February 2021

Again and again

The Revised Common Lectionary does an interesting thing with texts. Sometimes the assigned readings for the day repeat the basic stories of another season of the year. Today’s ratings are an example of that. Two weeks ago, on Transfiguration Sunday, the Gospel was Mark 9:2-9, Mark’s version of the transfiguration story. Mark’s Gospel is the shortest, so in the middle year of the lectionary cycle, year B, the readings are somewhat shorter. In addition, readings from John are more liberally scattered throughout the year than in some other years of the cycle. Then today, on the Second Sunday of Lent, we return to the story of the transfiguration. Today’s Gospel is Mark 8:31-Mark 9:9. The entire transfiguration story is read again, this time with a bit of context.

One of the reasons for following the readings fo the lectionary is repetition. We learn by repetition. Those who follow the lectionary return again and again to texts that they have read before. Every three years, we cycle through the worship readings and then return to cycle through them again. My career as a preacher involved 14 trips through that three-year cycle. The texts became familiar and then they became friends and then they challenged me.

Lent is a critical season for Christians because it is our time to face hard realities, accept our mortality, and practice the process of grief. In the early yeas of Christianity, Lent was the season of preparation for membership in the church. It was a six-week journey through the texts, traditions and theology of Christianity, culminating in the story of the Resurrection on Easter and membership in the community. That celebration came only after a serious period of fasting, praying, studying and preparing. In the contemporary church, Lent retains its somber tone, but some of the more severe practices have fallen away. We might join our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers eating fish on Fridays from time to time, but we’ve largely given up fasting as a discipline. Many Christians have no sense that there are any dietary regulations in the faith, for they have been relegated to the past in most churches.

But we cannot escape the hard realities of this life. We are mortal. Not only will we experience death, but we also will be called to walk the journey of grief with the death of those we love. Grief is a part of life itself. You might not know it from listening to some of the preachers of the prosperity gospel, who speak only of the benefits of belief.

Today’s Gospel, however, reports of a particularly hard conversation between Peter and Jesus. Jesus had begun to teach his disciples about his own death. They were challenged by that kind of thinking. They had expected the Messiah to escape death. They wanted the promise of eternal life to mean that they wouldn’t have to grieve or experience pain. Here was the one they believed to be the messiah proclaiming that he himself would die. This wasn’t part of their thinking. They wanted the coming of the messiah to mean that death and pain could be avoided. Peter was upset enough about it to take Jesus aside to speak with him privately. Mark’s gospel reports that Peter “rebuked” Jesus. It leaves the exact words of the exchange to our imagination, but it isn’t difficult to picture the emotional intensity of Peter’s argument: “Jesus, tell us about your triumphal entry into Jerusalem and about the vanquishing of the Romans and about eternal life in your kingdom. We don’t want to hear about sorrow and sadness and death and destruction.”

The reading of this text as a prelude to the transfiguration reminds us that it wasn’t just Jesus’ appearance that changed. The understanding of who the messiah was and of the very nature of salvation itself was transformed in the eyes of the disciples, who began the journey of deeper faith and a way of thinking about God not in terms of an unlimited span of time, but of a whole new way of thinking about time and life and death.

Again and again we come back to the familiar readings and again and again we are invited into a deeper faith.

When I was a child, a somewhat heated discussion arose in our congregation. The materials promoting One Great Hour of Sharing, an offering received during Lent, included a filmstrip that contained pictures of malnourished children and poverty housing. One of the adults in our church thought that such pictures were not appropriate for children to see “especially right before Easter.” Others argued that shielding children from the harsh realities of the world was not appropriate and that there was more to Easter than candy eggs and new clothing. You can imagine how closely we paid attention to the film strip after having overheard part of our parents’ discussion of it. I can still picture the children with distended bellies eating rice with their bare hands. I can remember the black and white photos of tar shack houses with mud for floors and no furniture.

Again and again, we have to hear Jesus words that suffering and grief are not to be avoided, but rather to be shared. Following Jesus is not a path of avoiding suffering, but rather choosing to pick up a cross. Believing in Jesus is not a way to avoid death, but an assurance that even in death, God is with us.

In the congregation where we are worshiping here in Washington, the theme for Lent this year is “Again and again.” Today’s message will be “Again and again we listen.” We repeat the process again and again in part because it is difficult. We go back to the familiar texts. We listen over and over in part because “God has yet more truth and light to break forth from the holy word.” We are still learning. God is still speaking.

Retirement is teaching me that there is a time to step aside and allow others to take the lead. There is genuine grief in not being in the role of preacher and teacher of a congregation. I miss our people. I miss the work. OK, I don’t really miss all of the meetings, but I do miss being involved in the day to day life of the church. Lent is the season when I practiced for the seasons of grief in my own life. It is a lesson that I need to learn again and again.

Grateful for giggles

Sometimes I find myself engaged in silly conversations where miscommunication gives us the giggles. Usually there is a fair amount of misinformation or a lack of information to go with the miscommunication. Last night we found ourselves in stitches trying to discuss a silly topic. Susan and I both received wrapped packages earlier in the day. The packages contained books, chosen for our reading. We were comparing our books and the notes that came with them. I noted that Susan had kept the ribbon from her package while I had tossed the ribbon from my package out with the tissue paper wrapping. She noted that her ribbon was a cloth ribbon. I couldn’t remember for sure, but I don’t think my package was wrapped with a cloth ribbon. I said mine had a zip ribbon. I didn’t just say “zip” however. I made a sound effect like the sound made when curling ribbon with a scissor blade. That got a laugh from all of us and it took me a while to explain what I meant.

I confessed that I didn’t have the name for paper curling ribbon. Susan said that she thought that it was just called paper ribbon. That prompted us to pull out our phones to look it up on the Internet. It turns out that the ribbon isn’t fancy paper after all, but polypropylene, a synthetic fabric. On the other hand searching for “paper curling ribbon” brings up the product from dozens of vendors in an Internet search.

The silliness of the evening brought about memories of a thousand other “arguments” in which one of us has tried to convince the other of some bit of trivial information. Up until the time when we both became familiar with the use of our smartphones to explore the Internet, we always kept an unabridged dictionary near our dining table, handy for use in looking up a variety of different things. At one point we had two unabridged dictionaries, a Websters and a slightly more conservative American Heritage. The presence of a dictionary at the dining table was completely natural for me. I grew up in a household where the dictionary was always at hand. One of the treasures that I retained for most of my adult life was the dictionary stand on casters that my Uncle Ted made. It finally found a new home as we prepared for this move, but the unabridged dictionary is still in a box in our garage. I can’t quite give it up, even though I have access to the entire Oxford English Dictionary online.

Our daughter, however, was quick to point out, when she was a teenager, that other “normal” families didn’t keep a dictionary at the dining table and didn’t interrupt their dinners to look up the spelling of obscure terms or to settle a disagreement. Until she brought it up, I hadn’t thought about it much at all. Certainly I had shared many pleasant meals in the homes of friends where there was no dictionary present. I was definitely capable of carrying on pleasant mealtime conversation without looking up things in the dictionary. On the other hand, at our house, I liked to have the dictionary close at hand even if we frequently put it away on the bottom shelf of a table in the living room when we had guests for dinner.

During the times when we were hosting exchange students, we always kept Spanish-English or Japanese-English dictionaries close at hand for use in bridging language and culture.

So I admitted then, and I still confess that I am aware that our family is a bit unusual in our love of dictionaries and words. Our daughter, who is no longer a teenager, now joins right in with our discussions and conversations and often is the first to turn to her phone and the Internet to do a bit of research to back up a point in a conversation.

In my aging years I have the luxury of a son who is a librarian who will help me with research into any topic I choose. I have no idea how many of my journal entries were inspired or at least informed by conversations I’ve had with our son about topics that are obscure and probably not the stuff of everyday conversation. One of the things that I absolutely love about him is how he will explain the details of science or medicine to his children using a vocabulary that is well beyond their stage of development. Big vocabularies are valued in our family.

Having said that, I didn’t have the correct name for “Crimped Curling Ribbon” when I was trying to describe a simple package that I had unwrapped yesterday. I probably should have looked it up before I said anything. But if I had done that, we would have missed out on the laughter. And the laughter is a treasure that I don’t want to miss.

The other thing that got us to giggling last night was a trait that we all share. Our daughter announced that she was getting tired and was going to head for bed. I said I would do the same. In our family, our daughter and I are usually early to bed and early to rise while our son and his mother tend to stay up later at night and linger in bed in the morning for a few minutes longer than we do. Fifteen minutes later, I commented to our daughter, “It is a good thing that you went to bed a while ago so you can catch up on your sleep.” Of course she hadn’t gone to bed yet. We found other things to talk about for a while after I made the comment. And as for catching up on her sleep, she had a nineteen-month-old son. I frequently joke that she slept all the way through the night once when she was five years old. And she was still a fairly good excuse for my not sleeping when she was in her early twenties. I lost a lot of sleep over that girl, and it doesn’t seem to have injured me. If she loses a bit of sleep to her son, I feel like it is simple justice.

But it is good, perhaps especially so when you are tired, to go to bed with a smile on your face and a silly story to tell. Sometimes it even inspires an essay.

The chicks are in!

2021-02-26-A
On Wednesday, the Lenten study group at our church was meeting over Zoom. Our facilitator asked us to share one thing about Holy Week that we remembered as part of our introductions. I have so many Holy Week memories that it was hard for me to give a single memory as an example. Maundy Thursday services came to mind, but it was more of a category than a single memory. When it was my turn, I shared a Maundy Thursday memory. After class, I started to think of decades of Lenten Memories. It wasn’t just Holy Week, but rather the entire season that sparks memory upon memory, layer upon layer. My memories are not just of church events, but because I was raised in a family that was active in church, the memories of church blend with other memories of the season.

One of my Lenten memories is the birth of donkey colts. My father was a bit of a hobby farmer. We usually had a few animals even though our income came from providing services to farmers, not from being farmers ourselves. We raised a few donkeys back when the US Forest Service bought donkeys for trail work in the high country. Dad tried to have a new donkey colt for Palm Sunday each year. The gestation period for a Spanish burro is about a year and can vary quite a bit. Generally a Jenny produces a single colt every other year, with breeding and birthing taking place in the same general season. Palm Sunday, however, moves around the calendar, falling between March 15 and April 18. Some years we got lucky and had a young colt for Palm Sunday and some years we didn’t. On year, the colt was born on Easter. We named her Hallelujah, which quickly got shortened to Lulu.

Another Lenten memory that mixes the secular with church in my mind is the arrival of the year’s chicks. We tried to have chicks in stock at the store. Nearly every year a few were sold individually to folks around town as part of Easter baskets. A few of them would raise their chick, but most of them ended up bringing the chicks back to our store. We raised whatever chicks went unsold for the freezer, so we had chickens from the spring through the fall, but didn’t keep them over the winter. The day the chicks arrived in the spring was always an exciting day. At least once it landed on a Saturday when we didn’t have school and I got to go with my dad to the post office to pick up the chicks first thing in the morning. The chicks arrived at the post office by truck during the night and the postmaster was eager to have them picked up. There were a few other big customers on chick day, notably the Hutterite colony up north, but we received several cartons of peeping masses of chicks. We took the chicks to the shop where we had a stock tank filled with bedding material, wood shavings and a bit of hay. There were heat lamps suspended over the stock tank to keep the chicks warm. We mixed up a powdered supplement with water and filled the waterers in the stock tank. Then the chicks came out of the cartons one by one. We held their beaks in the water until they took a swallow, then released that chick in the stock tank and took the next one from the carton. Dad could do two at a time, one in each hand, but I couldn’t make their beaks go in the water unless I handled them one at a time.

Well, the chicks came in yesterday. Not cartons and cartons of chicks, just a dozen. Here, the feed store takes advance orders and tries to get the customers to pick them up the same day they arrive. Chicks still travel in the mail along with other parcels. Last year our son’s family got six laying chickens. As is not unusual, five turned out to be hens and one was a rooster. The rooster found a new home after being listed on Craigslist for a few days. The hens produce eggs for the household. This year, they added a dozen to the flock. The feed store is in the town where we live, so the chicks and our grandchildren came to our house for a few hours in preparation for the trip to the farm. We set up a heat lamp and set up our brooder in a moving box. The chicks got their beaks dipped and then were left to feed while the children played and their mom tried to catch up on a bit of work. I know that I have a “no pets” clause in my lease agreement, but no damage occurred to the house during the temporary visit and these aren’t technically pets because they will be raised to be working birds, producing eggs for the family.

Our nineteen-month-old grandson was absolutely fascinated by the chicks. He required constant supervision whenever he was in the room with the chicks. The heat lamp was too hot to touch and the chicks were too little and fragile for his tiny hands. We held a couple so he could touch their down. Like the rest of us the song of their cheeping drew him to the brooder box.

I don’t know if he will remember the day the chicks arrived. I can’t place memories from that early in my life. My earliest memory comes from when I was about a year older than he is now. Certainly his cousins will remember the arrival of chicks, but they may not remember individual years, but the year that the chicks visited grandma and grandpa on their way to the farm may be distinct form other years when they look back. I don’t know if any of them will make a connection between Lent and the arrival of the chicks.

But they will remember that tiny birds need constant care. They will remember that life has cycles with a season for the chicks to arrive and a season for grown chickens to produce eggs for the table.

And the chicks sparked plenty of memories for grandpa, who this year can just watch and occasionally help feed the chickens with the real work of caring for the tiny birds falling to the younger generations. The brooder was moved to the farm and my house was quiet by the time I headed for bed to dream and remember.

Sacred places

2021-02-25-A
In 2006, with a grant from the Lily Foundation, we were able to take a sabbatical that focused on sacred spaces. Like many Lily Clergy Renewal grants, our adventure included a significant amount of travel. We explored some of the Canadian west, from the Rockies to the coast, reading stories of the indigenous people and visiting beautiful places. We traveled with friends around Australia, visiting Uluru and other sites in the center of the continent as well as spending time on the island of Tasmania. We listened to the stories of special places that had been recognized by people as sacred for thousands of years.

In preparation for that sabbatical, I made a few pilgrimages to sacred places that were close to our home in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The hills have been known as sacred to a dozen or more tribes for as long as we have recorded history of the place. It is easy to see why people saw the places as sacred. Bear Butte, also known as Paha Mato, stands a bit away from the main hills. A climb to its top winds around the butte, past tobacco ties in the brush and above sweat lodges constructed on the slopes. For Lakota people it is a place of vision where young people went to discover their vocation. It continues to be a place for clarifying prayer. From the top of the butte there is a spectacular view of the hills to the south and the plains to the north. On a clear day you can see three states.

At Mato Tipi, also known as Devil’s Tower, visitors are respectfully requested to refrain from climbing. The rock monolith is traditionally experienced by walking around it. You can see from miles away how it became an important meeting place for semi-nomadic people who followed the buffalo. It was easy to describe, even to someone who had not previously seen it. It is a unique feature in a big land.

Climbing to the top of Black Elk Peak affords a way of sensing the geography and geology of the Black Hills. It helps one to understand why so many generations of people saw the hills not as a place to own or stay permanently, but as a place to go to renew the spirit and get a sense of one’s place in the world.

I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to live in the hills for a quarter of a century, to have had deer and turkeys for neighbors and the wind in the pine trees to lull me to sleep at night. I was blessed to be able to walk on paths that wandered through the trees and to climb to vistas where I could see for miles.

Just up the street from the church where we worked for those years is a narrow path that leads up the side of a ridge called Skyline. The view from the top of the ridge allows a look at the western and eastern sides of Rapid City from above. We became familiar with walking on the trails in a wilderness park that was developed to preserve some of the land from development. Memories of walking there and having access to that beautiful place to restore my perspective in the midst of a job that was at times stressful will remain with me for all of my life.

2021-02-25-B
I was thinking of some of the high places in the hills, and some of the walks that lead to places of vista yesterday as we were taking a walk around Little Mountain. Little Mountain is a hill in Mount Vernon that is preserved as a wilderness park for hiking and biking. There is a road that goes to the top and miles of trails that wind around the hill. It reminds me of Skyline in Rapid City, but there are some significant differences. The trees are taller. There are ferns and dense undergrowth. At the top of Little Mountain, on a clear day, you can see snow-capped mountains to the north and east rising ten thousand feet above the city. And, when you look to the east you can see the ocean, dotted with islands, themselves with striking hills and mountains.

I enjoy making photographs, but I have never been able to create photographs that fully capture the places I have visited. The beauty of the places exceeds the images that I am able to record. Still, I enjoy looking at the pictures we have taken and I came away from our walk yesterday with more pictures to enjoy.

There is something in the human spirit that is renewed by the beauty of the world. A stunning sunrise or sunset can give fresh energy to a time of day when one feels drowsy. The climb to a vista can help one rediscover a place in the world and the calling for one’s life. Our eyes allow us to perceive a particular part of the spectrum of light and color that we behold as beauty. Sight and sound and smell combine as a single sensation instead of distinct experiences. A sip of water tastes glorious when partaken in a place of beauty. The touch of a hand becomes a sacrament. We don’t have the language to describe the sensations and so we call the place holy.

One of the benefits of having lived for many decades is the knowledge that there is great beauty in many places. Comparison fails. It is not that one place is more or less beautiful than another, but rather that when we approach the world with open eyes and open arms it rushes at us with beauty in different ways in different places. Seeing the mountains and the ocean from a single vantage point is a refreshing experience, but no more or less beautiful than kneeling next to the first pasque flower emerging from the prairie or watching the buffalo cross the badlands.

Fortunately for us there are prayers that do not require words and praise that doesn’t require loud noises. For we are surrounded by the beauty of sacred places.

Milk and butter

In the late 1950’s our father expanded his business. His primary business was aviation. Both of my parents were pilots and our father ran the airport in our small town. He did whatever it took to earn money with airplanes, including selling them, maintaining them, flying charter, flying agricultural applications, running an air ambulance service, flying fire patrol, flight instruction, flying game counts, and providing aviation services to the National Forest Service and the National Parks. The operation was fairly small, but he usually had a couple of other pilots and a mechanic working for him. The expansion took him in a more land-based direction. He bought a local farm supply store that included a John Deere farm implement franchise and the local Purina Chows warehouse/dealership. Among the products handled in the Farm Supply Store were tools and general hardware as well as Delaval Cream Separators.

My first jobs in the Farm Supply store included sweeping the feed warehouse and some elementary assembly of items for display in the shop. The business was based on service and it was common for our father to go to the store after hours or on Sundays to provide necessary parts or service to get a farmer back into the field. One day he took me along on a late afternoon visit to a local dairy where they had a Delaval milking system. There was some problem with the milkers and the farmer was forced to hand milk his cows. For the next couple of days while we waited for the parts to be express shipped, we went to that farm morning and evening and helped with the milking. My uncle had a single dairy cow and milked by hand, but I had never before had the chore of milking. My father was patient as he taught me, but the whole farm was under pressure with the milkers down and everyone had to chip in. I was small and inexperienced with getting the cows moved from place to place, so I was assigned to washing and milking.

A couple of decades later, when I was a young pastor, a young man near my age who married into our church graduated with a BS in agriculture from college and set about getting started in farming and ranching. With limited funds, but strong backing from his farm family, he began a dairy operation. I became friends with him and watched as he worked hard, seven days a week, to launch his business. Times were tough and the farm crisis of the 1980’s left him without the ability to continue his dairy business. He had to seek off-farm income and has ended up with a very successful career in agricultural property management and real estate. His story was part of a bigger national picture that ended up with much of the dairy industry being controlled by very few big corporations. In about 30 years our country had gone from family farms and local small dairies to big corporations and very few locally owned and controlled creameries. These days it is hard to follow the path that milk takes from farm to the grocery store and in most cases it involves a lot of trucking including interstate transportation. Most of the milk we drink comes from large production dairy farms with thousands of head of cattle.

That history is part of what made it possible for our son to become the owner of a small farm. The farm where his family now lives once was the center of a 50-head herd of dairy cattle run by a single family. They put up a huge barn and invested in the equipment to milk their cattle. They put up their own hay and hauled their own manure. And, like other similarly-sized dairy operations, they didn’t survive the agricultural economics of the 1980’s. At first land was sold to keep the operation solvent. They no longer had the acreage to produce all of their own hay and had to purchase hay. Then decades of hard work began to take their toll. The family no longer had a younger generation willing to endure the hardships of raising dairy cattle. The cattle and the home place, along with the dairy barn were sold. For the last three decades the home place and the ten acres that surround it have been basically a hobby farm for families whose primary income comes from off-farm sources.

I was thinking of the changes in the dairy industry in my lifetime as I have been reading online about Canada’s recent butter crisis.The Covid pandemic has produced a large spike in demand for butter in Canada. Sales of butter were up 12% last year and remain strong this year. Along with the increased demand has been an increase in price and, to the horror of Canadian foodies and cooks, a change in the consistency of the butter sold in grocery stores. It no longer softens as much at room temperature. It is harder to spread. Similar reports have been made about butter in the United States.

The main change is that as demand has been increasing, dairy farmers are using more supplemental feeds to boost production. Among the substances fed to dairy cows is feed enriched with palm oil. It is likely that palm oil is a factor in the change in the consistency of production butter. Think about it. Palm oil isn’t exactly a product of Canada. Had it been Canola, I would have understood. Palm oil comes from the tropics.

The world is more complex than it was when a family raised hay on their land, fed the hay to cows, milked the cows, and took the milk to a local creamery for processing. It is far more complex than it was when the cream was separated and the butter churned by hand. The milk and other diary products we consume involve international trade and shipping networks.

I’d encourage my son to get a dairy cow but then I remember how hard it was to milk by hand for just a few days. I’m guessing that we’ll be purchasing our butter from the grocery store for the foreseeable future. Even if the butter is harder to spread, the work load is much more manageable.

I don't understand

Some days I start with an idea or theme for my daily essay. Some days I have several different possible topics, but none of the topics individually is worth an entire 1,000 words. Today seems to be one of those days for a journal entry that rabbles through several different topics. However, since it isn’t yet written, I don’t know for sure. Here goes:

I’m trying to remember the doctor’s exact words. I can remember his name. I know who the attending nurse was and she is still our friend all these years later. But I don’t remember which one of them said it, or exactly what words were said. I think it might have been the nurse who said, “You have a beautiful baby boy.” Those moments are a bit of a blur in my memory for some reason. We had been up all night without sleep. It was shortly after noon on a Sunday. It was the first, though not the last, time one of our children had caused me to miss a Sunday service, and since we were serving two churches at the time, I had missed two services and was just an hour away from missing the third. I was not worried about that. Our first child had arrived and, according to the plans we had made, would be named Isaac. We had narrowed the choice down to two names, one for a boy and another for a girl. We did not know the gender until a medical attendant viewed the anatomy as he was delivered and cleaned up. It was before prenatal care included multiple ultrasound procedures and in-utero pictures that could be sent over cell phones. I am sure we would have been as joyous had the child been a girl. We certainly were 2 1/2 years later when our daughter came to our family.

There was no gender reveal party. We had several baby outfits that were neutral colors and could be worn by either gender. I had bought a box of Baby Ruth candy bars to hand out to all my friends in celebration of the birth. I didn’t smoke and couldn’t justify spending money on cigars, which were the tradition. The fact that we knew in advance that the child would not be named Ruth didn’t deter me one bit. Babe Ruth was a man, so the candy bar could be used regardless of the gender of the child.

The idea of announcing the gender of our child with a party and an explosion never entered my mind. I had never heard of a gender reveal party. It is a good thing. It spared me a brush with death, or at least getting sued.

A father-t0-be from New York state has died after a device he was building for his child’s gender reveal party exploded, according to a story on the BBC website. The blast killed Christopher Pekny and landed his brother in the hospital with injuries.

A man from Michigan was killed earlier this month after he was struck by shrapnel from a home made cannon fired during a baby shower. Gender reveal parties have been blamed for wildfires in Arizona in 2017 and last September in California.

No persons were injured and no fires resulted from the revelations of the genders of either of our children. The same is true of all of our grandchildren, though we were informed of gender before their births.

I have subscribed to one channel on Twitch. I don’t know much about social media. I do watch videos on YouTube from time to time, but I didn’t even know that Twitch existed until my sister got me hooked on watching my nephew, her son, on his channel on Twitch. I have to admit that it is entertaining to watch him. What he does is play video games in front of a green screen so what you see is him in the bottom corner of a video game. He makes comments on the game and responds to comments written by viewers as he plays the game. He interacts with his wife and pets as he plays the game. He makes jokes as he plays the game. I’m not really into video games. I played Pong on a computer a few times. Our son had a game system when he was a teen and I played Mario Kart several times, though I never got very good at it.

Just like I don’t understand gender reveal parties and why pyrotechnics are required, I don’t understand how someone can pursue playing video games as a career. Somehow, the thousands of followers who watch my nephew play games and enjoy his banter and tune in night after night generate money for the channel. There is ad revenue and a way for people to give money to the channel. I really don’t know how all of it works. I haven’t gotten beyond my free membership and the occasional typed comment to let my nephew know I’m watching. But he earns money from the process and has continued to increase his investments in computers and equipment to make the channel more interesting.

If you take my nephew’s vocation and the one from which I just retired and put them together what you get is Reverend Simon Archer, a Church of England Vicar who, in addition to live streaming services, streams video games on social media. He invites people to watch and plays some games that are way more violent than the ones my nephew plays. While the vicar plays, he chats with viewers about all sorts of different subjects including faith and offering support for those who have problems. He says he was called by God to create the virtual church of chat. I have absolutely no idea how you can offer spiritual advice while running a game controller with a “trigger” that causes a video image of a person to “shoot” other video images and show bullets flying and people dying.

There are plenty of things about the world today that I simply don’t understand. The silly thing is that I don’t even have any desire to solve those mysteries.

Rowing

2021-02-22-B
In 2011, inspired by the birth of our first grandchild, I started construction of a row boat. My rationale was that his parents would be more comfortable if he could ride in a boat that was more stable than a canoe for his first trip in a boat. I completed the construction of the boat in 2012 and he had his first ride, with his father and me, around the edges of the Puget Sound near Olympia, Washington, where his family lived at the time.

I chose the design of my boat carefully. I wanted a stable craft, but also one that had a traditional appearance. I also wanted a boat that I could handle solo, including loading and unloading it from the rack on a pickup truck. I chose the Chester Yawl, designed by John Harris. The boat can carry quite a load. It is rated for 450 pounds. Yet it is light enough that I can move it about on a set of wheels and, with a bit of care, turn it over and load it on the rack on my pickup. That takes a bit of work, so I usually roll it onto a utility trailer when heading for the water. I finished my boat to workboat standards, with a painted hull and bright interior. It is fitted with moveable rowing seats, adapted from a design my L. Francis Herreshoff. I installed oar locks mid ship for solo rowing and two more pairs for double rowing.

Some people who have seen my boat have referred to it as a wherry, but technically it is a yawl. Yawl is a term often used to refer to a sail rig, but its earlier historic use was for the boat carried on board a larger ship for the captain’s use to go back and forth to shore on errands. Harris’ design is inspired by the Whitehall boats of New England and has a delightful wineglass transom. My boat has its name, “Mister E” on its transom. The pun is intended. Our grandson, Elliot, is now ten years old. He continues to be a wonderful mystery for our family. He’s been through a number of different life jackets as he has grown up, but he has retained his interest in boats and boating. He now paddles a small kayak solo when we have time to head to the lake.

Since July of 2012, when the Mister E was first launched, I have had time to explore the joys of rowing. I’m not what you would call an experienced rower, but I’ve gained basic competency and can maneuver the boat when rowing on calm waters. It’s been in saltwater where we’ve rowed close to shore, but most of the time I’ve rowed it in small lakes. With my spoon blade oars, carved by Shaw and Tenney, I can obtain a good glide from the boat and can make good headway while getting plenty of healthy exercise.

The truth, however, is that the boat has sat unused for more than a year. It didn’t touch the water in 2020. The processes of retirement and moving distracted me from my usual trips to the lake. I have promised myself that 2021 will be different.

People have done amazing things in rowboats. Jasmine Harrison, a 21-year-old swimming teacher from Yorkshire in England, became the youngest woman to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean when she arrived in Antigua on Saturday. It took her 70 days to complete the trip. She didn’t have the traditional loneliness of long distance solo rowers because she carried a satellite phone and was able to speak to her mother daily during her epic journey. Who knows how long her record will stand, but you can count on a younger woman to challenger her feat some time.

Lee Spencer rowed across the Atlantic in 60 days early in 2019, shattering the previous record for crossing the ocean continent to continent. The former Royal Marine has a prosthetic right leg having lost his and making his accomplishment even more amazing.

Back in 2015, 53-year-old John Beeden rowed solo across the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco to Australia. He had previously rowed solo across the Atlantic Ocean the year that I started building my rowboat.

Of course these and other record-setting rowers didn’t achieve their feats in a simple boat like mine. They had special machines and used sliding seats for more efficiency in their rowing. I have no aspirations for going long distances or setting any records. I’m happy just rowing around a harbor or lake for pleasure. My boat has plenty of capacity to go on short journeys and could be used for camp cruising. It could easily carry a tent and food and one person could sleep aboard. But I’d prefer a canoe for than kind of journey. In a canoe I get to face the direction I’m going. A paddle takes less energy than a pair of oars. I find a canoe better suited to going long distances. However, I really enjoy my little yawl and hope to keep paddling it for many years to come.

Due to waterfowl hunting, many lakes in our area are closed to recreational boating until the end of February. However, Birch Bay is just 5 miles from our son’s farm where the boat is currently stored in his barn. It would be a simple thing to head out for a row on any day when the weather is cooperating. Although there are areas along the Salish Sea that require local knowledge as the many islands affect currents and tides, Birch Bay is a good place for a quiet and safe solo paddle within sight of land.

The boat needs one small repair before it is ready to hit the water. I could accomplish that in 20 minutes. My goal is to get that repair done tomorrow when I am at the farm. After that I’ll have no excuse to keep me off of the water. It will be good to have oars in hand once again.

Cutting firewood

For quite a few years I had the opportunity to participate in a community service project that we thought was unique. It started with a family who were thinning the trees on their property to make their place more resistant to fire and insect depletion. They didn’t have a need for all of the wood that was produced, so they bucked and split the wood and made it available for donation. We borrowed a pickup and a horse trailer and hauled a load to an energy assistance program on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The project grew from that single load to the delivery of hundreds of cords of split firewood delivered to multiple partners around South Dakota. We started with a borrowed wood splitter and through generous donations of trailers and other equipment grew the program to caravans of a dozen trucks and trailers delivering firewood up to 200 miles from our church. Part of the back yard of the church became a woodlot where logs were cut to length, split and stacked. After curing the firewood was delivered by volunteers who paid for their own fuel and supplies.

We made a point of keeping it simple. We didn’t have meetings. We didn’t do fundraising. What people donated we had. What they didn’t donate we did without. When we had a large crew we got a lot of work done. When we had a small crew, we did what we could. People weren’t pressured to participate. They came when they could and those who worked understood when others weren’t able to participate.

I speak of the project in the past tense only because I no longer live in Rapid City and am no longer a part of the project. It continues its ministry of delivering firewood to help people heat their homes.

I especially remember one trip to Wanblee on a cold, clear winter day. It was about -10 when we were stacking the firewood in the yard of the Catholic Church. We had a taste of the cold that the firewood was keeping at bay for the families who got some of the wood to heat their homes.

It turns out that we weren’t alone in our project. Community wood banks have sprouted in several locations around the country. The New York Times recently did a report on community wood banks starting with a program in Orland, Maine. The article says that community wood banks are modeled after community food banks. I’m sure that there are many people who can see the comparison, but there was no “modeled on” in the grass roots effort that we call the Woodchucks in Rapid City. It is just good people who want to help others. We know that many homes are not well insulated and don’t have efficient heating systems. We understand that the price of propane fluctuates with the market and can be too expensive for some families with limited incomes. We know that desperate people will take huge risks to stay warm. We don’t know how to solve all of the problems of poverty. We don’t know how to expand employment in reservation communities. We know how to cut and split firewood and we are able to deliver it to partners who help distribute it.

The Black Hills of South Dakota are an excellent place to have a firewood program. There are plenty of sources of donated firewood. An outbreak of pine bark beetles sparked many land owners and managers to thin stands of timber to make the forest more resilient. This resulted in a lot of wood that was not viable to become lumber for construction. Power companies trim trees to prevent outages from downed trees during storms. Landscapers and developers cut down trees to make room for new plantings and construction. Once our Rapid City group got a little recognition, there were plenty of folks willing to donate firewood. Some even asked if the group could cut down trees for them, but we tried to keep it safe and simple. We picked up a lot of logs from the ground, but didn’t get into falling trees.

The New York Times article has a few pictures of community wood banks that have some pretty sophisticated equipment for log handling. I can see how a group might grow to the size that such equipment would be very helpful. I was surprised at how many of us upgraded our chainsaws. Some of the volunteers invested in new trailers. The camaraderie of working together strengthened friendships and the program had a natural way of growing and contracting depending on the availability of volunteers. But we tried to keep it simple. We watched videos of sophisticated wood processors and then went back to doing our work by hand because hard work is meaningful and we had more time than money to donate.

The Times article highlights a small operation in Castine, Maine that gives away about 10 cords of wood each year. Gil Tenney, one of the volunteers who helped start the program said of the group, “We are small, we are energetic, and we are an average age of 75.” That quote struck me because our South Dakota project definitely was staffed primarily by those 65 and older. We good younger volunteers and we were always glad for their help, but the project definitely is dependent upon older volunteers. The times article also refers to the work of splitting and stacking firewood as “backache-inducing work.” I’m not sure that I would go quite that far, but my work as a volunteer woodchuck did teach me to recognize my own limits and to work more carefully and lift correctly in order to avoid injury. Many days I would work for a couple of hours alongside a man 15 years my senior who kept his small chainsaw sharp and worked faithfully day after day. We used to joke that we would start cutting the logs into short pieces and as the day went on the pieces got longer and longer. The early work was for people with small stoves and the work near the end of our time was for folks with bigger stoves.

It was fun to read the New York Times article. Now that I realize that community wood banks are more common than I knew, I agues I should start looking around. Maybe there is a group where I could put my chainsaw, pickup and trailer to good use to help folks keep warm in the winter.

Lent

We have moved north from our home in Rapid City. We’ve also moved west, but it it our position on the north-south measure of the globe that determines the length of the day. Since we moved in the fall, we have experienced days that are just a bit shorter than those in Rapid City. But we are now in Lent, a season that gets its name from the experience of people in the northern hemisphere of the globe. The name Lent means “lengthen” and it is a direct reference to the lengthening days with the changing of seasons. Here in Mount Vernon, our days are lengthening at a quicker rate than they are in Rapid City. Right now, our day are shorter. Today will have 12 minutes more sunlight in Rapid City than in Mount Vernon (10:48:20 vs 10:36:00). By Easter, our situation will have changed and the day will be 9 minutes longer here than in Rapid City (13:07:45 vs 12:58:33). It is a tiny amount and I suspect that we aren’t really noticing the difference very much, but there is enough difference that it is worth noting. At the extremes of the year, the solstices, the difference is more than a half hour. Our days are more than a half hour shorter in the winter and more than a half hour longer during the summer.

Moving west, of course affects the time of sunrise and sunset. The sun rises in the east before it rises in the west. The strange and often political process of setting the boundaries of the time zones resulted in our home in Rapid City being at the very eastern edge of its time zone whereas we are closer to the western edge of our time zone here. If you look at a map of time zones, you can see that most have some point where they are much wider than the distance of an hour’s change. If you travel north, our time zone, Pacific, extends way west of our location up in the Northwest Territories of Canada.

The whole process is even funkier in Alaska, which is a wide state east to west. Officially Alaska’s time is 9 hours behind Greenwich Mean Time, but very little of the state lies in that zone. Most of Alaska is actually 10 or 11 hours behind GMT by geography, but the whole state has the same time zone. Time zones are somewhat arbitrary in their designation, but they give a way of having a common measurement of what time it is.

Here in the Pacific Zone, however, near the dividing line between the United States and Canada, we are adjusting to having a bit more of our daylight in the summer and a bit less of it in the winter. The season of Lent will give us a new experience of time, slightly different from what we have experienced while living in other places. The days are lengthening and they are doing so at a rate that is slightly faster than any other place we have lived.

More significant in terms of our perception is that this is our first Lent of being retired. In the life of a working preacher Lent has its own set of disciplines. As we read through the events leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus, we are challenged to confront our own mortality. We walk through the season of Lent in part as a rehearsal for the grief, sorrow and sadness that is a part of human life. I have sometimes mentioned in my sermons that Lent is a rehearsal for the harsh realities of living.

In the midst of all of that, we are still in the season of the Covid pandemic. We first felt the impact of the pandemic a year ago as we journeyed through Lent. We started with face-to-face worship and then the awareness of the disease and how it spread increased as the cases mounted. We began to take precautions. We learned about deep cleaning. We started to restrict our movements and exposure. By Easter, most of our worship was online and our congregation was scattered, with plenty of folks isolating themselves from contact with the community. Now a year later, our isolation and separation continues. Our hunger for contact and group activities grows. Our patience is tested.

Patience, however, is one of the disciples taught by the active practice of Christian rituals and traditions. We learn to wait. Advent teaches us to wait. Lent teaches us to wait. And like many of life’s lessons, we learn through repetition. I have more patience and more practice at waiting than my 10-year-old grandson. He has considerable more patience than our 19-month-old. We learn the art of patience in part by experiencing the passage of time.

Our perception changes. As I approach my 68th birthday, it seems to me that the years are going by much more quickly than was the case when I was younger. Our grandson, who just celebrated his 10th birthday has to wait one tenth of a lifetime before his next birthday. For his cousin a year is more than half a lifetime. My fraction is much smaller.

We will all experience Lent in different ways this year. Each year is unique. The lessons of the season, however, continue to be the same. We learn patience. We learn to accept mortality. We learn the journey of grief. We understand that sorrow and sadness are real parts of our lives. And, hopefully, we also learn the lessons of Easter. Death is not the final word on our human existence. That lesson, however, comes in its own time. For now we wait.

As we wait the signs of spring mark the passage of time for us. Our mild coastal climate means that there are trees budding and bulbs pushing up their shoots. The six weeks of Lent will be dramatic in terms of blossoms and new growth. By Easter, in early April this year, we’ll be in full bloom here, quite different from our old home where we didn’t dare put out our tomato plants until the end of May.

Through it all, we are all one year older than we were last Lent. Time goes on. With a bit of luck and a bit of perseverance we might even learn something new as we make our journey this year.

Being grandpa

We had most of the gadgets associated with babies and small children in our house when I was growing up. Since I had brothers 2, 4 and 6 years younger than I, I think of the others in the role of the baby of the family. I don’t remember much of those two and a half years when I was the youngest child in the family. For many years, we had a wooden high chair and a booster seat that was placed on a regular kitchen chair to enable the person in that seat to sit a bit taller at the table. I remember both devices well, but I don’t remember being the one who sat on them. I suppose that I occupied both at some phase. I do, however, have a memory of sitting on the Montgomery Ward’s catalogue at my grandparents’ home. We grew up in small towns, so the phone book wasn’t an option. In fact, it wasn’t until I was married and we moved to Chicago that I became aware of how big a phone book could get. And in those days there were two books: white pages and yellow pages. Where I grew up, the phone book was only about a quarter of an inch thick. The Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogues, however were maybe 3 inches thick.

The biggest book in our house was our dictionary, but no one would have considered allowing a child to sit on it and possibly spill food on it.

Now, as a grandfather, we have two boosting devices in our home. We have the wooden high chair with the flip-over-the-top tray that was used by Susan’s grandmother when she was a child. That piece of furniture was kept and treasured by the generations of her family and finally ended up in our home mostly as an antique and conversation piece. However, our youngest granddaughter finds that it works just right for her to sit at the dinner table. She doesn’t use the tray, but pulls the chair up to the table when she eats at our house. We also have a much newer, plastic booster chair that has a removable tray. It straps to a dining room chair and elevates the user at least 5”. It is made of moulded plastic, which cleans up easily. Our youngest grandson uses it. He doesn’t like the tray, so we pull it up to the dinner table. I remember purchasing the chair at a church rummage sale. We were not yet grandparents, but knew that we had a grandchild on the way. A friend pointed out the device to me and told me that we would really use it. I invested the 50 cents or dollar that it cost and it has turned out to be a very useful device. All four of our grandchildren have used it.

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Many years ago, before we became parents, I once quipped to my wife that I thought that I would enjoy being a grandpa. Making toys and playing with children seemed like a good investment of time to me. As it turned out, I really enjoyed being a father. Although there were times when my job pulled me away from my family and there were many days and nights when I felt like I was stretched thin, having children in our home fascinated and delighted me. By the time we became grandparents, I was ready for that experience as well. It turns out that children don’t play with wooden toys all that much these days. I buy a lot of lego bricks, but I am not capable of making them. I have made wooden blocks for children and grandchildren and there is a children’s workbench set up in the shop I share with our son, equipped with scraps of wood and tools for hammering, drilling, sawing and gluing. Currently our garage has a folding table set up. The table is covered with rulers, markers, a hot glue gun and scraps of dollar tree foam board. It is our version of a production unit for model airplanes and gliders that I make with our oldest grandson. So, with a few modifications, being a grandfather is quite a bit as I imagined it might be. I get to make toys and play with our grandchildren with a luxury of time that I didn’t experience when our children were their ages. I have time to install a speedometer on a bicycle and repair a broken doll.

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I have friends who aren’t as engaged with their grandchildren as we are, but I also have friends who are just as crazy, swept off their feet in love with being grandparents as we. If there is someone out there who can’t understand how someone can be so over the top with their grandchildren, I’m probably the kind of grandpa they point at as they scratch their heads. I simply love being a grandfather and can’t imagine how anyone would not find it the most fun in the world. I’ve gotten to do a lot of wonderful things in my life. Being a grandpa is right up there at the top of the list. How could you not love being greeted by a 19-month-old who runs at you full bore while yelling “Papa!”? How could you not love watching your grandchildren racing around the yard on their bicycles and then putting new tubes in the tires of your bicycle so you could join them? It is the most natural thing in the world for me.

Truth be told, I don’t mind the spilled milk or the food scraps on the floor. And we don’t have a dog to clean them up. Cleaning up after a meal is such a small chore that it seems to be so worth the joy of watching the youngest ones learn how to eat. Spaghetti is just made for little fingers and mouths, even if it all doesn’t make the trip from the bowl to the stomach.

Perhaps my constant chatter in my journal about our grandchildren is boring to some readers. I don’t know. Living my life right now is as far from boring as it gets.

The journey continues

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Time is an interesting construct. Somewhere I read that time is a human invention that arises out of our inability to comprehend the vastness of God’s creation. Our brains are capable of processing only part of the mighty sweep of history and therefore we have come up with units of measurement: minutes, days, months, years to help us comprehend that which is too vast and too wonderful for us to take in all at once. Frequently, in weddings and funerals and other times of passage, I will use the phrase, “a lifetime is all too short.” A lifetime is all too short to explore all of the meanings of love. A lifetime is all too short to tell all of the stories of the ones we love. A lifetime is all too short to comprehend the mystery of the birth of a child.

But a lifetime is a different measure of time for different people. The oldest person to ever live - that can be verified at least - is Jeanne Calment, a French woman who lived to be 122 years old. That’s 120 years more than the youngest person for whom I officiated at a public funeral. Yet each life was complete. Each spirit embraced by God’s love. Each person loved by family and their death grieved by friends. Each life impacted others in ways that cannot be forgotten.

The stories of our people tell of lives that spanned centuries. The person in the Bible who lived the longest was Methuselah who in Genesis 5:27 is said to have lived to an astounding 969 years old, although, that was still only a few more years than Jared who lived to 962 (Genesis 5:20). In Genesis 6:1-3 the Bible says that human life is (without godly intervention) 120 years, but Psalm 90:10 says that human life proceeds to 70 years old, or "even" through strength to 80. The Bible, especially in Genesis, describes many people living for hundreds and hundreds of years, although, rarely is there any detail to flesh out what those people done for all that time - their lists of wives and children are comparable to other people who lived normally long lives. Later books of the Bible make some assertions as to what allows people to live longer; Proverbs 9:10-11 and 10:27 say that fearing God prolongs life, and Exodus 20:12 says the same of honoring your father and mother.

In our lives there are relatively long spans of time that seem to have passed very quickly. It is hard for us to believe that our son will turn 40 next month. Our memories of his birth are so close to our hearts that it seems like just yesterday. The forty-two years of our active careers as ordained ministers went by so quickly, even though there were some days - there were some meetings - that seemed to go on forever and at the time we thought might never end.

We count years with the coming of certain holidays. Birthdays give us occasion to count. The coming of the sacred days of the Christian calendar remind us of the flow of time. Yesterday was Ash Wednesday and it is one of the measures of the Covid pandemic for me. It was on Ash Wednesday 2020 that I last had the experience of looking the people I served in the eyes as I touched their hands and foreheads with the ashes. Ash Wednesday was an emotional day for me because it was a day of being reminded not only of my own mortality, but also of the mortality of those in our congregation. The Bible tells us that Adam, whose name in Hebrew means humus or soil, was scooped from the soil. Eve, whose name in Hebrew means breath, came from the same source. Together they formed the foundation of all humans. We are scooped from the soil, inspired with the breath of life, and we return to the soil from which new life comes. We are mortal. We do not go on forever. And so we pray for the wisdom to count - and value - the time we have as living, breathing souls.

One measure of time for our family is the span of the lives of our grandchildren. When we learned that our daughter was going to become a mother, we laughed and danced for joy. Even though they were living in Japan and even though we had made a trip to visit them in Japan in 2018, we never considered not going back to meet our new grandchild. Our timing was a bit off. He came a little bit early and we didn’t get there until after he was born, but our first meeting was as wonderful as we could have imagined. Life is often better than our imaginations.

In the span of his life, we faced a near death experience when Susan’s heart stopped twice in the same day as the result of a reaction to a medication. Two code blues followed by a long recovery. Our son flew to be with us that day. Our daughter rushed back to the United States with her then three-month-old son to provide her support. We got through that time. But it isn’t all that happened in our grandson’s lifetime. The world was plunged into a pandemic and an economic crisis. We came to the end of our active careers and retired - a date we had set before Susan’s medical crisis. We celebrated 25 years of ministry with our Rapid City church family. We sold and moved out of the house we had occupied for 25 years - the longest either of us had lived at the same address in our lives. We made four trips to Washington moving our belongings. We rented a new home and went through the process of changing our address. We became citizens and registered to vote in our new state. Not only did we move, but our son and his family sold their home and moved to a new to them home. Our daughter and her family are now in the midst of a move from Misawa, Japan to Sumpter, South Carolina.

Yesterday as we took a walk in a nearby park, Susan and our young grandson went ahead as I lingered with our daughter. As I watched them walk, I was overwhelmed with the joy of the journey. No matter how you measure - in years, or in miles, or in memories, we have had a rich journey.

And that journey continues.

Animal crackers

I wonder why they call animal crackers "crackers" instead of cookies. We happen to have Australian and English friends, so I know that in other countries they are called animal biscuits, but those folks call cookies biscuits, too. I’ve had tea and biscuits a plenty of times and they serve cookies.

Our daughter and grandson have been visiting for the past week, and in preparation for their visit, I was in charge of making the trip to the grocery store. We have been shopping individually to reduce potential exposure to covid, so I headed out with my list. Among the things I wanted to get in preparation for having a toddler in our house was animal crackers. The store where I was shopping didn’t have the familiar Nabisco Barnum’s Animal Crackers red box with the handle. I think that when I was little the box had a string handle, but by the time our kids came along the handle was cardboard. The store where I shopped did, however, have a large tub of animal crackers. The flavor is familiar, slightly sweet, a bit like a sugar cookie.

I have been impressed with the selection of animals in this particular container. For all of my life, the other brand has featured circus animals. The one exception, for whatever reason, is that I noticed when our children were toddlers that they included a sheep with the camels, gorillas, hippopotamuses, lions, monkeys and rhinoceroses. I grew up in sheep country and I don’t think a sheep in a circus would have been much of a draw. The animal crackers I bought for our grandson have several “non circus” animals including a teddy bear, buffalo, dog, rabbit, horse, pig, lamb and turtle. The giraffes in this container are standing up instead of bending over the way they are depicted in the ones that come from the circus animals box.

I can remember the treat of receiving that box with the handle. I don’t think we got them very often, but they would sometimes show up at Christmas or be given as a treat for an especially long car trip. i loved looking at the animals one by one and laughed at biting off the head of a bear or putting a whole monkey in my mouth. Our grandson shows the same delight even though he received a handful taken from a plastic tub instead of a circus wagon box with a wax paper liner.

I suspect he is getting a few more snacks during his visit to grandma and grandpa’s house. Our children always did, at least on visits to Susan’s parents. Once, when he was small, our son told me that he had two grandmas: a sweater grandma and a cookie grandma. My mother, who was constantly knitting, was the sweater grandma. I was pleased that he had a compliment and a happy memory of both grandmas. My maternal grandmother died before I was born, so I grew up with only one grandma and she was the full-bore meat and potatoes, put a big dinner on the table grandma. She also gave hugs that made you wonder if you might smother being so completely wrapped up in her arms. My siblings and I and all of our cousins did, however, survive all of those hugs and dinners that probably would make my cardiologist squirm.

Our grandson has definitely raised the energy level in our house. He doesn’t appear to be in need of more sweets in order to be able to run and jump and climb and play hide and seek with grandpa. In almost every venture from kicking the soccer ball in the back yard to rolling a toy car across the floor, he has more stamina than I. I don’t know how dizzy he would get if I allowed him to spin in my office chair as much as he wanted. I just know that if he sits on my lap and we spin together, he is still asking for more when I have definitely had enough. His mother and grandmother have been keeping a list of all of the words he says clearly. One of those words is “again!” If I pick him up and hold him over my head, he says, “again!” When I boosted him so he could peek over the divider between the kitchen and the living room at his grandma he said, “again!” When I tire of sitting in the rocking chair with my legs straight out so he can grab them and jump up and down, he calls out “Again!”

I’m starting to think that grandpa needs the animal crackers more than the grandson. The advantage of purchasing them in a large tub is that I can sneak a few whenever I want. I’ve also eaten more goldfish crackers and teddy grahams than is normally in my diet. We even have a box of bunny grahams as a contrast to teddy grahams. I can get a good giggle out of my grandson by chomping off the head of a camel when we eat animal crackers together.

I suppose that my world has shrunk a bit since I have retired. I am no longer in the loop with the latest news from the sheriff’s office. I’m not the first one to get a call when there is an illness or a death in the community. I sometimes just ignore the news of politics or celebrities for a whole day. I’m not a recluse or hermit, but I am enjoying not being in charge. I’m fully entertained by animal crackers and playing with my grandchildren. I haven’t gotten to the place where I carry hard candy in my pockets all of the time, but the other day I did find a few cat treats in my pocket. I’ve been making friends with the barn cats at our son’s farm.

I know that they make frosted animal crackers, but they just aren’t the same. Once you coat the animal with frosting, they all look pretty much alike. I’ll leave the frosted ones at the store. I am thinking, however, that the others might become a staple, like four and sugar and rice and noodles - a food deserving of its own canister in the pantry.

A Small Space

When I was a toddler, during an unseasonable warm stretch in February, our father, with help from several other workers, removed the roof of our house and added a second story. I don’t have many memories of the adventure, though there are plenty of family stories from that time. After the house was enclosed, there was continuing construction to finish the rooms. When all was done, there were three bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. One of the bedrooms had a folding door that could be used to divide it into two rooms. I think the original plan was for a boy’s bedroom and a girl’s bedroom with a playroom that had a guest bedroom at one end, but we never really used it that way. We spread out and all occupied the various rooms in different configurations, depending on our ages and which children were living at home. One of the features of the remodel was that there were plenty of built-ins. The boys’ room had closets with built-in drawers for our clothes, and two built-in desk areas.

One of the treasures of the remodel was a feature that our mother specifically requested. It had a laundry chute. There was a door that could be lifted at the end of the bathtub and laundry could be inserted. It would fall down to the main level of our house where it ended up in a hallway of built-in cupboards across from he downstairs bathroom. It didn’t take long for me to discover that all you had to do was to check the bottom to make sure that there was a cushion of clothes and towels already thrown down the chute and then I could crawl in from the upstairs and drop down to the cushioned area. Before they figured out what I was doing, I could hide from my sisters and even our mother sometimes. I loved that feature of the house and continued to use it until I became too big as a teenager. Even when it wasn’t my hiding place, it was a shortcut to the downstairs area of the house. I could slip into the upstairs bathroom, lock the door then slide downstairs and sneak out of the chute. When my sisters banged on the bathroom door and accused me of hogging the bathroom, I would innocently present myself to my parents and say I had no idea who had locked the bathroom door. I don’t think anyone believed me for long. It was too simple of a scheme.

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Our son’s house, like many houses of its era, has a small storage area under the stairs. It is accessed with a small cupboard door, about 2 1/2 feet high off of the living room of their house. It would be a good place to store some less-used items and when they first moved into the house it served as a linen closet before we finished outfitting an upstairs closet for that purpose. In its use as a linen closet it was discovered by our grandchildren, who claimed it as a hiding spot. After the linens were moved out, a few comfortable pillows were moved in to create a private space for the children’s play. They don’t use it to hide. They have made a point of showing us their special place. The latch on the door can’t be locked and it is dark in there, so they usually don’t attempt to shut the door, but if they did, it easily opens from the inside.

It was one of the first features of the house that our three-year-old granddaughter showed to our youngest grandson when he came to visit. Now, each time we go there, we can count on finding the two in the space during part of our visit. They will take a few books or toys and head for the space to play. When the games require more space or the energy of the children require more movement, they spill out of the area into the living room to play.

The use of each cubic inch of a home is becoming popular once again along with the popularity of tiny homes and simple living. It isn’t, however, an invention of this generation. Smaller homes with an emphasis on using all of the available space efficiently, were the norm until fairly recently. Even with the second story, our house was home to our parents and five children in less than 2,000 square feet. We thought of it as a big house. It was big enough for us. We didn’t expect that each person would have a private room. We all shared. We didn’t know anyone in our town who had more than two bathrooms in their home until we were all grown up.

The luxury of living space is enjoyed by a relatively small portion of the population of this world. Most people are forced to share their space with others and live in relatively small areas. The rise in homelessness during the pandemic has resulted in more and more people living with relatives and more and more homes being full. Those working on affordable housing are learning quickly how to make efficient use of space in providing simple, decent houses.

We have been fortunate to have had the luxury of space. When we graduated from seminary, we moved into a parsonage owned by the church. It was just the two of us in a three bedroom, one bathroom house with a full basement that had an additional bedroom and a small bathroom, along with a laundry room and a large family/play room. For a while, we had very little furniture in that big space. We began to collect hand-me-downs and used furniture. We moved from that home to a slightly bigger house and from there to our South Dakota House with five bedrooms and three bathrooms on three levels. We’ve slightly downsized to this house, but still have the luxury of space, including plenty of room for guests.

We know we will continue to downsize as the years pass. It is a good thing, but a challenge for us because we have collected a lot of things over the years. A lack of furniture is no longer a problem. Now we are looking for ways to give some of ours away.

And, as I discovered when I was a child and as our grandchildren have discovered, you can have a lot of fun in a small space.

Valentine's Day weather

I don’t mean to make fun of the people in my new home, but the little snowfall we have had in the last couple of days has been entertaining to me. To listen to some locals, or to read the report in the Seattle Times, you’d think that we were experiencing a major blizzard. From the eyes of this former South Dakotan, we’ve had no crisis. I understand that they had some big problems in Portland, Oregon, where the snow was preceded by an ice storm that brought down power lines and caused tree branches to fall. Large numbers of people living without electricity, even if for only a couple of days, can be a big problem. Where we live, however, the snow fell gently beginning on Friday night and through the day yesterday. It is a bit difficult to tell exactly how much we had, because it rained yesterday afternoon and packed down the snow. I think we got about six inches or so here. There are some snow-packed streets in town, but the highway is clear.

You can tell, however, that the locals aren’t used to snow. Like the first snowfall in the autumn back in South Dakota, there are a few cars that fishtail at the intersections and a few that don’t get stopped at the stop sign. What is funny to me is that people seem to be challenged by the snow on the roof of their cars. Instead of simply clearing it off before they drive, they clear the windshield and then the first time they apply their brakes, a huge wet clump of snow slides from the roof onto the windshield, necessitating getting out of the car to clear the windshield. It seems quite obvious to me how to prevent such an occurrence, but I certainly witnessed it a lot.

Another challenge of snow for the locals is plowing. With one exception, we haven’t seen any parking lots that have been plowed. A very old city dump truck made an attempt at plowing the street in front of our house yesterday. The truck made one pass, with the plow set straight across the front of the truck so that the snow wasn’t being shoved off to one side, but rather sort of being pushed up the street. Maybe the plow was so old and so infrequently used that they couldn’t figure out how to get it working properly. The single pass in the middle of the street left big clumps of snow alongside the cleared path, making it difficult for cars to pass on the street. One way traffic was no problem. The exception to the unplowed parking lots was the United Methodist Church a block from our home. They rent out part of their parking lot to a local medical clinic and it was fully plowed.

Folks don’t seem to have snow shovels. When we left South Dakota, we sold our snow blower. And we left our good pusher shovel for the man who bought our house. I kept a fairly good plastic snow shovel. And we keep an aluminum grain scoop for lifting all sorts of things. That shovel is up at our son’s farm, but the plastic shovel was adequate to clear our driveway and walks. The temperatures have been warm, so even when it kept snowing, the snow would melt on the walks after I shoveled. Our house seems to be the only one in our neighborhood with everything shoveled out, however. It might have taken me 15 to 20 minutes the first time I shoveled and maybe 10 the second time, so the problem can’t be that people haven’t found the time to shovel on a holiday weekend. I’m wondering if they simply don’t have snow shovels.

Seattle residents were warned to stay at home and avoid travel. I guess we might have heeded the advice if we had lived in the city, but our daughter is visiting us and our son had the weekend off, as usual, so after we watched church online, we loaded up our grandson and some party supplies into our car and drove up to the farm. We didn’t encounter any bad roads. There was a small drift at the end of our son’s driveway, but it was no problem with our all wheel drive car. We didn’t drive our pickup, which has more ground clearance, and we didn’t need it, either. The Interstate highway was wet, but it is often wet around here. Travel wasn’t slowed at all.

The kids had a wonderful time playing in the snow. There is a pile of wood chips at the farm which made a good launch for a sled. Our youngest grandson loved being pulled around on the sled and trying to run in the heavy snow. It was perfect for making a snowman. We celebrated the birthdays of the past week and Valentine’s Day with a kid-friendly lunch of corn dogs and sandwiches for the adults. There were decorated cupcakes and ice cream for dessert and the birthday celebrants opened presents. Grandpa got a few pictures of all of the grandkids together and it was a fun outing. We were back at our house, where it was easy to pull into a shoveled driveway by about 4 in the afternoon.

The forecast calls for highs in the forties and rain for the next couple of days, so I don’t think there will be much snow left by the time folks head to work on Tuesday after the holiday weekend. Even the parking lots that weren’t plowed should be bare after a few hours of rain. It simply isn’t cold enough for the snow to linger. If it takes it a bit longer for some of the clumps left by the snow plow to melt, we won’t have any problems getting around. The snowman at the farm probably won’t be standing by this afternoon, and kids who attempt sledding today will probably come into the house covered in mud.

It was fun while it lasted. The local folks provided a bit of entertainment for those of use used to snow. The snow plow driver might have gained enough experience to figure out how to angle his plow by the end of the day.

From my point of view, if they wanted to report news of startling weather, they could do a story about the days when the sun shines and the sky is free of clouds. Those days don’t seem to be coming very often around here this winter. Anytime it stops raining the locals think that it is a sunny day, but we keep looking for a cloud-free sky.

Transfiguration 2021

Transfiguration is a holiday steeped gin mystery. The Gospel writers reflect that mystery in their descriptions of the events on the mountain. This year after a whirlwind trip through Jesus’ life during the season of Epiphany guided by the gospel of mark with its breathless drive to the end of the book, we have arrived at Mark’s brief description. It takes only seven verses. The first three are descriptions of the trip up the mountain, the transformation of Jesus’ appearance and his conversation with Elijah and Moses. The last there verses cover the voice of God in the cloud, the return to normal appearances and the trip down the mountain. In the middle are two verses in which Peter proposes making three shelters and a classic Mark dig at the disciples, who seem to often be clueless. This time it says, “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.”

Being terrified is something we can relate to. We’ve just finished a week of testimony in our nation’s capitol about the terror that people felt when the halls of our government were overrun by a riotous mob intent on violence and disrupting the normal processes of democracy. There were plenty of descriptions of terror in the news.

It was different for the disciples.

They were frightened because they had just witnessed what seemed to be a disruption in the normal flow of time. The gospel writers seem to focus on Jesus’ appearance, and you can tell that words fail them. They resort to analogy and simile to try to describe the transformation, but more startling than appearance must have been the transcendence of the way time normally seems to flow. Suddenly the past becomes present. Heroes of history become participants in contemporary conversation.

No wonder they were terrified.

It isn’t the same, but we’re having our own mini transfiguration here in northwest Washington. This is a place where it doesn’t snow often. We’ve been living here full time since November and before yesterday we hadn’t seen snow enough to stick to the sidewalk. No snow had remained more than a few hours. Then the night before last it started to snow and it kept snowing through yesterday. I shoveled the walks of heavy snow and it kept falling. We trudged around the neighborhood in deep snow, watching locals, who don’t have much experience driving in the slippery stuff. We marveled at the beauty of the transformation. One person, who has lived here a long time said to us, “We might get a snowfall like this every two or three years.”

We had nowhere we needed to go. It was beautiful outside and, unlike South Dakota, it wasn’t cold. I saw the appearance of the weather and donned my parka, but I didn’t need a parka. A sweatshirt was sufficient. We bundled up our grandson to play in the snow, but he wasn’t cold. Like Peter suggesting that the prophets might need shelter, we didn’t need extraordinary precautions. I’m thinking my insulated coveralls aren’t going to get much use around here.

But we have snow. And we didn’t even know how much we missed having snow. It is marvelous.

And then we got news of the huge earthquake near Fukushima in Japan. Experts are calling it an aftershock of the gigantic earthquake nearly 10 years ago. Our daughter and her family moved away from Japan less than a week ago. We’ve felt earthquakes ourselves when visiting Japan. There was a sense of déjà vu as we remembered the tragedy of Fukushima’s earth quaking past.

Time seemed to us, for a moment, to be suspended. Our past concerns for those far away and our past lives in a snowy place came to visit and we talked as if it were all in the present. The distinction between past and present and future slipped for a few seconds.

It wasn’t the transfiguration that Peter and James and John witnessed. Still it was enough to remind us of the extraordinary roots of this particular festival as we stand on the edge of Lent and our annual rituals of recalling grief and living with sorrow and sadness.

Scientists remind us that time is a human invention, a concept that helps us to understand the vastness of the universe in which we find ourselves. There is so much more to the totality of reality than the tiny fraction we are able to experience, so we have created conceptual categories to organize our understanding. We experience time as a flowing stream with categories of past, present and future. Not all humans have divided their sense of time in the same way. There are languages that do not have three tenses. In some there are only two: things that have ended and things that are ongoing. Scientists try to describe the vastness of time in similar ways that they try to describe the vastness of the universe. They speak of tens of thousands of years. They analyze carbon molecules to determine age. They describe the geological functions of the planet in terms of millennia. It is too vast for us to understand, but not too vast for us to imagine.

In geological time, the eras of Moses, Elijah and Jesus are terribly close to each other. The shifts in plate tectonics is barely perceptible in such a short few years. But whenever we have an experience of the presentness of one who died years ago, we are as terrified as were the disciples and we make up ghost stories to explain our fear.

For today, here in Mount Vernon, Washington, it is dazzling white outside. Everything is covered in beautiful snow. If the weather forecasters are accurate, it will start raining later this morning and by bedtime the snow will have melted and been washed away by the rain. By Ash Wednesday it will just be a memory and people will be back to their usual rushing about up and down the Interstate. We’ll take the quiet of the moment and enjoy it without fear. We’ve had snow days in the past. We’ve been through our share of Transfiguration Sundays. We have a sense of what is coming.

For now we will simply enjoy the beauty that we know we cannot describe. In years to come, when we try to tell the story, our words will fail us, but we will remember the joy of tiny snow angels made by a grandson who will never again be as small as he is right now. Like the readers of Mark’s Gospel, those who hear our stories will suspect that there is a whole lot more to the story than the few words they hear.

Waiting

The other day I saw people waiting in line for the opening of the Good Will store in our town. I don’t know the reason they were waiting there. Perhaps they were waiting to submit job applications or for an interview for a job. Perhaps they were waiting for the store to open so that they could obtain necessary items. I’m not familiar with the social services agencies around here and have not yet checked out the Good Will store. What I noticed was the now familiar practice of marks on the pavement indicating six-foot spacing. People are supposed to follow the direction of those marks in order to provide safe space during the pandemic. Marks on the pavement have varying effects on different people. Some were clearly ignoring the marks and standing closer to the person in front of them than indicated. Others were trying to observe the spacing even when it meant leaving a mark with no one standing on it. Others were rigidly moving from one mark to the next regardless of what the people around them were doing.

At least it appeared that most of the people standing in line were at least aware of the marks on the ground. That is quite a bit different than the arrows in the grocery store indicating the direction in which customers are supposed to pass through the aisle. It seems to me that there are very few people who are observing those instructions. I try hard to comply with the instructions, which frequently means I have to travel the length of an aisle that has nothing I want to buy in order to get to the aisle that has the merchandise that I want. It certainly seems that I am in a minority when it comes to direction of travel. I have had other customers show a little recognition when I meet them in the aisle. A few have even said, “Oops! I’m going the wrong way!” The recognition doesn’t seem to translate into a change of behavior, however. Usually they continue the full length of the aisle in the wrong direction. A few people seem to believe that ignoring the other customers is the best way to deal with the grocery store. I’ve been tempted to say to several people, “Obviously, when they put those arrows to indicate which way to go through the aisles they didn’t mean you. Those signs are only for people who are able to read.” I wouldn’t really say that, but the thought does enter my mind from time to time.

The process of moving involves a fair bit of waiting in line. I had to make an appointment and then I had to take a number in order to get my Washington State Driver’s License. The licensing office was nearly empty and I didn’t have to wait after I got into the building. I was the only one with that particular appointment time and the space was nearly empty. I still was directed to stand on the pavement markings outside the building as a worker asked the health screening questions. The place where we got the licenses for our cars doesn’t take appointments. I really had to stand in line there three times. It took that many trips to have the necessary items to complete the process. The line was outside and twice I waited in the rain. They did have umbrellas available for loan for those waiting in line.

Like the driver’s license office, many of the other places where lines form have changed the process of physically waiting in a cue to a process of making online appointments. We haven’t had many medical appointments during the season of Covid, but those we have included quick trips through empty waiting rooms. Instead, we have waited in our car in the parking lot until our cell phones rang to indicate it was time for us to enter the office. There is no checkout line at the library desk. We don’t even go into the library building. Instead, we place our request for books online and pull into a drive up space where our books are delivered to the open rear hatch of our car. When I want a popular item from the library, I can check the status of my wait for the item. Right now I have one book on hold with four people ahead of me in line and another with ten. I don’t know how many copies of the book are available, but once when I was sixth in line it took less than a week for me to get the wanted book. I’m pretty sure the library has multiple copies in circulation.

One of the frustrating “waiting in line” experiences for us is the wait for Covid vaccination. Our county has a web site that makes appointments available. We have been eligible to get our vaccinations for a month now, but the county doesn’t have enough doses of the vaccine. Each week we check, sometimes multiple times per week, but we haven’t yet gotten into the portal that allows us to make our appointment. So far each visit to the web site has resulted in getting to a screen that says, “No first dose appointments currently available.” Although our city has a drive-through vaccination site, there have not been any appointments issued for that site for four weeks in a row. We don’t know how many people are in line ahead of us to be vaccinated, but it makes sense that there would be many. We are relatively safe, with our limited exposure to others and our retired lifestyle. We are willing to wait our turn, but we don’t know how long we will be waiting. In the meantime, the web site has a beautiful photograph of tulips growing in the field - a kind of promise that spring is coming and beauty is around the corner. Maybe we will get our vaccines by the time the tulips bloom. We now live in a county that produces millions of tulip and daffodil bulbs that are shipped all around the country.

Waiting reminds us of the others who also are waiting. We know we aren’t the only ones who are anxious. We’ll try to be polite and honor the others who are waiting as well. And when our time comes, we’ll be grateful.

In the meantime, I know a grocery store that has removed the arrows from the aisles. They just didn’t work.

Airplane memories

I grew up around airplanes and identifying airplanes was something we did at our house. When an airplane flew over, we tried to identify it. There were some that were easy. The airplanes of the fleet of Sky Flight, Inc., the company of our parents, were all well-known to us. We knew the red and white Piper Super Cubs that were used as spray planes and as fire patrol planes for the Forest Service and the National Parks. We could tell the difference by sight and sound of the Aeronca Champs that were used as trainers and bought and sold to students and new pilots. We could recognize a J-3 cub by its distinctive cowl. We knew the difference between a Cessna 170 and a 195. The larger 195 with the radial engine was a give-away. And we certainly knew the sound of our father’s twin beech when it approached the airport. As I got a bit older, I even learned to tell who was flying that airplane by the way the engines were synchronized after takeoff and on approach to landing.

We learned to identify the larger airplanes that other companies flew. We knew the Johnson Brothers Flying Service Ford Tri-motors and their DC-3s. We knew the DC-4s flown by Northwest Airlines by sight and sound. I remember the awesome Lockheed Constellations operated by Northwest. They were the airplanes that flew over at the highest altitude. We didn’t get to see them on the ground very often, not even at Billings, which was the biggest and busiest airport close to our home. One day, however, there was a constellation parked on the ramp in Billings and we flew down in our little Piper Tri-Pacer to see it. The airplane was huge! It had four massive eighteen-cylinder engines with giant three-blade props. The nose gear was long and the pilots sat way up in the air even though the front of the airplane curved down. And at the back there were three vertical stabilizers with three rudders. Our beech had a distinctive twin tail, but the constellation had a triple.

The story I was told about that tail is that the engineers decided to put three smaller vertical stabilizers on the plane because putting on a single larger tail fin would make the airplane too tall to fit into any hanger. There simply weren’t any doors big enough to allow such a big tail to go inside.

The constellation must have been on its way out as an airliner by the time I saw it. I was only six years old when production of the airplane was ceased. Although it was a pioneering feat of engineering, with a pressurized cabin, the ability to fly long distances across oceans, the power to go up to 24,000 feet - above the weather and into the jet stream, and the ability to carry large amounts of cargo made it a useful tool for airlines. Like other airliners of its day the passenger door was at the tail. The constellation was among the first airliners to feature a first class section, which was located at the rear of the airplane where there was less noise from the engines.

The development of jet engines and airliners such as the Boeing 707 and the Douglas DC-8 spelled the end of the Constellation. A few remained in service as freighters for many years and we would see them from time to time, but our attention turned to even faster aircraft. It turned out that even though the planes had a good safety record as airliners, they weren’t all that reliable. The technology of radial engines was pushed about as far as it could go with those supercharged twin radial engines. Pilots referred to the constellation as the best three-engined airliner around because engine failures were fairly common and the airplane could be safely operated with one engine shut down. Unlike the Douglas DC-3s and DC-4s which continue to be used as freight haulers and fire tankers the remaining constellations are pretty much museum pieces, used for display.

The memory of seeing that constellation came to my mind the other day as we drove by Boeing field in Seattle. Boeing still produces 737 aircraft at their facility there, but the main production facility in the area is north at Everett where the massive factory built for the production of the 747 aircraft and now the place of final assembly of 787 dream liners stands. That building is big enough for a much bigger plane than the constellation and it has doors tall enough to allow the largest airliners ever built to go in and out. The engineering of aircraft, notably the 747, caused innovation and advancements in the engineering of buildings. The Boeing Everett Factory, located just 40 miles from where we now live, includes the largest building in the world, covering just under 100 acres. That’s a lot of roof and a lot of really massive doors.

Because of our family’s fascination with airplanes, being around Seattle and Everett always makes me think of the Boeing corporation and its airliners and remember previous trips to this part of the country and all of the airplanes we have seen.

These days, I can’t identify all of the airplanes that fly overhead, but there are a few I can recognize by sound and sight. The F-18 fighters from Whidbey Naval Air Station stand out from the other aircraft. Nearby Skagit Regional Airport is home to many antique and homebuilt airplanes and good weather brings out the recreational aviators. I’m pretty good at identifying some of the antique planes that fly overhead. There is a certain nostalgia that I feel when certain engines sound overhead.

These days I spend most of my time on the ground. I haven’t made a trip by airplane since 2019 and don’t have plans for another flight in the near future. I’m not what they call a frequent flyer. Still there is within me a love of airplanes and the joy of flying and enough memory and imagination to keep me looking up.

A very lucky guy

One winter when I was a student, I spent quite a bit of time in the Chicago Theological Seminary (CTS) Preschool taking pictures. The director of the preschool was in the final stages of preparing a manuscript for publication and thy were seeking a few images for the book. My wife, Susan, was working at the preschool and I had just completed a class with the magazine and book photographer Archie Lieberman. As opposed to the semester when I was a student observer in the CTS Preschool, I was given access to the school with the only responsibility of making pictures while not interrupting the play of the children or the leadership of the teachers. The illustrations were to be black and white, so I was working with fast film and no flash. A flash can distract the children and disrupt the normal flow of school activities. The desired photographs were of the children doing their normal activities. No pictures were to be set up or staged. I would go to the school with a single camera with only one lens, a 105mm portrait lens.

Not long ago I scanned several of the photographs from that era, transferring the film prints to a digital format that could be stored on the computer. The children, who are in their late 40’s or early 50’s now, and the activities of the preschool have been renewed in my memory as I went through the photographs.

Yesterday, I remembered the feeling and the process as I followed around our four grandchildren. The children had a brief visit when all four were together back in 2019 when our youngest was 3 months old. He was decidedly easier to photograph in those days. His mother would lay him on a blanket on the floor and he would stay right there, not even rolling over from his back. He doesn’t spent much time in one place if his eyes are open these days. Yesterday, however, I was having a grand time taking photos as the children played. I also had time to marvel at the abilities of my wife and daughter. They both have extensive experience as preschool teachers and are very good at keeping the children engaged. I was nearly breathless following children from the back yard where they were chasing a soccer ball back into the house, where they made a lot of trips up and down the stairs. There was a time when the children helped make sugar cookies for an upcoming family Valentines/birthday celebration. Keeping track of keeping hands clean, managing a rolling pin and cookie cutters and containing the mess of sugar sprinkles requires quick action by the adults. Granted, only two of our grandchildren are still preschoolers. The oldest is 10 and quite capable at helping provide some care for his siblings and cousins. The 6-year-old is gentle and patient with the younger kids as well.

I was using a photographic technique that I learned in my days as a preschool photographer: take three or four frames in rapid succession. My equipment is better these days. There have been many advances in camera technology. I can actually shoot up to seven frames a second with my current camera. However, that is only necessary for stop action such as sports or some wildlife photography. With the kids, I slow it down to about one frame per second. The first “click” of the camera gets their attention and they look up, often directly at the camera. The second and third clicks yield the photograph I’m after. Capturing four children in the same frame all with their eyes open and none making a silly face is a rare treat. I’m a bit out of practice and I didn’t produce very many photographs yesterday, but I had fun trying.

Ours was a nearly ideal situation. We had four adults for four children. Any one of us could have safely supervised all four children for a short amount of time. Our daughter-in-law manages to keep up with three of them while keeping house and managing the chickens and garden and home schooling. She was with us for the afternoon. Our son was at work. As the community librarian he had to make a presentation at the City Council meeting in the evening and he was busy preparing for that meeting.

I couldn’t help but marvel at the way the adults were working together as a seamless team, stepping in where needed and still having time to enjoy each other and a bit of adult conversation.

Back in the preschool days, I was amazed at my wife’s ease with the children and her ability to stay one step ahead of the action. It was evident yesterday that she hasn’t lost her touch. In the span of an afternoon visit she found time to get down on the floor to play with the children, run with them in the back yard, help them make cookies, teach our ten-year-old a new card game, clean up several spills, and so much more. And she was enjoying it all. She is the one who came up with the idea of making cookies on the day after our daughter and grandson arrived as they were adjusting to the change in time zones and the cousins were excited about the reunion.

As we sat down for an early supper so the cousins could get home and to bed on schedule for another busy day today, I felt like I must be the luckiest guy in the world. I absolutely love it when we fill all of the chairs around our dining room table. I love the chatter of the children. I am amazed at how much food a ten year old can eat! I am so proud of the adults our children have become and the families they are nurturing. I will never get tired of being called papa and grandpa. Hearing our daughter call me daddy is music to my ears.

With layer upon layer of memories and the joys of the present I still have a bit of energy left over to imagine the future. Being an elder gives one a unique perspective on time, one I didn’t have decades ago as I took pictures in the preschool. Those were good days, but I don’t want to go back. These too are precious days.

If I were a poet, I’d write a hymn of praise.

Trusting the love

As a pastor, I often found myself in a position to educate people about Christian traditions, ceremonies and history. Those opportunities often came when I was helping people prepare for the rites and sacraments of the church. Working with couples preparing to marry was usually a real opportunity to take a familiar ceremony and help the participants understand the deep underlying meaning that comes from participating in a tradition that began long before we were born.

Our traditional rites and ceremonies are filled with all kinds of elements that have come from outside of the church. In a wedding, for example, there are two sets of vows, often recognized by those planning a wedding as the “I do” vows and the “Repeat after me” vows. The first set, the vows of intention, ask the couple if they have come to the ceremony of their own free will and if they accept their mate as spouse. The second set are promises of fidelity and endurance of the relationship. The tradition of exchanging two sets of vows comes from a time when there were two ceremonies: a civil ceremony, often taking place in a place of governance, such as a town hall; and a religious ceremony, taking place in the church. When ministers were granted the authority to confirm a civil union, the ceremonies were incorporated into a single event held at the church.

The tradition of the “best man” and “maid or matron of honor” dates back at least to medieval times when personal attendants were the province of the wealthy. The squire and lady in waiting had specific responsibilities as assistants to wealthy persons. The maid or matron of honor adjusts the bride’s dress so that it is always looking just right for the congregation and the photographer. I usually joke at wedding rehearsals about the role of the best man to be there to catch the groom if he faints. The joke reflects the reality that weddings are emotionally intense and we all need to be looking out for one another. I also recall for the couple that in medieval times the squire didn’t enter the church. He was the trusted friend of the groom who stood outside the door of the church to guard the weapons which were deposited there. Weapons were not allowed in the church because it was a sanctuary and someone had to be in charge of keeping the weapons safe from would-be thieves.

The giving of the bride reflects a time when an intensely patriarchal culture saw women as possessions. In some times and countries women were titled property and an exchange of money took place where the groom paid the father of the bride. When that time had passed and women were no longer seen by the law as property, the ceremony continued with the question, “Who gives this woman?” with the response, “Here mother and I?” This ceremony was deleted from the book of worship before I was ordained, but couples often want to have a role for parents in their weddings, we we planned various versions of a ceremony for their weddings. In many weddings the bride is escorted into the room by her father or both of her parents. That moment provides an excellent opportunity to reflect on a profound change which is taking place at that moment. I often used the words, “We raise our children in love that they might learn to love.” Frequently I added, “There are times when we, as parents, must step aside and learn to trust our children with the love they have discovered.”

When our children were married, it was a profound moment for me. It was a realization of a reality that existed before the ceremony. The children we raised and loved so dearly were never “ours” to keep. They were always gifts of God to be nurtured, loved and allowed to develop into full maturity. They will go beyond the years of living in our home to become makers of home for others. It is a bittersweet recognition for a parent. We pledged to always be there for our children knowing that they would likely outlive us. We want them to become independent and to forge their own way in life, yet saying good bye as they move on beyond our lives and sphere of influence we become nostalgic for the days when they were tiny and dependent.

The joyous reunion with our daughter yesterday as she and our grandson came to our house for a visit was filled with the recognition of what a wondrously adventurous and independent woman she has become. I watched her competence and confidence as a wife as she bid her husband farewell for a couple of weeks, trusting that he was going ahead to prepare for their reunion, knowing that their marriage was strong in that trust. I watched her competence and confidence as a mother as she, weary from a very long trip, put her son’s needs ahead of her own, making sure that he was well cared for and had all of his needs met before allowing herself to rest. I marveled at the transformation that has taken place in the span of her life. In a sense she will always be daddy’s little girl, but in another, she has never “belonged” to me. She was never a possession, always a trust.

One day she will discover that her son with whom she feels so close and who turns to her for his every need has grown into an adult who is capable of his own independent decisions and who will go out into the world to places where she cannot follow. Some day she will witness his ability to make commitments of his love - love that he learned by experience from the moment he was conceived. For now he feels safe and secure in his world. Even though they have left behind the only home that he has known and are moving to a new home he is happy and content just to have his mother close by. He will learn that you can travel far and move from one place to another and the bonds of love are greater than the distances that divide.

And, if they are as fortunate as we are, they will have moments of reunion and the joys of being face to face and she will recognize him as an adult with his own thoughts and feelings and intentions, dreams and desires, competencies and confidence.

This morning we are all resting secure in the joy of homecoming, even though the house where we are gathered is not the house of our daughter’s growing up and it, like all houses, is ours only for a little while. I’m glad I was there to witness her marriage and have learned to trust the love she has found.

An exciting day

When our daughter was two years old, we made two trips by airlines from Rapid City, South Dakota to Boise, Idaho, changing planes in Denver. At the time we lived in Hettinger, North Dakota, so the choice for airline travel was between driving 150 miles to Bismarck, ND or 175 miles to Rapid City, SD. Some people opted to drive 300 miles to Billings, MT in order to make a westward trip. Our trips were being paid for by the church in Idaho that was in the process of discerning whether or not to call us to be their pastors. I don’t remember if they made the reservations or if we did, but we probably would have chosen to fly from Rapid City because we had family there. What I remember is that on one of the trips our daughter suffered from ear infections. She frequently had ear infections as a young child and we had been through a lot of different attempts at treating them. I had grown up in and around airplanes and the process of clearing your ears as you change altitude wasn’t a big deal to me. It was automatic. But I also knew that young children don’t know how to deal with that congested feeling. With an infant, a bottle is a good way to get them to clear their ears. Sucking helps to equalize the pressure. When a child is old enough to safely chew gum, that will sometimes do the trick. We weren’t coming up with good solutions for our daughter on that particular trip. She was uncomfortable and fussy.

I’ve never been bothered by other people’s children when flying on the airlines. I’ve changed seats with others who are so bothered. But when our own daughter was fussy, it bothered me. I didn’t want to cause trouble for other passengers. I didn’t want our daughter to be uncomfortable.

I am remembering that trip today because as I write our 19-month-old grandson is with our daughter and son-in-law on an airplane. He’s taking a much longer flight, from Misawa, Japan to Seattle. When he was only three months old, he took the same flight with his mother. When they arrived in Seattle, they switched planes and flew on to Rapid City to visit us. On the return trip, they stopped for a few days here in Washington to visit our son and his family. Our grandson is quite the traveler. I hope our grandson is sleeping for a good portion of this eight hour trip. However you make the trip, it is exhausting. The difference in time zones is confusing to your body. They’ll be tired when they arrive and today will seem like a very, very long day to his parents. We’ll get to visit our son-in-law at the airport briefly and then he will continue to travel three more time zones east to South Carolina. That makes a super long day for him.

The anticipation and excitement of their arrival in just a few more hours reminds me of the excitement I felt the day we brought our daughter home. We picked her up in the morning in Grand Forks, North Dakota, 425 miles from our home in Hettinger. We had received little warning that we would be adopting and infant. We had been expecting that the agency would ask us to consider an older child. When the social worker handed her to me I had to force myself to stop shaking. I was that excited.

We drove 5 1/2 hours that day with the new baby in her car seat and our 2 1/2-year old son in his. I don’t remember how many times we stopped. It was in the days of the 55 mph speed limit, so travel took more time. We stopped 150 miles from home because a friend had given us a night in a motel to break up the long trip. After the excitement of the day and the long drive, I was eager to crawl into bed, but after an hour or so, I was wide awake. I spent most of the night sitting next to the crib looking in wonder at that tiny baby. Being responsible for another human being is an awesome task, and I was filled with awe at how quickly our lives had changed.

That was 37 years ago. Now our children are responsible for their own children. One of the delights of our grand parenting is that we are so impressed at what good parents our children are. I’ve known for a long time that our daughter would be a good mother. She had a kind touch and a natural way with children from an early age. She enjoyed babysitting as a teen and worked as a childcare worker in her young adult years. Becoming a mother came relatively late in her life and she was ready to be a mother when her son was born.

And now we get to have them in our home for at least two weeks. Their US Air Force approved quarantine plan allows them to be only at our house or our son’s house and to have contact only with us and our son and his family for the next two weeks. After that, their departure from our home depends on how quickly housing becomes available at their new assignment in South Carolina.

I loved being a father. I love being a grandpa. We talk by Skype or FaceTime several times a week, so I’m sure I will seem at least a bit familiar to our grandson, but now we get to be together for meals and play in our back yard and spend time together. There is a brand-new red Strider bike waiting for him and he will get to ride it with his cousins at their farm. He can hold the guinea pigs and chickens and visit the cats in the barn.

I don’t know whether or not he will remember this long airplane ride. He’s young enough that he is sure to forget parts of it. But I know it is a day I’ll treasure and remember for the rest of my life.

Birthday celebrations

Our family has a trio of birthdays in February. Yesterday was the birthday of our nephew, the first-born of his generation in my wife’s side of the family. Her parents had five grandchildren. He was the first. Today is my wife, Susan’s birthday. Tomorrow our eldest grandson turns ten. Three birthdays, three generations. It gives us a perfect opportunity to think about the passage of time, the process of aging and the differences of perspective of the generations of our family.

Our nephew is a high school English teacher. His early adulthood was filled with wonderful adventures and a lot of travel. After he graduated from college, he lived in Korea for a while, traveled in Australia, explored Central America. He returned home from his travels, earned a Master’s Degree, and went to work as a teacher. We, of course, are biased, but we believe that he is one of the best of the best teachers. He genuinely cares about his students. He loves the subject material that he teaches. He invests a lot of time in keeping up with his career and providing the best education possible. His wife comes from an adventurous Korean family. She is not the only one who lives abroad. She has a sister who lives in the Netherlands. Together they have kept their love of travel and adventure alive. I like to tease him about the date of his birthday. A few years ago they traveled around the world, flying from their home in Oregon to the Netherlands, from there to Korea and then back to the United States, heading East on each major leg of their journey. I say that because he only crossed the International Date line going in one direction he only actually lived in 364 days that year, meaning that his birthday is now February 6 instead of February 7. He claims that he had enough long days on that trip to make the number of hours add up high enough for him to retain his birthday. It is a fun family joke.

I’m always fascinated to hear about his life and his teaching. Right now his school district is not allowing any in-person teaching. He teaches his classes via video conference. Students in his classes attend two one-hour sessions via computer each week. When they were face-to-face, he had five class periods each week with each class. That means that he has had to revise his curriculum. Instead of teaching Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet he now teaches selected scenes from the play. He has added more poetry, but decreased the amount of fiction required. Adaptation is the key to being a teacher these days, but he is aware of how much is being lost during the pandemic. His students will have had less instruction during their high school years. They will have missed some important literature and some lessons that he has tried to incorporate into the education of other students.

Like our grandson, whose age tomorrow will be measured in two digits, Susan turns the corner into a new decade with her birthday today. We keep saying that we have expected all along to live this long - we just didn’t expect it to happen so quickly. The years have been very good to us, filled with family and love and meaningful work and lots of adventures. A serious health scare 16 months ago has remained us how precious the time we have is and how fragile our existence in this life can be. Fortunately, we were the beneficiaries of excellent life-saving medical care and live in a generation with incredible medical technologies and brilliant doctors who have been well trained in the wisdom gained by generations of healers. Had we lived a generation earlier she likely would not have survived. Celebrating her birthday is filled with joy for us as we fortunate and privileged we have been. Every day is a bonus and a treat for us. We don’t need to be able to go to a restaurant for a special dinner to celebrate. I can cook a meal for two this evening and we have a very busy day planned for tomorrow, so we’ll be in bed early. Tomorrow our daughter and her family arrive at the Seattle Airport after having lived in Japan for several years. Actually, for her it is today - she’ll be coming back across the International Date line and gaining back the day she lost when she crossed it going the other direction, so it is already tomorrow for her. You can count on us to be eagerly waiting at the airport when they clear customs and are able to meet us. That will be the best birthday present this year. Her son, the youngest of our grandchildren, is now 19 months old and we are so eager to see them face to face. She and her son will quarantine in our home for two weeks before traveling on to their new home in South Carolina. It is a long way from here, but at lest it is on the same continent. We knew that travel and living in far away places would be part of her story when she married her Air Force husband and they have not only enjoyed the adventures of their travels, but given us wonderful adventures to visit them.

And tomorrow our grandson turns 10 - a birthday of Lego bricks and bicycling and model airplanes. The family celebration of his and Susan’s birthdays has been delayed because of the arrival of our travelers from Japan and the fact that his father has several evening meetings this week. We’ll have a grand party on Valentine’s Day - Sunday - for everyone to celebrate. We asked him what we should have for our dinner that day and he suggested that we need only prepare two foods: lots of corn dogs and an all-you-can-eat ice cream bar. I think there will be a few other menu options for the rest of the family, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he sticks to his eating plan. His life gives us a pretty good measure of a decade. We can easily remember his birth and so we have a sense of all that has happened since - and it has been a lot!

There is much to celebrate at our house. We are in the midst of a week of joy upon joy. If I sneeze this week and anyone says, “God bless you!” I’ll have to respond, “God does. God does.”

The seasons in a new place

I’ve started to really look forward to Saturdays. Our son has the day off from his regular job and his wife works a long day on Saturday at her busy counseling practice. It is a special day for our grandchildren, who look forward to having more time with their father on the weekends. We have developed a pattern of going to our son’s house to work on a project or two. Our son and daughter-in-law are constantly at work on their home place, fixing up the house and property. In recent weeks, we have been putting baseboard in the house. For some reason, the previous owner didn’t get finished with home repair tasks. They put new tile in the kitchen and bathrooms, but didn’t put in the baseboard. They installed a sliding patio door in the dining area, but didn’t build a deck outside of the slider. They put in a new front porch, but didn’t get the front steps finished. So we’ve been working on those projects. The baseboard project has been fun for me because we have been matching the 100-year-old trim in other parts of the house. We’ve been able to purchase beautiful clear 1 x 4 stock which is slightly smaller than the original stock in the house. Then I run it through the table mounted router three trips to cut grooves in the boards to match the design of the window trim in the original house. Our son has gotten good at matching the stain and finish. Then, for the past few Saturdays, we have been cutting the miters and fitting the boards into place. There are several bay windows, so there are some interesting angles to be cut to fit all of the boards. We’ve finished almost all of the first floor of the house, with a little trim in a bathroom and the upstairs bedrooms yet to go. We don’t put in a full day’s work. We take time for a nice lunch together. We play with the children a bit. We talk a lot and we start late and finish early. But we are making progress.

Yesterday our son commented that he sees a cycle to the home improvement chores. We’ve been working on chores inside the house for several weeks. Next week we are going to take a break from chores to celebrate two family birthdays and to enjoy the arrival of our daughter and grandson as they visit in their trip from Japan to their new home in South Carolina. The following weekend is President’s Day Weekend, which in this country is the start of the gardening season. It is hard for us to believe because we are used to life in South Dakota, but spring comes early here. It is below zero in Rapid City this morning. We have daffodils and tulips appearing a couple of inches above the ground. It is time to trim the rose bushes. The buds are starting to open on some of the shrubs in the yard. When we return to work at our son’s farm, the baseboard project will be put on hold for a while. We’v got fence to build, a new enclosure for chickens that will be coming soon, and a deck and front steps that need to be made.

I moved to the Pacific Northwest with my biases developed through years of living in the midwest. I thought of Western Washington much the same way that a lot of other people do: It sure rains a lot there! Well it does rain more here than other places where we have lived. But it doesn’t rain every day, even in the rainy season. In October and November it rains a lot more here than it does in the other places we have lived, but it doesn’t rain every day. We walk every day and we’ve probably only walked in the rain four or five times since we moved. Most days there are breaks in the rain and there are lots of days when it is sunny in between the rainy days.

The locals haven’t developed gills. They don’t have moss behind their ears. The rain produces lovely tall trees and wonderful green undergrowth but there are plenty of days to enjoy outdoor activities. And spring comes very, very early out here. I’ll be mowing my lawn this week.

We have learned a few things. Umbrellas are rarely worth the hassle. You don’t need to have one in every vehicle and carry one every time you leave the house. A good rain coat is a nice item to have and rain pants are a blessing on some of the wettest days. But most of the time you learn to just go on about your life. A little moisture doesn’t hurt at all. If your clothes are wet from being outside in the rain, you change them and hang the wet ones to dry. It isn’t a big deal.

We had all kinds of special clothing for dealing with the cold weather in the other places we have lived. I had a big expensive snow blower and insulated coveralls and a parka for the snowiest of days. We bundled up and got on with our lives. A similar thing happens here. The weather for which we are preparing is different and we need a bit of different clothing, but it is easy to learn to adapt. The thing I worried about, getting depressed from constantly gray, cloudy skies, doesn’t seem to be a problem. We get plenty of sunshine and though it is more cloudy than other places we have lived, the clouds part and we see a bit of blue in the sky most days. And when the clouds lift, the views of the mountains are spectacular.

We will learn the rhythm of a new place. I suspect that I’ll stop journaling about the weather as much after a year or so. And I don’t think our son’s farm will run out of projects.

In the meantime, I’ve got a canoe in the shop ready for varnish and the area lakes are calling me to explore. Just like when I was a kid, if you are looking for me and it isn’t time for eating or sleeping, I’ll be outside.

Checking the Website

We are developing a new routine at our house. Every Friday, at noon or very close to it, we check a web site that advises us on whether or not there will be any vaccine available for us to receive our Covid-19 shots. So far the web site has advised “No First-Dose Appointments Currently Available.” Although we qualify for the “Phase 1-B, Tier 1” vaccinations our county has not been able to obtain the amount of vaccine needed to meet the demand. It could be a month or more before we are able to get our first dose. In the meantime, we are relatively safe. We keep to our bubble of family, are careful with face masks when we need to go out in public to the grocery store or post office, wear our masks when walking where there are others in sight, and do a lot more business by telephone and video conference than ever before in our lives. Yesterday we completed our Social Security interviews over the telephone - a ritual that used to involve a trip to the Social Security office, but now involves an Internet sign-up and a follow-up phone call.

We are delighted to hear from friends that they have received their first, and in many cases, now, second doses of the vaccine. We know that the country is making progress in getting people vaccinated and we understand that we have no reason to expect special treatment while we wait. We are at a phase in our lives where we can afford patience.

I was wondering, yesterday, how the process is going for some who are older than us. I have friends who are in their eighties who don’t use a computer. I suspect that they use the telephone to check on the availability of vaccine in their areas, and I suspect that using the phone involves several skills, including getting through a series of automated messages and keypad choices, that weren’t required when they were in their working years. I suspect that there are some who aren’t succeeding in getting on the list. When your priority is vaccinating the elderly, requiring a specific set of computer skills might not be the best way to reach your target audience.

Meanwhile, we have a friend who I suspect is doing just fine. We first met Ethel back in 1985, as we prepared to move to Boise, Idaho from Hettinger, North Dakota. She was a member of the church we had been called to serve and the wife of the realtor with whom we were working to purchase our first house. They had invited us over to their house, which was fairly new and built all on one level with a delightful sun room and a swimming pool in the back yard. Ethel’s husband, Ken, called the house his garage sale special. They went to an estate sale that was being held at a garage on a lot in town where there was no house. They ended up buying the garage and the lot and building their house next to the garage. Ethel put her home economics education to work helping a national super market chain set up their in-store delis and conducting baking demonstrations for a frozen bread dough company out of a motorhome. We have stayed in touch with Ethel, mostly by mail, since those days. We followed her through her retirement and the loss of her husband. It turns out that our first grandchild was born on Ethel’s birthday, so it is easy for us to remember her at this time of the year. Their shared birthday is next Tuesday. Our grandson will turn 10. Ethel will turn 101. She still lives in her beloved house, independent and happy. Her children check in on her from time to time and have helped her with home maintenance chores and some of her shopping, but she remains capable, active and involved.

Last week we received a letter from Ethel, handwritten with a school teacher’s neat penmanship. At least school teachers prided themselves with neat penmanship back in the day when she was a school teacher. I don’t know if that skill is as necessary in today’s world of Zoom classes and Internet-based education. The letter has prompted me to work at my own penmanship. I have been practicing my printing as we help with home school for our grandchildren. Although they have regular keyboarding drills, cursive writing doesn’t seem to be part of the curriculum at this point. So I try to be very precise and neat with my printing when working with the children.

I don’t know if I will make it to 101, but I’m trying to keep myself physically and mentally fit just in case I do. That means getting exercise every day. It also means keeping my mind sharp and alert. The library is a good partner in the mental exercise department and my wife is a great partner in the physical exercise department. When I’m feeling a bit lazy and tempted to skip a day, she gets me going and keeps me fit. Now I’m adding a bit of hand writing to the routine. I still do most of my correspondence on the computer, typing letters and emails to friends, but I’ve taken to adding hand-written notes to my letters and making sure that I write cards to family and friends. I want to keep my handwriting legible as long as possible. If I make it to 101, I sure wish I could be like Ethel, writing letters that are received and treasured by those blessed to be the recipients. By then, I suspect, a hand-written letter will be a rare flash back to an earlier time - a kind of antique. Still, I’d like the skill to last for the rest of my life at least.

My computer and the next generations of computers are, however, a part of my life. I’ll keep doing the majority of my writing at the keyboard. After all I have to keep up my computer skills in order to make appointments. A pandemic seems to be a good time to practice new skills.

Pancreatic cancer

I got the call yesterday as I was pulling into the driveway after running an errand. I sat their in the car and listened and talked with a brand-new widow who called to inform me of the death of her husband. I used to get those calls more often. People call the minister right away when a death occurs. There is a funeral to plan and ministers are kept in the loop. However, this call wasn’t made to me as a minister. It came as a friend who had just lost a friend. As is often the case with the finality of death, I sat in the car a bit immobilized. There was nothing I could do. I can’t make the loss hurt any less for the widow. I know the children. I watched them grow up. I can easily imagine them gathered together and talking about their father. He was human. He made mistakes in his life. He said and did things that he regretted. Sometimes they couldn’t understand him or why he made the decisions that he made. But they loved him and they knew that he loved them. They aren’t talking about the bad times as they sit around the house wondering what the next steps might be. They are remembering the good times.

Three times in recent years, I have been invited into the inside of a friend’s journey with pancreatic cancer. The diagnosis is devastating. The survival rates are low from this particular form of cancer. Doctors measure success in terms of days and weeks, not years. The chemotherapy is nasty. The surgery is grueling and recovery from the surgery is filled with all kinds of ups and downs. The risk of infection and complications is high. Pancreatic cancer victims learn to spend a lot of time in the hospital as medications are adjusted.

Cancer is not the only disease that involves the pancreas. The pancreas produces insulin, a critical hormone that controls the metabolization of carbohydrates. It sits near the first part of the small intestine, right next to the bile duct that drains waste from the liver into the bowel. Tumors on the head of the pancreas tend to squeeze the bile duct and can interfere with the normal operation of the liver. Surgery to remove tumors or parts of tumors is extremely complex with all of the different tubes and ducts that intersect in a small part of the body. Removing any part of the pancreas means re-routing tubes and reconnecting ducts.

Pancreatic cancer is difficult to diagnose. Often sufferers have symptoms that confuse their doctors and make it especially challenging to figure out what is going on. Treatments of symptoms can result in significant disruption of routines. Not being able to get far from the bathroom can make life unpleasant and social connections challenging. Add to that the compromised immune system in the midst of a global pandemic and he necessary isolation to reduce the risk of infection and sufferers become isolated and lonely.

One of the great honors of my life is that these people have trusted me with some of their most intimate thoughts, hopes and fears as they journeyed through the odyssey of pancreatic cancer. I’ve learned a lot more about the human body than I expected to learn. I’ve learned even more about the human spirit.

Pancreatic cancer patients come face to face with a reality that is true of all of us. We are mortal. We all will one day die. After the diagnosis, death seems a lot closer and its reality cannot be ignored. In the absence of life-threatening illness, we age at a measured pace, losing our abilities so slowly that we hardly notice. I’ve watched friends seem to age in front of my eyes, losing their balance and ability to walk and form clear thoughts and ideas in a matter of days and weeks. I’ve seen their frustration first hand. I’ve heard them speak of learning to live with nearly constant thoughts of life and death and the meaning or lack of meaning of it all.

Hope rises and falls with dramatic shifts in the pancreatic cancer journey. The big surgery, called a Whipple Resection after the Columbia University surgeon who developed the procedure, is a highly complex operation. Usually before that procedure is undertaken there is a simpler, laparoscopic procedure in which a stent is inserted in the bile duct to improve liver function. Chemotherapy is also prescribed to shrink the tumor in advance of the surgery. There can be months of feeling really bad while the patient is waiting for and preparing for surgery. Some days seem almost normal. Then another round of chemo leaves the patient in bed with no energy at all. Hope is renewed when doctors proclaim that the tumor is shrinking. A surgery date gets set and, frequently needs to be rescheduled over and over. Hope rises and falls with each visit to the doctor’s office. When the procedure is performed, usually at a University or advanced medical center far from home, there are weeks and weeks of recovery. Hope rises as falls as the patient gains a few pounds then loses them. Appetite seems to be recovering and then nothing tastes good. Pills are taken to replace hormones that used to be automatically produced. The doctors pronounce the procedure a success, but nobody thinks that the success will result in the end of cancer or medical treatments.

Knowing that death is nearer rather than farther away, however, makes people wrestle with deep spiritual truths. I’ve had some amazing conversations as I listened to the stark honesty of people who know that they will soon die. Each visit with a child or grandchild becomes a precious treasure. Each conversation with a friend an opportunity. Time takes on a new meaning.

I wish that experience would make the process easier, but for me it has not. Grief triggers memories of other grief. Each loss is painful. Each phone call a unique emotional challenge. I would not, however, trade the experience. I am blessed to have known these people. They have taught me much about courage and struggle, pain and joy, faith, hope and love. They are not forgotten. None of them has been conquered by cancer. Even though they have died, the disease did not win. Their generosity of sharing their journey has made me more confident of resurrection than ever. Though tears cloud my vision, I know I am among the most fortunate of people to have been invited into the intimacy of their journeys.

Nobody spilled

The media didn’t cover it. Historians will not note it. The movies won’t celebrate it. But I want the record to reflect that on Wednesday, February 3, 2021, our son, his wife and all three of their children came to our house for lunch. Normally our son lives too far from his work to come home for lunch, but we live close to where he works and he can pop over for lunch with us from time to time. His wife and children were taking advantage of a wonderful sunny day yesterday and took their bikes to a trail near our house before a routine doctor’s appointment for one of the children. Between those two events, they stopped by to hang out at our house and have lunch. Here is the historic moment that occurred at that meal that I want to record. No one spilled their drink during the entire meal.

I’m not one to get upset when a glass of water or milk is spilled. We have a plastic table cloth on the table these days because we really enjoy having the children come to our house and we don’t want to worry about our table top. We have plastic glasses that the children usually use. They can hit the floor without breaking. I have dozens of stories from when I was a child that involve someone spilling a drink, including the day when two glasses of milk were spilled before a quart of milk was dropped on the floor, shattering the glass bottle in which it was contained and the door of the refrigerator was slammed in frustration, causing a dozen eggs to fall off of the shelf in the refrigerator and several broke adding to the mess. We survived that day and continued to have a loving and fun family. About the worst thing that happens when someone spills some milk at our house these days is that we go through a second round of napkins and have to do an extra load of laundry.

So we don’t take much notice when a glass is spilled. But it did seem like a bit of an extraordinary day yesterday. In the evening, after everyone had gone home and I was settling into a bit of reading I paused and reflected on the day. It was a calm moment with a host of fun memories. I reveled in the warm greeting from our three-year-old, who ran up to me and hugged my legs while calling out my name. That will never get old. I cherished the memory of building chuck gliders with our almost ten-year-old grandson. Chuck gliders are a step up from paper airplanes. We use foam board from the dollar store and cut out a fuselage and wing shape from the board. Sometimes I tape a nut to the nose to provide a little more weight for balance, but yesterday we came up with a design that flew pretty well with just a few layers of foam board glued together. I’m amazed at our grandson’s creativity and enthusiasm for a simple craft project with granddad. And I had the image of our six-year-old peeking out as she sat in the bin where Susan keeps some dress up clothes for play. The clothes were scattered on the floor and our granddaughter had crawled into the bin to make sure that she had tried on every outfit in the bin. She lost another tooth the day before yesterday and her grin is positively precious.

I try to remember all of these moments. I’m having such fun with my life right now. Despite a pandemic and the stresses of moving and the uncertainties of retirement, I count myself among the most fortunate of people. Not only do I have these everyday joys, but in less than a week now our daughter and 19-month-old grandson will arrive from Japan. They have to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival and will do so at our house. Because they are in our bubble, our other grandchildren and their parents will be allowed to visit during the quarantine. To make matters simple, I now can borrow a mini-van by trading cars with our son and so will have just the right vehicle to pick them and all of their suitcases from the airport. We’ll have a few hours with our son-in-law at the airport before he catches his connecting flight to South Carolina. It will be a super long day for him, traveling from Japan to South Carolina, but we’ll get to see him in person.

So I was sitting in my chair, enjoying the moment last night when it occurred to me: “Nobody spilled anything during lunch today.” We live in exciting times. It is another sign that the children are growing up. And it is happening very quickly. Next Tuesday, the day our daughter and her family arrive, our oldest grandson turns ten. Two digits in his age. Teenage years are not far away and as we enter our seventies, we are well aware how quickly time passes.

No worries, our lives won’t change too radically. By next week, especially with our youngest grandson around, there will be plenty of spills. I’ll have to take the garbage out more often. There will be more dishes to do. The clothes washing machine will be going around the clock. And I will continue to sit in my chair at the end of the day and try to remember everything that has happened and revel in the joys of this life.

After our grandchildren left yesterday, I unboxed and assembled the new red Strider Bike that will be waiting for our grandson when he arrives. Over the next couple of days we’ll make sure that the toys in the upstairs bedroom are safe for a toddler. Some of the games and toys that entertain his older cousins will be put on high shelves and out of reach. Like all of the other grandchildren, there will be pictures of him in the high chair that has been in the family since Susan’s grandmother was a baby. It doesn’t meet safety standards for everyday use, but it is great for ceremonial pictures. How lucky we are to have found the energy and space to move children’s furniture, toys and games and books when we packed up our household.

If you come to visit, don’t worry. We’re ready for the occasional spill. And we’re entertained when it doesn’t occur.

Inspiration

Sometimes I draw inspiration from unusual sources. This month, I am being inspired by the February issue of an obscure journal called “Messing About in Boats.” The traditional print magazine, generally more than 50 pages per issue, is almost single-handedly produced by editor Bob Hicks, who has been publishing the journal from his home office since 1959. It wasn’t his first job, either. On occasion, I wonder how much longer the journal can be sustained. In a world of computers where many magazines have gone to online distribution, I look forward to reading type on paper once a month. I, like many other subscribers, put a little note in the last subscription renewal, inquiring about the health and well-being of the aging editor. In his editorial in this issue, Hicks assures his readers that he and his family are well and, so far, free of covid. Specifically he says, “About our health . . . just being elderly does not necessarily mean we are ‘at risk’ for we are healthy and not afflicted with any underlying conditions that render our auto immune systems unable to do their duty.”

He, his wife and his daughter continue to produce an issue of the magazine every month with no talk of retirement. One of the quirks about the magazine I love is the line they put in the publication statement. After listing the subscription information and the address of the magazine they put in the phone number, followed by the line, “There is no machine.” If you want to talk to them, you have to catch them when they are available to speak on the phone.

I don’t think it is a very big magazine in terms of circulation. It makes me feel a bit unique and perhaps a bit quirky to receive an issue every month.

The inspiration doesn’t stop with the editor. In this month’s issue there is an article by Larry Bracken about his progress towards achieving his goal of earning his Master level license. Such a license enables the bearer to charter in open ocean settings, where the boat is taken beyond sight of land. He is not intending to become a charter operator, but rather seeking the license as a way of pursuing his love of sailing in a safe and responsible way. He wants to gain more skills and become more safe in his pursuit of his hobby. He wrote, “About a year and a half ago I ticked over from the 70s into the 80s and hurtle toward the start of the ninth decade doing the sailing thing.” Not only does the article speak of the challenges and joys of pursuing his love of boating as he grow older, in it he also wrote about the challenges of operating aging boats: “Does old age present insurmountable barriers? Do the inadequacies of old boats cause insurmountable barriers to point-to-point, open water sailing? Only if left unresolved.”

I really hope I can maintain a small amount of his attitude when I make the journey into my eighties.

Flipping a few pages farther in the magazine, Sid Whelan writes, “My 91st birthday present for me and my family is a new 16’ Adirondack guideboat.”

Reading the magazine makes my own boating ambitions seem a bit less ridiculous. I spent several hours sanding the varnish off of a beloved canoe yesterday. I’m down to 150-grit paper and will go to 220-grit the next day I work on the boat. Then I’ll start to apply fresh varnish, somewhere between 4 and 6 coats, depending on how the boat looks. I built the boat over 20 years ago and when I finish this round of freshening up it will look brand new and be much better than a brand new boat because I know exactly how it will perform in the water. I haven’t babied this boat. It has received its share of scratches from rocks and it has traveled thousands of miles on racks and trailers. It’s been in a lot of different waters over the years.

It isn’t my only boat. On the rack in the shop, waiting for the space when I finish my canoe is a 20’ ocean kayak that I started building six years ago. It has been slow progress as I wound down my career and made the move out here. I’m eager to get going on the project once again. The hull and deck are both nearly finished. All that remains is to mate the two halves and seal the connection. Then the boat needs to be outfitted: a seat and coaming for the cockpit, foot braces, hatches, bulkheads, deck lines and a hundred other details. In other words, it looks like a boat, but it is only about half finished. I’ll be lucky to get it in the water this year.

Meanwhile, I’ve been dreaming of making myself a rowing shell. There is a picture of Dana Henning’s new shell in the magazine. She made it over the last few months with assistance from her father. It was a quarantine project for the high school student. Her high school rowing program has been suspended due to the pandemic. She invested a lot of time building a boat that she can row all by herself while she waits for conditions to improve enough to allow team rowing once again. I know I could make a boat like hers, though it probably would take me a bit longer. I’m pretty sure that I have more patience for sanding than most high school students.

And it sure would be fun to have a double or triple kayak while my grandchildren are young enough to enjoy paddling with their grandpa.

And I’ve wanted a small sail boat ever since we sold our old Sunfish before moving from Idaho a quarter of a century ago.

It is pretty obvious that if I am able to keep building boats, I have projects lined up to last me well into my nineties. Fortunately, I subscribe to a magazine that is filled with stories of others who have kept that passion and the energy to pursue it alive. Inspiration comes from many different sources.

Groundhog Day

My father spoke of our Pennsylvania Dutch heritage. It is hard to know exactly how many family traditions and how much family lore has been carried down from that part of our family. Certainly there are other influences and my father’s side of the family wasn’t much for staying in one place. They never remained in the same place for more than two generations after arriving in North America.

Pennsylvania Dutch or not, I simply do not get groundhog’s day. It just doesn’t make any sense to me. I’ve never lived in a place where winter ended in the first week of February. Shadow or not, it seems to me, winter isn’t going to end that early. Even six weeks later is questionable in most of the places I have lived. Perhaps there will be certain signs of spring in six weeks here in the Northwest corner of Washington. The weather is more spring-like than winter-like right now. We’ve had one day when there was a little bit of snow on the ground. It didn’t even stick to the sidewalks and streets. That’s it for winter. Right now it is raining which is decidedly spring-like weather in my book. But I fail to see any connection with a groundhog. I’m pretty sure that in the places where I have lived, you’d have to wake a groundhog early from hibernation just to see a groundhog in the first week of February.

The tradition of Groundhog Day seems to be most popular in the United States and Canada and especially popular in Pennsylvania. The official ceremony is held at Punxsutawney in western Pennsylvania. The forecast for Punxsutawney for today is snow showers under cloudy skies. That is supposed to mean an early spring. I’m not holding my breath and I’d advise those who live in the other places I’ve lived not hold their breaths for an early spring, either.

It is a little hard to trace the tradition of Groundhog Day. It is supposed to have German traditions. It certainly comes from German-speaking parts of the United States. I’ve heard that the forecasting animal in Germany is the badger. My brothers and I messed with a badger once. I’m not eager to ever do that again.

Most likely, the tradition has much more ancient roots. February 2 is Candlemas, or the Feast of the Presentation. Although the Lectionary has the readings of the story of the presentation of Jesus at the Temple and the reaction of Simeon and Anna before Epiphany, the traditional date for that event is February 2 - 40 days after December 25. The celebration of Christmas on December 25 dates back to around AD 354 when it was established by Pope Liberius. As spelled out in the Book of Leviticus after the birth of a baby boy, a woman was to go to the temple for a rite of purification 33 days after the boy’s circumcision. Assuming the circumcision took place a week after birth, that makes the day of presentation 40 days after Christmas. The tradition has held for most of the history of Christianity. There are presentation sermons that date back to the early 300s.

In some traditions, the Feast of the Presentation marks the official end of the season of Christmas. In the contemporary church Christmas ends on January 6 - 12 days after December 25 with the Feast of Epiphany, but there is evidence that many parts of the church continued the celebration until February 2.

Candlemas is another name for the Feast of the Presentation. In many parts of the church, the tradition was to bring new candles to the church for the Feast where they would be blessed in a special ceremony. Those blessed candles would be used during the coming year bringing blessing to homes and sanctuaries. To a casual observer that tradition is easily confused with the blessing of candles that occurs during the Easter Vigil, when new light is brought forth and blessed. That tradition includes the first lighting of a new Christ Candle to be lit at each worship service until it is extinguished for the last time on Good Friday the following year.

There are so many different traditions and so many different ways of celebrating the Feast of the Presentation that it is difficult to say which is the official version. It varies by denomination, location and congregation.

In France there is a tradition of not putting away manger scenes until Candlemas. To celebrate, all of the candles in the house are lit and the manger scenes are put away. The traditional food of Candlemas is crepes or pancakes. The round shape and golden color of a pancake is said to remind people of the sun and the coming of warmer weather. There are several traditions associated with the cooking of Candlemas crepes. In one version it is said that the cook should flip the crepe in the air with one hand while holding a gold coin in the other. If the crepe lands back in the pan it is a sign of good fortune. The first crepe made should be kept in an armoire to assure a plentiful harvest later that year. In another tradition, the proper flipping of the crepe is a sign of fertility and the coming of a new baby to the family.

I’ve never been good at flipping pancakes in the air. I usually end up with a mess instead of a perfect golden pancake. If I want good pancakes, I’ve found that using a spatula and a somewhat less dramatic gesture is a better idea. My grandchildren, however, all associate pancakes for breakfast with overnight stays with grandma and grandpa. And the tradition in our family is that grandpa cooks the pancakes. We don’t expect any more children in this generation of our family, so hopes for a bountiful harvest seem to be more in order.

We’re not much for candles at our house, either. So if we don’t think a groundhog can predict the weather and we don’t have a bunch of candles and we aren’t expecting a burst of fertility, I guess what is left is pancakes. Maybe Candlemas is a day to experience just a bit of regret that I’ve already eaten all of the huckleberries I had saved in the freezer.

Walking in the rain

A lot has changed in the last year for us. I’m thinking that there are a lot of people who have a similar reaction on the first day of February, 2020. One year ago, most of us had no knowledge of Covid-19. We certainly didn’t know what an impact it would have on our lives, on the economy of the world, and the devastating toll it would take in our country. We couldn’t yet imagine the restrictions on travel, daily wearing of face masks, the quest for effective vaccines or the problems with the distribution of those vaccines. One year ago, I couldn’t imagine that churches would make a sudden shift from in-person to online worship.

One year ago our attention was pretty sharply focused on Susan’s health. After a frightening and life-changing cardiac event and a nearly fatal reaction to some of the drugs used to treat her condition, we were struggling to regain full health and strength. Even though it was a busy time for us as we prepared for the beginning of Lent, we made sure that we set aside at least a half hour each day for walking. The streets were often slippery in early February in Rapid City and we were learning where we might walk where snow removal had taken place and we could get traction. Many days we walked downtown where businesses were diligent in keeping sidewalks clear. We also learned that the walkways in the city parks were often clear when walking through the neighborhoods posed a bigger challenge. Many days we walked during our lunch hour, walking for 15 minutes or so, then taking a break to eat our lunch and following up with another 15 minutes.

Now, a year later, walking has become a part of our routine. Going for a half hour walk doesn’t require any change in our routine. Most days we walk at least 45 minutes and some days we walk for more than an hour. A year ago, we thought than a one mile walk was a reasonable goal. These days we almost always walk more than two and often walk more than three miles.

Another big change, though probably not on the scale of the changes brought about by a pandemic, is that we live in a totally different place with a totally different climate. We haven’t been selecting the place for our walks based on snow removal and our need to avoid icy conditions. We are, however, getting pretty good at learning where the big mud puddles form and how to avoid saturated ground that gets us covered in mud.

We both have good rain jackets and we have waterproof walking shoes. Those are essential in the place where we now live. We’ve learned, like many locals here, that umbrellas usually aren’t worth the hassle and there is no substitute for a good rain jacket. We’ve also learned to look at the forecast for the day and the clouds in the sky to choose a time to walk between rain showers.

Some days, however, there is no in-between when it comes to the rain. Yesterday it simply rained all day long. We were engage with church and annual meetings in the morning, so we went walking in the afternoon. It rained all the time we were walking. We walked a big loop from our home, over to a park with a boardwalk through a wetlands area, around that part, down to the hospital, back by the Catholic church and up the hill north of our house before circling back to our driveway. My head stayed dry under the hood of my jacket. My feet stayed dry in my waterproof shoes. From the waist to my ankles, however, I got soaked. I came in from my walk and changed into dry pants. Even my underwear was soaked.

I have a pair of rain pants. I think I may have worn them once or twice. It looks like I’ll be wearing them today when we go for our walk. The forecast is calling for a 90% chance of rain all day long. In fact it looks like Wednesday may be the only day in the week to come when we will be walking when it isn’t raining.

There is no news in the fact that it is raining here. People expect it. It happens every February. Although the locals are aware that this part of the country has a reputation for rain, they feel pretty smug because it isn’t snowing. Not far from our home, in the mountains, there is plenty of snow and more on the way. And the storm that is bearing down on the northeastern part of the United States is making headlines. New York and Boston are bracing for 20 inches of snow and 50 mph winds today. They have declared a state of emergency in New York City. Schools will be closed, coronavirus vaccinations are being re-scheduled, airlines are cancelling flights. The mayor of New York City has issued a stay at home order. The storm, which dropped snow in the mountains of the west last week has intensified as it traveled across the country.

Meanwhile, it is February and I haven’t taken my insulated coveralls out of the closet since we moved into this house. My parka is hanging right next to them, unused since last winter. Well, that isn’t quite right. I did wear my parka on the last day of the last trip from South Dakota when we encountered a foot of snow in the mountains as we crossed the Cascades. We were through the snow before we reached our house. I hung up my parka and it has stayed in the closet. The snow shovel I insisted on bringing with us sits unused in the garage. It doesn’t look like it is going to bet much exercise this winter.

About 20 years ago, I bought an inexpensive pair of rain pants after getting wet during a rainstorm in Costa Rica. I saw them on sale and decided it would be good to have them for a future trip. They’ve been unused in my drawer ever since. I didn’t even take them on subsequent trips to Costa Rica. I’ll pull them on today. Who knows? They might get a lot of use this month.