.

Locals know that you don’t have to make your visit during the official week of the tulip festival to see the beautiful fields. The next few weeks also offer delight to the senses with a bit less traffic than the week of the celebration. A lot of people from the large cities of Seattle, Washington and Vancouver, British Columbia make the journey to Skagit County to view the tulips and take part in tulip festival activities.

I’m not sure which day we will make it down to Skagit County, but going to see the tulip fields is on our list of things to do in the next couple of weeks.

Last fall we made a trip to Skagit and purchased tulip and daffodil bulbs at one of the tulip farms. Our daffodils are blooming brightly in a bed on the south side of our house and there are tulip plants springing up in several different beds with promise of bright flowers. I think our tulips are at least a couple of weeks away from blooming, but I’m no expert and there have been several warm and sunny days that have increased the rate of growth of the plants in the garden.

It is still an adjustment in thinking for me that gardening season arrives before Easter. While our friends back in South Dakota are bracing for a predicted blizzard Easter Weekend, I need to get out and mow our lawn in the next day or two. We have a small lawn and mowing it doesn’t take much time at all. It is certainly a lot less effort than clearing the snow from our driveway in South Dakota was for all of the years we lived there.

Our church in place of the tradition of Easter lilies to decorate the sanctuary on Easter morning, has a tradition of decorating the sanctuary with blooming tulips. Like our South Dakota church sells Easter lilies that decorate the sanctuary and can be taken home after the service, this church sells tulip plants. While Easter lilies won’t over winter if planted in a South Dakota garden, tulips planted here will produce bright blooms for years to come. The blossoms might not be timed to the holiday, but the plants will be big enough by Easter to hold the promise of blossoms to come.

Writing about the changes in gardening, it seems like those changes are small and the adjustment to them would be easy. However, in reality, although this is our fourth spring here after we retired, we are sill adjusting to the changes. A change in location and weather is only part of the changes through which we have gone in recent years. Like the rest of the world, the Covid-19 pandemic had dramatic effects on our lives and our patterns of living. More dramatic, however, was moving away from dear friends. We lived in Rapid City for 25 years and we have wonderful friends there. It has taken time to develop new friendships in our new home. We are beginning to develop some deep friendships here, but it still takes a lot of effort and those relationships are not as natural as our South Dakota friendships became over the years.

Holy Week has long been a time for me to focus on grief and I have used the remembrance of the events of the last week of Jesus’ earthly life as a way to draw together my own experiences of grief and loss. These days, I am aware of the grief that comes from a move and a major life change. It was clearly time for us to retire, and we needed to move away from the church that needs to develop new leadership and towards our family that is an important part of our support network as we age. Still, there is much loss and grief in having made those big life changes. I still miss work and we miss the people and community of the church we served in Rapid City.

Life moves on. Spring comes again. The flowers bloom. And the promise of resurrection lies just around the corner. When Easter comes, the blooming tulips will treat us with a reminder that loss and grief, thought always present, are not the final words on our spirits. And that is good news.

Holy Week

Palm Sunday has been a big deal in my life since I was a child. Our dad was a farm boy who made his living with airplanes and selling farm machinery, but he always had an interest in raising animals. One of his hobby farming ventures was raising donkeys. When he got our first donkey, the forest service was still using donkeys and mules and pack animals to service remote locations, built trails, and other jobs in the backcountry. He had a half interest in a male donkey and so our Jenny was bred from time to time. Gestation for a donkey is about a year, so he would try to arrange things with our donkey so that she might give birth to a colt in time for the colt to make an appearance in church for Palm Sunday. It didn’t aways work out. Some years the colt was late. One colt, who we named Hallelujah and called Lulu, was born on Easter morning. That year all we had for palm Sunday was one very pregnant and quite wide donkey. A few times things worked out and we were able to take a young colt to church to play the part in a Palm Sunday pageant.

I have known the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem in triumph, riding on a donkey with people waving palm branches to greet him, for as long as I can remember. It was one of those “when we always” events in our lives. I think that the usual practice in our church when I was growing up was for a regular worship service with a bit of extra pageantry for Pam Sunday, a somber communion service on Maundy Thursday, a community Good Friday service win which several congregations joined together, and special Easter services. It was our tradition to participate in an Easter sunrise service that took place at the edge of airport hill. Because our father worked at the airport, we were familiar with the location and were used to going there early in the morning. Easter, however was different. We had thermos bottles of hot chocolate and our father would make a bonfire around which people would gather for the service. There would be a second service at the regular time and often an Easter egg hunt after the regular service. Some years, the Easter Egg hunt was held on the day before Easter.

As a pastor, I began to pay close attendance to who attended Holy Week services. Attendance at church was generally large on Palm Sunday and on Easter and pretty light at midweek services. After years of being a pastor, I began to think of Holy Week as an opportunity to offer special ministry to families who were experiencing loss and grief. More and more, I grew to see the week as a time of preparation and practice for occasions of grief. Everyone experiences loss at some time in their lives. When a death occurs, immediate family members of the deceased person tend to drop everything for a week or more and focus on the process of grieving, preparing a funeral service, and sharing grief with family and community. I began to see Holy Week as a time to practice for those events. Spending a week focusing on Jesus death in preparation for Easter celebrations became a way to help people learn about the reality that we all will one day face. I started to emphasize Holy Week services and activities.

For many years we followed the practice of the Revised Common Lectionary called Palm and Passion Sunday. We would start the Palm Sunday service with the readings of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and include a longer than usual reading of scripture that told the entire story of Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion. I practiced dramatic reading of the story and some years involved other readers in the presentation. This was, in part, a response to the fact that attendance was good on Palm Sunday and Easter, but light for midweek services. By reading the passion texts on Palm Sunday more members of the congregation heard the story of the events of holy week and had them as preparation for the celebration of Easter.

At some point, however, I felt that the service of Palm and Passion was becoming an awful lot to process in a single worship service. The services seemed excessively full and often ran very long. We decided to try a different approach. Our plan was to have some special event on every day of Holy Week and to promote attendance at at least one Holy Week event for each member and friend of the congregation. On Palm Sunday we focused on the Palm Sunday story only. On holy Monday, we read the passion narrative in its entirety. Tuesday was reserved for music and meditation and became the occasion of a blues concert in the later years of my career. Wednesday was a time for families and included a meal. Some years we held a kind of a wake meal for Jesus, telling stories of Jesus life over a simple meal. I would recruit storytellers in advance who might tell a biblical story about Jesus, or who might tell a personal story of how Jesus had become important in that person’s life. Then one year as our relationship with the Synagogue of the Hills developed, lay leaders from the Synagogue became leaders of a Seder Meal that was celebrated as an opportunity to teach congregational members about Judaism and think about what Jesus’ practice of the Seder as a faithful Jew might have been.

Maundy Thursday was an opportunity for a traditional communion service, often with special music by the choir. Some years the choir prepared a cantata for that evening’s service. Some years we had a dramatic service with costumes and lay leaders playing the part of disciples as we constructed a tableau of the last supper.

A noontime Good Friday service developed over the years into a kind of modified stations of the cross service with movement and special prayers. After a couple of years of personal and family grief that started with the death of one of my brothers in the spring of 2010 and continued with the death of my mother in January of 2011 and Susan’s father on Ash Wednesday of that same year, I wrote a new Good Friday liturgy of readings and prayers in 2012. I continued to revise that service and those prayers for the rest of my career.

Holy Saturday featured a shortened version of the Great Vigil of Easter and Easter Sunday included a sunrise service, a breakfast, and a large Easter service.

After we went to that practice of events every day of Holy Week, we kept careful attendance records, including the names of every person that we could identify who attended Holy Week events. We discovered that the attendance at the midweek services grew each year and soon total midweek attendance exceeded the usual large attendance on Easter Sunday.

The practice continued until the Pandemic shut down all of our in person services during Holy Week of 2020, which was also the year that we retired.

I confess that since that time Holy Week has been a bit of a letdown for me. The congregation to which we now belong has only a very lightly attended service on Palm Sunday, and a small service on Good Friday. Neither seem to be the passion of worship leaders and tend to lack the passion and energy we used to find during the week when we were pastors. At no point is the passion story read in its entirety. In fact, the readings of scripture are shortened and less focused than even recommended in the lectionary.

I know that it is not the role of a retired pastor to criticize actively serving pastors, but i confess that I find the lack of energy and commitment of the pastors who are currently serving the congregations I have known and loved to be disappointing. I approach Holy Week with a sense of disappointment, which may, in fact, be appropriate. I suspect Jesus’ first disciples approached the week with dread. The week continues to have much to teach me.

A wedding story

I am not much of a fan of television and I rarely watch programs. I don’t have anything against television, and I realize that it can be a powerful media for storytelling. I know that there are some significant artists who invest in its production and there are many people who enjoy the work of teams of writers, actors, directors, and producers. For me it is a simple matter of how I prefer to invest my time. I have lots of things that I enjoy in which I invest a lot of time. Reading is one of those things. Most of the time, my imagination is fully engaged by a book and I’ll choose reading over watching television.

Despite my lack of interest in television and the corresponding lack of interest in entertainment news, a story on BBC about a television show caught my attention. It involves some of the actors in the Netflix television series Stranger Things, which has been airing since 2016. I’ve never watched a single episode. According to the Internet, the story focuses on a small town’s response to an incident in which a young boy vanishes. Stories in the series uncover a mystery involving secret experiments, terrifying supernatural forces and a strange little girl. The description doesn’t particularly make me want to view episodes of the program. What caught my attention is that one of the star actors in the series is getting married and has announced that her co-star will officiate at the ceremony.

Actor Millie Bobby Brown is engaged to marry Jake Bongiovi, the son of Jon Bon Jovi. Actor Matthew Modine has said he will officiate at the ceremony. In the series, he plays the papa of Brown’s character Eleven. “I have one of those licenses to get people married, and Millie thought it’d be great, and then Jake said it would be a great idea,” he said. He added that the couple “loved what I wrote for them to join hands and to become husband and wife.”

The 65-year-old Modine said he had only officiated at one wedding ceremony before, adding that it was “such a beautiful thing to be able to join two people in holy matrimony.”

Over the years I’ve known of several people who have become officiants for weddings without formal training for that role. Secular weddings, without the official sanction of church bodies are common and as far as I know have resulted in some lasting and meaningful marriages. There are people who officiate at weddings as a sideline income. My brother, who has no formal theological training obtained a certificate from some mail-order place and officiated at a couple of wedding ceremonies.

On the other hand, by the time I was 65 years old, I had officiated at hundreds of weddings. I did, however, invest four years in undergraduate school and four years of graduate education, including courses in counseling and worship planning. I served as in intern in a marriage and family counseling practice and under the supervision of mentors authorized by the American Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, conducted many hours of counseling with couples. However, my track record with weddings roughly follows the trends of our society. A significant number of the weddings at which I officiated ended in divorce. I have, however, also officiated at the baptism and confirmation of the children of couples who continue to be happily married after I was involved in their wedding ceremony. Not long ago, I officiated at a vow renewal ceremony for a couple who were married in front of me 25 years before. I know other couples who have been married for 40 years and more at whose weddings I officiated. Another thing that I have to offer couples is the experience of one who has been blessed with a joyful and successful marriage.

I am a proponent of the laws that allow those who are not officially sanctioned by a church to officiate at weddings. I think it is an important part of the separation of church and state that makes for strong independent churches and fairness in democracies. The government should not be in the business of who is and who is not qualified to officiate at a wedding. So if you ask me if an actor should be allowed to sign a marriage license, I would say, “yes, if all parties agree.” That seems to be the case in the coming wedding of the television actor.

Furthermore there is a long-standing agreement in the church that the holiness of a ceremony is the product of God, and not dependent on the worthiness of the human officiant. Sacred commitments can be made before those who are not properly prepared for their role.

Still, I am grateful that I went through significant preparation and education before I was authorized to officiate at weddings. I think that I offered the couples with whom I worked valuable experience as a trained counselor as they prepared to make their vows and as a skilled and experienced crafter of church services and ceremonies. I learned to offer words that were meaningful not only to the couple, but also to their guests. I put in hard work getting to know couples and crafting for them ceremonies that were meaningful and reflected their unique relationships.

To be honest, I think that there are elements that trained and authorized ministers can offer to couples that are not offered by those who have simply picked up a license by filling in an online form. A trained actor might be capable of writing meaningful words and probably will do a good job of public speaking at the ceremony. There is, I believe, more to the job of an officiant than being good at saying beautiful words. I’ve attended enough secular marriage ceremonies to know that it is common for them to use words that have been traditional for generations. The difference is that I know the history of those ceremonies and the sources of particular choices of words. I know the difference between vows of intention and vows of commitment. I understand that it is no me that makes a couple married. It is not a ceremony or the presence of an official license that creates a marriage.

One of the joys of being retired is that I can release the official role. I know others will be the officiants at weddings I will attend in the future and I’m comfortable with that. God is not limited by the institutional rules of the church. God is fully capable of being present in ceremonies held outside the church by inexperienced officiants. I pray that God will be present in the ceremony of the young actor and her famous fiancé. May they be blessed with love for all of their lives.

Planning and preparing food

I’ve never been one to use coupons for savings. When I lived in South Dakota, I went to the same place for car service for many years. After a few years of being a loyal customer, the service department started to apply available coupons to the work i had done, saving me the hassle of paying attention to the coupons I received in the mail. The increase in the price of automobile repairs that came with the Covid pandemic left me paying attention to auto service coupons and I now have a place on my desk where I keep them to sort through each time I schedule service for a vehicle. Often I throw away many of them because their dates have expired, but from time to time I find coupons that save me tens of dollars.

I also have started paying attention to flyers we receive in the mail each week from a local grocery store. Clipping coupons from those flyers can result in significant savings. Because the coupons in the fliers are only good for a week, I simply save the flyers and clip coupons I think I can use just before I leave for the store. I don’t keep clippings after the trip, simply look for the appropriate week’s coupons when planning a trip to the store. This week, I saved nearly $30, about 1/3 of the total receipt, on a trip to the store. Of course those savings are only on paper. The pre-coupon prices in the store may be higher than those in other stores. There are probably some items that I simply would not have purchased were it not for the coupons. We are careful not to waste food. We make good use of the things I bring home and most of the food I purchased was produce that we’ll likely eat within a week.

One of the things I got at a significant discount was lean sirloin steak tip pieces. The package had enough for about eight meals for Susan and I, so I divided the meat into two packages and froze one. The other pieces I cooked on our outdoor grill and we had half of them for dinner one night and the second half the next night with different sides each evening.

What was nice was that it was the first time in a long time that I cooked outdoors. Having some fancy cuts of meat was incentive enough for me to fire up the grill. When I retired, I assumed that I would cook outdoors more often than I did before I retired. However, what I discovered is that I’m not inclined to do so when it is dark at the time I’m preparing dinner, something that is the case in the depths of winter. However, with the help of daylight savings time there is plenty of daylight to prepare dinner and even enough to take a walk after the dinner dishes are cleaned up these days. So prime outdoor grilling time has returned for this year.

I am by no means a gourmet cook. We prefer basic meals with lots of fresh produce and ingredients that are locally sourced as much as possible. I confess that i do indulge in avocados and oranges and other foods that have traveled long distances before they make it to my plate, but our move to Washington means I also have access to abundant local apples year round and we have berries and fruit from our son’s orchard and cherries from the tree in our back yard. Our cherries from last year filled our freezer and we still have some left. Susan made cherry pies for pi day last week from frozen cherries and I often tap a few for my oatmeal in the morning.

I don’t have a fancy grill. I cooked almost exclusively with charcoal until we moved. I sold our grill on a yard sale and did not move it, so I used our camping grill for the first couple of years after we moved and now have upgraded to a larger three-burner camping grill. The one piece of equipment that I find most useful for outdoor cooking is a good meat thermometer. Because of the high temperatures of grilling, some meant thermometers have proven to be short lived. However, I have found one that has been reliable for several years now. I use it for almost every type of meat that I cook on the grill. I can grill burgers without the device, but use it for salmon (a delicacy that is available fresh from the fishers here), chicken, and most beef dishes that I grill. I also have learned to grill vegetables, including potatoes and sweet potatoes.

Writing about the return of grilling season has stirred my appetite and I am already planning a menu for tonight’s dinner. I’ve got all of the necessary ingredients in the house, but will need to remember to thaw the salmon I plan to grill. A feast is in process.

Being in my seventies means that I have to pay attention to how much I feast. One of my retirement goals was to lose weight and I’ve been successful in losing weight and keeping it off. I still want to lose a bit more, but that will come. In the meantime, paying attention to portion size is important as well as making sure that there are lots of fruits and vegetables in my diet. My retirement lifestyle allows plenty of time for movement and exercise and we have a routine of daily walking that aids with my attempts to remain healthy.

Being retired has allowed me to invest more time and energy into meal planning and preparation. Part of my struggles with being overweight for most of my working career is that my schedule was so busy that I often didn’t make time to focus my attention on thoughtful eating. I ate what I could when I could and often allowed convenience to take precedence.

So I’ll keep paying attention to those coupons when heading to the store. Who knows what bargains will end up on the menu next week.


I think that when I thought of retirement, I anticipated that I would have a lot of unstructured time. I would be able to pursue my interests as they arose without the schedule that is a part of everyday work life. I am discovering, however, that even without the structure of getting up and going to work every day, I continue to build routines into my life. I don’t use an alarm to wake very often, but I continue to be an early riser. I am especially prone to rising early when I have a significant event in a day. My wife has learned to adjust to my desire to arrive early for every appointment and event. I am no longer the first person to enter the church building on Sunday mornings, but I’m often the third, arriving before any other lay people, and often before all of the staff have arrived. It feels familiar and comfortable for me.

I have developed routines for many days. Some days I am eager to get to the farm to do a bit of work. Some days I have a medical or dental appointment. Some days I have planned to grocery shop and refill the pantry. Sometimes i have an errand that takes me into Bellingham. Some days we head down to Mount Vernon to visit the library and perhaps have lunch with our son. Some days we have invited guests to dinner and I have a bit of extra cleaning or meal preparation to do.

However, my schedule is definitely more flexible than once was the case. When someone proposes a meeting, I’m usually available. I keep a calendar just to keep things straight, but there are days when I don’t consult it.

Every once in a while, however, for whatever reason, I break my routine. That is happening this morning for some reason. Usually, when I wake for the first time in the night, after having slept for a few hours, I get up and write my journal entry. I usually scan the headlines on the BBC website and the New York Times. Sometimes I have a topic in mind in advance and the writing comes easy. Other times, I struggle to get started with my entry, trying to come up with a topic that is somehow fresh. I don’t want to bore those who read my journal. I’m aware that like many things in the life of one my age, there is a certain amount of repetition. There are topics to which I return over and over. There are probably sentences and phrases that I have written before, though I try to keep things fresh enough to be interesting.

Today, I rose a bit earlier than usual because I have an 8:30 appointment in Bellingham. I got up, did my morning routines, and got dressed. l had prepared my breakfast ahead of time win anticipation of an early departure, so I had time to read a book as I sat at the table and ate. After I ate I lingered for a bit to read a couple of extra pages, got up and took care of my dishes, and since it was still too early to leave for the day, I went to my desk and turned on my computer. As I sat down, I realized that I had not yet read the days headlines. My browser defaults to my website, so I checked, with a bit of panic, my own journal. And there was no entry for today! Somehow in the night, I completely forgot to write my journal entry. This is not something that is common for me. I’ve been writing and publishing my journal on my website every day since 2007. When I have a particularly busy time in my life, I occasionally will write an entry the day before to speed up the next morning, but I can’t remember every simply forgetting to write at all.

At least I have a topic for today’s entry. And, fortunately, I have time to write before I head off for the rest of my day. Readers who are in the Central of Eastern time zones may have already checked and discovered that there is no entry up for today. Hopefully, they will be able to return later to discover that I didn’t just skip the day entirely.

I know that the day will come when I am no longer to publish my journal. However, that day seems to be a long way away for me. It really isn’t that much effort to write a personal essay and it helps me process the things that are going on in my life. And, for now, the minimal expense of maintaining a web site is not a financial burden for me.

When I first retired, I envisioned that I would take time to organize all of my journal archives. I developed a way of creating large .pdf documents to replace the individual entries in my files. I streamlined the way that I made older entries available. I started with my first published entries and, for a while, was making steady progress. However, I haven’t worked on that project for months. Other things seem to take precedence. And, it appears, going back through old journal entries isn’t all that interesting for me. I lived those experiences and don’t seem to have much need to return to them. I do think that there are a few entries that are worth saving. If I got organized there is probably a collection of essays that would make an interesting book with a little editing. That seems to be a project for the future somehow, and projects for the future sometimes are never accomplished.

For today, I’ve already shaken up my routine. Things are a bit out of order. I doubt that it will have much of an impact on my day. I’m taking my truck to the shop, and they will give me a ride to the church where I will meet with people and work in the church library until I get the call that it is time to pick up the truck.

Life goes on - even when I fall out my routine.

Automotive alphabetics

For decades, cars have been equipped with on-board diagnostic systems (OBD). The heart of the system is an engine control unit (ECU). Ending control units have been around for decades. The earlier units were mechanical-hydraulic devices installed in aircraft engines in the late 1930s. They were capable of controlling multiple systems, mainly the ignition and fuel systems and designed to optimize engine performance as well as provide redundancy. Those early aircraft ECUs controlled a system of dual spark plugs for each cylinder. If one spark plug failed, or if the magneto that a controlled that set of spark plugs failed, there was a completely separate magneto and set of spark plugs to provide ignition for the engine. Those ECUs also controlled fuel flow in relationship to the pressures created by the valves in the engine. Modern ECUs, however, are essentially digital computers that monitor a variety of functions by being connected to sensors installed in various places in the engine. They have their origins in attempts to control air pollution by insuring that engines run at optimal efficiency.

In addition to the ECU, modern OBD systems have multiple sensors installed to monitor the fuel injection, ignition, idle speed, valve timing and other main functions. In addition, there are sensors to monitor the position of the camshaft, various temperatures in the engine and exhaust, the amount of oxygen in the exhaust, manifold pressure (MAP), speed, and other functions. The ECU takes information from the sensors and uses it to control a variety of actuators that do things like control fuel flow and fuel pressure, act as a governor for high engine speeds, open and close valves and more. Data from the ECU is outputted through two devices. One is a diagnostic port, where a computer can be connected to read codes produced by the ECU and enable technicians to determine what repairs are necessary for optimal performance. The other is an orange light on the dashboard that usually has a symbol for the engine and the words “Check Engine.” The light doesn’t mean that the driver of the car can see or do anything by opening the hood of the car and looking at the engine. Rather it is an indication that a technician needs to connect a computer to the diagnostic port to determine what repairs are needed. For the most part, there is little that a typical consumer can do to respond to a check engine light other than take the vehicle to a shop where they have a code reader, interpret its data, and make adjustments and repairs. Among the adjustments and repairs is a way of connecting an external computer through the port to set the parameters of the various sensors and actuators for optimal engine tuning.

Operators who see the check engine light do not need to curtail the current trip, but rather should schedule service at the next available opportunity. Most of the time a check engine light appears on the dash not because there is a malfunction of the engine or its major systems, but rather because of a malfunction of one of the sensors. Oxygen sensor are particularly prone to failure. Some of the things that cause the check engine light to appear do not affect the running of the engine and the vehicle can be operated with the light illuminated without causing additional damage.

I had a 1997 Nissan pickup that was prone to oxygen sensor failure. It went to the dealer over and over again and most times what was needed was replacement of the sensor. After many miles and many dollars spent, I learned to ignore the check engine light. I drove that pickup over 40,000 miles with the check engine light shining on the dashboard. When I sold it through a private party transaction, the customer was an auto technician who wasn’t put off by the warning light on the dashboard and paid my asking price willingly.

We also had a 1999 Subaru that I drove over 120,000 miles with the check engine light illuminated. I bought an inexpensive OBD code reader that I could use to not only plug into the port and read the code, which wasn’t consistent, but also to reset the system and turn off the dashboard light temporarily. Since I didn’t really know the meaning of the various codes displayed on my reader, it wasn’t much help, but sometimes I could reset the system and drive without a dashboard light for a couple of days before it returned.

The pickup that we currently own first displayed its check engine light when I was pulling a trailer in northern Montana where there were no dealers nearby. I called ahead on our planned route to the west coast from South Dakota and could not find a dealer who could schedule service to even read the code within a week. Since we were on a vacation with a time schedule, I ended up finding a dealer that could get to the truck at our destination in Burlington, Washington. I pulled five mountain passes with a camping trailer behind with that light shining on the dashboard. The repair was expensive and didn’t last all the way home. We returned from that vacation with the light illuminated. A dealer at our home made a more lasting repair. The light returns periodically, usually at an inconvenient time, and generally is due to a problem in the exhaust system which is pretty complex on modern diesel trucks. The result is that the truck runs and drives well, but is polluting more than optimal. The solution generally is very expensive, costing hundreds of dollars pre-pandemic and generally over a thousand dollars in current post-pandemic inflation pricing.

The light is on again. I have an appointment on Thursday for it to be checked by a shop that I trust. I’ve got my fingers crossed that it won’t be an expensive repair, but won’t know until they connect the computer. I continue to be tempted to just drive the thing with the light on, but I know that isn’t responsible and I want the truck to last for many more miles and many more years.

The cynic in me wonders if the manufacturer has designed the system to fail periodically to keep cash flowing into dealership service departments. I know people who own trucks like mine who have illegally removed the emissions systems to avoid the dashboard lights. I’m not inclined to do that. Still, as much as I understand about the system, it continues to mystify and annoy me. And I’m at the age that I get a bit nostalgic for the cars we owned before ECUs and OBDs and the rest of automotive alphabet soup. In reality they weren’t better than our modern vehicles, but in my memory they seem so.


According to the Farmer’s Almanac, the vernal equinox, the official start date for the season of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, is today at 8:06 pm (Pacific Daylight Time). The Eve of Spring was a poetry prompt at our poetry group last night. Each of us was allowed four minutes to write a poem on the topic. Here is what I came up with:

On the Eve of Spring
Spring’s eve might be spring
Might be summer
Might be winter
Spring’s eve might mean planting
Might mean kite flying
Might mean snow shoveling
Spring’s eve might bring raindrops
Might bring windchill
Might bring sunshine
Good thing for calendars
So I know that today is
Spring’s eve!

Most of the poems of our group made note of the fickle nature of Spring. I took a few minutes to tell the group of Northwesterners about spring blizzards in South Dakota where we saw significant snow as late as Mother’s Day in our 25 years there. Snow wasn’t in our forecast here yesterday. The high temperature was nearly 60 degrees with bright sunshine. We’ve had a week of sunny days now and yesterday we had time to get out into the yard and do some planting. I put in some huckleberry and elderberry plants in the back yard and we planted lavender and heather in the front along with a few herbs in our herb garden. We picked up the plants at the county native plant sale on Saturday and it was time to get them into the ground. We haven’t planted our seed crops yet and our dahlia tubers are still packed away in the garage, so I’ve still got some planting left. We like to plant lettuce in groups so that we get a longer harvest. The peas can go into their place by a trellis where they flourished last year. And the flowering bedding plants and tomatoes have not yet come from the master gardener from whom we’ve been purchasing them for the past few years. There is plenty of work in the garden coming in the next few weeks.

And, surprisingly to me since I have not yet adjusted to our new climate even after four years, the lawn needs to be mowed and trimmed. Our lawn here is very small compared with the lawn we had in South Dakota. I can mow and trim in less than a half hour here compared with the two hour job I used to have. On the other hand, lawn mowing season is much longer here, so I get to do it a lot more times each year. Our lawn remained green throughout the winter with only an occasional dusting of snow. We did get one storm that dumped enough to require serious shoveling this winter and it came with enough wind to leave some significant, nearly South Dakota sized, drifts.

The date of the average end of frost arrived last week on the Ides of March. Of course averages don’t give you the precise date for any given year. I still remember and tell the story of the spring of 1981, when we lived in North Dakota and spring fever got the best of me so that I planted two sets of tomatoes that both were killed by frost before finally succeeding with the third set of plants I put out that year.

The task of gardening, however, is much easier here than in the Dakotas. Where we lived in North Dakota was plant hardiness zone 3b. That means that the low temperature was -35 to -30, which is pretty cold. Hardiness zone spans from the coastal areas of Alaska, the southern regions of Canada and northernmost US states to northern Europe, northern interior China. Rapid City, South Dakota, where we lived for 25 years, is Zone 5a (minimum temperatures -20 to -15). We thought we’d moved to quite bit warmer place when we got there, though we spent a decade in Boise, Idaho (hardiness Zone 6b; -5 to 0). But none of those places compare to our current home in Blaine which is hardiness zone 8b (15 to 20 degrees). Of course that means that houses are not as well insulated and we’ve had more issues with cold weather and plumbing here than we had in our Dakota homes. The first winter we lived in our current home, we had a pipe in our uninsulated garage freeze and burst. I was so amazed that they ran uninsulated pipes on an outside wall in an unheated and uninsulated garage that it caught me off guard. I’ve learned to drain that pipe in the winter and have avoided the problem since.

So spring officially arrives today and what that means is different depending on where you live. However, no matter where you live, spring weather is fickle. Even if winters and summers are predictably cold and warm, spring and fall are seasons of variable weather. The variety makes for interesting and I think fun times. I enjoy being surprised by the weather. I also enjoy not having to have my parka along when I head out. A sweatshirt in my pickup is enough for many days around here, and I didn’t need any jacket at all when I was working digging in the yard yesterday. If it seems a bit warm, which really doesn’t happen until summer around here, we can always walk a few minutes to the beach to enjoy a refreshing sea breeze. The prevailing wind is onshore, so it is always cooler on the beach that it is up the hill at our house.

Even in places where winter persists for months yet, there is enough change in the air at the beginning of spring to give the folks hope and get them to thinking about warmer weather and more outdoor activities. It may not quite be time to put out all of the plants around here yet, but it is close enough to get us to thinking and planning for summer gardening.

May spring bring you joy regardless of the weather.

Old treasures

Last night we had friends over for dinner. After the meal we retired to our living room where I was sitting on a comfortable rocking chair next to the fireplace. The weather has been warm this week and there was no need for a fire, but the chair is still a very comfortable place to sit and visit with friends. One of our friends commented on the cain-backed chair and Susan told them that the chair had been in her grandparents’ home. Her grandfather repaired cain furniture and he taught that skill to her father and to me. This chair was one that he had repaired many years ago. The seat bottom is an upholstered cushion. A year or so ago, we had a new cushion made for the chair covered with fabric that we had that matches some throw pillows that sit on our sofa. We kept the original cushion that was on the chair when it came from her grandparents’ home. It is stuffed with sawdust.

The chair is one of several antiques that are part of our home. Often, however, we don’t think of them as antiques. They are simply useful items for which we aren’t the original owners. A chair in our study is even older than the rocking chair in the living room. Our dining room table was in Susan’s parents’ home before it came to ours and it wasn’t new when they got it.

There are a lot of things that serve well for generations. While we have some furniture that was new to us, most of the furnishings in our home started their life in other homes. Most of the vehicles we have owned were purchased used. We have a very happy life and we don’t feel deprived at all. We simply have never felt the need to be the owners of a lot of things that are new.

In a subtle way, however, we are counter cultural for contemporary America. If you pay attention to the advertisements, shopping and buying new things is an important part of our nation’s economy. We have several friends the age of our children who have households full of furniture that is less than a decade old. Sometimes I wonder what will happen to the antiques in our home when we no longer have need of them. Will the next generations have any desire to have those special items?

Normally, the antique clocks in our home are the topic of conversation with family and friends. However, at the moment none of them are running. A piece of string connecting a weight on an old clock that has been very reliable broke Saturday evening. It will be an easy repair. I think that I can replace the string. If not, we’ll find a clock repair shop that can do it. Another clock needs cleaning and adjustment that I am not able to do myself and will hire someone to do it. However, we have only lived in this area for a few years and we have not yet found a clock repair shop. There aren’t many left with technicians who know how to repair old mechanical clocks. It is simple to find someone to replace a battery in a modern watch or clock, but repair of mechanical clocks is becoming a lost art. It makes me a bit sad because machines that were built to last centuries are becoming increasingly rare.

We purchased smart watches after Susan was treated for atrial fibrillation a few years ago. I still think of the devices as new. They work as designed and should last for some time, but I don’t know how long. Our watches are labeled by the manufacturer as “series 5.” The current models are series 9. I think that the company has released updates each year since we purchased ours. There are so many modern technological devices that seem to be obsolete as soon as they are purchased.

The typewriter that I received as a gift upon completion of high school served us well through four years of college, four years of graduate school, and seven years as parish pastors before we purchased our first computer. That typewriter was still functioning normally when we finally gave it away thirty five years later. In contrast, the computers we now use rarely last more than ten years before they need to be replaced. And we keep our computers longer than most people. I am amused by technicians and sales people who refer to perfectly usable devices as “dated” or “old.”

Like many others, I am saddened by our throw-away society. We are perfectly capable of designing objects that will last for generations. There are repair strategies for many items that are typically discarded when they stop working. And there are plenty of items that will easily serve for long periods of time that people want to discard. In contrast to where we have previously lived, here it is common for people who have a useful item that they want to discard to put it out on the street in front of their home with a sign that says “free.” We’ve seen all kinds of furniture and many appliances as well as toys and other items placed out that way. Some are quickly picked up by someone, but many sit in the same location for days and weeks. The system seems to be very inefficient. I’m sure that many items never find a new home and end up in the landfill.

I’m not inclined to do much shopping. We have reached a stage in our life where we have what is required to live comfortably. There are few items that we need. In fact we know that our future will involve downsizing and shedding some of the possessions that we now own. We currently have an antique bed that is stored in our garage because we own more beds than bedrooms. I hate to get rid of that special piece of furniture, but know that it probably won’t seem precious to anyone else. I can’t stand the thought of it ending up in the landfill.

I keep hoping that one of our grandchildren will develop a love of old things. We have enough to share.

St. Patricks Day

I’ve never been too focused on St. Patrick’s Day. Although I have some English and Scotts heritage on my mother’s side of the family we were taught, “If we have any Irish ancestors, they would have been Protestant and would not have been into wearing green for St. Patrick’s Day.” On the other hand, our father was a John Deere dealer when I was in elementary school and I had access to plenty of clothing with green and yellow logos. Wearing green on St. Patrick’s day was a good way to avoid being pinched and enough motivation for me to pay attention to the day.

As I grew older, I didn’t pay much attention to the holiday. In our first parish, I worked part time at a small town radio station. My boss there had an Irish name and Irish heritage and loved to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. I usually found something green to wear for the day, but I wasn’t much for the parties held at the local bars. A minister entering a bar would have raised eyebrows at that time in that small town.

Over the years I just haven’t paid much attention to the holiday. However, this year, I am prepared to wear green for St. Patrick’s day. After Christmas this year, I did a bit of shopping for clothing and ended up purchasing a few new dress shirts. I’m not sure why it captured my imagination to buy new dress shirts. I don’t have many occasions to dress up now that I am retired. I do generally dress up on Sundays, however. Although casual dress is the norm in the church we attend, I enjoy an opportunity to dress up a bit. I decided to purchase dress shirts that were solid colors in the liturgical colors. One of those shirts is a green shirt. Green is the color of the season following Pentecost, commonly known as ordinary time. Green is the most used liturgical color. When we were active pastors we ended up with more green stoles than other colors simply because we wore green the most often. Having a new green shirt, I noticed a sale on St. Patrick’s ties while looking at an online advertisement for a tie company with which I have done business over the years. On a whim I ordered a tie with shamrocks on it and suddenly I have an outfit for St. Patrick’s Day. In retrospect, I am wondering about the wisdom of purchasing the tie. I’m not sure that I will often have occasion to wear it. It seems a bit too specific for everyday use. St. Patrick’s Day doesn’t fall on a Sunday very often. So, it seems like I need to wear it today in order to justify the purchase.

It isn’t the first time I’ve wasted money and clothing that didn’t get worn very often and, frankly, a tie is a minor fashion accessory. On the other hand, these days it isn’t hard to spend more on a tie than I spend on a shirt.

There is another reason to pay a bit of attention to St. Patrick’s Day. We now have a grandson who is named Patrick. His father’s family are Roman Catholic and the days of saints were emphasized in his growing up. Our grandson’s other grandfather has emphasized St. Patrick’s Day with cards and greetings for Patrick.

Saint Patrick was a Christian missionary and bishop in Ireland during the fifth century. He lived before the current laws of the Catholic church in regards to the formal recognition of saints and therefore never went through the canonization process. He is a saint by tradition rather than formal church processes. He is credited by some as having driven all of the snakes out of Ireland, though there is no evidence of snakes being present before his time. He is also credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland though there is evidence that he wasn’t the first to bring or practice Christianity in Ireland.

He wrote a biography titled Confessio. In it he reports being taken from his home in Britain as a slave when he was sixteen. He worked there as a herder before escaping and returning to his family. after he became a priest and returned to Ireland where he spread Christianity in northern and western Ireland. He later served as a bishop, but little is known about where he worked. However, within a couple of hundred years of his death he was widely recognized as the patron saint of Ireland.

As is the case with other saints, the day of celebration of Patrick is the reported day of his death. March 17 is celebrated in Ireland and among Irish people worldwide as a religious and cultural holiday.

One spring when we lived in Chicago a group of students from our seminary too a trip to present a workshop in a congregation in Kansas. We traveled to and from that church in a rented car. It fell to me to be the one to return the rental car. The location of the return was in downtown Chicago and the day was St. Patrick’s Day. I hadn’t thought much about the holiday until I was trapped in heavy traffic trying to reach the rental company. St. Patrick’s Day is a big deal in Chicago. They paint the center stripes on the streets green in honor of the day. They pour die into the Chicago River to turn it bright Kelly green. After the annual parade, the downtown area of the city turns into one large street party. It took hours to return that rental car. When we got on the train to go back to our university apartment, however, our train was nearly empty. Everyone, it seemed, was going the opposite direction.

It has been a long time since that occurred. I’ve told the story so many times that it feels worn out. So perhaps I need a new St. Patrick’s story. Maybe the story of purchasing a St. Patrick’s tie and wearing it with a green shirt to church can be the beginning of that story.

Lego building

I am just a little bit too old to have had my own Lego building sets when I was a child. My brother, who is two and a half years younger than I had Lego bricks, but my childhood building sets were American Plastic Bricks, Erector Sets, and Lincoln Logs. I had a significant quantity of American Plastic Bricks. I used the red and white bricks to construct buildings to accompany my model railroad layout. My brother’s Lego bricks were a better-designed building set. They interlocked in a way that made the structures more sturdy and less likely to topple. His sets, however, were a far cry from the Lego bricks that are available today. Like my American Plastic Bricks, his sets consisted primarily of red and white bricks, mostly two sizes. While he had some special bricks for doors and windows, the toy was designed to construct buildings.

By the time our son was playing with building sets, Lego bricks had become very popular and the variety of sets and individual bricks had expanded dramatically. He had several sets that were pirate-themed, including one set that enabled him to build a pirate ship with masts and tiller and other details. There were mini-figures, the classic Lego characters with hands that could hold lego bricks. Over several years of building with the bricks, he collected a very large quantity of bricks and was able to build some impressive constructions.

Now our grandchildren are collecting bricks and Lego sets. Some of those sets are really fantastic, with all kinds of colors, lots of different characters in addition to the mini figures, and specialty bricks that enable wheels to turn, gears to mesh, and other mechanical functions to be performed.

There are Lego sets that enable children to learn about robotics, including computer programs that teach programming to children so that they can control their creations.

There are, however, things about Lego building sets that surprise and sometimes confuse me. One thing that I don’t understand are the high-end sets designed and sold to adults. For example for a mere $679.99, you can buy the 9090 piece set to build a model of the Titanic ship. $499.99 will get you the 5201 piece Avengers Tower. The Eiffel Tower set has over 10,000 pieces and will set you back $629.99. The Orient Express Train has 2540 pieces and costs $299.99. Those with more limited budgets might consider the Red London Telephone Box for $114.99 with 1460 bricks. I know all of these sets exist and their prices because my grandchildren pour over Lego catalogues and, in addition to sets designed and priced for children are pages and pages of adult sets.

What I don’t understand about these adult sets is that they appear to be designed to construct a single thing. Observing our children and grandchildren playing with Lego bricks, one of the joys of their mode of play is that once they have followed the instructions that come with sets and built the set as illustrated on the box, they can take the bricks apart and make new things with them. They can use their imaginations and construct the things they choose. Our son, when he was a bit older, started keeping the instructions for his sets in a 3-ring binder. Our grandchildren can view those instructions and can recreate those sets from the large supply of bricks that we have kept. It is not uncommon for them to engage me in searching for some of the special and less common bricks as they are building. And, when a specific brick cannot be found, they use their imaginations to construct the set in a different way, perhaps with a different color or with a variation in shape. It is all great, creative fun. Building a set and then just putting it on a shelf to look at seems to lack something by comparison.

I have noticed that our 13-year-old grandson now has several sets that he has constructed that he has not take apart and which he displays in his room. Perhaps he will one day purchase some of the more expensive sets and build them for display. Our granddaughters enjoy building the sets and then engaging in imagination play with the sets, moving the figures around and setting up scenes. Sometimes they leave a set constructed in nearly the same fashion as the original instructions, but make small changes and rearrange things as part of their play.

Another thing about the culture surrounding Lego bricks that I don’t understand are the various competitions. Building to satisfy judges instills a sense of right and wrong ways to construct sets and, in my opinion, limits creativity. But Lego competitions are very common. If you subscribe to Hulu you can watch the more than 50 episodes of Lego Masters, in which twelve teams of two compete against each other in ambitions brick-building challenges. The television series has set off a host of imitation competitions. The Whatcom Museum in Bellingham is advertising a Lego building contest for early April. Participants fill out an online form to enter the competition. As I understand the competition. entrants make their creations at home and bring them to the museum where they will be displayed and judged to determine the winners.

I’m interested in whether or not one of our grandchildren discovers the competition and will enter the competition. I’ve decided not to mention it to them, but leave it to them to discover and respond however they choose. I have mixed feelings about turning creative play into competition. Of course I will wholeheartedly support a grandchild who chooses to enter, but I have no desire to encourage them to do so. I find their free play with the bricks to be good leaning and creative time for them.

And, as I commented to them last week as I joined them in looking over the catalogues, I am not inclined to place an order for one of the expensive adult sets. I’ll leave those to others.

the Ides of March

43 years ago the Ides of March fell on a Sunday. I was scheduled to lead thee worship services that day. The first, at 9:30 am, would be in a small community 16 miles west of our home. The second would be in the church that was next door to the parsonage where we lived. The third was at the nursing home in our city. The event was fairly early in my career. I had served as every week pulpit supply for a year in a small congregation while I was a college student. I had served two internships while in graduate school. Our first call to serve as independent pastors was to two congregations in rural southwest North Dakota. Missing a worship service was a rare occasion for me. It remained rare throughout my career.

That day, however, I missed all three services.

My wife had been in labor most of the previous night. I had anticipated, when she went into labor, that the child might be born in time for me to make the services. As the time drew near, I put into place the plan that we had made for coverage for my absence. Still, I thought I might have news to deliver by phone to the worship service. I was a new father, and I didn’t really know what to expect. The time for the second service at 11:00 came and I didn’t have time to place a call.

Our son was born just past noon. Not long afterward I placed calls to the two churches whose worship services I had missed. Participants in the second service had been informed that the birth was near and were waiting after the service to hear the news. I also placed a call to the nursing home, informing them that I would be missing that service as well. I was very tired, having been awake all of the previous night. I was too excited to sleep, however. My mother had been on the road since early that morning, driving the nearly 400 miles from her home to ours to help welcome the new baby. Those were the days before cell phones, so she would receive the news when she arrived. I placed a call to Susan’s parents, who were eagerly awaiting.

Ultrasound existed in those days, but the imaging device wasn’t as detailed or accurate as it has now become. We didn’t have a clue about the gender of our son before he was born.

We were familiar with the soothsayer’s warning to Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play named for its principal character. The day had taken on a bit of a dark and gloomy connotation. But in our family, the day is one of celebration and rejoicing. We do not fear or dread its coming each year. The Ides has a non-threatening history. The sense of impending doom came with Shakespeare’s play. In Roman times, Kalends, Nones, and Ides were markers used to reference days in relation to lunar phases. Ides simply referred to the first full moon of a given month. The Roman calendar was bed on lunar cycles and the full moon usually fell between the 13th and the 15th. For the Romans, the Ides of March signified the new year, with attendant celebrations and rejoicing.

However, the calendar months and lunar months were different lengths. The length of months was an intensely political matter in ancient Rome. That is why we have ended up with some months with 31 days and February with only 28 (29 in leap year). Our modern calendar has been shifted and is no longer in sync with the lunar calendar. The last full moon was February 24, and March’s full moon won’t be for ten more days. Despite the fact that we call the 15th the Ides, the moon is a waxing crescent shining only about a third of the brightness of a full moon.

In addition, we have fallen into the practice of observing the new year in relation to the change from shortening to lengthening days in the northern hemisphere. Our New Year’s Dinner was two and a half months ago on January 1.

The sense of impending doom on the ides of March is still a bit of popular culture. Several television programs have featured stories of coming crisis in episodes designed to appear on March 15. For most people, however, the phrase “Beware the Ides of March,” is more of a bit of ancient lore from a play by The Bard. The concept of the Ides doesn’t get much traction in popular culture.

In our family, however, we note the Ides with special celebration. Of course, in the 43 years of our son’s life we have not always been able to be with him on his birthday. Sometimes we have celebrated long distance with phone calls and gifts sent through the mail. And sometimes busy schedules have meant that celebrations had to be scheduled close to the actual day of his birthday rather than on the actual day. However, we have now moved close to where our son lives and have been able to see him on his birthday for the past three years. And this year, he is able to have day off from work today so our family celebrations will focus on this day.

Dinner this evening will be at our house. We’ll prepare some of the celebration foods that he loved when he was a child. And, of course, there will be a cake. We aren’t much for eating dessert in our daily lives, but we’ll have cake and ice cream this evening. And yesterday, in celebration of Pi day, Susan baked a pie from cherries that we had harvested from our tree last summer and frozen. So it is a week of sweet treats around our house.

Time has passed. A second child came into our family. And now there are five grandchildren. Our son is the father of four. We’ve learned quite a bit about the birth of babies from that day long ago. Still, that event was momentous and life changing for us. And it remains a day worthy of celebration.

I have no fear of the Ides of March.

Getting the story straight

I love to tell stories. I have studied the art of storytelling, including taking a course for college credit that focused on the structures of storytelling. Among the text books for that course was Joseph Campbell’s “A Hero’s Journey.” I was a member of the Fellowship of Biblical Storytellers and used their journal and guidelines to hone my skills as a storyteller and preacher. Long before I became a minister, I have enjoyed telling stories of my family life and growing up. I suspect that part of the motivation that keeps me writing journal entries each day is that I enjoy good stories and this media gives me a forum to continue telling stories. Some stories, like the birth of my brother on Christmas Eve or flying over Yellowstone National Park with my father, have been told over and over and over again. I have read, and I suspect that it is true, that the stories we tell the most often are the ones that are most likely to deviate from the facts of the actual event. We naturally embellish and expand good stories, sometimes adding details that were not a part of the actual experience.

Once in a while I discover that a story I have been telling is not accurate. I do a bit of research, read an old article from the newspaper, or discover something that I had not previously known. One of the tasks that I have been tackling bit by bit recently, is sifting and sorting through my mothers papers. I have found newspaper clippings, family letters, and other documents that have given me fresh perspective on events that I recall. Often I have been recalling the events only partially and sometimes, I realize that the stories I have been telling are not the truth.

Looking through an article about area Grange Halls in a very good online publication, I discovered that a story that I’ve been telling since shortly after we moved to this area is not correct. I’ve fed family and friends false information. My only defense of the untruth is that I believed it to be true when I told the stories. And it is part of the local lore. It is a story that I have heard from people who have lived in this area much longer than I.

At the corner of Grandview Road and Vista Drive, an intersection just before we turn onto the Interstate Highway when driving to Bellingham or other nearby towns, stands the hall of Orchard Grange, No. 346. The building is in crumbling condition, needing paint and several other obvious repairs. It stands next to an open area that I presume used to provide parking for those attending Grange Hall functions. That parking area is now the regular location of a very good Taco Truck, El Tapatio. Often when I drive by that old Grange Hall, I tell visiting family and friends that the hall was the site of the first public performance by Loretta Lynn. Lynn was the hardscrabble coal miner’s daughter from Kentucky who was married at 15, began having children at 16 and was a grandmother in her early 30s. Born in a cabin in Butcher Hollow, the second of eight children, she and her husband Mooney, somehow ended up living in rural Whatcom County with a Custer address. That is the town where our grandchildren’s elementary school is located, and the area where the Grange Hall stands.

In her autobiography, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Lynn tells the story of living on Birch Bay-Lynden road, learning to can fruits and vegetables, and wining ribbons at the Northwest Washington Fair. She also tells the story of her first public performance at the Grange Hall, promoted by her husband, who heard her singing as she was working, bought her a guitar and a copy of Country Song Roundup, a magazine with chords and words to popular songs. He helped her to from her own band, Loretta’s Trailblazers, and, from their first performance at the Grange Hall, encouraged her singing career.

Here is the thing, however. That performance was never at the Orchard Grange Hall that we drive by on a regular basis. Loretta Lynn began her public singing career at another nearby Grange Hall, Delta Grange Hall, at 1105 Loomis Trail Road. Delta Grange Hall also been called the Custer Grange, though it is fairly close to another town, Lynden. Unlike the Orchard Grange, which is a seldom used hall in poor repair, the Delta Grange is a larger hall, in better repair, and currently home to Garden of Worship Church. It even has a church bell out front.

Grange halls dot rural communities throughout the country. They were meeting places for farmers organized by farmers. The National Grange was started in 1867 and Washington Grange was officially established in 1889, a couple of months before Washington achieved statehood. Granges have been around for a long time. There are six active Granges in Whatcom County. Skagit County has 10.

150 years later, Grange halls are, for the most part, no longer centers of community activity. Fewer and fewer of the residents of the county are full-time farmers. Our son’s place, which once was the center of an active dairy herd and a full time occupation for a family, now is a part-time pursuit of a couple who both have professional jobs in neighboring towns. Farm after farm in this region have been subdivided. Driving around the backroads of our county, it is fairly easy to spot the homes that belong to executives of high tech companies in Seattle. The Covid-19 pandemic, which expanded opportunities for people to work remotely, encouraged many to move farther from urban centers and a lot of farm land in our county has become more hobby farms. And those people don’t find their entertainment in the local dances and bands held at the Grange Hall. They don’t attend sessions on animal husbandry or soil stewardship sponsored by the State Department of Agriculture. They are not interested in classes offered by the Extension Service. And the Grange organizations are slowly fading away. Many of the halls, like the Delta Grange are being leased to others for different uses.

For now, however, Orchard Grange Hall sits unused. I will, however, be updating my story and no longer tell others that it is the place where the famous singer Loretta Lynn began her career. I may, however, use it as a prompt to tell the story about Delta Grange.

Where we live

For people who aren’t familiar with the State of Washington, it is a bit difficult to explain exactly where we live. I frequently describe our home as in the northwest corner of the state. For those who are unfamiliar with our State, it probably is an adequate description since we live within a 15 minute walk of the ocean and a 15 minute drive of the Canadian border. However, the western border of Washington is not a straight line. Because of the shape of the West Coast, there is a lot of Washington that is west of where we live. I’m pretty sure that the people of live on the Neah Reservation at Neah Bay could claim that they live in the Northwestern corner of the state even though they live considerably south of our location. They have Canada immediately to the north of them and have water to both the north and west. Neah Bay is at the tip of the Olympic Peninsula.

The Salish Sea is connected to the Pacific Ocean to the west by the Straight of Juan De Fuca and extends south as far as the state capital, Olympia, in what is known as the Puget Sound. The border with Canada follows the 49th Parallel until it reaches the Salish sea where we live, Then it makes a zig zag south and west, wandering through the various islands of the Sea. Victoria, the capital of British Columbia is located on the southeast tip of Vancouver Island, approximately 50 miles south of where we live.

To make matters even more interesting, a quirk of the international boundary is that the border follows the 49th parallel out into the sea a bit and crosses the very tip of the Tsawwassen peninsula south of Vancouver, British Columbia, leaving a tiny bit of land that is in the United States. The community there is known as Point Roberts and has a population of just over a thousand people. To reach Point Roberts from where we live by land, you cross the border into British Columbia, travel 25 miles across Canada and then cross the border again to be in Point Roberts, BC. During the Covid-19 Pandemic, the Washington State Ferry operated a direct connection with the US across Boundary Bay so that Point Roberts residents could travel to and from the rest of the state during the time that the border with Canada was closed. However, there were essential services that did have to cross the border. A neighbor, for example, delivers fuel oil to Point Roberts. He was allowed to continue his deliveries when the border was closed, crossing it twice each direction.

Another exception was made for the high school students from Point Roberts. They travel by bus daily to and from their High School, located in our school district in the town of Blaine, crossing the border four times each day.

Point Roberts does, however, have its own Elementary School. The school is tiny, with just seven students enrolled this year. It is one of our state’s smallest public schools, but continues to be eligible for State funding because it has been determined to be a “remote and necessary” school. The school is too small to have its own library, so the students visit the public library, a branch of our county library system, each week.

Even though we live very close to Point Roberts, we have yet to visit it. The Canadian border was closed when we moved to Washington and a tourist trip to the small town just to satisfy our curiosity wasn’t deemed to be necessary travel. And since the border has re-opened, we haven’t ventured across simply because we have the services we need on our side of the border. However, we have enjoyed visiting British Columbia in the past and have used Vancouver International Airport (YVR) to travel. This summer our daughter and grandson are coming for a visit from South Carolina and the best price for tickets for them are flights to and from YVR. That is a real convenience for us because it is much closer to us than Seattle. Even allowing for the time it takes to cross the border, the airport is an hour closer to our house than Sea-Tac Airport.

Once, when we flew from Seattle to London, we took a short commuter flight to Vancouver and flew directly from Vancouver to London. We returned by the same route. There is a way to make the change of planes in the Vancouver International Airport without having to officially enter Canada, so we only had to deal with customs leaving the US and entering England and vice versa on our return. However, since our daughter and grandson will be leaving the airport, they will have to enter Canada at the airport and then re-enter the US at the border crossing in the car with us, so passports will be required for their trip.

The border is very porous. There are a lot of people who cross the border on a daily basis. In addition to the students at Point Roberts and the neighbor who delivers fuel oil, we know several people who live on one side of the border and work on the other. In our church choir I sit next to a woman who works in British Columbia. There is a couple who belong to our church whose primary home is in British Columbia, but whose jobs are in Bellingham. They keep a large boat at a slip in Bellingham Bay as a place to stay when they need to spend a night away from their home. We have plenty of friends who have family members who live across the border, and several couples one of whom is Canadian and the other a citizen of the United States.

There is a pass which allows expedited crossing at the border. Most people who cross frequently have the pass. We intend to get passes, but there is a wait for the interview required to obtain the pass, so won’t have them for a while. And, when crossing the border, every person in the car needs to have a pass in order for a car to use the expedited lane.

We’re learning a lot about living in a border town. However, I still haven’t quite figured out how to explain where we live to those who are unfamiliar with our unique geography.

An update of the story

A couple of days ago, I wrote about an attack by the neighbor’s dogs at our son’s farm. Since I sometimes tell stories before I know the ending, it seems like a brief update might be helpful to regular readers of my journal. Word was received at the farm yesterday that the dogs have been euthanized by animal control officials. It turns out that the dogs were responsible for multiple attacks against livestock. As a precaution, our son had a telehealth visit with his doctor about proper treatment of the bites he received and the doctor is obligated by law to report dog bites. We learned this about the law several years ago before we moved to Washington when our grandson received a dog bite while camping with us near where we now live. The report that the dogs had attacked people combined with the fact that they had been impounded twice in recent months for livestock attacks to bring the order that they be destroyed. Although I generally enjoy pets and have had many, many positive encounters with responsible pet owners, including caring for my sister’s dog in our home on different occasions, I confess that there is a sense of relief knowing that those particular animals will never threaten our grandchildren.

It turns out, further, that there were a few chickens who survived the attack. Two are in isolation with injuries, and it is not yet clear whether or not they will survive, but their survival so far and the fact that they are eating and drinking are positive signs. A few additional birds survived uninjured but weren’t discovered until several hours after the attack. Apparently they found a safe place to hide. Unfortunately, those particular birds were older birds that are not laying, so the family’s egg supply is gone for now. Although we enjoy receiving free eggs from the farm, it isn’t a major economic blow to our family. And, there are already a dozen chicks in the brooder, starting the cycle once again. One thing about the farm is that life and death often come close to each other. The sting of losing chickens is not offset by the arrival of new chicks, but the new chicks represent hope for the future. Our son’s family has raised enough birds from chicks to have a system for their care. They’ll remain in the brooder until they reach pullet stage when they will move to an enclosure inside the barn. Eventually they will be given access to half of the chicken coop and later be allowed to roam outside during the day after the garden is harvested in the fall. There are more farm fresh eggs in our family’s future.

Interestingly, a common practice on many farms is raising a guard dog to protect livestock. There are a couple of breeds that are known for bonding with poultry and defending them against predators. Because this area has native predators including eagles, coyotes, and foxes that prey on domestic fowl, it might make sense to get a dog as a partner in the farm. For now, the plan is to take things slowly. Although the farm has experienced a previous attack on chickens, the birds inside the coop were safe on that occasion. The neighbor’s dogs broke into both sides of the chicken coop and none of the birds in the coop survived. Because the children were frightened by the attack, it makes sense to proceed with caution when it comes to dogs and so the family will give some time before taking on the extra work of an additional pet. After all, they’ve got new chicks that need constant attention.

In addition, I have two new colonies of bees coming in a little over a month to join our existing apiary and I’ve been considering adopting a couple of shelter cats to live in the barn and help with rodent control. Farms and animals go together and we’ll see which animals will call the farm home in the years to come.

I am pleased at the natural ways in which our grandchildren are learning about life and death. When our children were small and living at home the death of family pets, while difficult, were opportunities to teach them about life, death, loss and grief. Our grandson who lives in South Carolina experienced the death of their beloved dog, who had been a part of the family for all of his life and shared his parents’ grief. They will likely get a new dog one day, but are allowing time. I appreciate that our children are not shielding their children from the realities about life and death. Talk of death is not common in our culture. I’ve worked with families who have members who became adults without experiencing anything about death. When a loved one dies, they don’t know exactly how to react and the process of serving them while planning an appropriate funeral for their loved one often requires a bit of gentle teaching. A farm provides a natural place for learning about life and death. Although the chickens that were lost in the attack were layers, the farm has also raised meat birds in the past. The children were not shielded from the reality of butchering and understand that some of their food comes from the death of animals. Fortunately in the scheme of things the decision not to raise meat birds had already been made this year so the chicks in the brooder will be allowed to live out their natural lives on the farm.

Hopefully our grandchildren will grow up with healthy attitudes about life and death and will be able to express their feelings of loss and grief naturally. It certainly seems that growing up on a farm is a good way to have a variety of important experiences that help children grow into maturity. We didn’t offer our children that experience. Our calling was to a different profession, but we have enjoyed many friendships with farmers and ranchers over our lifetimes and have been blessed by their connections to the land and the animals.

As is always true in the aftermath of loss, life goes on and that is another important lesson of the farm.

New ways of worship

I attended church online yesterday. It is not my preferred mode of church attendance, but a cold with a persistent cough convinced me to stay home to avoid the possibility of sharing the virus with others. Occasional colds seem to be part of our lives these days. Living close to four grandchildren seems to expose us to periodic viruses that affect us. A couple of colds each year doesn’t seem out of the usual. At any rate, I joined our congregation on facebook and watched the service live. Our congregation has a pretty sophisticated broadcast system, with multiple cameras so it was possible to get a good sense of the service. One thing that I miss when worshiping remotely is that there are no microphones aimed at the congregation, so I can’t hear congregational singing or responses to litanies.

On the other hand, I am able to participate win the service when I might otherwise have simply missed worship in the days before online options. Online worship is one of the legacies of the Covid-19 pandemic.

What I noticed yesterday as I worshiped is how much less connected I was to the service. When I attend church in person, I am aware of the other members of the congregation. I look around and acknowledge the presence of friends and visitors. I pay attention to each element of the worship service. I sing the hymns and sing in the choir. When I am participating remotely, the service is kind of a background to other things that are occurring. I carry my phone with me to the kitchen and set it on the counter while I make a cup of tea, walk to my recliner and sit there for a while, get up and roam around the house. I watch the birds at our backyard feeders and note the rain falling. My mind wanders a great deal more when I am an online participant.

I certainly don’t want to make online participation the standard for my worship life. I’ll be happy to return to in-person worship next week.

I know, however, that there are a lot of people whose participation in church is primarily online. Before I retired, I noticed that there were a certain number of church members who preferred to make a minimal commitment to the congregation. They would worship on Sundays, but would agree to serving on a committee only if the meeting was immediately before or after worship. I used to gently joke about people who give voice to their dedication to Christ, but who were unwilling to make two trips to the church in a week. Now, there is a substantial group of church participants who have an even lower level of commitment. They attend online and then do so only occasionally when they have no other conflicting plans.

While a congregation has room for all sorts of different levels of participation, low commitment leaves those who choose that level without the solid connections to community that is one of the benefits of church membership. When no one notices whether or not you are participating, it is easy to think that your participation doesn’t matter. As an in-person worshiper, I know that when I occasionally miss a worship service, there are others who notice my absence. I received multiple emails from friends inquiring about my health and wondering about my absence yesterday. It is nice to know that you are missed. Those who are simply another online observer of worship don’t have a similar level of connection.

Whether or not I complain about it, however, online worship is here to stay. If I were not retired, I would be seeking to learn as much as possible about how to make online connections. I would figure ways to have real time responses to comments made online. I would seek a system of including online prayer requests in community prayers. I don’t know how all of those dynamics might work, and I’m sure that the process would be imperfect, but I think that dealing with the reality makes a lot more sense than simply saying I don’t like the change.

One of the essential parts of my ministry was outreach to those who are unable to get out to worship. I regularly led worship services in care centers and nursing homes. I visited those who were home bound. I took communion to shut in members. I never was able to do as much of this kind of visitation as I thought I should, and always had a sense that there were some with whom I didn’t connect as well as I might have, but I made it a regular part of my ministry. I worry that the availability of online worship might decrease this sense of the necessity to taking the church to those who cannot attend for pastors now serving congregations. Although yesterday was not a communion Sunday, I know that there is a big difference between being served bread and the cup and being told “Those of you at home gather something to eat and something to drink.” I don’t find online communion to be sacramental. Distance and disconnection don’t build community. I know that whether or not I get a piece of bread and sip something from a glass is not noticed in the community of those attending in person. When I worship in person, I am not thinking of the stories of those who are online as I wait for my turn to receive. It is an entirely different experience.

I suspect that the changes taking place in the church are too big for me to see all of their ramifications in my lifetime. Sometimes major changes in institutions take several generations to play out. Sometimes, however, I wonder what the future holds for the church. I worry about it even though I know that it is beyond my control. I am only beginning to learn to trust God with the future. For me and my generation, however, worshiping in person remains an essential part of belonging to a church.

More excitement than I wanted

Our son’s family live in a house that is more than 100 years old. Across the street from their property is another century house. One of the local stories is that the two houses were built as the beginning of what was intended to be a town in rural Whatcom County. The town of Custer, however, is not located near where the two old houses stand. It is over a mile to the east. It is a typical small town, with a church, a post office, an elementary school, and a couple of businesses on main street. It is clear that the town used to have a few more businesses, but those no longer are part of the community. Back over where the two historic houses stand, the land is beginning to be subdivided. Our son’s place is 10 acres. Some of the neighbors have similar sized plots. A few are bigger and a few are smaller. There don’t seem to be any places with less than five acres.

One story about the two old houses is that the town was originally going to be built at the corner of two roads where the houses stand. However, the owners of the first two houses could not get along. They argues and battled and fought with each other so much that others decided that it wasn’t a good place to have a town and so the townsite was never located on that corner, but rather moved. I don’t know the veracity of this story. It is also the case that the railroad doesn’t lie near those houses and it runs right through the townsite. It is possible that the reason for relocating the town was to be near the railroad when the tracks were laid.

It makes a good story, however, and I suppose that it could be at least partially true. More than a century later, none of the locals know for sure. The other old house has seen some big troubles in the time that we have lived near our son’s place. A couple of years ago, the house was abandoned, but there were squatters living in the place. During a cold spell, a water pipe burst in the space beneath the house, but it wasn’t reported or discovered until the water district came looking for the leak that was creating a shortage. Other houses in the area were placed on water use restrictions as utility mangers searched for the leak. Because our son’s place has a number of outbuildings and plenty of buried pipe, their place was suspect. We went around closing valves and turning off water to all of the outlying buildings, but that provided no solution and no leak was found at our son’s place. Finally, the leak in the abandoned house was discovered and the water shut off to the property.

In recent months, the owners of the property have been working on the place and it was listed for sale. They put a new roof on part of the house, applied some paint, cut back bushes and the squatters were evicted. We don’t know if the place was sold or not, but the signs came down and people moved into the place. Some neighbors believe that those who moved into the place had lived their previously, perhaps as squatters. No one seems to know the new people.

Yesterday, as I was heading to the house after giving a bit of sugar water to the bees, I came around a corner and was met by a bull dog with a mouth full of feathers. It was obvious that the dog had been into the chickens. I yelled at it and tried to chase it out of the yard, but it ran back toward the chicken coop, where I discovered another dog inside the coop. The coop has two sides and the fence between the two sides was closed to isolate one group of chickens from another. Now there was a dog in each side of the coop and the feathers were flying. I tried again to chase the dogs out of the yard and they came after me. I grabbed a shovel and avoided being bit, but was forced to retreat to the house. Our son came out and together we tried unsuccessfully to chase the dogs away. Finally he called the sheriff and animal control officers were dispatched. We watched in horror, believing that all of the chickens had been killed. After a while the dogs headed over to another neighbor and our son called them to warn them. Those neighbors don’t have any animals out in their yard and the dogs soon headed across the road toward yet another neighbor. This one has chickens and a lot of other domestic animals. Our son and their next door neighbor headed across the street to warn that neighbor and that is where they were when animal control officers arrived.

The officers captured the dogs and placed them in their vehicle. One of the dogs had on a collar from animal control and after a bit of checking the officers determined that the dogs had just been released from a hold the previous evening after having killed chickens at another place. They went to the owners, who live in the other old house, and found that the owners knew that the dogs were out, but hadn’t done anything about it.

It turned out that there were survivor chickens at our son’s place. After we cleaned up the mess in the chicken coop and buried the deceased chickens, we discovered a couple that were injured but surviving. A little later a few uninjured chickens emerged from hiding. All in all it appears that they lost about 15 birds. They also lost most of the family’s egg supply for at least a year until they can raise more chicks. All because pet owners were not responsible.

It is tempting to revive the animosity between the two houses. When I was forced indoors because the two dogs were coming after me, I was worried if our grandchildren would ever be safe in their own yard with those animals. However, it is likely that the dogs will not be coming back to their owners. Reports were taken, photos collected, evidence complied. The farm will put into place some defensive measures in case of a future attack. Before long the farm will recover and life will go back to normal, leaving behind only a story, which is good enough that it may grow as time passes and it is told over and over. Right now, the talk of the neighborhood is how the irresponsible neighbors caused havoc on the farm and what can be done about it.

I am uninjured and glad I picked up a shovel. Our son and grandchildren are uninjured. Death is a part of raising farm animals and the farm will recover. And we all have a story to tell.

Culturally deprived

When our children were very young we lived in a parsonage owned by the church for which we worked. It was a lovely house and probably larger and nicer than we could have afforded at the time. We had recently graduated from seminary and didn’t have savings for a down payment. The congregation that owned the house was a good steward of their property and had taken good care of it. It had new carpet and fresh paint when we moved in. There was a new shower in the basement. They installed an opener on the garage door. While we lived in the house, the roof was damaged by hail and was replaced. They also decided to replace the exterior siding on the home. When they had the siding off of the house they decided to wire the home for television cable, installing cable outlets in several rooms.

We had not owned a television up to that a point in our lives and it was interesting because members of the church thought that it was strange that we didn’t have a set. Some of the members donated a set to be in the parsonage, and we decided to pay the monthly fee to hook up to cable. In the months after our daughter came to live with us I was often up in the middle of the night and sometimes, when she was slow to return to sleep, I would turn on the television in the middle of the night and watch a bit. Mostly what I watched were reruns of the show M*A*S*H. The half hour format seemed to be just right for my mood at the time and the show came on at a time when our daughter was often having trouble settling and I would change her diaper, give her a bottle, and rock her while I watched the program.

A few years later we moved to Idaho where we purchased a home that came with a television antenna installed in the garage. It would pick up three local stations, including the local public broadcasting station. That was enough television for us and we let our children watch Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. By that time our daughter was sleeping more at night and I gave up the routine of watching television in the middle of the night. For a while we would rent a VCR and movies from a local outlet from time to time to watch movies. Later we purchased a new television set and a VCR one Christmas and we got into the habit of watching movies as a family from time to time. Our children collected a few favorite movies on VCR tapes and we watched some several times.

As the years went by and our children grew up, I watched television less and less. At some point when our television wore out I didn’t get around to replacing it. There were so many other things that I enjoyed with my spare time. I’ve always enjoyed reading. It seemed like when I had some time, I had plenty of things to do.

Along the way we also got out of the habit of watching movies at the theatre except on rare occasions. I’m not sure why. We’ve been well entertained by some very good movies and we enjoy it when we do go to a movie. It is just something that we don’t seem to think of doing very often.

I joke with my friends that I am “culturally deprived” because I just don’t keep up with the popular movies. When they are discussing various films, I have to admit that I haven’t watched them. In recent years the only movies I have watched in theaters are children’s movies that one of our grandchildren wanted to see, and I haven’t seen very many of them. I think that I only watched one movie in the past year: Paw Patrol: The Mighty Movie.

That movie didn’t receive a nomination for best picture from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I looked up the list of the nominees online and I haven’t seen any of them. I vaguely know the basic stories of a few of them: Oppenheimer, Barbie, and Maestro, but most aren’t the least bit familiar to me. Suffice it to say that I’m not likely to pay much attention to which film wins the various awards at tomorrow’s ceremony. Since we don’t currently own a television, I’m not likely to watch the awards ceremony anyway.

I do watch a bit of television. At least I watch YouTube videos on my computer. And we can stream movies on our computer. I have a large monitor that is as big as the largest television we have ever owned and we have streamed and watched movies on the monitor. But I remain fairly disconnected from what is a major entertainment for a lot of our friends.

On the other hand, like other topics about which I don’t have expertise, I do occasionally pay a bit of attention so that I can at least engage in conversation with friends about topics that interest them. I’m not a big sports fan, either, but I usually pay enough attention to know which teams are playing in the Super Bowl, the World Series, and other major sports events.

Tomorrow’s Oscar awards ceremony is a big enough part of our culture that there have been a lot of articles about it in the news and I’ve read a couple of them. I also have listened to discussions of movies on the radio. My usual radio stations are US public broadcasting and Canadian Broadcast radio and both of those stations have had commentators on the oscars in recent days. I heard one discussion with a couple of Canadian movie critics who had binge watched all ten of the Oscar nominations for best picture in recent weeks. One of those people had re-watched a couple of them several times.

I don’t think I’ve gained enough from listening to the discussion to intelligently discuss the movies. I certainly wouldn’t make a good entertainment reporter for a news outlet. I might add another year like last year to my life: a year in which I didn’t see any of the films nominated for best picture. I’m not ruling anything out, but somehow I don’t feel any attraction to taking a look at the Barbie movie anytime soon.

Trying to figure out this place

There are a couple of possible routes from our house to the Interstate. One - the route that takes us past our son’s farm - has three four-way stops. The other has a single four-way stop and two traffic circles. Traffic circles or roundabouts are pretty common around here. The principal is pretty simple. Traffic moves around the circle in a counter-clockwise direction meaning all cars turn right to enter the circle and right to exit the circle. When the traffic is flowing smoothly, all cars slow for the intersection and drivers look to their left, yielding to any cars in the circle. Theoretically, you can ignore cars on your right as they are supposed to yield to you. However, as is the case with lots of driving, you still need to pay attention. It seems that there are always a few drivers who can’t get the concept. For the most part those intimidated by the circles just sit there and yield to everyone until the circle is empty before proceeding. But, from time to time, there will be a particularly aggressive driver who barely slows and who doesn’t yield to anyone. I’ve been in a circle and been cut off by someone entering it. It is enough to keep me alert and on my toes when driving.

But the traffic circles seem to be a bit safer than the four-way stops. While the rules for four-way stops are clear - yield to the car on your right - there are a lot of drivers around here who don’t seem to follow that protocol. The most common thing I notice are drivers who seem to think that hand signals are the best way to navigate the intersection. You pull up and they wave at you to proceed even if they have the right of way. It is as if they are saying, “You go first, I’ve got plenty of time.” The problem with those drivers, though, is that they are unpredictable. I’ve started to enter an intersection multiple times only to have another car change their mind and start to proceed. What should be a predictable and orderly intersection is often a bit chaotic.

It is even worse inside the city limits of Bellingham. There are plenty of drivers there that seem to want to avoid going in front of anyone. I’ve been following cars who yield to four or five vehicles before entering the intersection. It certainly disrupts the flow of traffic. In the big picture, it doesn’t take much time. It is just a bit annoying when people don’t follow the rules in a way that helps traffic to flow.

Here is another thing that takes a bit of adjustment. We have curbside recycling. Trucks pick up garbage, food waste for composting, paper, cardboard, and mixed plastic and metal. The local recycling company provides containers for the various kinds of trash, but especially when it comes to recycling, people seem to ignore the labels and color sorting. If you are lucky, the company delivered three bins for you to use for recycling plus two toters - one for garbage and one for composting. However, we never got the three bins for recycling and when I called the company they said, “Just use whatever container you have. It doesn’t have to be one of our bins.” Since we don’t have the bin for cardboard, I use a cardboard box, which is never recycled because the recycling truck only picks up flattened cardboard. We have neighbors who have three or four or five bins in a variety of colors and seem to put whatever in those bins. Just because a bin says “Scrap paper,” doesn’t mean a neighbor will use it for that. It might be used for plastic and metal or for cardboard. We have one neighbor who carefully sorts metals from plastic and when the recycling truck comes they are dumped into the same bin on the truck.

We never did receive a compost toter, which isn’t a problem, because we take our compost to the farm and add it to large composting piles there. I provided my own smaller toter for that use because I don’t like to lift the weight of a full toter. I’m hesitant to call the recycler anyway because I suspect I’d be told to just use whatever container I have.

Maybe you have to be a local - one who has lived here for many years - to figure out the trash recycling system.

Although we live in Birch Bay, we go to Bellingham on a regular basis. We attend church in that town and are frequently at the church for volunteer activities. It is a good place to attend special events such as speakers and concerts. There is a large variety of shops including many different kinds of grocery stores and a large independent bookstore that we love to visit.

But I have never figured out the dress code in Bellingham. It seems that everyone has their own look. We have members of our church who are always dressed in bicycle gear. They probably commute to the church on bikes, so that makes some sense. However, there are others who are always wearing hiking clothes. The heavy boots are certainly a look, but not what comes to my mind when I think of dressing for church. Then there are the people who are always wearing croc casual footwear regardless of the weather. And sandals are pretty common. Around here when the weather gets cold they just wear socks with their sandals.

It isn’t just shoes. It seems that casual is a requirement. I like to wear a dress shirt with a tie to church and most of the time I’m the only one dressed that way. One of the pastors once told me that a sport coat might be acceptable, but that a suit is definitely too much for the church’s informal nature. I tried to observe those “rules” when I worked at the church, but now that I’m retired, I dress however I feel which generally means I dress up for Sunday worship regardless of the fact that it makes me stand out.

I don’t know if it is official, but the slogan most often associated with Bellingham is “The City of Subdued Excitement.” Whether driving, recycling, or dressing, I try to keep my excitement subdued. I don’t think, however, that I fit in at all.

The love of travel

My mother’s father grew up in a small town in Montana. That town, however, had a heritage of welcoming visitors and sending its locals off on travels. In the days when rivers were the primary paths of intercontinental travel, Fort Benton was located at what was considered to be the head of navigation on the Missouri River. Travel farther upstream was not possible using larger boats because of the Great Falls. From Fort Benton all the way downstream to St. Joseph, Missouri where the Missouri flows into the Mississippi was open to navigation. Folks in Fort Benton were used to being able to order goods from back east and have them arrive aboard the ships.

When the railroads came to Montana, Fort Benton became a place of connection between river traffic and rail traffic. My grandfather was able to take the train from Montana, where he began his education to Chicago, where he graduated from Northwestern College of Law. His education allowed him further travels in his life. In a time when many people rarely traveled far from home he was able to serve on national committees and travel to meetings far from his Montana home.

His daughter inherited his love of travel. When she was a student at nursing school she met a pilot. Not long afterward when he traveled to California to serve in the Army Air Corps, she traveled to California on the train to marry him. Wartime rationing meant that others of her family weren’t able to attend the wedding, which was held in the home of an aunt and uncle.

The pair loved travel all of their lives. On at least one occasion she was snuck aboard an air corps plane for a trip. When the was ended and he completed his service they set out to build a career as a pilot and nurse. He studied airframe and engine maintenance in Oklahoma before they moved back to Montana. When they moved back they traveled around the region in a light airplane, seeking an airport where they could locate their airplane operations. They finally settled in a small town north of Yellowstone National Park where he set up business doing any work he could find for a pilot and an airplane. He had earned his instructors ratings while serving in the Air Corps and found a few students, including his wife who was the first person to receive her private pilot’s license examination in their small town.

They flew all over the United States, eventually owning and operating a twin-engine all weather airplane flying charter and air ambulance services. They used that airplane to take their growing family on vacations to Washington, DC, Chicago, Indianapolis, Salt Lake, San Francisco, and Seattle among other destinations.

One of the students he taught to fly became the chief pilot of Northwest Orient Airlines and sparked a growing interest in travel by airlines. Together they traveled to Caribbean Islands, Japan, Thailand, Hawaii, and many other destinations. They took some of their adult children on a six week tour around Europe, visiting friends they had made over the years.

When he passed away leaving her widowed at a young age, she continued to travel, visiting China, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and other distant locations. She made a couple of trips to Germany with church groups and she dreamed of additional travel to the end of her life.

Their children have also been travelers. We have been able to take our children to many places across the United States. We have traveled in Central America, to Japan, to Australia, and many other destinations.

I wonder, however, how much the ability and desire to travel will be passed on to future generations. These days, US Air Force pilots don’t all have to travel to engage in their defense activities. Drones are operated around the globe from remote operations centers where the pilots report for duty and go to their own homes after their shift is ended. The use of a variety of remotely operated robotic vehicles is increasing across the military and industry.

I’ve read countless books about ocean adventuring and the sailors who have traveled across the globe on the earth’s waters. But these days, more and more ship’s captains and crews are using cameras, microphones, radars, GPS, and satellite communications to remotely operate ships. It sounds like science fiction, but remotely operated cargo and exploration vessels are already plying the waters of the world while their crews remain safely in land-based operations centers.

While humans still dream of and plan for interplanetary travel, so far exploration beyond the earth and the moon is being conducted entirely by robots. The first explorers to all places beyond the earth’s atmosphere will continue to be robotic vehicles. Exploration no longer involves the huge risks once taken by those who sailed he seas in search of new places.

It is not beyond imagination that future generations will travel far less than present ones. I have seen a big change in the span of my lifetime. Like my grandfather, I have traveled extensively to serve on church committees. For most of my career, serving in the national setting of our church involved travel. I have, for example, served on national committees that met multiple times each year by bringing people together from all across the United States. I once served on a committee that held all of its meetings in Baltimore, Maryland. Each meeting involved multiple days of travel for me. When Susan and I first worked as writers, we flew to in-person writers’ conferences and met with editors face to face. Now, since the Covid pandemic, most of our national meetings are held online. I teach classes for the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ from my home office via computer. I’ve had students from four different time zones participating in the same class - all from their homes.

Our grandchildren and great grandchildren may not need to travel as much as we did. Somehow, however, I hope that they inherit a bit of the love of travel that has been a part of our family for generations and find ways to physically go from one place to another. There are many ways to explore and I hope they discover the joy of travel in their lives.

Watching the neighbors

One of the joys of living in a small town once again is that we now receive a weekly newspaper. As small town weekly newspapers go, ours is really quite good. The owners of the paper have discovered that focusing on advertising revenue has worked to keep the paper thriving. Instead of trying to make revenue from subscriptions, the paper is distributed free to residential mailing addresses in the service area, thus increasing the circulation levels, which in turn boosts the amount that can be charged for advertising.

We find that we read most of the paper each week and usually pass it on to our son, who lives just outside of our community. Small town papers have lots of differences from newspapers that cover larger urban areas. One thing is the weekly police reports. Our paper devotes a column each week to reporting the calls responded to by city police, county sheriff, and the local fire district. The service area is small enough that each week’s report contains only a few calls. Most of the calls are routine: noise complaints, neighbor disputes, tenant-landlord disputes, health crises, wayward pets, and the like. A few respond to more serious crimes: bicycle and vehicle thefts, an occasional break-in, executing warrants, and such.

Larger cities have too many calls on local first responders to print all of them in the paper. Bellingham, the larger city to the south of our area is where we attend church and we pay attention to news from that city, but generally get our news from that city’s daily paper’s website rather than reading a print edition of the paper. A police story from the Bellingham Herald did catch my eye recently, however.

The incident occurred on Aldrich Road, which is north of the city, not far from where we live. The story reports that one suspect was taken into protective custody while another escaped and eluded the officers. According to the report, the suspect taken into custody was slightly injured before the police arrived and was handed over for treatment. The story might not have been reported and certainly wouldn’t have captured my attention but for the fact that the two suspects were both beavers.

Apparently two substantial beavers were crossing the road and spotted by passing motorists who reported their presence on the road to police. A cruiser was sent to investigate and the officers saw the two animals, but one fled into nearby buses when the officers arrived. The other, which appeared to be slightly injured was placed in the back of the police cruiser out of concern for its safety and later turned over to wildlife managers at the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The newspaper’s web site featured photographs of the beavers, which means that an alert reporter must have been listening to traffic on a police scanner in order to make it to the scene in time to capture some images before the animals had departed the scene.

There are a lot of reasons why I pay attention to stories about beavers. I have had a few memorable run-ins with the large rodents over the span of my life. I generally paddle wooden canoes which are very quiet as they pass through the water. When I am paddling on ponds and small lakes, I occasionally will startle a beaver, which responds with a slap of its tail on the water before diving away from my approaching boat. The splash nearly always startles me and makes me jump, disrupting the quiet peacefulness of my paddle.

Beavers are the traditional spirit animals of boat builders in some indigenous cultures. Observers are struck by their industriousness in building lodges and dams and providing for their offspring. The creatures are naturally social animals and when you see one there generally are others in the area. Their large flat tails are distinctive and make the creatures easy to identify from a significant distance.

I have always appreciated the non-human neighbors in the places where we have lived. I also appreciate our human neighbors, but enjoy living close enough to nature to be able to easily observe other animals as well. In our South Dakota home, I spent hours observing the deer and turkeys that came to our yard nearly every day. I was able to identify individual deer at times and enjoyed watching the fawns that were born in and spent their early weeks in our yard. Sometimes we assigned names to the babies. One year there were twins that were different enough in nature that we could distinguish which was which for at least a month.

We also enjoyed watching the turkeys in our yard even though they left quite a mess when they came up onto our deck. I learned the hard way that it is not a good idea to feed wild turkeys and if you do, it shouldn’t be in a place where you have to clean up after the birds. I had put a bit of cracked corn out to encourage them to come up onto the deck so my mother could more easily observe them. She enjoyed the show a lot, so it probably was worth the extra work in the long run.

Here we don’t have much wildlife in our yard except for the birds at our feeders and rabbits that nibble at the garden. I don’t think I’m going to be able to identify individual seagulls who come into the neighborhood each week on the day that garbage cans are left out for pickup. I do, however, think that the downy woodpecker that has been coming to our suet feeder is the same bird each day. I’m sure that return visits are regular for the other birds as well, but I don’t think I can tell individuals apart well enough to be sure. The red-winged blackbirds are fun to watch and they generally clear the back yard of smaller birds when they arrive. The lone pigeon who drops by, however, doesn’t seem to startle the other birds and make them scatter. It feeds on the ground and seems to be no threat to the little ones at the feeders.

I’ll keep lookin at the wildlife in our yard, but so far I’ve no suspicious beaver activity to report.

In our neighborhood

Punjab is a state in northwestern India bordering Pakistan. The city of Amritsar is a pilgrimage site, home to the Golden Temple, the center of worship, teaching, and religion for practitioners of the Sikh religion. It is also the home of Durgiana Temple, a Hindu shrine. The state is crossed by five rivers and the soil and climate are well suited for wheat production. Workers from Punjab first immigrated to the area where we live in the early 1900s to work in the timber industry. By 1906 there were about 200 Sikhs in Whatcom County primarily working in lumber mills. Those who had settled from other regions, predominantly from Europe, called them “Hindoos,” a product of a misunderstanding about their religion and a misspelling of “Hindu.” In 1907 a mob attacked Sikh workers and chased them out of Bellingham. Many sought refuge with relatives in southern British Columbia. Behind the Bellingham Public Library building across from City Hall there is an arch erected in remembrance of three historic racist events in the city’s history: the mid-1800s eviction of Chinese workers, the 1907 eviction of Sikh workers, and the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II.

In the 1980s Sikhs began to return to Whatcom County, primarily new immigrants from Punjab who came to be near relatives in southwest British Columbia. One of the early Sikh settlers is one of the largest berry growers in our area. Sikh farmers in our county produce roughly one third of all frozen berries sold nationally. The bag of mixed blueberries, blackberries and raspberries in the frozen foods section of your local supermarket likely came from Whatcom County berry farms operated by Sikh farmers. Current estimates are that there are over 5,000 people from India, mostly from Punjab, living in Whatcom County.

The presence of family in the region has attracted other Sikh immigrants from Punjab, who work in a variety of different professions. Lawyers, doctors, and engineers have settled in neighborhoods throughout the county. There is a Sikh family living a few houses down the street from our home and we have come to recognize three generations of relatives who come and go from their family home.

There are Sikh Gurdwaras, centers of worship and public meals, in Ferndale, Lynden, and Bellingham, communities near our home. Although Sikh is the fifth largest religion in the world, I know very little about it. I am not alone in my ignorance. Many people identify the turbans worn by Sikh men as being related to Muslim practice and the Middle East instead of understanding that turbans are worn by both men and women in Sikh tradition. For Sikhs the turban is considered to be a crown and worn to identify the wearers as Sikh - people who help others and perform good deeds. At the heart of each Sikh Gurdwara is a langar hall, a community kitchen where everyone is welcome and served delicious vegetarian food without charge. The Golden Temple in Amritsar severs over 150,000 hungry people each day. Siks also take food and emergency supplies to places in the world that are experiencing war or natural disaster.

The Sikh Gurdwaras are open to the public. Sikhs do not proselytize. While non Sikhs are welcome to attend and learn from the teachings, Sikhs do not seek to convert others to their faith. The Gurdwara is a place of teaching based on Sikh scripture, which is a collection of devotional songs written by six historic Sikh gurus. Sikh means “student” and guru means “teacher.”

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, many Sikhs experienced racist violence. People ignorant of Sikh practices and fearful of people who dressed or looked differently from them wrongly associated Sikhs with terrorism. The process of educating the general population about the truth of our neighbors has been a difficult one. Quietly practicing their faith without seeking to convert those of other faiths led some to wrongly believe that they are separatist and secretive. In reality the Sikh Gurdwaras are open to the public and curious outsiders are always welcome.

As recent transplants to this community, we are aware of the many different stories of the people in our neighborhood. Since time immemorial, Coast Salish people have lived on the lands we now call home. Lummi and Nooksack people continue to live in our community and both tribes have small reservations nearby. Settlers have come from around the world attracted by abundant jobs, rich soil, productive farms, and a mild climate. In addition to our Punjabi neighbors, there are relatively recent immigrants from Ukraine and Mexico living in our region. Children in our school district come from homes where Spanish, Ukrainian, and Punjabi are spoken.

For us this wealth of diversity is one of the special charms of living in this region. It delights us to live among neighbors with different religions and practices than our own. It also reminds us of how little we know about others. Because our primary community has always been the Christian church the majority of our friends are practicing Christians, most of them members of the same congregation as we. Slowly we are getting to know more about our neighbors and learning a little bit about different religions. I only recently learned that the reason the name “Singh” seems so common among Sikh neighbors is that all Sikh men take the name “Singh” as their middle or last name, just as all Sikh women take the name “Kaur” as their middle or last name. “Singh” means lion and “Kaur” means of noble birth. The place of worship is a gurdwara which means threshold or gate. Originally gurdwaras were the homes of gurus.

Because we are blessed to have a very productive cherry tree and our son’s family farm produces abundant fruit and berries, we mostly eat those fruits. However, this morning I plan to dip into a bag of commercially frozen berries purchased at the store to have with my oatmeal. I am still eating local, knowing that the berries were produced in our home county. I am grateful to my Sikh neighbors for their productive food-sharing ways.

Life in the country

When we moved to Rapid City, South Dakota in 1995, we purchased a home that was outside of the city limits. As frequent visitors to the area before moving there, we enjoyed the Black Hills and the thought of having a home in or near the woods was attractive to us. With two teenage children in our home, we felt that it was a good time for us to live a bit farther from our work than had been the case earlier in our careers. Church work can be very consuming of time and energy and it was important to us to have some reasonable boundaries between our home and work. And the neighborhood where our home was located seemed like a wonderful place to live with covenants that called for open yards and minimal fences, natural colors on the exterior of homes, and streets free of overnight parking.

Our neighborhood homeowner’s association contracted with the county for snow removal from our streets and for many years we enjoyed excellent support from the county plows. Most of the time the streets in our subdivision were cleared long before city crews finished plowing in the city. Our neighborhood had a water system with two reliable wells and all of our utilities were buried, which saved us from power outages that plagued some neighborhoods with power lines subject to ice storms and high wind. We lived close to the fire hall of our volunteer fire department which had a mutual aid agreement with the city fire department and provided excellent emergency services.

The ten-mile commute to work seemed a bit long at times, but we quickly adjusted to the back and forth driving. There were a few times when I wished we had a neighborhood grocery store, but we learned to keep the pantry stocked. After having lived for a decade in a larger city, we appreciated the lack of the drama of city politics. We joyfully settled into our home.

After we had lived in that home for around 20 years, the boundaries of the city had grown to the edges of our subdivision. Our neighborhood water system was aging and our homeowner’s association was facing the specter of very expensive repairs with no reserves to cover the expenses. A vote to become annexed by the city was proposed. I was skeptical about being incorporated, and was not reassured by the informational meetings held at the fire hall. Nonetheless, the vote was taken and our neighborhood was incorporated into the city.

Incorporation brought with it a few short term problems. The connection to the city water system required each homeowner to install water pressure regulators and make some other plumbing upgrades. The increased pressure in the water supply lines caused break after break in the buried pipes supplying homes. Homeowners were responsible for the pipes between their homes and water meters and one by one we noticed excavators working in our neighbor’s homes. When our turn came, it cost thousands of dollars to have the line from the water main to our meter replaced. To top matters off, the city was much slower to provide snow removal than the county had been and our commute to work was made more challenging each time significant snowfall came. Our property taxes went up with incorporation, but the increase was far less than we would have had to pay if we had remained outside of the city and had to pay our portion of the water system upgrades. However, we adjusted to the changes and became part of the city.

When we bought our home here, we ended up purchasing a home that is, once again, outside of the city limits. We live in an established neighborhood in a tourist community, but our address is that of a town five miles from our home. Children in our neighborhood have to ride the bus those miles to attend school. We don’t have our own post office, and it is a bit of a drive to get basic supplies such as groceries and medicine.

Despite our official status as a “census designated area,” it feels pretty much like we live in a small town. It is a community that is based on tourism, but even that has changed in recent years with many of the homes having been sold by Canadian owners who were not able to visit them when the border closed due to the Pandemic. Those homes have been purchased by neighbors who have jobs that allow for remote working, also a product of pandemic changes.

Now a group of our neighbors have proposed and are working for our community to incorporate into a town. They believe that a community could be organized with our own services by diverting tax dollars that currently go into the county, the police force of a nearby city, and the school district and our community would have better community services if we took responsibility for our own governance and services. They point out that were we to become incorporated according to the currently proposed boundaries we would be the fourth largest community in our county, larger than the town that gives its name to our addresses.

Once again, I find myself to be skeptical of proposals to make the change. And once again we realize that it is quite possible that we have purchased a home in the country that will be inside a city when the time comes to sell it. I am not passionate enough about my doubts to attend community meetings or become involved in the politics of incorporation. I can see arguments both in favor or and opposed to becoming incorporated. I definitely lack the passion of some of our neighbors who are working toward incorporation.

Our experiences in South Dakota lead me to doubt the claims that our taxes won’t go up with incorporation. I understand our neighbor’s desire for more urban services and for increased say in self governance, but I know that those things come with a price. For now, I’m comfortable just waiting to see what develops. Who knows? Maybe we’ll get to change our address without the hassles of moving.

I'm bragging again

My friends may be getting a bit tired of my constant bragging about our son’s leadership and vision, but one of the joys of my life is being able to brag about our children and grandchildren. I am genuinely proud of them and my life is filled with so much joy because of the work that they do. If you are a regular reader of this journal, you’ve already read about the Mount Vernon Library Commons project and I’m sure that there are many more entries yet to come as the Commons building nears its dedication which will be sometime this summer.

Benjamin Franklin is often credited with being the organizer of the first library in America. He certainly claimed the credit in his autobiography. It was his conviction that access to a library of literature contributed to the common good of the country. An educated citizenry was deemed to be essential to democracy. Franklin’s vision was soon picked up and put into practical use around the nation in the development of community libraries in cities and towns across the nation. Dedicated citizens, seeking to improve the quality of life for themselves and for their fellow community members joined together to create public institutions to serve their communities and contribute to the education of their neighbors.

I grew up with our community library located just a block from our home. The brick facility with a split entrance was crammed with books both upstairs and down and I visited the collection and checked out books nearly every week. I took for granted that everyone should have access to as many books as they could read. I used to go to the library and check out as many books as allowed on my own library card and head back home to read, returning the next week to exchange those books for more.

That love of libraries went into a kind of overdrive when we moved to Chicago and as graduate students had University of Chicago student IDs, which granted us access to The Joseph Regenstein Library with over 4.5 million books. That library is now open to the general public. Visitors who wish to have full library privileges can obtain a Library access card.

These days, I have library cards for two libraries and frequently have books checked out of both at the same time. Our county library system has multiple libraries and we can check out books in multiple locations throughout the county including a small branch facility down by the bay, though we generally visit a larger branch in a nearby town to check out books.

Libraries are evolving to provide many different services to the communities they serve. Modern libraries are much more than collections of books. They are partners with families and public schools in providing literacy education for children and teens. They are centers of learning for those wishing to expand their employment skills and those who want to expand their entrepreneurial skills. The new Mount Vernon Library Commons will provide a commercial kitchen with all of the facilities for safe food production for those wishing to develop food service businesses. It will have expanded spaces for children and teens including room not only for reading programs, but also maker spaces, and room for programs that already attract larger crowds than can be housed in the current library facility. It will also provide much needed public parking and will be the largest public access electric vehicle charging station in the nation. All of this will be supported by a giant solar array and housed in a building that is built to the greenest standard currently available.

The foundation that supports the Mount Vernon Library Commons is well aware of their century long history and its leaders are dedicated to building a facility that will serve well beyond the projected life of most public buildings currently being built. The Library Commons is carefully designed to serve the community for a century or more.

All of this has grown out of the actual needs of an actual community. Community meetings surfaced the goals of the citizens of Mount Vernon including making a different with climate change, providing community gathering space, supporting local businesses and supporting the advance of professional and academic careers.Meeting rooms that can be configured to different sizes combine with an incubator kitchen for catering and a commercial kitchen as well as supporting library programs. It will help food-based businesses transition from dreams to reality.

I can go on and on about this project. Click here for a link to an article in an independent local news web site that has more information. I will be bursting my buttons proud to attend the dedication of the commons this summer.

The saying goes, “Like father, like son.” I’m not sure that the saying is accurate when it comes to me an our son. He certainly has far surpassed his dad when it comes to community leadership and service. But he is raising two sons and one of them was really making his grandfather proud yesterday. The Bellingham Coding and Robotics Club and the Skagit Coding and Robotics Club had a robotics competition yesterday. Teams of middle school aged club members have been working throughout this school year to make and program robots to perform tasks in a competition and the contest was held yesterday. Our grandson’s robot performed well scoring the fourth highest point count of the entire competition and working together with a second robot of a teammate to earn the competition’s singles highest score in an individual round.

I’ve tried running the controllers they use to direct the robots, and I am at best very clumsy and awkward. I have no ideal how to do the programming necessary to direct a battery powered machine with small servo motors to move about an area and perform tasks such as picking up blocks and depositing them into containers. I lack the engineering skills to know how to make the various components work together to work with other robots. The entire process is amazing and surprising to me. Watching our grandson operate with confidence and skill in that field, formulating a strategy for the competition and following through to success has made me incredibly proud and grateful that I could be there to watch.

One of the deep joys of growing older comes from being able to witness the contributions of those who are much younger. I feel grateful that I was allowed to live long enough to see what they are doing.

Red car

Over the years, most of the vehicles we have owned were purchased used. Even when we have purchased new vehicles, we have chosen vehicles that were in stock at dealers and that the dealers were eager to sell. Only once in our lives have we specified the color of a vehicle. Years ago we ordered a vehicle through a local dealer and we picked out a blue color from the available choices. The rest of the time, we haven’t had any say ab out what color our vehicles are. We’ve had several blue cars, quite a few silver ones, one that was black, one that was a terrible 1970’s green color, and a while vehicle.

Once, when it was time to trade vehicles, I said to my family, “I’m going to go buy a red pickup.” I never did find a red pickup that was for sale at a price we could afford and I ended up purchasing one that was a different color. When the time came for our daughter to have her first car, we did find one that was red. The little Chevrolet has been totaled in an accident, but had been rebuildable and a many who liked to work on vehicles had put it back together with used parts and had it painted its original color. I liked the look of that car and when our daughter moved to England for a while, I drove it as my commuter vehicle.I liked driving the small red car and felt a little flashy as I drove it around.

My saying that I want a red vehicle and not actually buying one has become a bit of a joke in our family. When we have traded vehicles, I’ve heard, “What color of red did you get this time?” My current red pickup truck is silver. The one before that one was silver too, though a slightly different shade with just a touch of copper in it.

One of the challenges of moving has been finding service providers for our vehicles. Because we lived for a year an hour’s drive from where we ended up, we had our vehicles serviced there before moving, but taking them back to that town to have work done isn’t practical. I think that we have finally found shops that work well for us, but not before having a couple of runarounds with places that provided low quality work at high prices. It has seemed like hassle to me because back in South Dakota we found reputable dealerships that had good shops and we got to know and trust the folks who worked on our vehicles. It was one of the things that I missed when we moved.

Now, however, we’ve discovered a great dealer with a superb service department that works on our car. It has not needed major maintenance other than the regular preventive jobs that are recommended by the manufacturer. It just reached one of those milestones where there is a long list of maintenance that needs to be performed, including the replacement of a timing belt. I took it in to the shop yesterday, but for a variety of reasons, the work did not get completed and it is now the weekend and it won’t be finished until Monday. However, this dealership offers free loaner cars when service jobs go long, so I have the use of an almost brand new loaner car. I suspect that the loaner cars work out well for the dealership, as people like me get impressed with all of the new features and the feel of driving the nice cars.

The car in my garage right now is a beautiful bright red SUV. I’ll be returning it on Monday and will have our usual car back. And we are a long ways from needing to replace our car, so I won’t be shopping for a replacement for several years unless something unforeseen occurs. We are very satisfied with the car we have, which is a very pretty sage green color.

For a couple of days, however, I’m having fun with the red car. I intend to joke with our grandson when I go over to the farm today that I’ve always wanted a red car and they had this one at the dealership that was just the right color. I won’t lie to him, I just will wait a bit to tell him that it is a loaner to see his reaction when he thinks I traded vehicles. He is 13 and starting to pay a lot of attention to the vehicles people drive. In Washington, children must ride in the back seat until they reach the age of 13, so he has only been riding up front with me for less than a month, so he’s pretty aware of vehicles each time we go somewhere together. He has a competition at the coding and robotics club today and I’m his ride and supporter at the event, so we’ll have fun zipping around in the red car.

And, our car will be in the shop on Sunday, so there’ll be a shiny red car in the church parking lot on Sunday in the place where we usually park. I doubt if folks will notice, but if someone does, I’ll be quick to point out that it is a loaner.

Dealers that loan cars for free are uncommon these days. This is the first time I’ve encountered one in my adult life. We had a dealership that had a car rental agency when we lived in South Dakota and a couple of times I rented cars to help us when our cars were in the shop for extended amounts of time. This place, however, makes it easy. They have a selection of loaner cars, take one and all you need to do to borrow it is provide your driver’s license and proof of insurance for the vehicle they are servicing. You sign a contract similar to a rental contract and you are off. It’s very nice - an unexpected luxury. And as a bonus, this time the car I got is red.It amuses me even if it isn’t a big deal.

In like a lion

I don’t know if it is a proverb exactly, but a saying that I’ve heard most of my life is “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.” I used to think that the saying was reversible and could also be stated, “March comes in like a lamb and goes out like a lion.” The point of the reversible saying was that it was a bit predictive. If the weather is mild at the beginning of March it will be wild at the end and if it is wild at the beginning it will be mild at the end. Later, when I was older, I discovered that the saying might not have been based on the weather at all, but rather on the constellations in the northern hemisphere. March begins with the constellation Leo (the lion) rising in the east and ends with Ares (the ram or the lamb) setting in the west.

The places where I have lived have all been places where the weather in March is quite variable. It can be bright and sunny one day and cold and blustery another day. In the Dakotas, where we lived for a total of 32 years, March can be a month of heavy snowfall. There were many years when March saw the greatest snowfall of the year. But there were also years when March saw less snowfall and the true spring blizzards might come as late as April or even May.

March was, in my experience, a month that could seduce you into a feeling of spring fever and then blast you with a foot or more of snow. In those places, spring was often a time of wild weather shifts.

It is a bit different here where we live. Although we haven’t lived here long enough to have internalized the weather patterns, March is really a transitional month in this place. In Rapid City, where we used to live, the Farmer’s Almanac suggests that planting be timed to account for the possibility of frost any time up to the end of May. Memorial Day is seen as the weekend to set out tomatoes and other vulnerable garden plants. Here, the almanac suggests that most years it is frost free by the middle of March. The Ides of March (March 15) is seen as a good time to set out vulnerable crops. That’s two and a half months earlier than was the case in South Dakota.

Still, we can get some cold weather around here. The last week or so, temperatures have been ranging from the thirties to the fifties. We have had a fair bit of wind. But the weather element that is hardest for me to get used to is the humidity. Humidities range in the eighties and even higher many days. When the humidity is above 75%, 50 degrees doesn’t feel all that warm to me.

I remember the rule in my childhood home. If it is below 50 degrees, you have to wear a jacket when you leave the house. If it is above 50 degrees, you can leave your jacket behind. I’ve always been a person who doesn’t have trouble keeping warm, so I followed that rule for most of my life. But it doesn’t work for me these days. I suppose it can be the product of age, but I hate to admit that, so I blame the humidity. Whatever the reason, I’m most likely to be wearing a jacket anytime the temperature is below 60 around here.

As a result, I’m not sure whether March is entering like a lion or a lamb around here. I guess I’ll go with lion this year simply because it is so windy right now. Wind, of course, is often associated with March. It is supposed to be good kite flying weather. I’ve loved kites for as long as I can remember. When I was growing up, we made all kinds of kites. It was really windy in my home town and one year when I was a teenager, we made a large tetrahedron kite about six feet on each side. the sticks were hardwood dowels and they were covered with cotton stretched by applying airplane dope. The kite flew fairly well, although we had a hard time finding string that was strong enough to hold it. We attempted with a variety of different string types, starting with binder twine, which broke and eventually finding some light nylon rope that worked fairly well. The next problem was that I didn’t weigh enough to hold down the kite. I tried employing my brothers to hold it with me, but they complained about the rope burns from the line and they wouldn’t respond to my orders to hold tight and to play out line fast enough for my liking. Eventually, I rigged out a way to wrap the line around the bumper of a car as a partial anchor. I imagined that it might be possible for the kite to lift me and wondered if I could use it to fly by towing it behind a car, but it really wasn’t reliable enough for that venture. I guess it was that kind of thinking that led to parasailing.

Later, especially during the years when we lived in Boise, Idaho, I got into flying multi-line kites. The Oregon coast was a great place for kite flying and we made fairly regular trips there during those years. Our conference office was in Portland and I had a sister who lived in that city, so it seemed natural when we headed that direction to keep going and spend a little time at the coast. As a result I expected that our home here would offer a great place to fly kites. And it is a pretty good for that activity. But our bay’s prevailing winds are onshore rather than the offshore winds that are common in Oregon. That means that our beach is not a very good place to fly kites at high tide because they will be swept into the power lines and other obstacles next to the beach.

So I’m not going to make any predictions for how March will go this year. I know that the fact that it is March already is a bit of a surprise to me. Time seems to speed up as I age, a phenomenon that has been reported to me by many friends. Perhaps the best part is that I know March is capable of surprising me and I still enjoy surprises.

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