The summer of 1965, the year I turned 11 years old, my Mom put my nine-year-old sister and me on a Greyhound bus bound for Minneapolis—a four-hour bus trip all by ourselves. What was the occasion? Was it a family emergency? Some sort of scandal? Was it a medical crisis?
No, it was much bigger than that. It was a pilgrimage, the culmination of months of fanatical dedication and study and planning. We were going to see…the Beatles in concert at Metropolitan Stadium!
We had given the widow’s mite–all that we had–$4.50 for a ticket. My sister Holly and I were huge fans of John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Even to the point of speaking with British accents. Imagine that! Little girls from west central Minnesota with Norwegian brogues imitating the Liverpool accent!
We didn’t simply listen to She Loves You one time and accept that the Beatles were a good band. No, we couldn’t just leave it there. We listened to those records over and over and over and over again. Then we pooled our birthday money and allowance, so we could buy teen magazines in hopes of learning something very personal about our favorite Beatle. A 33 was $5.00, a 45 was $1.00, and we did odd jobs around the house to earn enough to buy the latest release. We dreamed of a marriage proposal and a fairytale life of celebrity. We were truly nutz about the Beatles!
Hour after hour and day after day, we listened and sang along, talked about them and read about them. We memorized lyrics and stats, and hoped for the day they would re-run Ed Sullivan. We were obsessed. And then we couldn’t wait to go out and share what we learned with friends, classmates, cousins, anyone who would listen.
I think that might be what it is like with worship—not just a one time observance and leave it there.
But all day every day Continually equipping ourselves Reading Memorizing Listening Studying Giving.
Imitating the ways of Christ Trying to speak in His accent Trying to learn something personal about Him Liking what He likes Doing what He does Living the way He lives.
Hoping for the day to personally encounter Him In a nutshell—worshiping Him.
So the question becomes: When is the last time I behaved THAT passionately about anything, not to mention about the One who saved my soul? I know I have it in me. After all, I traveled four hours on a Greyhound bus with total strangers to see the band I worshiped when I was 11 years old. When I was a new believer, my hunger for the things of God was insatiable; I wanted to do whatever I could to get closer to Him. And I believe that pleased Him.
That was worship.
But now, today, what is my worship? What do I do daily or weekly to connect and honor my Lord with such deliberate fervency?
The answer stings like an icy wind.
I serve. But do I worship? I am dutiful. But do I worship? I am “good.” But do I worship? I am kind. But do I worship? I am respectable. But do I worship?
Do I worship?
I pray. I attend church. I read Scripture. I am in fellowship with other believers. I reach out to unbelievers.
 So I got this spanky new smartphone, the Droid X, which is at least as cool, if not cooler, than the iPhone. It can do all the usual “smart” things like make phone calls, send and receive emails, surf the web, spit out driving directions complete with latitude and longitude, google virtually every unknown thing, take videos, skype across the ocean, be used as a flashlight, alarm clock, and a calculator. I can use it to watch a full length feature film or a silly U-tube video, take quality photos and upload them to my Facebook page in a blink, and amass a ridiculous amount of music for my listening pleasure.
Oh did I mention the texting? I can send and receive text messages at the speed of light … or well at least as fast as I can type with my thumb knuckles. You see, my nails are too long to make contact with the touchscreen keyboard. But a few weeks ago, I discovered the “voice recognition” text message function.
Here’s how it works … you press little microphone button on the screen and begin to speak. The phone takes a few seconds to process the sounds and then displays the words it heard you say. Frighteningly, it’s pretty accurate most of the time, however not always.
After a soccer game last Thursday, we picked up a pizza for Jackson who was riding home on the team bus. I wanted to let him know so he wouldn’t stop and grab something on the way home, so I sent him a text. I pressed the little microphone and said to the phone (which btw, makes you look like a raving lunatic to passers-by), I said, “We are picking up the pizza to have at home.” But instead the phone sent, “We’re picking up the peeps and she have a pool.”
A few days ago I sent a message to Pastor John after a kind man from our congregation named Harry Bolton brought a meal into the church for them; John’s wife Kathy had just had surgery and was home convalescessing. What I spoke into the phone was this: “Harry Bolton brought a meal for you and Kathy. It’s in the refrigerator.” What the phone sent was, “Harry Potter brought a meal for you. And Kathy’s in the refrigerator.” LOL, in fact LMAO!!! I was all by myself in the office with a fit of giggles that wouldn’t stop!
It occurred to me that day how many times we say one thing and something completely different is heard. For instance, when I say to my teenage son, “Don’t let me catch you hanging out with that looser so-and-so!” it is heard as, “Young man, you better improve your sneaking around and lying skills or else!” Or if I say, “I will know if you are fooling around at school because you will not get your work turned in on time.” it is heard as, “Fool around and break all the rules you want to, as long as you get your work turned in on time.”
Our Pastor Tommy used to say there are three sermons preached in every pulpit in every church every Sunday morning. The one you preached, the one you meant to preach, and the one they heard.
I guess we all hear things according to our own agenda or our own paradigm, regardless of what is actually said or intended. I am not entirely sure what my phone’s agenda is – perhaps just to give me the giggles – but it is clear that my son’s agenda is to NOT be controlled by his parents anymore, but to control his own time and his own activities. And I guess that’s to be expected.
Listening to a political speech and then watching the commentaries afterward makes you wonder if both sides of the isle were actually in the same room listening to the same guy. It’s a wonder anything at all gets done in Washington.
Advertisers are masters at speaking between the lines.
“Whiten and brighten your smile with our amazing product.” But they are counting on us to hear, “Your teeth are so ugly and yellow, you will never get a date, be successful, or be accepted at your next class reunion!”
“Try our new weight loss program and you will be amazingly beautiful.” But what they want us to hear is something far more sinister playing to our deepest insecurities, “Unless you buy this stuff, you will remain so fat and unattractive, you will never get a date, be successful, be accepted at your class reunion, and you will probably die alone.”
“Buy the newest model of this or that car and you will be safer, get better mileage, and be the envy of all your friends.” But what they’d like us to hear is, “If you don’t buy this new car – even though you can’t afford it – your family will most likely parish in a fiery crash when the breaks on your old car fail, you will pollute the whole entire world, and your friends will keep laughing at your poor taste in automobiles. Furthermore, you will never get a date, be successful, or be able to drive to your class reunion. Oh, and you will probably die alone.
Even the Bible seems to say different things to different people. Last week a pastor of a little church in Florida told the national news media that Jesus commands his followers to burn Qurans [July 2010, Terry Jones, the pastor of the Christian Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida]. What? My NIV version clearly states that Christ commanded us to love our neighbors, our enemies, and to turn the other cheek. What a paradigm of fear that pitiful old guy must be looking through! In the 1860’s America was torn over the issue of slavery and both sides cited Holy Scripture as their platform. In my view, the Quakers got it right that time. The slave traders and owners clearly had an agenda based in profits and used the Bible to justify some really horrific actions.
I can sort of see the Creator peacefully drifting through the galaxies, breathing into existence the Word of God, speaking into his spanky new smart phone and trying to send his people a text message in the form of the Bible. We get it right most of the time but then sometimes we get it all wrong. Sometimes we think our food comes from Harry Potter and we build a whole theology around trying to get Kathy to come out of the fridge, instead of enjoying the good nutritious home cooking God provides for us. We get all obsessed with what planet those immoral “peeps” came from and if they just might be naked in that pool of theirs, instead of just grabbing a slice with the fam at the end of a long day. Sometimes I can just see God shaking his head and rubbing his forehead saying, “I said that? They heard what? That’s not at all what I meant.”
I guess I will never be able to control the slave traders or the terrorists or the small town preachers or even my son for that matter. But today I resolve to speak a little more clearly, a little more kindly, and enunciate a little better. And I resolve to listen more slowly and carefully, doing my best to put aside my agenda and my paradigm and my self-preservation, so I can really try to hear what is being said.
And one way or another, I vow to get poor Kathy out of that refrigerator!
[May 2020] My sister recently sent me a picture of the two of us standing in our parents’ Chanhassen driveway with heavy backpacks and hiking boots hanging from our shoulders, wearing ball caps, and smiling so wide our eyes have all but disappeared.
It is June of 1981. I am 27 and Solveig is 19, and we are headed north to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area to embark on a five-day camping trip. That’s the “before” picture. The “after” picture shows my sister in a beautiful white flowing nightgown in the same driveway just five days later on the morning after our return from the wilderness. She is majestically posed next to my old brown Honda Civic with all the doors standing open and smelly wet camping gear and clothes strewn all over the place.
I doubt any of us were real Jack Daniels drinkers, but in the spirit of what we presumed to be an authentic wilderness adventure, we had poured the sour mash whiskey into a plastic camping bottle prior to our departure, since glass is not allowed in the BWCA. We must not have consumed very much of it because sometime during the ride home, the cap had come loose and soaked our clothes and sleeping bags which were already ripe with the stench of decomposing mud and sweat and mildew. Everything was so smelly and awful, our mother made us pack it all up and take it to the laundromat to be washed. But there stood Solveig like a victorious Greek goddess on the battleground.
It’s a five-hour drive to Grand Marais on the shores of Lake Superior and then another hour north to the end of the Gun Flint Trail to Tuscarora Outfitters where we put in. We arrived well after dark to see signs directing us to our cabin and other signs with messages like these:
Be bear aware while camping! Close and fasten campground waste containers! Lock food securely in vehicles or metal food backpacks! Bears have been known to break into pick-up toppers and RV screen doors and can smell food up to 20 miles away.
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area is over a million acres of wilderness within the Superior National Forest at the very northern edge of Minnesota with over 1,000 pristine lakes and streams, and about 1,500 miles of canoe routes. If you google it you will likely see jaw-dropping photos of stunning sunsets, brilliant northern lights, cozy campfires, mirror blue waters, gentle bubbling rapids, and voyagers portaging canoes and carrying Duluth packs through pine, fir, and spruce trees. You will see photos of loons and lots of other wildlife including deer, moose, gray wolves, black bear, beaver, muskrat, and chipmunks so brave they will grab the granola bar right out of your hand.
This was my third trip to the Boundary Waters in as many years, and each time it was with girls in our 20’s. My first two trips were with high school friends Diane and Cindy. My third trip was with my sister Solveig, along with Patty and Julie who were horse show buddies of mine. The first two times were in sunny July and the weather was perfect. The third time was in chilly June and it rained off and on the whole time.
This wilderness camping trip can be an exhilarating paradise experience if the weather is pretty, and if you are fit enough to carry your own canoe and backpack over a 180-rod portage after paddling against the wind all day, and if you don’t get lost, and if you are not afraid of moose and bear. It can be a miserable experience if it rains the whole time, and all your gear gets soaked and heavy, and the portage trails are muddy and slippery, and your freeze-dried food gets wet, and you have trouble finding a campsite, and its biting fly season, and you can’t get your campfire started with wet kindling as the sun sinks in the west.
It sounds dreadful, right? So why go in the first place? And why on earth go back again? My people were voyagers from Norway and about a thousand years ago they first ventured across the sea, slipped into the Hudson Bay, and following lakes and rivers made it all the way to west-central Minnesota and on to North Dakota, 500 years before Columbus I might add. I think I might be too much of a fraidy cat to cross the ocean in a Viking ship, but paddling a canoe through these pristine waters was right up my alley. I loved so many things about those camping trips, even if the Black Flies were relentless and the Mosquitoes were the size of hummingbirds and the No-see-ums were on a personal mission to drive you insane.
I loved the quiet. It is hard to fathom just how quiet and dark it is up there. There is no light pollution, no humming air conditioners. You honestly cannot see your hand in front of your face after the sun goes down. I remember one evening at dusk the silence was broken by the wail of a loon from way across the glass-like water and we began to call back, mimicking her lonesome cry. Moments later she began to yodel back mimicking us. We carried on that exchange for a long while. It will stick with me for the rest of my life. It was super creepy and really spiritual all at once. That one vocalization punctuated the fall of night and set the mood for what followed: total peacefulness and solitude.
I loved the solitude. Once you leave the outfitters you literally do not see another human being the whole time you are out. Well, usually anyway. On one trip, we ran into a couple of guys who had paddled and portaged all the way from the Hudson Bay and were on their way to Duluth. They had been out for months and all they could talk about was the first thing they were going to do when they got to Duluth. [We held our breath.] “Find an ice cream shop.”
I loved getting off the hamster wheel and the breaking of routine. In 1981 I was in a full sprint to grow up, going to school full time and working full time, always racing from pillar to post, meeting deadline after deadline, all while stuck in traffic. It was so refreshing to have a break from all that pressure for something so completely different, if only for a few days.
I loved soaking up the rhythm of nature and the magic of sunrise and sunset. The summer sun near the Canadian border sets between 10:30 and 11 PM to the lullaby of yodeling loons. The cacophony of blue jays and squirrels revs up between 4 AM and sunrise shoving you into a new morning prompting you to get going before the heat of the day sets in. You begin to feel the cadence of creation. The heartbeat of the Creator and this unspoiled ecosystem begins to resonate within. The fingerprints of God illuminate the beauty and balance of this place. We saw a baby loon riding on the back of her mother. We heard beaver warning their families of our approach with the slap of their flat tails on the water. We spotted a moose swimming near our canoe and were terrified that she might get the idea we were after her baby; moose are so aggressive during calving season. We saw a baby duck narrowly escape the jaws of a walleye pike. We saw a fawn dozing in the camouflage. More than once we were thrilled to see the Aurora Borealis and let me tell you how awesome is THAT experience! Talk about God showing off just for you! I swear you can hear the voice of God speaking through the breeze.
I loved the physicality of a trip like this, the test of it. Some of those lakes were huge and windy and scary. Some of those portages were long and hard. Especially with a canoe balanced on your shoulders and a 40 pound Duluth pack on your back. Sometimes the trail between lakes is flat but sometimes it takes you uphill or even worse, downhill, over tree roots and jagged rocks, and sometimes through marshy areas leaving your boots wet for the day. Sometimes you just have to stop after lunch for a while to rest your aching back and then someone gets the crazy idea to go skinny dipping, diving off granite cliffs into who-knows-how-many feet of water, and somehow everyone agrees this is a great idea. I still have those photos around somewhere.
I love the process of working together figuring out how to survive another day, how to follow the map to find the entrance of the portage that will get you to the next lake or campsite, to rustle up some grub or catch a fish, to find a high dry protected spot to lay down your weary head at night. In the Boundary Waters, you can only set up camp at a designated Forest Service campsite, furnished with a campfire grate and an outhouse without walls off in the woods. The campsites are clearly marked on the map, but to find them in the Where Is Waldo shoreline is another story. And if you wait until too far into the evening you will find them already occupied (you only know this from the thin plume of smoke rising from their campfire) and you are pressed on to the next and the next and before you know it that big red ball is sinking way too fast into the horizon. And your heart sinks along with it because once you find a campsite, you still need enough daylight to set up the tent, gather the firewood, build the fire, prepare dinner, clean up and pack up so tight the bears 20 miles off can’t smell your leftovers. Not that there are ever any leftovers. No gourmet meal has ever tasted as scrumptious as freeze-dried Chicken Noodle Casserole and Peach Cobbler at the end of a long day paddling the sky blue waters in God’s country.
There is a testing of mind and body when everything except eating and resting and surviving and moving forward is stripped away. All those things that had been gobbling up the hours of your days simply fall off the radar. Just the essentials remain.
It’s now May of 2020 and we are in the midst of world-wide COVID-19 pandemic keeping people in isolation and upending their normal routines. Frankly, the last couple of months haven’t really been that hard on me because the same things I love about those canoe trips are the same things I have appreciated about this stay-at-home order. For that I am grateful.
The essentials. It’s amazing what we can pretty easily do without. What we truly need rises to the top and all else fades as a distant memory.
Essentials like food, water, medicine, shelter, and family come to mind. So much of our daily activity was declared non-essential overnight; gatherings large and small, school, sports, parties, movies, meetings, shopping, concerts, haircuts, massages, travel, and more. All gone in a flash. Food and practically everything else we need magically appear on my doorstep and I haven’t been to the grocery store in weeks. The nice man at the sandwich shop, at the liquor store, even the balloon store, comes right out to the curb with my order. What’s not to like? Everyone is especially accommodating to the elderly, you know… those of us 65 and older. Modern technology is the means by which we receive the essentials and for that I am grateful.
The solitude. I’ve had time to catch up on reading and I’ve taken up writing again. I kind of like having a good excuse to stay away from people. Crowds are exhausting for me. I recognize that staying at home for someone living in a four-bedroom house with a big yard and friendly neighbors is quite luxurious compared to inner-city apartment living or standing in the unemployment line. I am truly grateful for my home.
Getting off the hamster wheel. Many of those activities that make me feel like I’m one of the extras in Groundhog Day have been canceled. Since everyone is working from home, I am free to go into the office and stay on top of the day to day business. We are getting some overdue remodeling done at the church which would not have been possible with all our programs running on their normal schedules. Online worship service has taken the place of regular in-person service. It’s like we’ve all pulled off to the side of life to get a little rest. And for that I am grateful.
Working together for a common goal. Most of my world is paying attention to CDC guidelines of social distancing and wearing masks, so it’s easy to go with the flow in the best interest of the greater good. Drive-by birthday party parades. Driveway drinks. Always six feet apart and no hugging! I’m not a hugger anyway so this is somewhat of a relief, and for that I am grateful.
The quiet. Not sure about this one as we have our 8-year-old ricochet rabbit grandson with us and let me tell you, second-grade homeschooling is a bitch. What IS regrouping anyway? But I’m getting special YaYa time with him and I’m getting to know his teachers and classmates during Zoom Morning Meetings. And for that I am grateful.
The magic of sunrise and sunset. The water and air around the globe are self- purifying and wildlife is peeking out. It turns out our planet CAN heal itself if we just get out of the way. I have mallards trying to make their home in my backyard. I see fox trotting down my street at sunrise. My walks in the park (I call it forest-bathing) are rejuvenating. My travel time on normally busy streets is lickety-split because of diminished traffic. And for all that I am grateful.
So back to that image of my little sister in her white flowing nightgown standing next to my muddy Honda Civic with smelly camping gear strewn all over the drive, a look of triumph all over her face.
That third canoe trip was especially hard. It rained 4 of the 5 days we were out. Our stuff was wet and heavy and dirty and stinky the whole time.
Nights were chilly and days were rainy and muggy. And did I mention that it was biting fly season? We longed for the simple comforts of home; a soft bed and a hot shower topped the list.
And now we were back home after a six-hour ride from the wilderness. Back home where our mother greeted us with hot showers and freshly laundered sheets and flowing white nightgowns in the fresh morning breeze. Back home where things were about to get back to normal. Back to school. Back to work. Back to our old routines. But this time with a renewed sense of appreciation for the little things so easily taken for granted.
Perhaps the most long-lasting takeaway, now almost 40 years later, was that we did something really hard and we flourished. We became more self-assured and we came away with a greater awareness of our tested metal.
There was no one to bail us out when it got hard, no one to carry our canoe or even help hoist it onto our shoulders, no one to show us where the elusive campsite was, no one to pull us up to the shoreline when the wind was blowing out into the lake, no one to run to the store for the SPF 50 Zinc Oxide when the Bain de Soleil SPF 4 tanning oil was clearly not cutting it, no one to drive off the bear or wolves that may have been lurking around the bend, no one to go see what that noise was in the middle of the night when the local raccoons got nosy, and no one to paddle harder when our backs and biceps were screaming in pain.
We were just a few girls who were up for an adventure and we used our wits and our strength and our tenacity to overcome the hard stuff and make it to The Trail’s End and all the way back home and out into the rest of our lives.
[April 2020] “Tell me a story about when you were little.” Her voice came softly through the darkness from the other twin bed, “Mia, tell me a story about when you were little.” We both knew that meant. Tell me a story about when our whole family lived together on the farm. Night after night. “Tell me another one. Just one more.” And before long I would hear her breathing get slow and regular, we’d both drift off and soon we’d be lost in dreamland.
My little sister was 5 and I was 13 when this ritual began. We had moved off the farm and our big brothers had moved out, one went off to college and the other enlisted in the Army. Now it was just the five of us living in a three-bedroom ranch home in the suburbs.
I was the oldest girl so I initially got my own room while my two younger sisters had to share a room. Solveig was only 5 years old and Holly was just 18 months younger than me.
I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) respond to our mother’s threats that if I didn’t keep my room picked up, the single room with the double bed would be awarded to Holly and I would be banished to bunk in with the baby. Holly had proven that she would keep her room clean because, after all, her clothes, her hair, and especially her room were always perfectly in order. I was a little less, okay a lot less, buttoned down. My room always seemed to look like burglars had just fled the scene interrupted while searching for the secret microfiche; bed never made, clothes and books everywhere, dirty clothes mixed up with fresh laundry waiting for hangers.
Our mom had gone into debt shopping at Sears Roebuck picking out the perfect bedspread and curtains for us. I am sure it made her crazy that my room was always such a mess.
In my mind, I was 13 and expressing myself. After all, 7th graders should be able to do whatever they want, right?
One day I came home to find that all my earthly belongings were piled up in Solveig’s room. And there was Holly, decorating MY room, arranging everything just right, sorting her clothes by body part and season, placing the hangers 2 fingers apart in the closet. Well, that might be a teensy bit exaggerated. But still.
Just like that, I had a new roomie. They thought I would be punished by losing my room or at least show a little remorse. But Solveig and I ended up looking forward to this little bedtime ritual after a busy day at the lake or running the neighborhood. The sun would set and our room became dark and quiet; the perfect backdrop for painting an intriguing, sometimes funny, sometimes adventurous, always historical story about when I was little. It was a regular touchstone we could always count on since bedtime in our house was always 9 o’clock; it didn’t matter old you were, 9 o’clock was bedtime.
“Mia, Tell me a story about when you were little.”
“Well, there was the time I climbed up a tree, opened an umbrella, and jumped. Because we had just seen Mary Poppins at the movies. Needless to say, I broke my brand new umbrella that I had just purchased with my own birthday money.
I told her that our teenage cousin Linda would come and live with us during the summer because she loved the farm life better than life in the city. And how she would tell us scary stories and we’d take turns scratching each other’s backs before bed. That she bought a horse and named him Fred and that we had a flat tire on a country road while we were out shopping for him.
I told her about Holly falling off the top of a Butler grain storage bin and breaking her arm and that the doctors didn’t set it right and that’s why her arm looks like a boom-a-rang when she tries to straighten it. But it doesn’t hurt.
How about the time I found a frozen dead squirrel on a bright cold winter morning, feeling sorry for it, smuggling it into the house, and hiding it under my bed. But just for a few days until my mom began to investigate the suspicious odor coming from my room. [Do I need to tell you she was not pleased?]
There was the story about the time we swam the Hanson kids’ Shetland Ponies across a stream and discovered an abandoned house in the woods. There was a stuffed porcupine inside of all things! We only had the nerve to stay around a few minutes after we broke in. I think I might have been about 10 years old.
There was one story involving Holly, a wooden swing seat, copious amounts of blood, and me hiding in the haymow until nightfall. Spoiler alerts: Her nose was not broken. And she survived.
We giggled when I told her about one night during harvest season when we looked out our bedroom window to see our dad, our brothers, and our hired man all taking a shower on the back step under a garden hose hung over the screen door. Yikes! What a sight!
Oh and then there was the time I cut Holly’s beautiful shoulder-length curls (down to the scalp in places) in a game of who can amass a bigger pile of hair, about how I cheated and cut off ALL my curls in order to win the game. Holly maintained her cuteness but I looked like a boy for way too many months. Mom was furious and once we looked in the mirror we were so embarrassed we wouldn’t let our Mom take our picture. My Dad had been out hunting so they tricked us into holding the dead geese for the camera so they could get a photo of just how big those geese were. [How old was I when I learned that those giant birds were swans and not geese? I was today years old!]
I told her about the time I was snooping around in my 14-year-old brother’s bedroom because I smelled juicy fruit gum, when suddenly the wardrobe tipped over on top of me, pinning me between the wardrobe and the bed. Mom heard the crash and rushed in to see me trapped underneath. She also saw all the stuff from the top shelf that had spilled out onto the bed. She spied a pack of cigarettes and stormed out to the barn to give Dicky hell, leaving me pinned under the huge piece of furniture! I guess I was ok.
Solveig loved me telling about the time Holly and I took the Greyhound Bus all by ourselves four hours from Evansville to Minneapolis to see The Beatles. We were 11 and 9 years old. Tickets were $4.50 each. Girls screamed so loud no one could hear a note. But oh, what a memory.
I loved to tell her in great detail the story about discovering sweet soft warm newborn puppies under the granary on a cool dewy morning. Sparky was the best mamma dog. And smart, too! She once herded the cows back into the pasture all by herself after the gate had been left open by mistake. Or something like that.
I think one of her favorites might have been the time I was stampeded by a herd of pigs when I was about her age. I was so little and scared. My brother, Hans, felt so bad he fashioned a whip out of a stick and some braided twine so I could defend myself should I ever see a herd of swine coming after me again!
She loved to hear about the time our brother Dick led his colt into the house and up the stairs and into his room to take a nap. We wondered why exactly he ever would have thought that might have been a good idea.
I told her about the time our Dad crashed his crop-dusting plane and broke his back and his nose, about how scared we were when the neighbors came to tell us, about how he was in a plaster cast from his neck to his hips when he finally came home from the hospital, but even so, he took the winter to build a brick fireplace and bookshelves in our living room. [We didn’t find out for another 40 years that our mom had illegally been in that plane with him. She had broken her tailbone but couldn’t go to the hospital or tell anyone for fear that he would lose his pilot’s license. 60 years later I feel that was either true love or kinda crazy.]
I told her about the cold November day in 1963 when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, that I was in Mrs. Lundstrom’s 4th-grade class, what the classroom looked like, who was sitting behind me, the look on our teacher’s face when the news came over the scratchy intercom, and how quiet everyone was as we walked out to the buses. Our mom was sitting at the kitchen table with red puffy eyes when we got home that day.
I told her about the day the baby of the family came home from the hospital, a little towhead named Solveig, about how she was born with a raspberry birthmark on the tip of her nose. We figured she got it when our mother, just a few days before her due date, opened the porch screen door on a hot windy day in May and holding tight to the door latch, was thrown by a gust of wind off the steps, across the sidewalk, and way out into the yard, landing flat on her back. Just a few days later she gave birth to a healthy baby girl! With a red spot on her nose.
I don’t think my little sister ever grew weary of hearing these old stories night after night. And I never got tired of retelling them.
I moved out when I was 20; she was 12. A quick 7 years.
But those years loom large for both of us, shaping, in large part, our world view and sense of security. George Bernard Shaw once said, “A happy family is but an earlier heaven.” I am so thankful for those happy memories and how they fortified us against the world.
It occurs to me now how significant formative years are. And how they are gone in a flash. As I write this, our oldest grandson is 8 years old and has moved 5 times so far. Will all that change make him strong against what comes his way? Or mistrustful, like he can’t count on a sturdy framework.
Countless children around this globe spend those quick formative years going to bed hungry, or listening to their parents scream at one another, or fleeing unimaginable dangers in their home countries, or a blue million other hostile factors. Domestic violence calls are up 40% since this Corona-virus stay-at-home order went into effect this spring. Families already held together by a thread are being stretched too thin.
What kind of stories will those children tell about when they were little? Will their memories include PTSD symptoms as they describe visits to food pantries, going without school lunches, trying to soothe their mother’s anxious brow or their dad’s short fuse, worried about getting Grandpa sick?
Or will they vaguely remember that one time summer vacation was super long and everybody wanted to be on the computer at the same time, but they had plenty to eat and got to spend more time with Mommy and Daddy around the house all day and weren’t bothered with soccer practice and piano lessons?
Kids grow up regardless of what’s going on around them. Good. Bad. Nurturing. Destructive. They just keep growing and absorbing. They are 5, and then 12, in a flash they are 20 and moving out. As the great philosopher John Lennon once penned, “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.”
Raising kids is hard. Growing up is hard. Maybe our best strategy is to tell and retell the stories that mean something to us. Build a fortress. Spend the time and the breath to impart a little bit of our history to someone who might need to hear it. A little sister. A child. A grandchild. A friend. A small group co-member.
Mark Twain and William Shakespeare and Anne Lamott knew the power of storytelling. Jesus spent his entire 3-year ministry on this earth using stories to get his message across and 2,000 years later those stories are still connecting ideas with hearts across the globe.
Maybe I don’t need to change the world overnight. But I can start by telling you a story about when I was little.
In the late 1980’s our hearts began to yearn for children and at 33 years old I started infertility treatments. We ran through a truckload of dollars and a ton of tears before we began to investigate adoption. One day I was sitting in the doctor’s office lab waiting for results of my blood test. I casually mentioned to the woman next to me that this was my third month making daily visits to the doctor’s office and cheerfully proclaimed that I had a hunch the third time would be the charm. She hollowly replied that this was her eleventh YEAR trying to get pregnant. Hmmmm. I began to wonder just what was so special about our gene pool that would make us go through this kind of heartache for that long. It began to dawn on Karl and me that there just might be a child or two out there for us. I wish I could find that woman and thank her for the gift of freedom she gave us that day.
Track with me… the dates are important here because it shows what a whirlwind the adoption process can be. It doesn’t have to take years of waiting. In June 1989 we visited an adoption attorney and got all the facts. In August we completed our home study and began to wait. On December 13, 1989 Walker was born and we got the call. “It’s a boy!”
On December 18 we picked Walker up from the hospital on a cold and snowy day. It was 19 degrees. He was five days old and SOOO adorable. I was 35 and Karl was 37. We just stared at Walker day and night. We were mesmerized by his very existence. We both got up for the 2am feedings. One held the bottle while the other watched. We made excuses to go out in public so we could show him off.
On December 22, Walker was nine days old. We boarded a plane for Minneapolis to spend Christmas with my family. What a sight! My Mom and Dad, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews all showed up at the airport with balloons and banners to greet us and worship the child.
The next day, my friend Diane brought her first-born to my parent’s house. We couldn’t believe our eyes. Two beautiful babies born just one month apart. So very different. One in blue and one in pink, one very dark and one very fair, one quiet and one not so quiet. Both with the same possibilities and opportunities awaiting them. Looking into their eyes, all we saw were their bright futures. Life would no doubt toss them around a little, but we just knew they would come out strong. We just knew it. We could see it in their eyes. We could see ourselves in their eyes!
You came sneaking into my world entirely unexpected You took me by surprise, awakening me to emotions brand new and as old as time You brought with you so many things to teach me about you, about the world we live in … about me
Sounds like true love, right?
You slipped into my heart and nestled there with complete comfort You altered my perspective, improved my view You came bounding into my day planner and crashing into my checkbook with your sweet demands
Sounds just like true love, I say!
You slid down that heavenly gumball shoot Totally arbitrarily and completely on purpose And plopped down right smack dab into the middle of my family
And now … When you cry, we come running When you giggle, we giggle more When your eyes sparkle, we melt
When you are frightened, we scoop you up and hold you near When you are hungry, we stop in our tracks to hold your bottle When you are sick, we stay up all night soothing your brow
What are socks to you, are thumb-warmers to us What is play time to you, is the middle of the night to us And what is ordinary to you, is amazing to us
When we hold you we pray That God will keep you in the palm of his hand That you will grow strong into a soldier of God
When we hold you we pray That when troubles come your way We can be your soft place to land
We hadn’t planned it for this time We hadn’t imagined in it this way But here you are anyway
Precisely as God intended No accidents No coincidence
Just exactly as Destiny with a capital “D” And Providence with a capital “P” Ordained your arrival since the dawn of time
So here you are and here is my heart My littlest Valentine On your first Valentine’s Day
“I found the clarity bucket nestled against God’s will. I cupped my hands and scooped up all I could.”
In our Scribes creative writing group we meet monthly or so and read our assignments to each other and then offer input and editing. Lest you think that all our meetings are very serious and philosophical and heavy, I thought I’d share a piece that shows how well rounded our topics can be. One of our assignments was based on the 1950’s radio program called, “This I Believe” hosted by Edward R. Murrow, and more recently resurrected by NPR’s Bob Edwards. The assignment: Write a piece about a foundational belief, the secret of life, or a motto that has served as bedrock in your life’s journey in 500 words or less. This is what I submitted, sort of:
THIS I BELIEVE …the secret of life is… a good bra!
Now I’m not talking about a sexy Victoria Secret bra or the perfect body to fit inside the bra. I’m talking about a good bra. One that fits. One that is comfortable. One that does what its suppose to do. One that flatters your figure whatever it is.
I’m not kidding. You can put on the crumbiest old T-shirt or dowdiest dress, but if you slip it over a good bra, you will look and feel like a million bucks. Conversely, I once had dinner with a friend who was all decked out in a Chanel evening gown, but it looked like she had four breasts because of her much-too-small strapless bra.
Sounds simple, right? Buy a bra that fits and flatters. Easy enough, right? Then why do so many of us insist on wearing a bra that may have fit at one time, but not anymore? Or worse yet, why do we buy ones that never fit right in the first place? Come on, you know who you are!
When I was 14 years old, my mother brought me to an old flagship department store downtown Minneapolis where the lingerie matrons knew their foundation garments and had a full appreciation of the complexities of the female shape. Before that day, I had been buying bras off the rack. They fit me like rubber bands stretched reeeal tight around my ribcage, with straps that cut deep ravines into my shoulders. And the cup size!? I won’t even go there for fear of frightening small children in the audience!
Anyway, my mom took me to Daytons in 1968 and we were on a mission. A mission to find the perfect foundational garment just for me. While news of bra-burning blazed across national headlines, there was no such foolishness at OUR house. We couldn’t wait to discover the flawless fabric combined with precise design resulting in the perfect bra. You have probably heard that a good bra is like a good man… good looking, supportive, and never ever lets you down. But I digress.
OK. The dressing room… OMG !!!!!
You are looking at someone who, as a child, was so painfully shy, was often seen standing in the corner of the playground unable to work up the nerve to play with other children. I really didn’t even speak at school until 4th grade. Then in Jr High when showering after gym class was the law of the land, I refused to disrobe and ended up in the principal’s office trying to defend my position. “Why should I have to walk into the showers after standing along the sidelines during the entire 40 minute class anyhow?” The truth is I couldn’t bare to speak to the bespectacled principal in gray flannel about my strong desire to keep my clothes on in the presence of anyone, especially girls my own age.
Back to the dressing room.
So in walks the lingerie matron with arms full of brassieres. Playtex. Warner. Bali. Lyrca this. 18-hour-that. So many choices. “Try this on” “Looks great.” “Oh-oh, lets try this instead.” Well, after I worked through the trauma of the whole dressing room scene, I had a sacred sighting of my own of sorts … right there in the dressing room of the lingerie department.
The clarity bucket. Nestled against the wisdom of God. I cupped my hands and began to scoop it up.
It suddenly dawned on me that these older women had something astounding to offer me! A good foundation. Confidence. Maturity. Perspective. Assurance. That certain savoir-faire!
I once heard a wise pastor tell a group of high school graduates, “Search your heart now and nail down a few things you believe—those things that are non-negotiable. Hold fast to those things. Then go out and explore the world with an open mind and a tolerant heart, knowing that your firm foundation will support you … come what may.” That was really good advice I think. And advice I aspired to faithfully follow.
The trick, I came to realize, is to figure out at what point those non-negotiables (just like those unmentionables) might have changed due to that sweet process called life. Our bra size—just like the weight on our driver’s license—is not frozen in time, contrary to what we’d like to believe. We might do well to embrace these changes, not deny them. Perhaps a larger size. Or a smaller size. Possibly even an under-wire, heaven forbid.
Perhaps a point of view with a little less black and white and a few more pastels. Maybe a more inclusive world view as we shed our fear of unknown cultures. Possibly a realization that the whole story is usually more complicated than we may be privy to. How about accepting the fact that self-righteous talk suffocates everyone in the room, while grace and forgiveness are contagious.
A moment of clarity. God’s wisdom. I scooped up all I could. I like to think this may have been what my mother had in mind so many years ago at that flagship department store when she gave me a glimpse of the importance of a good foundation. Oh and of course… a good bra.
[I read this at a Scribes event entitled Sacred Sightings, where all the essays were about seeing God in everyday life.]
She came bearing gifts. Timeless treasures wrapped in heavy brown paper with little clods of black soil mixed up with dry bulbs and withered stems. That warm autumn weekend we turned the hard clay soil in my yard and planted irises and day lilies and peonies that had been dug up from her garden and her mother’s garden over 600 miles away.
That very winter, she died.
And in the spring those purple irises and yellow day lilies and scarlet peonies accessorized my yard with the same splashes of color that had dressed up my childhood home.
Was there some internal clock that whispered to my mother that it was time to dig under her cutting garden? A garden she had tended since I could remember. She was known as the “flower lady” at church because she made sure there were flowers on the altar every Sunday. Sometimes they came from her own garden and sometimes they came from the local florist, but one thing was clear. She loved how God could talk to us through flowers.
At her funeral we handed out more than 400 flower seed packets to everyone there. Ten years later, people still send us pictures in Christmas cards of the perennials that come up every year from those little seed packets.
My mother loved the earth. She loved the soil. She loved the work and the sweat and the sore muscles that came along with tending her garden. She loved the idea that the hard thing you do today almost always blooms into something beautiful in time.
She loved the fact that, if we let it, our future has more of an impact on our actions, than our past does. She knew that last summer’s flowers were gone and forgotten by fall. It’s the season to come she had on her mind when she started to page through those seed catalogs every January. Then she would begin with the work of it. Enriching the soil with real horse manure. Slipping the seeds in just right. Pulling out the weeds that would strangle. Keeping the water just so, not too much – not too little.
She always learned a little something from last year’s mistakes, but it was the anticipated season that kept her out there on hands and knees, with dirty hands and aching back.
The connection with the land runs deep in our family. My grandparents were farmers. My dad was a farmer. My uncles were farmers. My sister married a farmer. My brother and his sons love to escape their day jobs to help my brother-in-law with planting and harvest.
There is a rhythm, a very heartbeat within some people that resonates with the earth. The ebb and flow of the cycle of life, of sacrifice and reward, of death and rebirth, is a constant reminder of the power of God in the universe. A reminder of the fortitude and strength and foresight it takes to continue to do the hard thing on the inkling that something wonderful will result in time, even though all you may see right now is dirt and sweat.
Giving birth is a hard thing. Babies are born into or out of all kinds of circumstances: a loving home, a back seat romance, a lifeless marriage, a torrid affair, a violent rape, cultural obligation, too little money, too much money, the list goes on. But that little egg and sperm couldn’t care less. They just join up and take hold. He begins to grow regardless of the circumstance of his conception. Mysteriously life makes a way … and he just holds on. No mistakes. No accidents in the eyes of God. Yes, giving birth is a hard thing, but almost always that new life blooms into something beautiful in time.
This year we met the birthmother of our oldest son. Talk about doing the hard thing with little expectation of seeing the blossom of it. When she signed those papers and held him for the last time in the hospital when he was just three days old, I am sure it didn’t feel heroic or selfless. It just felt like she was doing a very hard thing. And then she had to wait 18 years to see the beautiful blossom her baby boy had become. When she signed those papers and the nurse lifted him from her arms, she must have had blind faith in a better future for him. What was done was done and over and in the past, but she held his future in her hands … along with that pen.
My mother was right. Again! The future does impact our actions more than our past does. The hard thing you do today does bloom into something beautiful in time. My mother was right because she was listening to what God can tell us through the flowers.
[This piece is intended as an introduction to a series of stories based in family memories shared over the years.]
If our kitchen table could talk, oh the stories we’d hear. Growing up, our home revolved around the kitchen table. It was at the top of the steps coming in from the garage, a step from the phone, and a few steps from the coffeepot.
This is where we shared our meals, both everyday and holiday. It is where we read the morning paper and opened the mail and struggled with our homework. It is where we left notes telling where we were, who we were with, and when we’d be home. It is where neighbor women would come when they needed a word of advice or encouragement from my mother who, although just a few years their senior, had a lifetime of wisdom and friendship ready to dispense over a cup of coffee. It is where my dad told and retold stories about fishing and flying. It is where we ate rice with food coloring every night when the cupboard was bare and the pocketbook thin. It is where we held family conferences to share good news and bad–and to make the big and not so big decisions. It is where my mother sat rubbing her forehead as she paid the bills. It is where my father now plays endless hours of solitaire—the kids all grown and his wife too soon in heaven.
The oak table is over a century old, handmade and the color of honey. It came with our family from our farm in west central Minnesota to our home in the suburbs when I was just eleven years old. It bore the scares from notches accidentally hacked into the edge from its first life when it was used as a surface to butcher chickens and pigs.
Not long after Minnesota became the 32nd state and the Civil War wounds were still fresh, our kitchen table was the center of my mother’s paternal grandparent’s farm life. When Grandpa Tody’s parents were first married, I imagine the table was used for meals, canning, sewing, repairs, reading, and a myriad of family projects, laced with the rich conversation that goes along with busy hands. As the years passed, the sturdy oak table was used as a surface to butcher livestock and repair harnesses. Over decades of daily use, it became covered with too many thick coats of varnish and soiled with the blood, sweat, and tears associated with the relentless rigors of Midwestern farm life. By the time it came to my folks, it was brownish gray and dull.
World War II was raging across the sea, and in 1944, the year of their engagement, my parents painstakingly toiled evenings and weekends, stripping and sanding that table. Soon they discovered their hunch was right. This was a beautiful piece of workmanship with scrolled beaded legs and hand-hewed sliders enabling the table to seat up to 14 guests. By the time they were finished, they had a solid and attractive piece of furniture to begin their household and their life together.
Since that day, our family has depended on that kitchen table and taken it for granted, admired its beauty and misused it, relied on its function and taken care of it–just as we have regarded one another.
Some of my fondest memories involve gathering around our kitchen table after school or work, scarfing cinnamon toast and telling stories of our day or gossip we had heard while out in the world. My mother would often preface a story by saying, “Now girls, this is kitchen talk. You don’t have to tell everything you know.” This was her way of saying that the kitchen table was sanctuary…a safe house for sharing. The telling and retelling and analyzing of these events turned out to be our classroom, exploring ideas and forming values as we laughed and cried.
If our kitchen table could talk, oh the stories we’d hear.