My Dear Mr. Blum

My dear Mr. Blum,

Junior year of 98-99 is very vivid in my mind for many reasons, your Bible class being one of them.  Juniors and seniors gathered into room one of the first modular of Cooper campus, a jaunt down the road from Gil’s and the old Cooper café.  Our shoes crunched over pea gravel and scraped the concrete before we crammed into the middle schoolers’ desks. I can pull from the cluttered shelves of my mind so many images: the brown carpeting, dusty chalkboard, teenagers scribbling notes, boys with bleached hair flinging rubber bands and launching paper airplanes, girls fixing their ponytails in the narrow bathroom and painting their finger nails.  But when your booming voice signaled like a bell for us to take our seats, all attention was drawn to your mesmerizing way of relating Biblical history to a motley crew of doubtful disciples. We sat silent like young children enthralled with daring tales, legends, and heroes of King Arthur’s court or Troy’s ancient war battles. This was all True and was Big, plunging more depths than we could have dared to hope.  

We all came from various backgrounds and homes.  Yet we were still young men and women who had grown up in churches and had various Christian influence which had drawn us all together into a disjointed, disproportionate body of brothers and sisters forced to grow up together and empathize, love, trust, and forgive to prepare us for higher things still.  (God is so kind to us to give us these glimpses of heaven.) We knew Sunday school stories and had doggedly memorized verses, but then you asked us ethical questions. You brought up moral dilemma. When we thought we knew the right answers about sin and death and suffering and eternal life, you told us to ‘hang on a minute’ as you held your hand up in the air to pause the class and asked us another question right back.  You challenged our preconceptions and assumptions, taught us not to gloss over words like ‘therefore’ or ‘in order that’ within Paul’s letter to the Roman church, and I will never forget your historical explanation of the Roman guard outside of Christ’s tomb. For a band of malleable seventeen year-olds, it was like frantically sucking ragged breath into lungs that have been underwater for far too long.

There are people who can sing ancient things to life with their passion and faith, and you, Mr. Blum, did that every day for your students.  Heritage has this achingly dear place within my soul, and it is precisely because we went to school in dilapidated old trailers where humble teachers rolled their worn sleeves and went to work on what was truly good and beautiful in life, instead of worrying about outward appearances or perfection.  It was so palpable to me my senior year that I dreaded leaving that sacred space. I can never, ever repay that ministry and sacrifice except to do the same in my own classroom of students. I believe that we are the collection, the living legacy of those that go before us, who teach us, who pour into us.  So thank you for that before I was wise enough to know to ask for it, and for seeing the image of God within each student when they often don’t recognize it themselves.

Most affectionately,

Erin (Daam) Uminn – Class of 2000

May, 2018

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The History of Home: The Neder Lands

The Dutch rise to wealth and prestige growing out of colonial expansion, Rembrandt, Reformation, and global trade of the 16th and 17th centuries was fading out when Napoleon came to power and the French period began.  While much could be said about the transition that flooded through the country as a whole, the Groningen province villages were incredibly unique.  This province birthed a massive exodus to the United States.

The village province of Groningen is similar to American counties.  While there was and still is an urban city of Groningen close by, several rural villages freckle the agricultural countryside that date back centuries: Zandeweer, Uithuizen, Uithuizermeeden, Rottum, Usquert, among several others. The days are often overcast, cool, and temperate. These villages are several miles apart but close enough that families would relocate over their lifetimes or send their children to find work in the nearby villages.  The landscape is flat, with ancient, powerful windmills rising against the gray horizon.  Located on the most northeast point of the country, the province sinks to meet with the Waal Sea to the north and Germany and Denmark to the east. These lowland villages were heavily written about by Paping.  In his research, he refers to the region as the Groningen clay province.

The agricultural farmland of the Netherlands can be split into three main areas by soil type: sand, peat, and clay.  After centuries of building up the soggy, stagnant acreage with peat digging, water-lifting mills, and dikes, the land was fit for greater settlement.  The Groningen province villages and borgs (farm castles) were built and settled on the rich clay soil; some still stand from as early as the 14th century.  The borgs were constructed  in the Middle Ages to store and house their wealth in crops and create strong fortification against invaders and thieves.  They were profitable and successful during the Dutch golden years into the 18th century.  Even early industrialization did not immediately impoverish the farm villages that were tucked away in their own isolated domain.  In fact, they were so secluded that they remained stable for a relative while.  It was the urban centers of the Netherlands that were first impacted by the industrialization of the world in the late 18th and 19th centuries.

Tjarks Hindriks Kremer was named after both his mother and his father.  Tjarks was his mother’s maiden name, Hindriks was his father’s first name.  Tjarks was born and baptized in the midst of the French period in the small village of Zandeweer, 1808. He was one of nine recorded children, all of whom (brothers and sisters) carried their father’s name as their middle name, a Dutch tradition which also indicated legitimacy.  In fact, some of his sisters even had similar first names: Lisobeth, Lizabeth, and Elisabeth.  Were they close friends?

Surnames of the peasant class were recorded with more regularity in the region due to the French influence.  The old traditions and ties of the past were crumbling and hastily rebuilt during the French Revolution, spilling over into the Netherlands at the turn of the new century.  Church and state were beginning to untangle, which had both positive and negative effects on individual and family life.  After the late Middle Ages churches were no longer the sole recorders of family line and history, but civil records were required under the new government, making birth, marriage, resident, and death records more widely available.  While the French period was one of decline from the previous Dutch glory, there were benefits.  Civil records were one of them.

Tjark married Jantje Kornelis van der Til; she was born in 1813 in the Groningen province village of Rottum.  Their parents were of the older, pre-Revolution generation of Dutch farmhands and live-in servants. Both Tjark and Jantje, just five years apart, had relocated to Uithuizermeeden with their families for work and met there.  As unskilled workers they scoured for employment on a day by day basis: tilling the ground, pulling weeds, and bailing hay.  In love at 19 and 24 years of age, they married on November 9, 1832.  The modern mind often assumes teenage marriages were common in all cultures of previous ages, however, the Dutch are known for being a practical and frugal people and the 19th century was no exception but rather facilitated this trait.  It was actually becoming more and more common for individuals to put off marriage until financial stability of some kind materialized.  And yet, Tjarks married his bride when they were incredibly young, even for the era.

Live-in servants in the villages were contracted on a yearly basis, from May to May.  Oftentimes, peasant marriages occurred in May or June, directly after contracts were completed.  However, the fact that Tjarks and Jantje married in November may tell us that Jantje did not have a contracted position for the year, which is consistent with the life of day laborers.  Day laborers were different than farmhands; farmhands were contracted for lengths of time, creating more stability.  As their title indicates, day laborers were lower than farmhands and only given work on a daily basis–work could dry up spontaneously and they could find work only seasonally at best.  It may have been that Tjarks and Jantje had more regular work in their earlier years, but it is doubtful, and after their marriage evidence does not seem to support this.

Another bit of data also signals the reason why Tjark and Jantje married in November versus waiting until spring: Jantje gave birth to their first child, a son, on April 7, 1833 after being married five months.  Dutch marriage records of the time show statistically that it was quite common for couples to rush to marry after finding themselves with child.  If a female day laborer or servant was found pregnant they often lost their employment or were not considered hireable, which likely happened in Jantje’s case either before or shortly after she and TJark were married, tightening their purse strings even further.

Upon little Hindriks birth they quickly added several more children in the 1830s and 40s: Kornelis, Martje, Aafke, and Tamme.  As the industrial period continued to shift the Dutch economy, the Kremers were living and working with a family of five young children–and then the fierce agricultural crisis hit the Groningen province villages, known as the “hungry 40s”.  Crop failure due to crop disease caused widespread hunger, extreme poverty, and sickness.  Day laborers before the crop failure were suffering from poverty-stricken circumstances as it was, because food prices were soaring while their wages remained sluggish and static.  There was a growing demand for agricultural produce across the globe, and the Dutch farm owners subsequently became very wealthy.  In addition, industrial goods were cheap, so the products and tools that farmers procured were inexpensive while their profits rose.  Increasingly, the farm community began to fracture as the farmers rose in status and ceased to work with and among their servants and laborers.  Borgs were once built on a close-knit community structure; in house servants would live among, take their meals with, and learn from the farmer family almost like an adopted member.  Tjarks and Jante’s own parents would have understood this structure first hand. But by the mid 1800’s, the barrier between the classes grew and this was no longer the case.  Live-in servants became less and less popular with farmers as they distanced their families from the low-class employees under their care.  Understandably, this had sacramental repercussions as individuals and families of differing stations were isolated from one another’s lives and ceased to understand each other.

Day laborers were spending approximately 80% of their earnings on food alone.  Many could only afford to rent cramped, sparse homes rather than own them.  They had small plot gardens in which they grew their own basic staples: peas, potatoes, and other root vegetables, along with the possibility of raising a couple of sheep or a cow for added resource.  These were destitute people who relied heavily on potatoes as the bulk of their diet until the famine struck, which drew them into dire straits.  They wore the same clothes day to day, including klompen, the traditional, rough hewn wooden clogs of the period and region, which withstood the mud and muck of farm work and harsh winters. Without support or shock absorption klompen were punishing to the feet, but the Dutch stuffed them with straw for added warmth and barrier.

When crop failure hit, those who were the poorest were struck with starvation, disease, and in some instances, suicide. Tjark Hindriks Kremer was just 37 years old when he passed away in 1846, during the height of the potato famine of  1845-1847.  How and why did this occur?  He died in June, proving  he did not die from lack of fuel and heat in the winter, but may have been suffering from starvation or illness such as tuberculosis or malaria, which were common during this time.  Perhaps there was an accident; possibly he was in despair. In any case, Jantje was a single mother at the age of 32 and her children ranged from 13 to 2 years old during the most vulnerable period of the region and country’s recorded history.  Previously, farmers and even the poorest donated regularly to local welfare relief with the understanding that as they helped their neighbors around them, they would also benefit from such charity if they themselves were ever in need.  Yet, as the effects of the shortage spread, families were reduced to beggarly conditions and there was simply not enough relief to go around.  Ninety-one percent of the province are recorded as Calvinist, and Reformation churches attempted to relieve the destitute, though members were helped first and then aid often ran out.  To cope, it is certain that Jantje had to send Hindrik and his brother Kornelis, ages 13 and 11, to work on farms to keep the family alive.

Their daughter, Aafke, had been born in Usquert, another small village.  This continues to indicate that the Kremers split up or traveled several miles by cart or foot, spreading to adjoining farms just to make ends meet.  After her father’s tragic death, it is likely young Aafke worked as a live in servant cleaning and mending, a job that would have given a small but steady income as well as food and shelter that her mother could not easily provide.  However, if she was a day laborer only she would have weeded farm fields in the spring and found steady harvest work during the later months.  Aafke’s mother remarried after her father’s early death, so she may have been expected to forge her own way, especially because she remained single throughout her twenties.  However, Jantje passed away in 1870 at the age of 57, a normal life expectancy of the Dutch during the nineteenth century, leaving Aafke and her siblings without parents.

Nearby, Thomas Pieters Dam was born in Farmsum in 1815, and Jantje Sebes Neijenhuis was born in Bierum in 1819, contemporaries of the Kremers.  They married in Jante’s home village of Bierum in January of 1839, but many of their children were born in Uithuizermeeden.  The farming villiage of Uithuizermeeden was known during the difficult crop failure to be one of the only villages of security where the farmers hired day laborers most of the year, ensuring that workers would stay in the area when they needed them through the planting, maintenance, and harvesting seasons.  This could be why Thomas and Jantje moved to Uithuizermeeden: to find stability in a volatile economy of shrinking resource.

Then, in 1871, Aafke Kremer found herself pregnant.  She was unmarried, and the knowledge of who fathered her child has been buried as a secret with her.  Was he a soldier who came to the area and left?  Was he in love with Aafke but his family disapproved of her low status?  Was her child the product of a rape?  Was Aafke fooled into thinking that she would be married soon, and her lover left her or denied being the father?  County records never give up these hidden mysteries, though questions linger 150 years later.

Without her mother or a family unit to take her in, Aafke relied on neighbors and friends, and the birth certificate of her son gives clues.  Jantje Sebes Neijenjhuis Dam presided as Aafke’s midwife.  Aafke subsequently named her newborn infant Thomas.  Usually, first names were passed forward from the biological father or grandfather, but the baby’s naming appears to be indication of thanks or intent of recognizing Thomas Pieters Dam, her midwife’s husband.  Less than a year after Thomas Kremer’s birth, Thomas and Jantje’s son Nanning married Aafke and adopted the young Thomas as his own.  Questions rise up like a tide.  Did Aafke know that she would soon marry Nanning, therefore naming her son after her future father in law?  Was it a marriage of love or utility only?  Aafke was 31 years old at the time of her marriage to Nanning, who was just 23.  As previously stated, it was often a bare necessity that individuals wait for marriage until a proper income was established to raise a family, which could indicate why Aafke had waited.  Was Nanning confident of his ability to provide at this time?  Did he see a woman and child in need and fill it?  We may assume that Nanning was secretly the father, but Dutch customs do not support this.  Thomas is listed without a middle name on his birth certificate, a custom for illegitimate children in the Netherlands.  If he had been Nanning’s biological son they would have quickly married as Tjarks and Jante had, and Thomas would have been given Nanning’s name.  Additionally, Thomas’ physical birth certificate  on file in Uithuizermeeden had haunting documentation that  was hand-written in Dutch in the margin from 1874, pulling the observer back to that fateful moment: Nanning was taking Thomas on as his son and adopting him and giving him his last name, though he was not the biological father.  Nanning took Aafke as his wife that year of the noted change on the certificate, when Thomas was not quite two years old.  A year after their marriage they welcomed a daughter together that they appropriately named Jantje, recognizing both of their mothers.

Meanwhile, Willem Jans Allersma was also born in Uithuizermeeden, 1835.  Menna Smit was born in the same village two years later.  As children of the crop failure, their lives would have been one of poverty, difficulty, and hunger.  One of the reasons for this was the population boom that went along with the rise in food costs, disease, and lack of food.  Willem and Menna married in 1861, having a total of nine children over their marriage.  Two of their daughters died in infancy, which was quite common as a result of poverty and disease, but it was also due to the fact that working families did not always breastfeed their children.  Needing to care for multiple children and working jobs to gain a source of income, many women bottle fed their infants, leaving them with the infants’ young siblings for a time.  Oftentimes, the bottles were made with little more than water, and the water was often unsanitary.  Of course, sickness in a peasant family also meant that medical care was scarce.

Willem and Menna’s daughter Martje, nicknamed ‘Mattie’, was born in May of 1873, about a year after Thomas was born in the same village.  The village population was small, in the few hundreds, and it is certain that the Dams and the Allersmas knew each other as they worked and lived close to one another.  During Martje’s childhood her uncle made the trek to the United States to escape the eroding remnants of the old country, sending letters back to the family about the possibilities, opportunity, idealism, and American dream that awaited.  Understandably, many in the Netherlands were practical and skeptic.  To a people used to harsh conditions, work, and early death, it all sounded to good to be true.

Uithuizermeeden village witnessed a young marriage in May 1893, the usual month for marriages after the contract season of day laborers ended.  Thomas Dam, at the age of 21, married 19 year old Mattie.  He was trying to rise above his low station to better their young lives: he is registered as a shoemaker in the village, an artisan craftsman.  One can imagine the kind of shoes he constructed: wooden farm clogs and leather work boots.

After only a couple weeks into their young, spontaneous marriage Thomas and Martje left the only village they knew and traveled 170 miles by train to Rotterdam, Netherlands to board as steerage passengers on a steam ship for New York.  The rail station in Uithuizermeeden was being built at the time of their departure, so they would have taken a cart to the nearest station to journey to the dynamic and energetic city.  Rotterdam’s population was over 200,000 in comparison to Uitheizermeeden’s hundreds. It was a huge metropolis; there were horse car trams, a bustling railway, a fish market, waterworks, and an art gallery.  Thomas and Martje had probably heard about Rotterdam, but were still overwhelmed at the unimaginable commotion of the city. Everywhere they looked would have flashed signs of progress, industry, and innovation.  Dressed in simple cotton and wool farm clothes from a remote hamlet, they looked out of place, though determination to partake in the benefits of this new world pushed them forward.

Martje’s uncle had settled in the middle west of the United States, writing about fortune and the big break they were seeking, if they were willing to work hard.  Thomas, stifled and tired of stagnation in the small village of  his birth due to his status, lack of education, and wealth, he signed a work contract with Kalamazoo Paper Company, Michigan to pay passage for his and Martje’s sail to the United States in June, 1893.  It would be a momentous, life-altering journey of over four thousand miles including horse cart, railroad, and ship. They never saw their families again, each taking two meager bags for their excursion over the Atlantic in third class steerage, though they were optimistic for their future opportunity in a land that promised everything: steady work, food, housing, and a thick network of Dutch community in an up and coming American city.  Their immigration would change the trajectory of their future children in ways unimaginable.

Drukker, J.W. & Tassenaar, V. (1997). “Paradoxes of Modernization and Material Well-Being in the Netherlands during the Nineteenth Century”. Health and Welfare during Industrialization. Richard H. Steckel and Roderick Floud, Eds. University of Chicago Press, 1997. 331-378. Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.602.5243&rep=rep1&type=pdf

Hoitink, Y. (2008, September 25). From Winterswijk to Wisconsin: Emigration from the Achterhoek to the United States in the nineteenth century.  Retrieved from https://www.dutchgenealogy.nl/wpcontent/uploads/2011/06/FromWinterswijkToWisconsin.pdf

Paping, RFJ. (2012, November 22-23). Occupations and economic labor activities of nineteenth century Dutch women: limits and possibilities.  Presented in Utrecht. Retrieved from https://www.rug.nl/staff/r.f.j.paping/utrechtnov2012paping.pdf

Paping, R.F.J. (2013, August). Rural poor relief in the coastal Netherlands: from a ‘collective insurance’ to a ‘supplement-system’ (Groningen 1770-1860).  Presented at Rural History Congress, Bern.   Retrieved from http://www.ruralhistory2013.org/papers/1.3.1._Paping.pdf

Paping R.F.J. (2015).  Dutch live-in farmhands and maids in the long 19th century: the decline and near disappearance of the lifecycle servant system for the rural lower class.  Paper presented at 3rd Rural History Conference, Girona, Spain.  Retrieved from https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/files/26660181/servantspaper.pdf

Swierenga, R.P. (1998, November 17). Place Mattered: The Social Geography of Dutch-American Immigration in the Nineteenth Century.  Lecture sponsored by Calvin College Geography Department.  Retrieved from http://www.swierenga.com/Calvin_lec.html

http://www.ancestry.com personal family tree

 

 

Liturgy

~

Measures tiptoe softly and crescendo, throb and drum, pulsating endemic through my veins and flare.  Disturbing my lazy insides, rousing the listless dust from my stiffened soul.  Stretching like vital, opening like clutter spilling out, these vibrations are ordered even though I am not, organizing my mess for mere moments.  Music is that beauty that worms through me like emotion, transported to my senses and I can hear.  I can smell it. I can feel.  I can taste it.  I can see.  I hum the notes softly.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost…

At birth my feet are stamped in ink and pressed.

Covered in an abundant robe, Grandpa holds my hand as I step next to him and profess.  He holds me in his arms under the warm bath and pulls me up, a resurrection–then whispers in my ears as my eyelashes drip and take a breath.  He records it on parchment in ink.

So each time I enter a classroom, step to a podium, rest in relationship, sit in solitude, there is liturgy.  In all this life the liturgy plays out in millions of microscopic and magnified ways: Prayer, and questions, and warm-ups, and drill, and books that are smelled, and paint that is brushed, and heads bowed in reverence, and hands that hold tight, and secrets whispered in the dark, and tears that splash onto fingers .

They twist my hair back, pin it with pearls, and cover it in white before I embrace a new name and become one with another.  A ritual, forever vow.

Water flows over the children as they are named and marked holy.

We sit to listen, kneel to pray, stand to sing.  Reciting the historic Creed with millions of voices.

Gather– around roasted meats, buttered potatoes, yeasty flaked rolls and herbed cubes of baked stuffing, wines and champagnes, cranberry sweetness and golden, peppered gravy.

Gather– to light candles and hang evergreen and kindle fires in December; we cross with ash, grow new life,  and wave branches in Hallelujah come spring. And then we live life aloud through the warm months, sharing freely and passing wine and bread around tables with laughter and prayer, summertime green and blue and sun.

And in the in between there are keys that turn into locks on thresholds, and the birthing of infants screaming into their world and swaddled in cotton, food and game and drink together with dear ones, singing Our Father to tender ears and eyes and hands,

My heart is cold and covered callous, until I recall all these things: a snapshot of my thirty five years, flashing before my eyes when I lie awake in my bed, unable to rest. All of these liturgies, all of this life, that plays itself out in motion and visibility, that is real and can be touched, that seeps deep into me and changes me and I look upward.  Falling onto my knees in warm embrace.

And do this as a remembrance, break and eat, drink this cup

Love suffers long, and is kind,

present these selves as living sacrifice, transformed in mind,

I thank God for all of you, Beloved I have you in my heart,

may our love abound more to the end,

behold what manner of love the Father has given unto us,

 Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, I AM,

as we do all these things through Him who strengthens us,

blessed are those who are poor, those who mourn, those who are pure in heart, for they shall see God,

faith is the substance of things hoped for and of things unseen,

He gives grace to the humble,

Rise up and walk.

Grace and Peace.

As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world with out end. Amen.

Beautiful, Heartache World

 

It was just a tiny fleck of a thing, burrowed into the middle of my back.  A tiny pinch and it was out.  Something so small, but it slowly and steadily altered a healthy body.

Heartache.

I speak to a colleague while we punch buttons on the copy machine. A month later she is gone from this earth in a thunderous whisper, ushered to a collection of saints as her children mourn her absence with their father, and my eldest daughter weeps beside me in the pew, tears dripping uncontrollably as I hold her.

Heartache.

A homeless man on the corner, holding a sign that pulls me to the floor.  Seeing tears and defeat in another that slashes me to pieces.

Heartache.

An old friend whose spouse has left, and the loneliness is deep.

Heartache.

Someone tells me of a middle aged woman who was handicapped, in a wheelchair with spinabifida and the mind of a child, who passed away and was no longer suffering in a crippled body, and all I could think of, washing over me like a wave, was my sister.

Heartache.

But my heart has an ache when I witness beauty and truth, too.  Those good, good moments of rest and laughter–the good life-– that burn a physical ache into the breast, never wanting them to end.

I sit in a service of liturgy, slumping in weak and weary, feeling lifted and speaking with ten thousand voices, head low in humility, taking bread from the priest and drinking in mystery.  I walk out the doors with breath radiating through me.

Heartache.

Exhaustion and release in birthing a child causes tears to purge as I witness my husband holding a bundle of cotton swaddle and vulnerable, fragile, beautiful life.

Heartache.

A thunderous roar of humanity as a leather stitched ball is gripped tightly, thrown in precision, and played.  Masses of people who do not know each other sitting side by side, celebrating together for those fleeting moments of unity.

Heartache.

Those waters that extend to the horizon and ripple at dusky twilight, the moment I fell in love with my husband on a bike ride around the peninsula island, the faces of friends surrounded by firelight and warm drink in merriment, words read on a page that cut and charge, a violin string and piano that sing and moan in austere harmony.

Heartache.

I believe that all are the finger of loving God, gently pressing until the pressure is so deep and profound all I can do is exhale, “God”, and know He is there.  I know that He has spoken in language and Word, and yet I cannot find utterances for the depth of the grace and the magnitude of mercy that is in this beautiful, beautiful, heartbreak world.

 

 

Baptism

There are days that I feel swollen with with the past.  And I can’t move past it…can’t move on until I etch it out rhythmically, even if it needles and mutilates this aging decay–bloated, rigid, and inflamed. My skin is creased now, my sprinkle of freckles grown to thousands melded together, my teeth shifted, my laugh lines permanent.  My knees pop and creak, though my muscles are strong. And I just want to dip back in for a time.  Not just nostalgia, but watered truth that has been built around my feet and I walk on continuously.  I imagine pearls of rain stamping out ruinous fire, slipping over the scorched earth in winsome melody–listen…

Gentle,

putting out that raging blaze of doubt, weakness, uncertainty.  I need to recall that prestige and splendor that even the unassuming, lowborn can feel.

~

The shoes squeeze tight with the double knot of the laces.

Crystalline white puffs floating in the eery, pre-dawn air taken into the lungs with dragging gulps that split and hurt and suffocate, but I

keep pushing

and going and

don’t stop.

In that cinder block, run-down, carpeted gymnasium with the yellow-dim lights we ran suicides, fast feet, and burpees while holding back retching,

 sweat dripping, dripping,

as I’m heaving, heaving,

hands on my smooth knees.

Plank kicks and pushups until dirt is mixed into carpet burn wounds and ground into palms and bruises are ripening to purple, clotted blood.  All at the surface, raging to be heard and spilled and seen and grabbed and covered–but I push it out in smooth exhale, filling my lungs to burst and release.  Wash.  Coach’s voice calls sharply as a whip. You feel no pain! And there can be no tears, just fear or anger and tenacity that rage down low, ready to erupt.

There are no witnesses to view this agonizing preparation, except those beside me in the bowels of this fight.

Why do I love it?

It breathes in me still.

Muscles ache and harden, grip and spasm, and sweat seeps into that shifting ball like transporting memoirs through a company of finger tips, weeping into that floor and into that game. Those faces and voices that I can remember in a second. Hips sway and legs shuffle, and feet fly. No longer is there fear, but an adrenal surge, and a thrust of light like slow motion.  You know how to do this.  These bodies moving fluid the next day across a lacquered court with tread squeak and voices call signal to

pass, and hand, toe pivot, and quads–jump, slam.

We are of baptism, of belonging and attachment and struggle.  The heart in my chest still aches for it, so I run suicides, run stairs, and sweat to remember.

This body is now keenly felt — swimming magnetic volts that pulse through my bones and yet I fight to feel that old glory, because this is a fight of a different kind.   Oddly, or perhaps ironically, the mind is clearer and tougher than in those old days when my body was quick. Coach is still in my mind, standing with a stopwatch telling us to get up, to enter the collective conflict, this battle clash. Run to struggle, and push, and heave, and gulp, and close my eyes as the rain clouds open up and envelope me in ablution.  I hover from past to present, my heart firmly fixed, trodden and warm in both.

It is a nobility, an elite reverence. To belong to more than one place, and time, and people.  Forming in these separate bodies a sloppy, disheveled gathering that is pushing,  pulling, and yelling against one another before harmonizing, adjusting to reconcile, a fluid soul of One.  It was and is a sacred admission, a sacrament of adoption. And then we all had to lay aside and take up mission in order to take those liturgies to a future, to spouse, to children, to self.

That rain like like a

-baptism-

washing over the curves of my face, those Spirit-words, let there be rain, that soothe, cool, and  bring it back unpolluted, and God saw that it was good. Because we live washed in blood and water– alive, and created anew while our feet are still firmly fixed in the rot of the earth. Someday the earth and this body will be resurrected, whole.

 God speaking and awakening in my overrun, pillaged frame, bleached within and without– these inaudible sufferings, these triumphant joys, infused together.

 

The Milking Cows

Eugene and Beatrice Carlson owned a dairy farm in Amery, Wisconson, smack dab in the middle of cheese-state America near the Minnesota border.  To our family, they were Aunt Bea and Uncle Gene, my dad’s aunt and uncle.  To the little town of Amery, they were dairy farmers on family land, passed down from generation to generation.  The ebb and flow of American farm life is sheltered in those patches of dirt and acreage; that little place in the world remains as a soft, nostalgic flush of sunset in my memory.

When I first stepped foot on this vintage form of the rustic Midwest, I was too young to realize that it was dying out with slow and tender sadness.  My own father had traveled out to the farm in the 1970’s to help his Uncle Gene and his cousins bale hay in the sweltering, summer heat.  He piled our young mother, my brother, and I into the family car, driving from Michigan to Wisconsin in the mid-80’s to pay his Aunt and Uncle a visit when I was about 4 years old.  A smattering of yellowed, curled photographs give a glimpse into another lifetime of the farming industry.  There is little I can remember except that the farm had this magical, warm haze over it.

Framed in the clutches of my memory is the old, white barn against the sky, the amber-golden sun setting in the sultry twilight, casting a blonde-wheat glow across the dirt pathways and grassy barnyard.  I squint back into my mind’s eye, trying to bring it back into focus and the recollections are probably, admittedly, mixed with E.B White’s beautiful, nostalgic description of Fern, Wilbur, and a barnyard full of animals and of an America of our parent’s and grandparent’s childhoods.

It had a sense of history, of other-timeness.  When stepping into the farmhouse or the farmyard,  a simpleness covered over that little space of the earth.  I can feel the beat down dirt pathways with my bare feet, kicking up dust clouds, and hear the cows calling to one another in the distance.  Chippy paint on the doorposts, the large open kitchen with windows that looked over the barns.  I can remember my dad’s cousin, Larry, showing me how to quietly tiptoe into the covered calve’s shed and hand-feed sweet hay to the baby that they named after me.

There are pictures of my brother and I playing inside the corn-crib.  I vaguely remember walking into the milking barn and the noise being much more of a roar than I expected, cupping my hands over my ears.  Rows of dairy cows were swinging in motion next to one another, and I recall my Uncle Gene (or was it my dad?) telling my brother and I to watch our step behind the cows.  Another memory I have of that visit is riding out into the fields in the afternoon with my dad, brother, and Uncle Gene on a tractor.  I begged my dad to let me walk back to the farmhouse so I could go the bathroom, convincing him I knew the way.  Somehow I got stuck near the pen where the cows were let out and I couldn’t find an open gate.  No cows were in sight, and I had to go badly, so I climbed through the wooden fence and trucked through the manure-filled pen in my white Osh-Kosh overalls and lace-up sneakers.  Muffling alarm, Aunt Bea about had a heart  attack when I came into the farmhouse with my legs caked in casts of manure.  I can still remember standing at the bottom of the stairs near the door as she rushed down to strip me out of my clothes.

The summer before my 8th grade year, our parents took us out to the antique farm once again.  The house was the same as ever, with the smell of sizzling bacon on the stove, buttered biscuits in the oven, aged wallpapers and shag carpets throughout. Uncle Gene took my dad and brother and I to the local Winn-Dixie for milk–he had sold his dairy cows when his sons moved on.  My dad said that Gene always understood they did not want to inherit a dying business, but even at 13 I was heartbroken to see the farm as a ghost of what it once was.  Buying milk to drink on an old dairy farm was painful irony.  Gene and Bea lived on the farm, but the barn stood empty–actually, it was as if one day someone flicked the lights off, walked away, and simply never came back. The barn still had the cow’s harnesses hanging from the ceiling, oxidizing with rust and decay.  I distinctly remember the large, industrial ceiling fan was still hooked up and covered in cobwebs.  A small alarm clock was plugged into an outlet, sitting on the rafters near the doorpost.

It is these memories that flood into me when I am 17, speeding over the wavy hills of southwest Michigan back road in the summer of 1999.  The warm, thick, summer air pulsing through my windows, and I thrust my hand out to feel it push against my fingers.  The twilight sun piercing gold and white, stepping right down from heavens onto the open cornfields and mature trees.  I can remember breathing it in, my tiny gray hatchback stick-shift another remnant of the past.  For one odd reason or another, I always feel a belonging to the past–to the places and people that brought me into being.  A life built on other lives, and other dreams, and other journeys.  It is a payment, an indebtedness, to the past that always lives within my chest and my gut that I must write about to pay it back.  My father didn’t just tell me about his childhood: he took me there.  I take my children to mine.  And they will one day take their children to the places that they belong to.

A Snow Story

The one thing that can shut a Virginian town down, or any Southern town for that matter, is a good snow.  By good snow, I mean just an inch or two.  This past Friday afternoon the snow began as faint little flurries that my middle school students were running through, screaming and waving their arms in ecstacy, at the between-class break.  At 5 pm, the grocery store shelves were out of potatoes.  Bread and milk were dwindling.  The check-out lines were each 4 carts deep. Approximately fifteen hours later on Saturday, 8 inches had fallen and the roads were pure ice.  Church services were called off 24 hours in advance, and families everywhere traipsed through the snow for sledding and snowman building adventures.

The snow of my childhood was equally enchanting.  The snow clouds of southwest Michigan, however, would start their descent in November, usually weeks before Thanksgiving.  The magical powder would sprinkle like icicle glitter, off and on, throughout the weeks of December.  It was a rare year to not have accumulated snow on Christmas Day.  I can think of only 2 times in my first 20 years of life that we did not have snow.

Snowblowers would be filled with gas and started vigorously to heave through the drifts.  By the time driveways were cleared, the mountainous piles alongside the pavement were almost as tall as I was; the pivotal foundation for igloos and snow caves.  One highly essential tip for shoveling in Michigan: shovel or snow blow all the way through the driveway into the street.  Also, do not park in the street. I repeat: avoid street parking at all costs.  Those two mistakes will cause a wall of solid ice and snow chunks to block your cars and driveways in, when the city snowplows barrel aggressively through your quiet neighborhood.  Unless, of course, you enjoy trying to pick-ax a foot or more of solid ice chunks with a dull-bladed shovel.

January and February brought blizzards that children would pray would give them relief from their academic jailhouses.  To have school off in the mitten state, the snowfall had to be unusually deep, in access of two feet in less than 12 hours.  Or, an ice storm had to rage through, covering the snow in a skating rink and turning the trees into a magical, fairy-like, winter wonderland.  Those were my favorite–trying to lightly walk on the fragile layer of ice before falling through to the powder underneath.  Another guarantee to have school cancelled was if the windchill fell below zero degrees Fahrenheit.  Any of those three requirements, in combination or isolation, was a pretty good bet for a kid in the upper Midwest.

In high school, a snow day didn’t mean we were confined to our homes to wait out the thaw.  Everyone drives on the snow and ice in Michigan.  I can still vividly recall driving the speed limit on a stretch of D Ave in Cooper Township– 55 mph– in my tiny, rusty, stick-shift, gray hatchback packed with friends, and skidding over the snow in glee.  Teenagers live for driving in the seasonal, lake-effect weather. The reason for the cancel was mostly so that children didn’t have to wait at bus stops in frigid winds.  Double layers, snow pants, parkas, gloves, hats, and scarves would be thrown into cars, Thinsulate boots laced, and snowboards packed for a day of freedom at the slopes.

If school was cancelled it meant deep, fresh powder at the Bittersweet ski lodge.  While our faces had to fight the frigid temperatures and whipping wind that left our cheeks chapped and red as we rode the lifts, the blanket of snow was pillowy, forgiving, and worth the chill. On warm days, we shucked off our coats and hats and felt the wind flutter through our longsleeve t-shirts.  When temperatures hovered near the 40s, the snow was still abundant and the cold wasn’t painful.  I could fly down the hill in just my snow pants and gloves.

All winter long we had our fill of freezing fun. Heading to the ski slope after school one day (night skiing and boarding was my favorite), hooking sleds up to fourwheelers and careening dangerously through frozen cornfields the next. One year we strung Christmas lights down the sledding hill behind our house and the church youthgroup came over for night sledding. There are major perks to living right next to a city park with a sledding hill that closes its gates to the public at dusk.

The winter is so long, and cold, and seemingly endless that one gets used to the obstacles. We’d chink out a 2 by 2inch section of visibility in our windshields and just crank up the defroster. It was not unusual to see our headmaster shoveling the roof at school to keep the melt off from leaking inside. Snow was just absolutely everywhere, for 6 months straight. One fine April weekend my friends and I headed up for a few spring days at the Lake, and by that evening we were chucking snowballs at each other and drying our clothes out by the woodstove.

I had the experience of my first real Virginia snow in 2002, the year that my husband and I moved south for college.  The whole university shut down for 3 inches.  Meaning, classes were cancelled the night before the snow fell.  This was absolutely mind-boggling and unheard of for Michigan kids who waited on pins and needles at 7:45 a.m. for a snow day when we were younger.  Mid-morning, after sleeping in and lazily gulping coffee with cream, we decided to drive up to the mall and walk around.  Maybe browse the bookstore on our day off.  That is until we arrived and found out the mall was closed, due to inclement weather.  My boss, a pharmacist, called to make sure I was still going to make it into the pharmacy that evening for my shift.  I was confused.  Why would I call into work if I wasn’t sick?

Nowadays I bundle my toddler up and he waddles out to play in the new snow with his sisters.  His favorite thing to do is scoop it up in his mitten and eat it.   Although it snowed three nights ago, the temperatures stayed below 30 all weekend, and school was cancelled–at about 4 pm yesterday.  Snowplows down here always wait to come through until the snow has already fallen, leaving it pretty near impossible to clear the slick, packed ice by that point.  In another couple of weeks, snow will fall again, clearing grocery shelves and pausing daily life for a few days at least, to the delight of students and teachers everywhere.  The local news will have what I consider an endearing and quintessential report on how to attach chains to tires.

In fact, that reminds me of my years in college, when someone asked me when Michiganders put chains on their tires for the winter.  I replied that we….didn’t.  We didn’t even own chains for our tires.  Chains were for semi-trucks and tractor trailers traveling through Alaska and the frozen Canadian tundra. You know, extreme conditions. He just looked at me kind of stunned.  But didn’t it snow, like, a lot in Michigan?  I left him with this: all the kids in Michigan do donuts in the icy parking lots all winter long, no chains in sight.