Glockenspiel

I’ve only been to one Octoberfest in my life. We’d heard about New Ulm’s event since moving to Minnesota, so I hauled the family one gorgeous fall morning for the 90 minute drive for a day of fun. I’d looked up what else there was to see in New Ulm, and the glockenspiel in the town center featured prominently in their PR materials, a bonus for our day.

Hubby was a little skeptical about the need for a long drive to have some fun, but I assured him we’d create some unique memories that day. As it turned out, I was more prophetic than I knew. We found a place to park not far from the big doings on Main Street and walked over to the chain link fence set up on the main drag to mark where the sanctioned events were being held. All ten by fifteen yards of them. Basically, the chain link fence held three food booths selling the (to me) inedible foods of my heritage. The girls were equally unenticed. The most popular item being sold was the hot coffee to take the chill off of a fall morning in Minnesota. The fence was full of locals standing around, getting caught up on the latest gossip. Nothing inside the fence made us want to stay. But it wasn’t just the lack of activities that made us feel that way.

Since we adopted the girls from China a decade and a half ago, we’ve gotten used to the surprised stares of strangers who notice that we don’t “match”. Most of the stares we get are of understandable confusion. I can only remember two times when those stares felt…hateful. This was one of those days. As the community’s reaction to us sank in, I realized there were only two non-Caucasians in sight, and they were both with me. We left the hostility of the chain link fence and strolled up the picturesque Main Street. I wasn’t going to have come all this way and not see my first glockenspiel. We ducked into a quaint candy shop and made a few purchases while we waited for the top of the hour and the clock’s show. As soon as it was done, we made a beeline back to our car and hit a Burger King on the way out of town, “shaking the dust from our feet” as we left.

I’ve watched in dismay over this last year as racism has been implicitly sanctioned in our country. I recognize that I can’t possibly understand what being on the receiving end must be like. But I can remember the couple of times I was indirectly swept into it, and I can remember the tears of my precious girls who have been on the receiving end. It sucks. And it’s wrong. Period.

“Racism is man’s gravest threat to man – the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason.” –Abraham Joshua Heschel

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Safe

I’ve long known that my comfort zone acts like a box with moveable sides which I must regularly push out, or they will slowly move in on me. One of the more profound times I pushed out had an amazing payoff, though I look back now and realize it wasn’t entirely safe. I ask myself, if I had it to do again, would I?

I needed to meet up with the team in rural Romania for a project; they’d been there a week already, and I was traveling alone. Traveling in Eastern Europe is very different than traveling in Western Europe…few natives speak English, and signs and menus don’t have the familiar Latin roots which can help you muddle through. I landed in the chaotic Bucharest airport, withdrew 200 Romanian leu to get me to Podari, a farm town over two hours away by train, and knew to avoid all of the shouting men harassing me with calls of “taxi” in favor of the official taxi stand. Not everyone who takes one of those unauthorized taxis makes it to their destination whole. When I got to the hotel, I learned that my train would leave bright and early the next morning at 08:00. I also learned that my 200 leu wouldn’t go go very far, when an email from the project lead said their American, non-chip credit cards were not working in the card readers at most places. His note was dire: “Bring cash, lots of it.” The concierge told me there was an ATM a couple of blocks away, so I set out on foot. As I wound my way alone through a quiet residential neighborhood in Bucharest, I realized that if anyone wanted to accost me, no one would ever know what happened to me. I could just disappear. I walked faster and finally found the ATM twice as far as what a “couple of blocks” is to me…to no avail. I walked hurriedly back to the hotel and wondered just how dire our financial situation was.

I got up at 05:00 the next morning heavily jet lagged and hopped into a cab for the train station. Here’s where the adventure really began. As we flew through the dark streets of Bucharest (and “flew” is not a literary exaggeration), I began to wonder, again, if my goose was cooked. My first fear was that I was going to die at the hands of a Romanian-speaking cab driver’s erratic driving (I soon learned that seat belts are an unnecessary cost in 2nd-world Romania). But after Formula One racing through the streets of Bucharest for the 15 minutes the hotel told me it would take, with no train station in sight, a new fear took hold. Was he just pulling the universal taxi scam of taking me for all the fare that he could? Did he really know where I needed to go? Did he intend to take me there at all? Once again I felt all of the vulnerable, lone female traveler that I was. As 30 minutes went by, and my adrenaline level climbed pretty high as I pondered my limited options, we suddenly stopped (again, “suddenly” is not a literary exaggeration)…in front of the train station. I got out hugely relieved and feeling a little guilty for my thoughts about my driver. But my ordeal was not over.

Trying to buy a 2nd class train ticket (to save my meager cash reserves) without speaking the language was tricky (I guess she thought my two fingers were some kind of haggling ploy). I finally managed to get my ticket bought after some ridiculous pantomiming, and went into the station. It was a foreboding place. Dark, dirty and neglected, it was busy and active with the same bootleg tax drivers at the airport and ordinary Romanian commuters. Covered but open to the outside, I was grateful it was September and warm. I quickly found a clean and bright beacon in a blessed McDonald’s (it looked like it had a halo over it, I still hear angels sing when recalling it) in the center of the station. It wasn’t busy, likely out of the financial reach of most of my fellow commuters. I nursed my Coke in its safety for well over an hour. The downside of the Coke and the time, however, had me looking for a water closet, thinking I’d be better off in the station than on the 2nd class car on the train. I was wrong. After descending the dark, narrow steps into the basement restroom, I found I had to pay a couple of leu for a dark, dank concrete stall with no light on the women’s side. It would have made a perfect prison cell in any B grade horror movie. I did my business as quickly as I ever had, while trying to touch absolutely nothing (in the dark, I couldn’t even see what I wasn’t touching, likely a small blessing). When I emerged back into the dim light, I felt literally liberated. As I found my way to my train line, I saw an ATM and tried my luck again:  still no luck and sure that I’d be filing a fraud claim with my credit card company when I got home for trying to use it in such a safe public place.

I was beyond relieved to finally board the train. I’ve written about the rest of this trip before…it was a highlight of my life. This is the way life often is:  you must be willing to get outside your comfort zone to have some of the best experiences. You must risk getting hurt, or it was never a risk in the first place. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. The Belgian member of our team had a European chip credit card and ended up with an enormous expense report. I didn’t need to file a fraud claim on mine. And I saw amazing sights and ate wonderful food and met interesting people, none of which I will ever forget. And I pushed my box walls out again, at least for awhile.

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”  –Neale Donald Walsch


Christmas

When we celebrated Christmas with my parents last weekend, my dad walked around asking all of us what our Christmas memories were. What a great idea! That got me thinking way back.

Only a few memories stand out. There was the year I got a small plastic nativity from my beloved grandmother when I was about four. Though I was disappointed at the time that it wasn’t something I couldn’t play with, it’s now one of my most prized possessions and sits proudly on my mantel every Christmas. I also still have the set of children’s bibles she gave me a few Christmases later; I read them cover to cover. I remember the year I decided to look for the Christmas presents and found them. I was about twelve and found the air hockey table in the attic space in my parents’ closet. It ruined the surprise, and I never looked again. I remember more presents that I gave than those I got, with a child’s pride in having found that perfect sweater vest for my dad (that I never saw him wear) or the rocking horse music box I knew he needed or the multicolored camel that no home could be complete without. I remember the red and green plastic bells that hung over my grandparents’ front door 50 years ago and now hang over mine. They don’t make ’em like that anymore.

But what I remember way more than the stuff is family. Christmas for me as a child was what Christmas has always been about, since that baby boy was born in a stable 2,000 years ago: love. Family and food and music and love. Many of the loved ones I shared my childhood Christmases with are gone now, replaced by new family members in the inevitable circle of life. What I wouldn’t give to have them all together. Instead, I’ll focus on creating new Christmas memories for this generation and wait until that day when we are all together at last.

“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour which is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2:11


Listen

A powerful idea recently presented itself to me, seemingly out of nowhere, yet from somewhere deep within:

Without God, there is misery.

With God, there is joy.

This truth is so simple and powerful, that I wonder why no one shared it with me sooner.

Except I can’t pretend that I didn’t know. We humans have great capacity to not listen, simply because we’re human. We convince ourselves that we have it under control, that we’re independent, that whatever personal demons possess us can also fulfill us. But it never works, and we’re left–by design I’ve come to believe–searching for what will.

When I was young, because I got good grades, I thought I was smart. As I’ve matured, I now appreciate the significant difference between wisdom and intelligence. I’m still a beginner at wisdom. But this new nugget is a big step in my learning. Now to make sure I really listen to it…

“You cannot believe in God until you believe in yourself.” –Swami Vivekananda


Taking Stock

Having passed the halfway point in my life, I’ve been taking stock. Though every passing year seems to bring a deeper awareness of what I don’t yet understand, I am beginning to make out a few shapes in the fog. So far, I have found three patterns.

The first is that life has not been what I expected. Though my youthful naïveté now seems silly, I suppose it was as predictable as time. From the time we’re very young, we think we’re seeing what it’s all about, yet all we can see is the outer mechanics. We can’t see what struggle does to someone, both positive and negative. We can’t predict what loss–of people, of our innocence–will do to us. We can’t know, sometimes until too late, that all relationships require constant investment and deliberate choice to remain in them, even with those closest to us. We too easily fall for the myth that these bonds are a given.

I also hadn’t expected to be so changed at this point. While I still feel far from wise, or even good, I am living proof of God’s faith in human redemption. I am beyond grateful every single day that He won’t ever give up on me.

But the biggest surprise of all is my intense need to find a Purpose for my life. I do find occasional small purposes, but the big Purpose continues to elude me. Sometimes I think I glimpse it in the distance, but after letting me gain on it a bit, it moves ahead again out of view. I wonder if I won’t ever find it…maybe the small, daily acts of meaning are all I can hope for. If so, I must look harder for them and dedicate myself to doing them well.

“The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” –Pablo Picasso


Love

She was our discount dog, the one we’d have never even gone to look at if I hadn’t misread the price on the ad. Luckily she was the last puppy and already getting a bit long in the tooth at ten weeks; we were able to strike a deal with the breeder. She turned out to be the single happiest accident ever in the history of our family. She was wonderful. And this week we lost her too young, at six, to cancer.

It happened so fast we didn’t see it coming. She got a couple of infections not long after removal of a benign cyst. Looking back, it’s easy to connect the dots, but at the time we were blissful and assumed we still had years with her. After all, we needed her. This creature was pure love, the only dog I’ve ever known to perfect hugs. She had an uncanny instinct for knowing when you needed one. She’d come smile at you with her shining face and then gently push into you. There was no way not to feel at least a little better afterward.

But now she’s suddenly gone, and there’s a void in our family, a void of pure love. That’s not a void that will be easily filled. We miss you Winnie. You were unforgettable.

“A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself.” –Josh Billings


Sleep

I just enjoyed my extra hour of sleep, doubling down on all of the sleep I got on last week’s three day weekend. I feel like I’m still catching up on three years of sleep since Megan became ill, turning our lives upside down while we lived for months in the hospital watching her suffer. I’ve not felt as resilient or fully rested since. I’ve even felt my age for the first time ever lately, with everything feeling creaky sore. It’s felt good to sleep.

A friend recently told me that she struggles to sleep well due to a medical condition she has; for her, sleep is not a refuge. I can’t imagine how that must feel, to not enjoy sleep. Sleep is such a relief when I’m tired that I look forward to it and generally don’t want to get out of bed in the morning. Of course, that could be partly because my alarm goes off weekdays at 5:00 so I can get on the treadmill before I start my day. But sleep is a refuge and, I’ve learned over the years, critical to managing my stress.

And so my extra sleep served the exact purpose days off are supposed to:  I feel rested and recharged and ready to go at it again tomorrow. It’s a good thing, there’s a lot to do on Monday.

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep.”  –Robert Frost