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.

See all posts »

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.

See all posts »

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.

See all posts »

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.

See all posts »

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.

See all posts »

coming together

June was bracketed by reunions.  At the beginning of the month, Sue and I attended my 45th high school reunion.  At the end, there was a gathering of my mom’s family.

The dictionary I got when I graduated way back when has this as a definition of reunion:  “A gathering of the members of a group who have been separated.”

My classmates and I shared a time and place.  We were born within months of each other and found ourselves in or around Luverne, a small town on the prairie in southwest Minnesota.  Fate brought us together, but we dispersed after graduation, the daily interactions with each other becoming a thing of the past.  The web of relationships became a network of one-to-one connections, many of which faded away as the years went by (although some have been revived via social media).

More than ten percent of the members of my class of 135 have passed away.  A year ago, I had reached out to someone about the arrangements for the reunion.  He responded, “Hope to see an old friend of 50 years.”  But he died suddenly in the fall.

I was tapped to lead a little program at the reunion.  Reading the names of those no longer with us was emotional for me; at one point I had to start over.  I knew them all, in one way or another, and some very well.

The other time my voice broke was when I was acknowledging the attendance of a friend who meant a great deal to me; I hadn’t seen him in over four decades.  What a joy to be with him after all these years.

Of course, there were a lot of people who couldn’t attend because of conflicts, and others who chose not to, for whatever reasons.

I remember talking with a classmate many years ago about coming to the next reunion we would have.  He said, “High school wasn’t that great of a time for me.”  Coming together for him may have meant opening old wounds.

Two years ago, I read a piece in the StarTribune titled, “Too late for kindness: Why didn’t I protect a bullied classmate in high school?”  It gets to me every time I read it.  “To my effin’ grave,” the author lamented in the last line, talking about the regrets he carries for the treatment of “the class oddball,” now gone.

The theme of the yearbook when we were seniors was “there is a season.”  The famous words from Ecclesiastes were interspersed with pictures from the big world out there and from the little world we inhabited.  Having lived these many years, the theme is no longer an abstraction.  To be sure, our personal ups and downs couldn’t all be covered in the brief conversations during our short evening together, but we knew that we had all been through a lot.  That made the gathering even sweeter.

A date has already been set to celebrate a half-century since we first went our separate ways, but we left not knowing what the future holds for any of us.

Four weeks after that night, we spent a great weekend with relatives.  Speaking of fate, the words of To Kill a Mockingbird apply:  “You can choose your friends but you sho’ can’t choose your family, an’ they’re still kin to you no matter whether you acknowledge ’em or not, and it makes you look right silly when you don’t.”

My mom was the oldest of six children who grew up in the tiny town of Rogers, North Dakota, founded at the intersection of two rail lines.  We met there, sixty or so of us, ranging in age from more than ninety to less than one.  My mom and her youngest sibling, Uncle Danny, are no longer living, although they were there in pictures and stories and memories of what once was.

Unlike at the class reunion, with this group you could see the sweep of generations.  You could notice familiar features and mannerisms among the young and old.

Some members of the family live in close proximity.  Many of us do not, but we’ve managed to keep in touch pretty well and see each other as often as we can.  Most of us are clustered in the Midwest, although we range from coast to coast.

Among us, we manage to tag each end of the political spectrum and spots in between.  “No politics!” my grandmother said decades ago in trying to head off some trouble, not knowing that today’s standoffs would be more harsh than ever and sometimes tear families and friends apart.  Thankfully, that scrum was left out of both of the reunions we attended in June.  We could see each other as people, not as opinions.

It’s hard not to get misty-eyed when reflecting on those who have shaped you, who have seen you at your best and worst — and who, despite your failings, would be there for you if you needed help.  They moved me and molded me in innumerable ways.  I’m sure I haven’t thanked them enough.

See all posts »

back at it

A couple of years ago, I was treated for cancer on the base of my tongue.  Thankfully, it’s gone and I am doing well.

When I was diagnosed, I found that the communication demands of the job at hand were greater than I had expected.  So, I decided to send out a newsletter now and again to keep everyone informed.

I’ve probably written close to a million words for publication in my time, but almost all of them have been for “work.”  Most have appeared on my own sites, but at times I have written for other organizations, newspapers, magazines, and websites.  So, writing was not new to me when I started my cancer chronicles but the topics were — and, for the most part, the readers following along were new as well.

In truth, it didn’t take long for those newsletters, billed as “Tom’s health updates,” to become dominated by “Tom’s ruminations on life.”  (“Surprise, surprise,” said a former co-worker months later when I told her that.  Apparently I had a reputation.)

Based upon the replies that I received, it was clear that the dispatches struck a chord for many people.  And, since then, I have had more than one person (somewhat sheepishly) tell me that they wished I was still writing.  “Don’t take this wrong,” they’d say, “I don’t want you to get sick again, but I miss your updates.”

So this blog is a return of sorts.  I’m under no illusion that it will generate the same level of interest as my earlier efforts.  The new narrative – aging man seeks to send his thoughts out to the world – isn’t very compelling when compared to the previous one.  But if I’m able to be as open about this human’s condition as I was the last time around, maybe something will resonate with you.  It’s surprising what can happen when we share our thoughts with each other.

“I’m curious about a lot of things,” someone wrote recently.  Me too.  There will be a little bit of everything in the postings to come.  If you stick around and read a few (sign up here to get the postings delivered to your inbox), maybe you’ll find something of interest.  Please forgive my clunkers along the way.

No doubt the aging-man perspective will color some of the postings; it’s just where I am.  The poet George Oppen once said, “What a strange thing to happen to a little boy.”  I feel the same way.

But hopefully that sentiment won’t dominate the stories ahead.  There’s too much life to live and too many important things to write about to dwell too heavily on the passage of time.

In January, a bottle was found on an Australian beach.  It had a message inside, in German, from 1886.  There were thousands of such bottles tossed into the ocean over the course of more than sixty years, in an effort by Germany to study ocean currents.  None of the bottles had been reported found since 1934.

Perhaps someone will find my writing, hereby dropped into the ocean of cyberspace, more than a hundred years from now.  In the meantime, the messages are for you.  Let me know what you think.

See all posts »

Subscribe: email | twitter | rss