A World Turned Upside Down, a Psalm, an Island, and a Clam.

Mrs.Poppy and I have vacationed on Sanibel Island since before we had children, now we are taking our grandchildren there. Regardless of the time of year we visit, I have a routine … a tradition that is religiously followed. After a quick run to Bailey’s or Jerry’s for provisions, I head down to the beach. It is usually late afternoon at that point. To the best of my ability, I try to mentally record everything before me, making a deposit of every sensory experience. When January or February comes in the Midwest and I’m faced with freezing rain and snow, I will need to make a withdrawal from that memory bank.


The late afternoon sun warms my back and highlights the waves with exploding sparkles. The perfume of the beach; saltwater mist, with hints of seaweed and sunscreen lotion delight my olfactory nerves.  The soundtrack provided by the breeze, waves, gulls and distant laughter of children, rise and fall in a pleasant and endless loop.

Standing at that magical spot where the gentle surf of the Gulf meets the land, I feel the sand pulled from beneath my feet with each retreating wave. At dusk or dawn, the horizon is a soft blurred line, the sea appears to bleed into the sky. At this time of day, the horizon is crisp, a razor-sharp edge of ultramarine blue.

Sitting down, I push my heels back and forth through the wet sand, creating a pair of miniature trenches. The lapping waves soon drag in sand and broken shell bits filling the gullies, leaving my feet half-buried.

I force my hands through the wet sand, lifting as much as I can hold in each palm, then flip it over to form small mounds on either side of my bent legs. Each handful exposes dozens of colorful, tiny coquina clams They lay there helpless on the beach until the next wave washes over them. That is their signal to right themselves and dig frantically back into the sand. I turned their world upside down, but the next wave restored order in their little universe.

The Coronavirus has turned our world upside down. Doubt, fear, uncertainty, and anxiety can become our constant companions if we don’t fight them off. The media provides 24/7 coverage without any answers. We worry about our families, our jobs, the economy, and we worry about toilet paper. It’s as if we were laying on the sand like the tiny coquina clams, directionless, waiting for a signal to right ourselves. We need a wave!

The wave for me was Psalm 139.

I was on a grocery run when this Psalm came to my mind. The premise of this Psalm is very simple and beautifully poetic. It does not promise a life of ease without trouble, but it lets us know that God knows us and is always present wherever we are (If I take the wings of the morning, And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, Even there Your hand shall lead me, And Your right hand shall hold me). It provided a much-needed wave of peace,  grace and the reminder that God is always with me.

O LORD, You have searched me and known me.
You know my sitting down and my rising up;
You understand my thought afar off.
You comprehend my path and my lying down,
And are acquainted with all my ways.
For there is not a word on my tongue,
But behold, O LORD, You know it altogether.
You have hedged me behind and before,
And laid Your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
It is high, I cannot attain it.
Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall fall on me,”
Even the night shall be light about me;
Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You,
But the night shines as the day;
The darkness and the light are both alike to You.

For You formed my inward parts;
You covered me in my mother’s womb.
I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Marvelous are Your works,
And that my soul knows very well.
My frame was not hidden from You,
When I was made in secret,
And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed.
And in Your book they all were written,
The days fashioned for me,
When as yet there were none of them.

Peace, Poppy

Signs of Spring (and Hope)

Spring has arrived and my weeds are coming back strong. Mrs. G is once again hunting field mice. Taking out the trash I may have seen the first mosquito of the year. God in his wisdom has given the gift of survival to the common, the ordinary, and yes, the annoying. This gives me hope as I often qualify for all three of those attributes.

In spite of our best attempts to destroy ourselves at times, I believe God has also given the gift of survival to humanity. This does not mean our journey will always be pleasant or easy. Viewed objectively we are a silly species. I can find no scripture that speaks to God’s sense of humor, but the evidence leads me to believe he must have a great sense of humor to put up with our arrogance, self-importance, and hubris. This may be sacrilegious but I have this picture of God sitting back with a big bowl of popcorn, laughing, as he scrolls through our Facebook posts.

The news today is filled with nothing but articles about the Coronavirus or Covid-19, often accompanied by this phrase or something similar, “We are in uncharted territory.” … Newsflash! … Every day of our life is uncharted territory. Humanities’ very existence is uncharted territory.

I’ve thought about my mom and dad a lot this past week. They were married during the great depression (the real one) and went through the turmoils of World War II. I’ve wondered how they would have responded to our current crisis. They were part of the “The Greatest Generation,” an attribute not to be taken lightly.

I know the first thing they would tell me would be to quote the scripture that defined their lives, “… seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness.” If I heard that scripture from Matthew 6:33, once growing up, I’ve heard it a thousand times. Putting God first was the North Star of their lives. It was a fixed destination that stayed constant as the world around them changed.

They would have told me about their life as newlyweds in 1933. They lived with my dad’s parents in a four-room house in Sherman, Texas. They had chickens and a garden and were thankful for their “riches.” My dad scraped floors before electric sanders were invented for 10 cents a day, and was thankful.

At the onset of World War II, my mother assumed that her husband would serve in the military and in a romantic notion became a volunteer nurse’s aide, thinking that if something happened to him, perhaps she would be able to care for him. My dad failed his physical and managed grocery stores during the war while my mother rolled bandages and gave sponge baths to wounded soldiers, not exactly what she expected.

Unknown to them at the time, on the other side of the world was a horror of unprecedented proportions … the Holocaust!

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, “What seems to us more important, more painful, and more unendurable is really not what is more important, more painful and more unendurable, but merely that which is closer to home. Everything distant which for all its moans and muffled cries, its ruined lives and millions of victims, that does not threaten to come rolling up to our threshold today, we consider endurable and of tolerable dimensions.”

What will roll up to our threshold with this crisis?

At it’s worst it will mean the death of a loved one and all the pain that accompanies that. At the least, it will mean a shortage of toilet paper and a lot of bitching and moaning. Yes, we are all in uncharted territory, but the constant is that we are God’s children, His love is unconditional … and spring is coming.

A Curmudgeon Looks at an Election Year

I’m too self-aware to claim to be wise (grey hair alone doesn’t cut it) but I have circled the sun enough times to claim some perspective. For what it’s worth (2 cents) here are my musings about dealing with pre-election stress syndrome..

  1. Everything is clickbait. Gone are the days of in-depth reporting, fact-checking, analysis, and impartiality. Walter Cronkite is nowhere to be found. The race is on to be first with a story, and first is not good enough, it has to be just a little more sensational than the competition … accuracy be damned, we need clicks!
  2. Carmelize the stories. Some things cannot be rushed. If you want to make onion soup you must transform the raw, biting onions into a sweet, caramelized version of their formal self. It requires slow even heat and constant attention. You can’t hurry the process by just turning up the heat,  a burnt mess will be the result. So it is with news stories, it’s the bombshell, the next shocking revelation that gets our attention … but in a few days or weeks, the truth will come out and it often bears no resemblance to the initial story ( be patient and don’t jump to conclusions).
  3. Pick your truth. Critical thinking may not be dead, but it’s on life -support. The internet provides the option of selecting those news feeds which match our own preconceived ideas. Gone are the days of a few traditional news sources, newspapers, TV or cable. Today you can pick your news feeds from the most radical (left or right). If you decide to believe the Holocaust never happened, you can find those who will prop-up your ideas, it saves you the effort from having to think or research.
  4. Question everything. Life is complicated, people are complicated. If you believe one party is always right and the other party is always wrong … come see me, I have a bridge and some prime Florida land for sale.
  5. Know where you stand. Take an inventory of your beliefs, then rank them. There are some issues where I will remain resolute and nothing will budge me. There are issues of foreign or financial policy where I may have an opinion but be open to other ideas. Then there are issues where I just want to say, “Meh.” You can stand firm on your principles without being hateful.
  6. Get small. National politics are one thing, neighbors and family are another. You can rail, stew and scream about things happening on the national stage without affecting them at all. But you can wind yourself up so tight that it will affect you and those around you. Family and friends come first.
  7. Forgiveness is not a weakness.

One True Sentence, One True Note

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” – Ernest Hemingway

We are prone to draw lines in the sand, lines that in our mind define a new year or a new decade. We choose to ignore that the next ebb tide will sweep in and erase our lines. The earth spins, the tides ebb and flow without any assistance from us or thought of humanity. A time of reflection on the beginning of a new year or new decade is not a bad thing, but if we are honest, our reset button is pushed every morning as we wake, regardless of what the calendar says.

Each day we have the opportunity to write something with our lives. It does not have to be a great novel or symphony, it does not even have to be a complete chapter or movement, it can be as simple as one true sentence or one true note. Each sentence or note builds on the other as one day builds on the next. Before you know it another year is past, and a complete chapter or movement is written.


I took piano lessons for years, emerging from the process as innocent of any musical ability as when I entered, except to learn an appreciation of the art form. Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Gershwin, Mozart, Rachmaninov, etc. give me great pleasure, but it’s not the crescendos or wild flourishes up and down the keyboard that thrill me, it’s the adagio or lento, the slower movements where there is a pause, a brief second or fraction of a second that creates drama. A moment of reflection, then when the note is struck, it reverberates … hanging in the air. It is a simple note, a pure note, maybe even one that I can aspire to.

99.9 % of us will toil in obscurity, but none of us toil in insignificance. One true sentence or one true note can take many forms and they will never make the news; patience with a child or elderly parent when there is no patience left to give, kindness shown to a stranger, serving when you are tempted to ask for service, leaving harsh or hateful words left unsaid. Each day brings an endless list of possibilities to write one true sentence or strike one true note with our lives.

Poppy

Happy New Year … now go write your sentence!

 

 

 

Too Brief an Orbit

Orbits … the events we use to mark time and passages. The second hand of a watch makes an orbit and we call it a minute. The minute hand marches around and an hour is marked. Our planet spins on its axis, one full circle and the day is done. The earth makes a full orbit around the sun and another year is added to our age.

We humans also move in orbits, not in the literal sense like planets or heavenly bodies but our lives weave and loop, our trajectories intersect with thousands of fellow travelers, and every crossing of paths provides the opportunity for a positive or negative impact. The briefest encounter with an ill-tempered person can bring you down, a sincere smile from a total stranger can brighten your day.  We also orbit in parallel paths with people for stretches that can last months, years and decades. Those longer circuits have the same potential for a detrimental or favorable influence on our journeys.

The orbit of Halley’s comet brings it close to Earth once every 75-76 years. This comet is the only known short-period comet that is visible to the naked eye. If you are born at the right time, you might have a chance to see this comet twice in a lifetime. Like a viewing of Halley’s comet, if you are paying attention during your pilgrimage, there will be a few times, rare moments where an intersection with another journeyer will alter your path for the good, giving you a fresh perspective, making you a better person for having known them. Such was the case with my intersection with Aaron David Borchelt.

Aaron came to work at Concordia Publishing House taking over the role of a retiring long-time employee. He was a quick study and mastered the position faster than anyone expected.  His can-do attitude and quick wit made him a favorite with his co-workers. Our job functions brought us together, but we bonded over baseball. Aaron had worked as an usher for the baseball Cardinals since he was 17 and had amassed a wealth of knowledge about the game. We would meet to discuss budgets and schedules for the projects we were involved with but found plenty of time to second-guess calls made by the umps and the decisions of the manager from recent games. I had orbited the sun 28 times more than Aaron. I shared stories of my favorite players who were active before Aaron was born, he regaled me with tales of the current crop of Cardinals.

When Aaron first came to work at Concordia Publishing House, he was on crutches, laboring to walk with a yet-to-be diagnosed illness. His condition deteriorated, but his positive attitude only seemed to get stronger. It wasn’t long until he had to use a wheelchair to get around the building, then a motorized wheelchair. I clearly remember the meeting where he announced to the rest of the team that he was going to the Mayo Clinic. You could tell he was pumped at the prospect of finally getting an accurate diagnosis of his condition and possible cure. He came back two days earlier than expected. I went into his cubicle to welcome him back, he was as close to being down as I had ever seen him, he confided that the doctors were certain it was ALS. I can’t remember how I responded, I’m sure it wasn’t eloquent or comforting. Aaron never mentioned ALS again in my presence. I believe he didn’t want to dignify the illness by naming it.

His mental acuity and memory allowed him to do his job, even as his body failed him. I could walk into his cubicle, say the title of a current project and he would recite the project number and most times any information I needed concerning the budget or schedule without referring to his computer. One of the projects we were working on was a book on mentoring, the working title was, Walk with Me. One day I went to where he was seated in his wheelchair and just said, “walk with me.”

He laughed and replied, “I wish I could,” then proceded to reel off the information I needed about that job. He loved to interject humor into every aspect of his vocation. We looked forward to his meeting invite emails because he would invariably take the words from the subject to be discussed or the book title we were planning and twist them into a groaner of a pun or some wordplay.

I rode up the elevator with him one morning. At this point, he could no longer lift his arms to press the floor selector buttons. I was carrying an antique tube radio I had purchased. I talked about its design and function, and concluding by saying, “Of course it’s only AM.”

He laughed and said, “So, it only works in the morning?”

He was that quick and that smart!

Aaron would matter of factly ask for help when he needed it, but not tolerate anything that even came close to pity. I tried to express to him once my respect and admiration for the way he handled himself given what he had to deal with. He froze me with a steely stare from his baby-blues, and I quickly changed the subject. Aaron did not pity himself and he sure as heck wasn’t going to allow anyone else to pity him.

Aaron’s life acted as a mirror, reflecting God’s love and goodness onto anyone he came in contact. His servant attitude combined with his strength of character, unflinching positive attitude, and limitless humor created a gravitational pull that altered the orbit of anyone whose path he crossed.

Aaron made his last orbit on December 3rd, 2019. He rounded 3rd and headed for home plate, deftly sliding in ahead of the throw. The call came quickly, it was obvious to all that were watching, there was no need for a review, he was safe. Aaron David Borchelt was safe, nothing could touch him now, he was safe, safe at home  … rejoice!

Poppy

The Last Paintbrush and the Lifetime Guarantee

“Can you use these?” my father held out an array of paintbrushes, ranging in size from petite angled devices to wide, stout brushes. Decades removed from Texas, he retained a trademark slow Texan drawl that extended beyond his speech to his movements and demeanor. “I’ll be 96 next birthday,” he continued, “I reckon my painting days are over.” It was an admission of diminished abilities that came reluctantly, but honestly.

Some of the brushes were new, the ones that had been used were in like-new condition. My father took care of his things. As newlyweds during the Great Depression (the real one), my parents lived by the motto, “make do, make it last, wear it out.”

Pictured above is the last survivor of that group. It’s a sturdy brush, four inches wide and an inch thick. Fully loaded with paint, it’s a wrist-buster. I didn’t have to ask where it came from, like many men of his generation when it came to tools, tires, paint, and brushes, his go-to source was Sears & Roebuck. Embossed on the ferrule are the words, “LIFETIME GUARANTEE.”

In my hands, it did not last a lifetime.


There are few advantages to maturing (I refuse to call it getting old), but they do exist. Chief among those is perspective. If you are paying attention at all as you notch years in your belt, you will learn to separate the wheat from the chaff, you will learn the difference between the insignificant and those things that truly matter, you learn that things are just things, no matter their cost, even if they have “Lifetime Guarantee” stamped on them.


Looking back, the things I really needed to know in life I learned from my father. Any knowledge of the Pythagorean theorem or the Magna Carta has sadly disappeared, but I am left with my father’s examples of how to take care of things, and it extends far beyond paintbrushes. Taught by example, the hierarchy was very clear; Your relationship with God, your relationship with your spouse, your relationship with your family, your relationship with your friends.

Taking care of a paintbrush requires work. After a day of painting, I’m tempted just to chuck the thing into the trash because I’m not in the mood to care of it properly. Maintaining relationships requires a lot more work than maintaining a brush. Being a good spouse is work. Being a good parent is work. Being a good friend is work. There are days when it’s tempting just to throw that relationship onto the scrap heap, but a relationship is not a paintbrush, it has lifetime implications. While there are no guarantees with relationships, their successes or failures will last throughout your life and deserve our best efforts. There are no magic formulas or easy answers. Life is messy, families can be messy on steroids.

Listen – Give – Take – Speak – Respect – Value – Honor – Stand Your Ground – Defer – Communicate – Love – Listen Again


I played out a scenario where I walked into the last remaining Sears store, laid the paintbrush on the counter and demanded my money back. The clerk would look at the paintbrush, then look at me and say, “Sir, if you had taken better care of this brush, we would have honored the guarantee.”

Peace, Poppy
(and take care of those closest to you)

Sense-Ability (an exercise program)

 I should exercise more; my doctor and my wife remind me of that. I even nag myself about it. But there are different kinds of exercise. Some work your heart, some your muscles, some your mind, and some work your senses.

I stepped onto our front porch about 8:30 p.m., just days removed from the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. It was a golden hour, work was finished, dinner was prepared then consumed. It was a time of reflection, of calming, a time of exercising your senses. I stood with my hands braced on the front porch rail and attempted to soak in every stimulus before me. Though we were months removed from January, I wanted to tuck those memories into a safe-deposit box to be withdrawn as needed in the dead of winter.

Smell: It was unseasonably cool for the middle of June. The rain drifted in and out in a slow, spring-type drizzle all day. Humid air carried the pleasant odor of rich earth dominating every other smell. It was the scent of fertility, growth, and renewal, hope, and good crops to come. Second to that was the bouquet of flowers, present, but in the background, waiting in queue to dominant as the temperatures increased and the air became drier. Moments before I stepped out, someone walked down the sidewalk smoking a cigarette. I could not see the smoker but the damp air held the fragrance of burnt tobacco in its grasp, reluctant to let the vapors escape.

Sound: Natures orchestra was in the middle of a shift change; the birds were in the final movement of their concerto, while the crickets, katydids and tree frogs were just tuning up. It was not hot enough for the cicadas to bless us with their sine-wave cacophony, but an owl hooted in the distance. The wheels of cars running up and down Elizabeth Avenue created a swooshing-sizzle sound unique to tires on wet pavement. From within the house came a faint creak as someone walked across hardwood floors. The siren of an emergency vehicle in the distance briefly dominated the soundscape.

Sight: The setting sun raced toward the next horizon, turning the houses and trees across the street from three-dimensional objects into silhouettes. The edges of leaves and limbs, so crisp and sharp against the sky at midday, began to soften, blur. The air had a golden quality as the palette of the landscape became muted. Street lights and porch lamps were hot points of light that reflected on the wet streets and sidewalks.

Touch: My elbows were locked, feet spread slightly apart, hands planted on the wide porch rail. Beneath my palms I could feel tiny divots in the paint, no amount of sanding would make these hundred-year-old boards feel perfectly smooth. I reached out and ran my fingers across the top of one of the azalea bushes that ran the length of the porch. The tiny leaves held enough rainwater to create a gentle spray as they flipped back in position. My hands were as wet as if I had dipped them into a bucket of water. I brushed them across my cotton work-shirt, softened by a hundred washings, it felt as soft as fleece.


Whew, I’m exhausted by this sensory workout and Mimsy needs to go on a walk. Feel free to withdraw these memories when it’s 5 below.

Peace, Poppy