Learning to be grandpa


As is true with a lot of things in life, it takes years to gain experience as a grandparent. I wouldn’t call myself an expert yet, but I now have more than a decade under my belt and I am beginning to feel very comfortable in the role. Among the joys of being a grandpa is the fun of having long conversations with our children’s children. They offer perspective that I need to remember what is most important in life. They teach me a great deal about childhood and growing up that I missed when I was growing up and continued to miss when their parents were children. I was so busy in those days that I guess I didn’t take the time to listen fully. Whatever the reason, talking with grandchildren is one of the great joys of my life at this stage.

One of our granddaughters is really good with colors. I’ve never been that way. I say I’m an eight crayon color person. I have names for about eight colors and I don’t know all of the subtle distinctions between the colors in-between. I get red, blue, and yellow. I even understand green, orange, and purple. I can even conceptualize yellow orange. But I’m no good at the distinction between jungle green and mountain meadow. I can make out the distinction between pine green and electric lime, but screaming green and inchworm are colors that I can’t consistently identify. Our granddaughter, however, knows the difference between midnight blue and indigo. She can distinguish between sky blue, aquamarine, turquoise blue, and cornflower. She even knows the difference between salmon and pink sherbet, neither of which are wild strawberry. It is fascinating to talk with her about colors, even when I don’t always see the distinctions. When our daughter was a teenager she was quite the fashion critic, but I’m pretty sure our granddaughter is going to be much more so.

The other granddaughter is more observant of detail that I have ever been. She noticed a group of ants carrying off the carcass of a bumble bee on the sidewalk. I hadn’t even noticed the ants. She shows me where the ground bees swarm at the base of the Jerusalem artichokes out by the chicken coop. She knows where all of the different flowers on the farm are growing - the wildflowers as well as those that have been planted. She loves being outside a lot more than being inside. Taking a walk with her involves a fair amount of running to keep up. When a chicken lays an egg outside of a nesting box, she’s the one who will find it. Sometimes she thinks I’m a bit silly because I overlook things that to her are very obvious. “Grandpa, there are a lot of bunnies in the blackberries. They just don’t come out in the day.”

Our middle grandson is an expert in all of the characters of the Toy Story movies. I know about Buzz and Woody and Jessie. I recognize Mr. Potato Head and Slinky. And I even know about Forky, who is not Sporky, which is what I called him for quite a while. But I haven’t watched Toy Story 4 and I didn’t know Duke Caboom, Gabby Gabby, Giggle McDimples or Bitey White, until I was informed by our grandson. He is another one who prefers to be in motion when we talk. When we visit over Skype or FaceTime, he runs in and out of the camera range and sometimes is talking from what seems like a long way away. I know my hearing isn’t what it once was, and he tests the limits of it both directions. I sometimes miss words when he is too soft or too loud, and I’ve experienced both plenty of times.

The oldest of our grandchildren is definitely pre-teen. I think being eleven in this day and age is very different than it was when I was that age. He is much more aware of current affairs, politics and issues than I was. He knows that the climate crisis is caused in part by the overconsumption of previous generations. He pays attention when we talk about floods in Pakistan or Jackson, Mississippi running out of water in their municipal system. Still, he likes to play Lego, something his grandfather enjoys and we have just formed a new partnership to purchase a remote controlled model airplane. I suspect there will be many more airplane partnerships in our future.

I was having quite a conversation with our youngest grandson yesterday evening. The older kids were complaining a bit about having to get ready for bed early. Today is the first day of school for them, but the youngest is too young to go to school. At just under seven months old, he can’t even talk, which makes him a very good conversation partner for grandpa. I suspect he thinks he is making words when he makes sounds. He also may be aware that my hearing isn’t as good as his. At least he giggles when I try to imitate the sounds he makes. I’m the only adult in his immediate circle with a beard, and he is fascinated with it. It isn’t long enough for him to grab and pull, but he likes to run his fingers through it. It makes me different from all of the other people in his world, so he stares at me and tries to figure me out. Last night he was starting to get a little bit sleepy after he got into his pajamas. At his age, I can’t always tell the difference between pajamas and what he wears in the day, but I knew he had pajamas because it was after dinner and getting dark outside and his mother had just changed his outfit. The other kids were going through their bedtime routine, so he was left to take care of grandpa for a while so grandma could discuss back to school clothes with the granddaughters. He did an excellent job of keeping me entertained.

It is clear that I still have a lot to learn about being a grandpa, but I have excellent and very patient teachers.

In the garden

One of the things about being an amateur gardener is that different plants produce different amounts in different years. This summer proved to be a banner year for cherries in our yard. We didn’t do anything to have a great year, the weather and the trees combined to produce a large crop. That isn’t a guarantee that we will have an equal number of cherries to harvest every year. I suspect that we will have plenty of cherries because the trees are healthy, but only time will tell if this was an average or above average year. In other crops, we are having a really good year with our dahlias. They are really outpacing our expectations. We started with quite a bit of fresh soil and the tubers came from Isaac’s previous year crop, and we were able to keep the slugs and snails away from the plants when they were young. We have the advantage of Isaac’s experience with dahlias as well. And we know that this region is good for producing flowers from bulbs and tubers.

Other than the cherries and flowers, we don’t have much planted this year. We ate a few peas from our plants, but didn’t have enough plants in the ground to produce a big harvest. We have four tomato plants on the south side of the house and all have tomatoes on them, but none are quite ripe yet. It looks, however, like we’ll have a good run.

Over at the farm, where they are serious about gardening, I have noticed that the blueberry harvest was larger than last year. Strawberries, however, are a bit behind last year’s crop. The berries are good and there are quite a few ripe berries on the plants now, but there wasn’t much of an early crop. Raspberries seemed to be similar to last year’s production. And blackberries are blackberries around here. People pick them while walking down the paths and along the streets. There seem to always be enough blackberries for the birds, for all of the people, and as many jams and cobblers as you can pick and make. Himalayan blackberries are considered to be an invasive weed around here, but in places where they are not controlled, they are immensely productive and the berries taste pretty good. On the farm they keep the blackberry area trimmed and cut out the vines when they appear elsewhere.

One crop that I notice being different from last year is pumpkins. Last year they had a lot of pumpkins at the farm. We brought several over to our house for the only Halloween decorations we put out last year. There were enough for each child to carve and decorate their own jack-o-lantern and plenty more for pumpkin soup, pumpkin bread, and other autumn treats. This year, I haven’t noticed any pumpkins, though there may be some out there that I have not yet discovered.

One thing for sure, they aren’t growing any giant pumpkins like you see at the fairs and read about in the newspaper. People grow pumpkins that weight hundreds of pounds and have to be picked up with tractors. I’m not sure why they enjoy such large pumpkins, but they are definitely ways to gain attention. There are always a few good pumpkin stories in the newspaper in September and October. This year, I was delighted to read about Duane Hanson of Bellevue, Nebraska. We had a friend with the same name when we lived in North Dakota, so I looked closely to discern that this was a different Duane Hanson. Anyway this Duane Hanson had visited Ohio and saw a person attempt to set the Guinness World Record for floating down a river in a pumpkin. The previous record was 25.5 miles. Hanson chose a huge, 846 pound pumpkin for his attempt. He carved it out so there was room for him to ride. He even carved a drink holder. Accompanied with friends who had “safety” boats, he started floating in the Missouri River at 7:30 am. on his 60th birthday last Thursday. Witnessed by members of the Bellevue Mayor’s Office, the journey took just under 12 hours and covered 38 miles of the river to Nebraska City. I was pleased to see in the picture posted on the BBC website that Duane was wearing life vest and used a kayak paddle to steer his craft.

I didn’t set any records on my 60th birthday of which I am aware. And, as much as I love floating down rivers, I’ve never made the trip in a pumpkin, or any other garden plant. I’m comfortable with canoes, kayaks, and other small boats. I’m thinking that a pumpkin might be a bit less stable than a well-designed kayak.

I’ll probably share the story of Duane’s record with my family. If they were to produce a sufficiently large pumpkin, I know a place on the Skagit River where a record-breaking attempt could be made. This section of the Skagit is a bit faster than the Missouri, so it would be possible to travel 50 to 60 miles in a 12-hour day. Nah, I’m never going to really do it.

What I have been doing is thinking quite a bit about what I want to plant in our yard next year. I’ve designed a couple of new beds in my mind and I want to make a trip this autumn down to the Skagit Valley to purchase daffodil, tulip, and crocus bulbs. And I’ll have the harvest of this year’s dahlia tubers to trade and share with Isaac, so there will definitely be more dahlias than this year. More peas, more lettuce, and a few more tomato plants are all in order. The wisteria has grown quite a bit this year, promising even more spring blossoms next year. And I’ve got some ideas about how to take a bit better care of the hydrangea for next year.

I guess gardeners and farmers are always dreaming about the next year’s crop. Our yard is very small - the smallest we’ve had since the days we lived in Chicago - so our harvest won’t be dramatic.

Hats off to Duane Hanson. I wonder what he’ll do to celebrate his 65th birthday. I guess I should be thinking about next year and how I’ll mark my 70th. Mine comes too early in the season to go boating in any of the produce of the garden.

On the Sunny Side

One of the things about having invested a significant amount of time and energy as a suicide first responder for many years is that I have heard an incredible amount of stories about deep depression. People often need to tell the stories of their loved ones as they process the shock and grief of sudden and traumatic loss. Part of my job as a caregiver to those people is to listen to those stories. I know hundreds of stories of people who I have not met whose lives ended in suicide. My calling was to give comfort, resources, support and encouragement to those who were left behind and the work I did was about living and not about dying. On the whole the years I spend in that work gave me a great deal of hope. I was allowed to see healing that came after deep loss. I was privileged to journey with people as they rediscovered hope after some of the darkest days of their lives.

The stories of these people belong to the victims and not to me and it is not my place to tell those stories in this journal or elsewhere. Nonetheless those stories shape me even now that I have been retired from that work for over two years. I still think of those people and the losses they endured. I still read newspaper obituaries with a special sensitivity to suicide. I hear reports of death by suicide in our community and I have a definite emotional reaction to those tragedies. I will always be affected by grief that is not directly my own.

Over the years of working with survivors of suicide I also attended every training I could find about suicide prevention. I’ve used Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training techniques in several successful interventions with people who were seriously considering suicide.

As a result of so many years of working with and thinking about suicide, I can honestly say that I have never personally faced the kind of deep depression that settles into the lives of some people. I don’t mean to say that I have escaped feeling down. I don’t mean to say that I am not affected by the bleak headlines and stories of doom and gloom that surround us. I am well aware that my mental health demands constant care and attention. But somehow, by the grace of God, I have escaped the deep illness that is clinical depression. Having seen what I have seen and known the people that I know, I count myself as among the most fortunate to have so far escaped this illness.

At the beginning of my career, when I was an intern, I became aware of a study conducted at the University of Wisconsin in which people suffering from depression were treated by immersion in an exercise program. The results were very dramatic. In the study, a group of patients suffering from depression were treated with medication only. Another group were treated with talk therapy only. A third group was treated by engaging in a program of rigorous physical exercise. When those three groups were compared the group treated with exercise only showed a significantly higher rate of recovery and shorter times for recovery for victims. It was only one study and subsequent studies have shown the effectiveness of combining therapies. Patients treated with medication, talk, and exercise are among those for whom treatment is the most effective.

Knowing that exercise is an important element in treating depression, however, has been immensely helpful in my personal life. I know that there are times when I need to take a long walk, or paddle a canoe or kayak, or take a bike ride. I know how important regular exercise is in maintaining my mental health. I have learned to make regular physical exercise a part of my daily routine.

I am also aware that writing this journal is another important part of my mental health. I’ve been known to write my frustrations into this journal, but for the most part, I have found it to be an exercise in gratitude. There are so many positive things in my life and so many wonderful things that I have been privileged to see that I usually find an upbeat topic for my journal entries. Making an entry every day allows me to maintain my sense of balance.

There is a song by Alvin (A.P.) Carter made famous by the Carter Family singers and sung by other famous voices that accompanies me on my life journey and reminds me of how fortunate I am:

“There’s a dark and a troubled side of life
There’s a bright and a sunny side, too
though we meet with the darkness and strife
The sunny side we also may view.

“Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side
Keep on the sunny side of life
It will help us every day, it will brighten all the way
If we keep on the sunny side of life.

The song acknowledges that rough times and dark days are a part of human living. It doesn’t offer a simple panacea. However, it does assert that part of recovery from depression is a decision to look for the things in life that call us to joy. The third verse of the song is powerful to me:

“Let us greet with a song of hope each day
Though the moments be cloudy or fair
Let us trust in our Savior always
Who will keep everyone in His care.”

In a world of depressing headlines, signs of political extremism, predictions of catastrophe - in a world where human caused climate change brings fire and flood, severe storms and waves of climate refugees - in a world where the gap between the wealthy and the impoverished grows wider each day - it can be increasingly difficult to find a song of hope each day. It is, however, in this world that I am allowed to walk among the forest giants and breathe the sea air. It is in this same world that I can dip my paddle into calm waters and watch the reflection of sunrise and sunset. It is the same world where a snow capped mountain greets me as I drive to work.

Despite everything it remains true that there is a sunny side to this life. I’ll tell you stories of the joy and gratitude that are mine. And I’ll pray that you can find sunny stories to tell to the people you meet.

Halloween already?

I confess that I am not a very good shopper. There are certain stores, mostly hardware, farm, and home improvement stores, where I don’t mind going to the store for specific items and making a purchase. From time to time, I might look at other items while I am in the store. I’ve been known to spend a few minutes in the tool department just to see what they have. I don’t mind grocery shopping. But when it comes to things like clothes, home decor, and general merchandise, I don’t have much patience at all. There is a shopping mall in Bellingham. I’ve never been there by myself. We went there to shop for back to school clothes with our grandchildren yesterday. I’m pretty sure that the last time I was in the mall was when we did back to school shopping last year. By the time we had visited three stores with three grandchildren, I was about worn out. To their credit, our grandchildren are pretty good shoppers. They have a sense of what they are looking for. They don’t get too distracted with other items. They are pretty good at making up their minds. Sometimes, however, it is difficult to find just what you’re looking for. Yesterday a pair of pants and a sweater eluded us. The rest of the items on our list were fairly easy to find.

Our outing included lunch in the food court, a somewhat crowded and very noisy place where I have trouble hearing and understanding conversations. The restaurant, part of a national chain, is a favorite of our grandchildren and they were having a good time.

If you are a person who enjoys shopping malls, you have probably noticed that you’ll occasionally see an elderly gentleman, sitting on one of the benches in the middle of the mall with a confused look on his face. I’ve pretty much become that gentleman.

The shopping mall, like shopping malls across the country, is showing signs of decline. There are several retail spaces, including at least one large anchor store, that are vacant. One of those large spaces is currently filled with a Halloween specialty shop. They have fully decked out the store windows with advertising and large banners showing some of the costumes that they have for sale. I had quite a conversation with our youngest granddaughter about one of the costumes that was particularly frightening to her when we drove by the front of the store looking for a parking place. I assured her that I had no intention of going into that store to shop. She wasn’t the only one who was relieved that we could accomplish our mission without walking through that store.

I am amazed that there is enough business to support a store dedicated to a single one-day holiday. A quick Internet search reveals that there are at least three Halloween specialty stores open in Bellingham. You can chose from Spirit of Halloween, Halloween City, and SpookShop.

And Halloween is a ways away. The mall store’s website has a countdown on the home page so I know it is “Only 64 Days Until HALLOWEEN!” The website doesn’t mention the one Halloween item that I will be purchasing: treats to give out to the children in our neighborhood. It does, however, list 86 different categories of costume themes. You can get costumes with 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s themes. Flapper and Gangster costumes are a different category than Roaring 20’s costumes. I didn’t see a category for 1930’s costumes, however. They’ve got Grim Reaper, Nerd, Mermaid and Hippy Costumes (as distinct from 60’s costumes, I guess). You can buy Angel, Butterfly, Princess and Shark Costumes. Costumes come in sizes for boys, girls, toddlers, babies, women, men, plus size, couples and groups. The group page on the website displays 24 costumes per page and there are seven pages of options. The store also sells decorations, animatronics, games, and accessories.

We closed on the house where we live on October 12 last year. We moved in just in time for halloween. It is a big deal in our neighborhood. We had neighbors with giant inflatable decorations, sound effects, and special lighting. I’m pretty sure all of those things are available at the Halloween store.

I’m also pretty sure that I have no intention of going to the Halloween store. I can enjoy enough costumes by watching the children of our neighborhood from my front porch. I will need to have a larger supply of treats to give out than we had on hand last year, but I’m likely to make a few purchases at the grocery store or a stop at Target. After all, the websites for the Halloween stores don’t mention that they sell treats to hand out.

We won’t be purchasing animatronics or inflatables to adorn our yard. We don’t have a very big yard anyway.

I did, however, find out one reason the Halloween stores are open so early. One animatronic clown listed on the web site can be purchased with four interest free payments. These things are really expensive!

When I was growing up we had a few rules about Halloween at our house. One was that only children 12 and younger could go trick-or-treating. It was a children’s holiday in our town. There were a few inexpensive Halloween costumes available at the stores in town, but I’m not sure that I ever had more than a mask that was commercially purchased. We pretty much subscribed to making costumes out of old clothes we found in the attic. You know, “I’ll put a sheet over my head and you’ll pretend you’re scared.”

The Halloween stores with their huge inventories explain a couple of other things about the place where we live. Our neighborhood is short of parking, with many people parking their cars on the street. Their garages are full of Halloween decorations. There are at least a half dozen large rental storage space facilities within a couple of miles of our subdivision. They are probably all full of Halloween decorations, too. Even if you leave your Halloween decorations up for a week, that’s 51 other weeks of the year when they are in storage. And if they get buried under all of the other things you’ve got stored, there’s a shop ready to sell you more decorations in the mall.

Touring the harbor


Drayton Harbor at Blaine is a large bay that is nearly fully enclosed by a natural spit of land that extends along one side of the harbor, leaving just a narrow entrance. It is a natural safe harbor. There are marinas at the town of Blaine and at the end of the Semiahmoo Spit. In years past there were canneries at the end of the spit. The canneries are no longer in operation and the area where they were located is now a resort with a large hotel and high end condos. Where the spit joins the mainland there is a golf course surrounded by fancy homes. Back in the days when the canneries were in operation, there was a passenger ferry that carried workers from their homes in Blaine to the canneries and back at the end of the work day. That ferry now is a tourist attraction, running back and forth on weekends during the summer. In the late afternoon yesterday, we took three of our grandchildren for a round trip from Blaine over to Semiahmoo and back on the Plover Ferry. It was a calm day and we had a fun ride. We got a tour of the marina with all of the fancy yachts and fishing vessels and a brief tour around Drayton Harbor along the way. The children got to have a turn at the wheel next to Captain Ron. There were a lot of harbor seals sunning themselves on the floating docks marking the Semiahmoo marina and a large rookery where seagulls and cormorants have their nests.

The harbor is rich with sea life. There is a large commercial oyster farm at one end of the harbor. Folks can catch crabs off of the public pier in Blaine. Others with access to boats fish alongside commercial crabbers and fishers inside and outside the harbor.

People aren’t the only ones who are successful with the fishing. Brandt’s Cormorants can dive as deep as 200 feet and forage for both swimming fish and shellfish on the bottom of the harbor. Unlike the gulls which are constantly crying and fighting over the fish they find, the cormorants are nearly silent, making only a few soft sounds when they are on their nests. Summer is drawing to a close and the hatchlings are nearly as large as their parents.

Riding on the ferry and looking at the cormorant rookery reminded me of the rich life that is a part of the marine environment. I already have plans to take my kayak out from Blaine harbor next spring to watch the cormorants during breeding season when the birds sport a vivid cobalt blue patch to match their eyes and engage in mating rituals showing off those colors against their mostly black plumage. The birds are on a yellow watch list of species who have restricted ranges due to human encroachment on their habitat. The harbor, along with the channel islands, Vancouver Island and the coast of southern British Columbia are places where the cormorants have access to nearly natural nesting sites with abundant nearby food sources.

The Salish Sea with all of its islands, inlets, bays and natural harbors has provided food for birds, sea mammals and humans from time immemorial. The development and increase in human population in the last 200 years has created pressures on birds and other animals of the sea. There is a lot to learn about this place and the creatures that call it home. Along with a desire to paddle the inland waters and observe more of the life of the birds and other creatures, I am planning a visit to the Marine Life Center in Bellingham and a couple of other places engaged in studying coastal creatures.

I can’t help but think of the famous line from the Wizard of Oz: “Toto, I don’t believe we are in Kansas anymore.” We never lived in Kansas, but having spent most of our carers in the Dakotas and all of our life up until our retirement a thousand miles from the ocean, we have found ourselves in a new life and are fascinated by all of the differences between this place and the place we used to call home.

Things have not yet returned to normal as the pandemic moves into its third year, but more tourist venues, including the Plover Ferry, are finding ways to invite guests to our community. Birch Bay and Blaine are heavily dependent on the tourists who come to enjoy the sea and play in the gentle waters. Those of us who are fortunate to live here year round notice the crush of all of the visitors. Although the numbers aren’t up to pre-pandemic levels, there are a lot more people in our quiet little villages than was the case during our first autumn and winter here. There are times when it is difficult to find a parking space among all of the cars from British Columbia. For the residents of metro Vancouver, we are a place where they can escape the urban environment and enjoy the natural world. Unlike the Black Hills, where there is also a vibrant tourist economy, most of our guests come from a single Canadian province. We used to play a game with our kids to see how many of the states and provinces we could find on the license plates in the parking garage at Mount Rushmore. We wouldn’t be as successful with the variety here, but the percentage of out of state cars is about the same. Living right on the border means that British Columbia plates are nearly as common as Washington plates on the cars parked along the bay.

One of the fun things about living in a place where tourists visit is that we can answer their questions about the place where we live. However, we are newcomers to this area and sometimes are as uninformed as the other tourists. We have to ask the names of the birds we see and learn the stories of the places we visit. Slowly, however, we will become more like the natives. Yesterday on the ferry I was already answering a few questions about what it is like to live in this place. Give me a few years and I’ll know even more.

Maybe I've still got it

I try to favor local shops over the big box stores. There is a hardware store and a lumber yard in a small town that is half the distance I need to travel to shop at the big box stores in Bellingham. But there are certain purchases that warrant the trip to the big box stores. When I am doing projects for the farm, I have a responsibility to purchase materials at the best prices. And there are items that are a lot more expensive at the local stores than at the big box stores. In addition there are items that simply are not stocked by the smaller local stores. For the most part, I can compare prices and even check inventory online these days, so I can make informed choices.

Yesterday was one of those days when I decided it was worth the extra driving to get the items I needed. I had a varied load when I reached the checkout. There were several pieces of hardware including joist hangers and screws. I had three bags of cement mix and a 16’ pressure treated board. I’ve learned where the store keeps various types of carts that make it convenient to pick up the needed items and roll them to the checkout. After I paid for my purchases, I rolled the cart out to the back of my truck. The long board went up on my ladder rack, which has rollers that make loading long objects easy. I’m short and the truck is tall, so a long board is a bit easier to load than a short one. Leverage works. The various pieces of hardware were tossed in the back seat. Washington has a mandatory fee to discourage the use of disposable bags, and I had neglected to bring a reusable bag into the store. Still, the rule gets me to avoid using disposable bags. I’m usually too cheap to pay the extra 8 cents. So I had a handful of items that ended up on the floor in the back seat of the pickup. That left three 80 pound bags of cement to hoist up into the back of the truck.

Just as I was getting ready to lift the first bag, a store employee showed up and offered to help. It is something that I’ve noticed on a couple of visits to that store. The employees who are assigned to the parking lot really deliver customer service. They watch those loading cars and trucks and are quick to offer help. However, I declined the help yesterday. I know from previous experience that the store rules prohibit employees from picking up more than 50 pounds. To move an 80 pound bag requires two employees, or an employee and a customer. But a bag of concrete mix is relatively small. It is simply easier to pick it up and put it in the back of the truck by yourself than it is to figure out how to get a grip on one end of the bag without tearing the paper. I loaded the concrete bags, grateful that I wasn’t loading 25 or 30 bags, something that I have done.

That drew a whistle and a comment from the employee who was genuinely trying to help. As I drove out of the parking lot, I got to thinking about how I must have looked to that young employee. I have white hair and am enough years past 65 that people don’t have to ask me whether or not I qualify for the senior citizen’s discount any more. I’m overweight, a problem with which I have struggled for decades. I am short and my pickup is fairly tall. I had to lift each bag to chest height and then reach over a two-foot tailgate to get it into the box of the truck. To that young and healthy employee of the store, I’m pretty sure I looked like someone who wouldn’t be able to sling an 80 pound bag.

You don’t see many 100 pound bags of feed these days, but they were common when I was a teenager working at my parents’ store. I loaded a lot of customers’ trucks by lifting five 100 pound bags onto a hand truck, rolling the truck to a loading door and lifting the bags into the back of the customer’s truck. I had a minor back injury some years ago, so I know how to lift with my legs and how to use momentum and leverage to multiply my strength. But I am also a paddler and rower. My gut may be too big, but my arms and shoulders are strong.

I don’t mean to brag, but that encounter with the helpful employee made my day. I drove back to the farm and unloaded my purchases. I had hand dug three holes earlier in the day into which I had inserted 3’ concrete forms. I had one more hole to dig and I dug it with ease and a bit of relish.

For all of my life, I have had friends who are older than me who are great workers. When I was in my 40s I built fence next to a man in his 70s whose pace I couldn’t match. In Rapid City, I frequently ran my chainsaw next to a man who is 15 years older than I who worked tirelessly and efficiently. There have been many others. I often say I want to be like one of them when I grow up. Maybe I am, at least a little bit. I’ve learned a bit about working efficiently. I know my own limits pretty well. If I had needed to load a bunch of concrete bags, I would have paused to catch my breath after each 5 or so. Yesterday, I had a water bottle in the truck from which I drank to keep myself hydrated. I know when to don a hat to avoid sunburn and gloves to protect my hands.

With luck I have a few more years of seeming like an old man to people in their teens and twenties while still being able to accomplish real work. It is likely that the employee was capable of lifting the 80 pound bags, but had never been given the opportunity. I don’t mind having a bit of magic even if it is mostly sleight of hand.

Considering student debt

I used to joke with our children by complaining about having to walk to school when I was growing up. They knew the truth. The house where I grew up was one block from the elementary school in one direction and one block from the high school in another direction. Walking to school was never a cause of suffering for me. I worked hard at a variety of part time jobs to help fund my college and graduate school education and I did incur some educational debt, but it was not excessive and it was easy for us to repay it within a few years of our graduation.

I am the product of a specific privilege few people in the world have enjoyed. I was able to obtain a high quality education, including graduating from a private liberal arts college and a specialized graduate education program, at a price that could be afforded by a middle class student. I had help from parents. I earned scholarships and fellowships. We lived frugally and didn’t have any spare funds, but we got our education. Perhaps even more rare is the fact that I was married during my college years and both of us graduated and completed graduate school together. We were both full-time students for the first five years of our married life.

Our combined debt at the point of completing our graduate degrees was $7,500. Our combined income the first year out of school was around $11,000 plus our housing. We lived in a parsonage provided by the church. Our chosen vocation isn’t among the ones that brings in great wealth, but we have always been fairly treated by the congregations we have served and we have lived a middle class lifestyle.

I don’t know about the financial circumstances of others my age, but I find some of the whining about the proposed forgiveness of student debt to be a bit misplaced when it comes from my peers. We obtained our educations when the cost of schools was relatively low. Those of us who did accumulate debt were able to obtain very low interest rates and flexible payment plans. If you are around my age, your circumstances don’t come close to what is faced by students who are younger than us.

In round numbers tuition and mandatory fees at a four year state college or university for in-state students is around $11,000 per year. Room and board is above that amount. Factor in possible expensive decisions such as attending an out of state college or enrolling in a graduate school and it is easy to see how students have become burdened with debt.

I don’t know the answer to this problem. I am sure that there are thoughtful people who disagree with the current plan. Some say it is too little. Some don’t think any debt forgiveness is needed. Some wonder at the legality of cancelling debt without legislative action. I’m sure that the arguments will continue and that there are valid points to be considered from those who oppose debate cancellation.

The argument that isn’t cutting it with me is the one coming from some of the people in my age group that sounds a bit like, “I suffered, and you need to suffer too.” It is a silly argument. Our circumstances were different, and we didn’t really suffer. And even if it had, it is a silly argument coming from people whose parents endured the great depression and World War II. We weren’t required to suffer as the previous generation had. What makes us think that our children and grandchildren need to suffer?

Beneath all of the arguments is a deep and fundamental crisis in our economy and our society. Do we believe that education should be accessible to all regardless of their financial circumstances, or are we committed to making education a luxury that can be afforded by only wealthy elites. It is pretty clear that the current system favors the wealthy. The highly publicized scandals of wealthy persons buying favor for their children to attend prestige colleges is only part of the picture. Higher education has become a luxury in our country that is beyond the means of many of our people.

I don’t expect a single federal debt relief program to solve all of the problems of the American education system.

We are a wealthy nation. The fact that higher education is not available to all of our citizens is because we have made the choice to not invest in education for all. The structure of our higher education system favors those with wealth. We could make different decisions. We have the means to create an educational system that honors education as a good investment for individuals and for our society. We lack the will to solve these problems.

I remain convinced that the majority of Americans believe that education is the great social equalizer. At some level we believe that every person has a right to high quality education. But we have not produced public policy to support that belief. Instead we have created a system of education that rewards the highest bidder. You can find a token middle class student in an elite law school or medical college, but they are the exception. Most of the students in those programs are independently wealthy. They don’t need to calculate the risk of borrowing money against future income projections. If they did, they wouldn’t be making the investment.

College debt comes not from people making calculated choices, but rather from people who can find no other way to obtain the education they seek.

One of the basic biblical financial principals has to do with the forgiveness of debt. Without going into too much detail, debt should not exceed an amount that can be paid back in 7 years. Debt in excess of that amount should be forgiven. It is hard to put biblical principles into public policy, but given the current crisis in our educational system, some form of debt relief seems like a rational investment for our country. Compared with subsidies and tax breaks for huge and wealthy corporations, it comes at a very modest price.

Memory lane


I received a friendly jab from a correspondent yesterday who emailed me, “I've got to rib you a little.  In the last bit of your message you spoke of summer in the past tense. Aaaaerrrhgg!  Do we have to go there so soon?” What can I say, except, “Guilty”? I guess that the fact that this is the last week before school starts and we are deeply into planning for fall programs at the church has made me aware that autumn is coming. One of the things about our new home up north is that the length of the days and nights changes dramatically. Sunset is now nearly an hour and a half later than it was at the solstice. I really notice the darkening skies in the evenings. Although we’re still about six weeks away from having lived in this house for a year, it is starting to feel a bit like the weather was when we first looked at this house.

It has been so long since we first moved to Rapid City that I don’t remember all of the emotions surrounding that move, but moving twice in two years reminds me a bit of our student days. After a year of living in Mount Vernon, we moved to this house and now have been here for nearly a year. I don’t use the GPS when I’m driving around like I did when we first got here. I don’t stop to think, “Which grocery store should I go to?” I’ve established care with a new doctor and I know the names of some of our neighbors. I even know the names of one of our neighbor’s cats. Part of me is starting to feel at home in this place.

However, I had an experience yesterday that caught my interest. After supper, we walked down to the beach from our home and walked along the beach a bit as the sun was getting low in the sky. You could tell that it is summer (and not autumn) because there are lots of boats tied to the moorings in the bay. The boats are small recreational boats, mostly with outboard motors. As the sun sank towards the horizon, the sea looked silver under a nearly cloudless sky and the boats became silhouettes in my vision. I had a déjà vu experience. Suddenly, I remember walking along the Brittany Coast more than 40 years ago. We looked out onto the ocean, across the moored boats toward England. Our friends, who were showing us the place they call home, took us to see the coast. We noticed the small fishing boats and enjoyed the sea air. After we walked on the beach for a while we went to a fish dealer where we bought what seemed like an enormous amount of seafood. Then they took us home and proceeded to cook and serve one of the most magnificent feasts I’ve ever enjoyed. Each course seemed like an entire meal and we kept expecting it to be the main course, but more dishes kept coming. It was a wonderful and very memorable experience.

A lot of things have happened since then. We were newlyweds at the time, now our children are asking us about our plans for our 50th wedding anniversary next year. We didn’t have children in those days. We had just received the call to our first parish as ministers, but that trip was before we were ordained and before we began serving as ministers. Our lives have been full and good and there have been a lot of sunsets and a lot of trips and a lot of friends with whom to share wonderful meals.

Somehow, however, walking along the beach last night transported me in my mind to a far away place in a long ago time. I felt a bit like a tourist in my own home place. I don’t remember this feeling when we first moved to South Dakota, although it seems like I might have because Rapid City was a place we had vacationed several times before we moved there.

Although there is some evidence linking certain types of migraine headaches and other medical conditions with déjà vu, there is no evidence that it is an indication of any illness or disease. It simply occurs from time to time in healthy persons. It may be that it comes from particular combinations of neurons firing and certain synapses functioning, but it is not truly a dissociative condition. The person experiencing déjà vu is fully aware of their present location and condition.

Also the experience was, for me, a pleasant one. I commented on it to my wife and she had had a similar memory stirred in her. We agreed that it was a very pleasant memory. It may well be that it has less to do with having moved to a new place and more to do with the natural process of integration that is the major psycho-developmental tasks of people in their aging years. Sorting through memories and making sense of our lives is something that we have been doing right alongside sorting through our possessions and scaling down the number of things we keep.

Part of my sense of disorientation in this particular home has to do with having the mountains to the east of our home. We have lived most of our lives with the mountains to the west. And although we have never before lived near the ocean, we did live on the west side of Lake Michigan for four years of graduate school. From that perspective not only are the mountains on the wrong side of us, so too is the large body of water. We marvel at sunrises over the mountains and sunsets over the water in this place, whereas more often we have been looking at mountain sunsets and sunrises over the lake. We have, however, lived in this house for nearly a year. I’m not confused about which direction is north, south, east or west any more. I can walk or drive from our house without getting lost.

For now feeling a bit like a tourist in my own home isn’t a bad sensation. Our lives have brought us to a good and beautiful place and we will continue to settle. Maybe our walks will continue to explore new territory and lead us down memory lane at the same time for years to come.

Checking the news

Decades ago, when I worked at a small market radio station, we had a teletype machine outside of the studio. The machine had its own dedicated telephone line and printed almost continually onto paper that came on large rolls. Headlines and stories rolled off of the machine and we tore off parts of the news feed to read. I was the “Get Up and Go” DJ, on the air from 6 am to 9 am, which meant that I read national and state news at the top of each hour. I also read the farm market report and occasionally read news flashes when something dramatic occurred between the hourly newscasts and the repeat of the headlines on the half hour. All of that news came off of the teletype machine, which was provided by the fees the station paid to be a member station of the Associated Press.

One of the stories that persisted around the radio station was about the time when one of the employees set fire to a long sheet of teletype paper while another was reading the news online. The on air broadcaster had to read calmly while trying to stomp out the fire before it devoured the news that was being read. I don’t know for sure whether the story was the report of an actual incident that occurred, someone’s idea of something that would be funny, or something that actually happened in some other place.

I can still remember the sound of the teletype machine printing away each time the studio door was opened. It was one of the reasons we never opened the door when we were actually on the air.

The experience taught me to read out loud in a clear and accurate voice something that I had not previously read. I learned to pronounce difficult words, and learned to listen to the news so that I would hear others pronounce the names of newsmakers, knowing I would have to read their names during my next on air shift. I also learned to time stories, reading faster or slower in order to have our programs synchronize with the network programs that we played live. I could listen to the countdown signal in my headphones while I was reading the news on air and make things come out just right.

Of course, there are no teletype machines these days. Newspapers and radio stations use the Internet to source their stories and exclusive news reports arrive over secure Internet connections to dedicated websites. The timing of radio station broadcasts, even those in small markets, is controlled by computers.

As the methods of delivering the news have changed, I have had to learn new skills to keep on top of the news. I no longer have to be content with a single source. I read parts of multiple “newspapers” online each day. I also have a game that I play with several web sites. I don’t like paywalls on the Internet and I usually don’t pay to get my news. One example is the Washington Post. I scan the headlines of the Washington Post nearly every day, but I don’t pay for a subscription. That means that when I need more than a headline reveals, I have to be creative to read the article. One of the techniques I use is to copy the headline and paste it into the search box on my browser. Most of the articles that appear in major newspapers appear in multiple places on the web.

This morning, I wanted to read an article that is on the front page of our local newspaper, but following the link led nowhere because of their paywall. Entering the headline into the search engine revealed that the same article appeared on other news websites. The Sacramento Bee ran the article and has a limited number of free articles before the paywall kicks in. I’m not a regular reader of the Sacramento Bee, so I could read it there. If that hadn’t worked, it also appeared on the USA today and AOL websites, which do not have paywalls. It was also in the Charlotte Observer, and five or six other locations.

There was a time when you got the same news from multiple radio stations because the stations were using the same sources for their news. These days you get the same news from multiple websites because the websites are using other websites for their information.

Things were different when I worked at the radio station when it came to the separation of news from opinion. We ran opinion pieces, but we were clear to indicate which stories were news and which were option. We had to do that because our industry was regulated by the federal communications commission. Our license required honest reporting of us. During the 1980’s there was a great deal of deregulation of the communications industry and the FCC lost a great deal of its power. That allowed for a single owner to purchase all of the news sources in an area. It also allowed for broadcasters to claim that their opinions were news. The result is that people’s opinions are often shaped by their choice of news sources.

There are so-called news sources that directly broadcast things that are blatantly false. And there are people who are convinced by those false broadcasts. It makes civil discourse a challenge when people disagree about facts that are easily verified. There are a lot of people who do not take time to seek multiple sources of information. Many of them do not question what they read or hear on television or the Internet. They do not check sources.

These days a story that appears in only one source is suspect. If it hasn’t been picked up by some other source it is likely that there is a problem with the story. In a few rare occasions, the story is of such limited interest that no other site wants to carry it, but for the most part a single source means you should question the authority of the article. When there are multiple sources that discredit a particular story, it pays to know how to use snopes.com, poynter.org, or factcheck.org to avoid being misled by viral rumors.

As they used to say in the news business, don’t get caught with your teletype paper on fire.

Defending public schools

Yesterday, I wrote in my journal that I haven’t heard too much talk about back to school from our grandchildren. Last night, however, I was following our son around the farm as he did some chores. At each stop, the five year old was running around the yard, making sure that we noticed that she was running. She would say, “See you at the finish line!” as she took off and “Booya! Booya! I win! I win!” as she got to each place ahead of us. She told me that she had to run every day because she wanted to be in shape for the jog-a-thon. She said she was going to win the jog-a-thon at Custer Elementary School. Her plan is to run a lot to be in good shape. She said if she didn’t, she might lose to Silas. “But I’m going to win. They have prizes and everything!” she declared.

She is going to be a kindergartener at the school this year. It will be her first year at Custer Elementary. What she knows about the school comes from what her sister and brother told her. Last year was their first year at the school. Her sister was a first grader and her brother a fifth grader. All of the children had been home schooled for a year and a half due to the Covid pandemic, so going back to school last fall was a big deal to them. The talk of the jog-a-thon came from the fact that her sister had gotten out her school yearbook from the previous year and there was a two page spread about the jog-a-thon that included a group picture with her sister in that picture. I’m sure her sister had been telling her about the event. Since last year was the first year the kids had gone to that school, I don’t know if the jog-a-thon is an annual event, or something that just occurred last year. It is a fund raising event, and we sponsored both of our grandchildren who ran last spring.

Getting in shape for the jog-a-thon was one of the first mentions I had heard about school starting, but it clearly was one of the topics of conversation at our grandchildren’s house last night. In addition to the running training and looking through the yearbook, there had been some shopping for school clothes and there was talk about the school schedule, including an open house at the junior high school this week and the first day of school the following week.

I don’t know how long the daily training will last, but I guess I should be ready to meet our granddaughter at the finish line next time I see her. She has already told me that I’m not as fast as she. I wasn’t feeling much like running last night, but I do have a considerable advantage in that my stride is about double hers.

The serious side of back to school can be observed in the schools scrambling to hire teachers. An unprecedented number of professional educators are leaving the profession. The attack on public schools in our country is cause for alarm. We read almost daily about public schools that are banning books. NPR reported last week that The Bible is among dozens of books removed from the Keller Independent School District outside Fort Worth, Texas. School staff were instructed to remove books from classrooms and libraries including Anne Frank’s dairy, all versions of the Bible and numerous books with LGBTQ+ themes or characters. It appears that any book that receives an objection from a parent is being removed from the school.

Book banning and teacher shortages are just part of the larger attack on public education in our country. Recent legal challenges have resulted in governments being forced to finance private schools. What is being called parent choice is not choice at all for the majority of parents. It is forced funding of private education at the expense of public education. The result is a weakening of public schools. It has long been the case that wealth and privilege are big factors in who is able to obtain higher education in our country. Now there is a clear divide in the quality of education based on the ability to pay.

The belief that education should go to the highest bidder is a rejection of a basic tenet of public education as a social leveler and a means of class mobility. When we fail to offer free quality education to all of the children of our communities, we create huge injustices. Often these inequities follow racial and ethnic lines. The landmark Supreme Court Case, Brown v. Board of Education laid an important precedent not only about racial justice, but also about access to education as a basic right of all citizens. Forcing the funding of private schools that are inaccessible to the majority of students with public school funds creates a new kind of “separate and unequal” situation in education. Add to that the so called “culture wars” that is driven by fear of education and the development of critical thinking skills and the attack on the integrity of professional educators and it is clear that our public school are under attack. The very concept of free and equal public education is threatened.

Back to school in post-pandemic America clearly illustrates how the attacks of a few well-financed ideologues can threaten a long-established social institution. Our response needs to be careful. Instead of getting caught up in an argument about particular books, we need to challenge school boards to clarify their policies about banning books. If the standard is a single complaint, then eventually all books could be banned. You can imagine what is possible in schools where a single complaint results in a book being banned. The core curriculum of the school and textbooks could easily be banned.

The attack on public education is real. Now is the time for the defenders of the concept of public education to stand up and speak out.

Summer is winding down

Last Wednesday was my sister’s birthday. I didn’t forget it. In fact, I sent her a virtual bouquet in the form of pictures of dahlias blooming in our yard along with greetings on the evening before her birthday. In our family, hers was the last summer birthday. In two weeks and three days it will be the birthday of my next oldest sister, and her birthday always meant that it was time for back to school. Between those two birthdays, our mother always had plans for back to school shopping that included at least a new pair of jeans and perhaps a new shirt, often included a new pair of shoes, and always included the list that the school sent home with tablets, pencils and crayons. We were usually 16 crayon kids, or whatever the minimum size appeared on the list. I think that one time I got a box with 64 crayons, but I don’t remember the occasion. It seems like every year there was at least one kid in my class who showed up on the first day of school with that big 96 crayon box with the built-in sharpener. We dismissed it as an unnecessary display of wealth, but secretly I wished I could have such a box one time. The problem in our family is that back to school never meant shopping for a single child. I had older sisters and three younger brothers. I was always expected to set an example for the younger boys and somehow that meant not getting the big box of crayons.

I wasn’t a fan of back to school shopping anyway. My sister’s birthday was a signal that it was time to panic. Only two weeks before school starts! I needed to get in all of the tree climbing and river floating and fishing and grasshopper catching and kite building and library book reading, and a thousand other things that I wouldn’t have time to do once school started in the fall. Usually, in Montana where we grew up, my sister’s birthday landed during wheat harvest and that meant a busy time for our father, who worked long days in the summer. Once, the year I went to first grade, there was a huge earthquake in Yellowstone Park on my sister’s birthday. That got everybody’s attention.

Of course I grew up and my life was a little bit less dominated by the school schedule than it had been, but I never fully got out of the effects of the school year. In my young adult years, I still was a student. We attended school for five more years after we were married. Then, when we became ministers, we fell into the rhythm of the church program year. Like the public schools, church programs take a break in the summer and fall means returning to a more intense season of programs and meetings. Over the years, it seems that the return of fall programs in the church as tended to lag a bit behind the school, with church leaders choosing not to get fall programs rolling quite as early as public schools.

I haven’t heard too much talk about the start of school from our grandchildren, but their first day of school is August 31, exactly two weeks from last Wednesday. That means that this week is the last full week of summer vacation. Our oldest grandson will start middle school, an entirely new adventure. Our youngest granddaughter will begin kindergarten. She attended a public school preschool, so it won’t be too big of a shock to her system, but this year she goes to the elementary school near the farm while her brother has a slightly longer trip to the middle school in town. I haven’t noticed much back to school shopping activity at their house, but their mother is very organized and I’m pretty sure that they will have the necessary clothes and supplies for the adventure. A mom who has four children is bound to notice when three of them start spending their week days at school.

The big kick off of fall programming at the church, at least most of the programs that we facilitate in our position is still a couple of weeks beyond the start of public school. In Gathering Sunday is still four weeks away. We have time for quite a bit of planning and a bit of last minute leader recruiting before we have all of our programs going. And our church has a fair number of retired folks, who tend to travel in the shoulder seasons, so Gathering In is generally a kind of soft start to programming, with a few programs being delayed for a week or two as we get organized.

Although the weather has been sunny and warm, with the last couple of weeks being the warmest of the summer for us, there is a slight hint of autumn in the air. The length of the days changes rapidly here in the north country. Sunset is already an hour earlier than at the solstice. There are a few leaves that have turned color and some have even fallen. I noticed we were crunching on leaves as we walked through the woods yesterday. Those falling leaves contribute to a slightly different aroma, so it is even beginning to smell like fall. Winters aren’t severe around here and first freeze might not occur until late October, so we’ve got plenty of days of bright flowers and other summer joys. The seasons, however, are changing. Life moves on and the older I get the more quickly time seems to pass.

I don’t need to go shopping for new clothes for back to school, and the church has an amazingly large supply of crayons, notebooks and pencils. We’ll probably avoid the back to school sales entirely this year. I’m not much of a shopper anyway. For all I know they are setting out the Halloween displays in the stores and receiving shipments of Christmas decorations. I’m in no rush to have the seasons move along.

I’ll be enjoying these next few weeks, walking in my shirt sleeves, taking a paddle or row in the bay, lingering in the evening to watch the sunset. Like when I was a kid, I’ve got a list of summer activities to get to before the seasons change.

Kids and snacks

We’ve been going bowling with our grandchildren a bit this summer. A local bowling alley has a summer program that offers two free games per week for children. That means we can bowl for the price of shoe rental, which makes it an affordable adventure with three grandchildren. And although most of the rest of the nation wouldn’t consider highs in the mid 80’s to be extreme, we aren’t used to the heat of recent days, so going into an air conditioned building for a while feels good. Our habit is to go out for a snack after bowling. Our grandchildren have access to carefully chosen nutritious food. They live on a farm with plenty of snacks in this season. Although we are coming to the end of the berry season, there are still strawberries for the picking right outside their door. There are apples in the orchard and plums and pears will be ripe soon. They have access to plenty of nuts and dried fruits in their pantry. Both of their parents are working to provide locally-sourced nutrition for their children. That means, of course, that when they are asked about what snack they want, they nearly always choose sweets and other foods they don’t get at home. As grandparents we sometimes indulge their desires, within reason. After all we don’t want to upset parents. We like being granted time with our grandchildren.

After bowling yesterday we were sitting in the car discussing what snacks to have before going back home. The youngest insisted that the only acceptable snack on a hot day is ice cream. The middle child thought that a trip to the bakery for a cupcake sounded like a good idea. The oldest said he could go either way - bakery or ice cream. That left us with a challenge to make the decision. We ended up with dishes of ice cream and a promise that next time the bakery would be the destination.

Our grandchildren are not suffering from a lack of snacks. They participated in the Creation Care Camp at our church this week. There were abundant snacks. The decision was made to use pre-packaged snacks to avoid any possible issues with food safety. Our church has had its kitchen mostly shut down during the pandemic and there are still procedures about serving food that has limited after worship snacks. The snacks at Creation Care Camp were abundant and children were allowed to take snacks home at the end of each day’s meeting. You might have thought that our grandchildren were suffering from a lack of food at home to see the amount they took home each day. We know that their parents are working hard to teach them good nutrition habits and are trying to limit snacking at home, so I was still amazed at the amount of snacks they consumed.

It is interesting to note what are the favorite foods of our grandchildren. Some are the same as was the case for our children. Others are very different. Pizza is always a hit. Our gang is happy with two varieties: cheese and pepperoni. I enjoy those kinds, but might seek more variety. However, I know what will be popular with the kids. The kids also like barbecued hamburgers and hot dogs, which were hits with our kids as well.

I think they will be coming over to our house for dinner tonight. We often have dinner together on Saturdays. Our dinner plan for tonight is one I know will be a hit with the kids, but it is also a surprise for me. We’ll make sushi together. I don’t think I could have predicted, when our children were growing up, that I would even learn how to make sushi, let alone have it become a favorite for dinners with grandchildren.

I happen to know that it is a favorite of their parents as well. Their parents had sushi on their first date and we often tell the story of that adventure.

When our children were young, macaroni and cheese was always a hit. Our grandchildren used to like macaroni and cheese, but seem to have grown out of that particular food. They don’t request it when we are eating together. Spaghetti with meat sauce was another favorite when our children were growing up. Our grandchildren will eat it, but will fill up on garlic bread and eat less pasta than was the case with their father when he was their age.

Any meal with biscuits served will be a hit, even if the little ones mostly eat biscuits and only sample the rest of the food served. I’m a big fan of coleslaw and make it regularly, but I notice that our grandchildren usually don’t take it when it is served. The same is true of a salad of fresh greens from the garden. They do like cherry tomatoes, though.

Fresh baked cookies are always a hit, but so too is popcorn. Depending on other activities, one of those snacks is a whole lot easier to produce than the other. I have noticed that when they come to our house, checking out the pantry is one of the first things our grandchildren do. The 11-year-old has also taken to checking out the refrigerator lately. During the summer lemonade is a big hit.

My mother frequently insisted that the term “spoil the child” was misplaced. She would say, “You can’t spoil a child by loving them.” We claim a certain privilege as grandparents that includes offering a few more treats to our grandchildren than they get in their life at home. We are a bit quicker to offer a snack. We’ve checked with their parents and know that we aren’t going beyond the boundaries they have set. Having some of our grandchildren so close is one of the great luxuries of life and we revel in it. I joke with our daughter-in-law about borrowing her children. I know that in her busy life having a little time for projects when someone else is taking responsibility for her children is welcome.

Life is good and I’m looking forward to another opportunity for an adventure with our grandchildren. After all, I know that the next adventure will include a stop at the bakery. It turns out that I like cupcakes, too.

Changing old habits

During my teenage years, I seemed to find jobs that involved scraping paint and sanding. One summer, I worked on my Uncle and Cousin’s farms. One of the jobs I was assigned was sanding a combine in preparation for paint. The combine had been purchased with some damage caused when it was being unloaded from a truck. My cousin had previously owned a body shop and often purchased vehicles and equipment that had been involved in accidents and repaired them for use on the farm. A combine is a big machine and I suppose I worked at sanding the combine for a couple of weeks. It was messy work and I’d be covered in dust from the sanding. The summer I sanded a combine became a bit of a family story that we joked and laughed about for many years afterward.

It wasn’t my only experience with sandpaper. A couple of years later I found myself preparing a couple of above ground fuel tanks for paint. We had constructed scaffolding around one of the tanks and I was working about 10 feet above ground level when I accidentally stepped off of a plank and fell. When I picked myself up, I realized that I had hit my elbow on the scaffolding as I fell. I also landed with a twisted leg and a sore knee. A check with the doctor revealed that there were no broken bones. I had done some nerve damage in my elbow and pulled some muscles and tendons in my leg. I was back at work on the project the next day. I was young and my body healed quickly.

For several years after that fall, I would get that “crazy bone” feeling in my elbow with the slightest touch. In addition, I would sometimes limp when I was tired. Sometimes a friend or family member would notice that I was limping and ask if I was OK. When they made me aware of my limping, I could stop limping right away. There was no injury remaining. I just reverted to a way of walking that I used while recovering from the fall. I didn’t need to limp. It was a habit.

I don’t remember how long it took me to break that habit, but I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t limping when I was tired a few years later, and I’ve gone through my life without a limp. I’ve been blessed with good health and haven’t suffered any major injuries that limit my mobility.

Sometimes I will take a short walk and a sense of gratitude comes over me at the joy of being able to walk. I have friends who have suffered injuries and have difficulty walking. I feel blessed to be able to walk without pain.

Last year I suffered an Achilles tendon injury. I’m not sure how the injury occurred, but I probably strained the muscles in my calf while walking or running without properly stretching first. Or perhaps I landed on my toes when jumping out of the bed of my pickup. I have no memory of an event when the injury occurred, but I experienced quite a bit of pain when lifting my toes on one of my feet. After consulting with a doctor, a few sessions of physical therapy and learning how to properly exercise the muscles in the back of my calm provided relief. I continue to do those exercises, but less frequently than I was doing them when I was seeing the physical therapist.

I’ve noticed, however, that when I am tired I will go down stairs one at a time instead of taking the steps in stride with each foot stepping on every other step. When I stop and think, I am able to go down the stairs, leading with either foot without experiencing any pain.

Our bodies seem to have a memory of pain and we will act to avoid pain even when there is no pain present. Like my old habit of limping, I now seem to have a habit of descending stairs one at a time leading with my left foot. I have a theory, untested by formal science, that most people have some habits formed by pain that remain after the source of pain is gone.

Psychological pain can be as intense as physical pain. People who have suffered psychological abuse develop habits of self defense that can make it more difficult for them to participate in community. Sometimes people are shy or reluctant in social situations because they have a memory of having been insulted or injured on a previous occasion. I’ve met people who grow quiet when faced with new relationships. It can be hard to get those folks to share when forming a new group or beginning a new class. There are others who talk nervously and might benefit from being quiet, but the habit of chattering on and on is a way of protecting themselves from pain or embarrassment. Frequently, I don’t know the stories of the people I meet. In the church, I might just notice a particular trait. This person always chatters on and on and will take up a lot of time in a meeting. That person will only speak up when invited. Another person might keep their ideas to themself during a meeting and then spill them out in a string of complaints after the meeting has concluded. There are a lot of quirks and habits to deal with when trying to share leadership in a group. As a pastor and teacher, I’ve met a lot of people with a lot of different personality traits.

It can be helpful for me to remember that some of those traits are the result of pain that was experienced in a different setting. When I understand that people are the way they are because of previous experiences, I am more tolerant of them and their behavior. It is a skill that requires practice. I’m grateful that there are people who are willing to overlook some of my quirks and personality traits, but I am also grateful when someone makes me aware of something in my personality of which I had not been conscious. The right nudge can help me break old habits and form new ones.

If you notice me behaving in an odd fashion, don’t hesitate to ask me about it. It might just be what I need to break an old habit. And when you get to be my age, you have had a lot of time to develop old habits.

It is well

Over the years of working with people who were facing severe illness,, intense grief, and permanent disability, I learned that it isn’t always the right question to ask, “How are you?” There are circumstances when I already know that the person I’m visiting is experiencing pain or might have any number of other reasons to respond to such a question with an answer like, “not good,” or “pretty bad.” I have learned that there are times when skipping the small talk can be helpful to a person. If the person is in the depths of grief, having to provide some commentary on the weather or make small talk about other subjects can be unnecessarily painful. Sometimes we need to name the truth in our midst and get on with providing the care and support that the situation requires.

I will always remember an email that I got from a friend who was very near to his death. Within a couple of hours of his death, he wrote me, “There is some disagreement among the doctors as to the seriousness of my condition.” Whatever the doctors were saying, his condition was serious. He didn’t have time to chit chat in his email message. He got straight to the point expressing his wishes about his funeral service. It wasn’t the first, nor the last time someone wanted to talk about their own death and funeral with me. I’ve experienced enough death to know that it is a reality of human existence and there are times when avoiding the topic is not appropriate. Sometimes we simply need to name the reality in our midst.

Somewhere in my career, I started asking, on occasion, “How is it with your spirit?” or “How is your soul?” It is a variation on the question “How are you?” that allows the person with whom I am visiting to acknowledge the presence of pain or grief and yet display some resilience. It is also an opportunity for an individual to be frankly honest about their depression and sadness.

My question often brings to my mind the familiar hymn with lyrics by Horatio G. Spafford, “It is Well With My Soul.” The story behind the hymn is well known. Spafford was a Chicago lawyer and businessman with a wife and five children. In 1871, their young son died of pneumonia. Later that same year, much of their business was lost in the Great Chicago Fire. Then, in November of 1873, an ocean liner carrying Spafford’s wife and four daughters collided with an iron-hulled Scottish ship and sank. The Spafford’s four daughters all died in the accident. His wife was found clinging to a bit of wreckage and rescued. Spafford had originally been ticketed for the crossing, but business forced him to remain behind, expecting to follow in a few days. His wife landed in Cardiff, Wales after being rescued and wired him saying, “Saved alone, what shall I do?” Spafford later had that telegram framed and displayed it in his office. At the time, he rushed to book passage on another ship to join his grieving wife. It is said that he wrote the lyrics to the hymn while crossing the ocean near the place where his daughters were lost:

When peace like a river attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

Sometimes, when I have inquired about someone’s soul, I have told that story and sung that song. Sometimes, I’ve just thought about the song in my own mind while listening to another.

A few months ago, we participated in a prayer service for a friend who was facing a health crisis. At the service, I sang the first verse and chorus of Spafford’s hymn. It seemed to be fitting, given what I knew about this friend and her family. Later, I learned from her family that the hymn was one of her favorites. I sang it again for her after she had made a partial recovery. Not long after that, she asked me directly if I would sing the hymn at her funeral. I’m not a soloist. I’ve officiated at hundreds of funerals. I’ve attended hundreds more. But I’ve never sung at a funeral. On the other hand, I was in no position to refuse when directly asked.

It turned out that our friend passed away surrounded by loving family. She repeated her request of me when I visited the day before she died. The request was made again by her family. So I will be singing the hymn at her funeral.

Yesterday, after a busy day of working with children and volunteers at our sumner day camp for children, I rehearsed the hymn with some musicians from our church. It was reassuring to have a team of skilled musicians to back me up as I sang the song. But I am nervous about the funeral. In the ways of the Covid pandemic, the funeral is still nearly a month away, so I’ve got plenty of time to rehearse, and to get nervous about singing.

I used to get very nervous about leading worship. There have been times when I avoided eating breakfast on Sunday mornings because I’d get an upset stomach worrying about my sermon and how I would serve the people. But I was a working preacher for 42 years. That was long enough for me to learn to deal with my nerves. However, that was about preaching. I never had to sing a solo and try not to be the center of attention on a day of grieving for a family. A funeral is a service where we need to get it right. It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the family. I know there will be a lot of nervous worrying for me until the service is completed.

I’ve always thought it funny when people talk about decreasing stress. I don’t choose my stress, stress chooses me. I get nervous about situations I feel I cannot escape. I suppose I could have said, “No,” when asked to sing, but that would not have been the right thing to do. It is best for me to practice and to worry. After all, the service is not about me, or how uncomfortable I might be. It is about a grieving family who need to know the love and support of their community. My discomfort is nothing compared to the grief others are bearing. I have a promise to keep.

A Walk in the Park

Today is the third day of our Creation Care Camp for children. On Monday, we learned about air and insects. On Tuesday, we learned about water. Located on the edge of the Salish Sea, in the drainage area of the mountain that receives the most snowfall of any peak in the world, the interplay of water is a critical part of the place where our church is located. Today, we will be learning about trees and parks and engaging in a hands on park stewardship project. Just a short walk from our church is Broadway Park, an elongated piece property divided into two parts by Cornwall Street - the street where the church is located. Broadway Park has been a part of Bellingham since 1906 when Bellingham Bay Improvement Company, donated the land to the city as they were developing residential properties around it. The park was a wetland with a pond. In the early days of the park the pond was used for swimming, fishing, and ice skating. In the 1940s the pond was drained and filled.

We will be helping to remove some invasive weeds, and spread bark as part of ongoing park stewardship. We will also be learning about the many trees that are a part of this park. Broadway Park has 47 different varieties of trees, both conifers and deciduous trees. There are trees that are native to this region and trees that have been imported from other places.

Traditionally, the language of botany is the same language that was used for theology for centuries - Latin. The Western Red Cedar tree’s scientific name is Thuja plicate. Douglas Fir is Pseudotsuga menziesii. The Paper Birch for which our town of Birch Bay was named is Betula papyrifera. The children who are participating in our congregation’s program won’t remember the Latin names for very many of the trees, but they might remember the simple lesson that there was a time when the language of science and the language of religion were the same. It is not uncommon for people today to speak of a conflict between religion and science as if they were two very different enterprises. For most of history, however, they were seen as compatible. In fact many of the scientists who participated in identifying and naming botanical varieties were clergy persons.

Our congregation is exploring what it means for us to become a climate care congregation. We have multiple groups in the church that are trying to discern how our life together can be responsible in terms of our consumption of energy and care of the limited resources of the earth. We see care for creation as a Biblical mandate and a deep commitment of people of faith. Teaching our children the stories of our people while helping them learn about care of the earth is not just the theme of one summer’s learning for children. It is part of a larger process of teaching about our world and our place in the world.

Part of what we in the church have to learn and teach is that we also have a history of consumption and misuse of creation. We have seen the world as something that can be owned and divided up instead of something that belongs to God and is all interconnected. There is a long legacy in our church of participating in seizing land that was occupied by others. As we seek reconciliation with indigenous people, we have had to confess that there were historic doctrines and teachings of the church that contributed to the exploitation of people and the land.

Teaching about Creation Care is a challenging and complex undertaking for the church. This four day camp for children is just part of the process. In the fall, we will undertake additional explorations and teachings as we explore the relationship between gratitude and stewardship.

Today we will explore the park with the children. We’ll make some art out of objects we find in the park. We’ll play some games in the open spaces of the park. We’ll help pull a few weeds and spread some bark around the bases of the trees and shrubs. We’ll learn about the mission of the Bellingham Parks Department and our city’s plan for caring for its trees and planting more trees.

We will also listen to one of the great psalms of entrance from our Bible. There was a time when part of the process of going up to the temple was praying, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it, for he has founded it on the seas and established it on the rivers.” Acknowledging that the world is not a possession for us to consume and exploit, but rather a blessing that we are called to tend and share has been part of faithful worship for millennia. Often, however, we need to be reminded of our own history and heritage. Sometime we forget that we belong to a long line of people that began before our birth and that will continue long after our time on this earth has come to its conclusion.

In that life journey, one of our religious responsibilities is making the connections between our grandparents and our grandchildren. Like each generation that has come before us, we are stewards of the stories and traditions of our people. We add our own stories to the larger story and we add our own prayers to the liturgy. But we also receive stories from previous generations and teach them to future generations.

Sometimes the best way to teach about the church is to leave the building and look at it from a fresh perspective. Taking a walk with our children to a nearby park is a step in the right direction for us this year. We pray that they might feel the wonder and glory of creation and sense God’s spirit in the wind blowing through the trees. May they hear and remember the words of our ancestors as we explore the world we will leave to those who follow us.

National Relaxation Day

Running errands yesterday I was listening to CBC radio broadcast from Vancouver. I enjoy getting a Canadian perspective from time to time and it is fun to listen to our neighbors. Vancouver is the nearest large city to where we live, so things like weather forecasts, tide and sea conditions, and such apply to us as well as our neighbors across the border. Yesterday, the hosts to a talk show were talking about “National Relaxation Day” and asking people to submit their favorite activities for relaxation. Listeners emailed or texted ideas about yoga and meditation, special places where they go to relax, and even a few tips on purchasing comfortable furniture.

There are many things about Canadian culture that I appreciate, so I assumed that national relaxation day was a Canadian phenomenon, familiar to those who live north of the border. However, when I checked it out on the Internet, I found out that national relaxation day isn’t a Canadian holiday at all. It is one of those national days that isn’t an official holiday, and it started in the United States. It is listed as a U.S. National Day on the National Today website without any mention of Canada. According to that web site National Relaxation Day is celebrated annually on August 15. The idea was first proposed by a nine year old in Michigan back in 1985. Apparently the idea reached enough people for some type of observance each year since and the day made the listing of holidays.

Of course there are a lot of “national days” listed on the National Today website. For example, according to the site, today is National Rum Day, National Roller Coaster Day, National Airborne Day, National Authenticity Day, National Backflow Prevention Day, National Energy Multiplier Day, National Independent Worker Day, and National Joke Day.

National Joke Day seems like a good idea, but I have no idea how to celebrate National Backflow Prevention Day. The invitation is: “Join us as we celebrate and honor back flow prevention professionals this August 16!” Frankly, I don’t know any back flow prevention professionals. I have a backflow prevention valve on the connector for the black tank flush on our RV, but I know that it was not installed by a professional. I’m definitely an amateur in that department. I suppose that if I had a problem with a back flow prevention system, I would call a plumber, not knowing the protocol for finding back flow prevention professionals. However, if I do happen to run into a random back flow prevention professional today, I will be sure to wish them a happy back flow prevention day.

National holidays, seem to me to be a bit like Saint’s days. There are a few big ones that I know and observe. St. Steven’s Day is the day after Christmas, so it is easy to remember. Steven is honored as the first martyr of the Christian church. He made the book of Acts and there are a number of churches named in his honor. But there are also plenty of other saints, whose days pass without my recognition. I wouldn’t know that today is St. Roach’s day had I not looked it up. St. Roach, for those who don’t know, is the patron saint of bachelors, diseased cattle, dogs, falsely accused people, invalids, Istanbul surgeons, tile makers, grave diggers, second hand dealers pilgrims and apothecaries. No wonder I can’t remember St. Roach’s Day. I don’t know a single Istanbul surgeon, though I do like second hand shops. Technically I was once a bachelor, but that was a long time ago. St. Roach is also to be specially invoked during a plague. I’m not sure whether or not the Covid-19 pandemic qualifies as a plague, but it seems to me that a few prayers to St. Roach wouldn’t hurt anything, if you think of it today. I’ll try to check on the cows in our son’s pasture today, but I don’t think any of them are diseased.

Thinking about it, I like the notion that I learned about National Relaxation Day by listening to Canadian radio. In general, it seems to me that our Canadian neighbors are a bit less up tight and stressed than the folks in the United States. That may not be completely true, but it is how I see Canadians. Part of why I enjoy listening to Canadian radio is that it seems a lot less stressed and a lot more kind than what I hear when I scan the various frequencies of US radio channels.

Honestly, we were a bit over scheduled for a couple of retired folks yesterday. Our Creation Care Camp at church will require full-time work from both of us this week. We’ve been setting our alarm clocks and working into the evening with plans for each day so far and we’ve got three more days of intense programming to keep flowing, so now is no time to let down our guard. I did manage a few minutes of sitting in the lazy boy recliner yesterday, but I didn’t make it to the porch swing and it doesn’t look like there will be time for that today, either. The best way to get me to linger in a rocking chair is to hand me a baby, and one who is a bit fussy is most likely to direct me towards that particular piece of furniture.

Yesterday a salesperson stopped by our house informing me of a company that is new to our neighborhood providing Internet and cable television services. I asked him, “Who has time for cable television?” He laughed and told me the virtues and prices of Internet service.

I don’t keep up with all of the national holidays, but since I looked it up, did you hear about the horse who walked into a bar and the bartender asked, “Why the long face?” OK that one is really old. How about the dentist who walked into a bar and the bartender commented, “Why so glum? You’re always looking down in the mouth!”

I may need some practice if I’m going to properly celebrate national joke day today.

Creation Care Camp

Creation Care

When I was growing up we called it Vacation Bible School. It was a week of day camp for elementary students. The teachers included our mother and the mothers of our friends. They were the same people who taught in our Sunday School Classes. Vacation Bible School was a week of games, activities, and bible stories. Looking back, I am not able to remember specifics of the content of the weeks. We were raised in the church and we attended almost every program that they had. Vacation Bible School was one of the summer activities that we knew would happen every year. Most years, other churches in town had their vacation bible schools the same week as ours.

Summer programs of learning for children have been a part of all of the congregations we have served in our careers. However, the Covid pandemic changed that pattern in a lot of congregations. Many of them did not have those programs in the summer of 2020 and 2021.

In the congregation we are now serving, we have decided that this summer is a good time to return to a summer day camp for children. The church already had changed the tradition of calling summer programs “vacation bible school.” The focus in recent years had been mission and service. As we reviewed the many different mission and service projects and programs in the church, it became clear to our Faith Formation Board that we wanted to offer a week of learning about the church’s response to the climate crisis. From those conversations, our Creation Care Camp was born.

This is our week. We have four days of activities planned. Our camp will run from 9 am until noon with special activities for children aged 3 through those who have completed grade 5. Each day has a special emphasis. Today we will be learning about air. The children will learn a bit about biblical languages as they repeat the Hebrew and Greek words that mean air, wind, spirit, and breath. In English we have four words for these concepts. In both Hebrew and Greek, there is just one for all for concepts. It is Ruach in Hebrew and Pneuma in Greek. The concept is introduced very early in the book of Genesis and appears throughout the Bible. Among the adults from our congregation who will be sharing especial expertise today are a woman who worked in air quality during her career and a man who is an entomologist. We have songs, games and a host of activities planned. There will be workshops on arts and crafts and music and movement around the central theme. Even the snacks are coordinated to the teaching we have planned.

Tomorrow we’ll be exploring water. On Wednesday we’ll learn about the earth and trees. Thursday’s theme focuses on animals. Each day has an opportunity to hear biblical stories and learn about the long heritage of stewardship in the church. Each day will have experiences of worship designed to make children welcome in the church and teach a few of the rituals and prayers that are a part of congregational life. Each day will involve carefully screened and caring adult leaders.

It is the kind of work that we have loved doing for all of our adult lives. I am excited for the programs we have planned and I think they will be meaningful to children and their families.

As I look forward to the week, I have been reflecting on the changes in language that have been a part of my life in the church. I really don’t see any thing wrong with the name “vacation bible school,” but is has fallen out of favor with my colleagues and church leaders. We used to call the ministry of the church with children and youth “Christian education,” but that term has also fallen out of favor. Our official title at our church is ministers of faith formation. I don’t have a problem with the concept of faith formation. In many contemporary churches the idea that faith is caught more than taught is popular. Using that language is an attempt to broaden the task of teaching faith. It is an acknowledgement that faith is more than a set of facts and that becoming a faithful person is more than being able to recite some formula of beliefs. Faith involves emotions and hands on service as well as the transmission of information.

However, the heritage of teaching and learning is a rich heritage in the church. It is one of the early commandments of our faith, appearing in the Bible many different times. In the 6th chapter of Deuteronomy, parents are instructed to teach the stories of our people to their children when they are at home and when they travel, when they lie down and when they rise up. Later in the 11th chapter of Deuteronomy the same commandment is repeated. The responsibility for teaching the history and faith of our people is given to parents. In community, we have shared that responsibility through programs such as church schools and vacation bible schools.

Teaching is one of the great vocations of the church. In the United Church of Christ, ministers are ordained “to teach and preach” the gospel. Somehow, however, educational ministries have often taken a back seat to worship and pastoral care. Specialists in education are becoming less and less common in the congregations of our denomination. Ministers are required to have theological and clinical pastoral care education, but not required to have taken formal instruction in educational design and teaching. That lack of education and preparation is evident in the roles assumed by pastors in congregations.

I have tried to always take my vows to teach seriously. I have seen education as equal to other ministries and integral to everything I do as a pastor. I am teaching when I enter the pulpit to preach. I am teaching when I meet with a couple to plan a wedding. I am teaching when I respond to a death and provide care and support to grieving persons. I see myself as a teacher in all that I do.

Whatever words we choose, sharing the faith with each new generation is a solemn responsibility of all who are a part of the church. I’ve been looking forward to this week and now we will live it together. It is going to be a good week.

At the ranch

My Uncle Randy called himself a farmer. He raised hard, red winter wheat on his farm in Montana. He wore bib overalls every day except Sunday or when there was a funeral or wedding. After his children were grown he learned to take some time off from the farm, in the off season. They purchased a camper and they traveled after the wheat was in the bins and the next year’s crop was in the ground.

My cousin Russ, his son, called himself a rancher. He did some farming, but he also raised cattle on the land he bought in the Missouri Breaks adjacent to his father’s farm. He raised hay and the cattle had to be fed over the winter. Most winters had as many chores and hard work as the summers. Russ’ main entertainment was attending farm and ranch auctions to see if he could pick up a bargain. He was a talented mechanic and he could make a machine work long after others had decided to discard it.

I grew up with the basic notion that agricultural properties that focused on raising crops were farms and those that focused on raising animals were ranches. Of course, most of the folks I knew had mixed operations. Even though Uncle Randy was a farmer, they had chickens and most of the time they milked a single cow and raised her calves. Even though my cousin Russ was a rancher, he had a combine and raised wheat and lentils and a variety of other crops.

I was thinking of them and of the way I used to think of farm and ranch country yesterday. For the last couple of years, I’ve called our son’s ten acre property their farm. They have an orchard and extensive gardens. They grow berries and vegetables. They keep chickens for eggs and raise additional chickens in the summer for meat. Right now there are 40 or 50 chickens on the place with the attendant chores of providing feed and water every day. They have an arrangement with a neighbor to mow and bail the hay in their north pasture and they sell the hay for income. Their property produces enough to qualify for the tax rate applied to farms.

An added bonus of the farm, which is just a couple of miles from our house is that they have a large dairy barn with two big shop bays. I have all of my tools in the shop and there is room to store my canoes and kayaks and our camper as well.

Yesterday was a big day at the farm. With all of that pasture and good fences in place they have decided to raise a few beef cattle in partnership with a neighbor. The neighbor has experience, a trailer to transport the animals, and other equipment, but is a bit short on pasture space. They aren’t going into the cattle business big time. Three heifers are exploring the pasture, which is green a lush. They won’t do a second cutting of hay this year and they have plenty of bales in the barn to carry the cows over the winter.

At dinner, I joked, “Do I have to call your place a ranch now that you have cows?”

It is a surprising and delightful turn in our family story. Although I grew up in ranch country, my parents businesses were operating an airport and selling farm machinery. We had a few acres and raised a few hobby animals, but I never thought of myself as a farm kid. I headed straight to college and from there to graduate school and have pursued a professional career. Neither of our children appeared to be heading for farm life in their young adulthoods. Our son went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to earn a master’s degree after college and his wife earned hers as soon as he graduated. Our daughter has become an air force wife, living in several locations around the world and often working on the base where her husband is assigned.

Then, in the midst of two busy professional careers, our son and daughter in law decided that they wanted to grow more of their own food and become less dependent on stores and supply chains. After turning all of their half acre yard into food production, they began to shop for a larger place and just as we were moving from South Dakota bought 10 acres that was the home place of an historic area farm, moved into the century-old farm house, and began to expand their capacities at raising food. Last year they added meat chickens to their chores and filled the freezers with chicken to carry them and us over the winter. I still have one chicken from last year in the freezer, waiting for the right day to cook it. Neither we nor they have the freezer capacity to handle a whole beef. There are some details of this new ranching venture that are yet to be resolved.

Yesterday, I finished what turned out to be a pretty big renovation of their wood shed. The building probably was originally designed for some other purpose. It was completely open on the west side, which is the side from which the weather comes around here. Last winter the rain blew in on the stacked firewood and they ended up putting tarps over the wood. The building is a pole barn and the cedar logs that had been set directly into the ground had rotted through and the building was leaning. I got it jacked up and nearly squared up and poured new concrete in the corners. I set new posts and added siding. I cut two new large doorways into the building to allow easy access for stacking the wood and getting it back out to feed the stove.

I was at the farm when the cows arrived. Now, in addition to their regular chores, the children will need to check the cows’ water trough. They will also need to remember to always close the pasture gate when they go to pick blackberries. It is a new adventure for the farm.

One of the fun parts of this phase of my life is that I have some time for farm chores. It certainly is not something I expected, but it feels pretty good. And I already own cowboy boots and have a couple of pretty nice cowboy hats.

Exploring our home


Although our mailing address is Blaine, we don’t live in the city. We live in a small community outside of the city limits called Birch Bay. From our home we can walk down to the bay and we often walk along Birch Bay. When the weather is warm and the days are long, we frequently walk in the evening when we don’t have evening meetings. Sometimes, however, we go to the village of Blaine to walk. It gives us a different view. Blaine is located on Drayton Harbor, a well-protected inlet. It is also right on the Canadian border. The east-west streets in Blaine are lettered. H Street is sort of the main street of the west side of town and has a bridge over the Interstate to connect with the east side of town. From there, the streets go G, F, E, D, C, B and A as you go north. The next street is 0 Avenue, and is the border. The only north - south streets that cross 0 Avenue are Interstate 5 and Pacific Highway, both of which lead to official border crossing stations at 0 Avenue. Between the border crossing stations there are no fences or official barriers. There is a park next to 0 Avenue and houses on the other side of the street.

I joke that we could walk to Canada from our house. It would be a pretty long walk, since we live 7 miles from Blaine. But once in Blaine, the border is right in town. When we walk along Marine Drive out to the Blaine Public Pier, we can see the the border crossing facilities and the community of White Rock, British Columbia.

The Blaine Pier has a nice park with a playground for children, public boating facilities, including a marina, boat sales and repair facilities and a fish and crab buyer’s facility. There are benches and picnic tables out on the pier and it s a good place to look across the harbor entrance to Semiahmoo Resort, where there used to be fish canneries, and north to Canada. There is a passenger ferry that runs across the harbor entrance connecting the city with the resort. When the canneries were open, it was a way for people to get to and from work in the canneries. Now the ferry is just a tourist attraction, running on the half hour during the afternoon.

In the summer there is a food trailer that serves excellent fish and chips as well as shrimp, calamari, and other seafood. Earlier in the year they had really delicious clam strips, but the price of clams is high and they aren’t serving them right now. Sometimes for a splurge, we will get fish from the trailer and sit outside next to the marina watching the boats and the seagulls as we eat.

When we moved to South Dakota, we moved to a neighborhood that was outside of the city limits. It was a ten mile drive to the church, so we got used to driving. Here we live 20 miles from our church, which is in the city of Bellingham south of our home. We are only working half time, so most weeks we only drive into Bellingham three days. However, because we do make that drive, we tend to shop in Bellingham or in Ferndale, which is a small town between our home and the church. Bellingham is on a large bay with marinas and shipping docks. Lummi Island is just off shore to the west of Bellingham Bay, with the other islands of the San Juans and Vancouver Island, which is in Canadian waters, beyond. Bellingham has a terminal for both the Washington State Ferry and the Alaska State Ferry, carrying cars and people to the islands and north to Alaska.

Living next to the ocean is very different than any other place where we have lived. We grew up next to the mountains. I was used to seeing mountains all around and going to the mountains to hike and to be next to the natural world. Here we aren’t too far from the mountains. We can see Mount Baker clearly from the road as we drive to our son’s farm or to church and we can see Canadian peaks out of our bedroom window. It is a short drive to the high cascades. Mount Baker has snow year round at the top and the national forest and wilderness areas around the North Cascades are full of alpine hiking. Unlike other places we have lived, however, the mountains are to our east. The narrow strip of land between the mountains and the ocean has quite a few people, but we live in a rural area between towns, so don’t feel the urban crush too much unless we need to head farther south to Seattle.

Still in our first year in our new home we have taken to walking along the shore and looking to the ocean for our daily taste of the natural world. As newcomers, there is plenty for us to see. We are learning about tidal rivers and creeks, where the stream flows out to sea at low tide and the ocean flows up the creek at high tide. A creek that changes the direction of its flow multiple times a day is a wonder to us. There are birds and sea animals that are new to us. We’ve seen harbor seals and even whales as we walk along the shore. The gray whales have moved farther north, but they’ll be migrating south in the fall. There are Orcas around the islands that we have seen from boats, but we have not seen Orcas from the shore.

There is something unique about being so close to the boarder as well. It is interesting to us that we can look out and see another country. When we moved, the border was closed to non essential traffic, including tourists, but it is open now and as many as a third of the cars parked along the waterfront sport British Columbia plates.

For now, one of our main recreational activities is exploring this place. Nature has much to reveal to us and we are restored by looking at the vastness of creation. Our pace has slowed a bit, but we continue to be renewed by taking a walk and exploring our world.

Checking out the Ads

I know very little about advertising. Over the span of my career, the congregations I served purchased a small amount of advertising, mostly yellow pages advertisements and small display ads in local newspapers. Our congregation in Rapid City did run one billboard campaign during the time I served as pastor, but it was the result of leadership by people who know a whole lot more about advertising than I do.

Lately, I have been paying a little bit of attention to the ads I see on my computer, trying to figure out why there are so many advertisements for products that I have no intention of purchasing. There are two types of advertisements that I encounter. The first are display ads that show up on the news sites I visit. I am not a fan of pay walls and I don’t subscribe to any of the news sources I see. This means that some sources, such as the Washington Post and New York Times limit the number of articles I can read. Sometimes, I only have access to headlines and small summaries of articles. Still, they put advertisements in front of me. It is my understanding that these advertisements are different for each person who visits the Internet. The algorithms that choose which ads to display use information gathered by my computer browser to determine which ads to show. Even though I have my privacy settings at a high level, there is information about me that can be collected by the Internet, including location for some of the programs where I have allowed it to be used. It really speeds up my use of mapping programs to allow the program to know my location for example. There is also quite a bit of information about my browsing history that can be collected. Which links I follow, which items I search and other information can be collected.

For several years, I have had a practice of occasionally entering strange search criteria just for the fun of exploring and of trying to throw off the algorithms. I have no intention of ever buying a “Purple Goth Mother of the Bride Dress,” but such a search can be interesting simply because it puts together things that others probably don’t. I try to avoid terms that might be related to criminal activity. I don’t search for explosives or street drugs or enter words like minor or illegal in my searches.

I confess that I do put a little bit of effort into throwing off the algorithms.

Still, it is surprising what advertisements keep popping up on the news sites I regularly visit. I see a lot of advertisements about working from home and virtual offices. That makes sense simply because I do quite a bit of work on my computer and I use a laptop that goes back and forth from home to the church office.

However, I also see a lot of advertisements for cars, including high performance sports cars, something that we have never owned and for which we have never shopped.

Youtube advertisements confuse me even more. The algorithms in Youtube mean that every individual user is served a different menu of advertisements. The number of advertisements and when they interrupt the videos is different for each individual who watches the videos. And there are a lot of people who watch videos on Youtube.

Youtube gives me a lot of short advertisements in Spanish. Perhaps that is because we lived for a year in Mount Vernon in a neighborhood that was majority hispanic. Our landlords spoke Spanish in their home and visited relatives in Mexico. Still, I am not fluent in Spanish. I guess I do find car advertisements in Spanish to be slightly less offensive than those in English and perhaps I have been slower to click away from advertisements in Spanish because I always try to understand what is being said.

I do not have an online brokerage account. We own a few stocks, but they are managed by an investment advisor. I don’t direct the trading of individual stocks. We are mostly invested in mutual funds. Our pension is completely controlled by professional investors. The Internet, however, seems to believe that I might soon launch an online brokerage account. Perhaps this is because I do use online banking and I monitor our bank accounts regularly. There is enough fraud and theft over the Internet, that I pay attention to bank balances and am careful to use only one insured credit card when making online purchases. I’m not willing to risk our retirement funds or our grandchildren’s college savings by becoming a day trader, however. I’m not one to invest the time and energy in studying the markets to want to make my own trades.

I’ve never taken a cruise and I have no plans to do so, but the Internet seems to think that I might be shopping for one. Perhaps it is because I linger over photographs of beautiful boats that I could never afford to own.

I have a subscription to Microsoft 365 for our home computers and we use Microsoft products at work, but I don’t have any control over decisions about which software is used over any computer networks. I don’t think Microsoft is going to sell me on additional purchases or subscriptions. Still, I get to look at a lot of Microsoft advertisements.

I’m not in the market for a home security system. My primary security system consists of quality locks on the doors and not having much that a burglar would be interested in stealing. There are no guns, jewelry or cash in our home. Well, I do have a container of change on my dresser, but its value is fairly low. I keep raiding it to make purchases. So far, I haven’t felt the need to plant a yard sign that clearly states to burglars that any cameras and other security devices I use can be disabled by disconnecting my Internet cable. I’ll leave installing security systems to others.

I’d like to think that I’m less likely to make impulse purchases based on the advertisements I see. Certainly I see lots of advertisements for products I have no interest in purchasing. Still, I wonder how the algorithms work. Maybe I should start searching for things in other languages. Of course I don’t know how to use the keyboard on my computer to enter Japanese characters and I don’t know how to spell any words using other alphabets. I may have to become more educated, or at least more creative, to get the internet to throw me truly strange advertisements.

Glitches in the digital world

Recently I sent a form to a local company via US mail. Later when I checked on the document, I was told that it had arrived and was entered into the company’s system. The person with whom I spoke gave me a date for the receipt of the document that was almost two weeks after I had mailed the document. It happens that this business is within half a block from the route I take when I drive to work. I could have hand delivered the paper.

Except, I could not have hand delivered the paper because the storefront where the business is located is rarely open. The employees of the business now work from home. As the Covid pandemic continues, there is less and less incentive for the business to maintain the storefront. When I call the business, the phone is answered by a person who is in their home. That person doesn’t have much face to face contact with other employees of the business. I suspect that the reason for the delay in the processing of the paperwork has something to do with the fact that no one is actually working at the business location. I mailed the form to the address of the business. The mail was delivered to that address, but there is no person at the business every day. Someone goes by the business to check for the mail. I don’t know how it gets from employee to employee within the system. I hope that someone is able to scan the form into the computer so that multiple employees can access the form at the same time. I fear, however, that the company is actually moving internal documents by US mail between employees.

This particular form required a paper copy with signatures. I was not able to complete the form with an electronic signature and submit it over the Internet.

There is another possible explanation of the slowness of the form’s progress. There have been delays in mail delivery in our area due to a lack of postal employees. A neighboring town’s post office suspended home delivery of packages. Those wanting their packages had to pick them up from the Post Office. The reason given was a lack of employees. Our son and his family have experienced periods when they didn’t receive mail delivery for several days in a row. The Post Office stated that they didn’t have enough mail carriers to cover all of their routes.

Our neighborhood has now gone three days without mail delivery. We’ll see if mail is delivered today, if not, it will be the fourth day with no mail delivery. It isn’t just that we’ve gone these days without receiving any mail. I suppose it is possible that the advertisers have given up on us. We aren’t the only ones. None of our neighbors have received mail this week, either.

A package that the sender said should have been delivered on Monday has not yet arrived. Fortunately I do not need the contents of that package until next week, but it will be inconvenient if I don’t have it by next Monday.

We have grown to expect the United States Postal Service to be reliable. It has been remarkably good for so many years. The pandemic has stressed the service, and people have become even more dependent upon it. Our health insurance company requires us to use a mail order pharmacy. When the US Postal Service doesn’t deliver, it can have a direct effect on people’s health and well being. Not every message or item can be delivered electronically.

Because of my vocation, but also because of my personality, I still prefer doing business face to face. I prefer to shop locally in an actual store to making purchases over the Internet. When I have important business to transact, it is easier for me to do so in direct conversation with another person. I am struggling with the shift to more and more people working remotely. There are some transactions that work better when dealing with an actual person. The world continues to change and I am having to learn new ways of doing things.

A couple of weeks ago, I made an appointment to meet with a banker. I was opening a simple checking account to manage some funds that are shared with my siblings. I’ve opened dozens of checking accounts over the years. It is only since the pandemic that such a transaction required an advance appointment. I followed the bank’s procedures, however. In this case it wasn’t a big problem and I was able to make an appointment at a time that was convenient for me. I went into the bank at the appointed time and was greeted by a banker, and escorted into an office where the banker proceeded to enter information into a computer without looking at me. When I had given the information, shown my ID and completed the process, the banker informed me that I would receive an email within an hour. I needed to complete an online form with an electronic signature to open the account. When I got home from the bank, the email was in my in box. I completed the process and the checking account was opened. I have no idea why I couldn’t have simply signed a form in person. The process didn’t inspire confidence in the bank. If they have to go through such complex processes for a deposit, I wonder what will happen when we need to make a withdrawal. Actually, the account is set up and it shows up on my electronic banking, so I know I can transfer funds over the Internet. I miss the sense of having a relationship with a banker, however.

And it isn’t just the banker. I’ve never met my insurance agent face to face. I’ve spoken with people who worship over Facebook every week and have no intention of returning to in person worship. I serve on boards and committees that meet only electronically. I have memorized the passwords to four different Zoom accounts and know how to log onto three different electronic work platforms. As far as I know, there is no at home device that can do an at home skin cancer screening. So far, at least, I get to see an actual dermatologist face to face every six months. I have, however, been offered a telemedicine option for my annual wellness visit with my family physician.

The good news is that I don’t live alone. I can still walk into our son’s house down the road from ours and be greeted with a hug from a grandchild. I still go to work in an office at the church. I still make face to face visits with church members. And I still go to worship in person each Sunday. In the midst of all of the fist and elbow bumping, I still shake hands with a few of my friends when we pass the peace. I have no plans to go 100% digital.

Growing flowers


My father loved hollyhocks. I don’t think they were favorites of my mother, but she knew that he liked them and allowed them to grow. Hollyhocks aren’t true perennials, but they come back every year because they are very good at self-seeding. If there is an area for hollyhocks in the garden, they will come back year after year.

My mother enjoyed and grew a lot of different kinds of flowers, but she was partial to flowers grown from bulbs in the beds next to our house. She had daffodils, tulips and plenty of iris. I remember walking across the prairies with our parents and looking for places where there were iris growing. The iris usually marked the sites where there had been homesteads. Settlers often located their homesteads near springs or other sources of water and the water in turn nurtured the purple plants, often called blue flags.

My father in law became quite a gardener of roses, especially in his retirement years. The rose garden in their front yard grew in size and in the varieties of roses he cultivated. Roses make both of our children think of their grandfather. There were often bouquets of cut roses in their home as well as plenty of blossoms out front.

We’ve planted a few flowers in each home where we have lived in our married life, except for student apartments where we did not live year round. Generally, we’ve had a few iris as well as some other bulb plants. When we moved to Rapid City, we planted tulips and crocus, but the deer ate the plants before they could bloom. We discovered that the deer were less fond of iris. Mostly they left them alone, but baby deer will try most everything, even plants that are said to be deer resistant. In the case of the iris, we would find flowers that had been bitten off, but spit out when the young deer discovered that they didn’t like the flavor. The plants usually survived to produce more blossoms.

Marigolds were also fairly deer resistant. Most years we picked up some plants from the nursery to plant in the beds around our house.

I love sunflowers, and grew them most years that we lived in Rapid City. I grew them inside the fence of our vegetable garden to keep the deer from eating them. However, I left them for the birds to eat the seeds and they attracted pinion jays in the fall each year. It was as much fun to watch the birds pluck the seeds from the large blossoms as it had been to watch the plants grow.

We have never, however, distinguished ourselves as gardeners. There are plenty of people who are much better at growing all kinds of flowers than we. In fact, there are plenty of flowers whose names I do not know.

The only flowers, aside from flowering trees, in the yard of this house when we bought it is a hydrangea shrub growing next to the driveway. It has beautiful blossoms. I was a bit confused about pruning the shrub last fall, but it is full of blossoms this summer and I’ll be a bit more confident about pruning this fall.

Since we bought this house in October, we didn’t do any fall planting and were fairly reserved in our spring planting this years. We have plans to grow more flowers in the years to come, but our one flower success is a couple of big pots of dahlias. We knew nothing about dahlias before moving to the pacific northwest. Our son has been cultivating dahlias for several years and has several gorgeous beds and each year expands the number of tubers he grows. It is fairly easy to harvest the tubers, clean them, and store them over the winter. A single plant produces multiple tubers, so the next year, there are plenty to plant. Our son gave us a bag full of tubers and we planted them in some new planters I set up on our deck. The plants are producing beautiful blossoms and there are plenty of additional blossoms coming. They have inspired me to think about other places I might plant tubers next year.

Other than scattering a few hollyhock seeds, my father never became a flower gardener. Then again, he never fully retired. Shortly after he began to sell his business, he was diagnosed with cancer and died before he was old enough to draw social security. However, in part because of the example of my father-in-law, I think that growing flowers is something I want to have as part of my retirement.

I’m sure that we will make a trip to the Skagit Valley this fall to pick up tulip and daffodil bulbs to plant around our place. And we’ll likely find some iris to put into the ground while we are at it. I have no designs on making our yard a showplace. I just want to grow some flowers that attract pollinators and give a little beauty to our yard. I’d like to grow enough flowers to occasionally have a bouquet of cut flowers in the house and perhaps make up an arrangement to take to the church. For now, however, I’m pleased and feeling good about the dahlias we have grown.

I’m hoping to have room in our yard for another plant that is new to us. I’d like to grow some foxglove. The plant is biennial, meaning that it won’t produce blossoms the first year. In the second year it blooms and then dies, so to have a patch requires planting some each year. Foxglove is the source of the drug Digitalis, which slows heart rate. It is one of the drugs that was effective in treading Susan’s arrhythmia a few years ago. I have no intentions of producing medicine. I just would like to grow some of the plants as an expression of gratitude for the life-giving properties of plants.

One thing about gardening is that it inspires dreams about the future. Every gardener seems to look forward. “Next year, I’m going to grow . . .” Signs of hope are treasured here.

Building community

Last evening I was talking with my neighbor to the east over our backyard fence. As darkness fell they were looking for a pet cat who had left their backyard. This is a fairly regular occurrence. The cat likes to explore and can easily jump to the top of the fence. We often see the cat walking along the top of the fence, investigating the birds in our trees. It is a gentle creature who is welcome in our yard from our point of view, but its owner would prefer for it to stay a bit closer to home. As far as I can tell, the cat is unimpressed by the rule that it should stay in its own back yard. I hope that the cat is safe, and I suspect that it returned home before bedtime.

The size of the lots in this neighborhood is much smaller than other places where we have lived. There is much less sense of privacy in our back yard than was the case in our South Dakota home. Before South Dakota we lived in a more urban area in Boise, Idaho, but we had quite a bit more space than we do in this house. You might think that the closeness of the houses in this neighborhood might mean that we would get to know our neighbors, but so far this hasn’t been the case.

We introduced ourselves to the neighbors to the north of our house when a ball went over the fence and we walked around to their front door to ask for their help in retrieving it. They did help, but we never did learn their names and even though they are out in their back yard most mornings and evenings smoking cigarettes, we have yet to have a significant conversation with them.

Our neighbors to the west don’t spend much time out doors. Over the fence, I can glimpse a very nice barbecue and smoker, but I've never observed anyone using them. We are definitely close enough that I’d smell the smoke if the were using their outdoor cooking appliances. I’m pretty sure the neighbors smell our barbecue, which is used most evenings during the summer. I cooked a couple of bratwurst yesterday and will probably cook on the grill again tonight.

Frankly I prefer the smell of the barbecue, and even the smell of neighbors smoking cigarettes to the aroma of marijuana smoke which occasionally blows our way from a neighbor’s back yard. The use of recreational marijuana is legal in Washington and we really don’t notice much impact from the difference in laws. We see the marijuana dispensaries around town and occasionally there will be a few vehicles parked in their lots, but we are not impacted by its use. Occasionally we’ll get a whiff from someone one the beach when we are out walking and we have one set of neighbors who occasionally smoke in their back yard, but there is little impact on our day to day living. I have wondered if my marijuana smoking neighbors are bothered by the smell of charcoal smoke when I am cooking in the dutch oven. No one has said a word. We are a bit slow in getting to know our neighbors despite the fact that we live pretty close to one another.

There are a few neighbors down the block and around the corner with whom we are becoming acquainted. Despite being a neighborhood where residents need to have cars to get to shopping and other services, our neighborhood is pretty walkable. There are good sidewalks and the traffic moves slowly. The neighborhood is short of parking, so there are always cars parked alongside the streets, which has the effect of slowing the traffic on the streets as cars have to make their way around the parked cars. When there are cars parked on both sides if the street there is barely room for two cars to pass in the remaining space and people have learned to slow down to make things work.

Since we are walkers, we are glad that the traffic is moving slowly and we take advantage of the sidewalks as we go about our way. We happen to enjoy neighborhood children playing basketball and other games in the street and are always very careful when driving our car. Some of the folks in our neighborhood are avid gardeners and we have had short conversations with them as we walk about the neighborhood. We don’t know many names, but there are neighbors that we recognize from these brief conversations.

I’ve been more conscious of community in our moves since retiring than I was during our active working years. When we moved prior to retirement, we were always being called to a church and had an “instant” community waiting to welcome us. Moving during Covid has been very different. Attendance at weekly worship services continues to be fairly low. The folks who participate online get to know us because we are regularly in front of the cameras, but we don’t get to know them. We don’t really get to know the folks who do come to worship very well. Covid protocols mean that we don’t sit around a fellowship hall sharing refreshments and conversation after worship.

We got to know some families and individuals from our congregation a bit better during family camp. The camp environment encouraged conversation and community building, things that seem to be in short supply right now.

I continue to work with several small groups that meet over Zoom, and I am beginning to learn quite a bit about participants, but it isn’t the same as an in-person face-to-face community. I’ve been told by some participants that our regular meetings are very important to their sense of well being and connection in these times.

The challenges of forming community are an invitation for us to increase our efforts and work a bit harder. We will be starting some new programs and working hard to develop and nurture community at church this fall.

I am unsure, however, how to build more community in our neighborhood. I have no plans to take up smoking marijuana in order to have something in common with our neighbors whose names I do not know. I’ll have to figure out another way to get to know them better.

Thinking of Confirmation

Among my projects this week is participating in conversations with colleagues as part of the process of developing a new curriculum to be used in confirmation preparation in local congregations. The United Church of Christ has, in many ways, gotten out of the business of developing educational resources. Over the course of my lifetime we have gone from being a major producer of educational curricula, with a staff of writers and editors employed in the national setting of our church, to a dramatically reduced staff in the national setting with no people whose primary job focus is the production of educational materials. However, a decision has been made to develop a new resource for confirmation for the denomination.

I believe that I am the only person involved in these discussions about developing a new confirmation resource who was directly involved in the production of “Affirming Faith: A Congregation’s Guide to Confirmation,” originally published in 1996 and revised and re-published in 2008. I was one of the writers on the 1996 team. That probably is of little consequence, as institutional memory is not one of the highest priorities in our church’s national setting at present. I do, however, think that I have a bit to offer to the process because I can remember previous conversations.

A lot has changed in the church since 1996. My personal experiences have given me a bit of a gauge of that change. The first confirmation class we led as pastors of 1st Congregational Church in Rapid City, South Dakota had access to the then brand new resource that I had participated in developing. When I compare that experience with our first confirmation class in 1st Congregational Church of Bellingham a little over a quarter of a century later, I can see both similarities and differences. Having led dozens of confirmation classes in those decades gives me a perspective that other members of our team do not have.

The rite of confirmation grew out of a leadership shortage experienced by the early church. After Christianity became a legally accepted religion of Rome, the church began to expand dramatically. Congregations could not find enough priests and bishops to support that rapid growth. Out of necessity, new Christians were baptized in ceremonies with lay leaders. There weren’t enough bishops to be present at every baptismal ceremony. When a bishop did come to visit the congregation, the bishop was asked to “confirm” the baptisms that had been performed since the last visit.

In modern times, however, confirmation has become the entrance point into full membership in the church. Because of the unique history of the United Church of Christ, we have congregations where infant baptism is regularly practiced and we also have congregations where baptism is more commonly performed in adolescence. For some young people, preparing for confirmation is also preparing for baptism. For others, who were baptized as infants, confirmation is the time of becoming a full voting member of a congregation. In both cases, it seems reasonable to have a process of preparation during which a bit of the history and theology of the church is shared.

Contemporary congregations have adults who are regular participants who have not gone through any confirmation preparation classes. They may have attended a meeting in preparation for joining a local church during which faith was discussed, but many simply started attending worship and ended up getting involved in church programs without ever attending any classes. Our congregations have regular participants who have gone through formal membership and other participants who have never officially joined the church. We have members who have been baptized and others who have not. When we gather for worship, we are a group of people with a wide variety of experiences within the church. Some of us have been in the church for all of our lives. Others are new to church attendance and may be new to any religious practices.

For most of my career as a pastor, I have argued that the rite of confirmation should be seen as a repeatable rite. Unlike baptism, which our part of the church has held as a once in a lifetime experience, with no need to be repeated, confirmation could be seen as the process of entrance, and of re-entrance into the life of the congregation. A person might choose to confirm their faith when moving from one congregation to another. A person might choose to confirm their faith after going through a major life-altering experience such as marriage, divorce, the birth of a child, or the death of a loved one. From this perspective, it would make sense to invite youth to confirm their faith while they are still living at home with their parents, but also to invite young adults to confirm their faith when they begin participating independently from their families of origin.

The resources for preparation for the rite of confirmation, then, need to take into account the wide range of ages and experiences with which people come to the rite. Instead of seeing confirmation as a class aimed at middle and high school students, with a graded curriculum, perhaps we could see it as an ongoing series of conversations in which we engage over and over again.

My understandings of the nature of God and of the role of the church have changed as I have grown and matured. I don’t believe that confirmation is about teaching a “correct” dogma, but rather about engaging in conversations about the essentials of faith such as the nature of Christ, the presence of the Holy Spirit, and the relationship of the creation to the Creator.

Developing resources for confirmation preparation in these times is a challenging process. As was the case back in the 1990’s, I do not expect that we will produce a finished product, but rather engage in the process of developing resources that can be adapted and changed as circumstances require.

I’m looking forward to the conversations and I hope that they are only the beginning of an on-going process that will continue long after my time has passed.

Crossing the state

Since our son completed library school, he and his family have lived in Western Washington. During the years that we lived in South Dakota, after he moved to the Pacific Northwest, we made regular trips across the state of Washington on our way to and from visits to them. In the process, we have taken several different routes across the state. Traveling east to west, US 12 enters the state at Clarkston after winding over Lolo pass in Montana and crossing the Idaho panhandle. It winds southwest to very near the southern border of Washington at Walla Walla then heads north a bit to cross the Columbia at Pasco. If you want to take the southernmost east-west highway from there, US 14 follows the north side of the Columbia, which is the border between Washington and Oregon. At Vancouver, the river turns north and Interstate 5 follows the river north to Longview, where a state road takes travelers out to the coast.

However, if one stays on US 12 from Pasco, the route takes you up to Yakima and across the southern part of the state across the Cascades north of Mount Saint Helens to Chehalis and from there out to the coast at Aberdeen, about a third of the way up the Olympic Peninsula.

The most common, and probably fastest route across the state from east to west is Interstate 90, which enters the state near Spokane. Most of the highway has a 70 mph speed limit and unlike the other routes, the Interstate bypasses towns, meaning you don’t have to slow for city traffic. From Spokane, it dips a bit southwest. At Ellensburg the highway begins to climb the Cascades, summiting at Snoqualmie Pass before heading to downtown Seattle.

The most northern east-west route in the state is also probably the slowest. Washington highway 20 winds through the mountains in the upper quarter of the state and crosses a dramatic pass before descending into North Cascades National Park, crossing Interstate 5 at Burlington and heading out onto Fidalgo Island and over a dramatic bridge onto Whidbey Island.

South of Washington 20 and north of Intestate 90 lies US 2, crossing the center of the state from Spokane to Everett and summiting the Cascades at Stevens Pass. It is one of our favorite ways to cross the state and it is the route we took yesterday as we came home from camp.

The central part of Washington is high plains desert, with wheat being the main crop. The farms are large and the highway stretches on before meeting and crossing the Columbia River south of the Grand Coulee Dam. From there it crosses more high desert country before beginning the climb into the Cascades at Wenatchee. One of the goals of our drive yesterday was stopping at the fruit stands near Wenatchee to pick up peaches and apricots. Purchasing cases of fruit at stands near the orchards on the east slopes of the Cascades has become a family tradition for us. When we lived in South Dakota, we often stopped for early crop apples on our way home, sometimes taking a couple of cases back with us. Had we not planned our trip across the state to attend church camp in Idaho, we probably would have made a trip to Wenatchee to pick up peaches sometime in the next couple of weeks. As it turned out, we added cases of peaches and apricots to our camping gear in the back of our car. We weren’t the only ones to have that idea. As we were leaving one of the fruit stands, we recognized fellow family campers in a car that had just pulled into the lot.

US 2 over Stevens pass is a beautiful drive and we were early enough in the evening yesterday to have plenty of light for our journey. The highway follows a route near to that of the railroad tracks that carry Amtrak trains on their east-west route across the state, and follows the Skynomish River down from the pass towards Monroe, which is the site of the State Fairgrounds. At Everett, we joined Interstate 5 heading north and, after a stop for gas and a sandwich, made our way home as the sun was setting.

As we drove yesterday, I thought of the many trips we have made across the state. There have been several trips where we entered the state at Spokane and headed southwest to the Columbia, crossing at Pasco, then heading south to join Interstate 84 in Oregon on our way to Portland. One of the first times we made the trip, we had a car that did not have an air conditioner and the trip through the high desert was a hot one. We were glad to get to the Columbia. Even though the weather was still hot, we could see the water and before long we reached the cooler weather of the Cascades.

Yesterday the weather is what I might call typical for summer in the center of the state. Temperatures were in the eighties, a good 20 degrees cooler than when we were headed east to camp a week earlier.

I suspect that we have had more opportunities to travel across the state than many folks who, like us, are newcomers. Even those who have lived in the state all of their lives may not have found reasons to cross the state as often as we have. It feels good to have our new home state be familiar to us. Of course there is a lot more to this state to explore than what we have seen and we have a sense that some day we need to take the time to do a bit more exploring, but we enjoy getting off of the Interstate and following the two lane roads.

The North Cascades have large areas of wilderness where there are no roads and there are several roads that give access to towns and recreational areas that do not connect to other roads of go all the way over the mountains. In fact there is a road between Holden and Luceme, that doesn’t connect to any other road. It can be reached only by boat on Lake Chelan. We won’t be driving on that road, but it is fun to know that it is there and that there are people who live in such remote places.

Today it is back to church and back to work, after a wonderful week of camp. We’re eager to see folks and report on our experiences, knowing that there is much more to explore when we once again have time to travel.

Saying good bye

We have come to the last day of camp. I remember a lot of “last day of camp” experiences. A lot of planning and care has gone into creating a welcoming place and forming Christian community. Care has been given to include each person and to find ways to say to each, “You are welcome, you are treasured, you are an important part of our community.” Now, after just a week, the time has come to go our separate ways. After breakfast, there will be an hour or so for loading up our cars, cleaning up our spaces, and doing what we can to help the camp staff prepare for the next group of campers. Then there will be a closing experience and we’ll get on the road. We have a seven hour drive back home and we’ll probably extend that by at least an hour as we are planning to take an alternate highway across much of the state and make a stop at the fruit stands around Wenatchee to pick up a couple of cases of fruit to take home. Hopefully there will be peaches and new season apples available.

There will be a few tears at the closing circle. There always are. It is not easy to say good bye. And we have made friends who are important to us. However, we have done this many times before.

Fifty years ago, there was a youth camp ending at our camp in Montana. One of the challenges for the organizers of the camp had been transportation for a group of youth from Missoula, Montana. I don’t know how they had gotten to camp, but they needed a ride home. At the last minute, when other options had been exhausted, my father offered a truck he had with a high box on the back. I drove the truck up to camp from our shop and loaded up the campers with all of their suitcases and sleeping bags. It must have been a dusty ride for them, coming down from the mountain on the dirt road. We stopped in our town for lunch, drove three miles up over the continental divide to Butte for a stop, where they all got out of the back of the truck and stretched their legs. Then it was back into the truck for another couple of hours of driving to their home town.

Of course we wouldn’t haul people that way these days. There were no seat belts in the back of that truck. There weren’t even seats. They rode with their sleeping bags and pillows as their only padding. They didn’t have any cover over the top of their heads. The truck was designed for a much heavier load and I suspect that it was a pretty rough ride. The youth were in good spirits and sang camp songs along the way.

Our trip will be more luxurious. Our car is comfortable and we have air conditioning for the hot stretches of highway. It is a route we’ve traveled many times before and it will feel good to be heading home.

Over the years, I am sure that I have used stories of leaving camp many times in sermons on the transfiguration. We have mountaintop experiences, but they do not last all of our lives. The time comes for us to return to our everyday existence. We leave camp, knowing that it will be difficult to explain all of the ways the time at camp has impacted our lives. We know it will be hard to tell the story. You can’t hang onto those mountain top experiences. The day comes when it is time to pack up and head home.

We are much older and we may be a bit wiser now than we were all of those years ago. We’ve been to camp a lot of times. We’ve gone through plenty of friendship circles and other exercises in saying good bye. There is much at home to beckon us. We are eager to see our grandchildren and to get back to our home church. We are looking forward to being in worship with our congregation tomorrow.

Part of life is learning to say good bye. It is also an important part of living in community. In our church, people are always coming and going. New members are welcomed with great joy and special ceremony. Babies are born and grow up. Youth go off to college and other life adventures. There are marriages and divorces and family blending. Some of our members reach the ends of their lives and we acknowledge their passing with funeral services. Families move from our community to another. We wish them well and we pray that they will find a new community that loves and values them as much as we do. Living in community means that we need to develop our skills at saying good bye.

The good bye after camp isn’t the hardest kind of good bye that we have faced. Coming to the end of 25 years of serving a congregation and moving from our home in Rapid City was a challenging good bye for us. There were plenty of tears. There is much that we miss, especially the people. As their lives unfold and we hear the news, we often wish we were there to share their journey. But it was the right thing for us to move on and to open the possibility of new leadership and new directions for the congregation. In many ways they and us are still adjusting to the change. They continue to search for just the right new pastor to lead the congregation. We continue to wrestle with our role in a new community. Life is about saying hello and good bye.

It has been a good week. We have enjoyed being at camp. There were lots of fun adventures. We’ve made some new friends. We’ve learned a few new songs. Now we are given the opportunity for another spiritual practice - the practice of taking leave.

Every human life faces grief. Learning to say good bye is practice for the good byes that lie ahead for us. Like the other lessons of camp, it is a blessing.


Rev. George Stickney was the Conference Minister of the Montana Conference of Congregational Churches in the early 1950’s when my parents first came to Big Timber to settle. George’s son Edward married Jessica. Jessica was the song leader at several of the camps we attended when we were children. She was an energetic song leader with a great sense of humor and a flair that I associated with camp songs. Ed and Jess were roughly the age of our parents and their oldest child, Claudia, was just a year younger than I. As we grew into adulthood, Claudia was one of the song leaders at many of our camps. I picked up the tradition as well and often led songs for various camps. One of the campers who participated in the years that we were camp managers was a preacher’s son named John Eisenhauer. He grew up and married a minister who has served in the Pacific Northwest Conference. He and his wife have been leading family camps at N-Sid-Sen for years. So I can trace the lineage of camp songs in the lives of people I have personally known not only through out the span of my life in years, but also the places of my life.

Each morning at this camp there is a tradition of singing a song at 8:30, at the end of breakfast:

Every morning about half past eight, I go oodle loodle loo to Georgie.
Just to let him know I’m at the gate, I go oodle loodle loo to Georgie.
Don’t have to knock. Don’t have to ring. All I gotta do is sing.
And then he throws up the window, pops out his head
And goes oodle loodle loo to me!

That song has been a part of church camp for all of my life. I don’t know the origins of the song. I doubt that the Georgie of the song is Rev. George Stickney. But I know the song was part of the tradition way back when my parents were young adults bringing their children to family camp for the first times. I don’t even know if the way the song got to this camp was by way of the people I have known. It is possible that others attended camps in both locations and shared songs back and forth.

What I do know is that there is enough about family camp at N-Sid-Sen to make it seem familiar to me. I know a lot of the silly songs. I understand how traditions become cherished. I recognize the energy and the flow of the camp experience.

Of course there is much that has changed.

When my parents first went to church camp, the experience was quite primitive. Electricity in the camp was from a generator that was turned off overnight and it didn’t support much more than a few light bulbs. Campers used pit toilets. There was a shower house where hot water was available only in the evening. There was no telephone within 20 miles of the camp. I can remember these things.

When I was a young adult, the camp had a reliable connection to rural electric lines and a very nice shower house with flush toilets. It still was remote. We still had a few pit toilets. We still didn’t have telephone service.

This camp is a bit more refined. Not all of the camp cabins have their own bathrooms, but there are modern shower and toilet facilities easily available. The cabin where we are staying has showers and bathrooms across the hall from our guest rooms.

There is a phone in the camp office and in the residence of the manager. And there is wi-fi for connecting to the Internet in the main lodge and the dining hall.

Covid changed a few things about camp as well. There are hand washing stations outside of the dining hall and hand sanitization stations at the beginning of the meal lines. Even when we eat out of doors, such as at last night’s barbecue, there are convenient hand-washing stations. There are ways to spread out at the few activities we do inside, such as eating, and most of our programming is done outside where we are easily able to maintain distance from others. Face masks are available and some campers choose to wear them for indoor activities.

Each morning, however, we sing “oodle loodle loo.” It feels very familiar - like I’ve been singing the song all of my life, which I have.

I know that it isn’t the same experience for others, but for me camp is a journey of remembering some of the people who have been important in my faith formation. After George Stickney was Conference Minister in Montana, Wilbur Simmons came, he was followed by another George, George Barber, who was conference minister when we managed the camp. We sang “oodle loodle loo” to him a lot. Being at camp makes me remember those pastors, but also many other people. There were lay leaders who generously gave of their time to be camp counselors and directors.

At my age, a fair number of the people i have known have now died. Time passes and none of us is immortal. The memories of those who are no longer living remain, however, and are rekindled by certain events. Church camp is, for me, one of the places where I remember those folks. Placerville, in South Dakota, will always be a place for me to remember Sybil and Bill Pogany. Younger campers won’t remember the same people, but they are forming relationships that will last all of their lives. They’ll remember the current managers and directors and counselors in ways that are similar to the memories I have.

I know that I am an old man who is prone to being sentimental. But I don’t mind being a sentimental old fool. I can sing with enthusiasm to Georgie each morning and I can imagine that long after I have gone, there will still be campers singing, “oodle loodle loo!”



I think that each campsite we have had the privilege to visit has wrestled with questions of what it means to be stewards of such wonderful pieces of property. In each case, the camp site was acquired and much of the development of the site was done by prior generations. We have inherited these properties from previous generations of church members who were committed to the process of outdoor ministries as part of faith formation for the church. Their vision and wisdom was combined with sacrifice and struggle to make these places of hospitality and welcome as well as places for the development of character and the experience of the power of God’s ongoing creation.

Over the years, however, these places have become valuable, and, in many cases, the use by the churches is quite light. Not all members of contemporary congregations take advantage of the ministries of the camps. In fact, in most Conferences of the United Church of Christ those who have participated in camps is a minority. When viewed as an asset on a balance sheet, a camp can be seen as a huge part of the conference. In most cases, where the camp is on deeded land, it constitutes the largest asset of the conference. Of course some camp sites are not owned, they are, in contrast, leased. Generally the leases are with the federal government, most of the time with the USDA Forest Service.

N-Sid-Sen is the largest piece of undeveloped lakefront property on Lake Coeur d’Alene. There are many million dollar homes along the stores of this beautiful alpine lake. The camp receives inquiries about ownership and possible sale of the property on a regular basis. There are cash customers who would line up and join the bidding were such a place come onto the market. As a result, it is difficult to place a cash value on the real estate involved. It would not be a small number.

But ownership of land is more than a matter of dollars and cents for God’s faithful people. We believe we are called to be stewards of the land. We are obligated to care for the land and to provide access to those who otherwise might be excluded from its use. The reality is that if the Conference were to sell this piece of property, it would become unavailable for use by people of modest means. We do not believe that only the rich should have access to the glories of God’s creation. It should not be a privilege for only a few to spend time in such a beautiful place. Furthermore, the land is the largest piece of undeveloped lake front precisely because generations of wise stewards have chosen not to overdevelop the property. There are cabins for campers. There are a few retreat spaces with convenient bathrooms and showers. There is a modern dining hall and a large lodge. And there is a cove with a swimming area and a boat launch for canoes, kayaks, row boats and a sailboat. The camp has made the entrance of this cove available for the local volunteer fire department to construct a boat house and docks. The docks are available to the camp. The boat house houses a fire boat that is used to protect the homes and other buildings along the lakeshore.

The rest of the property is truly undeveloped. Aside from a few walking trails, it is the way it had been for many generations. The concept that this land could be owned is relatively recent in the history of the world. From time immemorial, the indigenous tribes who have lived near the stores of this lake did not see the space as something that could be owned. It was, rather, visited for hunting and ceremony. The name of this camp, N-Sid-Sen, is a transliteration of an indigenous name for this place. It translates roughly as, “the place where when you lie down, you wake up inspired.” It is a fitting name for this place. The indigenous concept that land cannot be owned is probably very accurate when it comes to this special place. But we live in a time of deeds and controlled access to property. People buy title to pieces of property and they treat it as their exclusive tract of land, denying others access. So in this time, it makes sense for the ownership of some property to be communal. One example of a group of people owning property is federal lands. The lands of the Forest Service, the Parks Service, and the Bureau of Land Management belong to all of us as citizens of this country. We all own those pieces of property and we all have the right to use the property with certain restrictions and rules. Another example of communal ownership is the ownership of areas of land by church conferences and other organizations, such as the scouts or YMCA. These private, nonprofit organizations become stewards of the land and try to practice hospitality that gives access to many.

Camps are excellent places for the teaching of Creation Care, Stewardship, and Climate Justice. Their value to future generations is impossible to estimate, but as more and more land becomes highly developed, these less developed spaces gain unique value. Simply conserving the land is a mission that may justify ownership even if the properties are lightly used. Just having properties that are lightly used is something that we ought not to deny future generations. Part of the stewardship of these special places means that we need to be willing to sacrifices as have previous generations in order to preserve the land for those who come after us.

Those of us who are interested in church camping all know stories of campsites that were sold and are no longer available for use as church camps. Each of these stories is one of loss and sadness. Most of them include stories of the overdevelopment of the property, covering the land with mansions for the use of only the wealthiest of our country to use.

It is good for the church to wrestle with these issues. Our decisions have dramatic effects. Sometimes it is best to simply delay such decisions as we consider how best to pass on these places to future generations.

Hump day

I used to be pretty good at skipping rocks. I grew up next to a river, which is a very good place to find small stones that are flat and rounded by the water. A gravel beach, however, is also a good place to find such stones. Last evening, as part of a group of fun games at camp there was a rock skipping contest. I didn’t win. I got in a couple of pretty good skips, but there was a boy who was a natural and whose throws were much more powerful than mine.

There were other fun contests as well, such as a banana relay race. I didn’t compete in that one. There was a canoe swamping race to see which team could completely swamp their canoe first by splashing water into the boat with their hands, a process that pretty much gets all of the members of the team wet. I didn’t participate in that one, either.

I did take part in the biggest splash contest, which I won, and the smallest splash contest, which I did not win.

It was all fun and part of the joy of a family camp. In most of the contests, the smallest and youngest campers were competing right alongside the adults. To be fair there was an “under 12” contest for biggest and smallest splash. Body mass and water displacement are factors in the size of a slash a person can make.

When I was a camp director, we often spoke of Wednesday as “hump day.” If you get past the Wednesday hump, it is down hill to the end of camp. This was in part due to the simple fact that we adults had a bit more endurance than youth campers. They would have more energy and push the limits of our sleep needs in the early part of the camp, but they would tire and we would have more energy in the last half of the camp. The phenomenon also had to do with the balance between the energy of campers being new to the space and the need to form community at the beginning of the week, and the development of a few routines by mid-week which played out as the week went on.

In those terms, today is “hump day” for this camp. As a camper, however, I’m not having any sense of that phenomenon. The leaders of this camp are doing a wonderful job. The songs are fun, with just the right amount of silliness and seriousness. The program is light, with lots of free time and options. The meals are generous and flavorful and served at appropriate times. The schedule has play time and free time and, of course, a quiet hour for naps.

I do have a bit of work that needs to be done on the side. I need to publish my journal from the dining hall, so I slip out onto the deck just before breakfast and get my work done. Connecting to the Internet brings up my email, some of which needs to be responded to because people expect quick responses to email. And there are activities and programs at church that go on despite the fact that we are at camp.

Our version of what used to be called vacation bible school will be in a couple of weeks. We’re hosting a day camp called “Creation Care Camp,” and there are lots of details involved in organizing volunteers and putting the finishing touches on programs for that. The business of the church goes on when we are present and when we are absent. However, we are responsible for less of the day to day leadership in our position at this church. It is part of being semi-retired. There are others who are dealing with getting out worship bulletins, news emails, and other details of church life.

At one point in the conversation yesterday, people were sharing some of their hopes and expectations for the week. The conversation quickly turned to a list of the things people like best about camp. For some a week of having someone else do the meal planning, grocery shopping, cooking and dishes is a real treat. For others, disconnecting from phones and computers is a blessings. All of us are moved by the beauty of this place. The sunrises and sunsets over the lake are spectacular. The high country has a character that is different from our usual places. The trees and wildflowers, birds and butterflies make us glad to be out of doors. Camp is a special experience for people for many different reasons.

It is a process of drawing closer to God. In our everyday lives, we sometimes make distinctions between our physical existence and our spiritual lives. At camp it is more natural to live the connections between spirit and substance. We speak of our camps as thin spaces, where the distinction between heaven and earth draws thin. Of course our faith and the experiences of generations of faithful people assure us that God is present in every place we go. Sometimes, however, we need to be reminded of that presence. Camp makes that presence somehow more obvious to us.

Because I am responsible for leading programs for the youngest children at camp, I am not participating in the conversations of adults. I miss the opportunities to study bible together, to discuss theology and to grow in faith by hearing of the experiences of others. On the other hand, young children are excellent teachers of faith and our experiences are no less meaningful than those of the adults. It is a good assignment for me to be thinking of games and activities that demonstrate God’s love and care for people of all ages. Blowing soap bubbles is an opportunity to speak of spirit and wind. Playing games is an invitation to teach about forming community. Picking up toys together at the end of our program time reminds us of how at camp everyone pitches in to make the work light.

It is a good week, and we’ve still got most of it ahead of us. I’ve no need to endure hump day. I’ll simply enjoy it.

Looking up


Perhaps I have a special eye for the sky because I grew up with parents who were pilots. I remember, from a very early age, looking up at passing airplanes and learning to distinguish which ones were my father returning from a trip. Even when there were no airplanes in the sky, we were always looking up there. My parents looked to the sky to get a sense of the coming weather and they taught us to identify different clouds and recognize how the upper atmosphere winds are not always going the same speed, or even the same direction as the surface winds.

My sister once had two dogs at the same time. The Labrador seemed to notice every small creature that was on the ground. She often identified and chased rabbits before we saw them. She paid attention to all of the little creatures such as mice and even some of the insects. The only time she was interested in birds was when they were on the ground. She took great delight in running into a flock of seagulls and sending them flying. But she could ignore them once they were airborne. She paid no attention to the crows who raised a ruckus in the trees. Even a squirrel which she loved to chase seemed to lose interest to her if it went too high in the tree. The Spaniel was some kind of a natural bird dog. She barked at every type of bird, including the swallows darting after mosquitoes in the evening. She seemed to be almost oblivious to a rabbit darting out from under a bush. At least she seldom gave chase. It was a chaos and a bit of fascination to walk those two dogs at the same time because one would pull at the leash in one direction, while the other was intent on different prey.

In that sense, I guess, I’m a bit more like the Spaniel than the Labrador. I’m always looking up. Yesterday a float plane made many trips across the sky. It must have been shuttling folks to a lodge somewhere on the southern end of the lake and the Interstate highway, perhaps near the town of Coeur d’Alene. Before I even saw the airplane, I knew what kind of plane it was, what engine it had and even that its propellor had two blades, all from the sound it made. I reported the details to someone with whom I was walking and received the comment, “You’re showing off.” I wasn’t. I just notice airplanes.

As someone who is always looking up, yesterday was a banner day. Because we are in the high country, surrounded by mountains that rise thousands of feet above our location, it takes a while for the sunlight to come into the valley. The sunset comes a bit earlier as well because the sun disappears beyond the mountains on the horizon. This is a big contrast to where we now live, because there we look out across the ocean, so there is nothing taller than we are where the sun disappears from view. So I have the sensation of the days being shorter here than they are at home because of the difference of the time of sundown.

I began my day by putting into the water in my canoe with plenty of light to see what I was doing but before the sun had appeared over the horizon. The lake was quiet and calm, and I was in no mood for vigorous exercise. Instead, I simply paddled slowly along the shoreline, looking at the sky and watching the reflections in the water. I carry a camera when I paddle, but I wasn’t thinking much about the camera. Instead, I focused on the sky and its reflection in the water.

I had a camp song in my head as I paddled.

“God has created a new day
Silver and green and gold.
Live that the sunset may find us
worthy God’s gifts to hold.”

Silver and green and gold were indeed dominant colors, despite the blue of the sky and the water. It doesn’t come through well in the photographs. I was just enjoying the experience too much to fiddle with camera settings and color balance and other details of photography.

In the evening, I saw the sunset through the trees and grabbed a camera before heading down to the lakeshore for campfire. The high country is experiencing another year of drought, so we gathered around a homemade flameless fire made of colored paper and electric candles because of the ban on all fires in this district. We didn’t need a fire for heat. The day had been plenty warm and we were grateful for the breeze blowing in from the lake. And we didn’t need the fire for a visual element in our gathering, either. The clouds on the horizon provided a brilliant reflective background for a glorious sunset.

Glorious is just the right word for the light show we were able to watch. As the seconds ticked by, the colors in the sky turned from pink to orange to purple. Once again, the camera does not do justice to what we were seeing with our eyes. Looking back at the pictures I did take, however, is a good reminder of the experience. It was one of those “you had to have been there” moments, but the pictures provide a bit of an index to the story as I think of it this morning.

If you read my journal yesterday, you might be interested to know that the visitor that was in the room as I wrote, has gone elsewhere. A few moments after dark last night with all of the lights on inside the room and all of the doors open to the dark outside and the bat was ready to return to the business of chasing mosquitoes in the night sky. We sat on the deck and watched others feeding on the flying insects that were invisible to us in the night sky. Even after dark, I was still looking up. I went to sleep dreaming of the beauty of spacious skies.

How lucky we are to be in this place and to behold such glory.

First night at camp

It is easy to see why generations of campers have fallen in love with N-Sid-Sen. It is an absolutely gorgeous piece of property. There is a long stretch of shoreline, with a very protected cove for swimming. The local volunteer fire department has a boathouse with their fireboat next to that cove, and they have put in a dock which is shared with the camp. The property is forested, primarily with pine and fir trees. The cabins have been updated. Some have bath facilities in them, others have a bath house nearby. There is a large lodge, a dining hall and an outdoor pavilion with a roof and open sides. Across the state highway from the main camp is a large undeveloped area with 3 miles of hiking trails.

There are a few roads and trails in the main part of camp, all of which are laid out in circles, so you can find your way by continuing on your walk.

Being a lifelong church camper, there are parts of camp that feel very familiar to me. We unloaded our things from our car and then parked it in a common parking area near the camp entrance. The camp is set up for walking. Those who need assistance with mobility getting around camp have access to a golf cart, but the rest of us walk. It is part of the process of slowing down and simplifying life.

At least for our cell phone company, there is no signal in camp. We did find a place with a very weak signal, but we won’t be receiving the nearly constant flow of pictures and messages until we leave camp. The camp does have an internet connection and wi-fi is available in one of the buildings, but I won’t have access to the wi-fi at the time I am used to publishing my journal. I’ll connect to the Internet and publish my journal between 7 and 8 am on most days. I’ll have to see how it goes. I have a week to develop my routine before it will be time to head back home.

I’ve forgotten how much the cell phone is a part of my daily life these days. I realized that I had not left any other contact number with our children when I headed out for camp. Last night, I carried my computer down to the place where there is wi-fi and managed to send an email to our children with the camp’s phone number in case of emergencies.

We used to accept even more isolation at camp. When we were growing up, and in the years when we managed Camp Mimanagish, there was no telephone service in our camp. An emergency message from the camp had to be delivered by driving more than 20 miles to the nearest telephone. An emergency message to someone at the camp was delivered by a Sheriff’s deputy who drove more that 40 miles to deliver the message. We didn’t have any emergencies demanding that type of communication during the time that we were managers. I made one emergency trip to town with a camper who had an allergic reaction to a bee sting. All of the rest of the things that happened at camp were things that we were able to handle. We spent the entire summer without access to telephone in an era before the Internet. We got our news from picking up a newspaper once a week when we made a trip to town for groceries.

Our current mode of constant connection through our cell phones and computers is not the only way to live. Next time I come to camp, I’ll d a little bit better job of disconnecting and plan for the simple joy of simply being in a beautiful place without the need for all of the communication. However, for this trip, I didn’t plan and I have a fair amount of communication that is needed in order to keep things moving with the rest of my life. I’ll be checking my email a couple of times each day to keep the work from piling up too deep before I get back to home and office in a week.

I’m doing my usual trick of writing in the wee hours of the morning. I got up from bed and came into a room in the common area of the lodge where we are staying. As I write, there is a bat that somehow got into the building. It is flying around in the rafters overhead. If this were my home, I would feel a need to solve the problem of the bat that got indoors, but switched into my camp mode, I realize that the creature is doing no harm at present and tomorrow during daylight hours there will be time to try to figure out how the bat got into the building and to escort it to an outdoor space, if needed. It is possible that the creature is confused by lights that are normally not turned on. It is also possible that it has been coming and going from the rafters in this building for some time. It poses no danger to me.

Living with the other creatures of this planet has been a part of human existence since time immemorial. We have developed ways of creating places for ourselves that keep most of the critters outside and having them come inside seems like a bit of a threat. I’m glad that the place where we are sleeping is not a place where the bat can get. And I’m glad that the creatures that can get into this building are small like the bat. I would prefer not to be surprised by a raccoon or a bear, but I’m not worried about that.

I’m hoping to see deer in the morning as I get to know a bit more about this special place. Camp is about the community. We eat together, sing together, worship together, and learn together. But camp is also about the space and about being closer to the natural world. I guess living without a cell phone signal with a bat flying overhead is just part of the process. It’s going to work out just fine, I’m sure.

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