The Old Sentry

The backyard is my project for the day. There are four or five large trees in total, but they provide a fine canopy over the whole area. Every morning, I am greeted by squirrels zipping across the yard, scurrying up the trees. They mischievously chase each other from limb to limb and across the power lines, nuts in tow.

A couple of brave chipmunks have even chanced to come upon the deck to grab some of the Biscoffs that I had set out for them. Meanwhile, the birds of the air flit back and forth among the canopy branches and the woodpeckers tap in vain against the synthetic siding of the house. My chipmunk friends look on in bemusement. I can also rely on a family of cardinals and a family of blue jays to make their appearances. This is, perhaps, the only time that red and blue can get along, pecking amongst the grass for provisions.

At the center of it all, a giant silver maple stands sentry in the middle of the yard – a massive tree that has seen more life than I ever will, and has probably done more good than I ever will too. His branches reach 50 feet into the sky with ease, providing a playground to the chipmunks, and the squirrels, and the birds.

How interesting that a living, but non-sentient being like a tree can serve so many of its denizens simply by existing. And yet we humans go to such great lengths in pursuit of whatever vanities that strike our fancy only to find that they are less fulfilling than if we had simply carried out our purpose and passively existed like the Sentry.

Today I will cut the grass, carefully avoiding the roots and briars about the yard. And the Sentry will stand guard over my efforts. One day, I will be no more, and will leave him to look over the folly of someone else.

Moving During Christmas

When I left Tucson six months and one week ago (5/25/20), it never occurred to me that I would remain in Oklahoma past August. And yet, one half-year later, here I am.

In that time, I’ve lived out of a suitcase for the bulk of it. I’ve transitioned my work from a laptop to an iPad. I’ve done the entirety of my job at a small wooden desk in my childhood bedroom. I feel a bit transient but none the worse for wear. This weekend, I’ll return to Tucson to pack up my belongings and make the move to what once was home.

There’s certainly no complaint on my part. Tucson rents were going up. So were the COVID-19 cases. With no end in sight to the pandemic, my apartment effectively became an expensive storage unit. My employer granted a provisional approval to work remotely, at least for the duration of the pandemic. Moving seems prudent. I leave for Arizona on Saturday to begin packing with the move to Oklahoma to follow.

No Place Like Home?

Aside from the move itself, I can’t say that I really know what the next chapter will hold – except that for the next several months it will surely be lived here. Despite my penchant for planning, I’m not even sure that having a plan matters very much anymore. If I’ve learned anything from this year, it’s that plans can be upended as quickly as they can be made. It’s fair to say that 2020 brought with it unexpected change for nearly everyone. We adapt when we can. We muddle along when we can’t. We humans are nothing if not resilient.

Still…

Perhaps I’m getting sentimental in my old age, but I can’t help thinking about how odd it is to move during the holidays. Normally, Christmas is the time to stay grounded, to enjoy time with family, and even to reminisce about Christmases long past – those halcyon memories that get etched in the mind and seem more vibrant somehow than the memories we are in the midst of making.

When considering the past, it’s always tempting to believe that it was brighter than it actually was. I think part of this temptation stems from the fact that there are realities about the present that we wish were different. For my part, with the move looming, I’m forced to reconsider what home is. When I think of past Christmases, I tend to think about the family home place. My Grandpa in his recliner. An ancient music box blaring Christmas carols while the tree lights blink in merry colors of the season.

But this is almost literally looking at home through rose-colored lenses. Yule-colored lenses might be more appropriate. The fact is, the memory above is long gone, and it does no one any good to live in the past. The present reality is that, until this extended stay, I haven’t lived in Oklahoma in roughly twenty years. True, I’ve gotten reacquainted with the people in our small town, and there’s no question that I have enjoyed being with my family. But I do wonder if I can fairly say that this is still my home.

Embracing Uncertainty

I suppose I won’t really know the answer to this question until some time has passed. Predicting the future is a fools errand. And even while the mind is hardwired to predict the future, actually living in so aware a manner proves to be much more difficult. When 2020 began, I had wished a new decade would usher in positive changes and the hope for a better year than the personal hell that was 2019. For many, I think 2020 was probably worse than any single year in the past ten. The mind may try to predict what will happen in a given situation and respond accordingly, but it’s exactly the inability to predict (or plan) that causes anguish for so many. To state matters briefly, even the best plans can fall apart.

So, maybe a plan isn’t the way to go for this next chapter of life. For all I know, the pandemic could end this spring and I may be back in Tucson just in time for school to start in August. Planning also has a limiting factor: we tend to ignore other possibilities when we are focused on a particular course of action. I don’t think this is intentional. It’s just a reality that we can only entertain so many ideas and outcomes at once. The lesson I take from this season of life is that our ability to tangle with uncertainty is the key to finding contentment.

In truth, there never are any certainties. Never were. We just live with a set of assumptions and hope for the best.

When Heroes Fall

My Grandfather passed away this past Friday. The morning he took ill was unremarkable. It seemed like any other morning. Grandpa was out and about with a friend from church, having some lights installed on a camper. There was no urgency to the project, but it was something he wanted to get done – like a million other projects that he had prioritized over the course of his life.

Somewhere along the way, my son and I got around and went to Lawton to pick up his Mother from the airport. They had planned to spend a couple of days here on the farm before catching a flight back to Indiana. We didn’t get very far along on our way back to Walters when I got a call saying that Papa wasn’t feeling well and that he was going to the doctor – like he had so many times before. At the age of 88, Papa had had his health battles. But they nearly always went away. A day or so in the hospital max. A dose of antibiotics. He was usually good to go.

The Fall

So, I didn’t think much of the situation when he was first admitted. My Mom decided to spend the night with him. We prayed and went home with a promise to relieve Mom in the morning. But something odd happened during that first night. While he was alert and talking when we left, his blood pressure started to drop during the night. His breathing grew more difficult. The doctors threw around the word sepsis. Quite unlike the many times before, Papa wasn’t getting better. I started to get concerned. A nagging worry that maybe something was different this time. A quiet unease growing at the back of my mind.

Tuesday bled into Wednesday. We were back at the hospital as soon as we could. Before we got there, he was moved to ICU. My nagging unease transformed into a mountain of worry as a hive of nurses flitted about with concerned looks. Papa was still talking and alert but he wasn’t allowed food or water. There was talk of a potential procedure but no concrete plans. Food and water were restricted in hopes that they could operate. Nutrients and antibiotics alike were administered through an IV.

Most of the family was exhausted by the time evening rolled around. I offered to stay with my Mother at the hospital for another night to help her get some rest. Everyone went home to rest and to pray. For me, it was a sleepless night spent walking the corridors of the hospital between nursing rounds. When I was in the room, Papa shifted often and wanted to adjust his position in the bed to be more comfortable. I moved him. When the nurses weren’t badgering him for blood draws and vital checks, I talked to him about football and Thunder basketball and gave him water when the nurses weren’t looking. Just little sips to wet his mouth and to quench his thirst. As the night wore on, he talked less and less. I didn’t realize it at the time but those conversations with me would be his last words. I wish I had asked him questions that were more profound. I wish I had talked to him about things that were more consequential.

By Thursday morning, he had finally fallen asleep but his breathing had gotten worse. The doctor recommended a ventilator. We agreed. After a few hours on the machine, his condition stabilized enough that the doctors could run the emergency procedure that they had been planning – a procedure to hopefully address a blood clot resulting from the sepsis. The thought was that the clot was causing some of the problems with his breathing. By now, the prognosis was grim and the surgery odds were a even 50-50 given that he would need to be sedated. We waited and prayed. As the afternoon sun faded into night, in characteristic fashion, Grandpa pulled through. Our spirits lifted with hope that his blood pressure might rise once the sedative wore off. Eventually, his blood pressure did become more stable for some time in fact. But he didn’t wake up. As advised by his care team, we all chalked it up to him needing to get more rest. So, we went home to do the same.

I woke early Friday morning to a phone call. In a situation like this, phone calls early in the morning are never good.

His nursing team had kept watch during the night while his condition deteriorated. The ephemeral “they” ran another emergency scan and found a new rupture internally. He was losing blood. Fading fast. There was nothing they could do. We raced to the hospital. I hoped for a miracle that was not to be. By the time we arrived, loved ones had started to gather. The only option presented was to remove the machines. Before the vitals went flat, we all had time to say our brief goodbyes. There wasn’t nearly enough time. Never is.

Once the ventilator was removed, Papa slipped away quickly. The warmth in his hands – hands that had held mine hundreds of times before – gradually grew cold. In a matter of minutes, he was gone.

A Hero’s Life Remembered

The days after are a blur. Funeral arrangements. Video tributes. Visits from loved ones and friends. At one point, we participated in an all night wake with him. The details of those days are fuzzy. At some point, the task of writing Papa’s eulogy fell to me. Any one of us could have done it. When you live a good life, it’s easy to say good things. But how do you summarize the life of a giant? Someone, who in life, always seemed larger than life itself? The effort was a fool’s errand. There were numerous stories to tell. Countless acts of kindness to note. Innumerable lessons learned at his table over coffee. Hours spent fishing at the ponds, soaking up his wisdom – all in blissful ignorance of the reality that it would one day end. Even the obituary that was put together, which accurately and thoroughly stated the bare facts of Papa’s life, seemed inadequate. His parents, wife, and survivors were all mentioned. A handful of his accomplishments graced the pages of the local newspaper. But neither the eulogy nor the obituary even remotely approached the totality of the man he was.

As a family we planned Grandpa’s funeral. It was a service that was quintessentially him. The historic country church that our family calls our spiritual home is not necessarily one that has embraced the digital age. There are no projectors and screens adorning the stage. There are no cameras. The dark wood paneling of the sanctuary harkens back to an understated elegance that seemed to permeate rural construction at the turn of the 19th century. Yet, the congregation agreed to have the internet installed so that we could livestream Grandpa’s prayer service and funeral for his many friends and family from across the Nation. I think that Grandpa would have gotten a kick out of this bit of logistical planning, and the fact that his funeral was the first to bring the Church, as we call it, into our modern, technological era.

We were careful to call the prayer service and funeral “celebrations” of his life. The use of the word celebration is really just an exercise in semantics but we wanted people to reflect upon Grandpa’s life and celebrate the work of a faithful servant of God and of a life lived well, as opposed to treating the occasion as than an opportunity to mourn his passing. In truth, it was a mix of both. Still, it was a service that befit the person Grandpa was, and it involved many of the people that he cared about and that cared about him. If the goal of such a celebration is to honor the memory of the loved one who has passed, then I think we succeeded.

But to me it still didn’t seem adequate for a giant. For a hero.

A Hero’s Farewell

It wasn’t until the funeral procession to his grave that I began to feel like Grandpa was recognized for the hero that he was. It’s true that Grandpa was a proud veteran of the Korean War. He served his country bravely as a combat engineer, and instilled a similar sense of service in each of his grandchildren. My oldest younger sister is a foster care worker who has devoted her life to protecting children. My youngest sister will soon be a teacher. He never said it in so many words, but the message from our Grandfather was always clear: serve a cause greater than yourself.

But beyond this, he was our rock. There was no situation in life that I couldn’t bring to him for wise counsel. There was nothing he couldn’t fix. No problem a bit of his common sense couldn’t solve. He mentored me without the need to call it mentoring. He encourage me. He pushed me to do things that were well beyond my comfort zone, the lot of which have made me a better person as a result. He didn’t fight villains at night. But he knew how to fight the enemies of self-doubt, insecurity, and intolerance. Like a true hero, he conquered all of these with a sword of love.

Our family buried Papa with full military honors. As we made the descent from the church, down the hillside to the cemetery, located about five miles away, we were escorted by the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. The trooper’s lights flashed as cars pulled over to acknowledge the passing of a great man: a man whose greatness can be attributed simply to the fact that he loved God and loved others. As we pulled into the cemetery, American flags waved proudly long the cemetery’s fence line. Their vibrant hues of red, white, and blue provided a stark but fitting contrast to the solemnity of the day.

Far too soon, the officer’s car came to a stop blocking both lanes of traffic along the country highway leading into town. As we passed, the officer stood at parade rest, his head bowed while the procession made its way through the gates. Gradually, the hearse would wind its way along the narrow lane of the cemetery, and I saw a lone bugler standing off in the distance. There would be no faux recording of taps at this funeral. When we arrived at Grandpa’s grave, the military color guard stood a short distance away, at the ready to pay one final tribute to a fallen warrior.

We removed Grandpa’s flag-draped coffin from the hearse and carried it to its resting place while the color guard stood in salute. At the exact moment the interment ceremony began, quite by happenstance, an Air Force jet flew low and overhead. Our family likes to think that we have a number of friends, but we certainly don’t have the military connections to secure an Air Force flyby. We had a good laugh later when folks asked how we managed to do it.

Although it was not planned, I viewed the flyover as a special nod from God, and perhaps from Papa himself, and made my peace. If anyone could talk the Lord into sending a jet over for his service, it would be him. It may seem like a cheeky ask of God during Papa’s first few days in heaven, but I wouldn’t put it past him to find a way to comfort a broken-hearted grandson like yours truly.

When the guns blazed in salute and as taps played in the distance, I internalized the fact that Papa was gone. As we lowered him into the ground, there were still plenty of tears. Even from me. But when the final spade was turned and his body buried, I couldn’t help but smile a bit wistfully.

Papa had gotten a hero’s farewell after all.

 

A Dispatch from New Zealand


The Tukorehe Marae is an unprepossessing structure. Nestled behind a grove of lush palm trees, its paint is gradually fading, unveiling layer upon layer of cosmetic efforts past. The predominance of white paint is strong in the front. But in the back, it yields to flecks of salmon, and some of the wood has worn itself bare.

Our host at the marae is a man named Shawn, or “Papa Shawn,” as the kids call him. And while he’s hardly the garrulous sort, he clearly loves this place – a place that he simply calls home. 
Māori in New Zealand often call a particular “mare,” such as this, home. For the descendants of Tukorehe, a Māori ancestor from the distant past, this marae is theirs, carrying with it all the trappings of ownership as if they had helped Tukorehe himself hew the logs that support its roof. 
By way of explanation, the focal point of the marae grounds is the meeting house, or wharenui, which resembles a small wooden chapel that congregations in the Southern United States might have used over a century ago. However, far from practicing Christianity, Māori consider their meeting houses to be the living iteration of their ancestors. Photos of deceased relatives line the wooden walls of the wharenui, each ancestor looking after the occupants in a very literal and symbolic way. The walls themselves are ornately decorated with wood carvings and flax tapestries that tell both the exploits of the ancestor, as well as the philosophy/theology that undergirds the Māori worldview. 

The marae, then, is not so much a chapel as it is a cenotaph dedicated to the presence of the absence of ancestors who never truly left to begin with. 
If there’s a nugget of wisdom I’ve gleaned from the complexities of the Māori cosmology (one I will, admittedly, never fully understand), it’s that they do community rather differently than we do in mainstream America. 
I won’t say it’s better, because I’m not sure it is. But it is different, and special. 

The first difference is the Māori emphasis on all things communal. Sleeping in the marae, for example, is a wholly collective affair. The end result is that our group of ten from the University of Wyoming have spent the past three days sleeping in the wharenui, sharing snores, showers, and sleeping patterns alike. This is, of course, a stark contrast to America where privacy is the order of the day, no matter how much the NSA might say otherwise. 
The second difference is in the Māori emphasis on social extroversion. Back home, my normal routine involves quiet, reflection, dedicated time for writing, and the occasional game of Call of Duty
For Māori, nearly every interaction is focused on the shared, lived experience of family or whanauFamilies and extended families all come in equal turn on the marae, sharing meals, entertainment, and social activities in common. Needless to say, this American’s time for reflection has been almost non-existent, and in all honesty this has taken its toll on my frazzled nerves. It seems I crave quiet in the same way Māori crave togetherness. I suppose both the individual and the collective have their place and needs. 
Of course, I knew all of this coming in. The marae was never a mystery to me given the year/plus that Gwyn, Clark and I lived in New Zealand. But perhaps the difference on this trip is the presence of the absence of my own whanau. While the Māori ancestors look after us from behind their frames in the wharenui, my own family is ensconced miles across the mighty Pacific, visiting family back in Indiana. 
It seems this is the real lesson from Māoridom. There’s precious little that’s more important than family.  Of course, we all take this to different extremes. 

Silence, God, and Fish

Flowers Beside the Lake
The other day, I read about King Saul and his efforts to consolidate power once he was named the King of Israel. He was a man who ruled with ruthless abandon, harassing his enemies at every turn, driving them out of the lands and territories that the King had claimed for his own. And yet, for all of his struggles, warmongering, and folly, King Saul sought God often. As it happens, however, God did not often answer him back (I Samuel 14.37).

Saturday, I took a break from preparing for classes and ventured into the Snowy Mountains in Medicine Bow National Forest. The past week had found me feverishly reading Blood Struggle: The Rise of Modern Indian Nations. It’s one of the assigned texts for my classes, because it vividly outlines the plight of American Indian tribal nations during the systematic destruction of their governing institutions. Much like King Saul, the young American Nation consolidated power over American Indian tribes with ruthless abandon, harassing them at every turn, and driving them out of the lands and territories that the budding Nation would claim for its own. As the story goes, the tribes were driven further and further westward, until they were summarily rounded up, and placed on increasingly smaller reserves of land. Or as we call them today, reservations.

I suspect for anyone, the book might make for a bit of a dour read – particularly the early chapters prior to the Government’s major shift in Federal Indian policy. Tale after tale of lost lands, disease, and poverty had left me quite nearly moribund myself, so when the invite from a friend came to head for the hills (literally), I was more than happy to leave my work behind.

Now, when I fish, it’s normally my habit to focus intently on the fishing. I tend to analyze each cast, and ponder over bait options, all in hopes of snagging a big fish. But on this trip my approach was different. When we first arrived, no one was at the lake. The sounds of the waves lapping against the rocks, and the rustle of the wind were all I heard. Every so often, I could glance and see a bald eagle soaring high overhead, looking for an opportunity to demonstrate who the true fisherman was. It was serene, and I allowed the quiet of the mountains to consume my morning.

I asked no questions of God in that quiet sanctuary of nature. Even if I had let my mind wander and permitted myself to conjure up all of the academic questions posed by my textbook, or considered the dilemmas that consume my own existence, I suspect my answers from God would have been the same as those given to Saul: complete, utter silence. I say this not on account of my own warmongerings, but because sanctuaries are fundamentally places for worship and contemplation. The sanctuary of nature I visited, set against the craggy face of the Snowy Mountains was no different. Words would have been an injustice in so beautiful a place.

And so I was silent. And God was silent. And the fish never stirred.

It has taken a while, but gradually I’m learning that the silence of God can be just as tremendous as the voice of God. Silence leaves the questions and matters that beset us wholly open to interpretation. This space provides opportunities for us to create our own solutions to existential quandaries – as opposed to having a determinist God prescribe our every waking moment and then some.

Given this, I think what our collective lot needs is more of what philosopher/theologian Paul Tillich famously described as The Courage to Be – mustering within ourselves a courage to confront life’s ordeals, as much as a courage that allows us simply to be at peace with ourselves. In other words, only when we embrace the silence of our existence, can we find peace amid the chaos of life – a peace that allows us to simply “be.”