a wandering year

Nine years ago today, Sue and I headed off on a journey.  It took us a year, but we didn’t tell anyone where we were going, even family members.

OK, it was more like a series of little adventures, many of them local, so no one noticed that we were gone.  I had asked Sue whether she would spend a year visiting different churches each week, telling her that I might try to write a book about the experience.  She initially expressed doubt that enough would happen to make that a reality, but she was supportive and willing to go along for the ride.

We followed the liturgical year of the Roman Catholic Church, but the goal was to sample a variety of Christian worship practices.  (A survey of world religions would have to wait for another time.)  Much of our schedule was not carefully thought out in advance.  Instead it was responsive to wherever we were at the time and whatever whims moved me in deciding which church to attend week to week.

That said, we did mix in a number of visits to churches that we knew, but they were vastly outnumbered by ones with which we had no connection and where we showed up as strangers to anyone we would meet.

We have always liked to visit churches, so our quest was not totally out of character.  (During our recent trip to New York City, we went to St. Francis of Assisi Church, a perfect place to hear the words “blessed are the poor in spirit” on All Saints Day.  When we arrived, a fire truck emerged with sirens blaring from the station across the street.  We didn’t know in advance that the parish had been the home of Father Mychal Judge, the fire department chaplain who died from falling debris on 9/11 while caring for others.  The church has a glorious mosaic above the altar — and a mangled mass of steel from the World Trade Center as a memorial midway up one of the outside aisles.)

In some cases, the churches we attended were tiny and in others truly “mega.”  From pulpits in rural and suburban and inner-city buildings, we heard it all, ranging from fire and brimstone to messages of love.  There were liberal interpretations of scripture as well as conservative ones; at times it was hard to reconcile how different the messages were.  Some churches had only white members, while at others most everyone was black or Latino except us.  (We didn’t understand the words of the Mass recited in Spanish, nor those in French while in Quebec a few years later, but we appreciated those experiences nonetheless.)

The journey was meant to be one of exploration and observation.  Each week, Sue and I would compare our impressions after the service; in doing so, it was fascinating to see what each of us had noticed, what moved us, and what bothered us (if anything).  Then, I would make some detailed notes in preparation for writing that book.

Even without those notes, there are flashes of memory that stick with me.  I recall an older woman with a cane stopping by a side altar with a statue of Mary in an old Catholic church.  She may have been going to that very church her whole life.  What had she seen in her time?  What, then, was her prayer?

Sue always looks carefully at any stained glass windows when we visit a church.  We sometimes quiz each other on the attributes that indicate a particular saint.  In that same Catholic church was a large window of Peter, no doubt holding the keys to the kingdom.  But, at the very top of it was a small, circular pane — of a rooster.  Maybe the greatest reminder ever.

Once, in a large, packed church, prayers of intercession were being read and the congregants were responding in turn.  There was a prayer for a person whose name seemed vaguely familiar.  Then I realized I had seen it in the paper:  He was the man who had attempted to bomb an airliner in flight on Christmas Day.

It took my breath away.

Matthew 5:44 reads, “Love your enemies.”  Here was a church that was praying for one.  Think about how radical an act that is in today’s world.

There were far too many touching moments to recite them all here.  In a church built by Icelandic immigrants in the little prairie town of Minneota, all thirteen of us at the service (counting the pastor) stood in a semicircle around the altar, holding hands, praying before we received communion.  It was as if we were transported back to an early gathering of Christians.

At a monastery of Benedictine Sisters in North Dakota, each of the prayers that Catholics rush through were a beat or two slower and more meaningful, and the readings were full of expression, not delivered in the hurried, thoughtless way that they often are.  From beginning to end, it was a moving experience.

The structures we visited ranged from incredibly ornate (the Russian Orthodox church won that category easily) to very plain.  We even went to the same building two weeks in row, to see how it was used by two distinctly different groups of worshipers.  One was a morning service for the aging, small, liturgically-based congregation which owned the building, and the other was a vibrant evening gathering of young adults (we definitely were out of our demographic) who rented it from them and no doubt provided much-needed financial support.

However, a church is not just a building but the people who gather there together.  It is of course not fair to pass judgment on the culture of a worship community based upon an hour or a bit more, but you do get some strong impressions by watching how people interact with each other (and with a couple of strangers in their midst).

Each set of my notes has a fairly detailed section on the message given by the pastor that week.  As I scan them now, there is a rich trove of ideas waiting to be rediscovered.  There was a memorable homily on “developing a spirit of excellence,” based on Proverbs 22:29.  In the best line of the year, Sue said, “It made me want to go home and shine my shoes.”

You can do a search on Amazon to find the book I was going to write, but you’ll come up empty.  Sue was right about it never happening, but not for lack of material.  I came up with over fifty themes and ideas that I wanted to explore, and that was before I really took a deep dive into the notes and other collected material.

I ended up going down the rabbit hole, or rather a series of rabbit holes:  church history, theology, the inability of the Catholic hierarchy to address its problems (still true, almost a decade later), and on and on.  I have stacks of books — and extensive paper and electronic files.  What I don’t have is a book of my own.

Maybe I felt like my observations needed a gravitas that I couldn’t provide.  Maybe it was just procrastination or laziness.  In any case, I failed to do what I wanted to do.

The preliminary title was A Wandering Year, although maybe it should have been A Wondering Year.  I have a picture I took at sunrise one morning — the new light reflecting off of the windows of the church my dad attended as a boy — that I thought should be on the cover.  I wrote a preface and part of the first chapter.  That may be as far as I will ever get.

Even if that’s the case, it was still an amazing journey.

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dog and pony shows

After getting out of college (it only took me ten years), I ended up in the investment business.  Right away, I started going to “dog and pony shows,” the common name for the meetings where companies talk up their stocks to professional investors.

The term is applied to other kinds of events too; a general definition is that of “an elaborate display or presentation, especially as part of a promotional campaign.”  We are subject to them throughout our lives, as we are sold products and services (and elected representatives), in person and through every possible media channel.

At the same time, we are marketing ourselves, day in and day out, to those around us.  Some of our displays are pretty elaborate too.

It’s human nature to put our best foot forward, to wear our bravest face for the world to see, hoping to mask the mess behind it.  We don’t want to let on when we are struggling, when we are hurting.  We maintain the facade for as long as we can.

Mostly we’re ashamed, but we also don’t want to burden others:  “You know how every day someone asks ‘how are you?’  And even if you’re totally dying inside, you just say ‘fine,’ so everyone can go about their day?”  (That quote is from the home page of a podcast, Terrible, Thanks for Asking, which tries to be “the opposite of that” — that is, a forum in which the facade can crumble to let the humanity out.)

And so we tell our tales as we’d like them to be told, and listen to others tell theirs.  At times we fall into the trap of comparing ourselves with them, especially if they have a knack for making their lives sound much better than ours.

It’s useful to remember one of the twelve truths that Anne Lamott feels she’s learned from life and writing:  “Everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy and scared, even the people who seem to have it most together.  They are much more like you than you would believe, so try not to compare your insides to other people’s outsides.  It will only make you worse than you already are.”

I’ll repeat that:  Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides.

Reported rates of anxiety have been increasing in the United States for decades.  No doubt there are many factors involved, but there has been a noticeable spike up since the advent of social media.

Granted, at times people are open and honest on those platforms about difficult circumstances that they face, especially health issues and the loss of family members.  But there’s a fair chance that their lives as they appear on Facebook, for example, aren’t a faithful representation of their real ones, just carefully curated snippets of them.

It has always been thus.  I’m reminded of the people in Tom Waits’ song, “Putnam County,” who “lie about their lives and the places they’d been.”

These days, we have global electronic communities to which we can broadcast our dog and pony shows with ease.  I have been pondering the implications of that for a while; then I read what Bret Stephens wrote today:

“Tweeting and trolling are easy.  Mastering the arts of conversation and measured debate is hard.  Texting is easy.  Writing a proper letter is hard.  Looking stuff up on Google is easy.  Knowing what to search for in the first place is hard.  Having a thousand friends on Facebook is easy.  Maintaining six or seven close adult friendships over the space of many years is hard.  Swiping right on Tinder is easy.  Finding love — and staying in it — is hard.”

This is the challenge that we face.  Quitting those platforms altogether probably isn’t the answer for most of us.  There is real value in staying in touch and, as with other tools, it’s how we use them that determines their ultimate worth to us and to those with whom we interact.

But now and then we need to let the dogs and ponies rest for a while (and remember to not compare our insides to other people’s outsides).

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when i’m sixty-four

When Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band came out, I was twelve years old.

In one of those odd memories that sticks with you, I remember sitting in Harvey’s Barber Shop, passing the time, when Dave Woolsey came in with the album, saying it had just arrived at the Cardinal Music Store.  (I don’t know whose hair Harvey was cutting at the time, but with just the three of us it was an interesting mix of characters.)

Dave was bummed that “All You Need Is Love,” just released on the radio, wasn’t included on Sgt. Pepper’s.  Despite that, it is often considered the greatest album of all time.

Stylistically, it’s a little bit of everything, from music hall to psychedelia to Indian music, ending with a tremendous orchestral climax.  Not your typical rock and roll album.

In the midst of it is “When I’m Sixty-Four.”  After singing the song all these years, it’s no longer something unimaginably far off in the future.  “Many years from now” is today.

By happenstance, the calendar is such that there are a couple of events every year surrounding my birthday.  Last night was Halloween, so normally we are at home greeting the youngsters, although I’m past the point of sitting on the roof above the porch and making noises to scare the trick-or-treaters.

This year, Sue and I are in New York City.  Last night we went to what is billed as “the nation’s most wildly creative public participatory event,” the Village Halloween Parade in Greenwich Village.  There were probably a quarter million of us watching, with tens of thousands dressed up in costume, marching in the parade, along with floats and bands and giant puppets to fit the holiday.

The other annual celebration, quite different from that revelry, falls on my birthday itself:  All Saints Day.  (Please hold your snarky comments.)

Every year, no matter the degree to which I’m engaged with the Catholic Church at the moment, I go to Mass on my birthday.  I’m not sure where we’ll end up today — at the grand St. Patrick’s Cathedral or at a smaller church tucked away in a neighborhood — but we’ll hear the Beatitudes, those twelve verses from Matthew that are so simple and beautiful and hard to follow in daily life.  Maybe this will be the year when I make some progress on them.

Tonight, to cap off another trip around the sun, we will be going to see Bruce Springsteen on Broadway.

I was one of the hundreds of thousands of people who signed up for Springsteen’s limited run last fall.  After the show was extended twice, I finally got a notice that my number had been drawn and that I could buy two tickets.  The last performance will be in December.

This is a one-man show (with Patti, his wife and a member of his band, joining in for a couple of songs).  The man and his music, if you will.  I’ve never seen Springsteen in concert and I don’t know his songbook as well as many others who will be in the audience.

When I think of him, I am transported back to the release of Born to Run and his unimaginable rise from near obscurity to the covers of Time and Newsweek during the week of my twenty-first birthday in 1975.  (I celebrated that day by buying a new stereo system at Sound of Music, the forerunner of Best Buy; the last component of it quit not that long ago.)

I was living in a little studio apartment in the Loring Park area of Minneapolis, which was kind of a wasteland at that time.  I joked that my “office” was a phone booth in the park.  It was a pretty meager existence (even with that new stereo).  In a few months I would be on my way back to Luverne, leaving that short chapter in the big city behind.

Music has always sustained me.  It brings me back to times and places and people.  When the emotion wells up, often unexpectedly, I might have trouble catching my breath.  I sometimes have to wipe my eyes.

A musician called attending Springsteen’s show a “profound” experience:  “I’m watching huge dudes in the audience crying their eyes out because only Bruce, the man of all men, can talk to them about these things.”  Many have been attending his concerts for years; this will likely be my only one.

Perhaps we’ll cry together.

There will be lyrics that speak to where I was as a person way back when, and to where I am today.  I will feel blessed and I will feel that I need to do more.

Each day, whether celebrated or not, offers that opportunity.

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just things

When he was stationed in Japan, my dad bought and shipped home jewelry, china sets, ceramic vases, and decorative items that hung on the walls of our house for more than sixty years.  He also bought a very large set of delicately-etched glassware of various shapes and sizes for every cocktail imaginable.

But my parents hardly drank, so unless there was a party of some sort, the glasses stayed safely behind some short doors at the top of each of the main kitchen cabinets.

Late in her life, I was talking with my mom about the set and she mentioned that there was a cocktail shaker that was a part of it.  I reached up to get it down, grabbing it by the metal top, which was not attached to the beautiful glass bottom.  That fell to the floor and shattered into pieces.

When I mentioned that traumatic incident to someone else in front of her sometime later, she said, “It was just a thing.”

I’m a bit of a pack rat, although I stop well short of hoarding.  (I think.)  Most notably, I have many cubic yards of books and files full of interesting items, which I lovingly call the Brakke Archives.  When I’m writing, it’s handy to have that kind of reference material around, but how often do you really need it?

Then there is the piling up of stuff that comes from being in one house for twenty-eight years.  It would be startling to see an inventory listing of all of the clothes in the closets, the contents of those plastic bins stashed here and there, the utensils and tools of every sort, and all the rest of it.

Yes, I know there are lots of books and websites and programs devoted to purging yourself of this weight.  I fancy zen habits for its emphasis on a simple life.  But it takes time and effort to tidy up and, well, there’s usually something else to do.

I don’t want to get into too much self-flagellation here.  There’s a reason that storage facilities have blossomed across the American landscape.  Many of us are in the same boat.

Beyond the normal sloth, maybe we are wary of having to make some hard choices on what to throw out and what to keep.

My great-grandfather’s violin-making tools lie buried in a grove on the family farm.  My dad’s flying helmets somehow made their way to a distant relative in Florida, never to be seen again.  In some sense, each of them had something to do with what it means to be a Brakke, and it would be nice to have those possessions as connections to that past and to them.

That’s it.  Some of these things have a lot of emotion tied up with them.

I would love to have the life-sized cardboard Cybill Sheperd display item that had been in his family’s drug store that Jono put next to the car in our driveway one night.  The note on it said, “Go get ’em, Brak,” for me to see early the next morning when I went off to football training camp at college.

Sure, lots of the stuff around here doesn’t carry such memories, so I should just get on with it, but it’s surprising how much of what hangs around has some tie to the past and to cherished loved ones now gone.

For better or worse, I feel like the keeper of much of it.  There are those items that are just things, and those that are something more.

My mom’s last driver’s license ended up with me, like lots of other stuff.  It’s made its way to at least three different rooms over the months since I ran into it.  It serves no purpose and there are better pictures of her – and she would certainly say, “What are you doing with that old thing?”

But I can’t let it go.

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a friend for life

Jono Bot passed away last week.  I knew him my whole life.

He was gregarious and genuine and generous.  He could tell stories like no one else.  Not jokes, but stories about the roller coaster of life.  There may have been some embellishment along the way, but I was always amazed at how accurately he remembered things from our youth.  I figured it was because he started telling the stories right away and never let up.

We got ourselves into trouble from time to time, and I’ll miss his recitations of those exploits.  (No, I’m not going to relate them here, even though the statute of limitations must have passed by now.)  Our parents were friends; their reactions to the mischief lived on in Jono’s retellings too.

He had a bunch of boyhood buddies like me, but we were just the start of the club, which grew ever larger as the years passed.  People were drawn to Jono and his infectious spirit.  Each of us knew that we had a friend for life.

Jono was the life of the party (actually, it often seemed like he was the party), but it wasn’t to draw attention to himself like many others do.  It was to help us enjoy our time together.

Shortly after he passed, I received one of those daily inspirational emails, which contained a quote from Esther Perel:  “The quality of our relationships is what determines the quality of our lives.”  Jono knew that instinctively.

In early 2016, the day after I had my final radiation treatment, I was at a concert with Jono and a bunch of other friends.  I wasn’t feeling the greatest, but I could look down the row at Jono and see his arms jabbing at the air above him and his head thrown back, with a look of ecstasy on his face.

He loved music.  (He did, after all, have a long-running music festival that bore his name.)  And he was singing along in joy to whatever tunes were playing even as his body was failing him.  So many of my memories of Jono revolve around music; I know they will be triggered throughout the rest of my life when I hear certain songs.  (I included some of them over the weekend as part of my daily musical interludes on Twitter.)

Six months after that concert, Jono found out he had multiple myeloma.  Shortly thereafter the Argus Leader had a lengthy article about his impending stem cell transplant and the difficult road ahead.  The headline and subheading in the print edition captured the essence, “The Inspiring Journey of Jono: Tough break doesn’t keep bar & grill owner in Sioux Falls from bringing smiles to others.”

That was Jono.

After that grueling treatment, a benefit was held to honor him.  When he walked in, the hundreds of people there stood and cheered and cheered.  While he was very weak, he kept working the room, probably longer than he should have, trying to be with every one of us.

“He went into the right business,” someone said after his funeral, a bit more than two years after he was diagnosed.  He was born to make people happy and gathered friends around him no matter their station in life.

It’s no wonder that the large church was packed, that the visitation the day before was very busy, and that, during the final celebration in Botski’s (his bar) and a tent erected outside of it, you could hardly move because of all the people.

The back of his funeral program had a picture of Jono at his backyard grill.  Below it was a photo of “Jono’s top-secret Jack Daniel’s Marinade Recipe,” which for some reason was scrawled onto a soiled elementary school lunch menu from 1989.  He was never one to put on airs.

At the visitation, I ran into someone who was going through treatment when Jono was.  Sometimes their schedules would intersect and they would be in infusion chairs at the same time.  He said, “I knew if Jono was there it was going to be a good day.”

That’s the effect he had.  If you were with Jono, it was always a good day.

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nursing us

In my grandparents’ house in North Dakota, there were photos of their six children arranged on the dining room wall in birth order.  My mom was first, then her three sisters, followed by the two boys.

Mom was the only one of the girls who didn’t appear in the white uniform and hat that was standard in a nursing school graduation picture of the day.

In the three generations of our family tree starting with my mom’s siblings, there have been eleven nurses (including spouses).  In addition, there have been quite a number of others with careers and volunteer activities related to health care.

I’ve often wondered the impact that the photos had on those of us that passed through that room over the years.  We are influenced in many ways by our role models, through the images of them that resonate with us over time and the lives that we watch them lead.

A few years ago, I arrived at a hotel in Baltimore to find a very busy lobby.  It turned out that there was a convention of nurses in town.  The lines were long, but there were smiles and laughter, and apparently none of the angst that usually accompanies such crowded conditions.

I was meeting someone for dinner.  She arrived later, when it was even busier, and while we were eating, she said, “Aren’t nurses just the nicest people?”


In the intervening years, when my mom’s health declined and I was treated for cancer, I spent a great deal of time with nurses.  (Interestingly, I ended up going to Sanford Health because one of my cousins who is a nurse encouraged Sue and me to visit there when I was trying to decide how to proceed.)  Only a couple of times did any of those interactions with nurses leave something to be desired.  I’d be hard-pressed to make that statement about any other group of people, which is saying something, since nurses often see us when we are at our worst.

“You have no idea,” said one nurse when I asked about the difficult encounters that she had experienced.  She wouldn’t elaborate; I can only imagine what it’s like to be on the front lines when patients and family members are at their most vulnerable and emotional.

Female nurses still outnumber men by about ten to one in the United States, a ratio that is changing more slowly than in some other professions.  It is a bit of a shock to have a beefy, bearded nurse, but you soon find out his heart is in the right place too.

A Wall Street Journal article about six nurses who came to the States from the Philippines in the 1970s reflects the changes in their jobs over that time, propelled by new technologies that improved care, but which caused shorter hospital stays and less time to bond with patients.  Still, as one of the nurses said, “The fundamentals of nursing haven’t changed.  We care as we did forty years ago.”

While lacking the formal training, Sue has the heart of a nurse.  We started calling her “Florence” (for Florence Nightingale) because of how she can make people feel better in times of trauma and stress.  Once, when my mom wasn’t feeling well, I asked her whether she wanted someone to visit.  She said, “Well, it depends on who it is.”  Translated, “Please send Sue.”

There is nothing that can compare to having someone come to nurse your pain, of whatever type and whatever cause.  I am reminded of a very short song by Jethro Tull, “Nursie”:

Tip-toes in silence ’round my bed
And quiets the raindrops overhead
With her everlasting smile
She stills my fever for a while

Oh, nursie, dear
I’m glad you’re here
To brush away my pain

On Tuesday, my aunt Elaine (we called her “Sis”) was laid to rest.  As you can tell from her obituary, which includes a copy of that nursing school picture, she went on caring for people even after her formal retirement, and lived life fully right up to the card party she hosted shortly before her death.

Here’s to the nurses that brush away our pain.

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everyone gets crazy

I caught the end of an American Masters documentary, “The Highwaymen: Friends Till The End,” the other night.  I had seen it before, but one song grabbed hold of me this time and won’t let go.

The Highwaymen were called “the Mount Rushmore of country music.”  The song that won’t let go, written by Kevin Welch, is “Everyone Gets Crazy.”

Each verse is sung by a different member of the group.  First up is Waylon Jennings:

Look here is that you I see
You sure seem down to me
Would you like to tell it to a friend
I can help if anyone can, you know I understand
Everyone gets crazy now and then

A friend can tell.  “Is that you I see?  You sure seem down to me.”  And a friend is willing to listen, understanding that everyone gets their turn at trouble; each of us goes through it, whether we shout it out for all to hear or keep it to ourselves.

Johnny Cash continues on:

I know those empty nights get lonely
Sometimes you feel like you’re the only one
To lose more than he wins
Guess these trouble times get scary
But that’s just ordinary

Everyone gets crazy now and then

Those lonely, empty nights.  The counting of the losses and the wins — and not being able to see past the scoreboard to enjoy the rest of what life has to offer.

Then Willie Nelson:

And who can say they’ve never stumbled
Never fallen to their knees
Your dreams like castles when they crumble
Well, I know what you mean
And I know how hard it can seem

“I know what you mean.”  (I’ve been on my knees too.)

Kris Kristofferson brings it home:

I get crazy just like you, lost and lonely too
Like some old flag left flying in the wind
Time has taught me this for sure
Time is the only cure
All your blues will turn to gold again

Oh, everyone gets crazy now and then

We cycle in and out of times of calm and chaos.  The craziness may be thrust upon us or self-imposed, but it seems inescapable when we are in the middle of it.  Sometimes a friend helps to get us out.  And sometimes a song.

The documentary illustrates the strength that can come from understanding the trials of others as you cope with your own.  The famous singers had each been through a lot.  Addictions, health problems, broken marriages, and strife were with them throughout their storied careers.

The liner notes for one of their CDs contained a description that captured the spirit they embodied:  “The man is a poet, he’s broken, he passes out on sidewalks, yet his waywardness is essential to the truths he’s searching for — truths that, ultimately, might serve somebody else’s life better than his own, if he can only get his words sober and voice right.”

They were not four of a kind.  As Kristofferson said, “Willie’s the outlaw coyote.  Waylon’s the riverboat gambler.  I’m the revolutionary communist radical and John is the father of our country.”  They had different beliefs about some things, but they could get past their disagreements to come together and make great music.

It’s important to say that there are genuine problems of mental illness for many people.  Unfortunately there is still a stigma about being open in regard to mental health challenges (and public policy is less than enlightened).

So the “crazy” referred to here is of the common sort, the extremes that we endure of one kind or another.

Alain de Botton wrote that early in our relationships we should pose a simple question, “And how are you crazy?”  We are each crazy in our own way.  If, as spouses or friends, we could give honest answers to that question, we would save ourselves lots of later surprises and conflicts.  We could be there to help when someone else’s particular brand of craziness manifests itself.  And they could be there when ours does.

Everyone gets crazy now and then.  Let’s talk about it.  And sing about it.

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the fair

I don’t remember much from my very first trip to the Minnesota State Fair:  watching my dad’s cousin, the trumpeter Larry Brakke, playing at a bandstand; the gold metal Minnesota bookmark my parents bought me (which I still have); and seeing Luverne from the east as we returned home.  I think I started first grade the next day.

Twenty years later, I worked the fair for Luverne Truck Equipment, selling chrome bumpers and running boards.  “Sales” and “truck equipment” don’t figure into the rest of my biography; it’s probably not surprising that I didn’t write too many purchase orders.

For decades, Sue and I have been making annual visits to the fair, part of the throng there for “the celebration, the revelry, the making of memories, the marking of seasons,” as one article put it.   Almost a quarter of a million of us showed up yesterday.

The people are of all ages, including infants being at their first fair and nonagenarians wondering if it will be their last.  There’s quite a cross section of economic and social groups among the attendees, and certainly more diversity than there used to be.

If you spend time people watching, it’s not hard to see the clustering of styles and behaviors among families and groups of friends.  Their attitudes and interests are on display in the way they dress, how they interact, and where they spend their time on the grounds.  If you think about it, there are few places like the fair where people with such disparate interests share a common destination.

It seems that every year I notice a family or two with a familiar makeup:  aging parents with a middle-aged son or daughter who is mentally or physically disabled.  I think about the incredible dedication those parents have displayed throughout their lives, and hope that there will be others who will share such love after they are gone — and make the trip to the fair too.  (This morning I happened to see this short video, which makes the point better than I ever could.)

The range of activities and events at the fair is truly remarkable, but it was founded to promote agriculture in the state.  I can’t go there without pondering the roots of my dad’s family; in a couple of years the farm his grandfather homesteaded will be recognized for being in the family for one hundred and fifty years.

Every year into old age, my aunt Edith would cram as many entries as possible into her car and drive to all of the county fairs within a wide radius, continuing a passion that began when she and my dad were kids.  My cousins grew up with that spirit — exhibiting, demonstrating, riding, showing animals — with the culmination of that activity being the state fair.  I can’t see the 4-H building without thinking about them.

We always go through the barns.  Sue needs to spend some time with the goats, since it’s a highlight of her year.  And we occasionally watch a competition.  This year, we walked through one of the buildings as the judge was finalizing his ranking of some heifers.  His introductory remarks before awarding the ribbons included comments about how the animals can show differently on different days and in different arenas, and how where you finish on any one of those days matters less than how you’ve prepared.  At that moment, it was a life lesson that I needed to hear once again.

Over time, the fair has become less about the production of food and more about the consumption of it.  Surveys of fairgoers indicate “the food” is the most important reason for attending by far, and articles by outsiders usually end up focusing on the array and sheer number of edible offerings.

Some people don’t think you’ve done your fair duty if you don’t eat A, B, C, and on and on, sometimes in that specific order.  We don’t take that approach.  In fact, we realized after leaving this year that everything we ate was new to us.

We went old school, actually sitting down at real tables at a couple of food venues, including one of only two church dining halls still in existence.  At one time, there were more than fifty.  The plates and coffee cups were just like you would expect to find at a funeral lunch in a church basement.  More memories.

As usual, we took in the crop art exhibit and the fine arts show.  And, while we don’t ever spend much time walking around the hundreds of merchandise booths, we did make the obligatory stop to watch the woman hawking the mandoline vegetable sliders.  (Sue said she felt like getting in line even though she already had one.)

Every day at two o’clock, there is a parade at the fair.  This year, there were three marching bands among the giant animal statues and other entries.  The first was from Edgerton, a small town near Luverne that my dad loved and which I visited for the first time in years just a couple of weeks ago.  Then there was the band from the University of Minnesota (where my parents met and I graduated); Sue and I got so caught up in the energy of the band that we marched along with it for a couple of blocks and then cut over to see it again further on down the route.  Finally there was the Gold Star Marching Band of North Dakota State University, representing the school that means so much to so many members of my mom’s family.  (Go Bison!)  An emotional triad for me.

Over the years, we’ve seen some great musical groups perform at venues around the fair.  This year there was Terrance Simien & The Zydeco Experience (their version of “Saints” was a bit different than Larry Brakke’s dixieland one, but I still want to be in that number) and the Minneapolis group Humbird, which unbeknownst to us includes the son of friends we hadn’t seen in awhile.

What a day.  I’m already looking forward to next year.

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lighthouse keepers

For more than thirty years, Margaret Winski lived at the Montauk Lighthouse on the eastern tip of Long Island.  Built in 1796,  it continues to operate, having been automated just before she moved in.

When I read her story, I had that brief moment when I thought, “I wonder if they’re looking for someone to take her place.”  I’m certain a great many others had the same reaction.

There’s something romantic about a lighthouse, although the isolation would be tough for most.  As Winski said, “A lot of people would go out of their minds, I think.”

I figured I knew someone who could come with me and who actually had a touch of lighthouse experience.

Last summer, Sue decided she wanted to do something completely different and volunteered for a week to help in the restoration of the Rock of Ages Lighthouse, located fifteen miles off of Isle Royale in Lake Superior.

Most of her time there was working on a nearby island, providing support for the team that, level by level, will be bringing the lighthouse back to life.  But she also got to visit the structure.

It was a step back into another era for her.  Everyone stayed in an old fishing cabin, without electricity or running water.  She’d fetch water from the lake for purification, work to make the cabin hospitable (she was there the first week it was opened), help with food, and (knowing her) make everything feel like home.

Away from the distractions of mobile phones and blaring media and general hubbub, she got to pause and reflect.  And see the stars.

In the fall, the volunteers gathered again, at the iconic Split Rock Lighthouse, where each November the names of those who died on the Edmund Fitzgerald are read as a ship’s bell tolls.  The romance of a lighthouse always has a whisper of a wish:  “Bring them home.”

Sue’s experience has provided me with an opportunity to sing (repeatedly) the first couple of lines of “I Want to Marry a Lighthouse Keeper.”  That song by Erika Eigen, barely a minute long, is an exuberant bit from the wonderful soundtrack of the bizarre movie A Clockwork Orange.  It asks a question that I might too, “I’d love living in a lighthouse, how about you?”

The first full day of the On Being Gathering in February opened with a poem called “Lighthouse Keeping” by Kay Ryan.  It ends:  “It is intimate/and remote both/for the keeper/and those afloat.”  Hearing it at that moment, I had to shake my head (and wipe a tear) as the words washed over me.

A recent CBS Sunday Morning segment featured a public art project in Chicago through which the talents of people with disabilities are on display via 51 lighthouses that are spread throughout the city.  The project was organized by Chicago Lighthouse, “a social service organization which works on behalf of the visually-impaired, physically or emotionally challenged, and military veterans.”

The introduction to that piece talked about the lighthouses as “beacons of hope.”  In our own lives, there are lighthouse keepers who have kept the beacons of hope lit for us.  For months and years and lifetimes.

Sometimes, now and then, we look up to see those flashes of light sweeping across the horizon and wonder how they do it, how they always seem to be there for us when we need them.  But often we are blinded by our own ego and self-interest, not even seeing the beacon, not realizing that we need guidance or comfort or just a quiet bay away from the raging sea.

Perhaps you’ve had a parent or a sibling or a friend or a mentor or (as I have) a spouse who has been there, shining that light when the storms raged around you, so that you could get home.

Just think if we all did that for each other.

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on being

I wrote in the last posting about coming together with those who we know well.  Now it’s time to reflect back on a gathering of strangers that I attended in February.

We met amid the California redwoods for some time away from the tumult of everyday life, drawn there by a shared interest in On Being, a radio show and podcast that is hosted by Krista Tippett.  (It originated as Speaking of Faith, a weekly public radio broadcast about religion and spirituality.)

Tippett’s intelligence, empathy, warmth, and good humor make her a naturally good interviewer.  And her guests are always interesting, “ranging from poets to physicists, doctors to historians, artists to activists,” to quote Wikipedia.  And then some.

What do they talk about?  Life.  Being.  This human condition that we share, as individuals and as people of the world.

Tippett has spoken of three “animating questions” that guide her work:  “What does it mean to be human?  How do we want to live?  Who will we be to each other?”

For devoted listeners, three other questions come to mind, heard during a short blurb for the John Templeton Foundation, which provides funding for the show:  “Who are we?  Why are we here?  And where are we going?”

Those questions should be enough to keep us busy for awhile.  How about a lifetime?

To deal with the challenges of the real world, On Being (the show) has now blossomed into The On Being Project.  There are regular writings from a slate of fine columnists, new podcast formats, and initiatives regarding theology, poetry, and — most importantly — having civil conversations with each other.

The On Being Gathering was another facet in that expanding realm of activities, the first time that listeners had been invited to come together.  A few hundred attendees were selected from more than three thousand who had filled out applications, in which we answered questions about ourselves.  It was a joy to spend three days with one another.  (This page will give you some sense of the setting and the people.)

I can barely scratch the surface of the gathering in one blog post, so I’m bound to come back to themes and ideas from it in the months to come.  For now, here are a few impressions.

There was, more than anything, a sense of a dual purpose, which Tippett characterized as “inner life and outer presence.”  The solitary listener of On Being (like me) may grow more thoughtful and inspired in response to it, but is that enough?  Or, are we are called to go outside of ourselves to be “bridge people,” those “bearers of calm” in a world that normally caters to the most strident and divisive voices?

That requires, as Tippett said that weekend, “a desire to want to be present to each other, to actually want to understand.”  Those qualities are too often absent these days, as we’ve devolved into tribes that demean and avoid each other.  Engagement is risky — “Why are you talking with them?” you might be asked by one of your own — but progress doesn’t happen without risk and an acceptance of our need to walk forward together.

We have to meet people where they are, to listen to them, and to not view each interaction as a chance to convice them that our dogma is superior to theirs.  We hope they will do the same, but we can start with ourselves.

That said, we are here to make the world a better place, so we must not just go along to get along.  As one speaker said, “You need to be a good Samaritan, but you also need to change the conditions on the Jericho Road.”

I certainly saw that spirit among my fellow attendees.  They are doers, not just listeners.  Many of them have created organizations to tackle important projects, are volunteering their time helping others, and are actively working for needed change in their communities.  (I felt inadequate in comparison.)  While they came from different backgrounds and traditions, they share one obvious belief:  We are all in this together.

The speakers and interviewees were outstanding, among them a NASA scientist, a well-known actress, faith leaders, and a number of writers.  The beauty of language was on full display in poetry and phrases of inspiration, which fill the pages of my notebook from the gathering.

There were some small-world moments during the weekend.  By chance, I took a chair at lunch by a former colleague of my daughter, and later in the large auditorium, I found myself talking with a head and neck cancer doctor who had done research work for the man who headed up my treatment team.  Who knows how many other such connections could have happened; I’m thankful for the ones that did.

As it was, my imagination was sparked by being with so many interesting people.  Sitting next to a woman who was making beautiful art during one of the sessions, I got to see, just a little bit, through her eyes.

One day is particularly memorable for me.  I spent two hours in the afternoon and two hours in the evening just sitting around the fire talking with people, telling stories of our lives.  (One of those encounters led to an amazing evening a few weeks later, which I will write about at a later date.)  Despite the trappings of “civilization,” it was not that different from what our ancestors have been doing for millenia.

In one discussion during the weekend, Tippett said, “We’re so complicated and bizarre.”  We are, but fascinating and beautiful and full of possibilities too.

If we are to go on being, we have some questions to ponder and, ultimately, some choices to make.

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