Speaking of dying

Yesterday, as part of our congregation’s All Saints Celebration, we dedicated a memorial garden at our church. It was a rainy day and the planned outdoor gathering was moved inside and incorporated into the worship service before the closing hymn and benediction. As a newcomer to the church, I don’t know all of the background on the memorial garden. It is a beautiful area with a solid stone bench, an engraved stone, plenty of shade and careful landscaping. At the dedication it was explained that the garden is a place where cremains can be scattered, with an area of wood compost that will be maintained in perpetuity so that there will always be a place where more ashes can be added. There are no markers with specific information on those whose remains have been scattered there, but there is a plaque in the church to which names can be added in years to come.

The dedication and the All Saint’s Celebration created discussion for a small group that I host following worship. One participant told of the church where she grew up that had a cemetery. In that part of the country, church cemeteries are the norm and she grew up with the impression that all people were buried in church cemeteries, including those who had not participated in churches during their lives. Another reported of a cemetery where some plots were designated “perpetual care” while others were not. It isn’t completely clear what made the distinction, but it is thought that the perpetual care plots probably cost more. The discussion ranged from community to family traditions about death and the memory of loved ones. Some participants had used the resources of ancestry.com to trace details about their families, based upon public records such as death certificates.

I am interested in conversations about customs surrounding death in part because death is a topic that is often avoided. In my years as a law enforcement chaplain, I had a lot of conversations about death with those who had witnessed trauma, but almost all of those conversations were about the death of others. It is a rare experience to have a conversation with someone about their own death unless an illness or other event causes an increased awareness of mortality. I know from spending time with law enforcement officers that they do think of their own deaths from time to time, but it is very rare to hear them talk about death as a personal reality. They speak of the deaths of others, but are not quick to talk about the simple reality that we are all mortal.

I recognize the same tendencies in myself. I have made dozens of death notifications to family members. I have supported families who have lost loved ones to suicide. I have facilitated support groups. I have gone with coroners on death investigations. I have received coroners’ training about investigation procedures. I have helped zip up body bags. I have sat with deceased people in hospital rooms. I have been present at the death of several people. My life’s experience has brought me face to face with the reality of death on numerous occasions. But I don’t often think or speak of my own death. Of course I know that I will one day die. But I don’t have desire to know the details of that moment.

Talk of dying often brings up bucket lists. People have a sense that there are certain things that they want to do before they die. There have been several movies and stories about people who, upon receiving a diagnosis of a fatal illness, make all kinds of changes in their priorities. They pursue dangerous adventures and have experiences that they otherwise would not have had. Some become careless with financial management. Others maintain a specific list of things they want to accomplish or experience before they die. I don’t have a bucket list of which I am aware. I have been very fortunate to have a wide variety of experiences in my life. I have the luxury of living close to family and have been blessed with wonderfully supportive church communities. I know that my family will be loved and cared for when I die. I also know that there is no certain way of knowing in what order we will die.

There will be things about my death that will surprise me. I don’t know the details. I can make a few plans. We have wills and we intend to have new wills drawn up soon because state laws vary and we now live in a different state than when our wills were created. We also are at a different phase of our lives with a different number of grandchildren, so an update is in order. Because illness often precedes death, we have had careful conversations about end of life decisions and have been careful to get medical permissions and durable powers of attorney for health care decisions in place. I do not, however, want to tie the hands of my loved ones by getting too specific with directions that might encumber them. I don’t mind their knowing my favorite scriptures and hymns as a guide to planning a memorial, but I don’t want to leave behind obligations. I have told them my feelings about my remains after I die, but I have also told them that I want them to be free to make decisions. There are so many options available these days. Is aquamation preferable to cremation? Should remains be scattered or buried? Is the memorial garden preferable to a wilderness location? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I trust my loved ones to make good decisions. I know of people whose remains have been blasted in canons and incorporated into fireworks. I’m not excited about some of those possibilities and I’d prefer a low-budget option, but I’m not going to eliminate options from my family’s consideration.

I don’t think that I am avoiding talk about death, but I don’t feel a special pressure to make it my only thought. There is so much about living that engages and interests me that I have no lack of ideas to ponder or topics for conversation. It is, however, good to have the opportunity to talk with others. The dedication of a memorial garden and the observance of all saints’s day are such opportunities. I’m grateful for them.

When I was a child

There was a discussion last night at our house about Halloween. Last year we had just moved into this house when Halloween came and our son and his family came over to our house for supper followed by the children going trick or treat in our neighborhood. They live on a farm and it is difficult to get to the neighbors’ houses without driving. But our neighborhood is filled with houses close to one another, streets with sidewalks, and lots and lots of children. We were surprised by the number of children who came to our door seeking treats. It was fun. So this year, we’ve invited not only our son’s family, but another family whose children have become friends with our grandchildren. The time of the gathering isn’t a problem for us. We don’t have other meetings on the fifth Monday of the month. But it is a big deal for the children especially for the eleven-year-old, who wants to maximize the amount of time he has for going door to door collecting sweet treats.

The conversation left me thinking about how it was when I was a child. I don’t have a clear memory. Of course, Halloween must have landed on a school night most of the time. I do remember that we weren’t allowed to go out to visit the neighbors in our costumes until it got dark. Halloween sunset in the town where I grew up is about 15 minutes later than it is here where we are farther north, but it was around 6 pm. I think that meant that we had an early supper on Halloween. Supper wasn’t the big meal in the house where I grew up. Our noon meal with the big meal and we had lighter fare for supper, so there might have been a special supper. I don’t really remember.

We didn’t go out after supper much in our household. Getting to bed early to be ready for school the next day was important. And there usually was a bit of homework, a few chores, and other activities at our house. I’m pretty sure that we were allowed to be out a bit later than usual on Halloween, but I’m also pretty sure that we were home by eight pm. That left a couple of hours to collect treats, which would have been enough time to visit a lot of homes in my home town.

I’m thinking our grandchildren will have a similar amount of time. But that is quite a bit less than some children will have. Friday was the carnival at our grandchildren’s school. There were lots of candy treats available.

Yesterday there was a “Halloween on the Birm” event along the beach. Susan and I walked the mile and a quarter path out and back. It took us nearly an hour because of all of the people we were doing and all of the stands that were set up to hand out treats to children in costume. There was a special program at the library, but the main focus for the children was getting candy treats from all of the places set up for them. A child could have gone away from that event with their treat bag full.

Then today, there will be a “Trunk or Treat” event in the parking lot at our church. There will be more than a dozen cars with decorated trunks and treats available for children. Our grandchildren will probably get to make an appearance at that event in their costumes and collect a few treats. There will be refreshments for adults as well.

Judging from the number of adults we saw yesterday who were dressed up in costumes, there are plenty of parents for whom Halloween is a big deal. They might allow their children to attend several events where there is lots of candy.

By the time Halloween comes tomorrow, there will be quite a few children who have been living on a sugar high for several days. Something tells me Tuesday will be a particularly challenging day for teachers.

Maybe it is just growing older, but it seems to me that Halloween is a bigger deal these days than it was when I was a kid. I don’t remember wearing our costumes for more than just one evening. And we didn’t get treats from multiple events. I know that Halloween parties and trunk or treat events increased along with increasing awareness of child abuse a few decades ago. The increased involvement of adults, the intense decorating of homes and the expansion of adult costumes, however, seems to be even more recent.

Among the conversations at our house last night was a chat that began with a few comments about our antique clocks. Susan’s grandmother lived to be 100 years old and it has been 25 or more years since she died. We have a portrait of her as a baby that the kids were looking at and one of our clocks was purchased at a farm auction by her father. Somehow in the midst of the conversation, our eight-year-old granddaughter started imitating me, saying, “When I was a kid . . .” She came up with several zingers: “When I was a kid we had digital watches that displayed numbers.” “When I was a kid, we had a car that took gasoline.” “When I was a kid we had to walk all the way up the driveway after we got off the school bus.” She had us giggling.

It is interesting to speculate about what our grandchildren will remember about their school years when they become adults. I wonder if Halloween will continue to be a big deal in their lives.

Lest year when Halloween landed on a Sunday, there was talk among the church staff about whether or not people would wear costumes to church. We were not meeting in person for worship at the time, so only the church staff would be present in the sanctuary. I was tempted to quote 1 Corinthians to my colleagues: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” I’m glad I refrained. It might have just given them another example of how old I’ve become.

I don’t mind growing old. I just don’t want to become a cranky old man who complains all the time. I think I’ll try not to tell too many stories tomorrow evening.

School carnival

We went to the fall carnival at our grandchildren’s school last evening. I think it has probably been 30 years since I went to a school carnival, but it was immediately familiar to me. There was a raffle for baskets of goodies in the school gym. Classrooms had been cleared for games like ring toss, plinko, bean bag toss, and more. A box maze was set up in one corridor and there was an especially loud game where a pyramid of tin cans was collapsed by throwing bean bags in another. There wasn’t a cake walk, but the same rules were applied to a “junk food walk” where bags of candy and chips were offered as prizes. A volunteer spent the evening gathering cotton candy onto paper cones and there was a long line for that confection. There were excited children running in every direction, fueled by more sugar in one evening than their parents usually allow in a week.

I thought that it was probably age-related hearing loss that was making my head ring until I noticed that my kindergarten-aged granddaughter was standing in line with her hands held over her ears. It was pretty loud at the school. I’m guessing that the teachers noticed that it was considerable louder than a typical school day.

Standing in line, I had a chance to read the plaque that had been placed on the building following its most recent remodel. The small town once had an elementary school and a high school on that campus. After consolidation with a nearby school district, the building was remodeled into an elementary school and a covered outdoor play area was added. The gym that once had been a separate building between the two classroom buildings was connected to both with new offices and a library added. Most interesting on the plaque for me was the dates. The reason the school felt so familiar to me is that the last major remodel of the buildings occurred just before our children were born. The reason it looked like the school our kids attended is that it is of the same era. An entire generation has gone by and the district is struggling to maintain a building that keeps getting older and older.

Our next door neighbor to the east is an elementary gym teacher. He doesn’t teach at the school our grandkids attend. However, the school where he does teach is not far from our church and we drive by it on our way to the church. That school is in its first school year in a brand-new building. One of the last phases of the construction was the demolition of the old school building and the construction of a new playground in its place. The new school stands behind where the old one was located. We haven’t toured the interior of the new school yet, but The exterior of the building is designed to look a lot different from the standard institutional brick buildings where we and our children attended school.

There is nothing new about school districts making do with older buildings. The elementary school I attended added a classroom wing just before I began school. There have been no additions to the building since. My guess is that the classrooms are just a bit smaller than when I attended because of all of the layers of paint they have accumulated in the decades since. I haven’t been in that building for a very long time, but I guess that there have been some upgrades. Perhaps the old boiler has been replaced with something a bit more efficient. I’m guessing that the floor tiles have been covered with some different flooring.

Finding money for new school buildings is a challenge for any school district. Finding money for classroom essentials is a challenge. I’m not sure of the details, but I suspect that the proceeds from last night’s carnival went towards supplies that aren’t covered in the school district budget. The PTA volunteers seemed familiar and I know where the proceeds of our PTA were invested when I was active in the organization when our kids were in school.

The main purpose of a PTA carnival is not, however, fund-raising. It is community-building. On that score, I noticed that we weren’t the only grandparents following our grandchildren around their school. There were plenty of parents in attendance, but there also were a number of children whose grandparents were with them. Perhaps like our family the parents were busy at work, getting a meal on the table, caring for other children, or just sitting down and taking a load off of tired feet at the end of a long week while the grandparents braved the crowd of sugar-energized children to follow the children through the school carnival.

Our grandchildren emerged from the carnival with goodie bags filled with trinkets, pencils, gum, and candy. It is a foretaste of Monday evening when trick or treat will enable them to bring home far more candy than is usually present in their house. We noticed a few of the children and even some of the adults at the school carnival were wearing halloween costumes, though we didn’t feel the need to do so and the majority of those attending hadn’t dressed up in costumes.

Our grandson no longer attends that school. He has moved on to middle school and attends school a few miles down the road in a larger town. He enjoyed seeing a few of his old friends at the carnival, and his presence reminded us of how short the years of elementary school really are. Six years - Kindergarten through 5th grand and children move on to other adventures. Even though we have an infant grandson who is not yet a year old, all of our grandchildren will be through elementary school a decade from now.

Perhaps, with a bit of luck, their parents will one day get to attend a school carnival with their grandchildren. I recommend it. A bit of hearing protection may be in order, however.

Talking with strangers

There are moments in my life when I experience deep joy just being with our children. Our daughter has become a world traveler. In her adult life we have been able to visit her at her homes in England, Missouri, Japan and South Carolina. Missouri and South Carolina might not seem like exotic destinations to most folks, but the truth is that I grew up and have lived my life in northern states. The region of the United States where I have traveled the least is the south. I make a point of stopping at Waffle House restaurants when we travel in that area, but I didn’t even know they existed until our children were grown and I still can’t pronounce common words the way that folks do down there. We laugh about the time Susan tried to order a pecan waffle. After several attempts, the waitress finally said, “Oh, honey, you mean a pee can waffle.” To our ears it was as if she were saying two different words and the end of the name didn’t have the familiar “ah” sound at all. I barely recognize my name when it is said with a deep south pronunciation as if it had two syllables. Our daughter has learned to go to new places and meet new people with great confidence and it makes me proud to be with her as my guide when I visit new places.

Being with our son when he goes through a drive-through always makes me smile. Neither of us are much for spending the price of coffee in specialty coffee houses, but when we are together, we often indulge in the treat. When he is driving and we go through the drive through, he always strikes up a conversation with the people working in the shop. When they ask, “How’s your day going?” he has a response that goes way beyond “OK,” or “Pretty Good.” He’ll say something like, “Amazing, and you are about to make it better!”

I’ve had a few opportunities to be with our son at work and I love to watch him interact with people he has never met. He probably learned a bit about working a crowd from me. When we moved from one congregation to another, I had to push myself out of my comfort zone and go around the fellowship hall introducing myself to all of the folks there. Our son is much better at that task than I. He reminds me of my father, who loved meeting new people and always tried to strike up conversations with strangers.

One of the reasons that I am so pleased with our children’s ability to meet new people is that they were born in 1981 and 1983. Young children in the 80’s were taught about “stranger danger.” There were public service campaigns about teaching children not to speak to strangers. Police officers, teachers, parents, religious leaders, politicians, media personalities, and child welfare organizations all worked together to spread the message that talking with a stranger put children at risk. I’m sure that the campaign had some of its origins in traumatic experiences that someone had with strangers, but I knew at the time that the focus on strangers actually put children at risk. The overwhelming majority of sexual and violent crimes against people of all ages are committed by people known to the victim. Cases where a child has been abducted by someone unknown to them are just 1% of the missing children cases reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in the US. That’s right. People we know are far more dangerous than strangers. In the case of child abduction, 99% of abductions are done by someone who is not a stranger. The public campaign created isolation and distrust, but didn’t improve safety.

We tried to teach our children that there are strangers that you can trust. Uniformed law enforcement officers and firefighters will help children who are lost or need other kinds of help. Other children are worth getting to know and the parents who accompany them are people who care about children. Mothers with children are excellent sources of help in times of trouble for children.

Dietlind Stolle, of McGill University in Canada, argues that decades of messaging about stranger danger may have damaged a whole generation’s ability to trust other people. And trust is critical to the functioning of society. Joe Keohane, author of “The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World,” teaches that we miss a lot by being afraid of strangers. Talking to strangers is good for neighborhoods, communities, nations, and the world. You can learn, become a better citizen, a better thinker, and a better person by talking to people you don’t know.

Talking to strangers is critical at this rapidly changing, incredibly complex, and furiously polarized world. Furthermore, it is fun. A study conducted by Gillian Sandstrom of the University of Sussex in the UK and Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia had participants smile and talk to their barista at a coffee shop. Their control group were instructed to make the transaction as efficient as possible. The study participants who interacted when buying their coffee reported feeling a stronger sense of belonging and an improved mood. They were happier than those who were instructed to buy coffee with as little interaction as possible. I witness this truth every time I go out for coffee with our son.

Many people dread talking to strangers, but when they do they come away feeling happier, less lonely, more optimistic, and more empathetic. As the world begins to adjust to the realities of pandemic and as our nation struggles with increasing political polarization, the ability to reach out and speak to a stranger is a critical skill. Human beings are amazingly complex and we are amazingly diverse. Talking to strangers can give us a glimpse into the midst of another. Speaking with people who have different experiences, different perspectives, and different political opinions than our own can open us up to a wiser and more balanced view of life.

For the record, the Center of Missing and Exploited Children, one of the leading exponents of “stranger danger” has stopped using that term. Cal Walsh, an executive with the Center said in 2018, “We’re trying to empower children to make safe and smart decisions, not scar them for life.”

So far, it appears that we avoided that scar for our children.

Monastics and mood-altering substances

In the 26th chapter of the book of Deuteronomy there is an ancient liturgy for the offering of tithes and gifts to God that may be among the most ancient words in the modern Bible. The liturgy instructs worshipers to put some of the first harvest of food, place it in a basket and go to a place of worship, and present it to a priest with specific words: “Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.” The priest will then take the basket and place it before the altar. Then the worshiper is to say, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.”

Many scholars believe these words to be part of a very, very ancient liturgy. They are older than those that appear in the Book of Genesis, including the creation stories with which that book begins. As far as we can tell, the most ancient answer to the question of where we came from is this brief telling of the story of Exodus. It is a way of saying, “This is who we are.”

Jesus of Nazareth, whose followers modern Christians claim to be, would have been familiar with Jewish liturgical texts. He was raised in the traditions of the temple and his parents were observant of religious traditions and participated in religious ceremonies. From an early age, he studied in the temple and learned the ways of the religion from leaders and elders. We who claim the identity of Christian, have accepted that history and tradition. As a Christian who also is a student of Hebrew scripture, I have grown accustomed to telling that story as my own.

From those roots the Christian Church grew. Along the way, there were disagreements about faith and divisions within the church. The part of the church that is my spiritual home has roots in the early church. in 1054, when the Eastern rite split from the Western rite in what has been called “the Great Schism,” the Christians whose legacy I have inherited went with the Roman Church. When the Protestant Reformation began in 1517, our people became part of that split from the Roman Catholic Church. When a group of Puritan refugees from England came to form the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, our church grew out of their movement.

Our story is not only the story of divisions within the church. We also carry the legacy of historic unions of religious groups. In 1931, the Congregationalist united with the Christian churches. After that union, our church continued to be active in ecumenical conversations and in 1943, we adopted the Basis of Union with the Evangelical and Reformed Church which led to the union that formed the United Church of Christ in 1957. I was ordained a minister of the United Church of Christ in 1978.

So if you trace my personal religious history backwards, I come from people who trace our roots back to the ancient texts through Protestant, Catholic, early church and Jewish communities. The early church was a single body longer than it has been divided. We were Catholic longer than we have been Protestant.

So I also claim as part of my spiritual heritage, the history of monasticism that flourished in Medieval Times from the 9th to the 15th centuries. Martin Luther, often credited as the founder of the Protestant movement was part of a monastic community. Monasteries consisted of between 20 and 400 monks or nuns. They were part of the intellectual elite, as most learned to read and write. Their shared life made them into efficient economic units, often growing their own food and in their heyday, many monasteries were rich. Many monasteries produced foodstuffs that were marketed for cash income including cheeses, wines, beer, and brandy. Tradition holds that a Benedictine monk who was also a botanist, Dom Bernardo Vincelli, founded a distillery and began producing liqueur as early as 1510. Benedictine religious members have been in the wine business since even before that date.

The mix of religion and potentially addictive, mood altering substances goes back a long way.

So I guess it shouldn’t surprise me to read an article about the “Sisters of the Valley,” a group of nuns in California who support their community by growing and selling cannabis. Although this group of nuns doe not represent any official religious group, they choose to live a kind of monastic lifestyle that is right on the edge of the law. The Sisters of the Valley grow their plants in Merced County, and their operation is not technically legal. Even though marijuana use is legal in California, California cities and counties have banned various marijuana businesses, including the growing of cannabis. At the sisters’ abbey they produce a variety of hemp-based medicines and salves, including super-strength CBD oil. Prior to the pandemic, their business was growing $1.2 million per year.

I don’t expect cannabis to become connected with contemporary monastic movements. And I have chose a life that is vastly different than that of a monk. Still the stories of monks and nuns producing alcohol and cannabis products are vaguely interesting to me. It would be interesting to know whether producing marijuana products will become a new source of income for religious communities.

Still, I can’t quite imagine a group of nuns harvesting their marijuana plants, taking a bit of their harvest each year, presenting it to a priest and saying as the priest puts the plants before the altar, “A wandering aramean was my father . . .”

Speaking of the weather

Many years ago, when our children were young, we were visiting the Oregon coast and Susan and I said to one another, “It would be fun sometime, to live at the beach for a year just to see what winter is like.” We have now lived at the beach - or at least close enough to walk there each day - and I’m not sure that I really know exactly what the weather at the beach is like. I’ve seen it when the snow came right down to the water. I’ve seen it when the wind is blowing whitecaps on the water. I’ve seen it in the driving rain. I’ve seen it in the sunshine and the fog and even on days when the skies are smoky. But I still feel a bit like a tourist. I don’t really know all that the beach has to offer when it comes to weather.

As we headed off for a walk yesterday, I commented to Susan that there must be a low pressure system offshore. The wind was at our backs as we started toward the beach. An offshore wind isn’t as common as an onshore wind, but the wind blows a lot around here and we’ve seen it come from every direction. As it turned out, I think that there must have been a cold front and the low pressure system was just reaching the beach as we did. By the time we walked down the hill, the wind was nearly calm. When we walked along the beach, I could feel a breeze blowing onto the shore from the sea. The water was nearly calm, with just a few waves on the incoming tide. On our walk back up to our house, we felt the winds swirl and then turn around again and by the time we got back home the wind was at our face as we walked the last little bit.

I know about wind shear from my years as a pilot. The upper level winds don’t always blow the same direction as the winds lower down. When there is a big shift in the direction of upper and lower level winds, there is plenty of turbulence in the area between the two layers. Flying an airplane through wind shear can cause the plane to yaw and turn, sometimes as much as 90 degrees. Yesterday we got to walk right through the wind shear. The wind wasn’t strong enough to blow us around, but it was making the branches on the trees dance. It rained off and on most of the day yesterday so the leaves that had fallen were mostly stuck to the ground. I suspect that had they been dryer they would have blown in circles.

I’m not much of a sailor but I’ve hung around sailors enough to know that they are full of sayings about the wind and the weather. “Red sky in the morning, sailor take warning. Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.” This saying has been around for over 2,000 years. Jesus commented on it. In Matthew’s Gospel it says, “When it is evening, you say, "It will be fair weather; for the sky is red." And in the morning, "It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening." You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times” (Matthew 16:2b - 3). The story is reported slightly differently in Luke, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, "A shower is coming"; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, "There will be scorching heat"; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky; but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (Luke 12:54-56).

Somehow, I find it comforting to read that Jesus talked about the weather with his disciples. One of my beloved professors used to say that he didn’t have time for small talk. He wanted to get right to conversations about meaning and purpose and vocation. I loved the challenges that he put before us, including the challenge of diving right into serious conversation every time we met. Now, as I approach the age that he was when we met, I find that I am not quite the same. I spend considerable time engaged in small talk. Sometimes it takes me quite a while to get around to serious conversation. When I lead a group, I allow for a bit of small talk at the beginning of each session. When I read through the archives of my journal entries, there are way more entries about the weather than I think should be in a serious journal. It seems that I’m often writing about the weather. Perhaps it is a skill I learned from spending seven years among North Dakota farmers. If you walk into any cafe in rural North Dakota (and face it, all of North Dakota is rural, really) you will find people talking about the weather. It doesn’t matter whether it is sunny or snowing, freezing cold or simmering heat, North Dakotans talk about the weather. These are not shallow people. They are educated and they are serious thinkers. It is not difficult to engage them in serious philosophical or theological discussions. But they do talk about the weather a lot.

When I think about the closest friends I have in my life, I realize that I can talk to them about the big things and about the little things. The people with whom I am willing to share my doubts and fears and my most joyous celebrations are also people to whom I like to report the weather and the little things I see as I go on my walks. Susan and I have been married, living together, and sharing our careers for nearly 50 years, and we still find ourselves talking about the weather and the hair color of the clerk in the grocery store. We have talked about the big things and the little things for all of our lives.

So, as the Pacific northwest enters its rainy season and the winds are blowing outside, I’ll probably write about the weather in my journal. After all, I continue to be a disciple of Jesus, and I can quote scripture to prove that Jesus spoke not only of justice and mercy and the meaning of life, but also about the weather.

The most important meeting

For most of my working life, Monday has been my day off. Of course there are all kinds of reasons why a pastor might work on a day off, such as a funeral or a family in need of a call when a death occurs. There are meetings with those for whom Mondays are work days and travel for meetings outside of the local church. Over the years there were plenty of Mondays when I put in a few hours of work. Sometimes, I grew a bit tired when work weeks didn’t have breaks. Sometimes I was frustrated with phone calls that came in on Mondays that could have waited until Tuesday. But most of the time I understood that interruptions were part of the life of a pastor. I also benefitted from a schedule that was more flexible than many other people, including most other professionals. I could leave work to volunteer in the classroom of one of our children. If a family member was ill, I could take time to care for that person. If a day was long, I might sneak home for a nap in the afternoon. It was a good life and the pace fit my personality well.

Now that we are semi-retired, our official half-time job hours are scheduled on Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday. Of course there are plenty of times when we have meetings on Mondays and programs on Saturdays and things that we do on other days when we are not officially working for the church. There is one member of the church with whom I had three scheduled meetings last week. I saw that member face to face all three days that we worked in the office. I spoke on the phone with that same member on tow of the other days of the week. I had a Zoom meeting that included that person on Friday. I exchanged a few text messages with that person on Saturday, meaning that I had engaged in conversation with that person every day of the week. It was someone who was on the committee that hired us. That person knows that we work only half time. That person knows that we don’t come to the office every day. But that person is also one of the most engaged volunteers in the church and is heading up a very important program that will occur in the first week of November. The calls and conversations were respectful. The meetings were necessary to keep the process going forward. That person is generous with their time. An occasional phone call, text message or even meeting is just part of the way of life that I have chosen.

Yesterday was one of my days off. It was also a day filled with meetings, though only one of them was a church meeting. That meeting was not part of my service with this local church. I serve on the board of a national church organization and we had a two-hour meeting yesterday. The other meetings were personal in nature. Retired people have meetings just like working people. We began our day with a meeting with our financial advisor. Since the advisor is in a different time zone, it was an hour earlier here than where the advisor lives. That meant that having the meeting first thing in the morning freed up the rest of the day. After a lifetime of living with limited income and often having very little left for savings, it surprises me that we have a financial advisor. It happens to be a good thing because I’m not the best money manager in the world and meeting with the advisor forces me to be practical. I genuinely need the advice. But I confess that I don’t spend much time worrying about all of the theoretical, “what if” scenarios that come up. Basically, it seems that we have enough to live comfortably and it appears that we will have enough for the rest of our lives. Even with the markets tumbling and grocery prices skyrocketing, we do not need to be worried, if I understood the maze of charts and projections the advisor led us through.

That is a good thing, because the next meeting was with an electrical contractor who is preparing an estimate for a few home improvements we want to make. I suspect that the estimate will not be a small number. There have been times in our lives when we deferred projects like this and it seems like a luxury to be able to consider some modest projects to make our home a bit more comfortable.

I finished up with the contractor in time to make it to my board meeting. I’m not a big fan of meetings and I’m tired of Zoom meetings, but I really enjoy the other people who serve on this board and we do some very good work together. And through the blessing of time zones, the meeting that started at 3 pm in the eastern time zone was over in time for a late lunch here in the Pacific Time Zone. That left an afternoon and evening for fun things like a walk with my wife, a trip to the grocery store, a nice dinner, and a bit of reading. Best of all, there was a late afternoon stop at our son’s place where I got hugs from grandchildren, witnessed our oldest grandson being responsible caring for the chickens, including dealing with a messy situation with grace, and I got a bit of time to just sit in the chair rocking our youngest grandson. The life of the young family is so busy with the parents working so hard, juggling farm chores with childcare and professional careers. It feels like I have the true luxury of a retirement lifestyle when I can just sit and rock the baby while everyone around me is rushing to complete a thousand necessary tasks. The baby is fascinated with my beard, which means he looks me straight in the eyes and I wonder what he is thinking. My beard is too short for him to pull, so his little fingers simply stroke my cheek and make me glad to have him in my arms.

I may sometimes complain about working on my day off, but there are moments that make up for whatever it was I was complaining about. In years to come, I won’t remember the meetings, but I won’t forget the joy of holding the baby. Life is extraordinarily good to me.

The clock

When my mother was in her eighties, she received a clock with a large digital display. They clock has the capacity to pick up a signal from a satellite and maintain up to the second accuracy. The large display shows the time, the day of the week, and the date. Later, when my mother came to live in our home, she brought that clock with her. After she passed away, the clock remained in the same place in our home until we moved nearly a decade after her death. When we moved, I placed the clock on our bookcases in our new home and then when we moved again a year later, the clock was moved once again.

Yesterday we had a conversation about that clock and I reflected that I never look at it. When I want to know what time it is, I generally consult my watch. I also have a cell phone that displays the correct time, as well as a computer. Our house is filled with devices that display the time, including the range and microwave in the kitchen. I occasionally look at those devices, but it never occurs to me to look at that digital clock when I want to know the time.

I think we may try to find a new home for the clock. The reason my mother liked the clock, the large display, might be useful to some other person. I suppose that there is a possibility that one day my eyesight might falter and I would like a clock with a large display, but it is hard for me to imagine such an event. I can read my watch without my glasses, simply by bringing my wrist closer to my face.

There is another reason, however, that I don’t expect that I will ever become attached to that clock. I simply prefer a watch with a face and a dial to a display of digits. My watch is electronic and will display the time in numbers, but I prefer to look at the dial with a second hand that sweeps around the face. I grew up with clocks that worked that way. I remember so well the clocks in our school that all were synchronized. At the top of each hour, the minute hand might move a minute or even a couple of minutes so that all of the clocks in the school would display the same time. I used to watch that clock, wishing for it to move forward a couple of minutes. That would occasionally occur as the clocks weren’t completely accurate and were more likely to be a bit slow than a bit fast.

I learned to tell time from a clock with a face at an early age. I don’t remember when I learned it. I think that only one of our grandchildren knows how to tell time from such a clock. They are used to clocks that display numbers.

For me, a bit of magic has returned to our home that makes it feel like home. On Friday, I brought a large box that has remained packed since we emptied our home in Rapid City from storage into our living room. I unpacked it on Saturday and placed three clocks in three rooms in our house. Each clock needs to be wound in order to work and I immediately wound the one in our study. The ticking of that clock is loud enough to be heard throughout the common areas of our house. I can’t hear it in the bedrooms, but it is a regular sound that I listen to and enjoy when I am in the study, reading or writing. It chimes the hour. The other two mechanical clocks ring on the quarter hour and we have decided to keep them silent for the time being because none of those clocks is accurate enough to get them to synchronize their rings with any consistent basis.

The clock that is in the study is a 24 hour clock. If I don’t wind it each evening around bedtime, it will run down and stop until it is wound and set once again. I like the chore of winding the clock as part of my bedtime routine. I also make sure that the time is set. The first day after I unpacked the clock it ran about 15 minutes fast. I adjusted the pendulum and reset the clock. Last night it was off by about 5 minutes. I made another adjustment of the pendulum. Right now it appears to be ringing right on the hour. I know from experience that I won’t get it adjusted much closer. Any variation less than 5 minutes in 24 hours is as close as that clock will get.

The clock is now in its fourth generation of our family. I’m hoping that one of our grandchildren will one day want to have the clock, but I’m pretty sure that it is something that neither of our children want to have in their homes. Perhaps the chore of winding a clock each evening is a pleasure that doesn’t fit into their busy lives and they will change their minds as they age. I don’t expect it, however. They have their ways of telling what time it is and just don’t need the noise and aggravation of a striking clock in their lives.

The sound of that clock, however, is something that makes our home feel like home to me. I find the sound of its ticking to be just the right reminder of the passage of time. I am delighted to have the sound back in my life and realize how much I missed it with the clocks being packed away for two years. I’m not sure why it took us so long to get to unpacking the clocks. Somehow they weren’t identified as essential when we were in the process of moving. There are lots of thing associated with moving that we didn’t expect. I don’t think we expected to downsize once and then downsize again a year later. I don’t think we anticipated how much energy moving twice in two years would consume.

Whatever the reasons, the clock’s sound is music in my ears and listening to it makes me feel that this house is becoming our home.

Pets and people

When we traveled in Australia, we had the opportunity to see many Sulphur-crested Cockatoos. These large parrots are found in much of Australia in the wild. They are intelligent and a bit noisy and they are popular as pets. Historically, keeping the birds as pets has contributed to the expansion of their territory around the island nation. People kept the birds as pets, traveled to new homes and spread the range of distribution of the birds. The birds adapted to new surroundings and thrived and reproduced in new places.

These iconic Australian birds are long-lived. There are documented cases of the birds living more than eighty years in captivity. That long life span has resulted in a unique type of protection for the birds under Australian law. A person who adopts a Sulphur-crested Cockatoo as a pet must have a plan of care for the bird that extends beyond the life of the original owner. They are required to have a will that provides for the the care of the animal if the owner dies before the bird.

Australians take the care of their pets seriously. Abandoning a pet is an offense in Australia. When a pet owner’s circumstances change and they are no longer able to care for the pet, it is the responsibility of the owner to find a suitable new home for the animal. If an individual abandons an animal on the street or in the country and that abandonment is discovered, the offending person is subject to fines and imprisonment. Penalties also exist for animal cruelty and neglect. The maximum penalty for a person convicted of unreasonable abandonment or release is $41,355 or 1 year in prison. Pets are serious business for Australians.

Here is another bit of trivia I learned about Australian pet laws. Bobbing the tail of a pet dog, including Australian Shepherds, is illegal in Australia. The dogs’ tails are commonly bobbed here in the United States. The tradition came from the use of the dogs to herd cattle. The long tails might be stepped upon by cows as the dogs ran around their feet. Bobbing the tails enabled the dogs to be more effective at getting the cows to move as the rancher desired. The look of the shepherds without their tails became popular and people who keep them as pets often have dogs whose tails have been removed here in the US. That is not the case in Australia, where long tails are the norm.

I recently read an article on the BBC website that documents the struggles of animal shelters in Australia. As the cost of living has soared around the world, due in part of the pandemic and the Ukraine war, food, fuel, and other essentials have risen in price, pinching families whose income has not kept pace. Along with rapid rises in the cost of living are huge rises in the cost of pet care items. The price of pet food and care items increased 12% in Australia in the past year. Similar price increases have occurred around the world. The cost of pet food is up by 10.3% in the United States, 8.8% in the European Union, and 8.4% in the United Kingdom.

Pet owners are literally forced to make a choice between feeding family members and feeding their pets. In Australia there are some animal shelters that are a last resort for pet owners who cannot find suitable homes for their pets. Stories of pet owners in tears bringing their beloved pets to the shelters are common. One story reported by the BBC was of a woman who herself was facing homelessness and had no way to keep her cat.

I frequently see homeless people on the streets of American cities who have pets with them. I admit that I have not thought about how those people obtain food for their pets. A number of years ago we delivered firewood and supplies to homes cut off by a huge blizzard in South Dakota. Among the supplies that I delivered was a large bag of dog food. Messages received from those who could not get out was that they were running out of food for their pets.

Pets are important parts of people’s lives. They can provide emotional support and help prevent severe mental illnesses. A crisis in animal welfare is a projection of a crisis in the welfare of people. Animal rescue groups in many countries around the world are seeing a jump in the number of animals abandoned or brought to shelters as household finances are strained to the breaking point.

For apartment dwellers in the United States in addition to the rapid rise in the cost of pet food and supplies the cost of keeping an animal includes additional housing deposits and often an increase in rent for those who keep pets. Rental prices, including increased deposits and increases for having a pet, have contributed to the squeeze on family finances.

The pets in our family corresponded to our children. We kept pets when our children were living at home, understanding how pets and children are a very good match. Having responsibility for pet care chores is good for children and having a pet as a confidant can help a child to sort our their emotions. After our children moved from our home and their pets died, we did not acquire additional pets and at this time we don’t have any pets. So it isn’t fair for me to make comments about others pets. It would be easy to point out that adopting a Neapolitan mastiff will result in higher pet food bills than adopting a chihuahua, but when it comes to love, practical concerns rarely take center stage.

The BBC article has gotten met to thinking about how important pet food and supplies are to those who have many other needs. Our church hosts a free mobile pet clinic for those who are experiencing homelessness. It is yet another way that we provide support to those who have needs and share the resources that have come into our stewardship. Providing for the care of animals is another example of caring for “the least of these.” I think I’ll start paying a bit more attention to the needs of our neighbors with my newfound education.

Still sorting

Yesterday, I woke with plenty of energy. After breakfast and a shower, I unloaded all of the books from the shelves on the north wall of our study. When I remove the books from the shelves and pile them on the floor, I am amazed at how much space they take up. Then I removed the shelves and earthquake clips and took the units out to the garage. In their place I brought in new to us shelving units obtained from my sister as part of her downsizing. The new units are sturdier than those they replaced. They are also a foot taller and a bit wider as well. The corner unit is more efficiently designed than the big triangle unit I had made. The new bookcases are an upgrade for us.

They also are a step in an opposite direction for us. For the last couple of years, we have been in a serious downsizing mode. In preparation for our move from South Dakota we got rid of 12 feet of 6 foot high bookcases and the books they held. I had resolved to learn to live with fewer bookcases and fewer books. I have been careful to limit the number of new books I obtain. I use the library more often. When I need to own a book, I try to obtain the electronic copy for my tablet computer. Still, I love bookstores, and when I wander through one, I often emerge with a new book. I belong to several book groups and it works best for me to have paper copies of the books, especially when I am leading discussion. Being able to refer to specific pages is a help and I tend to re-read a bit more when I am responsible for leading conversations about books. And I seem to still need a paper book for some of my recreational reading. I like to keep a book that I’m reading on the table beside my recliner and I often carry it to the dining room table and sneak a peak over breakfast or lunch.

At present there are empty spaces on a few of the bookshelves in our new unit. That won’t last long. First of all, there is an antique mantle clock that graced the shelves in Susan’s parent’s home and was an antique when it was handed down to them. That clock has been in storage since we moved and I’m finally going to get it out of the box and onto the shelf. One its special space is arranged, it will have to go to a clock shop to be cleaned and oiled and made ready to run. Our antique clocks are fickle. They need regular attention from a person who knows what they are doing with old clocks and who can occasionally make a replacement part. When they are in their best condition they aren’t as accurate as the digital clocks in our home. This particular clock has to be wound daily.

As far as I know, our children and grandchildren have no interest in owning the antique clocks. We have two. We also have a mechanical clock that was a gift from the congregations we served in North Dakota. I don’t know what will happen to the clocks in the next generation. If I had a plan, now might be a good time to shed one or more of them. But I have no plan, so I guess the thing to do is to enjoy them.

By bedtime last night, I had the study back in shape and things were a bit better organized than they have been simply because I rearranged the books by taking them off of one set of shelves and putting them back up on the other. There also was time for a walk yesterday and a lovely dinner together.

Some days I have energy to accomplish several tasks. Some days come to their end and I wonder what I did that day. I definitely am not as productive as I once was. Or at least as I imagine I once was. I am less confident of the accuracy of my memory than once was the case. The way I imagine it I would have been able to move and rearrange those shelves as well as put in a full day’s work at the office and still have had time to cook dinner for the family. I think I used to do those kinds of things.

Yesterday, I needed time to sit in the chair and ponder. I was thinking of how best to arrange the shelves. I was planning what spacing to use fir the shelves in he various units so that the books would all fit. I had to think about antique clocks and moving boxes and I enjoyed looking at the rain falling. I watched a couple of YouTube videos. I made a cup of tea and sat with it. Somehow the day passed and I got tired and it was time to go to bed.

I no longer need to evaluate the value of my life by how much I produce. And I definitely need to stop thinking about how much I acquire. This phase of my life needs to be about distribution, not acquiring. Once we get through all of the boxes and sort and rid of ourselves of the excess that doesn’t fit into this house so that we no longer have anything in storage, we’ll still need to continue to downsize. It is hard to predict how long we’ll live here, but it is pretty certain that our next home will be smaller. I’ve watched enough people go from a family house to a retirement house to an apartment to an assisted living to a care center to know that even when one doesn’t go through all of those steps, the movement of the aging years is one of downsizing. I have much more than is necessary.

The short term goal around here is to sort through and rid ourselves of enough possessions to be free of having to store things at the farm. We’ve already gotten that down to a fraction of what it was when we moved into this house a year ago. And we’ve downsized a lot from our Rapid City house and a large rental storage unit. But there is more be done. I need to find the energy for more productive days. Still, I think I’ll reserve some time for sitting and pondering. It is one of the luxuries of being retired.

Rambling thoughts for a rainy day

According to the Weather Underground Forecast, there is a 91% chance of rain this morning at 10:00 am. The percentage chance of rain isn’t quite a percentage chance of rain at any given place. Rather, it is based on a mathematical computation involving the confidence of the forecaster and the area where rain might fall. A 91% chance of rain means that there is a 91% chance that rain will fall somewhere in the forecast area. If there is a 100% chance that 9% of the area will receive rain, the forecast sticks. Rarely is it the other way around (a 91% chance that 100% of the area will see rain).

Anyway, the forecast calls for light rain to begin in our area sometime this morning. Then the rain is forecast to settle in, with rain showers falling for the next 10 days at least. The locals call it the rainy season, and it is delayed this year, coming later than usual. The start of the rainy season is a bit of a trigger for yard work. The rains signal time to clean out the flower beds, trim the bushes, and prepare the garden for winter. Some of the yard chores are different here than other places where we have lived. For example, the return of the rains will quickly green up our lawn, which has been dormant since mid-summer. That means that I haven’t had to mow my lawn very often for a few months. I remember from last winter that I got to mow the lawn all winter long. It isn’t much of a chore here, because we have a very small lawn. The green grass, however, will be welcome.

Our dahlias are still blooming, but have slowed quite a bit. They will continue to produce a few blossoms until we get a good freeze. One the plants brown, it will be time to dig up the tubers, clean them off, and store them in vermiculite until next spring. Hopefully, we’ll have tubers that we can divide so that we’ll be able to plant even more dahlias in the spring. We certainly had success with the blossoms, so signs are good that we’ll have even more next year. I’m planning to extend the area where I plant them.

I don’t have my rainwater collection system installed, and there is a rain downspout on the barn at the farm that needs to be repaired. I’ve had months to get those chores done, but have found other things to keep me busy. I am pleased every time I see the woodshed at the farm filled to the brim with firewood. I invested some time in the summer squaring up and rebuilding the shed. It should keep the firewood dry and ready to warm the old farmhouse.

I have a new raincoat and rain pants to try out once the rainy season sets in. I bought them in the early summer as a kind of birthday present for myself, but we haven’t had much rain since then. A good rain jacket is a must in this area. My winter parka won’t see much use, and lots of folks around here don't even own such a garment, but I can’t get myself to give up that warm coat. Even if we don’t see much snow, we live close to mountains where good winter clothing is a must.

I drove down to Portland, OR, Wednesday afternoon and helped my sister with a move. I got back last evening. Fortunately, her son and his friend helped with the heavy lifting and moving furniture, because I didn’t spend too many hours helping with the move. I did, however, haul a load of bookcases that helped her with storage. What I did get was a bit of windshield time. Two days of doing 300 miles per day by myself gave me some time to think. Driving that distance takes longer here than was the case in South Dakota, because I had to drive through both Seattle WA and Portland OR traffic. Anyway the time driving gave me time to think. Part of the time, I was thinking about what I’ll be saying in worship on Sunday. I’ve long enjoyed a bit of time by myself to sort out my thoughts and organize my ideas.

Part of the time, however, I just let my mind wander. I drove through a few sprinkles and noticed that it is about time to invest in new windshield wiper blades. Living in rainy country I need to replace them more often than was the case when we lived in South Dakota. It is a bit counter-intuitive since it is the sunlight that breaks down the rubber in the blades. However, windshield wiper blades are used a lot more often around here and there are times when they will be on for an entire trip. That wasn’t the case yesterday and the day before, but I didn’t know why I needed so many settings on the variable windshield wipers until I moved out here. Back in South Dakota, on, off, and interval were enough settings. Here I use every setting available on the switch and there are days when I use every one in a 25 mile trip.

I’ve lived most of my life in places where it doesn’t rain very often. I’ve learned not to complain about the rain. It is a blessing. Of course, ranchers like to complain that the rain always comes at the wrong time, but they appreciate the rain as much as anyone else. One of the things that has had me longing for rain for the last week has been the smoky skies. Fires in eastern Washington have left our area with some of the worst air quality in the nation. The local news channels all were warning us to wear face masks when we go outside and showing drone footage of smoky skies. It was a bit better yesterday and the forecast is for our air quality to return with the rains today.

Let’s see - new windshield wiper blades, repair the down spout on the barn, run down the parts for the rainwater collection system - I’ve got plenty of items on my list. At least so far I don’t have any roof to repair. Life is good.

Halloween Decor

The neighborhood is getting really decorated. Front lawns are decorated. One house in our neighborhood must have spent a pretty penny on inflatable decorations. One of the fun things about the inflatables is that when they turn them off, what is left are these strange deflated piles of plastic in the lawn. It is hardly decorative. You can be sure that the power will be turned on on Halloween night. I’m not into decorating our house. What I like most about Halloween is seeing the children. We’re stocked up on candy treats, and we’ll be contributing to the trunk or treat program at our church on October 30. I like the notion of Halloween as a children’s holiday. As such, I’m not much into things that might frighten young children. As I’ve already commented in a previous journal entry, huge spiders seem to be one of the themes in our neighborhood this year.

Actually, I welcome the spiders more than I do the fake cemeteries. I know of at least two households in our neighborhood that experienced the death of a family member in the last year. I wonder how they react to the fake cemeteries. Does pretending about death make their experiences of grief more or less difficult? I really don’t know. I have experienced cemeteries as places of quiet contemplation and remembrance of loved ones. I’ve walked with those who have had a recent loss of a loved one through the markers to find the marker for their loved one. I’ve watched as they carefully place flowers on the grave and pause to reflect and remember. At their best cemeteries are places of comfort, not places of fear.

We do, however, live in a death adverse society. Many of the portals of death in the media are very unlike the reality. People get shot and don’t seem to experience pain. People are killed and don’t seem to experience fear. Movies and television programs show shortened images of graveside services or moments of eulogy at a funeral home. They never depict the tears of receiving the news of a death, nor the process of planning a funeral. They don’t make commentary on the cost of caskets or other parts of the process. We don’t really like to talk about death. As a result, I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that Halloween decorations aren’t at all realistic.

Death, of course, isn’t a game and it isn’t an entertainment. However, there are plenty of ways of pretending about death. There is a theatre in Bellingham is hosting an improvised murder mystery every weekend this month. Members of the audience find out through the action on the stage whether they are a witness, the violently deceased, or the killer. It is billed as a comedy and they seem to have no problem recruiting audiences who seem to enjoy the show. I’m not interested in turning murder into a laughing mater. It is not that I lack a sense of humor. I enjoy jokes and funny stories. But I guess I’ve had too many conversations with too many victims who have lost family members to murder to think that it is a laughing matter. Probably I’ve spent too much time hanging out with detectives and other crime investigators.

There is a miniseries about the serial killers behind the Hillside Strangler murders that occurred in Los Angeles in 1977 and 1978. The final two victims of Kenneth Bianchi, a security guard who moved to Bellingham, were students at Western Washington University. That’s too close to home for me. I won’t be watching those programs. It isn’t that I don’t think we can learn something from looking at the crimes. And I know that movies are effective at telling stories. It is just that I think of the families of the victims. I don’t think that they could find joy in having the stories of their loved ones deaths told over and over again. They want to remember their loved ones as they lived, not as they died. It might even seem to them that the murderer is being given more attention than deserved. I don’t really know, I am just speculating, imagining how I might feel.

Of course Halloween has its roots in thinking about the loss of loved ones and imagining how their spirits still linger in our lives. As we prepare to celebrate the saints who have gone before and remember with love those who have died, the evening before is a time of thinking of how spirits affect our lives. I guess I’m simply more at home celebrating All Saints than I am with the prior evening’s associations.

But I don’t want to pass on Halloween. I love the sound of happy children in the neighborhood. I love seeing the joy of costumed children investing their imagination. I like being a good neighbor who answers my door with a treat for those who stop by. Weather permitting, I’ll be sitting on the front porch with a basket of candy at the ready. I love the parts of Halloween that make children happy.

I know that some of the decorations and fun and exciting for children. I know that the adrenaline rush from a temporary fright can be exciting and fun. And I am well aware that not everyone in the neighborhood celebrates holidays the way that we do. I celebrate the diversity in our neighborhood. I’m intrigued about all of the decorations and special lighting. I wonder where those people store all of that equipment during the other 11 months of the year. Perhaps it is part of the explanation of all of the rental storage facilities that dot our county. I know that there are a lot more things available. Stores from the local hardware store to the big box chain stores to the temporary Halloween stores are stocked with all kinds of large decorations that are available. I’m just not their customer. I’ll leave all of those decorations to others for now.

Smoky skies


It was really, really smoky here yesterday. The air smelled like smoke and the smoke hung close to the ground like fog. When we drove by Bellingham International Airport on our way to work, I noticed that there were no airplanes in the pattern. All of the approach lights were on as if it were night. It looked as if the visibility was so low that perhaps the airport was experiencing a temporary closure. I never heard about that, so it might just have been that we happened by when there were no airplanes coming in. I turned off the outside air in the car’s ventilation system to keep out the smoky smell. We rushed into the comfort of the church office and spent the day there without going outside, even on our lunch break. After work, we often go for an hour’s walk, but shortened our walk to about 20 minutes. There had been warnings about unsafe air conditions and advice not to engage in outdoor exercise on the Internet. Health officials recommended wearing N-95 masks and since we have a good supply of them on hand for preventing the spread of Covid, we followed the advice. There can’t be a health benefit to breathing in all that smoke. Nonetheless our eyes were dry and scratchy after just a few minutes of walking in all of that smoke.

We have experienced smoky conditions before in other places that we have lived, but yesterday was particularly bad. Whatever we are experiencing, however, it is much worse for the firefighters and for the people who have had to be evacuated due to the fires. The fires are burning in eastern Washington and the smoke has drifted west. When it reached the coast, it met with dense, heavy air and stalled right over our area.

Yesterday is supposed to be the worst day. The Air Quality Index was rated at very unhealthy. Pollution was 286 on the Air Quality Index. Any score over 200 is considered to be hazardous. Today’s forecast calls for 67, which is the bottom end of the Fair category (66 would be considered good). The rest of the week should be in the very good category, dropping to 14 on Thursday and down to 5 for Friday and Saturday.

Rain is forecast to start on Friday and continue for a week. It will be very welcome around here. September and this part of October have been setting records for high temperatures and lack of rain. The entire summer has been particularly dry for this part of the country.

Frankly, I’ve enjoyed the weather. I have a friend who is so tired of the lack of rain that he brings up rain in nearly every conversation. We have taken to laughing together at the frequency with which he thinks and talks about rain. I am not used to this new home and didn’t know exactly what to expect, so I haven’t been as aware of the dry conditions. I’ve lived in pretty dry places for most of my life.

The tomatoes seem to agree with me. The picture with today’s journal is of the tomatoes we picked yesterday from the plants in the bed next to our front porch. We’ve never lived anyplace where we were still picking fresh tomatoes in the middle of October. They taste really good, too. We had BLT sandwiches for supper last night. Yum! I guess the tomatoes don’t mind the smoke.

I’ve been enjoying reading “The Secret Network of Nature” by Peter Wohlleben. He is the author of the bestselling “The Hidden Life of Trees.” What I appreciate about him in addition to his clear writing that comes through even in translation is his appreciation for the complexity of the natural world. He admits that there is much that we don’t fully understand. The more we learn about the complex interactions of nature, the more we discover we do not know. He asks, rhetorically, “Are pine bark beetles good or bad?” I have a tendency to respond “bad” because I have mourned the huge swatches of dead trees all across the northwest and into Canada. He reminds us however, that the infestations are a sign of a lack of health in the forest and that healthy forests can resist infestation. He doesn’t answer the question, simply shows how complex it is and how the beetles, animals, trees, fungi and other living parts of the forest all have effects on one another.

We know that not all fires are bad. Fire is part of the ecology of some types of forest. But when fires threaten homes, destroy crops, and leave behind deep scars, we understand the importance of having skilled firefighters.

Much of the natural world is so complex that it readily defies the categories of “good” and “bad.” Sometimes all we can say is that it is what it is. Certainly when it comes to forest management, humans often have far too short a perspective to make the kind of long term choices that might insure the overall health of the forest. Forests run on cycles of hundreds of years. Policy makers run on two- and four-year cycles. Sometimes we make the right choice by accident. Often we use the best information we have and later learn that we simply didn’t understand the big picture.

What I am learning is that our world is far more nuanced and complex than the simple categories we use to talk about it. More important than identifying what environmental effects are human caused, we need to understand that humans are part of the bigger picture of nature. It is yet to be determined whether our position at the top of the food chain will remain for a long period as was the case with dinosaurs, or if our collective time on this planet will be much shorter. Like other creatures, we have a single trip through the life cycle and when we die others will take our place. Hopefully we will be able to share with them some of the wisdom, music, culture, theology, and insight that we have inherited from previous generations as well as offer a bit of our own to future generations.

It is a fascinating thought to contemplate Jonas Salk’s question, “Are we being good ancestors?”

Writing poetry

Our church has a variety of small group offerings. Some of the groups have been started and are led by lay persons. Others were started by church staff. The Faith Formation Board has loose oversight of the groups. It doesn’t control them in any way, but the board does try to keep track of the groups and help members and friends of the congregation informed about the groups and how individuals can participate. I regularly attend several groups and there are others that I have attended on occasion just to discover their nature so that I can recommend them when new participants inquire.

One of the fun groups is a poetry-writing group. They meet twice each month. Their meetings begin with a round of sharing of “homework” poems. Each meeting ends with a prompt to inspire poems. The prompt might be a photograph, or a quote, or a question. Each participant has two weeks to create a poem inspired by the prompt. The group is very supportive and has fun discussing the offerings. Sharing the poems takes about a half hour. Then a prompt is given and the group pauses for five minutes while participants write. Another round of sharing follows the short writing time. That process is repeated a second time. After the third round of sharing, an hour has passed. The group passed around responsibility for giving prompts, with members working in pairs to come up with them.

Susan has been participating in the group and I have gotten into the habit of asking about the homework prompt. From time to time, one of the prompts inspires me and I try to write a poem. One of the things that the process does is to remind me that I am not a poet.

I went for years during which I read little or no poetry. During college and graduate school, I was focused on my academic reading. I was reading very little fiction in those years as well. When I graduated and began my work as a pastor, I continued professional reading, but I started reading novels for recreation. Little by little, I discovered a few poets and now I usually have a volume of poetry that I’m reading alongside several other books that keep me entertained. I enjoy having multiple books going at the same time, which is a good thing because I have a couple of small groups that I facilitate that are book discussion groups.

The prompt for the poetry group a couple of weeks ago caught my attention, and I took a moment during a break from work to write a poem. It wasn’t great literature, but it amused me and I decided to bring it to the group. I was worried about the following prompts, when there are only 5 minutes for writing, but the group is so supportive that I didn’t find the process to be intimidating.

It might sound like the poetry group is pretty tangential to the life of the church, but from my point of view, I’m delighted that the group is part of what we offer. One Sunday earlier this fall the group produced lyrics for a song that was sung in worship. Group members offer creative writing skills to the congregation in a wide variety of ways, from helping with publicity to crafting liturgy. The church has a long tradition of supporting the arts and poetry has the power to express religious concepts and experiences in ways that reach beyond prose. We know some of the great poets of the church through the words in our hymnals.

I don’t think I’m likely to become a poet. I’ve become too accustomed to using words a bit too freely. In my essays, I allow myself to ramble on, without imposing much economy on the choice of words. Poetry requires a particular discipline with words. One of my seminary teachers gave us poetry assignments. I used to balk at those assignments and often struggled to produce anything. I remember receiving a paper back from that professor with these words written at the top of the page. “Good. Now say the same thing in half of the words.” When I read the teacher’s comments my first reaction was that I’d been given an impossible assignment. How could I convey the same meaning without using my words? I somehow succeeded, but wasn’t pleased with my project.

Over the years, however, I have gained an appreciation for the ability of poets to convey deep meaning with few words. I suspect that that ability comes in part from disciplined work. They craft poems, edit poems, and revise poems regularly until they have honed skills and developed abilities. I have not applied such discipline to my writing.

Because I was a preacher, I learned about the distinction between oral and written communication. Effective public speaking involves the use of repetition, sentence fragments, and vocal variation that do not come across well in writing. Conversely, many written documents are dry and difficult to follow when read aloud. I practiced the art of telling stories throughout my career and eventually developed a preaching style that led me away from reading manuscripts. I still would create manuscripts for some of my sermons and always used them for funerals, weddings, and other special occasions, but the bulk of my preaching was done without written notes.

During the time that I was working on learning the skills of effective oral language, I discovered that many poems come across very differently when read aloud than when read silently. From the days when I beat a path from the library to my tree house and back again, I have enjoyed silent reading as a hobby. I read a lot of words without speaking them. Poetry, however, now invites me to speak aloud even when I don’t have an audience. Speaking words gives me a fresh perspective.

I’m unlikely to ever become a poet, but understanding poetry might help me craft meaningful prayers. I’m grateful to the poetry group for pushing me out of my comfort zone for an evening and reminding me that I still have much to learn about the processes of communication.

Ten for dinner

We have a small drop leaf table that we inherited from Susan’s Aunt and Uncle. When they moved from their house to an apartment in a retirement village, the table was just the right size for their downsized apartment. When the leaves are down, two people can sit at the table. With the leaves up, there is room for four. They had, and we now have, two oak chairs with leather bottoms to go with the table. Most of the time the table now lives in our garage along with a bit of extra furniture. We’ve downsized our house, but we still have a bit of the excess furniture in storage. This table is one of the things we plan to keep. It comes in handy from time to time. Yesterday we got out the little table and set it up in the study next to the bookcases. We had ten for dinner, which is beyond the capacity of our round oak dining room table, even with both leaves in it. Our home has an open floorpan on the first floor, so it wasn’t like we had relegated three of our dinners to another room. We were seven around the big table and the three who ate in the other room, joined us for our table grace and filled their plates then carried them to the small table to eat. The family switched places for dessert and a different three sat at the small table.

Dessert was angel food cake with cherries from our trees that we had frozen when they were picked and apricots from the Wenatchee Valley. We don’t always have dessert at our house, but last night was a special occasion worthy of a celebration and a bit of cake was in order. Six of the ten of us had all been together eighteen years ago for another celebration. The other four were all born afterwards. We’ve had conversations in our house, when we look at pictures from events that occurred many years ago, about why certain family members are missing from certain photos. “Where am I in the picture?” necessitates a conversation about how some events occurred before you were born. In this case there is a picture prominently displayed on the wall of our living room of that day eighteen years ago. It was the wedding day of our son and his wife. The four who were not present at that occasion are their children.

In addition to their family of six and the two of us, our daughter-in-law’s brother and mother were visiting and joined in the celebration. We told a few stories and shared a few memories. Our son was a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when they were married and we drove from South Dakota down to Chapel Hill for the event. Our car was full for the trip, including a cedar hope chest, which was too big to fit inside and was carefully tarped and tied to the roof rack. Inside the car was Susan’s sewing machine. It was the second time we had made that drive with the sewing machine. The first trip was when they moved to North Carolina. We drove down in a pickup truck and towed one of their cars. The sewing machine came along because Susan was working on a special dress for our soon to be daughter in law. It came on the second trip, along with that dress, so that adjustments could be made and finishing touches added. That dress is the wedding dress that she is wearing in the pictures of the occasion. I’ve always believed that our son played in hand in forging a deeper relationship between his wife and his mother by suggesting that Susan sew the dress. Whether or not he was conscious of such a motive, the result was a deeper connection.

We have two children and the dresses worn by the brides in both of those weddings have their own stories. Near our son’s wedding picture is a picture of our daughter and her husband at their wedding. Although they were married in the church we served in Rapid City, the dress came from England. She and our son in law were living in England when they became engaged. He has built his career in the Air Force and they have lived in different places around the world. We had the good fortune of being able to visit them in England. I had shopped for the lowest price tickets we could find between the two continents and it turned out that we were able to fly from Vancouver, British Columbia, to London. We drove out west. Our son was living in Olympia, Washington at the time and he gave us a ride to the Seattle Airport where we caught a short flight to Vancouver.

We have a gallery of family pictures on our wall and each of them has a story. Our grandchildren get to hear the stories multiple times as each becomes old enough to ask about the pictures.

After our guests left, Susan and I were doing a bit of final clean up and we paused to look at the pictures one more time. Eighteen years ago, we could not have imagined that we would one day move to northwestern Washington. We were happy in our South Dakota home and too engaged in our careers to think much about where we would live when we retired. Our son and daughter had not yet settled and we did not know where they would end up. It seemed likely that our son would continue to find adventures in what at the time seemed like far away places. He went to college in Oregon and graduate school in North Carolina. It seemed likely that his sister might stay a bit closer to home. We couldn’t imagine that one day we would move to a house down the road from our son’s farm where they raise chickens and cows and have a huge garden and that our daughter would be living in South Carolina with her family.

Our life has never been completely predictable. We’ve always had surprises and we’ve grown to love the surprises that come. For now it is a joy of our lives to have ten for dinner and to have our home feel full, not only with beloved people, but also with shared stories.

Preparing for disaster

Years ago, when people were worried about a technological breakdown at the turn of the century called the Y2K problem, a church member asked me, “What if it is true? What if the power grid goes completely down? What if all of our computers don’t work and everything that is run by computer fails? What are you going to do then?” I responded, “I’ll come to the church. We have large fireplace and plenty of firewood. There is a fair amount of food in the kitchen. We’ll open the doors and share what we have with whomever shows up and together we’ll figure out what to do.”

At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, someone asked me, “Have you got a stockpile of toilet paper? Everyone is going to run out.” I answered, “No. We have our usual supply. When that runs out, we have wash cloths and water to wash them. And someone is bound to remember that we buy toilet paper by the case at the church. There is a huge supply in the storeroom at the church. We may have to have a special council meeting to decide how to deal with that.”

I’m not much of a prepper. I don’t have a collection of survival gear. I’ve always believed that the most important resource we have in a time of trouble is the community. Our relationships are critical when tragedy strikes. Trust that has been built up over years can provide resources beyond any individual’s preparation.

To one of my friends who did stock up on toilet paper and who bragged about his huge supply, I teased, “Your supply will only last until your neighbors find out. I know you, Randy. You won’t be able to turn down your neighbor’s children when they come to your door begging for toilet paper.”

In the event of a real emergency, the resources of the community are far more important than individual resources.

There are a couple of things going on here in Whatcom County, Washington that remind me of the power of community. We’ve been experiencing another air quality alert as smoky skies make for dramatic sunrises and sunsets, but obscure the view of the islands in the bay and the mountains to the east. Record heat and dry conditions have left the forests tinder dry and fires have threatened homes in some areas. Wherever wildfire comes close, you will see signs of gratitude for the fire fighters who come to save lives and protect property. They endure hard work in risky conditions with short breaks and little sleep. I’ve always had a special feeling for first responders and I am especially grateful for fire fighters.

When I was a teenager working on my cousin’s and uncle’s farms, we knew that whenever we saw a smoke plume, we dropped whatever we were doing and headed towards the smoke to help. I had a shovel and a half barrel of water with soaked gunny sacks in it in the old pickup I drove to the field. On a couple of occasions, I fought wheat field stubble fires, usually set by someone pulling a vehicle with a hot muffler into stubble that was too tall. We’d form a line along the front of the fire and beat out flames with wet gunny sacks until the fire department, with their pumper trucks arrived. It was surprisingly effective when there were enough of us.

I believe in the power of community.

That doesn’t mean that I am cavalier about common sense preparations. I experienced enough blizzard-related power failures to have extra blankets on hand. When we lived in the Dakotas we had alternative heat sources. I have a portable propane buddy heater and enough gas to run it for several days. We have a pantry with enough food to keep us going for quite a while. I have a water filter for using water from alternative sources. And an overnight in the pickup truck when the starter failed and we were 8 miles from the nearest home means that I now have a dry sack with freeze-dried food, a portable cookstove, and a few other essentials ready to go each time we head to a remote location. Our sleeping bags travel in our car with us when we head out in the winter.

This week, however, we will have our first experience with a different type of preparations. On Thursday at 10:20 am (10:20 on 10/20), people around the world, especially those in earthquake prone areas, will participate in earthquake drills. Children in schools are taught to “Drop! Cover! and Hold On!” Here in coastal Whatcom County, the Tsunami sirens will wail and people who are out and about are supposed to practice tsunami evacuation. Our home is above the projected inundation line at the coast. That means that if there were an actual Tsunami, even a really big one such as happened in Asia in 2011, our neighborhood would be one of the safe places where our coastal neighbors would come. In the event of an actual earthquake, the warning would be available approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes before the wave reaches the shore. Waves would continue for up to six hours, so those who evacuate at the sound of the siren have to stay away from low-lying areas for quite a while. I assume that if we were home, we’d open our home so folks could use the bathroom. Maybe we’d make tea and offer some snacks. On October 20 we would have plenty of Halloween Candy on hand. Of course, people won’t be wandering our neighborhood in search of bathrooms in the event of a drill. I suspect that most folks would head to family members. A few would gather at the county park in our neighborhood where there are some facilities. It used to be an Air Force radar base, so there are secure buildings and space for a lot of cars.

This is our first Tsunami drill. We had not yet moved into this house and were staying in Mount Vernon at this time a year ago. We don’t know what to expect. I’ll be looking for signs of community and ways to help others should a real emergency occur.

A relection on deep tragedy

I decided to wait a day after I learned of the verdict in the sentencing phase of the trial of Nikolas Cruz. Cruz was found guilty of opening fire on students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in the Miami suburban town of Parkland, Florida and murdering 17 people and injuring 17 others. The jury in the sentencing phase of the trial basically had two options: to sentence Cruz to life in prison without parole or to sentence him to be killed. The law required an unanimous vote for the death penalty to be imposed. In the end three jurors voted against the death penalty and Cruz was sentenced to life in prison.

I have waited to write about this for several reasons, mainly to give myself an opportunity to read about the reactions to those who are closer to the case than I. Even if I were living in that area, I would not have been selected as a juror in that case. I have strong and well-established opinions on the death penalty. I have been public in my views, including serving on the board of directors of South Dakotans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. More importantly, I cannot speak for, nor can I fully understand the grief and trauma experienced by family members and friends of the victims. I do not in any way want to downplay their loss or tell them what they should think or feel.

I may, however, have a perspective that has not been given much publicity in the conversations surrounding the case.

One of the reasons I feel that life in prison is an appropriate sentence is that our society has sold the myth of closure to the families of victims of violent crimes. Reporters will write of justice being served. Unfortunately, there is no closure for those who have lost loved ones. The horror of the shootings will always be with those who lost children, siblings, and friends. There is nothing that can be done to change what has occurred. There is no known way to prevent the spread of the trauma to the next generation. From at least one perspective, justice is not possible. Those who lost loved ones have experienced an injustice that cannot be corrected. The death of the shooter will not ease their loss. It will not make things equal. It will not make things fair. Their loss is deeper and more tragic than anything that can happen to the shooter, including death.

A second reason why I favor life in prison is that a quick and painless death, which is what the courts have required in death penalty cases, is not necessarily a worse punishment than life in prison. The guilty person is gently and medically put to sleep and dies quietly after an extended period of appeals and public testimony about the case. Each appeal is a reminder to the families of the victims of the loss they have experienced. Each appeal brings additional publicity to the case that is likely read by people who are capable of considering carrying out a mass shooting. In some ways having to live out one’s life in confinement extends the punishment for the perpetrator. Cruz was 19 years old on Valentine’s Day in 2018, when he carried out the shootings. He could be facing 60 or 70 years of punishment for what he did. That period of punishment seems inadequate in comparison for the crimes committed, but it is longer than would be the case had he been sentenced to die.

My third reason is a bit different. After having spent years as a suicide first responder and seven years as a law enforcement chaplain, I have learned a lot from detectives and crime investigators. One thing that has been drilled into me is that anyone who comes into the scene of an unattended death needs to be extremely careful not to disturb or destroy evidence. Those who have experienced the loss of a loved one deserve as much information as possible about what happened. The more carefully evidence is preserved, the more answers might help to inform survivors about what happened to their loved one. Information is not the only thing these survivors need, but they have a right to the best and most accurate information possible. The death penalty is a process by which evidence is destroyed. We are incapable of understanding the mind of a mass shooter, but if there is any possibility that someone in the future might learn something about how to prevent such crimes by examination of the brain, tissues, DNA, or other information obtained from the shooter, we should preserve that evidence.

The debate about whether or not the death penalty serves as a deterrent for future crimes continues, but the evidence strongly points towards the conclusion that it does not deter such crimes. Many mass shooters seem to have a death wish, dying by suicide or exposing themselves to the bullets of law enforcement officers. The fear of dying as punishment for the crimes seems to not be a consideration in the planning of such events. The survival of a perpetrator of a mass shooting is rare. The trial of the Parkland shooter is an unusual event that is missing from the drama surrounding the majority of mass shootings.

This journal entry is not intended to change anyone’s mind about the death penalty. Nor is it intended to be the basis for public policy. It is simply my personal reflection on the depth of the tragedy that has been experienced by the parents, siblings, and friends of those who died and who were injured in the shooting and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. They will live with their grief and trauma for the rest of their lives. Their children and grandchildren, if they have them, will be affected by generational trauma. The pain and tragedy inflicted by the shooter cannot be measured and should not be discounted. May they be spared excessive public attention and debate about their loss.


I was running around the house last evening feeling like a kid. It all started a week ago when I had a procedure to remove an area of squamous cell carcinoma from my calf. When we were kids, we cut the legs off of our jeans at the end of the school year and we wore cutoffs every day, except Sunday mornings, all summer long. We didn’t bother with sunscreen. I'm not sure we even knew about sunscreen. And sunburn was just a part of my life. I was a redhead with pale skin and it burned. I learned a few techniques to keep from being in constant pain, but I was a big fan of Bactine. The result of all of that sun exposure is that I need to be very careful about sun these days, wearing floppy hats and sun shirts. I also get to visit a dermatologist every six months. Most of the visits are pretty mild, with just a few pre-cancerous lesions removed with liquid nitrogen. Periodically, however, there is a lesion that requires a sample be taken for biopsy. If the biopsy comes back having detected carcinoma, there is an office procedure to remove a bit of the surface tissue to make sure that all of the affected cells are removed. Another lab test of the removed skin shows that the doctor got all of the carcinoma cells and life returns to normal until the next visit to the dermatologist.

After a couple of days, the original dressing from the doctor’s office could be replaced with a large band aid, but I’m supposed to keep the area covered for another week. The large band aids I have for the job remind me of the ones I used to get when I was a kid when I skinned my knees.

Then, on Tuesday, I had a small piece of one of my toenails removed. After months of fighting ingrown toenails caused by a particularly curved nail, my doctor recommended the procedure. I came away from the office with a dressing that was so big and fat that I couldn’t get my foot into my regular shoes. I went to work on Wednesday wearing a pear of Crocs brand clogs. When I showered on Thursday, I switched to a band aid on that toe.

Then yesterday, we got our Covid booster vaccinations. While we were at it we also got our annual flu shots. The person who administered the vaccinations preferred to put one in each arm so that if there was a reaction, they’d know right away which vaccination was to blame. Viola! Two more bandaids. And these were bright red.

Even though the bandaids were covered by my clothing, I was laughing at myself. I think it has been a very long time since I have sported four bandaids at the same time. It was more common when I was a kid. I remember one time when I tripped as I took a running leap from a swing on the school playground and ended up skinning both knees and both elbows in one spectacular fall. I got four big bandaids in on trip home after my mother cleaned up my scrapes. It wasn’t the only time I sported four bandaids at the same time. I have a clear memory of a time when I had one bandaid on a thumb that got slammed in a car door, another on a finger that had an unfortunate encounter with a fish hook, and two more holding baking soda poultices against bee stings. I had four bandaids on my hands at the same time.

The feeling was short lived last night. I took the bandaids from the vaccinations off before I went to bed. I’ve never needed bandaids after a vaccination. I didn’t leak anything onto them. I’m pretty sure that they were unnecessary in the first place. And I’m pretty sure that the bandaid on my toe won’t be needed much longer. The one on my calf might need to be replaced daily for a week or so, but soon that will be gone too. I’ll go back to life without adhesive bandages. On the other hand, I keep my trauma kit well stocked just in case of an emergency and I’ve weathered this particular phase of my life with stock from that kit. I did buy a couple of boxes of bandaids to restock, so there are plenty should the need arise.

Momentarily, I could commiserate with our five year old granddaughter who tried to climb onto a load of pumpkins that had been loaded into a baby stroller to transport them across the farm. The entire load got off balance all over and she ended up with a bruise near her eye. The bruise will heal quickly and she seems to have forgotten about the pain. I think her tears were more from the surprise of everything going over than from pain.

I’m lucky that my skin heals quickly. I’ll soon have a hard scab where the doctor removed the skin. That will heal and there will be a small scar that will be visible for a while, but even that will fade in time. Skin is really amazing in its capacity to heal.

I do have a technique for dealing with bandaids that has been honed through years of experience. When the original biopsy was taken, after I removed the bandaid from that site for the first time, I carefully shaved my leg in the area around the place from which it came. I’ve kept that part of my leg shaved ever since. That way when I remove the bandaid, I don’t have to remove hair the hard way. I got a reminder of that pain last night when removing the bandaids from my shoulders. Unaccustomed as I am to shaving my legs, I make quick business of the process when I shave my face to trim around my beard. No pain. It’s a good way to go. I decided that the challenge of shaving my leg is that I am not looking in the mirror. I’ve learned to direct the razor by looking in the mirror when shaving my face.

I actually have a very meaningful and event-filled life. The trivia of counting my bandaids entertains me for only a short time. Maybe tomorrow I’ll come up with a journal entry that connects with something important in the world. In the meantime, it is fun to feel like a kid again.

Sleeping with the lights on

Susan and I often have a conversation that we have repeated in various forms over many years. She asks me, “How can you sleep with the light on.” I respond, “All I have to do is close my eyes. It gets dark when I close my eyes.” One of the gifts of my life is that I have found it easy to go to sleep. Like all people I occasionally have times when it is hard to go to sleep, but they are relatively rare. Most of the time, I can nap when I have time and have no trouble falling asleep when I go to bed at night.

I have friends and relatives who have put a great deal of effort into making bedrooms into a place more conducive to sleep for them. They invest in blackout shades, put effort into obtaining silent air handling equipment for furnaces, purchase white noise machines, and obtain expensive mattresses and sheets. I can pretty much fall asleep on any bed with light streaming through the windows and the sounds of the neighbor’s pets and coyotes singing in the distance. Other people who remain awake after I’ve gone to sleep don’t bother me. Of course, I have the advantage of living in a rural area without excessive light pollution and little industrial noise. And this time of the year it gets dark early, so things are pretty conducive to sleep.

I guess I’ve always found that the best cure for insomnia is to be really tired. Then again, maybe I’ve not really suffered from insomnia. When I am awake, I tend to get out of bed and do something that interests me, like reading a book or writing my journal. I don’t find myself awake in bed very often.

Despite having a reputation for being able to sleep with the lights on, I really enjoy darkness. When I rise in the night, I usually don’t turn on any lights. I wait for my eyes to adjust and walk slowly. Actually, there are lots of light sources in our home, even at night with all of the lights turned off. Light from street lamps comes through windows. Appliances have lights on them. Moonlight often streams through the kitchen skylight. For years I have led night hikes for campers. I teach them about using natural light sources and allowing one’s eyes to dilate. I demonstrate how if you use a flashlight, all you can see is what is in the circle of light provided by the device. If you turn off your flashlight and give your eyes time to adjust, you can see a much broader area. In those conditions, you are less likely to be surprised by an obstacle on the path.

I seem to have inherited or developed or been blessed with a pleasing combination. I’m not afraid of the dark and I can sleep with the lights on. I’m not sure that these qualities, if that is what they can be called, give me any advantage over others. I know people who sleep with blackout shades in sound-insulated bedrooms who are perfectly happy and well adjusted. I’m not somehow more healthy than those who sleep eight hours without interruption and wouldn’t think of rising in the middle of the night. I do seem to have less trouble dealing with an interruption of my sleep than some folks. If I am tired enough, there is no problem going back to sleep after being awakened. That quality served me well during the years when I frequently was awakened by a phone call in the night and had to get up, get dressed, and respond to an emergency. I pretty much don’t do that any more, but I suffered no ill effects from decades of being on call as a first responder.

I’m not good with languages and although I’ve had lots of friends with Scandinavian backgrounds, words in Norwegian or Danish don’t roll off of my tongue. I think, however, that the concept of friluftsliv, popularized by the plays and poems of Henrik Ibsen, is the concept that people can cultivate well being by being outdoors. The idea is that outdoor living restores the soul and strengthens the body. I don’t know if people from Scandinavia would agree, but I think that part of the restorative power of nature can be experienced at night. Being in touch with the cycles of light and dark is powerful in my experience. I absolutely love rising in the dark and going to a quiet place, perhaps a lake with my canoe or walk into an open field, and watching the predawn light emerge and the sunrise follow. I am learning in my new life stage in a new place a deeper appreciation of sunsets as well. Watching the light come and disappear is part of my way of experiencing friluftsliv.

In Italian a similar, though not the same, concept is “al fresco.” Literally meaning “in the fresh air,” the concept is often applied to dining. Eating al fresco is having a meal outdoors. One of the sweet things about the house where we now live is that I have a porch swing on the south side of the house and a picnic table on the north side. I can find a place to sit in the shade whenever it is warm outside and a place to sit in the sun when I need a little light to warm myself. I love to take a cup of tea outdoors.

I don’t sleep al fresco much these days. We have a camper with a comfortable bed. I haven’t been inclined to take a sleeping bag outside for a long time. Perhaps I’ve idealized the concept through years of separation, but my memories of camping trips where we slept outdoors under the stars are very positive.

Susan and I will probably continue to talk about sleeping with the lights on for many years. I have gone to bed earlier than she and risen earlier in the morning for half a century. It works for us. I don’t have to turn off the lights since she will do so after I nod off and I don’t need to turn on the lights in the morning when she is sleeping. We get along very well together.

And, we have decades of practice with silly conversations about whether or not her eyelids leak light. Mind don’t.


I hadn’t planned to write more about fat bear week this year. I didn’t vote. I just enjoy watching the live camera set up so that people in distant locations can watch the bears catching and eating salmon. Actually watching mother bears with cubs is the most entertaining part of the video for me. Yes, the size and the ability to catch fish possessed by the giants, like bear 747, is impressive, but they had to have learned how to catch fish and you can see by watching the cubs that there is skill involved. They are dependent on their mothers’ sharing. Left to their own devices, they wouldn’t catch many fish.

However, I’m back at it, writing a second journal entry not because of the bears’ behavior, but because of human behavior. “It appears someone has decided to spam the Fat Bear Week poll, but fortunately it is easy for us to tell which votes are fraudulent,” was the tweet from Katmai National Park earlier this week. That’s right, it isn’t just the world of chess that has been rocked by a cheating scandal.

Apparently, the attempt at cheating was fairly amateurish and easily caught by park officials. Its presence, however, fits into a pattern. I have no documented evidence, but it certainly seems like there is more high profile cheating lately. The Fat Bear contest is simply an opportunity to have a bit of fun and to get more people involved in observing the natural world. There are no prizes to win. There is no money involved. What motivates someone to cheat in such a delightful contest? I don’t understand how the cheater or cheaters think.

Maybe I’m just in a bit of a mood because I got another one of those calls from my credit card company yesterday. The company’s algorithms caught an attempt to make a fraudulent charge on my card. I had previously signed up for text alerts, and have my credit card set up to send me messages every time it is used, so the first attempt was caught. The charge was denied. I was notified by the credit card issuer’s fraud department. I was able to cancel the card right away and no other fraudulent charges were made. I will receive a new card in a few days. We don’t use the card when we aren’t traveling, so there is nearly no inconvenience for us. But it is unsettling to know that some fraudster somehow obtained my credit card number. The fraud attempt might not have come from a data breach where someone got the complete information, but rather from a cheater who was using a number generator to guess at credit card numbers. I will never know. Still one worries about identity theft. After I got off of the phone with the credit card issuer, I checked my online banking just to make sure everything was in order. I carry insurance against potential fraud, so face little danger. Still the presence of fraud is troubling.

It isn’t just the world of competitive games and the world of credit cards that are rocked by cheating. In recent years we have read about cheating in college sports, in poker, in university admissions, and in politics. It seems like cheating has somehow become more acceptable in our society.

Part of the problem is that trust has been eroded in the highest levels of government. I recently saw a poll that showed that more than half of the citizens of the United States no longer trust the impartiality of the Supreme Court. Recent polls have also shown a continuing erosion of trust in law enforcement officers. The very people who are supposed to protect society from cheating are not trusted.

And history was made when the loser of the 2020 Presidential election refused to accept the official results and claimed, without any evidence, that the election results could not be trusted. That claim has been refuted by hundreds of courts across the nation, and no credible evidence has ever been made public, but a large number of citizens believe the claim of fraud. Furthermore hundreds of candidates running in this November’s midterm elections have stated in advance that if they lose they will not accept the results of the election.

Trust is essential to civil society. Cheaters contribute to the erosion of trust.

I wonder what can be done to restore trust. Certainly there are some people of integrity involved in sports and politics in our country. There are people who have earned our trust and are worthy of trust. Sometimes, however, I wonder how capable the general public is at the task of discerning who can and who cannot be trusted.

Hard evidence has been presented in official court proceedings charging the former President with cheating on tax returns, of cheating on loan applications, of cheating in business dealings. His cheating in his present and previous marriages have been public scandals. However, there are a large number of people, including the leaders and founders of one of our major political parties who are willing to overlook these reasons to lose trust. He remains the head of his party and polls indicate that he is a serious contender for the party’s nomination to run for the office again in 2024.

Another disgraced former President, Richard Nixon, did not retain the trust of the leaders of his party, nor of a significant number of citizens after the scandals surrounding his administration became public. It certainly seems like times have changed and different standards are being applied.

A few years ago I heard an address by Bill Moyers in which he warned that our country is on the verge of losing democratic government. At the time I thought he was being a bit over dramatic and over stating the threat to make his point. I am less sure of that now. It does appear that the foundations of our democracy are fading with the failure of leaders to earn and maintain trust.

I am grateful that officials were able to detect and eliminate fraudulent votes from Fat Bear Week. I am grateful that my credit card company detected fraud. I hope we all can bring the best of our judgement to all of society as we work to eliminate cheating and restore trust.

We face an enormous challenge.

Language changes

When I was a student, we witnessed and participated in a language shift. As we became more aware of inequalities between men and women, we started to avoid using male words to describe all humans. A simple example of this is the word chairman. As we realized that women are capable leaders, the term wasn’t inclusive enough. We began to say “chairperson.” Making our language more inclusive made sense to me. I have benefitted greatly from the leadership and lessons of capable female leaders and teachers. Inclusive language also matched my theology and my understanding of God. I do not believe that God is limited to a single gender. Thinking about God as exclusively male doesn’t make sense to me. There were some places, however, where I continued to use traditional language. I read scripture using the words that have been given to us by the translators. I don’t feel that I have the authority to change the language unilaterally. I embrace new translations produced by teams of scholars and I understand that language is not static, but I also acknowledge that language is a vehicle through which our faith has been passed on for generations. Historic societies were more paternalistic than the community we aspire to create. We acknowledge the limitations of patriarchy and strive to have a more egalitarian society. At the same time, pretending that the patriarchy never existed and that we don’t come from a heritage of people who participated in injustices is a way of denying our common history.

I remember very well a conversation about language that focused on the beginning of the prayer of Jesus. The traditional beginning of that prayer is, “Our Father . . .” Participating in the conversation was a woman who had experienced violent abuse at the hands of her father. It had taken her years to heal from the trauma she experienced as a child. For her addressing God as “Our father” made not sense whatsoever. God is not at all like her experience of her father. She found the words of the prayer as commonly prayed in churches around the world to be offensive and hurtful. Yet she was a committed Christian. She participated in a congregation where the prayer was repeated every week. She simply did not say those words out loud and she silently addressed God as “Almighty,” or “Creator.” In that same group, sharing the same conversation were those of us who had positive relationships with our fathers and who experienced parental love as particularly nurturing. While we do not equate God with our human fathers, addressing God with a family name is comfortable for us. All of us, however, could see how that prayer of Jesus could be a barrier to faith for people who had experienced certain traumas and pain in life. I have since become very comfortable worshiping in communities where a variety of words are spoken in that prayer. In our current congregation, different worshipers use different words when we pray together. That multiplicity of words seems very appropriate where we honor our tradition while acknowledging that faith demands more than us than simple repetition of tradition.

Over the years, our use of language has gradually shifted. Inclusive language has become part of our everyday use, part of the hymns we sing, and part of the liturgy we use in worship. Faithful translations of scripture that are more aware of and careful with the use of inclusive language have become available.

Language, however, continues to shift and change. One of the challenges of my life these days is learning to use plural pronouns when referring to people who identify as non-binary. As was the case with the woman who had experienced abuse from her father, my experience is different from that of other people. I have always felt at home as a male. It is natural for me to hear myself referred to has he and him. I was very fortunate to meet my wife and life partner at an early age and our relationship is a key to my identity and the way I think of myself. I have thought of other people in male and female terms for many years and only recently became aware of those who are uncomfortable with that dichotomy. My closest transgender friends experienced being different from the gender identified at their birth and have transitioned from one gender to another. Switching pronouns for them was not a problem for me because they were intentional about making a definite change and were at home with their new pronouns. They did not seem to be rejecting the duality of male and female, rather they were embracing a change from one gender to the other.

There are, however, people who don’t feel completely at home in either gender. Some of those people identify as non-binary and prefer the use of the plural pronouns they, them, and theirs. It makes sense to me in my mind, but old habits are deeply engrained. Even though they have been clear to me about their gender identity, I still think of them as being a single gender. I still make language mistakes when talking with or about people who are important in my life. Fortunately, most of my non-binary friends are patient with me, correct me gently, and allow me to struggle with learning to use new language.

As a way of practicing and learning, I am trying to be intentional with the use of plural pronouns when I do not know the gender of the person to whom I am referring. For example, when another driver makes a dangerous maneuver, I try to say, “They cut me off!” instead of “He cut me off!” I say, “They don’t know where they are going,” instead of “He doesn’t know where he is going.” I am even learning to catch myself when I slip back into my old ways of speaking.

I am just one person and my struggles to be more aware and to change my use of language doesn’t shift the way that language is used by the wider society. Change takes time. I sense the impatience of others, especially folk who are younger than I. As I grow older, however, I have become a bit more patient, at least with myself. It is going to take time for me to adopt new ways of thinking and speaking. In the meantime, I expect to hear voices correcting my mistakes and challenging me to continue to learn and grow.

Indigenous Peoples' Day

The official website of the Lummi Nation proclaims this statement:

“We are the Lhaq'temish, The Lummi People. We are the original inhabitants of Washington's northernmost coast and southern British Columbia. For thousands of years, we worked, struggled and celebrated life on the shores and waters of Puget Sound.

“We are fishers, hunters, gatherers, and harvesters of nature's abundance. We envision our homeland as a place where we enjoy an abundant, safe, and healthy life in mind, body, society, environment, space, time and spirituality; where all are encouraged to succeed and none are left behind.”

If you traced my family’s genealogy far enough back, there would be some place on this planet where we once were indigenous. I don’t know that place, however. On my father’s side of the family, we can trace the migration backwards, through Montana, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Russia and Germany. We’ve been on the move for a lot of generations, settling for a while in various locations where we found people who had already been there for a long time. On my mother’s side of the family, folks tended to settle for a bit longer, but the journey includes relatives who came from England and perhaps Scotland. We don’t know all of the stories or even all of the places where family members have stayed. Along the way on both sides of my family there were marriages of people from different origins and members of different tribes. We have family members who were adopted into the family with different origin stories.

It would not be accurate to divide all of the people of the world into two categories: migrants and indigenous, but the categories are interesting in some of the places where I have lived. In South Dakota, the bulk of immigrant people arrived in the last 200 years or so, but they vastly outnumber those of indigenous heritage. The two groups have shared the land, albeit uncomfortably and with a history of exploitation, displacement, and attempted genocide. They have intermarried and mixed their heritages. Some settler families have been in the area for five and six generations and feel that the land is theirs. Some indigenous people have lived their entire lives on reservations and have never experienced ownership of land in ways that is recognized by title companies and registrars of deeds.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, some settler families have been here even longer than was the case in South Dakota, though the largest waves of immigration have been in about the same time frame. The reservations here are even smaller amounts of land. The indigenous people are even a smaller fraction of the total population.

Nonetheless, here as was the case in South Dakota, indigenous people have provided significant leadership in the area of environmental protection and climate change mitigation. Perhaps there is something inherent in having lived in one place for as long as people can remember that attaches one to the land, the creatures, and the intensely complex web of nature. Perhaps there is something inherent in the generational trauma of coming from ancestors who were pursued with the attempt to drive them away from their ancestral lands, force them to abandon their language and culture by robbing them of their means of survival, taking their children to residential schools, and imposing poverty and dependence. I do not know the reasons, but I do know that indigenous leaders are worthy of our careful attention and when they teach us about the care of the environment there is great wisdom that we can learn.

Today is Indigenous People’s Day in the United States. The holiday was called Columbus Day when I was growing up in Montana, but relatively recent attempts at reconciliation between indigenous and immigrant peoples have brought new awareness of this day, a new name and a new emphasis to its understanding.

In the official proclamation on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, 2022, President Joseph Biden declared, “On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, we honor the sovereignty, resilience, and immense contributions that Native Americans have made to the world; and we recommit to upholding our solemn trust and treaty responsibilities to Tribal Nations, strengthening our Nation-to-Nation ties.” Later in the proclamation he acknowledges that “for centuries, Indigenous Peoples were forcibly removed from ancestral lands, displaced, assimilated, and banned from worshiping or performing many sacred ceremonies.” He also officially notes that “they remain some of our greatest environmental stewards.”

As we face what may be the greatest moral crisis of human history - the drastic effects of human-caused climate change that threaten the capacity of the planet to sustain human life - it is imperative that we learn from wise environmental stewards. Listening to the leadership of indigenous peoples when it comes to the enhancement, nurture, and protection of natural resources.

Being indigenous does not mean that a person is automatically a better steward of the environment than those who have later settled on the land. One of the effects of deep, generational poverty is that people do not have the resources to embrace some of the technological solutions to the energy crisis. Substandard housing is not marked by solar panels. Impoverished people aren’t purchasing new electric vehicles. When heating with wood is the only affordable choice, one’s carbon footprint is larger that others who have more financial resources. Litter and trash handling are not somehow better on reservations than other places.

The bottom line is that we are all in this together. The effects of climate change - fires, floods, pandemic, environmental refugees, and environmental illness affect all of us. The solutions that will save some people benefit all people. Part of what will be needed is for all of us to learn to consume less, live more simply, and learn to share resources. Every act of pollution and contamination threatens all of us. Each act of environmental stewardship benefits all people.

Today, on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, I dedicate myself to working to earn trust and strengthen relationships with our indigenous neighbors. I will also listen more carefully to the wisdom of my indigenous neighbors. There is much to learn and today is a good day to begin.

Parked camper

Around the corner from our house is a home with a large 5th wheel camper parked in the driveway. There are several homes in our neighborhood where recreational vehicles and boats sit outdoors. I notice such things in part because we have a camp trailer and several kayaks and canoes as well as a rowboat. This particular 5th wheel trailer, however, is one that i’ve been paying attention to since we moved into our house a year ago. Because of the way the camper sits and because of some items stored under the hitch of the camper, I know that it has not been moved in the past year. Campers are designed to be moved. They have wheels and tires and carefully designed hitches. But this one sits in the same place every day.

It isn’t the only static camper in our community. Within walking distance of our house are several RV resorts. Those places rent parking places for recreational vehicles by the month. People leave their campers parked their semi-permanently and use them as recreational homes, coming and going from their regular homes on weekends and during vacations to stay near the beach. Some of those campers have skirting and landscaping around them. Several have decks and permanent stairs that mean moving the camper would be a significant job. I’m fairly certain that there are campers that have been sold in place like other vacation homes.

The 5th wheel camper around the corner, however, is a bit different. I can’t see any evidence that it is being used at all. It is possible that it functions as a spare bedroom or a guest home for the house, but I’ve never seen the door of the camper open or anyone coming and going from it.

It has me thinking in part because yesterday, I put our camper to bed for the winter. The process isn’t very elaborate. We have the luxury of being able to park our camper in our son’s barn. Even though the weather around here isn’t severe, I go ahead and drain all of the water and pump antifreeze through the water lines to prevent anything from freezing. I make sure the batteries are fully charged and turn off the master power switch. I close the valves on the propane bottles. And I spread old tarps on the roof. The last precaution is because the camper sits next to the hay loft and 30’ behind it is an open door that allows the cows to come and go to get out of the rain and eat hay inside. The open door and the hay storage provide shelter for birds that nest in the barn. The tarps save me the job of scrubbing bird droppings off the roof of the camper in the spring when we pull it out.

Here is the thing. So far this year we have slept in our camper only two nights. Both nights were sleep overs with our grandchildren in the yard at the farm. I suppose I have towed the camper a total of less than 500 feet this year. Compare that with the summer of 2001, when we towed the camper to South Carolina and back, a distance of just over 6,000 miles. We slept in the camper every night for three weeks on that trip.

We bought the camper to travel and share experiences with our grandchildren and in the later years of our ministry, we had took our campers on 2,000 and 3,000 mile adventures every year. Before we had this camper, we had a pickup camper. We lived in that camper for a month once, traveling around Alberta and British Columbia.

I expected that we would take some grand trips in retirement, but the reality is that we have used our camper less now that we are retired than we did when we were working. The same is true of our various boats. Now that we supposedly have more time, we are using our recreational items less. I am starting to wonder whether or not we simply have too many things. Is it time to start looking for new homes for some of our possessions?

From time to time I speculate on the story of the 5th wheel camper in our neighborhood. Perhaps the person who drove the tow vehicle became sick and is no longer able to drive the big vehicle. Maybe the camper is needed as extra space and is used for storage or as a bedroom. It is possible that the camper was once used as a winter vehicle by snowbirds who lived part of the year in our neighborhood and went south to Arizona or some warmer place in the winter. Perhaps the Covid pandemic or some other event has disrupted their usual routine. Maybe last year was an anomaly. It is possible that they are getting it ready for a new adventure this winter.

I know that the time will come when we will sell our camper. I don’t expect to be driving a heavy-duty diesel truck pulling a 25-foot camp trailer around when I am in my mid-eighties. There are lots of things that we do for a period of our lives and then move on. We used to be part owners of an airplane. The time came to sell that partnership and go on to other activities. I missed flying for a while. Now it is just part of our story. I’m glad I got to fly our children and create memories for them. I’m glad that I don’t have the expense and work of annual inspections, required new avionics and panel upgrades, overhaul reserves, and other things that are part of owning an airplane.

Looking around our neighborhood I’ve come to the conclusion that some recreational vehicles and boats have ceased to be recreation and have become burdens for their owners. There is wisdom in learning to shed possessions and learning to live simply. It is a challenge of this phase of our lives.

But for now, the camper is safely stored in the barn. We’ve got a few more camping adventures ahead of us. We have a few more memories to make with our grandchildren. Who knows? We may tow it across the border into Canada next summer. Maybe the owners of the 5th wheel camper can look at it and dream, too.

Remembering Loretta Lynn

We carry the stories of famous people in the back of our minds. Most of the time we know only part of the story. The death of Loretta Lynn this week brought out a part of her story that I had not known. I guess what I had known came from her autobiographical song, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and perhaps from various news stories I have read over the years. She wrote multiple autobiographies, but I have never read any of them. I’m not a huge fan of country music, though there is plenty of country music that I appreciate. I listened to Loretta Lynn on the radio and television. But I never learned her full story.

I knew that she was from Butcher Hollow, Kentucky. And because Nashville is such a center for country music and because her ranch and public attraction is located in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee, I associated her story with that part of the country. The part of the story that was new to me is that when she was 15 years old, Loretta Webb married Oliver Lynn. They had met only month earlier. They moved to Custer, Washington, which at the time was a logging community. Her first public performances as a singer took place at the Custer Grange Hall. Among other venues of the beginning of her career were a couple of places in Blaine, Washington.

I know where the Custer Grange Hall stands. I drive by it nearly every day. When we head to Ferndale or on to Bellingham, we go down Bay road until it turns southeast and becomes Vista Drive. At the corner of Grandview Road, we turn east toward the Interstate highway. Some days we continue on Vista Road into Ferndale, depending on where in town we are heading. Just east of that corner where we make the decision stands the Grange Hall where Loretta Lynn began her public singing career. These days there is a Taco Truck that parks next to the Grange Hall six days a week. They serve very good food and there is usually a line of folks waiting to buy their lunch. Custer isn’t much of a town these days, but our grandchildren attend the Custer school and we know our way around the town.

And our mailing address is Blaine, Washington. Our neighborhood often considers ourselves to be our own community. Birch Bay has a few restaurants and shops and our own waterfront. But we are in the Blaine School District and our mailing addresses are Blaine. We go into the town of Blaine on a regular basis and it is one of the places where we take guests when they are visiting so that they can see the Peace Portal at the Canadian Border.

The years have passed. Loretta Lynn wasn’t famous in the days when she lived here. Once she was discovered, she started her recording career in Los Angeles and she lived in a few other places along the way.

If she were singing in the area today, the Grange Hall is no longer a venue for live music. There are no concerts or dances held in the old building. I don’t think it is active as a grange chapter any more, either. I’m not sure what the building is used for these days. There are a couple of places in the area where live music is held. Beach Cat Brewing, within walking distance of our home, hosts live bands most weekends. And there are several places in Blaine where there are live singers from time to time. Blaine has several outdoor festivals that feature live music each year. One of those festivals, Oysterfest, is this weekend and features three different live music groups performing.

Of course our paths didn’t cross. Loretta Lynn moved from this area a long time before we arrived. Four of her six children were born before I was born, so I really belong to the generation of her children, though she was very young when she started her family.

What strikes me is that way back in 1948, just after the Second World War, a pregnant teenager and her husband moved all the way from Kentucky to Northwest Washington. That’s 2640 miles across eight states. It is a long ways to make a move these days, and it must have seemed a lot longer back in those days. The expense of the trip would have been significant, and the move must have meant that opportunities to return home and visit family were infrequent. The young couple didn’t have a lot of financial means in those days. Airline travel was just getting organized. The Interstate Highway system had not yet been built. In those days, it was a significant trip just to go to Seattle from Custer. One of Lynn’s breakthrough performances was a music contest held south of Seattle, in Tacoma, where she won a watch. More importantly, she gained the recognition of people in the music business and her performance led to her first recording.

Part of the public story of Loretta Lynn is how her success and her particular style of music were born out of hard times. She didn’t come from people with lots of money. Her folks were working class. She had a lot of struggles in her life. it is interesting to note that one of the waypoints on that journey is the area where I now live.

The radio stations have been playing a lot of Loretta Lynn the past three or four days. It is part of the tribute they want to make and the memories they want to retain as we mark the passing of someone who provided meaningful music for a lot of people in the span of her career. I’m sure that “Coal Miner’s Daugher,” “Me & Patsy Kicking Up Dust,” and Brenda Willis’ “Biography of Loretta Lynn,” will be popular at the library for the next few months.

I’ll have to take a special look at the Grange Hall when I drive by later today to see if anyone has placed a memorial or remembrance at the site. Probably there aren’t many people who remember her singing there. Though we never met, our stories have crossed, and I have another memory to add to the list and another story to tell.

Thanks, Loretta.

Strange weather

We are newcomers to this region, so we don’t know what weather is normal and what is unusual. That has also been true of other places where we lived. Sometimes it seems that no matter what weather is occurring you can find a local person who will say the weather is unusual this year. We have joked about record weather years in the other places where we have lived. Nonetheless, I think it is safe to say that it is dryer than normal in the Pacific Northwest this year. The skies are smoky. We look at Mount Baker, a prominent feature in our region through hazy, smoky skies. We are able only to see the dimmest outlines of the islands in the bay - islands that normally are clearly visible. It isn’t just smoke. The grass has gone dormant in many places due to drought. I can notice the difference in our neighborhood lawns because I was paying close attention to lawns in this neighborhood a year ago. Next week will bring the anniversary of our closing on the purchase of this house. Mowing the lawn was one of the first chores of ownership that I undertook. I won’t need to mow the lawn this week.

What we remember is that a month after we moved, many areas of the county were inundated with flooding. The Nooksack river set several records for flooding in November last year. It wasn’t just the Nooksack. The entire Frasier River System in Canada, just north of here was flooding and causing all kinds of problems for residents.

So far it is not flooding this year.

On the Neekas river, in British Columbia, across from the north end of Vancouver Island, a research team from Simon Fraser University have discovered what they estimate to be 65,000 salmon dead in the river. The cause of the deaths was suffocation. The oxygen in the river was depleted. Water was unusually low this fall due to the drought. A small amount of rain a few days ago triggered the start of the salmon migration. The fish swim out of the ocean and up fresh water streams to spawn. The rain, however, was a false signal. There wasn’t enough water in the river to support the migration. As the salmon consumed the oxygen in the river, there wasn’t enough for those following them. The dead salmon released ammonia into the water which exacerbated the problems for the fish coming after them. The result was a record mass die-off event. Researchers say that human caused global climate change is definitely a contributing factor to the loss of the salmon.

Salmon populations are already at critical lows. Since time immemorial, people have lived along the coasts and have been dependent upon the salmon as their major source of protein. Just as buffalo - American Bison - was the primary protein source on the plains where we have lived for most of our lives, salmon was the critical natural food source in this part of the world.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, Sydney, Australia is setting new records each day for rainfall. With almost three months left to go, Australia’s largest city has already exceeded the wettest year on record since records began in 1858. As of yesterday, Sydney has received over 87 inches of rain this year. Flooding is occurring in many places around the area.

It isn’t just Australia. In many places in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are experiencing flooding. Flooding in Pakistan has been deadly. Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and India have all experienced flooding this year. Record flooding in Europe has stunned scientists.

The distribution of rainfall around the globe has never been equal. There have always been places more prone to drought and other places prone to rain. But patterns are definitely shifting. The forests to our north are part of what has been for centuries temperate rainforest. The florist floors are filled with ferns, mushrooms, and other fauna that are dependent upon rain.

In a normal year, this would be mushroom harvest season in the backwoods of British Columbia. Mushroom foragers, however, are returning empty-handed this year. The fungi are not appearing due to a lack of rain. The price of morels and other wild mushrooms continues to rise as the supply declines.

We aren’t accustomed to foraging for our food. Other than cruising up and down the aisles in the grocery store, and noticing occasional empty shelves where peanut butter or ginger snaps normally appear, we haven’t been directly affected by the shifts in climate. I’ve been meaning to learn more about local fishing and shellfish harvesting, but it hasn’t become a priority for me. And we didn’t do much gardening this year. We have a very small yard. Other than a great run of cherries from our yard earlier in the summer and a current abundance of tomatoes that we are enjoying, we don’t have produce to harvest from our yard. We’ve got some ideas about planting a bit more garden next year, but we have access to water to irrigate if needed.

Still, it is fair to say that for those who have lived in this area for a long time and who are accustomed to its seasons and conditions, this has been a strange year of weather. Like our neighbors, I am cautiously hoping for rain. It would feel good to have the dust and smoke settled. It would be good to have the yards green up once again. It would be good to have the ferns and other undergrowth in the forest thriving once again. I’d even put up with a bit of mud and gray skies in exchange for the rain. However, we’ll have to wait and see for now. I’m not seeing much of a chance of rain in the ten day forecast in our region. Temperatures are forecast to remain warm at least through the middle of the month.

We’ve got a lot to learn about this new place we now call home.

Bears and storms

He’s back. Just in case you haven’t been paying attention, 480 Otis, the winningest bear in the annual competition at Alaska’s Katmai National Park, is in the running to become the champion once again this week. Otis once ate 42 salmon in one sitting. He has a particular technique that makes him successful when it comes to fishing. He sits in the middle of the river and waits for the fish to come to him. According to rangers at the park he is one of the most patient bears they have ever seen. There are a lot of bears who simply can’t compete with him. However, at least to a casual observer, Otis isn’t the fattest bear in the park. Bear 747, winner in 2020, is one of the largest bears on the planet. It is estimated that his weight could top 1400 pounds this year.

We won’t know the winner until next week. Voting is open until Tuesday, October 11, when the winner will be declared. You don’t have to go to Alaska to participate in the election. There is a livestream that you can watch by clicking on this link. The camera is trained on Brooks Falls, where the bears go to eat migrating salmon in preparation for winter hibernation. People tune in from around the world, get to know the bears, and cast their votes.

I haven’t made it up to Alaska to view the bears in person. May be “in person” is the wrong term for bears. At any rate, the livestream almost perpetually shows more grizzlies in one place than I have ever seen in my travels. I like to watch bears from a safe distance, so the livestream is fun for me. More than trying to figure out which of the big male bears is largest, or which has the best fishing technique, I enjoy watching mother bears with cubs who are just learning to hunt. The cubs are probably facing their first winter as independent hibernators. Cubs are born in the winter during hibernation, but after their first summer out of the den, they no longer are able to nurse and gain nutrition from their mothers. Like adult bears, they have to eat enough food to sustain their bodies through five to six months of hibernation.

Fat Bear Week isn’t the top news story on most web sites, but this year, in addition to coverage by the BBC, the Washington Post also had a story about the bears on its web site home page. The big bears are, at least to some, big news.

The first week of October marks an anniversary that I share with a lot of other people who happened to be in Rapid City, South Dakota during the first week of October, 2013. It was my first experience with a winter storm that had an official name. Winter Storm Atlas was an early blizzard that raged for three days, dumping about 30 inches of snow in our neighborhood and packing winds above 40 mph. We lost three large pine trees in our back yard, and we were lucky because all of them fell away from the house and deck. We were snowed in without power to our home for three days. We didn’t suffer much. Our home was secure and warm and we had a huge snow bank outside of our basement door that made a good backup freezer when we moved some of our perishable food from the refrigerator to the freezer.

Once the blizzards close the roads there is time to talk to neighbors. And there was plenty of shoveling once it quit snowing. I made the mistake of waiting too long before heading home and couldn’t make it up the last hill to our house even though I was driving an all wheel drive car. The car spent the blizzard in a neighbor’s driveway and in exchange, I shoveled not only our driveway but also the driveway of the neighbor. “Shoveled” is a euphemism. I had a snow blower during the winters we lived in Rapid City. I also had quite a bit of chainsaw work, limbing and cutting the downed threes into chunks to be split later.

Once the plows had come, I hauled a truck and trailer load of limbs to a huge parking lot near the ball stadium which was already piled high with branches from trees in the area. The image of all of the trees in that parking lot is as striking in my memory as were the images of cars stranded in parking lots by the blizzard.

Cattle ranchers across western South Dakota suffered huge losses as fences were buried and drifts made it impossible for them to get feed to their animals.

It was an impressive storm, and it gave me a story to tell my grandchildren. I remember my father and grandfather entertaining us with stories of huge blizzards that raged across North Dakota when my dad was a boy. It seems fitting that I have a blizzard story to tell to my grandchildren.

During the time we lived in Rapid City, fall blizzards were not usually severe. The big storms came in the spring. The previous April, we had a storm with more than 20 inches of wet, heavy snow. One year there was a blizzard during Holy Week and I had to use my pickup to drag downed trees across the church parking lot to clear the entrance of the church for Easter services. We also tell the story of the Mother’s Day Blizzard that dumped heavy snow on May 11, which is pretty late for snowfall even in Rapid City.

I don’t have any snow to shovel this October. In fact, during our first winter in this house I observed that most of my neighbors don’t even own snow shovels. I’m the only one who gets out and shovels the driveway and walk, a task that you need to do early in the day because most of the time the snow has all melted by noon.

Fat bears, big storms - both leave us with stories to tell.


When we purchased our home a year ago, one of the features that was touted in the advertisements and shown by the realtor was that it has and updated kitchen. What we learned when shopping was that there are several factors that go into an updated kitchen and not all homes with updated kitchens have the same features. Updated might mean that the appliances have been replaced since the home was built. It might mean that cabinets and/or countertops have been replaced. It might mean that features such as skylights have been added. In the case of our kitchen, the original appliances had all been replaced with stainless steel models and the original vinyl flooring had been replaced with a different vinyl flooring. The laminate countertops were the same. The cabinets were almost the same, but someone had decided that they didn’t like the original knotless cabinets and placed knobs on all of the doors and drawers though the original cutout handholds are still in place.

What we know after a year is that replaced appliances might not be as big a bargain as we first expected. As a back story, when we purchased our home in Rapid City, it had only one appliance - the dishwasher. We brought our own washing machine and dryer and purchased a new refrigerator, and stove. Those appliances lasted the 25 years we lived in that home and were in good working condition when we sold them with the home. The dishwasher was replaced after we had moved into the home and that dishwasher was subsequently replaced so the house was on its 3rd dishwasher when we sold it.

This new house supposedly came with new kitchen appliances when it was built 14 years ago. Those appliances were then replaced at some point with the upgraded stainless steel appliances. We had purchased new laundry appliances when we moved into our rental home the year before and since we had done our research and purchased what we wanted, we gave the larger stainless steel appliances to our son and his family and moved ours into the house. In ten days we will have officially owned the house for one year. The new, upgraded microwave failed a few months ago and we purchased another one to replace it. The broiler quit working on the oven. Since the appliance is a gas range, we are in the process of having a new electric service installed so we and replace it with an electric stove and oven. Then, last week, when we returned from our trip to Montana, the water dispenser in the refrigerator wasn’t working. Upon inspection, we realized that the ice maker was no longer getting water, either. After watching a half dozen YouTube videos on diagnosing the problem, pulling the refrigerator, which is huge, away from its place against the wall, taking out my multimeter and conducting a few tests, I have determined that the water inlet valve is not functioning. The part is ordered and the repair should be fairly simple. The part is not inexpensive.

Water inlet valves are a part of all appliances that use water: washing machines, dishwashers, and refrigerators when they are equipped with water and ice dispensers. They have been around for many years. It can happen that the valves fail due to the buildup of corrosion that causes a mechanical failure. It an also happen that the electric circuits fail due to overheating or corrosion. I do not know why the valve failed. What I do know is that we have not experienced the failure of such a valve on any other appliance we have owned, including on the 25 year old refrigerator we had in Rapid City.

Our experiences matches ones reported by friends. New appliances have much higher failure rates than older ones. We have family members who had appliances last for decades without problems. Susan’s parents had a refrigerator in their basement that was over 40 years old and the only repair that had been made in that time was the replacement of a door seal. That reminds me, I have also replaced the door seals on this refrigerator and significant cost. Her parents also had a toaster that served for more than 50 years. Her father was an electrician and I’m sure the toaster had repairs during its life probably including replacement of heating elements.

New isn’t necessarily better. The expectation that appliances be replaced every decade or so might be good for appliance sales, but it is an expense for homeowners that isn’t necessary. We have the knowledge and technology to manufacture quality appliances that can be repaired and will stand the test of time.

I guess I do need to acknowledge that so far the things that have happened with this refrigerator are things that can be repaired and the parts are readily available on the internet. At some point, however, frustration with the failure of parts will get high enough that we will take the step to replace the appliance. In the case of the microwave, we feel that we purchased a higher quality appliance with a lower chance of failure than the one that came with the house. We intend to do the same with the stove. However, about all I can say about the refrigerator is that we intend to keep this one going as long as practical. Were we to replace it, we probably would go for a smaller model. Other than that, I don’t know how to predict how long an appliance will last. This one is from the appliance maker’s “professional” line, which doesn’t mean it was designed for a commercial kitchen, but rather that it cost more than models that don’t have the upgraded badges installed.

This refrigerator is a brand that is well recognized in the United States. My parents had the same brand in the home in which I grew up. Of course that brand now belongs to a different company because the original company has been sold. And unlike my parents’ refrigerator, this one was assembled in Mexico and imported into the US. I certainly have no loyalty to the brand name and have no desire to have the appliances in my home all come from the same manufacturer.

I just wish there was the option of purchasing an appliance that would last longer than I do. I’m not planning to expire anytime soon, but I’m unlikely to last as many more years as Susan’s parents got out of their refrigerator.

Ministry in changing times

Over the span of my career as a pastor, I have read several books that attempt to categorize churches by different features or qualities. One theory, popular decades ago, was that people join churches of different sizes for different reasons. This theory posited that smaller congregations are primarily family churches. People join to belong to a close group of people with similar ideas and life situations. They want to be known and appreciated for who they are. Larger congregations were classified as program churches by this theory. People join these congregations to participate in the programs that they offer. They might be looking for specific types of programs, such as children’s educational classes or adult fellowship groups. In this theory, making the transition from a family church to a program church is difficult for a community. This challenge can prevent a congregation from growing. When the congregation gets to be a certain size it no longer feels like family to participants. They are willing to sacrifice programs and members for the feeling of being a part of a family congregation. Following this theory, which I have simplified here, one of the keys to congregational growth promoted by the theory is small groups. By delivering programs in small groups a congregation can grow as a program church while offering the intimacy and family feeling of small groups. This strategy has worked well for many congregations, including a few mega churches that have grown to large sizes, while emphasizing participation in intimate small groups.

Despite some rhetoric to the contrary, faith formation in contemporary congregations is primarily a program-based project. The educational ministry of a congregation is evaluated in terms of the programs that are offered. Are there regular classes for children? Is there a youth group? Does the church offer mission trips? Are there retreats and camps? Can adults find book clubs, creative arts classes, and other programs?

Our current position, though an interim position, comes with high expectations that the congregation will offer programs. The church publishes a weekly “Connections Calendar” that lists activities in the congregation. Most of the activities listed in the calendar are programs offered by the Faith Formation Board. While the congregation offers small group opportunities through service on church boards and committees, participation in music programs, and other venues, the primary evaluation of the effectiveness of faith formation is made by looking at the list of programs.

Autumn is traditionally the time when new programs begin and there is a flurry of activity each autumn. Programs run through out the year, but there are generally fewer programs in the summer. This is our second autumn in this position and, as was the case last year, we didn’t fire up all of our programs in September. October is the month of launching for several small groups.

Sunday, I participated in the launch of a new small group. Today, I will facilitate a small group bible study that has its first meeting. Tomorrow I am responsible for a small group book study that is new. In addition there are meetings of ongoing groups both days. These programs for adults are offered with online components. That means that I need to have the technology and knowledge to facilitate meetings over the Zoom platform. Several of the programs I facilitate are hybrid, with options for participating in person at the church as well as the use of a conference camera, microphone and speaker for those who are participating online. We use a large television as a monitor to display the online participants in the meeting room.

In order to facilitate these meetings, I have to have a certain level of technical knowledge to make the various parts of the program work. I am beginning to teach others to use the various technologies, but training takes time and requires the launch of additional programs. The result is the the work I am doing in the church is a bit surprising to me. When I began my career, I couldn’t imagine the type of work I am now doing. I began my career in a time before computers were used in congregations. Now I cannot do my job without access to multiple computers.

The computers, however, are not what inspires me to do the work of the church. The inspiration comes from relationships with people. I use computers to connect individuals with each other. I still have a personal preference for in person meetings, but I also acknowledge that there are people with whom we need to maintain connections who are not able to attend in person. Hybrid and online offerings expand the outreach of the congregation. Furthermore, I have discovered that significant relationships can be built through an online presence. There are members of the congregation whom I know primarily through Zoom meetings and those relationships are important.

Sometimes it feels like I am operating in a whole new environment with a whole new set of definitions and challenges. Still, the concepts of family church and program church, developed before churches had online presences and before Covid-19 forced churches to re-evaluate all programs, are useful in my understanding of the work that I do. It is still true that people are attracted to our congregation by the programs that we offer. It is still true that the work of ministers in the church is evaluated in terms of programs offered.

Sometime in the next year this congregation will begin the transition from our ministry to whatever is coming next for the congregation. It still is not clear exactly what shape that ministry will take. There will probably be a search for a new permanent minister, but it is unclear whether that will be part-time or full-time. The need for significant lay leadership will continue. The demand for programs will continue. The need for technical skills will continue. My role at the church is not to lead that transition, but to design and promote programs that can continue through the period of transition.

These are exciting times to be involved in the ministries of the congregation and I am fortunate to be part of these times. I am not sure what comes next, but I know that God’s call will remain strong and there will be meaningful work for the next phases of my life. Onward!


State and federal officials, along with the Red Cross, have reported that there are currently about 10,000 people in shelters as a result of hurricane Ian. The number is imprecise and it doesn’t account for people who have taken shelter with family or friends. Nor does it include those who have simply left the area of the storm seeking a new life in another state. Major storms disrupt lives in ways that are often permanent. One of the articles about the storm that I recently read estimated that only about 18% of homes in the path of the storm are covered by flood insurance. That means that 82% of the homes are without insurance to cover the damage caused by storm surges and flooding from torrential rains. Some entire neighborhoods have been declared uninhabitable by local authorities.

It depends upon your perspective whether you choose to call those displaced by the hurricane climate refugees. Their circumstances are different from those who have chosen to move because of drought, fire, or other conditions. Furthermore, it may not be meaningful to create a category that includes huge numbers of people with many different situations and conditions. Nonetheless, the storm has increased the number of people who are experiencing homelessness and that number is already very high in many parts of the country.

Homelessness is not new. Yesterday in worship one of the leaders of our church spoke of over a century of service to those without homes as part of the legacy of our congregation. Our church building houses a day shelter for youth experiencing homelessness and has hosted overnight guests as well. Before the shelter found its home in the building, there was a program that provided household items to those experiencing homelessness and those who had just found a place to live but have no resources for basic furnishings. There have been many different programs over the years, and there is enough institutional memory to document that there have been people who don’t have homes in our area for a long time.

However, the fact that homelessness has been a part of many communities for a long time, there is little question that the phenomenon is increasing. The number of people without permanent housing is estimated to be over 550,000 in the United States. That is a small percentage of the overall population, but homelessness is not evenly distributed across the states. Major cities tend to have higher rates of homelessness than rural areas. Washington DC has a higher rate of homelessness than any of the 50 states. New York, Hawaii, and California are the states with the highest rates and the largest numbers of people who do not have permanent housing.

Homelessness is caused by a complex combination of factors. The growing shortage of affordable rental housing is a factor. Recently we lived for 13 months in a rental home as part of our move from South Dakota to Washington. Now settled in a home that we are purchasing we recognize that our housing costs were nearly double in the rental house. For people who cannot obtain a mortgage or who have no means for a down payment rental housing is the only option. The high cost of renting prevents them from saving the money necessary to make the transition to owned housing. In addition to the lack of affordable rental housing, another factor in homelessness is an increase in poverty. While poverty doesn’t equate to homelessness in some parts of the world, in the United States, poverty is likely to result in instability in housing.

Statistics and a rudimentary understanding of some of the dynamics of homelessness, however, are insufficient to fully understand the stories of individual lives and circumstances. I have found a few stories about individuals and their circumstances in the coverage of the storm and its aftermath. One person left the Tampa Bay for Fort Myers area as the storm approached. When the storm’s track shifted south, she did not have the means to move once again and found herself in the path of the storm. Had she stayed in Tampa she would have been a safer place, but she did not have the means to make multiple moves and is left without resources to find another home. Another family had a disabled family member who would have required extensive resources, including an ambulance, to relocate. Faced with a family member in a hospital bed who needed round the clock caregiving, the family chose to stay put. Their home suffered extensive damage and will likely be declared uninhabitable when officials inspect it. They are currently living without power, water, or other essential services.

There are many other stories, most of which will never be reported while people face tough decisions with limited options. Initial reports indicate that Ian will displace fewer people than Katrina in 2005. The effects of that storm, including the large number of displaced persons, continue to affect families years later.

As a schoolchild I learned that among the essentials for survival are food, clothing, and shelter. In scouts, I learned that in a survival situation, one should prioritize shelter first. A person can survive for short periods of time without food. However, a lack of shelter can prove to be fatal in cold temperatures. People die of exposure before they have time to die of malnutrition. This basic survival information is reflected in the experiences of those experiencing homelessness. In many cities in the United States it is relatively easy to find enough food to survive. The challenge of finding adequate shelter is much more daunting. People shelter in vehicles, in campers and recreational vehicles, in tents and camping equipment, and in improvised shelters. Vehicles and temporary shelters are often subject to being moved.

This isn’t the first time I have reflected in my journal about problems for which I do not have solutions. I don’t have an easy ending for this post. I do not know the solutions to the problems of those who are left without adequate housing. I’m sure that there is no single solution. I cannot, however, ignore the problem simply because I lack a solution. There is much work that remains.

Giant spiders

As they came into our house and removed their shoes, our granddaughters were telling me that they had seen a big black spider on a giant spiderweb. At first I had forgotten about the abundant house decorations preparing for halloween and thought that they had discovered a spider web on our front porch. We have our tomato plants on the south side of the house, just beyond the porch rail and there certainly could have been a large spider out there. They were, of course, describing the decorations at a house down the street from our place.

There seems to be quite an infestation of spiders in preparation for Halloween. And it is only the first of October. Just a year ago, we were paying a lot of attention to this neighborhood. We had made an offer on this house and it had been accepted and we were waiting to close on the deal around the middle of the month. We had extended the lease on the house where we were living for a month to make time for the move. However, we were so focused on this specific house that I didn’t pay much attention to the decorations at other houses. Just after we moved into the house, on Halloween, we discovered how much our neighbors enjoyed that holiday. Halloween was on a Sunday and I made a quick trip to a big box store to pick up treats to hand out. Our grandchildren, who live on a farm, were excited to come over to our neighborhood for trick or treat as they didn’t have many places to go for treats. What a surprise it was for us to have crowds of children and families out in the street. Our neighborhood was filled with lights and decorations and people in what seemed like a giant block party. We’ll be better prepared this year, spurred both by the excitement of our grandchildren and by the decorations the neighbors are putting up.

Giant, fake spiderwebs, however, aren’t high on my list of preparations. First of all, I find spiders more fascinating than spooky. While we were traveling last week, a garden spider managed to string parts of a web across the space between the east side of our house and our fence. I walked through the pathway and ran into the web before I noticed it, bringing much of it down and leaving the spider dangling in the remains. No harm was caused to me and I suspect the spider was able to reconstruct at least part of the web after I carried my things past and closed the garden gate.

One of the houses down the street with a giant fake spiderweb has a set of cords running from the top of their flagpole to the ground. Frankly it reminds me more of the rigging on an old sailing vessel than a spider web. The lines have a bit of sag in them, but they are far from circular in pattern, like the webs the spiders make. And the giant spider on the web doesn’t look much like the spiders we have around here. Its legs are rather short in comparison with its head and body. Worse, for those interested in realism, the spider has its legs attached to the abdomen. Real spiders have a fused head and thorax, bearing the eyes, mouthparts and legs. It is called a cephalothorax. The abdomen has the organs that spin silk, reproductive openings and the breathing organs. The cephalothorax has a hard place called the carapace like the shell of a crab.

If they want to get really technical with their spider, they also need more eyes. The spiders in the garden usually have six or eight eyes. And the spiders in the garden are not very scary. They rarely bit humans. Bites are usually the result of the spider being threatened or unable to escape. Orb weavers do carry venom and their bite is comparable to a bee sting, but the spiders that raise welts and cause itching are usually tiny ones that we don’t ever notice. Black widow spiders and brown recluse spiders have venom that really packs a punch and can cause serious illness, but encounters with these spiders are fairly rare, especially if you are careful and observant and pay attention before crawling in places they might inhabit. A good headlamp or flashlight is handy for looking for spiders before entering crawl spaces or other places where you might discover such creatures. Most of the spiders in our gardens, however, are not aggressive and prefer to run and hide rather than attack.

Still, spiders and webs seem to be part of the decorating theme of several of our neighbors this October. As is true of most halloween decorations, they are designed to stir the imagination more than really frighten. Personally, I’ve never been frightened by a ghost. The ones we see are delightful children in costumes who are rewarded with candy for coming to our porch so we can see them. Even when they forget to thank us, their parents are usually close by to offer support and provide safety so no truly frightening things occur. The black cats in our neighborhood are all quite friendly and don’t seem to bring bad luck to anyone. Giant inflatable dragons and dinosaurs don’t bear any resemblance to living creatures that one might encounter. Creatures that do frighten me, such as cougars and grizzly bears, are not represented in the Halloween decorations in our part of town. Even scorpions, which are related to spiders and are a bit more frightening, are not featured in the decorations.

October decorations around here are fun and based on fantasy and imagination. They are designed to entertain rather than frighten. So if my neighbors want to use clothesline to create giant spider webs, I have no objection. They are not interested in details of arachnology that I have obtained by reading Wikipedia.

It is all in good fun and it is a reminder that autumn is coming. Halloween may be a month away, but that doesn’t stop us from enjoying our neighbors all month long.

On the other coast


An update from yesterday’s journal entry: Post-Tropical Cyclone Ian continues to lash South Carolina and is expected move northward into North Carolina and Virginia before dissipating. The storm is still packing 50 mph winds and torrential rains. While flooding is projected in many regions, including parts of Florida, as a result of the storm, our daughter and her family are away from the most devastating effects of the storm. They experienced a few flickers in their electricity, but still have power. There has been wind and rain, but not much damage. A few small branches have blown out of trees and there is a tiny amount of yard waste to clean up, but remain safe and secure in their home.

Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the country, we are back in our home in Birch Bay. Our trip involved driving nearly 3,000 miles, with about a third of those miles pulling a trailer. The box of the truck was nearly full for about half of the miles. We delivered items from our family property in Montana to my sister’s storage area in Oregon. And we got to re-visit some truly beautiful country. We drove through a few rain showers, but for the most part our trip was in summer-like weather.

Last evening, after returning home to a meeting and enjoying supper in our own home, we took a walk down to the beach. The sun was setting and the waters were calm. We could see a few boats out on the bay fishing. The scene made it hard for us to imagine the destruction and disruption that the southeastern states are experiencing.

It is a long ways away. Last summer we took an epic road trip from Washington to South Carolina and back pulling our camp trailer. We have first hand experience of the distance that separates us from that part of the country. Having said that, both Susan and I enjoy a good road trip. That trip was a lot of fun. We saw some new country, drove on some roads we’d never before driven, camped in interesting and inviting campsites, and experienced the size and scale of this country.

In the afternoon yesterday we were talking with one of our neighbors and she was surprised at how much we had traveled in the last week. We could tell by the way she reacted to our trip report that she is someone who doesn’t travel as much in the way we travel. We know that as we grow older, we will travel less and the days of really long road trips pulling a trailer are probably nearly over for us.

It is good, however, to return home. We are fortunate to live in a good place surrounded by natural beauty. We can experience snow-capped mountains and the ocean close to home. Our home is a place of peaceful beauty and quiet away from the rush of the highways and business that sometimes is a part of our lives.

Just because our place is calm at the moment, however, does not mean that we are exempt from storms and dangerous weather. When we walk to the beach, we pass the tsunami evacuation route signs. We know that the bay and the waterfront homes down there could be places of high waves and dangerous conditions. Our part of the world experiences more earthquakes than many other places. The 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan demonstrated the devastating destructive power of tsunamis. Should a tsunami of that size occur in Birch Bay, the water would rise to nearly the level of our neighborhood and buildings only a half mile away would be destroyed.

Mount Baker, with its seemingly-calm presence is a snow-capped sentinel of the North Cascades. However, it is considered to be an active volcano and is one of the most seismically active mountains of the region.

No place on earth is completely isolated from dangerous conditions. We don’t pretend to be isolated from natural disaster. At the moment, however, it is a peaceful place and a good place to rest and recover from our travels.

Of course, we won’t be simply resting. We rushed to Bellingham yesterday so that I could attend a meeting at the church. We have responsibilities to help with the care of our grandchildren today. There are a few items to unload from the pickup at the farm. We have a busy schedule of events at the church tomorrow. We won’t be bored. We are fortunate to have meaningful work and an engaging community.

And we are fortunate to have time for quiet walks along the beach and time to sit and think. I admit I haven’t spent as much time on the porch swing as I expected, but it is very pleasant when I do have time and there will be more time for that later. This is a good place for a balance of activity and contemplation. It reminds us of how privileged we are. We had the resources to choose the place of this phase of our lives and to pick up and make the big move. There are a lot of people in this world who have been forced to move from their homes who have to head out with very few resources and with no idea where they will find a safe place to rest.

On our trip we saw a lot of rental trucks and trailers heading both east and west. There are plenty of people on the move, seeking new possibilities for their lives. I’m sure that there were others, who don’t have enough possessions to fill a moving van, or who don’t have the resources to rent a trailer. We’ve seen cars packed so full that their windows are blocked. We notice the people asking for help at busy intersections. We understand that we are among the most fortunate people with abundant resources and plenty of supportive community.

We will continue to remind ourselves of our connections with those who are recovering from the devastation of the storm. We are linked to those who are grieving so many losses. We are all in this together, and we need to keep pulling for each other.

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