December 28, 2007

Of Time and Tomorrow

Category: News — Ira @ 5:08 pm


“There is no pain, you are receding.
A distant ship’s smoke on the horizon.
You are only coming through in waves.
Your lips move, but I can’t hear what you’re saying.

When I was a child, I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye.
I turned to look but it was gone.
I cannot put my finger on it now.
The child is grown, the dream is gone.
I have become comfortably numb.”

—Pink Floyd, lyrics, “Comfortably Numb”

We approach the threshold. The new advances; the old recedes. This year, 2007, only days away from being ushered out the door. Like the classic sketch, the long-bearded old man, frail and stooped and leaning on a walking stick, tottering with exhausted steps toward the exit. My reaction: good-bye and good riddance. I welcome and cele- brate the little infant baby that is 2008.

It’s been a pretty crappy year. That’s stating it mildly. The Chinese Year of the Pig. And I’m glad it’s over. While the events that unfolded throughout the year may not yet have reached their apex, at least the year has reached its end. It is written that our days are as grass; our lives bloom and blossom, then wither and fade like flowers bereft of the sun. I have never been one to wish for time to accelerate, to wish the days to pass faster than they naturally do anyway. But this year was different. I am so very, very ready for it to be gone, to take its slot in the annals of dark history. May there never be another like it.

It’s actually been a tough, brutal, turbulent year. From beginning to end, and every day between. A year of loss, of heartbreak, of letting go, of pulling up strength where there was little or none. Of absorbing blow after bitter blow, the world I knew crashing down around me in dust and ashes. Of getting up and facing each day, of inching, moving forward because that was the only choice; there was nowhere else to go. Of plucking and eating the bitter fruit born of a poisonous seed.

I learned a lot. About the depths of depravity in the human heart. About how life works. Really works, I mean. One can read volumes of all the platitudes ever pub- lished and still have absolutely no grasp at all of how things really are, or can be when the going gets tough. When things happen, when events take on an orbit of their own, when one’s existence spirals out of control.

I used to have a lot of answers, about a lot of things. I don’t anymore. I’m deeply suspicious of anyone who does or claims to have.

A life can get reduced to shambles pretty quickly. Any life. Anywhere. Any time. It doesn’t matter if you are a pillar of the community, or some druggy lurking out on the fringes, or somewhere in between, which is where most of us are. It doesn’t matter if you are a multi-millionaire or a pauper, or somewhere in between, which is where most of us are. Once events are triggered and released, the boom gets lowered, and there ain’t no stopping it. It smashes everything in its path. And everyone in its path. It’s all the same. For everything and everyone.

It gets messy. Despite all the Christian teachings, all the ultimate truths ever pro- claimed from all the pulpits in the country. Or in all the Sunday School classes. Just so much chatter, really. The harsh reality stands in stark contrast to the sweet, syrupy, sugary goo that pervades so much of what we hear in church. The real truth I will tell you: sometimes things don’t work out, and not everyone lives together happily ever after. Sometimes hard things are done, hard choices are made. One does what one must to survive, and lives with the consequences.

That’s the way the cookie crumples. And pop! goes the weasel. And all that.

Portions of this past year remain hazy in my mind. Probably a choice on my part, a protective reaction. And while I don’t want to rehash the things already stated before on this site, there were times I felt stranded in the middle of a vast, barren wasteland. Hopeless, hearing the voices of those around me, but ultimately alone.

Time crawled. Minutes seemed like hours, hours like days, days like weeks, weeks like months, and months like years. The year a decade. And now it ends.

I learned a lot. About my friends. About who they were, and who they are. The ones who stood with me in the trenches on the darkest days, silent perhaps, but solidly there nonetheless. Which ones had integrity. And which one was utterly devoid of even the slightest shred. And remains devoid. And integrity lost is not easily regained.

Like Paradise lost. That which was, now dimly seen only in fleeting glimpses. The result of choices. Ripple effects. Consequences. Abandonment. Desolation. Hard, bitter real- izations. Hard, bitter, brutal facts. A new reality. The years will not dim the lessons learned. Or diminish the bleak but abundant harvest the future will impose.

Tomorrow is a new day. And as I face the New Year, I have become comfortably numb. I’m not sure if it’s from general weariness or from actually having worked through some things. Probably a little of both. Time will tell. Time always tells.

I do look forward to 2008. A fresh slate. For good things. At least some of the time.

I will, I suppose, spend some time absorbing and adapting to the new realities un- leashed this year. Opening and examining the foggy realms that my subconscious mind has suppressed. Including the rage, which has seeped into every pore of my soul and will do some real damage if not faced and dealt with. I have heard all the advice, all the yada, yada, yada, all the formulas. I know what needs to be done. For my own sanity. But knowing and doing are two very different things, almost like two opposing forces.

I am comfortable in my job. I like my work. And the people I work with. The New Year will bring some major projects, beyond the size and scope of anything we have ever done before. So we are optimistic that 2008 will be a good year. The company will continue to do what it does best.

For me, the first practical order of business will be to lose the five-plus pounds gained over the holidays. Too much good, rich food, and too many legitimate excuses to indulge. No more. Back to the salads. Back to the gym, the jump rope and the tread-mill for extended workouts.

Sometime in 2008, I want to travel with Big Blue, just me and my truck and the road. Visit family scattered from Kentucky to Kansas and points between. Take some time, a few weeks at least, meander my way through some back roads, travel some uncrowd- ed highways. Stop where I want, when I feel like it. Converse with inhabitants of road- side dives. Talk with grizzled old men. Listen to their tales, glean their wisdom. Sift through their stories of fantastic imagination. Blog from the road.

Sometime, perhaps in the next year, I will need to decide the next step, where to go with my writing. Until now, I have been blogging with hastily-crafted little blurbs. What you read each week is the result of six to eight hours of writing and intensive rewriting. Sometimes more. At some point, I will have to decide whether to strive for the next level and what that level is. As I see it, little that I have posted is of publishable quality, although some of it might be with a bit of polishing, a few more rewritings.

I figure with about two years of uninterrupted labor, I could produce the foundation of the core essence that clamors to be told. For now, I plan to keep blogging weekly; the discipline of doing that is clearly what I need at this time. But at some point, that stage will pass. And I will either stop or move forward. I’m actually pretty fatalistic about it. Either my story will get written in time, over time. Or it won’t. In the big scheme of things, what’s one more voice? Or one less?

One generation passes; the next moves in to take its place. On Christmas night, my father’s older sister, Anna (Mrs. Peter) Stoll, passed away peacefully in her sleep in her home in Aylmer, Ontario. She was ninety-six years old and simply worn out. The funeral was this morning, Friday, Dec. 28th. My parents made the long journey from Iowa to attend.

While I was tempted to go, I decided not to. Just too much baggage in my life right now. Although I’m sure my cousins (Anna’s children) would have been kind and gracious, there nevertheless would have been a large white elephant looming in every room I entered. And who wants to deal with that at a funeral? So for their sakes and for my own, I thought it best to stay away. Choices. Ripple effects. Consequences. In life, and at the end of life.

And now, in this last post of the year, I wish you, my readers, a great New Year. I consider the vast majority of you my friends. Some of you are not. And that’s OK. But I thank all of you for taking the time (whether regularly or sporadically) to read my blog. I appreciate that more than I can express in words.

I anticipate good things. I wish them for each of you as well. Through one more season of summer, winter, frost and heat. May your face be warmed by gentle sun- light; may the winds more often than not be at your back. May the rains that fall in your life be refreshing, and bring new growth.

May the tears of you who weep be wiped away. May healing come to the wounded and joy return to those who mourn. May they who walk in darkness emerge again into the light they have abandoned.

As the year unfolds, join me in greeting each new day with wonder and appreciation. Be thankful. To God. In all things. And treasure life for the rare and precious gift it is. It’s not always beautiful. Or clean. Or easy. But it’s always worth living. Always.



December 21, 2007

“Ghosts” of Christmas Past

Category: News — Ira @ 6:53 pm


“At Christmas, all roads lead home.”
—Marjorie Holmes

I am a Grinch when it comes to Christmas. Not the virulent “bah, humbug” variety, but a solid out and out Grinch nonetheless. I carry these credentials proudly. This year, I mailed out one lonely Christmas card, to my parents. I have yet to buy a single gift for anyone. The plastic Christmas tree (just assemble it and plug it in, and behold, a thousand little twinkling lights) remains stored in the garage this year. No Christmas lights, iceberg or otherwise, flicker outside on my porch. And yes, the house is dark and cold, devoid of Christmas cheer. (Well, perhaps that is a bit dramatic. I do indulge in Christmas cookies and candy, shattering my carefully controlled diet to smithereens in the process.) Unlike the original Grinch, I do not have a dog to kick around.

It’s not that I hate Christmas, far from it. I always look forward to the season, the good food, a good day to watch college football. Same this year. And it’s not that I’m turned off by all the commercialization. I don’t blame any merchants for hyping the season for sales. I would too. It’s just that Christmas, other than being a day off, was never the huge event for me that it seems to be for many people. I never had visions of sugarplums dancing in my head. I don’t even know what a sugarplum is.


We observed Christmas when I was a child. Observed, not celebrated. We always knew Christmas was approaching when the Eaton’s Christmas Catalog arrived in the mail. A great, bound, thick book of goodies. I spent many hours paging through and drooling over the toys section. I always wanted a toy barn and little animals. The catalog displayed them in full tantalizing, colorful detail. Of course, such an item was only a dream, beyond the realm of possibility.

Then one year, my sister Magdalena, who taught school in Conneautville, PA, brought home a box with a toy barn and animals. Store bought. Made of bright plastic. White with a brown roof. At Christmas. We were ecstatic. Dad frowned darkly at spending money on such trivial things, but he let us keep it. It provided hours and hours of fun on cold winter evenings.


In Aylmer, some grim but influential church members (radical elements) had a strong aversion to getting too excited about anything that remotely smacked of Christmas. They were actually hostile about it, almost to the point of ignoring Christmas alto-gether. At least we didn’t have school on Christmas Day. But we did have church service every Christmas afternoon. Which was a downer for us children. To have to go sit on hard backless benches for three hours did not seem to us a cheery or particu-larly Christmassy thing to do. That’s because it wasn’t.

It was always cold. Bitterly so. The winter winds whipped and the snow slithered about like a living thing, creating huge drifts and piles along the sides of the roads. We got up on Christmas morning, stood shivering around the great wood-burning furnace Dad had just lit in the living room, waiting for the heat to penetrate. On the kitchen table, Mom had always set out a row of coffee cups, one for each of us. Each cup was filled with candies and nuts. Usually a piece of fruit, perhaps an orange, lay beside each cup. My brothers and I raced to be the first one to get to the table, so we could carefully compare the cups and choose the fullest one. Once chosen, it was yours. No switching. We munched on the sweets before heading to the barn for our morning chores.

After breakfast, Dad always read the Christmas story from Luke, Chapter two. In German. We sang some mournful slow-tune church songs. Which never went that well. Then had the rest of the morning to ourselves. We normally just lounged about, reading or playing. After a noon snack, we had to get ready for church. If I remember right, it was acceptable to have guests for the evening meal. The next day, it was back to school.

We sang Christmas carols at school. As a child, my favorite Christmas song was “We three Kings….” It still is. At school, we staged an occasional Christmas program, even though the aforementioned radical elements fiercely opposed such a thing. Too much like the “world.” They were downright grim about it. Killjoys. Bears, we called them. And that’s what they were. Glum, grizzled bears. I remember only a few such pro-grams, and I don’t know how we got away with even those. Must have slipped through when the bears had let down their guard. Or were hibernating.

Later, in the spring, we were allowed to have a school program where we sang and recited poems, but of course it had nothing to do with Christmas. I guess we were all better Christians that way, what with denying ourselves what little joys we could and all. Or so some thought. And what they thought mattered in that world.

We eventually moved to Iowa, where Christmas was much more vigorously and openly celebrated. Some families there even had a tradition of giving each other presents. We were awed that such freedom could exist. I was a teenager then, just entering the magical “sweet sixteen” years, when a youth thinks he’s an adult and no one has the heart to tell him otherwise.

We went caroling in the cold with the youth group, driving from house to house about the community, our steel-rimmed buggy wheels squeaking loudly on the frozen snow-packed roads. We stood outside the houses in the cold and sang “Stars of December” until we sickened of the song. We hollered, “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.” Folks invited us into the warmth of their homes. We ate lots of sweets and drank coffee and cocoa. We got home at midnight, or later, slept in delicious exhaustion.

Each year, my sister Naomi made a special Christmas candy. It became a tradition. She laid row upon row of the freshly-coated candy on large flat pans and set them out to cool in the porch or the pantry; we furtively swiped a piece or two as we walked by. The candy recipe was a secret, I think, a rich mixture of cream and butter and sugars, covered with dark brown melted chocolate. She learned it as a young girl from Eli Hostetler’s wife Mandy. Naomi still makes it today because she sent me a box of it this week. It tastes as good as I always remembered it, the most delicious confection imaginable.

I left home for good in 1988. After emerging from all the dust and baggage of that experience, the old home place seemed far away, in another lifetime. It felt like it would always be that way. But, as Christmas approached, some of the battle weari-ness receded, the old longings stirred within. I could not ignore them.

And so my brother Nate, who had also left, and I began a tradition of our own. For a stretch of years from the early to mid 1990s, we went home for Christmas. Despite the scorched earth we had fled, it was still the only real “home” our hearts knew. We returned again and again for that special day.

We always stopped in town on the way out and bought Mom a large red poinsettia and Dad a box of chocolate-covered cherries, his favorite. Mom always met us at the door with a smile of welcome, jubilant that her boys were home, if only for a few days. Dad greeted us politely and went bustling on about his business. Mom fluttered about, laughing and filling us in with the latest tidbits of news and gossip as she hovered above the crackling Pioneer kitchen stove, brewing strong black coffee and stirring our favorite soup concoctions for the next meal.

Dad and I developed a small tradition of our own. On the first night home, we sat up late, until midnight or after, just the two of us, discussing many things. The old mantle lantern glowed and hissed behind us, blending with our muted voices. Somewhere in these conversations, he ceased his endless admonitions and we just talked, man to man. It was a new experience for me, a milestone I will always cherish. He asked a lot of questions about my college classes. I often told him he should have gone to college. He always chuckled and claimed he had no regrets, which may or may not have been true.

Usually, after two or three days, it was time to leave, to return to our world. We could always feel it. Nothing overt, just a subtle nudging. Maybe it was just our weariness of living the old lifestyle, which receded ever deeper into unreality every year.

Then, one year we did not go. It didn’t suit one of us. And the tradition simply faded away and died. It has now been probably ten plus years since I’ve been to my parents’ home for Christmas.

Traditions come. And they go. As did this one. I don’t particularly mourn it. But I’m glad it happened as it did and when it did.

This year I will spend the day with some of my family and some friends. I plan to enjoy it. Eat lots of food. Watch lots of football. Relax. Watch “A Christmas Story,” which plays on TBS for 24 hours straight. And since I have been so lackadaisical about mailing out Christmas cards, here goes. To all my readers: Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

And I’m still a Grinch.