Today is Norman Mathiasen’s eighty-fifth birthday. And although we have both aged at roughly the same pace for all the years I’ve been thinking about aging, it seems crazy to me that I have an eighty-five year old father. Of course it also seems crazy to me that I am a fifty-seven year old man. Time waits for no man, as the old saying goes… I was scrounging through shelves in closets this morning looking for some papers that had some passwords I needed, and I came across this old photograph. It was taken sometime in the early eighties, during the time I was farming with Dad. The eighties were not a great time to be farming, at least not if a person wanted to make any money. But it was a rich season of life for me in many ways when it came to relationships. Although I lived in a great bachelor pad, I spent a lot of time with Dad, and Mom as well, learning more of the farm and what it took to make things work from season to season during that time. One of the things that was more my interest than Dad’s was what shows in the photo above. I had a herd of sheep. And though they could be incredibly frustrating to work with, they were somehow endearing to me. They taught me much of the similarities sheep have with human nature. It might be too strongly worded to say that Dad hated them, but sheep were certainly not his favorite animal. But for some reason, to this day, I have fond memories when it comes to working with them for a few years. There was something in me that was a bit of a shepherd. I think there might be some of that remaining in me to this day, in the kind of heart I have toward people. Perhaps there is just something a little askew with us mental health worker types, I don’t know. Am not sure I have anything profound to write today, but this photo took me back a long ways, and stirred all kinds of memories this morning. I am truly grateful for this man called Norm, my father. And for his wife and my mother, Jo. We have much in common. We have our individual differences. They have taught me invaluable things with both words and actions. As Donald Miller writes in Scary Close, “Children learn what’s worth living for and what’s worth dying for by the stories they watch us live.” I have learned such things in watching them live. Happy Birthday, Dad.
I am not big on New Year’s resolutions. They just haven’t been something that I’ve ever grabbed onto in my life. But I do have to admit that there is something about coming to the end of one year and facing the beginning of the next that affects me. Kicks something into gear. Changes the way I look at the concept of and the passage of time.
We had a few couples over last night and at one point talked a little about the 2015 thing, and how it used to seem so far off. Even when Y2K was causing people to gasp and panic, 2015 seemed a long ways off. And yet, it is only a couple of days away now. Grandpa Lee used to say that the older we get the faster time flies. Perhaps he was right, even though the length of a second, minute, hour, and day is still the same. It just seems to pass more quickly when looking back.
Last time I wrote here, I rambled about this fantasy of being twenty-five again. Twenty-five feels like a lifetime ago. So here I am, well into my fifties, with the end of 2014 staring me down, and 2015 making me wonder what all it will have in store.
I spent a few days alone in Wisconsin in early September. While there, I re-read a book by Henri Nouwen that I had read while I was in rehab after my accident. And this part of a sentence stood out to me in a potent way as I looked at some of the things I had underlined years ago…
“..avoiding the pain of accepting the responsibility for my own life…”
Nouwen has long been a writer who has found a way into my soul, sometimes inspiring me, and other times kicking my butt. The words above kick my butt. And although I have accepted the responsibility for my own life for the most part, there are ways that I have avoided as well. And I want to somehow find a bit more courage as I look to my future, and replace the word “avoiding” with “embracing.” There is always more to take hold of…
“..[embracing] the pain of accepting the responsibility for my own life…”
I just wrote a card and letter wishing a friend a happy 25th birthday. And as I think of him, and how he is off living this adventurous life in Alaska, it leaves me, at least in this moment, wishing that I could do my twenty-fifth year over again. Just a ridiculous little fantasy, but I sometimes indulge such thoughts for a bit. There are just a few ways that I wish I would have lived a little more fully at that season of my life…
Sometimes I go through seasons where some amount of regret is my companion. And maybe that’s where I am right now. Twenty-five. There is something about that age for me that from my current vantage point seems magical. I was single, young, strong, felt somewhat invincible. I could walk. I ran four miles a day most days. I had hair. I farmed with Dad, had a part-time painting business, worked a few nights at the local skating rink, and hung out with the high school youth group at my church. I drove to Omaha or to Michigan or Illinois or wherever to visit friends on a whim. Was kind of a confirmed single man at the time as well, in spite of all kinds of people claiming to have found me the perfect woman. Apparently there were a lot of perfect women running around during the early eighties…
So being twenty-five will have to remain reality for my friend in Alaska, and merely fantasy for me, which is really quite fine. My life is substantially rich as it is. And regret or no regret, I, like you, have only this moment in which to actually live.
In his book Iron John, Robert Bly talks of “handling ashes.” I’ve thought a lot about this concept over the last weeks and months, have gotten my hands dirty, and started to make more sense of where I am at this stage in life, more than double the age of twenty-five. Bly says that when we handle ashes, when we wrestle with our regrets, our losses, our mistakes, it helps to clarify what about us remains alive, and what is no longer alive or possible. And like this photo shows, when the ashes of something burned, something dead or lost or stolen are ground into our hands, they make the whorls and ridges of our living fingerprints more pronounced. More apparent. The ash is evidence of things that once held life or potential for us, but are no longer alive. Perhaps no longer even potential. But the life in our fingerprints, the life in who we are rises above the ashes. That is part of our present potential…
Kayaking the lake shore at sunset.
My hands touch the cool waters as my eyes raise, looking to the evening sky. The moon and stars emerge, galaxies as well. From farther away than my mind can fathom.
I’m in awe. Silence and awe.
Alone. But somehow alone with the God of the universe.
I came up north to think. To read. To write.
And to pray…which feels so unlike praying back home…in the midst of work and schedules and daily demands.
Solitude like this pushes me to face my demons. And also to embrace my strengths more passionately. It whispers to me to “knock it off” when it comes to playing small. Smaller than I really am.
Erwin McManus states that “there is a direct relationship between those who live most free and those who dream most. Captivity not only steals our freedom but cripples our imagination.”
There is a freedom, an exhilaration in being a small little speck on this lake tonight. In being surrounded by the beauty and peaceful whisper of the wind in the red pines and the white birch. Is humbling and encouraging at the same time.
All is not well in the world these days, but for now, I am grateful and have a certain oneness with my Creator that I have not felt for a long time. And in that there is a freedom, a freedom to dream and imagine and…
Fresh out of high school, I spent parts of a year-and-a-half on the northwest side of Chicago in the town of Elgin. A searching kid with a wandering sense of self trying to figure out who I was. It was largely an artistic excursion where I learned a few things, failed at a few others, met some incredible people, and gained the freshman fifteen. Even today, I look back on that season of my life with gratitude in many, many ways.
During one semester in particular, I spent countless hours in the pottery lab overlooking the woods and Tyler Creek as it wound its way through campus toward the Fox River. That was back in the days when I could use a kick wheel to turn pots, and I got thoroughly engaged in it. To start a mound of soft clay spinning, and then add a little water and some pressure and pull it up out of its lowly state of mud into shape and form and even graceful function of some kind brought something alive in me. The introverted core of me loved spending time and energy there in that lab, often times alone after others had left.
Few tangible relics of that season of my life remain. One is photographed here. Rough and barely glazed, it remains the favored work of mine, as it mirrors much in my life. Signed with the name that many called me then, and as only a few call me these days. The clay I used for this was filled with grog, which is the ground up material of previously fired clay. Because it had already gone through the firing process, it was hardened. Coarse. And when added to a new piece would cause it to shrink less in its own firing process. It was a kind of stabilizer in some ways, but also made the new clay a little more difficult to work with. It was abrasive to the touch, and left the skin of my hands torn and rough.
There is no disconnection in my storyline from then until now, but I am obviously different in ways. Life is like a potter’s wheel that has continued to turn. And with life’s turning and various pressures, it has continued to shape me. I was more pliable then, more open and formable in many ways. But even in that pliable state, there was the grog of previous experience. Previous experience that was akin to a kiln, firing formed yet soft clay into a more durable, permanent state. Hardened. Solid. Concrete to some degree.
I assume that Tyler Creek continues to wind its way through campus there, seeking union with the Fox River. I assume that the pottery studio remains as well. Life’s flow does not stop. The creation of this coarsely shrouded vase in 1977 is merely a relic of the ongoing creation that is life and humanity. Mine and yours. Living, breathing, growing. Erwin Raphael Mcmanus states that “..we humans have the strange capacity to live a soulless life.” Let a soulless life not be the case for me. For you. For us. Not this day…
Recently Dr. Henry Cloud tweeted that, “Certainty is one of the weakest positions in life. Curiosity is one of the most powerful. Certainty prohibits learning, curiosity fuels change.”
The glasses in the photo above are very much like the ones I wore for years during the eighties. Sort of Brown Bannister/John Lennon glasses. Decades ago. There is no shortage of questions in life. Sometimes, however, it feels like there is a shortage of answers. Things of which I felt certain as I looked at my world through those glasses are not necessarily so certain now. Or at least they have been questioned in one way or another since then.
I am currently reading a book by Erwin McMannus called “The Artisan Soul” and am challenged by this thought he shares: “I see this reality all around me — men and women who refuse to stop growing, dreaming, and risking. In some ways, it’s like a second childhood with all the benefits of the wisdom accumulated over time. You need both the wisdom and the wonder…”
May you find ways to live with both certainty and curiosity today. To grow, dream, and risk with both wisdom and wonder.
“To be wise is to be eternally curious.” – Frederick Buechner
One of those things that many of us love up here in the northlands is that change-of-the-seasons thing. And at this point in our winter, the change is the thing we might most be longing for. Tonight there is a predicted record low for March 2nd of -22 degrees. That’s without the wind, of course. It has been a relatively long stretch of winter with way too many days and nights of below-zero temperatures.
Yet there are subtle signs of change of season starting to happen. Although the landscape has been laden with heavy snow and ice for a long while, there are occasional hints at the increasing power of the sunlight, as days get longer and nights get shorter. As the sun’s rays hit the snow on the south sides of the roof, out of the wind, there is melting that occurs. Such as the icicle photo. Even on days with temperatures near zero, ice melts and water droplets cannot resist the pull of gravity. There is some beauty in that. Some hope.
“For behold, the winter is past…the flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.” – Song of Solomon 2:11-12