Archive | August 2014

Awful August – except for …

Broken Glass grass and skyDoes it ever seem like your world is shattered? That life is suddenly broken? For some of my family members, that’s what August has been like this year.

I guess I would describe August 2014 along two tracks of events. One track is affecting my broadly extended family. The other track is affecting Mim and me mostly, and a few other unrelated people. I feel like I’ve been running as fast as I can along the “Mim and me track,” but the “broader family track” keeps pulling me over to slow down and cry with my family and wonder what’s happening in our world.

Sandy and Conrad looking out their kitchen window while hospice volunteers did spring yard work.

Sandy and Conrad looking out their kitchen window while hospice volunteers did spring yard work.

Perhaps I should begin by explaining who my “broadly extended family” includes. My brother, Danny, married his high school sweetheart, Sandy, shortly after they graduated from high school in the mid-1960s. They had two kids, Cindy and Kevin. As Danny and Sandy matured, they grew in different directions and divorced when their kids were still young. Danny and Sandy still stayed in contact over the years, primarily because of their kids. They both remarried twice, bringing more in-laws and nieces (no more nephews) into the family. We’re a big, complicated (but probably fairly typical) extended family. I think of Sandy as my first sister-in-law. She is still part of my “broadly extended family.” I knew Sandy in high school, even before she dated my brother. I’ve always liked and admired Sandy. She made me laugh a lot with her quick wit.

Sandy and Conrad holding handsSandy has been in declining health for the last few years, even though she’s only 67. Several months ago Kevin took the picture of his mother and her husband, Conrad, holding hands when she was in the hospital. Kevin had gone to visit her, and he found them both asleep but still comforting each other.

A few days later she was released from the hospital, to go home on hospice. Conrad would take care of her at home.

On Monday evening, August 4, Conrad went to Subway to get sandwiches. He was killed in a car accident on his way home, on the street right in front of their home.

Sandy was devastated. She lost all will to live. She died 16 days later. Her funeral is today.

Kevin has three daughters and his sister Cindy has two sons – all who lost two very loving grandparents in August. It’s been a very sad month. We’re reminded of the observation in Ecclesiastes 3, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die… a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…” But it’s really hard when two deaths – of people you love deeply – come so close together. Too much time to weep. Too much time to mourn. And no time to laugh and dance.

Farmhouse exterior - summerOn the “Mim and me track,” our farmhouse is moving quickly into its next phase. As you may recall, six years ago we turned the farmhouse into a bed-and-breakfast style spiritual retreat center. We named it Whispering Winds Retreat Haven. A year and a half ago we put Whispering Winds on hiatus and agreed to rent the farmhouse to a family who needed a place to live for a couple years. On August 3rd the renters moved out, five months earlier than planned. We were okay with that because the renters were able to buy a home of their own sooner than they expected, and we really wanted to spruce up the place and try to sell it.

A few days before the renters moved out, I received an email from someone (Jeff) who wanted to talk with me about collaborating on reopening the farmhouse as a retreat center. Eventually Jeff would like to buy the place, but for now he wanted to see if we could work together to reopen the farmhouse as a retreat center. We scheduled a time to get together at the farm and talk. That meant Mim and I had just over a week to “spruce” up the place before our meeting.

We quickly realized that we had a bigger clean-up job on our hands than we had anticipated, and we would need help. Amazingly, within that one week in early August, we had two women from a cleaning service deep-clean the five bathrooms and the kitchen; five men from a landscaping service spend a full day weeding, pruning, and removing three truckloads of brush from the yard; another handyman mow our 3-acre lawn and spread 8 more yards of mulch (he had spread 10 yards earlier in the season); our HVAC service man clean the furnace and repair the central AC; and a friend help us carry a dozen heavy boxes of dishes, glasses, flatware, and other furnishings up from the basement. With all that help, the house was presentable for our meeting with Jeff to explore the possibility of collaborating on a retreat center.

The next week, we had a friend paint walls and ceilings as needed throughout the house, reinstall parts of the kitchen cabinets, and replace the garbage disposal and faucet in the kitchen sink. Mim and I worked, too – mostly moving around furnishings to make the house look like a B&B retreat center again. It was an amazing transformation! Oh, and we also bought a new range to replace the one that had been accidentally damaged beyond repair by trying to clean the self-cleaning ovens with a spray-on oven cleaner. (Caution: Don’t ever do that!)

We were amazed. With the help of half a dozen friends and half a dozen strangers, our farmhouse was completely transformed within a couple weeks – all within the same timeframe between Conrad’s death and Sandy’s death.

Stone Meadows Condominiums

Stone Meadows Condominiums

The day after our meeting with the retreat guy (which had been a great time for sharing ideas, but probably not the beginning of a retreat collaboration), our realtor showed the house to a prospective buyer. Thanks to all the help we had received over the past week the house and 3-acre lawn were completely ready for showing!

But then everything changed. Our friend Sharon, who was renting one of the condos in the duplex next door to ours, was told that her condo had been sold and she would need to move out within a month or so. Sharon is the friend who had welcomed “Mary,” one of the 93-year-olds we care for, as a short-term roommate because we didn’t have room for her in our condo.

So… that’s what the next phase is going to be in the life of our farmhouse… Sharon and “Mary” are going to move into the farmhouse next month. Sharon may also invite her 90-year-old parents to join her for the winter months. We’ve talked with our real estate agent and have decided to take the farmhouse off the market. It seems pretty obvious that this is where Sharon and “Mary” need to be for the next several months.

That’s August 2014. Track one is filled with sadness. Track two is filled with fast-paced problem-solving and lots of hard work. Between the two tracks, we’ve been able to deeply sense God’s presence, God’s comforting love. I guess that’s why I played “God Will Take Care of You” for the prelude last Sunday in church. The awful August of 2014 demonstrates this truth. We’re not in this world alone. God is with us, as are the friends and family God has sent to comfort us, as well as the kind strangers God has ready to help us with our various challenges.

Be not dismayed whate’er betide, God will take care of you;
Beneath God’s wings of love abide, God will take care of you.

God will take care of you, Thru ev’ry day, O’er all the way;
God will take care of you, God will take care of you.

Thru days of toil when heart grows frail, God will take care of you;
When dangers fierce your path assail, God will take care of you.

All you may need God will provide, God will take care of you;
Nothing you ask will be denied, God will take care of you.

No matter what may be the test, God will take care of you;
Lean, weary one, upon God’s breast, God will take care of you.

[Civilla D. Martin, 1904]

Gods presence butterfly

Lobster Fest Wisconsin Style

Forty-three years ago I ate my first lobster. I had just completed my first year as a high school English teacher in Plainfield, Connecticut. The kids were done with school, but the teachers were required to show up one more day to grade final exams and turn in semester grades. None of us teachers really wanted to be in school, but we tried to make the best of it. Under the guidance of the Home Ec. teacher we boiled live lobsters and had quite a feast. About half of the teachers knew how to eat a whole lobster, and they coached the rest of us. What a great way to end the school year!

Lobster - how to eatI’ve loved eating lobster ever since. Unfortunately, there are not many opportunities to eat fresh whole lobster in Wisconsin. Last weekend we had such an opportunity. Margaret and Don, the daughter and son-in-law of one of our former assisted living residents, invited us to join them for a Lobster Fest Wisconsin Style in Mosinee, about a 2-hour-drive north of us. A group of people from their church organize a Lobster Fest every year. This year we felt honored to be among the twenty guests.

What makes a Wisconsin Lobster Fest better than anything you’ll find in New England is the first course – a cheese and sausage plate (from a local cheese factory) served with a golden brown punch that’s a combination of apple wine, cherry wine, beer, and some other spirits. (Mim and I just tasted the punch, which was very tasty, but then switched to a white wine for the evening libation.)

mussels-pan-sauceA bowl of freshly steamed mussels came next. (Mussels are Mim’s favorite shellfish, so she couldn’t be happier!) Then came the boiled lobster, corn on the cob, and boiled potatoes.

The woman seated across the table from me had grown up in New Jersey and she generously offered tips to everyone at the table about how to twist off the lobster tail, crack open the claws, and suck out the tiniest, sweetest morsels of all from the skinny little lobster legs. Eating a whole lobster takes time. Eventually everyone finished the main course and was ready for dessert – blueberry buckle with ice cream. It was a wonderful feast.

lobster on plateAfter dinner most of the guests stayed around to help with the cleanup, sort of… Margaret wanted me to see the hostess’ baby grand piano, so we went to the music room instead of the kitchen. I sat down to play the only ocean song I could think of – “Puff the Magic Dragon.” But the hostess quickly brought me a folder of sheet music from the 1930’s and 1940’s. A few guests gathered around the piano to sing and together we assumed the responsibility of entertaining the kitchen crew with our music.

I guess that’s how a Lobster Fest Wisconsin Style ends, with everyone working together to be sure everyone feels welcome, has fun, and the work gets done.

A truly destitute man is not one without riches,
but the poor wretch who has never partaken of lobster.

I guess I would modify this anonymous quotation to say,

A truly destitute person is not one without riches,
but the poor wretch who has never participated in a Lobster Fest Wisconsin Style.

Thanks, Margaret and Don, and Jean, Melanie, Ruth, Clay, and everyone else who let us be a part of this evening. And, thanks also to the Plainfield High School Home Ec. teacher for teaching me to love lobster. Oh, and thanks to God, too, for creating lobsters, and for giving us friends so that we can have wonderful times like this together.

Don and Margaret helping Edith celebrate her 90th birthday in our home in 2011.

Don and Margaret helping Edith celebrate her 90th birthday in our home in 2011.

Joy in Unexpected Places

Dane County Jail on the top floors of the City-County Building on Martin Luther King Junior Drive in Madison, WI.

One location of the Dane County Jail is on the top floors of the City-County Building in Madison, WI.

The highlight of my day last Thursday came at the end of the women’s worship service in the county jail.  As usual, I had gone to the Dane County Jail in Madison to play the piano for the women’s worship service. But this service was a little different. Instead of a more typical opening hymn, we sang the refrain of the contemporary hymn by Bob Dufford, “Be Not Afraid.” The words are:

Be not afraid
I go before you always.
Come, follow me,
and I will give you rest.

We sang the words quietly, meditatively, three times.

Then we continued with the rest of the service. The chaplain read from the Bible. Each of us shared with the group how the Bible story spoke to us personally. Everyone wrote down prayer requests to give to the chaplain to pray throughout the week.

Hands playing pianoDuring this quiet time I played softly on the piano. I repeated “Be Not Afraid, and then switched to “Jesus Loves Me” and “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” Some of the women hummed along. Then we went around the circle and prayed out loud for the person seated on our right. We ended the service by singing “Be Not Afraid” again, but with slightly different words. We sang the refrain three times, but we sang it as a response to God with the words changed to  – I’m not afraid. For the final blessing, we went around the circle in the opposite direction we had prayed, and we each asked for God’s blessing on the person standing to our left.

Then the highlight of the day for me happened. While the chaplain rapped on the window to try to attract the attention of a deputy to unlock the chapel door and escort the women back to their cell blocks, the women stood around talking to each other, and I played the piano again as a free-form postlude. I started with “Be Not Afraid” and then repeated “Jesus Loves Me.” One of the inmates, Linda, sang along from the opposite side of the room. Then I played “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” Linda came over to a chair next to the piano, sat down, and sang several verses of the spiritual – I kept playing as long as she could think up verses. Then I asked her what she wanted to sing next. She responded immediately with, “Do you know ‘We’re Marching to Zion?’”

I started to play a few measures of the verse to be sure we were thinking of the same song, and she started to sing the refrain. I jumped ahead to the refrain and she sang it with a strong, beautiful alto voice as I played. After the refrain, she went right ahead with the verses and I followed her lead. We had a joyful time singing and playing together. I was sorry the deputies came so quickly to take the women back to their cells.

Here are the words of the song. We only had time to sing two verses, but I was amazed she knew all the words of the verses she had time to sing.


We’re marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion;
we’re marching upward to Zion, the beautiful city of God.

Come, we that love the Lord, and let our joys be known;
join in a song with sweet accord, join in a song with sweet accord
and thus surround the throne, and thus surround the throne.

Let those refuse to sing who never knew our God;
but children of the heavenly King, but children of the heavenly King
may speak their joys abroad, may speak their joys abroad.

The hill of Zion yields a thousand sacred sweets
before we reach the heavenly fields, before we reach the heavenly fields,
or walk the golden streets, or walk the golden streets.

Then let our songs abound, and every tear be dry;
we’re marching through Emmanuel’s ground,
we’re marching through Emmanuel’s ground,
to fairer worlds on high, to fairer worlds on high.

I’m sorry I can’t let you hear what Linda and I sounded like in the jail chapel. But if you want to hear the hymn “We’re Marching to Zion,” you can go to  and enter the title in the search box. Or, here’s a direct link to a pretty a cappella rendition that I like:

Whether it’s through music, or in other ways, I hope you have many unexpected joyful moments today – and every day.


4 Geese - long

A Roundabout Path to Joy

One Simple Act book coverLast week I read the book One Simple Act: Discovering the Power of Generosity by Debbie Macomber.  It’s a wonderful little book with dozens of stories of people being generous in some way, and the consequences of that single act of generosity – to the recipient, to the giver, and to the observer. The book also includes dozens of suggestions of ways we can practice acts of generosity. One of the principles demonstrated by the stories is that joy is a natural outcome of generosity – joy that is shared by all involved.

Yesterday I learned that a friend of mine died last week. Mardelle Kornelsen Westley Burrowes is the sister of Clark, my sister Nancy’s husband. I’ve known Mardelle since 1960, the year before Nancy and Clark were married. I saw her briefly every few years at family gatherings, but I never knew her very well until three and a half years ago when I started writing this blog. She immediately became a regular reader and frequent commenter. By communicating through this blog, we grew closer. Her simple act of kindness in regularly giving me feedback on my blog brought a lot of joy to me. Mardelle even wrote an endorsement that appears in my first book. I’m very thankful for being a recipient of Mardelle’s generosity.

The Gospel reading on Sunday was the story in Matthew that is often referred to as “The Feeding of the 5,000.” Jesus asked his disciples to feed the people who had come to see him. The disciples said the only food they had to share with the thousands of people listening to him was a mere five loaves and two fishes – a child’s lunch. Jesus blessed the food, and asked the disciples to distribute it among the people. Miraculously, there was enough food for everyone, with 12 baskets full of leftovers. The point Pastor Jeff emphasized is that God asks us to use the resources we have to do what needs to be done – not to wait for someone else who may have more resources to do it. That’s the same point Macomber was making in her book – to be generous with whatever resources we have, and God will bless our generosity.

Goats w 6 people WThis past weekend the generosity of two young women brought a tremendous amount of joy to our household. Mim and I were coming home from a quick trip downtown, and we saw the Hinchley twins, high school girls who live on a dairy farm a couple miles from Cambridge, walking two goats on the sidewalk near our home. They had taken the goats downtown to be part of a petting zoo for Cambridge’s Maxwell Street Day celebration. We stopped to talk with the young women for a few minutes, and we asked them if they had the time to take the goats up to our condo so that our three 93-year-olds could pet them, especially Anna who had grown up on a farm and loved animals. They were happy to do it. As you can see by the pictures, our three assisted living residents loved petting the goats. Because the Hinchley twins were generous with their time, Anna, Marti, and Carolyn (as well as Mim and I) had a very special half-hour in the middle of our day. I think it was special for the twins, too, and probably even the goats!

As the book jacket on One Simple Act says, “What if you, personally, could make the world a better place . . . by tomorrow? Debbie Macomber knows the secret to doing exactly that! In a world that seems too often stingy and grudging, she has witnessed how one simple act of generosity can yield unforeseen miracles.”

Obviously, my friend Mardelle knew about that. She was very generous in taking the time to encourage me in my writing. The small child who shared his lunch of five loaves and two fishes must have been astounded to see what resulted from his generosity. And the Hinchley twins were able to observe all the joy that came from taking the time to let three nonagenarians pet their goats.

Generosity may seem like a roundabout path to joy, but it certainly is a sure path that leads to joy for everyone involved – the giver, the recipient, and the observers.

Ann and goat smiliing