At the beginning of this month, when I announced my plans to write for this blog every day for the month of April, I noted that this commitment was at least partly in honor of my 65th birthday. I also mentioned how I was dragging my feet and kicking and screaming my way into the ranks of Medicare-eligible. I am not, to paraphrase the famous Dylan Thomas poem, “going gently into that good night” of old age. Instead, I want to celebrate the life I’ve had so far and the many good years I hope are still ahead.
All month, I’ve been telling stories from my life and sharing perspectives that sort of fit with the “Pieces of Peace” title of my blog. Today, to celebrate 65 years of living, I’ve divided those 65 years into five equal segments of 13 years and telling one story from each period.
1948-1961: For most of these early years, I lived in the African countries of Zimbabwe and Zambia as the child of missionaries. The year I was 12 and in boarding school in Choma, about 40 miles from Macha Mission where my parents were stationed, I received a letter from my dad. That was unusual, because my mother always wrote to me, while my dad wrote to my older brother back in North America. Dad told me that there was going to be a baptism and church membership event at Macha during an upcoming weekend, and he wanted to know whether I would like to be baptized and join the church. I said yes, and that weekend I joined about 50 African Christians who were also joining the church.
In the Brethren in Christ tradition, believers’ baptism is done with the individual kneeling in water and being “dunked” three times forward. I was not a swimmer and was scared of having my head underwater, so this was not easy for me. Furthermore, the baptism service took place in the Macha River, and I had to kneel on rough stones while David Climenhaga, then bishop of the Brethren in Christ Church in Africa, baptized me. The whole experience wasn’t as sacred and meaningful as it should have been – at the time, anyway. In retrospect, I am glad I joined the church while I was in Africa; it is another important connection I have with a period of my life that was foundational to who I am today.
1961-1974: These years were times of great upheaval and change, ranging from returning to and settling into a new life in the United States, to romancing and marrying Dale, to giving birth to Dana. In the middle of this period, from 1968-1970, I went way across the country to the University of Idaho for graduate school. If I had the proverbial nickel for every time I have been asked, “Why Idaho?” I might have been able to retire long ago! The short answer is that another person who had majored in English at Messiah College a few years ahead of me had gone to Idaho for her Master’s degree, so my adviser suggested I apply. Of the several schools I applied to, UI offered me the best financial deal, so off I went to a place where I knew no one.
Having survived years of boarding school, I never expected to be homesick, but I was. That first semester was difficult, made bearable only because I very soon bought my airline ticket home for Christmas and therefore had something tangible to hold in my hands to prove I could go home again and because my mother and my college friends wrote frequent and and newsy letters to me. After Christmas break when I returned to school, Idaho was in the middle of one of the coldest and snowiest winters on record. The college-age group at the Nazarene church I attended invited me to join them for a sledding party, and after that, as I finally began to make new friends, I was never homesick again. While I have never been back to Moscow and the university in more than 40 years, I have wonderful memories of those two years.
1974-1987: During this 13-year segment, we moved to Harrisburg and welcomed our second child, Derek, into our home. I also began in earnest my writing and editorial “career.” In 1981, I started editing a small publication then called the Peace and Justice Newsletter (the name changed to Shalom! in 1985 and it is still going strong in 2013). In the Summer 1984 edition, my editorial was entitled “Wow! They Must Be Rich!” and told a little story from our neighborhood in Harrisburg.
One day, two elementary-school-age boys stopped by to ask if we had a basketball they could borrow to shoot baskets in the make-shift plastic milk carton hoop someone had constructed in the alley. Dale took them out to the garage where we kept the ball. In the garage there was also a regulation-style real basketball hoop and backboard Dale had installed for our children. “Wow,” said one boy when he saw the backboard, “They must be rich.” “Na,” retorted the other, “If they were rich, they wouldn’t be living here.” The story illustrated at the time and still does the relative nature of wealth. We never thought of ourselves as rich in those days, and we weren’t, compared to many people. However, compared to many others, including those little boys in our inner-city neighborhood, we were rich. It was a good reminder to be thankful for what we had, even when we were tempted to think it wasn’t much.
1987-2000: I started working again outside the home, eventually landing in a position that morphed into what I am still doing part-time in retirement. Our children went to middle school and high school, then college; we moved to Mechanicsburg and celebrated our 25th anniversary with the Pelicans; Dana married Nes.
When we moved out of Harrisburg, Dana was not very happy with us. She thought our new neighborhood was too quiet, too suburban, and not very diverse (which it wasn’t!). Despite some of the challenges she had faced in Harrisburg as a white girl among mostly African Americans, she loved the diversity and cared deeply about racial reconciliation. So we weren’t surprised when she ended up at Messiah College’s Philadelphia campus, or that she eventually chose to make her permanent home in Philly – especially once she married Nes, who was born and raised in Philly. At their wedding, when Dale and I spoke as her parents, I said to her, “Today, as I look out on this congregation of your friends and family and the new family you’re beginning with Nes, I am struck by the colorful and diverse circle of people you have brought together to celebrate this day with you.” The picture of their wedding party is ample evidence of that “diverse circle” I talked about!
2000-2013: One way to characterize the most recent 13-year segment of my life is as a roller-coaster ride between chaos and equilibrium. Some of the most difficult experiences of my life were during this period: navigating young adulthood with our children, the death of both my parents, cancer, turmoil at work, and dealing with several significant situations of conflict that sapped my energy and challenged every peacemaking skill I ever thought I had. On the other hand, during this period Dale and I cruised with our Pelican friends in the Eastern Mediterranean to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary; traveled together to other beautiful places like Hawaii, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico and Utah; became grandparents to three beautiful grandchildren; rejoiced with Derek and Katie on their wedding day almost a year ago; and I was able to mostly retire from a job where I was (and still am, I think) highly valued. I know this isn’t one story from this period, but as I thought about the last few years, what stands out is what a crazy ride I’ve been on through emotional highs and lows. Right now I feel like I’m in a relative state of equilibrium, which is good. I am grateful for my 65 years and hope for many more. Happy birthday to me!