Learning with children

Krista Tippett, host of the Radio Show “On Being” has on several occasions referred to a Jewish proverb that also has a version in Islam. The basic idea is that before a child is born, the angel Gabriel tells him everything, all the secrets of the universe, then kisses him on the forehead, and he begins gradually to forget it all. I like the story, though I don’t think I’ve ever encountered it from any other source, so I don’t know how popular or prevalent it is in Judaism or Islam.

Part of what is attractive about the story is that it gives us a different way to think about childhood and growing. The model we carry in our minds most of the time is just the opposite. We think of children as being born with very few abilities and very little knowledge and they process of their growing as one of gaining knowledge and information and abilities. I suspect that our usual way of thinking is, actually, more helpful than the proverb, but I like to look at things that I take for granted from a different perspective.

There is something wonderfully special about being a grandparent. We get to look at the precious infants and children in our lives from a slightly different perspective than we viewed our own children. Even though our grandchildren live many miles from us, we have the luxury of getting to know them pretty well through visits and regular video conversations over the computer. And we live in the era of instant pictures and videos. We get fresh pictures of our youngest grandson nearly every day. And most days we have new pictures of all of our grandchildren. Pictures and video clips aren’t the same as being with them, but they are a gift of great value.

I don’t think the proverb is literally accurate. The great wisdom of infants and children isn’t the product of having lots of information - of knowing everything - but rather a product of being open to everything. Children greet each new experience as something to be explored and discovered. Our six-month-old grandson tries to taste every object with which he comes into contact. He picks things up and put them in his mouth. His parents, of course, are extremely careful about which things are within his reach. There are lots of choking hazards and things that should not go into a young child’s mouth. He certainly reminds me of Psalm 34: “O taste and see that the LORD is good.”

What we seem to lose as we grow and age is not information. We don’t become less knowledgeable unless a stroke or other brain injury causes trauma. We do become more set in our ways and less open to newness and being influenced by new information. Our attitude changes.

It seems to me that in general our culture in the part of the world where I live is a bit less appreciative of experience and wisdom than once was the case. Youth is valued in many job searches and often trumps experience. Mid-level executive jobs are often occupied by people with far less experience than was the case a few decades ago. There are jobs where those hiring would have never considered someone without a broad experience base twenty years ago that are now occupied by people with little or no experience. Those younger and less experienced people possess other qualities and skills that make them attractive to employers, not the least of which is a level of comfort and skill with computers and social media. In the balance of youth and experience vs age and experience, the pendulum has swung a little bit towards youth. I’m pretty sure that i would have argued for such a swing earlier in my career. I was often told that I need not consider applying for a particular position because I lacked the prerequisite experience.

I don’t get told that any more. Most people consider me to be near the end of my career. They don’t expect me to be honing my resume and looking for another job. I understand that. There are times when it is appropriate to step aside and allow others to assume leadership. It is, however, a new experience for me to put myself into the category of “the old guy.” I remember, in seminary, a conversation with a teacher and mentor who at the time was 74 years old. The topic was ministry to and with older persons. In those days the term we used was “senior citizens.” As we talked I suddenly realized that when speaking of these older persons, I was thinking of my teacher’s generation. He, whose mother was still alive at 94, was thinking of her generation and not including himself in the category of “senior citizen.” I play the same game. I’ve been tossing membership appeals from AARP for the last 15 years. I don’t really think of myself as being an elder, even though I’m considerably oder than my colleagues serving congregations in the region. I’m older than the Conference minister and the Associate Conference Ministers. I’m older than the people who serve in leadership positions in the national meeting of our church. I read about colleagues who are retiring who are a few years younger than I. Just this week I read a Facebook post from a friend and colleague who wrote, “After 40 yers I am going to retire at the end of June. We’ll move to the Preacher’s Aid Society’s enclave in Wells, ME - put out to an old Methodist pastor’s pasture.” It’s probably no big deal, but I started as a pastor two years ahead of this particular colleague, and I struggle to use the word retire when I think of the next phase of my life.

What I understand from all of this is that the next part of my life will involve taking advantage of as many opportunities as possible to observe, listen to, and share space with children and youth. The idea of moving to a place that is geared around the lives of retired persons holds no appeal for me. The idea of living near my grandchildren and having time to volunteer in their school does. There is much to be learned from children and much to be said for discovering ways to keep relationships between children and elders strong and healthy.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Fidget Spinners

Chief Justice John Roberts, who is presiding over the impeachment trail in the United States Senate, is a pretty low key judge. He isn’t quick to admonish the managers or the defense. He did make one statement to both sides, intending his comments to be taken equally by both, asking them to remember the decorum required of the somber occasion. From what I can tell by reading accounts and watching a few video clips he has maintained order through the hours of arguments that are being presented. At one point he did state that the United States State was the world’s greatest deliberative body.

I think that this observation is mistaken. The senate, especially in recent years, has not demonstrated much ability when it comes to deliberation. The U.S. House of Representatives has passed over 400 bills that have not even been taken up for debate in the United States Senate. Since the Senate refused to even debate the appointment of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, the Senate has been marked not by deliberation but by blocking action. The chamber is divided into two sides so that Democrats and Republicans can enter the chamber and go to their seats without even talking to each other. Speeches are made on the floor of the Senate without anyone listening. Senators have developed a lot of very bad habits that wouldn’t be tolerated in a high school classroom.

There is more deliberation in a single high school debate than the United State Senate displays in an entire year. There is a great tradition of deliberation in the Senate, but the current generation certainly does not live up to that tradition.

As I watched a bit of the trial, I wondered what it must feel like to be Chief Justice Roberts. He can’t avoid noticing that the Senators act like bored children. They rush to the cloak roam to use their phones when the other side is talking. Senator Richard Burr was passing out fidget spinners. At least three Senators, including Burr were spotted playing with the devices during the trial. In any other proceeding in any courtroom in the United States the judge would admonish those so childishly distracting others. So far the entire proceeding seems to be nearly pointless because there appear to be no senators willing to listen and weigh evidence. They have all made up their minds about the vote. They all had their minds made up before the proceeding began. Surprises are very unlikely.

Again, I am wondering how this must feel to Justice Roberts. After all, his name will forever be associated with the decision of the Supreme Court that set up the conditions under which the impeachment is proceeding. John Roberts wrote the initial opinion of the Supreme Court in the case known as Citizens United v. FEC. That decision opened the door for unlimited money in political campaigns, judged corporate bodies to have the same speech rights as individuals and opened the floodgates to such excessive spending in political campaigns that US Senators have become focused only on their funders and have largely forgotten their constituents. Instead of representing the citizens of states, US Senators now represent the interests of highly wealthy, and often anonymous, donors.

The chaos that Roberts has to face every day of the Impeachment trial is a chaos in which he had a large part creating. I wonder how it feels to him.

The kind of civics education that was taken for granted when I was in high school has now fallen by the wayside. In my high school experience, as was common at the time, we had three separate courses in civics and government that were required for graduation. These days only nine states and the District of Columbia require one year of high school civics education. Thirty require a half year. South Dakota is one of those states. Our neighbors in Nebraska and Montana are among the eleven states that require no civics education. With this stunning decline in basic education in how government works, or is supposed to work, we shouldn’t be surprised that Americans are willing to accept minority rule. Two institutions that are bastions of minority rule, historic leftovers of the time of slavery, are the United States Senate and the Electoral College. Both are institutions which function to override the will of the majority. Those we have a US President who lost the popular vote. And he isn’t the first one. And we have a senate where legislation can be blockaded and members are allowed to spend more time raising funds from a few selected donors than they do listening the the citizens of the states they are supposed to represent. And the citizens of those states have come to believe that they have little power to change the situation.

The system is broken.

I wonder what it feels like to Chief Justice John Roberts to be officiating at a trial where despite official rules and protocols, those who should be listening and carefully deliberating are not taking their responsibilities seriously. Before the proceedings began, the Chief Justice swore a solemn oath to “do impartial justice.” Then he administered that oath to the senators. At least two of whom, Senators McConnell and Graham, had already publicly declared that they have no intention of honoring that oath. McConnell said on Fox News: “Everything I do during this, I’m coordinating with the White House counsel. there will be no difference between the President’s position and our position as to how we handle this to the extent that we can.” Graham said, “I am trying to give a pretty clear signal I have made up my mind. I’m not trying to pretend to be a fair juror here.”

So much for sacred oaths.

Political grandstanding for the sake of attracting the attention of potential donors to ludicrously expensive campaigns should make every citizen of the country concerned. This trial is a test of the resilience of this fragile experiment in democracy that we call our nation.

the legacy of the Chief Justice is just one of the things that hangs in the balance as we proceed. These are perilous times. And the senators are handing out fidget spinners because they are bored. How I wish they would pay attention.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

At the edge of life and death

Got a text message from a friend last night informing me that a mutual friend, who lives out of state “Is in full kidney failure, not expected to last much longer.” At this point in my career such news isn’t exactly “new.” I’ve experienced the death of friends, even those who, like this one, are younger than I. Two of my sisters and one of my brothers has died. I’m old enough to know that my generation will go the way of our forebears. We are mortal. We won’t go on forever.

Thinking of our friend, I tried to imagine how things are for him and his family. He’s been through a lot of health challenges and problems over the years. He is a brittle diabetic - lost a leg to complications of that disease a few years ago. There must have been a series of really tough decisions along the road for him, his wife and their children. End-stage renal disease is most often treated through dialysis with the hope that a kidney transplant might become available. I know people who have been dependent on dialysis for years as they await the outcome of the disease. I also know a few who have been lucky enough to obtain kidney transplant. Years ago another friend received both a kidney and a pancreas in a transplant and had a wonderful period of health following the operation. He was free from diabetes for that time and was able to live without the restrictions of dialysis multiple times each week. The end result, however, was a premature death. It didn’t last. None of us last forever.

When your kidneys are not able to filter the wastes and excess fluids that are in your body, all sorts of things get out of balance. Fluid starts to build up. Your feet and ankles swell. Worse, fluid build up around your heart. You can experience chest pain and shortness of breath. Sometimes fluid builds up in the lungs themselves. Your blood pressure rises. Nausea, vomiting, fatigue and weakness and sleep problems increase. You start to itch all over and the itch can’t be satisfied. Your muscles cramp and twitch. As all of these problems increase, your mental sharpness fades.

I don’t know what decisions our friend has made, but it sounds like they have decided to forego dialysis and simply provide care for the symptoms. His wife is an experienced pastor who has certainly been at the bedside of many who have made different end of life choices. She is a realist who has officiated at enough funerals to know that grief is a reality that cannot be avoided. I have no doubt that they have had long conversations about quality of life and the choices that need to be made.

He was such a jock. I am so not a jock. That didn’t stop us from being friends or having a lot of interests in common. He taught me a lot through the process of being an athlete who had to learn to walk with a prothesis and readjust his life to a permanent disability. He taught me that dietary restrictions and a chronic disease don’t have to rob you of your joy of living. His laugh was so deep and hearty that it filled every room he entered.

She demonstrated that a person can be spitting mad at someone and still love that someone unreservedly. There has always been fire and spunk in their relationship. They can disagree and love fully at the same time. My heart breaks when I think of her at his bedside. The skills honed over a career of being a pastor are of no help when it is your spouse whose hand you are holding. Theories of life and death and resurrection and grief and healing are all distant thoughts, but not immediately relevant to the moment. Her vigil is surrounded by a huge community of people who care, pray and offer support, but ultimately a hospital can be a lonely place when there are no more words for your prayers and no place you want to be than right where you are, even though you aren’t sure how you ended up in that place.

A different friend, who is a physician, commented to me in a conversation last week that no matter how much we learn, death is always a mystery. It forces us to face the unknowable. Some who have been resuscitated from near death experiences report a dream-like quality to the experience. Others have no memories of that period of time. I imagine that our friend’s mind is clouded by the disease and the drugs that are administered to treat the symptoms. Comfort care almost certainly means a reduced awareness of what is going on and perhaps a reduced ability to relate to the loved ones drawn to your bedside. It may be like hovering on the edge of sleep, dozing at moments, aware at others, but not really able to focus you attention.

Knowing my friend, his natural athleticism will be a factor. He isn’t the kind of person who simply gives up. Even if he had made the mental decision to accept death, his body has a great deal of strength and he has lived his life pushing the limits and the odds. This could take a bit of time. Not that time has much meaning at the border of life and death.

We join the vigil that is taking place there. I even thought of what I might say in a sympathy card when the vigil comes to its conclusion, though it is too early to write such a missive. Their sons are about the same age I was when my father died. His wife could easily have decades of widowhood like my mother. Life goes on. Even though we never get over the loss, we are not disabled by our grief. We speak of resurrection and reunion and we live in hope, but we realize that those, too, are mysteries that we do not fully understand.

Mystery inspires awe and wonder. “O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder . . .”

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Exercise for endurance

Back in the 1970’s I was teaching stress management to Chicago executives as part of my internship with the Wholistic Health Care Center. We knew then that exercise was an important factor in building mental health. The research was fairly clear even though physicians did not know all of the mechanisms. People who developed regular patterns of exercise exhibited a more positive outlook on life and reported less emotional distress. Because we were dealing with people who had very demanding jobs and struggled with work/family balance, we began using the term “exercise for endurance” and promoting exercise programs because they enabled people to function in high stress positions with a greater deal of success. All of this was before we had the kinds of data that now is readily available from wearable devices. It was before the days of personal trainers and boutique gyms in every strip mall.

Exercise is big business in America today. People are willing to pay for memberships in gyms and follow exercise routines prescribed by trainers. The style of training offered by various gyms covers a wide range from low impact to intense. Yoga and Pilates contrast with CrossFit, but all share a claim to affect the entire body and yield mental and psychological benefits as well as physical strength and weight loss.

I have never been particularly attached to any brand of workout. I do not belong to a gym. I tried a gym membership and was given a workout routine by a trainer, but found that the process of having to have an extra set of clothes and to shower after a workout disrupted my day. The gym didn’t open early enough in the day for my personal schedule. That problem could easily be addressed with all of the 24/7 fitness centers now available. The other issue I had with the gym was the presence of so many televisions in the room with the cardio machines. I’m not a television watcher. Having multiple screens with different programs is very distracting for me. I don’t find it to be mentally relaxing or peace inducing to have so much visual stimulation flooding into the room.

What I have discovered for myself personally is that the place for exercise for me is outdoors. I enjoy rowing and walking and simply being outdoors. Since we have adopted our current routine of walking every day there has only been one day when we decided to take half of our walk indoors due to weather. For the most part, binding up and going out to walk, even when it is cold and windy is a good way to restore our spirits.

It does help to have a partner with whom to share the exercise. We encourage and push each other in positive ways.

I have also found that walking is an easy fit in my daily routine. There are a couple of days each week when I have standing meetings that take place about a mile and a half from my office. Instead of getting in the car and allowing 15 minutes to get to the meeting, I allow a half hour for coming and going and walk the distance. I arrive with more energy and focus than when I drive. I save the wear and tear on the car. I get to know some of the folks in the neighborhood who are out and about. I walk by a school where children are playing in the yard and am reminded of their importance in our community and I arrive with a real sense of what the weather is doing. Furthermore, since I am walking, I don’t need a shower before I can sit down and get to work.

There is no perfect solution for each individual. there are injuries and illnesses the prevent their victims from engaging in intense exercise. I have friends who really love their gym memberships and are very committed to the routines they find there. They report all of the positive mental and emotional effects of exercise that I realize from being outdoors and pursuing my style of exercise.

For the last four decades, I have been engaged in a profession that has a degree of flexibility when it comes to schedule, but it also has long and demanding days. There are phone calls that come in the middle of the night and interruptions that defy attempts at establishing routines. There are times when duty not only calls, but disrupts what I had planned. When I am on call and need to be available to respond to a suicide, for example, I cannot be a half hour away from my car. Some days I need to squeeze in an extra call that is across town and I have to give up some of the time that I had planned to exercise. I’ve developed a few “work arounds” for those events. I’ve learned to take the stairways instead of the elevators in our ten-story hospital. I can speed up my walking when heading to meetings in all kinds of locations. Sometimes, I can simply park farther away from my destination and gain a bit of exercise.

The bottom line is that I need the exercise to have the mental alertness and emotional stability that is required of the work I do. I need to pay attention to myself and my needs and care for myself enough that I have the energy and focus to pay attention to the needs of others.

After four decades, I am still learning. This winter has been a season of developing new routines and upping the mileage of my walks. Most days I’m investing an hour in just walking. I still haven’t found out how to make more hours in the day. I experience the same limits as others.

That adage from the beginning of my career rings true today. Exercise for endurance is essential to keeping up the pace of the work that I do.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Outdoor symphony

As soon as we parked the car we could hear the cacophony of geese. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands, temporarily camped out at the golf course across the street. Certainly there were enough to make golfers spitting mad. I have friends who are golfers and I had one of them in my pickup as we drove by recently. On the other hand, the birds are an amazement and amusement to birders. I have a birder friend with whom I regularly meet who can go on and on about getting a perfect photo of a Cackling Goose with a Canada Goose together. Valuing both friendships, I try to stay somewhat neutral on the subject.

The sound of the geese reminded me of an orchestra tuning up - not the gentle first sounds when the oboe and concert master sound their pure and precise notes - but the sounds that come later after everyone has matched the concert A and have gone on to tuning up other notes and finally playing a few arpeggios or even a difficult passage from one of the pieces that is coming up - the sound just before the orchestra goes silent for the conductor to make a grand entrance.

We walked alongside the street and soon were walking right next to the creek below the dam. The creek has its own tonality and rhythm, a subtle blend of higher pitched notes that come from the surface as the water dances around rocks and a deeper set of tones coming from the broader flow of the river. As we approached the dam, the sound changed because the spillway is so even that the water is all the same depth, flowing over a very uniform surface, sending up a consistent spray as it rushes along. A short walk up a steeper part of the pathway got us above the dam, where there is a little bit of open water before we got to the ice. There is always water running underneath the ice at Canyon Lake, and usually there is open water at both ends of the lake. We had some pretty cold days last week, so the ice has thickened, but there is still a good third or more of the lake that is open. On the open water the ducks were chiming in with a different pitch than the geese who were flying overhead. The geese reminded me of a group of politicians engaged in constant argument. Everyone was trying to get in their own comments. I wondered if they were having a discussion about where they were going or maybe even about the preferred route or altitude for the flight. Underneath them, mostly on the liquid water, but a few standing on the ice, the ducks were like a group of old men at the corner table in the cafe, still having a conversation, but with deeper pitches and lower volume. They were sort of grumbling along as they paddled or waddles around.

As we walked by the ice, it was adding its own notes to the symphony. The air was moving under the ice, seeking the highest elevation and pushing bubbles through the liquid water. The ice itself was cracking and the echoes were ringing across the lake. I am not an ice fisherman, and the ice was just barely thick enough to encourage a lone ice fisherman out on it. Were I an ice fisherman, I would have been so distracted by the sounds the ice was making that I wouldn’t be enjoying the fishing. It isn’t like the lake is frozen into one solid, thick layer of ice. There are open areas on the lake big enough to sink into really cold water. Most of the lake isn’t very deep, but still I don’t think a trip through the ice would be any fun at all.

There are some points around the lake where you can hear all of the sounds at once, the ice, the ducks, the geese. As we walked across the bridge, there was even a bit of the gurgle of flowing water to be heard in the background, like a bit of a descant added to the regular verse.

We were walking for exercise, so we were keeping our pace going, our footfalls on the pavement making their own rhythm. Occasionally we’d step into a bit of old snow or on the edge of a piece of ice making crunching and crackling sounds. And we are not youngsters, so our pace was making us breathe a bit deeper than our usual and after a while we were both breathing through our mouths as well as our noses so there was a fair amount of huffing and puffing coming from us. It wasn’t enough to bother the geese as we walked onto the island and out onto a narrow spit that stretches towards the lodge like a kind of breakwater, though there are no waves to “break.” The crunch of the gravel was a new sound, different from the other surfaces on which we had been walking.

Farther along we passed a spruce tree that was alive with little birds. They were difficult to see individual markings because of the heavy foliage, but they might have been junkos or some other small birds. They made the tree seem to quiver with excitement and their high pitched libretto added a new sound to the outdoor symphony.

A walk up the creek and around the lake is a visual treat. There is a lot to see and the large numbers of birds attracted to the area makes it fun to watch all of the motion and activity from splashes to swoops to dives and aerobatics. Yesterday, however, I was struck by what an aural experience it is to take a short walk. The sounds of a place are as distinctive and beautiful as are the sights. Walking in an unfamiliar place can be a world of discovery, but walking a path that we have walked many times before has its own surprises.

What a treat it is to have the gift of being able to hear. For that I am very grateful.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!