Category Archives: Family

The Time Machine of Durango

“The airplane may be the closest thing we have to a time machine.”

– Brian J. Terwilliger

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There is something about that moment. Hiking in the mountains near Durango, Colorado, with Laura and the boys, we found a beautiful spot with a view of the valley. We paused to admire, and then –

The sound of a steam locomotive whistle from down below, sounding loud all the way up there, then echoing back and forth through the valley. Then the quieter, seemingly more distant sound of the steam engine heading across the valley, chugging and clacking as it goes. More whistles, the sight of smoke and then of the train full of people, looking like a beautiful model train from our vantage point.

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I’ve heard that sound on a few rare recordings, but never experienced it. I’ve been on steam trains a few times, but never spent time in a town where they still run all day, every day. It is a different sort of feeling to spend a week in a place where Jacob and Oliver would jump up several times a day and rush to the nearest window in an attempt to catch sight of the train.

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Airplanes really can be a time machine in a sense — what a wondrous time to be alive, when things so ancient are within the reach of so many. I have been transported to Lübeck and felt the uneven 700-year-old stones of the Marienkirche underneath my feet, feeling a connection to the people that walked those floors for centuries. I felt the same in Prague, in St. George’s Basilica, built in 1142, and at the Acropolis of Lindos, with its ancient Greek temple ruins. In Kansas, I feel that when in the middle of the Flint Hills — rolling green hills underneath the pure blue sky with billowing white clouds, the sounds of crickets, frogs, and cicadas in my ears; the sights and sounds are pretty much as they’ve been for tens of thousands of years. And, of course, in Durango, arriving on a plane but seeing the steam train a few minutes later.

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It was fitting that we were in Durango with Laura’s parents to celebrate their 50th anniversary. As we looked forward to riding the train, we heard their stories of visits to Durango years ago, of their memories of days when steam trains were common. We enjoyed thinking about what our lives would be like should we live long enough to celebrate 50 years of marriage. Perhaps we would still be in good enough health to be able to ride a steam train in Durango, telling about that time when we rode the train, which by then will have been pretty much the same for 183 years. Or perhaps we would take them to our creek, enjoying a meal at the campfire like I’ve done since I was a child.

Each time has its unique character. I am grateful for the cameras and airplanes and air conditioning we have today. But I am also thankful for those things that connect us with each other trough time, those rocks that are the same every year, those places that remind us how close we really are to those that came before.

Willis Goerzen – a good reason to live in Kansas

From time to time, people ask me, with a bit of a disbelieving look on their face, “Tell me again why you chose to move to Kansas?” I can explain something about how people really care about their neighbors out here, how connections through time to a place are strong, how the people are hard-working, achieve great things, and would rather not talk about their achievements too much. But none of this really conveys it.

This week, as I got word that my great uncle Willis Goerzen passed away, it occured to me that the reason I live in Kansas is simple: people like Willis.

Willis was a man that, through and through, simply cared. For everyone. He had hugs ready anytime. When I used to see him in church every Sunday, I’d usually hear his loud voice saying, “Well John!” Then a hug, then, “How are you doing?” When I was going through a tough time in life, hugs from Willis and Thelma were deeply meaningful. I could see how deeply he cared in his moist eyes, the way he sought me out to offer words of comfort, reassurance, compassion, and strength.

Willis didn’t just defy the stereotypes on men having to hide their emotions; he also did so by being just gut-honest. Americans often ask, in sort of a greeting, “How are you?” and usually get an answer like “fine”. If I asked Willis “How are you?”, I might hear “great!” or “it’s hard” or “pretty terrible.” In a place where old-fashioned stoicism is still so common, this was so refreshing. Willis and I could have deep, heart-to-heart conversations or friendly ones.

Willis also loved to work. He worked on a farm, in construction, and then for many years doing plumbing and heating work. When he retired, he just kept on doing it. Not for the money, but because he wanted to. I remember calling him up one time about 10 years ago, asking if he was interested in helping me with a heating project. His response: “I’ll hitch up the horses and be right there!” (Of course, he had no horses anymore.) When I had a project to renovate what had been my grandpa’s farmhouse (that was Willis’s brother), he did all the plumbing work. He told me, “John, it’s great to be retired. I can still do what I love to do, but since I’m so cheap, I don’t have to be fast. My old knees can move at their own speed.” He did everything so precisely, built it so sturdy, that I used to joke that if a tornado struck the house, the house would be a pile of rubble but the ductwork would still be fine.

One of his biggest frustrations about ill health was being unable to work, and in fact he had a project going before cancer started to get the best of him. He was quite distraught that, for the first time in his life, he didn’t properly finish a job.

Willis installed a three-zone system (using automated dampers to send heat or cool from a single furnace/AC into only the parts of the house where it was needed) for me. He had never done that before. The night Willis and his friend Bob came over to finish the setup was one to remember. The two guys, both in their 70s, were figuring it all out, and their excitement was catching. By the time the evening was over, I certainly was more excited about thermostats than I ever had been in my life.

I heard a story about him once – he was removing some sort of noxious substance from someone’s house. I forget what it was — whatever it was, it had pretty bad long-term health effects. His comment: “Look, I’m old. It’s not going to be this that does me in.” And he was right.

In his last few years, Willis started up a project that only Willis would dream up. He invited people to bring him all their old and broken down appliances and metal junk – air conditioners, dehumidifiers, you name it. He carefully took them apart, stripped them down, and took the metals into a metal salvage yard. He then donated all the money he got to a charity that helped the poor, and it was nearly $5000.

Willis had a sense of humor about him that he somehow deployed at those perfect moments when you least expected it. Back in 2006, before I had moved into the house that had been grandpa’s, there was a fire there. I lost two barns (one was the big old red one with lots of character) and a chicken house. When I got out there to see what had happened, Willis was already there. It was quite the disappointment for me. Willis asked me if grandpa’s old manure spreader was still in the chicken house. (Cattle manure is sometimes used as a fertilizer.) This old manure spreader was horse-drawn. I told him it was, and so it had burned up. So Willis put his arm around me, and said, “John, do you know what we always used to call a manure spreader?” “Nope.” “Shit-slinger!” That was so surprising I couldn’t help but break out laughing. Willis was the only person that got me to laugh that day.

In his last few years, Willis battled several health ailments. When he was in a nursing home for a while due to complications from knee surgery, I’d drop by to visit. And lately as he was declining, I tried to drop in at his house to visit with Willis and Thelma as much as possible. Willis was always so appreciative of those visits. He always tried to get in a hug if he could, even if Thelma and I had to hold on to him when he stood up. He would say sometimes, “John, you are so good to come here and visit with me.” And he’d add, “I love you.” As did I.

Sometimes when Willis was felling down about not being able to work more, or not finish a project, I told him how he was an inspiration to me, and to many others. And I reminded him that I visited with him because I wanted do, and being able to do that meant as much to me as it did to him. I’m not sure if he ever could quite believe how deeply true that was, because his humble nature was a part of who he was.

My last visit earlier this week was mostly with Thelma. Willis was not able to be very alert, but I held his hand and made sure to tell him that I love and care for him that time. I’m not sure if he was able to hear, but I am sure that he didn’t need to. Willis left behind a community of hundreds of people that love him and had their lives touched by his kind and inspirational presence.

Contemplative Weather

Sometimes I look out the window and can’t help but feel “this weather is deep.” Deep with meaning, with import. Almost as if the weather is confident of itself, and is challenging me to find some meaning within it.

This weekend brought the first blast of winter to the plains of Kansas. Saturday was chilly and windy, and overnight a little snow fell. Just enough to cover up the ground and let the tops of the blades of grass poke through. Just enough to make the landscape look totally different, without completely hiding what lies beneath. Laura and I stood silently at the window for a few minutes this morning, gazing out over the untouched snow, extending out as far as we can see.

Yesterday, I spent some time with my great uncle and aunt. My great uncle isn’t doing so well. He’s been battling cancer and other health issues for some time, and can’t get out of the house very well. We talked for an hour and a half – about news of the family, struggles in life now and in the past, and joys. There were times when all three of us had tears in our eyes, and times when all of us were laughing so loudly. My great uncle managed to stand up twice while I was there — this took quite some effort — once to give me a huge hug when I arrived, and another to give me an even bigger hug when I left. He has always been a person to give the most loving hugs.

He hadn’t been able to taste food for awhile, due to treatment for cancer. When I realized he could taste again, I asked, “When should I bring you some borscht?” He looked surprised, then got a huge grin, glanced at his watch, and said, “Can you be back by 3:00?”

His brother, my grandpa, was known for his beef borscht. I also found out my great uncle’s favorite kind of bread, and thought that maybe I would do some cooking for him sometime soon.

Today on my way home from church, I did some shopping. I picked up the ingredients for borscht and for bread. I came home, said hi to the cats that showed up to greet me, and went inside. I turned on the radio – Prairie Home Companion was on – and started cooking.

It takes a long time to prepare what I was working on – I spent a solid two hours in the kitchen. As I was chopping up a head of cabbage, I remembered coming to what is now my house as a child, when my grandpa lived here. I remembered his borscht, zwiebach, monster cookies; his dusty but warm wood stove; his closet with toys in it. I remembered two years ago, having nearly 20 Goerzens here for Christmas, hosted by the boys and me, and the 3 gallons of borscht I made for the occasion.

I poured in some tomato sauce, added some water. The radio was talking about being kind to people, remembering that others don’t always have the advantages we do. Garrison Keillor’s fictional boy in a small town, when asked what advantages he had, mentioned “belonging.” Yes, that is an advantage. We all deal with death, our own and that of loved ones, but I am so blessed by belonging – to a loving family, two loving churches, a wonderful community.

Out came three pounds of stew beef. Chop, chop, slice, plunk into the cast iron Dutch oven. It’s my borscht pot. It looks as if it would be more at home over a campfire than a stovetop, but it works anywhere.

Outside, the sun came up. The snow melts a little, and the cats start running around even though it’s still below freezing. They look like they’re having fun playing.

I’m chopping up parsley and an onion, then wrapping them up in a cheesecloth to make the spice ball for the borscht. I add the basil and dill, some salt, and plonk them in, too. My 6-quart pot is nearly overflowing as I carefully stir the hearty stew.

On the radio, a woman who plays piano in a hospital and had dreamed of being on that particular radio program for 13 years finally was. She played with passion and delight I could hear through the radio.

Then it’s time to make bread. I pour in some warm water, add some brown sugar, and my thoughts turn to Home On The Range. I am reminded of this verse:

How often at night when the heavens are bright
With the light from the glittering stars
Have I stood here amazed and asked as I gazed
If their glory exceeds that of ours.

There’s something about a beautiful landscape out the window to remind a person of all the blessings in life. This has been a quite busy weekend — actually, a busy month — but despite the fact I have a relative that is sick in the midst of it all, I am so blessed in so many ways.

I finish off the bread, adding some yeast, and I remember my great uncle thanking me so much for visiting him yesterday. He commented that “a lot of younger people have no use for visiting an old geezer like me.” I told him, “I’ve never been like that. I am so glad I could come and visit you today. The best gifts are those that give in both directions, and this surely is that.”

Then I clean up the kitchen. I wipe down the counters from all the bits of cabbage that went flying. I put away all the herbs and spices I used, and finally go to sit down and reflect. From the kitchen, the smells of borscht and bread start to seep out, sweeping up the rest of the house. It takes at least 4 hours for the borscht to cook, and several hours for the bread, so this will be an afternoon of waiting with delicious smells. Soon my family will be home from all their activities of the day, and I will be able to greet them with a warm house and the same smells I stepped into when I was a boy.

I remember this other verse from Home On the Range:

Where the air is so pure, the zephyrs so free,
The breezes so balmy and light,
That I would not exchange my home on the range
For all of the cities so bright.

Today’s breeze is an icy blast from the north – maybe not balmy in the conventional sense. But it is the breeze of home, the breeze of belonging. Even today, as I gaze out at the frozen landscape, I realize how balmy it really is, for I know I wouldn’t exchange my life on the range for anything.

Halloween: A Pumpkin and an Insect Matador

You never quite know what to expect with children. For Halloween this year, Laura found some great costumes at a local thrift store. Jacob loved his “matador” costume, with a cape and vest. He had fun swishing the cape around him. But he didn’t want to use the nice hat with a red flower in it that Laura found. Nope. What he wanted was the hat with plastic springy things that she got on a lark – he said it was “insect antennae” and that he was an “insect matador”. This prompted some confused looks and big smiles from the people he saw when we went trick-or-treating!

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Oliver, meanwhile, enjoyed his pumpkin outfit, complete with orange hair – his favorite part.

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Here’s a typical scene:

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And, of course, Jacob running with the cape flowing behind him:

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The Heights of Coronado

Near the beautiful Swedish town of Lindsborg, Kansas, there stands a hill known as Coronado Heights. It lies in the midst of the Smoky Hills, named for the smoke-like mist that sometimes hangs in them. We Kansans smile our usual smile when we tell the story of how Francisco Vásquez de Coronado famously gave up his search for gold after reaching this point in Kansas.

Anyhow, it was just over a year ago that Laura, Jacob, Oliver, and I went to Coronado Heights at the start of summer, 2013 — our first full day together as a family.

Atop Coronado Heights sits a “castle”, an old WPA project from the 1930s:

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The view from up there is pretty nice:

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And, of course, Jacob and Oliver wanted to explore the grounds.

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As exciting as the castle was, simple rocks and sand seemed to be just as entertaining.

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After Coronado Heights, we went to a nearby lake for a picnic. After that, Jacob and Oliver wanted to play at the edge of the water. They loved to throw rocks in and observe the splash. Of course, it pretty soon descended (or, if you are a boy, “ascended”) into a game of “splash your brother.” And then to “splash Dad and Laura”.

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Fun was had by all. What a wonderful day! Writing the story reminds me of a little while before that — the first time all four of us enjoyed dinner and smores at a fire by our creek.

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Jacob and Oliver insisted on sitting — or, well, flopping — on Laura’s lap to eat. It made me smile.

(And yes, she is wearing a Debian hat.)

Goodnight

Me: “Goodnight, Jacob. I love you, and I always will.”

Jacob: *happy sigh* “Goodnight dad. I love you too. But dad, will you love us if you go on a trip?”

Me: “Of course! Even when…”

Jacob, interrupting, and serious: “Dad, you should not take a train trip without me.”

Me: “Jacob, I promise that I will take you on more train trips.”

Jacob: “And Oliver!”

Me: “Oh yes! I promise I will take you and Oliver on more train trips.”

Jacob: Another happy sigh, and a big smile. “Dad, you have to remember your promise forever, OK?”

Me: “Yes, Jacob, I will remember that promise forever. Good night.”

(written January 19, 2013, but somehow forgot to click “publish” back then.)

Married!

One week before the wedding, to Laura: “Mono won’t just clear up right away.”

One week before the wedding, to me: “That’s going to need stitches.”

Yes, not long before the wedding, Laura had come down with mononucleosis and I had cut into my finger with a very sharp knife while cutting bread requiring a trip to the emergency room to get stitches. Two days before we got married, instead of moving furniture, I was getting stitches out of my finger.

It wasn’t the kind of week we had planned.

But it was the happiest, most amazing occasion I could have ever imagined.

As I wrote last month, I am richly blessed indeed.

Our wedding was three days after Christmas. The church was still decorated for Christmas, with the tree in on corner, glittering stars suspended in mid-air on cables from the walls, wreaths and candles in the windows, and it was a joy-filled day.

Before the ceremony, we took pictures — the only part of the day Jacob and Oliver weren’t thrilled with. Nevertheless, we got some fun ones.

Laura and I seem to know quite a few pastors between us – and not just because Laura is a pastor. My brother officiated with the wedding vows, his wife with scripture and a prayer of blessing, and the church’s pastor gave the message.

Laura and I wrote in our wedding program, “Music has long been a thread running through both our lives. We have enjoyed singing together, playing piano and pennywhistle duets, attending concerts, and even exploring old hymnals. Music is also one of the best ways to have a conversation – even a conversation with God.” We wrote a page in the program about each of the hymns that were a part of the wedding, and why we picked them. The combined church choirs of my home church and Laura’s church sang John Rutter’s beautiful arrangement of For the Beauty of the Earth (click here to listen to a different choir). Hearing “For the beauty of each hour”, “For the joy of human love”, and “Lord of all, to thee we raise this our joyful hymn of praise” was perfect for the day.

It was with such great happiness that we walked out of the sanctuary, a married couple, to the sound of the congregation singing Joy to the World!

Jacob and Oliver were so very excited on our wedding day. They happily explored the church while waiting for things to happen. We had them help us light our unity candle, and they were pleased with that. Jacob loved his suit, which made him look just like me. And they were, of course, delighted with the cake and in the middle of it all.

For our honeymoon, we managed to get two weeks of vacation, and spent about half of it at home. We had looked at various options for retreats in the country, but eventually concluded that our house is a retreat in the country, so might as well enjoy it at home.

We also went to the Palo Duro Canyon area near Amarillo in the Texas panhandle, staying in a small B&B in Canyon, TX. Palo Duro is the second-largest canyon in North America, and quite colorful year-round. What a beautiful place to go for our honeymoon! By the time we got there, Laura was getting past mono, and we went for hikes in the canyon on two different days — hiking a total of 10 miles, including a hike up the side of the canyon.

After we got back home, on the last weekday of our honeymoon, we went back to the Flint Hills of Kansas, to some of the same places we had spent our third date. We climbed the windy staircase at the Chase County Courthouse, the oldest courthouse still in use in Kansas.

And peered out its famous oval window.

We found the last remnant of the old ghost town of Elk, ate at the same restaurant we had that day. It brought back wonderful memories, and it was a good day in itself. Because even though it was a gold, drizzly, overcast day in January, this time, we were married.

And this year, Thanksgiving is all year.

Richly Blessed

“It’s wedding week! Wedding week! Wedding week! Wedding week! Oh, also Christmas. Oh dad, it’s wedding week! I can’t believe it! It’s finally here! Wedding week!” – Jacob, age 7, Sunday

“Oh dad, this is the best Christmas EVER!” – Jacob, Wednesday

“Dad, is the wedding TODAY?” – Oliver, age 4, every morning this week

This has certainly been a Christmas like no other. I have never known something to upstage Christmas for Jacob, but apparently a wedding can!

Laura and I got to celebrate our first Christmas together this year — together, of course, with the boys. We enjoyed a wonderful day in the middle of a busy week, filled with play, family togetherness, warmth, and happiness. At one point, while I was helping the boys with their new model train components, Laura was enjoying playing Christmas tunes on the piano. Every time she’d reach the end, Jacob paused, and said, “That was awesome!”, beating me to it.

That’s a few days before Christmas — Jacob and Oliver demanding snow ice cream, and of course who am I to refuse?

Cousins opening presents

After his school Christmas program, Jacob has enjoyed singing. Here he is after the Christmas Eve program, where he excitedly ran up into the choir loft, picked up a hymnal, and pretended to sing.

And, of course, opening of presents at home.

Sometimes I think about how I didn’t know life could get this good. Soon Laura and I will be married, and it will be even better. Truly we have been richly blessed.

Engaged!

Today I have the delightful chance to write about a deep and wonderful joy.

Yes, Laura and I are engaged!

There are no words adequate for this kind of occasion, but there is a picture that gets close:

I never imagined a person could find a friend so wonderful, a person that enjoys so much in common, someone that understands me and that I understand so well. And yet, here I am, engaged to that friend. “Amazing” only begins to describe the feeling.

One of the first things Laura and I talked about was a hymn I was tinkering with, typesetting with GNU LilyPond. That hymn ends like this:

“Since Love is Lord of heav’n and earth, how can I keep from singing?”

It is a wonderful thought, and very true. Even literally true; I often find myself singing, humming, or playing the penny whistle during my day.

One of my good friends once told me, “I am completely sure that your happiest days lie ahead of you.” And he was right. I have already experienced them. This is a wonderful time, and every day brings plentiful reasons to be thankful. And as Laura and I prepare for a life together, I know that it is true not only that my friend was right, but that he is right — my happiest days are yet to come, and our happiest days are yet to come, too.

I have been blessed in many ways, and feel like the luckiest man alive.

To be loved, and to love, a person so wonderful is truly a remarkable gift.

A 4-year-old’s sudden interest in German monorail

Today, Oliver and Jacob heard about monorails. I showed them a wikipedia article about monorails, and it had a picture of a monorail in Germany.

Oliver, age 4: I have been on that monorail!

Me: Sorry, Oliver, but that monorail is in Germany. You have never been to Germany.

Oliver: But I HAVE been to Germany!

Me: No, you have never been to Germany.

Oliver: Dad, I HAVE been to Germany. I love Germany!

Jacob, taking an interest: Dad, can we go to Germany sometime?

Me: Yes, we probably could sometime.

Jacob: Great! Then we could ride a Deutsche Bahn train!

At this point, we had a brief discussion about the fact that we can’t take a train from the United States to Germany, but we can fly there and then take trains.

Oliver: Dad, we should go the the airport and tell them to take us to Germany right now!