Sounds and Smells and Sensations from Childhood

StoryWorth – Sounds and Smells and Sensations from Childhood

This post will include some things I have described before, but the memories trigger one another and these have remained imprinted on my memory for most of my life.  They are memories of sensations, sounds and smells and sights from early years.

From other posts, it is apparent that the swamp that lay about a block and a half from my house growing up was my bit of Eden.  It was not only the look of the cattails that fills my memory of that place.  The plants stood tall in the water.  The Cattails had a texture like suede that was smooth and firm but gave way a bit to the press of a finger.  When fully grown, the press of that finger would trigger an explosion of fluff.  Each bit of fluff carried a seed.  It felt like the goose down in an old feather bed.  The water in that swamp was crystal clear, so the black water bugs beneath the surface were entirely visible.  They were huge.  They had two perfectly shaped oars, one on each side, gliding this way and that in a smooth, gentle motion, a bit faster, then slower as they reset the oars.  There were, of course, the brown spider-like much smaller water bugs darting around on the surface, going nowhere in particular, but getting there with short sprints.

The tadpoles were a marvel, almost impossible to catch.  They were so slick and wiggly.  On rare occasions one already had back legs forming.  Of course their parents, aunts and uncles added to the soundscape.  There were small squeaky frog sounds and the deep bass croak of the huge bullfrogs, although they were mostly heard and not seen.  Ah, the dragonflies.  They were so beautiful, some large and elegant, most full of color, all with with lacy wings.  Many had what I remember looking like perfectly square black flags painted on their wings.

The country club was next door to the swamp.  There were Osage orange trees along the fence, covering the ground with their fruit.  There were times hunting night crawlers at dusk when the greens and fairways had been watered.  I remember the feel of their sticky bodies as I grabbed them while they were stuck together, unable to move fast enough to pull themselves back into their holes.  Yes, I knew what they were doing.  I took them to the compost heap in our back yard where they could feast on leftover coffee grounds and continue their hermaphroditic dalliances.

Some of the sounds of childhood that still trigger feelings of peace and security and calm came from human inventions.  The train whistle during the night from the tracks across a huge cornfield lulled me to sleep at night, quieted by the distance it traveled to reach me.  On summer mornings, lying in bed far too late for any but the laziest of children, the sound of Mom’s vacuum downstairs was for me a contemplative’s chanting an Om.  The rustle of the leaves on the branches of the large Dutch Elms that surrounded the house on two sides (it was a corner lot) came through the open windows beside my bed, carried on the gentlest of breezes brushing against the fine hair on my young arms.

When the leaves from those trees fell into the yard we raked them into piles.  After some running through them, jumping into them, and raking again to undo what I had just done (my Sibs were already gone from the house), the leaves were deposited in the long grass valley between the trees and the street to be burned.  The smell of burning leaves remains utterly intoxicating.  In these days of well-placed concern for air quality, that smell is a rare treat.  Just of whiff of it immediately takes me back to the idyllic times in the Falls of my youth.

In the early summer clinging to the trunks of those trees were numbers of amber colored exoskeletons of Cicada’s that had served as a chrysalis while the adult Cicada formed inside.  I can remember the crisp feel of those shells as I tugged them off the tree to add to that year’s collection.  Then there were the adult Cicadas whose drone could make an ear hurt if it was too close.  When the chorus was winding up to full volume, there was no point in trying to talk.

All year round, the vacant lot next door was filled with weeds, only named so because someone decided that’s what they should be called.  They were teaming with life.  Bugs and caterpillars and butterflies and moths hung out or scurried along all day long every day.  Shoots came up through the brown leftovers of fall that chilled under the snow during the winter. Stems grew and leaves unfolded, buds formed and opened to reveal natural beauty, colors and shapes in no way ordered by human contrivance or by human hands. I loved the feel of the weeds on my legs as I walked through them.  The caterpillars were a marvel, some furry, some brightly colored, some huge, some very tiny.  The milkweed plants drew Monarch Butterfly caterpillars with black and yellow and white stripes circling their chubby bodies.  The milkweed pods would also break open and let fly seeds feathered to catch the wind and find places to sprout, grow,  and then feed the next generation of Monarch caterpillars.  There were grasshoppers and walking sticks and praying mantis and ants.  I loved the ants, busily running in and out of the little sandy mound entrances to their underground cities, sometimes carrying bits and pieces that were bigger and heavier than they.

We had a large screened-in porch across the front of the house.  Sitting there during a gentle rain brought feelings of euphoria.  The smell of the rain and the air afterward was healing.  In my earliest years I was scared of loud thunder and nearby bright lightning flashes.  Later I grew to love even them, but always the rumble of thunder in the distance was calming.  I remember sleeping on that porch some summer nights.  There was the sound of Dad’s loud snoring coming out of his bedroom window on to the porch.  That was not one of the wonderful sounds of childhood, but both Mom and Dad’s snoring became a sound of security, a sound of home.  Mostly, the night sounds, tree frogs and crickets provided the music of nature.

Of course the sounds of the Robins and Cardinals and Blackbirds and chirping sparrows filled the air during the days.  The sound of a Red-winged Blackbird still  thrills me. I can feel the thrill I experience when I hear it.  They sang constantly all the while I was playing at the swamp.  I also savored the sounds of silence.  Resting on the neighbor’s back yard terrace, I settled into a contemplative mode before I knew what it was.  Mesmerized by the clouds, I could lie there for hours.  I can still picture those very puffy white clouds and the patches of iridescent blue sky in between. The feel of the grass as I lay back and settled in was among the nurturing sensations.

Dad took us for a drive pretty much every summer Sunday, looking for property in the country to buy.  His farm roots remained his ground of being.  He showed me how to distinguish between wheat and oats and Timothy grass as we passed by the fields.  He taught me to identify the smell of pig manure in contrast to cattle manure as we drove along the country blacktop roads.  There was Sumac to be spotted, Queen Ann’s lace, and various fall flowers to simply notice. The smell of a freshly mown field of hay was bright and spicy.

There was the smell of cigarettes since Dad smoked three packs a day in my early years.  During those years I remember the sound of his spitting out what had gathered in his throat.  Gratefully, he quit cold turkey around the time I was ten years old.  The smell of cigarettes and the sound of the spitting ceased.

Lest this end with those less than pleasant smells and sounds, the kitchen was a source of wonderful scents.  Daily the smell of cooking bacon and toasting bread filled the downstairs.  The fare was simple and as a consequence simply good.  The smell of a pork roast wafted from the kitchen often.  The smells of bone-in beef arm roasts with potatoes and carrots and onions in the oven, homemade gravy on the stove, always using potato water or vegetable water and corn starch to thicken the meat juices filled crater formed in the ubiquitous mashed potatoes, stirred anticipation.  Those smells are the smells of my youth.  They led to the tastes of my youth.

I make no apology for the length of this post.  I have written it for the pure joy to be found in the writing and the and reliving of those times.

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NINE YEAR OLD SELF LIVES From directly overhead I watched two trains pass in the night, except that it was a bright and beautiful morning with a lovely cool breeze comfortably brushing across my face and bare arms. It was a cool morning, just right for a short sleeved hiking shirt, thin hiking pants and of course my new Merrill Moab hiking shoes. I got up early (for me) today. My windows declared it to be an exceedingly beautiful morning, and my weather App added that it was 58 degrees, perfect for walking. I felt drawn to the River Walk, not the market, but the paved path that extends two or three miles from the entrance 500 feet from my building to the east along the bank of the Missouri River. There have been endless days of storms, pouring buckets of rain into the River and sheets of rain on to land nearby which then drained into it. To put a boat in that river and climb in it would mean certain death as the speeding current and debris dragged it into the swirling water. There was little space between top of the murky river and the bottom of each bridge in view. On a high observation platform I met first Michael and then later Mark, men only a decade or so younger than I, who had come to watch the water. Michael had spent a year backpacking around the world almost forty years ago when he was 26. There is not enough room here to record that conversation since we both had many stories to tell. We both shared the joy of meeting people of all sorts in our respective travels. Mark and his wife have just moved here for the same reasons I have moved to this spot. My family and I walked this path a couple of years ago, but this time the solitude of an early walk with only the occasional jogger passing by gave me time to engage the sights and sounds more fully and, as I repeat endlessly, to become fully present with the surroundings. The nine year old in me caught the sound of a Red-winged Blackbird. I spent much of my childhood at the nearby swamp where the Blackbird’s song became a sort of Siren’s call to play. Soon I found the source, a swamp full of cattails and wild flowers and birds and frogs. It lay between the walkway, a grove of trees, and then the river. The air was filled with the sounds of the birds and the frogs. Next, the path led to a lower area with the river only inches from the top of the cement wall at the edge of the path. The foundational support of one of the bridges rose out of the water just about a foot from the edge of the path. When I looked up I saw many birds swirling around the top of that support. They were Cliff Swallows feeding hungry young whose demanding beaks were sticking out of the openings in many dozens of mud houses. As I settled into the sounds along the way, the deep and powerful bass of a train lumbering along on the tracks on the opposite side of the path provided the basso continuo for a symphony. The symphony included the sounds of cars and trucks on the bridges and highways nearby. Solo instruments included train whistles, birdsong and when near the swamp, croaking frogs who refused to be drowned out by the other performers in the symphony. When I was walking along I heard the barking of dogs from the Bar K Dog Bar, where dog owners can eat and drink while their dogs are playing in a secure area. Later there were some construction sounds as the supply of lofts and apartments here continues to grow. I looked up at the buildings of the downtown sitting on a hill not far away above the trees on that side of the path. I looked at the river side where trees, water and more trees across the river created the feeling of being in a lush, natural environment. This Symphony was live, no recording, not sound only. I couldn’t help but think metaphorically about the experience. The balance between human produced and naturally occurring environments suggested to me that with a healthy, thoughtful and balanced approach both can exist in harmony. While this was hardly a pristine natural place, protecting those places is paramount to our long term survival as a species. When Human made and naturally occurring environments seem dissonant, it is worth the effort to collaborate and compose a symphony that will endure as pleasing music to the ears of our great-grandchildren and theirs. Now to the trains: While walking back to the city on the wood bridge over the tracks, through the trees I caught sight of a train in the distance that seemed to be coming my direction. I decided to go back to a spot on the bridge right over the tracks. The nine-year-old in me sprang to life. As I was walking to a better vantage point, I saw a train approaching very slowly from the other direction. I was a bit confused by how slow it was going until I looked the other direction and saw the structure over the tracks with three red lights over three of the tracks, one the track on which the slow train was approaching. It came to a stop. I decided I would wait to see if this played out as I expected. It did. The train I had originally spotted came around from behind the trees coming from the opposite direction. It was a very long train with huge containers stacked two high. When it passed the standing train, they appeared to be only inches apart. It took a long time to pass, and the standing train remained for a long time after it had passed. The light in its track was still red. Then the light changed to green. It took a while for the train to start moving, but when it did, there was one short but very loud sound of the train whistle. Now this may be a nine-year-old’s wishful thinking, but I had been standing by myself on that foot bridge in full view of that train Engineer for a very long time. I couldn’t see the driver so I do not have clear evidence that it is so, but nine-year-old Pete is convinced that he blew the whistle for me. I waved. It was such a lovely morning!

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I Am Silent

“I Am Silent” composed by Anthony Maglione

The text of this work is from the “Divani Shamzi Tabriz” written by Jalal al-din Rumi. I heard the world premier of this piece last evening inside a concert of French Baroque Music played on period instruments. The context provided a rich medium for engaging the piece in a way that nurtured my spirit. Early music on period instruments has an unmitigated authenticity. The instruments bring no pretense to what is being played. They do not manipulate the notes and rhythms, they simply express them. They cannot always be kept in perfect tune, so there must be inherent strength and beauty in music as it is composed. From my first experience with very early music on, I have appreciated the openness of the chords, the weaving together of lines, often allowing each line to have a life of its own, and the contrast of the modal keys to the major and minor keys that form most of the music we hear. There is a freshness about this ancient music.

Now to the world premier of what was clearly not a French Baroque piece written in 1699 or whenever (unless the composer was reincarnating something from an earlier life). I am not qualified to be a music critic and eschew even the thought of such a thing. I can only describe my experience as I recall it. I have spent much of my adult life engaging at some level or other a journey of discovery of the contemplative approach to life. My experience of it has not involved going to a monastery for months, or spending long periods of time in a hermitage or secluding myself in an ashram. My mindfulness and contemplative experiences have been woven into ordinary life as much as possible with the occasional two or three day solitary retreat in a natural setting, often St. Francis of the Woods in north central Oklahoma. I mention this because it informed my listening to “I Am Silent” last evening.

The French Baroque pieces that preceded it prepared me for listening. I listened for the silence, and, sure enough, it arrived. My description is of the way I experienced the music only. I would not presume to recount in detail what actually was played and sung, just what found its way into my gut, which is pretty much where I experience what is actually important to me. Voices and those period instruments played well together as equal participants, sometimes with words from Rumi, sometimes not. I found myself drawn into the sounds as sometimes they lingered for a bit, often overlapping, sometimes coming in separate chunks. I was impacted most by the moment the rich gathering of sounds turned up to full volume grabbing all of my attention came to a full and immediate stop. There it was, not the absence of sound, but the presence of silence. It was as present as the sound had been before it. In fact in a metaphoric sense, it was louder than the sound. For me it was louder because silence is usually the lack of something. This time it surprised me by the magnitude of its presence.

I realize that description is dramatic and may sound overstated, but it is the way I experienced it. I don’t know what else to say but thank Anthony, Trilla and the Kansas City Baroque Consortium for the gift of silence. I needed it.

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Starting Fresh

Starting fresh! The Camino planted the seed. I spent 40 days walking across northern Spain with everything I needed on my back. That seed has quietly sprouted and grown. I have decided it is time to get rid of everything I own, sell my house and move to a studio apartment in downtown Kansas City. I am terrified and exhilarated at the same time. I am preparing the house for sale, listing it the first of August. Between now and then I will spend a little over a month in Europe, three weeks of it traveling with my Granddaughter. It will be the usual — backpack and hostels, deciding where to go next while on the road. After I spend a week in Austria and Germany visiting friends, Chloe will join me in London three weeks later we will return from Madrid (visiting Ireland and Paris sometime in between).

When I mentioned the move to an apartment in KC to someone, she said, “Oh, you’re cutting back” assuming that at my age that is what a person should do. I was surprised, since in my mind I am lightening the load so that I am free to do more with less to tie me down. I want to travel light for the rest of my journey on the planet, however short or long it may be. I am choosing the River Market area because I want to be around people who are out and about and visible, not just in houses and cars.

I am already grieving the end of my time as a student at Washburn. That became my place and those people, my people. I felt it when leaving class for the last time last Wednesday — a feeling of loss. I just turned in the final paper tonight (1700 words in German!).

I have been asked to preach at Faith Lutheran before I move, the church from which I retired as Senior Pastor ten years ago. I will do that on the Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend. That is always a low attendance weekend due to the urge to travel as soon as school is out and a long weekend arrives. That way I can’t do too much damage! It has been a long time since I have preached (and it is the only weekend I have available). That community has been a safe place filled with people who have shown more love and care to Mary Ann and me than could ever be repaid. I realize I am only moving an hour away, but try telling that to my gut!

I am listening to my waterfall at the moment, the one that has brought peace and serenity into my life daily for most of the ten years since retiring. The space behind my house feels secluded in spite of the residential setting, with trees providing the sensation of being nestled in a forest. The opossums, raccoons, recently a rabbit, the black squirrel and bunches of brown ones, birds of all kinds will be missed.

I guess it is time for another adventure. There will be plenty of pain, since I live with a chronic case of Separation Anxiety, but the need to see what lies around the bend keeps it at bay and spurs me on. The fear of separation will not stop me from falling in like with with the people I am yet to meet. The good news is that through these electronic media I can hang on to all of you with whom I have already fallen in like. Like it or not, I refuse to let go of you!

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The Undiscovered Country

I am doing an online retreat from the Abbey of the Arts site that provides a process for finding a word or phrase that might serve as way to think about the coming year as it is lived out day by day. The goal is to find a word or that is layered with meaning through the process of finding it. The word provides a thought-provoking perspective on events that might otherwise seem ordinary, barely worthy of notice.

Today’s instruction suggested taking a walk outside and letting the natural world suggest words and phrases to be considered. Instead, I sat looking through the large sunroom windows at the waterfall and flora and fauna in the area behind my house. Squirrels were the most active and entertaining, eating, drinking at the birdbath just outside my window, playing and arguing with one another. Included in that view, on a wall next to the windows, were the photograph of a sunrise at Lake Hefner in OKC and a fused glass art piece that brings to mind a spot in Tobermory, Scotland, where I spent an hour or two in contemplation. I pulled up on my iPad the photo I took of that engaging view when I was sitting there a little over a year ago and propped it up on a small table next to me.

The those visuals combined to provide a very fertile medium for contemplation. While I sat on a bench in Tobermory in conversation with that view, I was drawn to thoughts about the shape my life has taken in the last seven years. Those thoughts led me to catch sight in that view of a way of framing my future. It is not that I have any way of knowing what will come in the next moment, let alone in days, months or years to come. What comes is not mine to decide, but how I see the future and how I approach it is something to which I can attend. There is, of course, a truth so obvious as often to be missed. What I am doing at any point in my life that is called “now” is precisely how I am approaching the future. Say what I will, dream about who I wish to become, create whatever illusions about what I will achieve, what is real is what I am doing and thinking and feeling right now.

Right now, I am tired (for no good reason I can think of); I don’t feel particularly well (but not actually sick – I think); I don’t feel like doing anything other than sit in my very comfortable antique Mission-style rocker. At the same time I am exhilarated about the future as I converse with the visual stimuli engaging my thoughts. I am back in Tobermory with the fused glass abstract art piece (thank you, Stacey) expanding the view in my picture far beyond the limits of a photograph (even though she had no knowledge of the photograph when she created it). My exhilaration comes from recognizing the possibilities for what lies ahead. Not that there are specifics that come to mind. Exactly the opposite. They are possibilities, unknown, an undiscovered country.

All of you Trekkies are thinking of Star Trek VI. Maybe that is why that phrase popped into my mind, but, of course, “undiscovered country” is a phrase from one of Hamlet’s soliloquies in the Shakespeare play. I assume that is the place from where the movie title came. I found Shakespeare to be hopelessly enigmatic as a high school Sophomore. I still do, but not quite as much so. In context, the undiscovered country is death. After describing the pains and struggles of life endured in preference to an early arrival at the undiscovered country that lies ahead in death, Hamlet (Shakespeare) concludes that “Fear of death makes us all cowards, and our natural boldness becomes weak with too much thinking. Actions that should be carried out at once get misdirected, and stop being actions at all.” (This is a modern text version of the original Shakespeare.). Whether one has an expectation about the nature of that undiscovered country from a religious tradition or not, the specifics of that undiscovered country are unknown. The future will include the end of self-aware flesh and blood walking the planet.

When I sat on that bench in Tobermory, what lay in front of me was a ribbon of sea that wound between tree-covered hills into a mist revealing the outline of distant mountains. I realized that the future that comes with each “now” is an undiscovered country. I realized that my exhilaration is fueled by the unknown not only in what lies ahead but also in the present moment, now. I am especially drawn to the people I encounter, what lives inside them. I am not so much interested in gathering information about the places I visit as I am experiencing the presence of the people I meet. Of course there is self-interest. If I honor their presence in that moment, by inference, my presence on the planet is recognized. To be trite, it is a win-win. When I leave the planet is not particularly relevant. What is relevant are the glimpses of that undiscovered country in each moment as it comes, glimpses of a future awaiting discovery.

For now I make plans in pencil on slips of paper that are easily recycled or tossed out. In the past weeks plans have changed dramatically, more than once. I use pencils and erasers to do German homework. For me, the directions to the undiscovered country are being written in pencil with erasers nearby.

Here follows the entire soliloquy in contemporary English and the English of Shakespeare: After all, who would put up with all life’s humiliations—the abuse from superiors, the insults of arrogant men, the pangs of unrequited love, the inefficiency of the legal system, the rudeness of people in office, and the mistreatment good people have to take from bad—when you could simply take out your knife and call it quits? Who would choose to grunt and sweat through an exhausting life, unless they were afraid of something dreadful after death, the undiscovered country from which no visitor returns, which we wonder about without getting any answers from and which makes us stick to the evils we know rather than rush off to seek the ones we don’t? Fear of death makes us all cowards, and our natural boldness becomes weak with too much thinking. Actions that should be carried out at once get misdirected, and stop being actions at all. But shh, here comes the beautiful Ophelia. Pretty lady, please remember me when you pray.

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,

The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,

The insolence of office, and the spurns

That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,

When he himself might his quietus make

With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that the dread of something after death,

The undiscovered country from whose bourn

No traveler returns, puzzles the will

And makes us rather bear those ills we have

Than fly to others that we know not of?

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,

And enterprises of great pith and moment

With this regard their currents turn awry,

And lose the name of action.—Soft you now,

The fair Ophelia!—Nymph, in thy orisons

Be all my sins remembered.

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A Reflection Day

A Reflection Day: I am sitting in Tanja’s apartment while she is at work, reflecting on the last five weeks of travel. Access to good WiFi is a great privilege, one I appreciate more than ever since there has not always been easy access on this trip. I will not list again all the people who have fulfilled my central purpose in traveling by allowing me into their lives for a moment or a day or more. This trip has provided beautiful sights, beautiful people, character-building challenges and both physical and mental exercise. I am always about the relationships to the people, the physical environment and a complete immersion in the moment I am in, whoever or whatever happens to occupy that moment with me.

The consequence of experiencing each moment fully is that feelings about what the moment contains are also fully engaged. When I write I am forthcoming with those feelings. You hear the good, the bad and the ugly whether you care to hear them or not. As I have said ad nauseam, if I want to experience the exhilarations that life offers, I need to be willing to allow the frustrations and stresses their place also for life to be rich and layered and vibrant. I remember once when reflecting on the most difficult times that Mary Ann and I were experiencing together in those last years, recognizing that we were not just watching life go by, we were living it from top to bottom, side to side, corner to corner. We were not sitting on the sidelines, we were on the field in the thick of the game with all the risks, running, getting tackled, regrouping and running again. (Yes, I am thinking American football – you can choose your own metaphor.) 

The life I have now cannot compare to the magnificence of the life Mary Ann and I had in those last years. I cannot imagine accomplishing anything more important and valuable than what we experienced during those years. Measured against them, what I do now seems trivial. Having said that, I am not finished yet. I suppose I am still searching. The people I meet come to be very important to me quickly, more important than they realize. Where I could make a huge difference in Mary Ann’s life during our life together, I can make only a small difference just for a few minutes or hours in the lives of the people I meet along the way. I can celebrate and appreciate music and beauty in all its forms. Using the Camino as metaphor, walking 800 kilometers on foot, carrying a backpack toward Santiago (except for the day I was lost!), reaching the destination is not as important as the people and places experienced along the way. I celebrate so much the people I met on the Camino, especially my Camino Kids, Dragan (and Slavica), Tanja and Laida. During the last month they and I have talked together about what is important in life including the challenges.   

Central to my life now is living in a way that honors my Children, Lisa and Micah, and my Grandchildren, Chloe, Abigail and Ashlyn (as well as Dad Denis and Mom Rebecca). Their love and respect are vital for me. I celebrate that each of them has my love and respect without reservation. The future for me remains a mystery, no bucket list, just the expectation that there will be marvels and wonders yet to come, ones that I can put in the bucket after I discover them and experience them. All of you whom I have come to know and who bother to read this are already in my bucket, whether you like it or not. Don’t worry, there are no expectations that come with being there, only hopes that you will thrive and grow and experience life fully.   

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The Stress is real!I am sitting in the Madrid Airport early in a 12 hour layover between Basel, Switzerland and Estella, Spain, a town along the Camino. I will be spending some time with Laida, one of my three Camino Kids. I am looking forward to reconnecting with the Camino and Laida. This is one of the joys of travel.

The joys of travel are interspersed with substantial stresses in between, located sometimes right in the middle of the joys. Sound familiar? Part of the theme I chose for my blog is, “Life is a choice.” Choosing life produces great potential for moments of exhilaration and stresses of equal magnitude. In an exchange of texts with my Son, Micah, after revealing that I was very stressed about the missteps and roadblocks as I changed plans so rapidly, I concluded that I would rather be dealing with these stresses than sitting at home during the summer, bored silly.

I mean that, but when walking back to my hostel late at night completely confused by the lines and arrows on the phone maps, getting turned around in the opposite direction, rescued by a couple of city workers out late cleaning up after an accident, the stress radiates throughout this small body. It was, of course, raining also. It was the Saturday night of a day of colorful parades culminated in partying that had taken many beyond their limits. But I was coming back from an exhilarating concert of Verdi’s Requiem. Eventually, I made it. I survived.

The vast majority of my stresses come from frustration with not having been more thorough and anticipating more of the challenges, preparing more carefully for them. The mistakes trigger bouts of angry self talk. I am my own worst enemy. Mixed in with all that are experiences that make my soul shudder in wonder at the life I am leading. I just don’t seem to get one without the other.

One of those moments when it felt as if the universe was out to get me happened when I walked in the rain to the sheltered spot next to a building in Freiburg where there is wifi to be found. My hostel has none. I needed to phone ATT about my data program. I needed to try to connect with the Freiburg German Language School contact in Barcelona. Both of those calls were important ones that needed to be made. I had heard a small brass ensemble busking in a street a few blocks away earlier in the day. You guessed it! They came with their instruments and set up just feet from me. I managed to finish one of the calls before they started, but there would be no more phone calling while they were there (they played well and it was my kind of music). It was symbolic of the crazy accumulation of large and small frustrations that life brings. All I could do was laugh and go get some ice cream.

I do not claim to be a master of handling stress. I choose to hang on for a while to the mistakes that frustrate me the most so that I can get through them (not around then) and on to doing something, just going on. While I can’t undo the mistakes, I can waste as little time as possible doing nothing while denying my culpability or feeling worthless and instead just get on with doing something, anything, that has even the slightest potential for creating options for ameliorating the situation.

I have thought more than once that I am too old to be doing this, that I have crossed the threshold and need just to go home and immerse myself in the familiar, reducing at least slightly the risks that come with the complexities of International travel. I have doubted again and again the possibility of ever learning to speak German. I have thought maybe it is just time to stop doing all this. But I can’t. I feel fully the pain of the failures and frustrations that come because I am putting myself in difficult situations, but I can’t stop. I realize that that is too categorical a statement. Circumstances may bring me of necessity to stay put, or I may simply decide it is time, but not now.

So, here I sit at midnight Madrid time (and body clock time) waiting for the 9am leg in the flight to Pamplona from Basel. Laida and I have exchanged messages. At the moment we are both making this up as we go along. She just said she will pick me up at the airport tomorrow some time after my scheduled arrival, and we will drive back to Estella, along the Camino. She grew up there and has returned more than a decade later to work in support of groups and people making the Pilgrimage. (We haven’t talked in a long time, so I am not sure how accurate that description is.)

The adventure goes on. What will happen next remains to be seen. Shortly after I see it, I will tell you what I have seen (or maybe post a picture of it on Facebook).

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A New Direction!

Finally! A Decision. A new direction.I have been traveling without a plan after visiting friends in Vienna, Austria, and Rheinfelden, Germany. I came to Freiburg, Germany because I like it, but I had not been able to decide where to go afterward. I have more than two weeks before I go to Wiesbaden to visit Tanja and then return to Kansas.  

While here, I thought I would visit some language schools since I had been thinking about coming here for a month or two to study German some time in the future. The future just arrived!  I realized that I could go ahead and take German classes for two weeks. I am here. It is Germany. I want to learn to speak German. Why not? 

After hours of trying to follow the damn (!!!!) iPhone map and Google maps’ directions as they took me in circles, I finally made it to two different schools. I liked the second one very much. It is three blocks away from a University with young people everywhere. The people in the office were engaging and enthusiastic about the school (not so in the first one I visited). The person with whom I spoke sent me the link to the pre-test to assess my level. I have taken it. In my estimation, I did horribly, but I will find out tomorrow the level at which my assessment places me and whether or not there is a class for me beginning Monday. Whatever the level, I have chosen to take a more intense class which includes an hour of conversation study/practice in the afternoon following the four hours of class in the morning. I remember how hard the German class was last year in Vienna, but nowhere did it say that it would be easy to learn a language, especially German. At this point, I still refuse to give up. A fellow named Art Linkletter wrote a book many years ago titled, “Old Age is Not for Sissies.” At this point, I think I could write such a book. 

Any of you who use Facebook have probably seen the pictures and my comments on the first week of this trip. I had a fantastic time with some of the young people with whom I studied last year in Vienna. With such people on the planet, there is hope!! Then I spent a weekend with Camino Kid, Dragan and his wife Slavica who again showed me hospitality, fed me, took me to see Albert Schweitzer’s birthplace in a lovely, quaint village, and were so very kind to me. We had intense conversations about many things. Staying with them were two young people from their extended family, Milos (19) and Mirjana (15). I had the joy of spending time with them, again with intense conversations about much, in great depth. What a privilege to be allowed into the lives of such remarkable people. They have all been through so much! I am humbled by their strength and resilience. 

Just yesterday, I spent a couple of hours with Nadja, her baby (a year old now) and her Mother, all of us having tea next to the Rhine river in Basel.  I met Nadja at the Boston Early Music Festival four years ago.  She is a phenomenal Harpsichordist.  She and her sister perform together.  I visited her in Basel about three years ago.  She is one of the most talented people I know.  We talked about many things, especially life with a little one, trying to balance parenting and a career.  She and her Mother provided a very pleasant afternoon before getting on the train to Freiburg.  

I have booked a bed in a hostel (no WiFi – arrrgh) for the next two and a half weeks, first in a room of six and then in a room of twenty – way cheaper than a hotel and filled with people to get to know! …and so the adventure goes on!    

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Surviving the Impossible

How is it possible to survive the impossible? I have been thinking. Shit happens. When it happens, survival seems impossible. Lots of people have been through stuff that is in difficulty far beyond anything I have been through. While I don’t deny that is true, it is irrelevant. Our pain is what is relevant. Someone else’s situation may be much more tragic than ours when measured objectively from a distance. Yes, whatever it is that we are going through, it could be worse. So what? We still need to figure out some way to get through it. It is our shit.Again, I ask: How is it possible to survive the impossible? I cannot give an answer that is definitive for everyone for all time. I can only describe what I did to survive my experience of the impossible. At this moment, as I write, I am feeling shame that this is so woefully self-centered as if I was the only one who faced the impossible. Mary Ann faced the impossible. Her impossible situation looked far different from her perspective. She survived the impossible for over twenty-three years. I cannot tell you how she did it. I will never understand the brute strength and resolve that kept her from giving up. About two weeks before she died, it appeared that she simply decided it was time. She stopped eating and drinking. She left on her terms. Whatever one’s understanding of death and what follows, she survived the impossible.

I cannot tell you how she did it. I can only tell you what I did. The first thing I did and the most important thing I did was to survive. When things were impossible that was all I could do. I just didn’t stop doing something, anything, to survive. Even in the face of the impossible, there was something I could do. Figuring out what that was took every ounce of energy, creativity, mental calculations, and resources I could muster. That is all I could do. I could not fix the situation, I could not fix Mary Ann. I could only do something, anything, no matter how small it might be or how inadequate in the face of the magnitude of the situation.

In addition to that relentless will to survive, what made the difference in the quality of that survival was writing almost every night for the last almost two years of our life together. I wrote a post of 1000 to 1500 words as soon as Mary Ann was settled in bed. Most nights there was an hour or two right after I got her changed and into bed before she became restless and agitated. I wrote during that time. I think there are five hundred some posts on the blog I wrote then ( In those posts I described what had happened that day in great detail, too much detail to make for good reading. When I wrote, I gained some perspective on what had happened. It may have been an impossible day, but by that time it was apparent that I had survived the day. The writing shaped my experience. Just surviving became, instead, really living. I chose to drop any pretense and expose my vulnerabilities as I wrote. That allowed me to actually grow and change as a person rather than clinging to pretense, some artificial image of who I should be.

As I look back, I can see some of the reasons survival was possible:

A Dedication: The survival I will now describe could not have happened as it did without many dozens of volunteer Rescuers coming to the house in two or three hour shifts for the last eight working years before I retired to do full time care. I can never repay these people.

First: I never wasted time blaming God or the Universe or whatever, as if somehow we were owed better. Stuff happens. I did not have enough psychic or emotional or physical energy to waste it on determining why it was happening, whom to blame.

Next: I chose to accept each decline and each improvement in the ride on our roller coaster as quickly as possible, name it our new normal, and get on with the task of accommodating to it.

Next: We did not give away to any of the medical specialists full responsibility for making decisions in her medical care. I emailed questions before appointments with the Neurologist. I treated the doctors and other medical professionals with respect, but never accepted specific interventions without question. I became an expert at least on Mary Ann’s expression of Parkinson’s disease and Lewy Body Dementia. I had to be very assertive at times, but most of the time I was treated with respect. I served as Mary Ann’s Advocate. She always had final say in her treatments.

Next: Mary Ann retained her dignity and would not tolerate any condescension by people assuming that she was less than a whole person. I knew better than to treat her as anything other than my wife. She was never a poor and helpless invalid, no matter how debilitated she might be at any moment.

Next: The caregiving tasks that I did, including those associated with what went into her alimentary canal when she could not negotiate by herself getting the food to her mouth to what came out of that canal whenever and in whatever form, became my central purpose. I had the honor of being entrusted with those tasks. I could actually make a difference in the life of another human, one that I loved and promised to love no matter the circumstances. I got to keep that promise to the very end.

Next: I recognized that what I was doing for her, I was actually doing for me. She taught me what it means to love someone. I could not resent her for needing my help because responding to that need was fulfilling me, making me more into a person I could respect. Please understand, I often failed miserably in giving her the kindness she deserved. I was frustrated and angry at times. I developed no illusions about being noble or heroic. I did not do all that I should have done. I have to accept that. She gave me the gift of some soft kisses one time standing in the kitchen when she as still able to do so. When she was almost completely unresponsive in the days before she died, I said, “You know that I love you.” She responded, “Yes.” Those gifts have been profoundly reassuring to me.

Next: As wonderful as my life appears now as I wander for months at a time in other countries, carrying my backpack, staying in hostels, meeting fascinating people everywhere I go, it will never measure up to the quality of life, the sense of purpose that filled the last years with Mary Ann. I remember writing in one of those hundreds of posts during the last year and a half that I did not feel as if I was missing something in life due to our circumstances. We were living life from edge to edge, all of life, every moment. Nothing more was needed to be fulfilled. We did everything that circumstances would allow. We even pushed those limits. We did not ask permission, we just did everything that seemed possible to us.

Finally: In doing everything possible, we lived through the impossible. Mary Ann ended the battle with dignity. I remember marveling as she lay on the bed those last days how beautiful her face looked. Other than when we tried to turn her a bit, she was not agitated and did not appear to be in distress, no breathing issues. When the time came, she just left.

The pain of grief was excruciating at first. I chose to lean into the pain rather than try to avoid it. I went through it rather than around it. That way I received the gifts that the grief had to give. There is a gentleness about the grief now. My quality of life has expanded by embracing feelings without fear.

I have no regrets. I can write this feeling at peace with the life we lived together. I now have a life full of new experiences, new possibilities. I am thrilled and exhilarated with the wonder of it all. I am free to take risks, to relate to people openly and allow connections to emerge. I still feel lonely sometimes, afraid sometimes, sad sometimes, but alive, fully alive. Nothing can match the importance of what Mary Ann and I did together. My hope now is that when I meet someone, listen to their story and tell them mine, we are both better for having been connected if only for a time. That hope is what gives me purpose now.

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Whether looking or not

“Everything is connected, the past, the present, the future. It converges on the moment we happen to be living, wherever or whenever that moment is occurring.” I am quoting me. I just said it (thought it…now I said it, although no one was here to hear me do it so I can’t prove that). I have said stuff like this before. I am no where near smart enough to know that what I said is actually true. 

I only know that I seem to experience life that way. It happened last night. Don’t raise expectations, it was nothing exciting to anyone but me. I sat down with the program for a concert by a choral ensemble (Kantorei in Kansas City) and I almost laughed out loud. I turned to a page toward the end that had bios on the featured Artists. There was a picture and a bio that looked as if I had written it. If it had been in German, I could have claimed to be the author.

Ten days ago, I took my German Final Exam at Washburn. It was very difficult and I was painfully stressed as I studied for it and realized (again) I was in way over my head. I struggled for two hours to write essays in German without dictionary or access to any resources other than my brain. All I had was what I had stuffed into my brain in the prior few days. My brain was quite rebellious when I was stuffing it. In fact, almost as fast as I stuffed, it upchucked. I have no idea where the upchucked information went. I am just grateful there was no cleanup needed. (It was German information. They are known for their cleanliness.)

The hardest essay to write was the one in response to the prompt that we write about a famous German of our choosing. We needed to prepare by gathering information about that person so that we could write the required minimum of fourteen sentences. (Have you ever seen a German sentence?) I made a tactical error. I picked a German poet named Rainer Maria Rilke and chose to write about his impact on the genre, his innovative style and the philosophical dimension of his work. I realized the specific nature of my error the night before the test as I tried to memorize the vocabulary and commit to memory the basic outline of the essay so that I would not forget at least in general terms what I had planned to write. The error: I had not written a bio of his life with an obvious chronological order to help anchor the material in my brain. There was not a logical this happened and then that happened.  I entered the room fully aware of my mistake, hoping to find the material somewhere in my rebellious and now hopelessly stressed brain. The room was not quiet and I am easily distracted. After about an hour struggling to concentrate and reclaim any of what I had prepared, I asked to move to a quiet room and finish (barely) the exam. Last Wednesday I met with the Professor to find out how I did. She complemented me on my writing and went through the entire test with me. Surprisingly, I had done extremely well. 

When I went to the concert last night, that experience was still glowing inside. Rainer Maria Rilke was the featured Artist whose bio in that program contained in English the very descriptions I had written in German ten days ago. That is where last night’s experience started.  Then I began to realize how many bits and pieces of my life touched that moment and that place.

Among the singers was one who had studied for a time in Wellington, New Zealand. After the concert we had an animated conversation about our respective times in New Zealand. One of the singers had performed in a concert I attended a week ago. Others in their bios revealed connections with people and places that have been a part of my life.

The venue was St. Andrew’s Episcopal church in Kansas City. I had led a service of evening prayer for area Lutheran churches in that sanctuary around thirty-five years ago when we were learning services from a new hymnal. As I sat there last evening, I had flashbacks to that service and the people involved, many of them much respected, some now deceased. That was also the place where an AGO (American Guild of Organists) choir of which I was a member rehearsed. Thoughts of the choir members and the concerts joined me as I sat in that room awaiting the beginning of the concert. All of those times and those experiences and those people were with me in that room at that moment.

The choir sang a thoughtful poem filled with imagery from nature that Rilke had written during the years he wrote in French. The music was by a composer named Morten Lauridsen and was so beautiful as to stir feelings. During the last piece a new awareness sprung up in the freshly tilled ground of my feelings. The words were a poem by Wendell Berry called “The Peace of Wild Things.” Berry describes the struggles of life and his visits into places in nature where he finds peace. It was in that field of sprouting feelings that I remembered that where I was sitting at that moment in the Nave of St. Andrews is only blocks away from where Mary Ann and I spent fifteen years raising our children. It was there, on a phone call from a doctor’s office almost exactly thirty years ago that Mary Ann learned of the diagnosis of her Parkinson’s. I had been and was still in Oklahoma City at that time for six months starting my ministry there while she stayed with Lisa and Micah to finish out the school year. Lisa was graduating from high school and Micah from the Eighth Grade.

This is always a time of the year when Mary Ann is especially in our minds. Mothers’ Day and her May 15th birthday come together, along with remembering the last days before her death on June 14. In that moment awareness of the thirty years of life since then settled in. It was not distressing or even uncomfortable. The feelings were strong, but worthy of savoring as signs of love and a full life together. Even the grief has nourished the quality of life that has been growing in the last thirty years.

 As I sit here at the table writing this, in front of me is the fused glass art piece Stacey made, the one that reminds me of the scene in Tobermory, Scotland that stirred me to contemplate the journey I am on from its roots to an unknown future. The piece is titled “Endless Horizons.”

The present, past and future all connected last evening. It contained them all. It is always so, in every moment, whether we happen to be looking for it or not.

After describing his retreats into nature among the wild things, Berry’s poem and the song conclude with these words: “For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

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