December 26, 2008

The Old and the New

Category: News — Ira @ 6:27 pm


Drop the last year into the silent limbo of the past. Let it go,
for it was imperfect, and thank God that it can go.

—Brooks Atkinson

The day snuck up on us, and just like that, it’s over. Christmas was good this year, cold and wintery like days of old. I spent the day at my brother Steve’s house. Along with my guest, my youngest brother Nate, who traveled down from Ontario, Canada. We had a large time. And plenty of delicious food. With the family scattered so far, among so many places, you gather with those who are close.

Brothers at table: Ira, Nate, Steve

Steve, Ira Lee, Nate and Clifford (not pictured) play monopoly.

Scrunched in: Nate and Steve take a ride.

Does the Amish mafia exist? Nate at the firing range Christmas afternoon.

And now one more year has come. And one more year has gone. It will be 2009 before my next post.

Last year, 2007, was a time of facing and absorbing a lot of bad stuff. Of tremendous loss. Of rebuilding my life from shattered foundations. I now look back on those not so long ago days and wonder sometimes how I made it through. Somehow I did. Like we all do, or most of us anyway, when adversity comes. Slog through it.

And the days of 2007 crept by, and a new year came. I welcomed it. Looked for better things. For joy. For the sun to shine again.

I found those things. At least some of them. And the sun did shine again, although the year had its share of dark days as well. 2008 was much better, a year of acceptance, a time of letting go, of clearing my head and moving on. I have. Pretty solidly, I think. Other than a few flashbacks on the dates of certain events. Things I wrote out. Things that snuck up and stirred deeply in the core of the memory and the heart. To be faced down and dealt with again. And perhaps repeatedly in the future, but with a bit less emotional upheaval each time. I hope. As the events of 2007 recede into the distance, further and further into the past. Covered by the layered days and weeks and months. And eventually years.

I remain convinced that time does not heal deep wounds. Pain diminishes, but the roots always exist. Buried, way down. Once in awhile, triggered by some thread of memory, or the shock of a nightmare, they stab for the surface again. Like weeds. And like weeds, they must be hacked out again and again.

And so things stand. The old behind. The new ahead.

In the past month, Ellen and I have reestablished some communication because of our mutual friendship with Paul and Anne Marie. She is close to Anne Marie. We share our concerns and our support for them.

We’ve talked some, too. Through a veil of heavy sadness. About who we were and what was lost. The realization that Eden, however imperfect, cannot be regained. Once it’s abandoned. As it was. Engulfed by thorns, its desolate gates now stand, guarded by the fiery twin swords of memory and pain.

We met exactly ten years ago, on Christmas Day.

I will always care for her. And look out for her where I can.

I won’t say much more, other than it’s easier to be cordial than to remain in a state of perpetual rage.

With one exception. The one who used to be my closest friend. For him, I still have only seething venom. At him, the molten rage still smolders. For him, there is no cordiality. No warmth, no desire to reconcile.

Not that any effort to speak of has been made, by either of us. I would recoil if I met him. So I try not to.

Which may be right. Or it may be wrong. But it’s where I am.

He walks the earth alone. Devoid of the long term relationships that defined his life. And the one for which he threw it all away. Devoid of the meaningful human inter-actions that sustain us all. Alone. Pursued by the virulent demons that torment his soul. Alone, cursed, the mark of Cain upon him. Until he chooses to remove it. Which he alone can do.

And that’s all I choose to say about that.

Other than that little brooding spell, I’m doing well. Really.

Emotionally, I’ve got a handle on things. Mostly. See my counselor once a month, the only truly, absolutely safe place in my world. Working to the place where the things written above can rest. I’ve made progress. What I wrote above was about one-tenth of what I would have said six months ago. So that’s progress. And I’ll get there. Over time. To where even that last ten percent can be laid to rest. For good.

Physically, I’ve kept off those 45 pounds now for going on three years. With some mild fluctuations during holidays, such as now. Still hit the gym regularly, as often as I can. “Doc” and I have made our peace and are friends again. I don’t see him often, but when I do, he tells his old tall tales, like he used to. He’s teaching me some new stretching exercises. For my lower back. He’s good. It helps. We respect each others’ use of the sauna. Peace reigns at the gym. For now.

I’m back to Chestnut Street Chapel on a pretty regular basis. Except for the odd Sunday mornings when I feel sinful and sleep in and don’t attend church at all. It’s a cool, diverse little group. Not diverse as in politically correct, but truly diverse. From plain and non-plain backgrounds. Currently the church is in search of a pastor. The lay members fill in occasionally and preach, something I don’t have to worry about, what with my marital status and all.

And so another New Year comes. Another fresh slate. For all those resolutions. To take another crack at it, to do better.

But I’m pretty ambivalent about it all. Don’t have a lot of great plans or anything. And no new resolutions. Just keep plugging away where I am.

It should be an interesting year. Economically. Even as the One enters his office as the most powerful man in the world. To the accolades of the craven press and the fainting masses. With his utopian socialistic dreams. It should be interesting. And perhaps a little scary. Not that fear should paralyze us. Just be aware. And prepared.

The days and weeks and months will roll by like they always do. By this time next year, some few of us won’t be here. Will have passed on. It could be anyone. Me. You. Or friends we cherish.

The living will keep going, like they always do. Absorbed with the details of daily life. The constant grind. And the joys too, the unexpected little things that pop up and surprise us.

In one area, I’m not ambivalent. And that’s the writing. It’s what sustains me, the pressure valve that releases the gathering steam. I would have been lost without it these past ninety weeks.

That’s how long it’s been since my second post, back in April, 2007. For ninety weeks now, I have posted every Friday. A remarkable thing. Exciting too. For me, at least. I’ve never maintained such discipline before. In anything. In all my life. It feels good.

I’ll keep churning out the occasional sketch. And the occasional brooding screed about what’s bothering me. And the stuff that’s happening around me. And, of course, the final Elmo Stoll essay. To ye of little patience, that should be done in early 2009. January or February. But note the word, “should.” It’s not a promise.

I write not to change the world. Or make it better. Or worse. I write because I want to, because deep down, something stirs, something that prompts me to write the things I have lived and seen and felt. The little things that stir the recesses of memory, the things that will be forgotten if left untold.

I say it sometimes, but not often. Don’t want to get tiresome. But it’s fitting in this last post of 2008. And that is “Thank you” to my readers. I appreciate every one. The time you take, weekly or sporadically, to read what I post. I’m honored and touched. Truly.

Last spring during a period when I was feeling down, a friend emailed me. “Keep writing,” he said. “If you write it, they will read.”

He was right. He’ll probably feel wise when he reads this. But that’s OK. He was.

I’ve kept writing. And you’ve kept reading. Thanks for validating his advice.

All the best to all of you in 2009.

And Happy New Year.

December 19, 2008

‘Tis the Season – for Food and Hilarity

Category: News — Ira @ 6:23 pm


“Laughter is brightest, in the place where the food is.”

—Irish proverb

The message was waiting on my answering machine last Friday when I got home from the gym. From the Amish housewife, the one who gave me that cherry pie a few weeks ago. She had a deal in mind.

Her family was having their annual Christmas gathering the next day. Their married kids were coming home for the feast. Roasht, with all the fixings. Plus lots of other food, seasonal goodies. If I brought them a hard copy of my latest blog, they would trade it for food.

Who could refuse an offer like that? Sounded like a great deal to me. Will trade blog for food. Maybe I can expand the concept, at least locally to Amish people who don’t have access to a computer.

Amish Roasht (pronounced “Roo-usht”) reigns among my favorite dishes. I didn’t grow up with it. It’s pretty much exclusively a Lancaster County concoction. Like most Amish cooking, it’s pretty simple. Not particularly good for you. But, ah, is it ever tasty.

It’s a mixture of bread, stuffing, chunks of chicken, other tasty ingredients I can’t identify, and topped with dark gravy. Baked and browned to perfection, served at all Amish weddings. Lancaster weddings, that is. In most communities, the bride and groom get to choose their menu. Ham, beef, steak, whatever. Even hot dogs. Not in blue-blooded Lancaster. The meal is traditional, set in stone. Roasht, mashed potatoes, corn, creamed celery. Laden tables of it. With my admittedly unsophisticated palate, I couldn’t imagine getting tired of such fare. But if one had a number of weddings to attend in a short time, it might be possible.

I don’t get invited to many weddings here in Lancaster, so Roasht is a rare treat for me. I usually have to beg the guys at work to skim some from the weddings they attend, which they are extremely hesitant to do. So I promptly called my friends and left a message. I wouldn’t be able to come around until Saturday night, but I would be there, blog in hand. Have my Roasht ready.

Saturday was a busy, extremely eventful day and I didn’t get home until 6:30. After printing the blog, I sallied forth with it to collect my food. Drove the several miles to my friends’ place and pulled in the drive and parked. Through the windows, I saw a circle of stragglers, snacking and visiting after a long day of feasting. The family greeted me cheerfully and the good housewife promptly and loudly introduced me as David Wagler’s son, Ira. Or, as they say my name in Lancaster, “Iar.” No one seemed even slightly impressed. Guess they’d never heard of Dad. Or me. Which was fine.

I sat on a chair at the edge of the circle and chomped on snacks the good housewife pressed on me and joined in the conversation. Everyone was having a boisterous time, swapping old Amish jokes, and stories from the past. One young man launched into a hilarious tale, which he claimed happened right here in Lancaster County. Although I found it extremely funny, I can’t tell you how very dubious I am about the veracity of the tale. Even so, it’s worth repeating.

I didn’t take notes, but near as I can recall, the details are loosely as follows. Please keep in mind that I cannot vouch for the truth of even a single detail.

During all Amish church services, the preachers go into conference, or “Obrote” for about an hour as the service starts. Usually in a side room or upstairs. Most often upstairs. The congregation sings until they return, and proceed with their officiating duties.

One Sunday, in a particular district in Lancaster County (my hosts stubbornly persisted in claiming), the preachers finished up their conference in the Obrote. Decided who would preach, who would read scripture, and so forth. Led by the Bishop, they somberly filed out of the room and approached the stairs to return to the congregation. The Bishop clumped down, looking grave as Bishops are wont to do, followed by four preachers and a deacon, the deacon bringing up the rear.

I don’t know anything about this particular deacon. Perhaps he hadn’t slept well the night before, or perhaps he hadn’t drunk enough coffee that morning, or maybe too much. Maybe he had other things on his mind. Maybe this happened down at the southern end, and he was barefoot, like they do down there. Most likely, though, he just wasn’t paying attention.

In single file, four preachers and the Bishop walked down the stairs in front of him. Sadly, as he stepped down on the top step of the stairs, the deacon stumbled. Flailing wildly for the hand rail, he lurched forward and bumped solidly into the preacher in front of him, two steps below. “Ach, my,” the preacher cried out in warning. But it was too late. He instantly lost his balance and fell forward onto the preacher in front of him, two steps below that. That preacher fell onto the preacher in front of him, two steps down. The last two preachers, alerted by the commotion, instinctively grabbed the hand rail and hung on. Although they momentarily stemmed the flood, it quickly over-whelmed them as well. Down they tumbled, all the way down to the elderly Bishop, who was just reaching for the door knob to open the stairwell door that separated them from the congregation.

The people below, of course, were lustily roaring some slow church tune, perhaps the Lob Song. The house swelled and echoed with their singing. Despite the great noise of their joyful roaring, they suddenly heard a series of sharp bumps and crashes from the stairwell. The clatter increased, distracting the song leader, who was in the middle of a particularly drawn out lead. He faltered and lost his concentration, and promptly got stuck. All the men rushed in to help him get back on track. Their off-key assistance made an awful racket.

The fearful rumbling from the stairwell increased dramatically, like an onrushing tornado. And just then the stairwell door was violently flung open by an unseen force. Before the horrified congregation, their esteemed Bishop shot out as if propelled by a cannon and crumpled to the floor. Instantly followed by the four preachers, who popped out one by one like dominoes, landing around and on top of the unfortunate Bishop. Last of all, the deacon tumbled out, coming to rest at the best possible spot, perched on top of the pile.

All decorum was lost. Whoosh, right out the window, just like that.

The song leader, greatly distracted, lost all composure and gave up any pretense of trying to lead, his voice faltering to a forlorn squeak. The song sputtered to a halt. Everyone gaped at the incredible scene. Several nearby men roused themselves from temporary paralysis and jumped up from their benches and rushed toward the pile of men.

But lo, the pile struggled; arms and legs flailed about and began to untangle them- selves. Muffled exclamations were heard. The deacon rolled off his lofty perch at the top and, in an entirely reflexive reaction, vigorously slapped at his legs to dust off his pants. One by one the preachers unwound themselves and staggered to their feet. Lastly, even the Bishop rose unsteadily to his feet with some assistance from the preachers.

No one was seriously injured. Miraculously.

The song leader cleared his throat. This was his moment. Heroically, he rose to the occasion and restarted the song. Relieved, everyone joined in, and roared lustily again. Led by the now gingerly hobbling Bishop, the preachers regrouped and filed slowly forward to their seats with as much dignity as could be mustered under such calamitous circumstances. The very embarrassed deacon brought up the rear, stepping carefully so as not to stumble again. They all sat down and recomposed themselves to normal austere settings.

The remainder of the service unfolded uneventfully, although no one remembers any details of the sermons.

And that’s the tale. Except for a few mildly embellished details (well, maybe more than a few and perhaps more than mildly embellished), exactly how it was told to me. Along with repeated assurances that the event actually occurred. I don’t know. Seems the stuff of legend, too wild to be true.

But I just write what I hear. Somebody’s got to record this stuff. For the future, and all.

It was time to get back home and watch some football. I gathered my container of Roasht and a pack of cookies, profusely thanked my hosts, and headed for the door. Without question, I got the best of the deal. One blog in exchange for some great material for another, plus a goodly portion of home-cooked food. The Roasht was delicious, and provided two substantive meals.

On to some facts I can verify. Anne Marie returned home to her family Monday morning. She zips about the house, energetic and active as ever. Wearing a brightly colored little hat to cover her surgery scars. One would never know she had brain surgery last Friday. Her parents arrived from Canada last weekend and plan to stay for a month. I stopped by for supper Wednesday night. Everyone was all hyper about Christmas.

Paul and Anne Marie asked me to thank everyone who sent them cards, letters and gifts. I had not asked permission to post the request, so they were a bit surprised. And very grateful and humbled, to hear from so many people they didn’t even know. And some they did know. Once the official test results return, usually in three to four weeks, they will make the decisions on what treatments to take this time. It’s looking like they may be able to get in at Johns Hopkins for some advice. Thanks to Ellen Wagler for her tireless assistance on this front.

Well, Christmas is almost here. Grinchy as ever, the spirit of the season eludes me as usual. This year, I have one person to shop for, myself. OK, maybe a few family members, too. I always head to the mall on Christmas Eve to walk about, looking for last minute impulse items. It’s always fun, the mall almost spooky in its emptiness.

Weather permitting, my brother Nate and I may head to Kentucky the day after Christmas to see our parents. Which may present some challenges for me to post on schedule, what with them having no electricity and all. Not to mention internet access. I’ll play it by ear and see what happens.