Category Archives: Family

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!

Spring Always Comes

“There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning.”

— Louis L’Amour

Last year, I wrote about the difficult times in my life and hope for future, but never really explained why. I have written little since, because there is little I can write without a bit of explanation. It is partly because of the complexity of the task of telling my story without telling too much of others’ stories.

But it is important I tell this story. So often on the Internet, we hear only the brave face, the positive things that happen. This story involves tears and difficulty. And also we often see only anger and bitterness. This story involves joy and celebration.

One afternoon last year, I was working as usual (I work from home) when two sheriff deputies arrived on my doorstep. They gave me paperwork showing that my now ex-wife had filed for divorce, had asked them to serve me the paperwork, and that she had been given temporary possession of the house. I had 2 hours to gather up clothes and a little computer equipment (there was a list) and leave the house.

Thus began the most difficult time in my life. I went from reading a bedtime story and singing a bedtime song to my young boys every night to seeing them only a little, from living in the house my grandparents and dad had lived in to having no particular plan for where I’d sleep that night, from thinking I had a good idea of what the future held to not knowing when, if ever, I’d ever be back home. I worried about how the boys would fare (they have done well so far). And it was incomprehensible; I couldn’t find answers to “why?”.

In the time since, the divorce became final, I did return home, the boys spend more time with me, and a new normal emerged.

At the time, it seemed like a sudden, deep winter blizzard. I couldn’t see very far down the road, spring seemed far off, and I couldn’t see very well either forward or backward.

But I was determined to find positives in the situation. It started almost immediately; I had never been a person to talk about pain, but just a few hours after the divorce was filed, I knew I needed to talk to someone about it, and did. A week later, I shared about it in church. Amazing friends, locally and all over the world, provided support and encouragement. I had less total time with the boys than before the divorce, but more time with just the three of us, and we used it to play together at home, spend days in town, and even take a train trip to Santa Fe, where none of us had ever been before.

I realized how much I could forgive, and that my ex-wife probably did the best she could with the persistent legacy of difficult life events that happened to her long before she met me. I understood this, and was never angry, just sad, for everyone. I have always known nobody is perfect, myself included, but can be hard on myself when I’m less than perfect. I forgave myself, too, realizing that I did my best to help in the most unfamiliar of waters, and although I sometimes didn’t get it right, my conscience is clear because my heart was in the right place and I tried, very hard.

Most incredibly, I became a person with a deep sense of inner peace. I always tried to work hard to set life on a good path; I got good grades in school, am a good employee, and have a strong set of values. But where courts are involved, there’s a strong sense of powerlessness. At times, there was nothing I could do to make life better for my boys or for me. I finally had to let go of taking on responsibility for all that on my own shoulders. I simply knew that things would be OK, and in fact were OK, and that there is nothing in life that really deserves worries. That doesn’t mean worries are never present, but that mostly they are subdued, like a radio quietly playing in another room. When they aren’t, I can sit down at the piano, play my penny whistle, sing, walk to my creek, talk to friends, or any of so many things that let them melt away. I stopped searching for happiness and peace, and let those things find me.

In religious terms, my faith became not just an intellectual one, but also a spiritual one. An atheist friend asked me, “Just what does religion mean to you anyway?” My answer: “The certainty that spring always comes, for everyone that understands this.”

“People speak of misfortunes and sufferings,” remarked Pierre, “but if at this moment I were asked: ‘Would you rather be what you were before you were taken prisoner, or go through all this again?’ then for heaven’s sake let me again have captivity and horseflesh! We imagine that when we are thrown out of our usual ruts all is lost, but it is only then that what is new and good begins. While there is life there is happiness. There is much, much before us.”

— Tolstoy, War and Peace

By Thanksgiving, I had much to be thankful for. Some of it under my nose waiting to be rediscovered after years of distraction, such as the glorious Kansas sunrises. Some things were new, such as roasting a turkey all by myself (or, rather, with Jacob and Oliver) for the first time, and having it come out absolutely perfectly. And some were just the things of everyday life: that I lived in my own house again, that I could walk out to the creek at the edge of my property whenever I wanted, that I could play piano, that the sounds of laughter and little running feet again could often be heard on my wood floors.

That’s not to say everything was easy; the courts sometimes made decisions sometimes I didn’t think were in the boys’ best interests, legal things dragged on and on, but in the end, peace endured. Happiness endured. I found myself thinking at Thanksgiving that it was the best Thanksgiving ever. Not much later, I considered myself happier than I’ve ever been. I was focusing on the daily gifts of life, marveling at the sunrises, looking forward to life’s next adventure, confident that it would be far better than the last.

And then, to my complete surprise, I found myself in a relationship again. On top of all the wonderful things happening in my life, I met Laura. I never could have imagined a friend so wonderful, a relationship so loving and joyful, something to treasure so deeply. I can look back at events and shake my head in amazement and wonder, that I found myself happier than I’d ever been, and then this wonderful relationship on top of that. I have been blessed to have the life I do, and feel almost embarrassingly lucky.

I share this story because friends that had been through divorce years ago shared their stories. They gave me hope. And if I didn’t share this story in this public way, I would be squandering an opportunity to find more positives from what happened. I hope that this helps, somehow, someone that is in pain know that there is beauty in the valley, and spring always comes, every single year.

And I share it because happiness like this can’t be repressed for long. Tolstoy was right. While there is life, there is happiness.

I’ll end with a story from last Thanksgiving. It was 6:10AM that weekend. I was still asleep, and heard this:

Jacob, yelling from his room: “Dad? Dad!”

Me, groggy: “Yes, Jacob?”

Jacob: “Can I go down and look at the Christmas tree?”

Me: “Sure, and you can turn it on too.”

Jacob: “Great!”

At that point, I could have gone back to sleep. I was really short on sleep that morning, and Jacob would have been fine. But I gave him a couple of minutes, then I went downstairs too. He was curled up on the piano bench, looking at the tree. I quietly turned up the downstairs thermostat, got a chair, put it next to the piano bench, and sat down by the tree too. Jacob crawled over onto my lap and snuggled up for awhile. Neither of us said anything. Then:

“Dad?”

“Yes?”

“This is the best Thanksgiving ever.” And he gave me a big hug.

And he was right. Yes, he was RIGHT!

“That will be the beginning.” Spring comes!

Two boys, shrimp, and stars

I recently made a routine analysis of my kitchen. (Of course I make a routine analysis of my kitchen; don’t you?) In it, I discovered these items, still usable, but approaching that magic “throw it out” date:

  • Baby carrots
  • Potatoes
  • Lemons
  • Green beans
  • Corn

So, I thought, what can I make that would use all of these? And I realized I had some shrimp in the freezer, so: a shrimp boil! I tossed it all, plus some various seasonings and a few other veggies, into the Dutch oven, and boiled.

Jacob and Oliver watched the activity with interest. Well, except for the potato-peeling part. For that, they went and played with their toy school buses. But the rest was good. They carefully observed me adding some spices, some vegetables, the shrimp, and watched it all simmer. Then it was time to eat. Excitement!

Of course, it did take a few minutes to boil, so Jacob got down his whiteboard while Oliver looked on.

They enjoyed learning how to peel the shell from the shrimp and devoured their food.

And another night recently, Jacob unexpectedly showed up in the kitchen at 10PM. He said he was thirsty, so I got him some water. He asked, “Dad, did you make ice cream?”

Earlier that day, I had prepared ice cream with Oliver, but it was a kind that had to be cooked (lemon with pureed strawberries and peaches) and it wasn’t cool enough to finish before their bedtime. I did let them help add the ice and salt to the ice cream freezer just before they went to bed.

So I told Jacob that yes, the ice cream was done.

He stood there, tiredly, considering, with this “oh he’ll never say yes to ice cream at 10PM” look on his face.

So I said, “would you like one bite right now?”

The look of delight on his face was amazing; a broad smile, a twinkle in his eyes, and a clap. So I got out the big bowl of ice cream and scooped up one big spoonful. He loved it. Then I said, “should we go look at the stars?”

I carried Jacob outside to the porch. We stood there, looking up. I used to do this with him periodically, but it had been about a year. So he was thrilled. It was a partially overcast night, but there were still some stars visible. He had no idea there were some stars missing. To him, it was amazing and wonderful and infinite. “Oh dad, there are way too many stars to count!”

He stayed there, arms around my neck, for a minute or two, then was ready to go back inside. I set him down, gave him a hug, said “Goodnight, Jacob.” And off he trotted, back upstairs, wearing a contented smile, and he fell asleep almost immediately.

All it takes to delight children is a bit a shrimp or some stars. And those things delight me, too.