Road Trip!

When I was a kid, there were few things more exciting than vacation. In the Hanson household, that could only mean one thing: road trip! Load up the station wagon, roll out of bed in the middle of the night, and hit the open road! Since we generally left sometime between 3:00 and 5:00 a.m., most of the eight members of the family barely woke up enough to join in the rousing a capella rendition of “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”, which for some reason was our traditional hittin’ the road song. As the last strains died, the car grew eerily quiet, as one by one they drifted back to dreamland.

These were probably my favorite hours of the trip, when just my dad (who was driving, of course) and I were awake. My seat was always right behind his, and I often sat forward, likely breathing down his neck. We didn’t talk, mostly, just kept silent company. Occasionally, one of us would see something worth mentioning. It was a treat to be with my family when they were all asleep. It was one of the few times in my childhood when they weren’t completely overwhelming.

We didn’t have a lot of money, so the trips sometimes boiled down to a long drive to a distant motel that had a pool. In between, we’d check out a variety of places, most of which we couldn’t afford to enter. Imagine six kids plastered against the windows as we drove through the Wisconsin Dells, home of the kitschy tourist attraction…without stopping. We often tease my father about pulling up to museums only to look at the admission price and get back in the car. The most famous of these stories involves the Hockey Hall of Fame. The fact that we couldn’t afford to enter made the experience more memorable than if we had entered its hallowed halls…none of us even followed hockey!

Then there were those moments which were unexpectedly magical. In Winnipeg, where the hotel lost our reservation and we ended up in luxurious accommodations. Or when we got lost somewhere in the Smoky Mountains and crested a rise to see the “hollers”, early morning mist clinging to the trees. In Baraboo, Wisconsin where I got to help a clown with a magic trick, under the big top of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus. Even some moments, just riding down the highway, everyone finally awake and singing. The time my sister, Gwen, had an incident with a donut and a glass of chocolate milk. Or immediately knowing Dad had gotten coke instead of pepsi at the soda fountain and arguing with him about it.

I loved the family togetherness on these trips. With eight of us in the car, there was no way to spread out and “do your own thing”, though my sister Chris often tried. Looking back, I’m pretty sure it was my Mom’s version of hell on earth: the sheer din of everyone talking, whining, laughing at once. But I also developed a love for the lure of the unknown. I never knew, as a kid and a passenger, what was coming up. Everything on a road trip, therefore, was a surprise to me.

As an adult, there is still no vacation – unless I’m headed to an exotic locale overseas – I like better than a road trip. I have friends who can’t bear the drive from here to Chicago (a mere four hours). I feel like I’m just getting warmed up for the road when I hit the Loop. In this day and age, when we’ve depleted our resources, it is wasteful and arrogant, I suppose, to adore (and indulge in) long drives in personal transport. I rationalize that my ten year old car only has 74,000 miles, so most of the time I am not wantonly wasteful of gas. And then I load things up, and head on out looking for the odd and unusual, something that let’s me know I’ve left home and entered the wider world. And you better believe I’m singing.

The Sunday Roast: Guest Post by Emily Muhlbach

Emily Muhlbach is a kindred spirit, lover of words, and believer in bone-crushing hugs. She is also a talented writer, communications, marketing and social media specialist. If you want to read more of her work, you’ll need to encourage her to start a public blog – or check out her professional work at magazine.mtmercy.edu. Enjoy this Sunday Roast!

When my good friend Jen asked me to consider writing a blog on Tolkien, I hesitated. I worried it would come out wrong. And let’s face it, people actually read Jen’s blog. I got stage fright. But as I reflected on the subject matter, the words started to come.

So here it is: Why I Love Tolkien’s Writing

Most of my favorite elements are wrapped in Tolkien’s work. The messages are true and noble. The heroes are relatable; the danger is powerful and allusive. Each character is blessed with special giftings that only they can offer the cause, giving everyone a destiny and rich role to play in the events that shape their futures.

I love destinies and fighting for a cause. I love the greater good that is worth all else to save. You can see it in the characters of those fighting that they would willingly, gladly give all for the chance to see that greater good still live. And I believe, deep down, we all love these things. They speak to us in ways other messages do not; they make our spirits come alive.

We all want to take that moment and decide the better cause, the truer true…to chase the noble arch. As Gandalf would say, “All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you.”

I love these books and movies for the sheer weight in them. The evil the Fellowship fights is the battle I wish to fight. I want to be on that field, for how meaningful for your role to hold such depth of purpose; for your actions and allegiances to carry such significance?

There is a wisdom and light the characters exude; giving off passages and quotes that resonate with me on a spiritual level. As whispered in the third movie, “You shall live to see these days renewed, and no more despair…” that promise echoes core beliefs of my own. The books and movies are mystic and lovely, and yet wholly familiar, reflecting something deep within me.

For all these reasons and more, Tolkien’s writing will forever be dear to me. But there is something else that keeps it close to my heart. My brother.

When those movies first came out, my brother and I were not friends. We were not close and did not know each other in ways that stick with you past adolescence and young adulthood. Then The Fellowship of the Ring came out, and every wound was healed. Both of us instantly fell in love with it – the lands, the swordsmanship, the quotes, the score, the gallantry, the battle.

And suddenly the two of us were whole. We found ourselves with a shared cause and a shared love. We fell under the same banner, rode under the same flag. We saw the movies over and over again, quoted them, researched them, unearthed our Elvish names. It was as if we finally came to know each other. In recognizing the things we were both drawn to, we saw each other in new ways, reflected off each other.

The last movie came out in 2003, which seems like a lifetime ago. My brother died in 2008, after we had grown close. In that time I learned he loved to write, and was working on a novel. He wrote poetry and song lyrics, and had a wisdom about him that his friends sought him out for. And I learned all this because those movies brought us together.

When I saw the trailer for The Hobbit my heart jumped, and the thought entered my mind before I could identify and stop it, “I can’t wait to tell Henry.”

But I can’t. And I won’t be going to see it with him, to visit the lands again that we love and the characters that we identify with. But when I sit in that theatre and see our old friends on the screen, he will be in my mind and on my heart the entire time, and I will wish dearly and desperately that he was traveling to those worlds with me once again.

So you see, I cannot undo those movies and how they have impacted me, nor would I ever wish to. For they represent ideals, treasures and resolve that I hold dear – and they represent a piece of my brother’s heart. And for that, they will always remain in mine.

Though here at journey’s end I lie

In darkness buried deep,

Beyond all towers strong and high,

Beyond all mountains steep,

Above all shadows rides the Sun

And Stars for ever dwell.

I will not say the Day is done,

Nor bid the Stars farewell.

~ J. R. R. Tolkien

Flashback Friday: A Couple of Mothers!

My niece, Hallie, St. Francis, my sisters Gwen and Chris pose prayerfully, and not very reverently, outside Rancho De Chimayo (at least, I think that’s where we were!).

I chose this photo because Sunday is Mother’s Day. Chris and Gwen are two wonderful mothers, and I wanted to celebrate them today. Their parenting styles couldn’t be more different. (Those of you who know them – am I wrong?!) But I have to say, they have each raised two children – all four of them intelligent, generous, funny, and loving human beings.

I am blessed to have, among my family and friends, some truly amazing women who are also incredible parents. To all of you, from my mom (Shirley), to my sisters and sisters-in-law (Marsha and Maria), and all my friends who are moms (I can’t list all of your names, but you know who you are!) I want to say thanks for blessing my life with your wonderful kids: babies, toddlers, children, and adults!

Valentine Roses

A few rose-related snapshots, leading you down the meandering path I’ve been following this week:

1. My mother and sister grow roses in their gardens, and over the years have picked up quite a bit of knowledge about them. I, on the other hand, love roses without understanding them at all. The wilder and more old-fashioned, the better. (Unless you plan to send me a bouquet of cut roses – then make them yellow tea roses, if possible – a preference I developed in college which I no longer remember the reason for.)

2. One year, a student organization on our campus was selling singing telegrams for Valentine’s Day. For a dollar, one could select from a group of four or five “love” songs, and the students would go to your friend’s room or office and sing it – along with a spoken message from you, the sender. My friend, Al, sent a telegram to my office: he picked “The Rose” for them to sing. He thought it was the cheesiest option and that I would laugh at it. Instead, I cried. In case you missed it, THEY SANG “THE ROSE” to me ON VALENTINE’S DAY. In my office. Duh. Any self-respecting woman of my generation would have done the same.

3. My maternal grandmother’s name was Rose. And while there aren’t many in my generation named after her, the next generation is a garden of Roses: Atalie Rose, Abi Rose, Aubrey Rose, Zoe Rose. All of them named after a grandmother beloved, but unknown, to them.

So, what led to these meandering thoughts about roses and my grandmother, Rose? One of the “joys” of having what appears to be a genetic predisposition to certain cancers, is the extensive family history taken, then distributed among family  members (in our case, mothers, sisters, cousins – women related via the maternal line). I received a copy of this family history in the mail the other day, from my sister Chris. And I’ve been thinking about all these Roses ever since.

My grandmother, Rose Postel, died in 1965, days after the birth of my sister, Gwen. Gwen, our blue-eyed, blonde-haired beauty – the only one in a family sea of brunettes with dark eyes. Family lore is that Grandma always wanted a blonde grandchild, and that this was the final wish granted in her too-short life. I was four when Grandma died, she was 50.

Maybe there are those among you who think fifty years isn’t that short, as lifetimes go. Rose lived to see her children grown, married, starting families of their own. On the other hand, she only met half of her grandchildren, and the oldest was only five when she passed away. I don’t know what my sister remembers, but I only have one memory of Rose that I am sure is authentic (she is stirring up a batch of peanut butter cookies in her kitchen; they’re my favorite). But I do remember my mom, overwhelmed by her life with six kids, living with her widower father, being alternately sad and angry that her mother wasn’t there. I think I would have liked Rose, my dad says she had a keen eye and a sharp wit. Is it strange to say I miss her, when I barely knew her so long ago?

As I’m sure you’ve deduced, the fact that I turned 50 this year myself impacts my own perspective. I think of all the things I still hope to achieve and experience in my life – no longer the youthful yearning to have a meteoric impact on the planet – rather, the desire to live my own life as fully, as deeply, as possible. And I think of  this garden of young roses – Atalie, Abi, Aubrey, Zoe…and their sisters and cousins. And I want to say to them: “Don’t hold back.” “Don’t let anyone (especially yourself) make you be smaller than you are.” Do. Be. Love. Live. So that at any age, you can say, “I’ve really lived my life.”

Because there are no guarantees. 30, 50, 60 – even if we hit the jackpot and live to 100 – we never know how many years we will have. But we do know we have today. Cancer sucks. But the only way to truly beat it – and/or all the other life-sucking things we might encounter –  is to fully inhabit our lives, each day we are graced enough to wake up to them.

The Guest House

A week ago Sunday evening, I drove a college van to the small town of Vinton, Iowa. We were a subdued group on the drive out, befitting the nature of our trip: to attend a visitation for the father of two of our students. At our arrival, there was a line out the door of the church. When we were finally allowed inside by the local fire department, I was stunned to see several hundred people waiting to make their way , single file, past the open casket and through the line of close family accepting condolences. It took our little group two and a half hours to process through. Along the way, we learned a great deal about the man whose death had brought us there. His was a story of love, engagement with the community, commitment to the people and activities of his life. While maintaining strong relationships outside the home, he also  supported and encouraged a truly loving family and helped raise some pretty wonderful human beings. Through the course of that day, literally thousands had come to pay tribute to his life.

On Tuesday of that same week, my sister underwent major surgery. When we spoke late on Monday, she was attempting to get one more workout under her belt before having weeks off her regular routine. What surprised me, throughout the process of determining the nature and extent of the surgical response to her cancer, was that every conversation included her words of gratitude for the blessings bestowed: that the cancer had been caught early; that she had competent and up-to-date doctors and surgeons in her small town; that she had trust in God and the unfailing gentle-kindness and support of her husband. After the surgery – more of the same, in a slightly more tired voice.

Adeline Bell Finnegan was born on Thursday, January 12 at 7:06 pm. She weighed in at 8 lbs 12 oz. and was 21″ long. My great-niece was welcomed into this world with much rejoicing – on the part of her parents (Ben and Elsa); by her aunt and uncle (Tim and Nikki) who arrived for her trip home from the hospital; by her Grandma Chris whose (almost) only verbalized complaint about her cancer recurrence was that she wouldn’t be there in person to welcome Ada. And by the rest of our “clan”, as my sister Annie posted on Facebook.

Sunday through Thursday – five days. But in those five short days, so much to learn, to process, and to celebrate. Three of the major human life events: death, illness, birth in such a short span of time. Those five days touched me profoundly, in ways I don’t have the grace to articulate. Luckily, the great poet Rumi said it for me, centuries ago. He tells us to welcome every experience which comes our way, even “if they’re a crowd of sorrows…treat them honorably”  because each experience brings a gift as well. And so I am practicing being the proprietor of the guest house of my heart – throwing open the doors to all who seek admission, with gratitude and welcome even for the difficult guests.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

 

Flashback Friday – Nice Ride, Brother!

It was 1970-something. Back row: Dave, Debbie Ross, Stephanie Beller, Marla St. Clair; Front Row: Jeff Hanson, Susannah Ross, me.

The car belonged to my friend and youth-group leader, Dave Finnegan. From the first night we met, at a Tuesday night Inter-Church Youth (ICY) meeting, I thought he was awesome. Gentle of spirit, kind, and incredibly smart. Not a bad volleyball player. Or too shabby with that guitar.

In the ensuing 35 or so years since we met, Dave has been an important influence on my life AND a member of my family – he and my sister Chris were married a couple of years after this photo. They raised two amazing sons, my nephews Ben and Tim, together. And they have weathered more than their share of serious illness – Dave faced several bouts of cancer, culminating in a Stage IV diagnosis and a grueling experimental treatment program at M.D. Anderson in Houston (he has been cancer free since then, approximately twenty years). My sister, Chris, will have surgery on Tuesday for her second round with breast cancer.

What I want to say about Dave in this Flashback is that I couldn’t have chosen anyone better for my sister’s life companion. You know how it is with in-laws: they marry into a family like ours (big, loud, opinionated) and can spend years figuring out how not to be chewed up and spit out. Dave maintains his calm, faithful and principled presence – occasionally making us groan at his terrible puns. In the coming weeks, he will be the gentle rock upon which my sister will lean – and by virtue of his presence where we can’t be, we will all lean on him to an extent (poor guy). After more than three decades, I can  say with complete trust that he’s up to the task. I thank God, and my brother Dave, for that!

Of Photographs, Memories and Hope

As our plane left the ground, I watched our ascent – marveling at the sheer number of blinking lights, like strange red sparks, buzzing around us in the dark sky. I worried for a brief moment that we would collide, but we were well-choreographed by unseen air-traffic controllers. I relaxed. Suddenly, a scene of spectacular beauty appeared, perfectly framed in my window: the lights of Dallas spread out below as far as the eye could see; above them, the blackness of the night sky was pierced only by the blue-white sliver of the crescent moon. I was transfixed.

I thought, fleetingly, of the camera safely packed in the bag wedged under the seat in front of me. But I immediately knew two things. First, I would never be able to get to it in time, and the moment would be lost. Second, even if I did manage it, no photograph could capture what I felt about the expansiveness of the universe as I looked out that little window.

And that moment, dear friends, exactly mirrors my experience as I sit at my computer now to write about the  past year and look forward to the coming one. I cannot begin to capture the wonder, joy and sheer fun of the events comprising 2011, or the quality of hope I am feeling for 2012.

2011 has been a banner year for me: I turned 50, which feels not at all like my younger self imagined it would (thank you, God!). This was the year I fell in love with cities – Philadelphia, Denver, Chicago, Minneapolis. For the first time in my life, I travelled alone and explored with curiosity and excitement but without fear. At home, I renewed my love affair with the eastern Iowa landscape, viewing it with awe from the saddle of my bike (my bottom comfortably cushioned by chamois) both on training rides and RAGBRAI. March and April saw a renaissance of my passion for ideas and translating them to my daily, lived choices – especially as they relate to my vocation. I brushed elbows with activists who are impacting local, national and international communities – and was reminded that to act from my core beliefs is the important part of having core beliefs. I experienced the sheer joy of putting my arms around friends I hadn’t seen in decades. Looking back, I cannot believe the incredible experiences packed into this year!

More importantly, I am astounded by the gifts showered upon me in 2011 – the love of family and friends, the opportunities to learn more about this world we share and about the world inside of me. I learned about the single-minded-ness required to push past physical limits, and (strangely enough) I now understand a fraction of what true athletes experience. I’m learning to keep my heart open in spite of hurts; letting go of shame over what I feel; learning to speak my truth without riding roughshod over others and the truths they hold deeply. I am learning that all kinds of energy can, and likely will, come at me in a given day BUT I can hold my center and respond from my authentic self. Of all the insights from this incredible year, that is the most freeing and empowering one.

Given the fullness of my life, and the giftedness of 2011, it seems almost criminal to hold out my bowl crying, “Please, sir, may I have some more?” And yet, I hold out that bowl with hope, not demand, in my heart. I pray for healing where illness and despair currently reside. I pray for us to be awake in our lives, rather than sleepwalking through them as our modern culture so encourages. I humbly ask for the wisdom to act rightly in my life, and to recognize the incipient gifts in each moment, each challenge, each joy. May 2012 be a year of growth, happiness, and true spirit for each of us.

Happy New Year, friends!