Shocked, Right Here at Home

I was shocked, personally challenged, finally proud.

How could it be? A land-locked state in the geographic center of the contiguous 48 has the highest per capita rate of resettling refugees! It has no ports of entry favoring coastal states. In fact, it can’t even boast of an international airport.

This state is rock-ribbed conservative and solidly “red”. It’s hard to get my head around the fact that the state with the highest per capita rate of resettling refugees voted for Donald Trump by a wide margin and has a solidly Republican delegation in DC, Republican governor and a state legislature dominated by the GOP.

The highest per capita rate of resettling refugees of any state in the nation belongs to my home state, Nebraska. This fact come as a complete surprise and challenges many stereotypical presumptions. Though I often feel alienated by the state’s conservative politics, this statistic makes me very proud.

Well, maybe I shouldn’t be so shocked.  The fact was reported Monday on the front page of The Washington Post [link].  The story reaffirms what I know about the place I will always call home — Nebraskans are inherently good, generous, fair, hard-working, welcoming and kind.

I’m proud so many new-comers will receive their introduction to our country through the hearts and help of middle-America Nebraskans. But I dare not lallygag in complacent satisfaction too long. Clearly more than a few inaccurate presumptions and lingering stereotypes need challenging — on all sides, from every perspective!

More than at any time in my life we are a nation at odds, separated within closed enclaves of social homogeneity, separated into antagonistic camps willing to listen only to arguments that bolster narrow preconceptions. As a nation too many of us are hardened, intolerant, even angry.

Often enough we get shocked back into reality by seemingly innocuous facts. Yes, rock-ribbed conservative, Trump-loving Nebraska quietly — and likely with no forethought of intention — surfaces as the state with a distinguished openness to refugees.

How can this be? Perhaps we need to base our judgments and opinions more in fact than presumptions we want to believe but are not true. Perhaps we should come out from behind walls that separate, categorize and define us long enough to discover the truth about one another — precisely the truth about those different from ourselves.

With all this still rumbling within my thoughts I stumbled upon the review of a new cookbook under the title, Binding the Nation in Its Love of Meatloaf [link]. At my age I have learned to take nothing as happenstance or mere coincidence.

When New York Times colleagues Frank Bruni and Jennifer Steinhauer concocted their idea to write a cookbook neither knew that Mr. Trump would become president. He had agreed to contribute a recipe before the election. The authors had already taken their cue from the divisiveness they saw in our country.

Bruni observes, “I don’t think meatloaf can save the world, but I certainly think in the coming tomorrows there will be a healthier appetite for comfort.” And with a prescience you’d expect from reporters of their caliber they explain, “It’s a quintessential American dish that can bind a nation!”

The Times reporters are surely onto something! Beyond comfort we are hungry for a renewed sense of community, the sort of familial warmth that keeps me going back to Nebraska as my favorite place for Thanksgiving dinner.

Could it really be as simple as sharing a meal? It’s certainly a good start. Plenty of precedent — religious and national — suggests breaking bread together can lead to shocking and challenging results, the sort that will truly make us proud about who we once were and might still become once more.

Hardest Thing I’ve Done

We pass the spot every time one us takes the dog for a walk. About thirty yards to the south, we see her house whenever we are coming or going. It’s the place where my husband fell on the ice and broke his ankle. Moments before he’d stepped out to take the dog for a quick walk so we could make a movie matinee. Six weeks later it still fills me with rage and resentment.

No, I’m not angry that he fell — accidents happen. I resent our neighbor for ignoring him on an icy sidewalk in front of her own house. She passed by within feet of him — twice — without saying a word. Not even a polite, “Are you okay?” These many weeks later I’m still seething about the three people in the car who were dropping her off just as I was arriving in response to my husband’s call for help. Not one of the chauffeurs even acknowledged that someone was obviously down and hurt on the sidewalk right in front of them.

The only offer of help came from a different neighbor who ran out of a house from across the street. Seeing an ankle at an awkward angle and recognizing the signs of shock, he wisely advised us to go directly to the ER rather than Urgent Care and took the dog after helping lift my husband into the car. The compassion and generosity of this neighbor doesn’t begin to quell the seething resentment I hold toward the other.

As with so much anger, I haven’t spoken a word about this to anyone. It just festers. My husband sings my praises for my patience, kindness, generosity and good care shown to him. He’s even told others that he lives with a saint. I silently take it all in.

Another thing we haven’t spoken about is that all the wonderful qualities he praises in me can just as easily be the shadow side of my persistent desire to be in control and to be seen as perfect. As the 1930s radio hit The Shadow introduced every episode, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” Yes, it does.

Not far below my carefully crafted persona lurks a robust ego and a heart capable of all manner of revenge. That’s ever-present as I wish that our neighbor would fall on the ice so I’d have the chance to obliviously walk by her. It flashes forth as I plot nasty vendettas each time I walk the dog past her house. It’s barely constrained while rehashing all sorts of nasty gossip I know about the woman. This virulent undertow reveals my vengeful side, belies a deep familiarity with eye-for-an-eye morality.

After all, I’m certainly justified and in the right! Am I not? My efforts over the past six weeks have been pretty decent and generous. Yet, we must also be honest. My motives can be much less virtuous than they appear. Yes, I have tried hard and do think I’ve been a patient, generous, attentive care-giver — a loving and supportive husband. I am a good guy — though sainthood is probably down the road a piece!

Here’s what I’d like my husband to know… on this morning’s walk with the dog past our neighbor’s house on the sidewalk where he fell, I noticed that her Sunday paper was much closer to the street than her porch. It’s been this way many Sundays so this was nothing special. But today I paused, suppressed my raging thoughts, leaned over, picked it up and tossed the paper to her front door.

“Honey, just so you know, that’s the hardest thing I’ve had to do during the past six weeks.”

Grandma had a Grandma, Too!

Going to Grandma’s house was never much fun. I didn’t have the words then but now I’d describe her as austere, rigid, stoic, an old woman for whom life had been a disappointment. Memories make me wonder if she was ever truly happy.

There are no photos of her smiling, no family stories of joviality, no warm hugs like those we enjoyed from our other Grandma. A snapshot taken in front of the house on their 50th wedding anniversary in 1954 shows a couple standing at attention, conspicuously separate from the other, Grandma taller than our retiring Grandpa.

Dad always sympathized with his Dad. He’d recall from time to time, “There was no question who wore the pants in our family.” More than once, Mom said, “It’s really a shame that a son would feel that way about his mother.” Well after Grandma died in 1967 Dad would rehash such memories. For a long time they seemed to still hold him bound.

One account suffices to capture how these memories could slide into resentment. At the height of the Depression, Mom and Dad were struggling farmers trying really hard to hold on to the farm (they succeeded). Grandma, on the other hand, made a big production of buying a new fur coat. Mom and Dad were buying the farm from Grandpa and Grandma and knew they dare not be late with a payment. Dad was desperately trying to feed an ever-growing brood not buy his Mom a new fur coat! Really, what kind of Mother or Grandma would act like that?

Well, this week — fifty years after Grandma’s death — a flood of insight, compassion and affection has taken me off-guard. It came in the form of an even older family story unknown until it seemingly appeared out of the blue through the wonders of the Internet. It’s an obscure story recorded in her native German by a Franciscan Sister from LaCrosse, Wisconsin that tell of events from 1826. The story is about Grandma’s grandma!

Sister Colomba, OSF tells how her mother, Anna was born to Johanna Druffner on July 26, 1826 in Rottweiler, Schwarzwaldkreis, Wuerttemberg, Germany. Her father is listed as unknown on birth records. The family would dismiss his anonymity with the facile explanation that “he had an accident in the forest.” But Sister Colomba tells more!

Citing a man with knowledge of that time and place, Sister’s story recalls “a rover who would work for a farmer, get a daughter in trouble, and escape into the woods.” According to her source’s account this happened on numerous occasions with numerous young women. When area farmers concluded this was the same man perpetrating these crimes, “they went searching for him in the woods.” There is no report that they found him, just a curt note simply stating he was never seen again.

Other genealogical sources combine to profile a woman who knew a lifetime of hardship, sadness and loss. Grandma’s grandma would leave her homeland, marry at 23, spend seven unsettled years with her husband in Philadelphia, all before moving on to rural Iowa. She would bear ten children, five of whom died in infancy. The sole photo we have of Anna and Wilhelm presents a sinewy, intense, tough woman peering somewhat blankly into the distance.

Widowed at 60, Anna lived for a time with her son, William on the home place. The story further explains that she “kept wandering away because she wanted to go ‘home’.” Eventually, Anna found her way to LaCrosse where her daughter’s Franciscan community reserved seven rooms on the top floor of their hospital “for people who needed a home.” There she died in 1908 and was buried, a final resting place separate from her husband who was buried near their farm in Iowa. She was 81. Grandma was now 24, married, had just given birth to her second child, building a home with Grandpa in Nebraska.

Scripture says the transgressions of the fathers are visited upon their children to the third and fourth generation. We say this more colloquially, “An apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” or “He’s a chip off the old block.” It’s been nothing short of revelatory for me to discover that the Grandma I didn’t like very much had a grandma, too!

A kind of liberation comes with this deeper appreciation for why Grandma may have been the way she was. What is still reverberating is the realization that I am alive as the consequence of a rape. Still unsettling is the awareness that one of my distant grandfathers likely killed the father of his granddaughter, my Grandma’s grandma!

Driving down the wintry parkway yesterday, ruminating over these new-found facts, sifting through sundry emotions, a fresh warmth and unforeseen love began to take hold. That previously tedious and obscure Gospel account of Jesus — the one about so-and-so being begot by so-and-so — came to mind. Jesus’ own genealogy contains harlots and murderers too. Ours is precisely the humanity God chose to embrace.

In retelling the story of our salvation, it remains essential that these accounts and people be remembered, named, and in so doing, embraced. I’m coming to believe this is what real love looks like!

For Better, For Worse

My marriage vows are meaning much more to me these days — not “wedding day” vows but the promises we live daily through the ups and downs of the everyday. Yes, I’m talking about “for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; until death.”

This deepening appreciation was set in place by a nasty sprain and ankle fracture two months ago. No weight-bearing use of the leg and inability to drive for nearly seven weeks almost drove me crazy. The hardest part was accepting my powerlessness and dependence on others, primarily my husband. I rued the day tables would be turned and questioned whether I’d be able to match his patience, generosity and kindness.

Well, the fates have a wicked sense of humor. The very day after I got out of my “boot” and was able to transition to a Velcro brace to support my fledgling mobility, my husband fell on an icy sidewalk just outside our house when taking Jeb the Dog for his daily afternoon walk.

The tables were more than turned — with a nasty sprain, two fractures and an actual break he will have surgery to implant a plate and numerous screws as soon as the swelling is sufficiently reduced. His injury was far worse than mine! As if the fates wished to place a huge exclamation point on the coincidence, his surgery is scheduled for the precise day and hour I was previously scheduled to begin physical therapy on my healing ankle. My injury? His injury? Distinctions collapse in marriage.

“For better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; until death.” Familiar words, often expressed as a naive wager that things will always be okay if not easy. Words often spoken as an either/or, as if life proffers a dualistic one-or-the-other. Rather, we learn that what we profess is actually the warp and the woof of a single fabric and it’s our gift to weave it all into a seamless tapestry.

And there is more! From the cruel depths of this Minnesota winter — with the two of us hobbling around begrudgingly needing others for help, depending on the incredible generosity of neighbors, with Jeb the Dog thoroughly confused and bodily inconvenienced by disappearance of any semblance of routine — the worse, poorer and sickness part of the formula takes precedence. All the while reminding us that the horizon of death can not be ignored.

And, still more! The begrudging admission of powerlessness, the icy starkness of winter, our cruel fate and dependence on others, all yield another gift — the truth of love, the safe harbor of relationship, our reliance on one another. Who would know if the risk is not taken, the promises not made?

Strange, isn’t it! Love surely shines forth in the easy and happy times. Yet we discover an unplumbed depth, find an untested resilience, desire to affirm what we have vowed when we discover the face of love from that place of need, poverty and dependence. Such is the nature of love, it’s most sublime gift.

Amid the depths of winter we are taken off guard by the gift of Love, the presence of Love, overcome by the Presence of One who chooses to be with us precisely when and where we need love most.

Of the One and the Many

Thanks to or our friend Sheila Wilson for this timely excerpt from The Brother’s Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky:

” It’s just the same story as a doctor once told me,” observed the elder. “He was a man getting on in years, and undoubtedly clever He spoke as frankly as you, though in jest, in bitter jest. ‘I love humanity,’ he said, ‘but I wonder at myself. The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular. In my dreams,’ he said, ‘ I have often come to making enthusiastic schemes for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually have faced crucifixion if it had been suddenly necessary; and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with any one for two days together, as I know by experience. As soon as any one is near me, his personality disturbs my self-complacency and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I begin to hate the best of men: one because he’s too long over his dinner; another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. but it has always happened that the more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity.’ “

Happy Birthday, Karen!

Karen would have been 70 today. I’ve been thinking about her a lot — not just because it’s her birthday but because that’s what we do with people we love. We think of them every day, often numerous times through the day.

We saw the movie, Loving the other night (highly recommended). It recounts the story of Mildred & Richard Loving, an interracial couple married in 1958 who were arrested for violating the Commonwealth of Virginia’s prohibition against mixed-race marriages. The movie is a must-see!

Karen was very much with me in the theater. I kept thinking, “This wasn’t all that long ago. I remember!” Karen would have been 21 when the US Supreme Court overturned statutes in 27 states that prohibited marriage between people of different races. It’s of little consolation that our home state of Nebraska had removed its explicit prohibition of whites marrying either Blacks or Asians in 1964. Karen was 18!  As inconceivable as it seems today, it really wasn’t all that long ago!

The special reason Karen was so present through the movie is because she was on the forefront. Her summer jobs during college were in recreation programs for kids living in Omaha’s public housing projects. She regularly tutored disadvantaged kids through a program at Duchesne College. Her African-American “little sister” was a regular visitor to our home. Her first job out of college was teaching English at an inner-city public high school. She helped GIs get their GEDs during the four years her husband was in the Army.

But Karen was no bleeding heart liberal. And this gives me hope amid our nation’s current political climate.  Karen was a self-proclaimed “Rockefeller Republican” much to the consternation of this “Bobby Kennedy Democrat.”  Karen’s sense of justice was strong but it wasn’t motivated by political ideology.

Karen did what she did because it was the right thing to do. She understood that we are only as free as the most disenfranchised among us. She also did what she did because she was a young woman of deep faith. Sitting in the movie theater I recognized that legislation, court decisions and partisan politics — though vitally important — are not what truly endures. No, ultimately it is all about love. Only love endures. Karen loved others, often at her own expense.

“So, Karen, thanks for teaching me this and so much more about what really matters! Yes, it really wasn’t all that long ago. And as inconceivable as it may have seemed at the time, life really does go by faster than we would have ever imagined — maybe not the search for justice but at least our meteoric roles in making the world a more loving place.”

The only words that come close to honoring the loss of one so dear are from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran theologian who died in a Nazi concentration camp a year before Karen was born:

“There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it. It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve — even in pain — the authentic relationship. Further more, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.”

Happy Birthday, Karen! Your love endures — everyday, in numerous ways, in a multiplicity of faces.

Joseph’s Quandry

A friend shared this fresh and compelling image of the Nativity. The centrality of Joseph in the painting offers an intriguing alternative to most artistic renderings of this scene. Here, Mary yields and enjoys a well-deserved rest.

Joseph’s apparent quandary reminded me of T S Eliot’s magnificent poem, Journey of the Magi — especially the poem’s last stanza!

Consider Joseph’s gaze upon the child.  Then consider Eliot’s provocative consideration of what it is we are about to commemorate:

image

Journey of the Magi

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins,
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

___________

from Collected Poems 1909-1962 (Faber, 1974). Sadly, I do not know the name of the artist and am unable to give well deserved attribution.  If someone does know the painter’s name I would be eager to know it and share his/her name.