Prairie View

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Outgrowing Your Hair?

I love the way my cousin's young daughter described her father's balding friend.
She struggled to remember his name and finally decided to take a less direct means of identifying him.

"You know, she said, "the one whose head is taller than his hair."

I'm going to remember that if I ever want to comfort someone who bemoans his baldness, "Just think of it as your head having outgrown your hair."

Then again, maybe that wouldn't be so very comforting.


Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Roller Skating Performance

I read sometimes about mothers whose children are trained to pass the time sedately when they're confined to the indoors. I did not do well at this kind of training.

Probably the fact that we had no smooth expanse of concrete longer than about twelve feet anywhere within a three-mile radius of our home influenced me to allow in our house what must be the most unlikely living room activity imaginable: roller skating.

It all began quite innocently. When skates first came into the house, the boys didn't really know how to use them, so I let them practice while they learned to keep their balance. As they got better, and their glides got longer, they rolled right through the living room, into the dining room, across the slight drop-off into the kitchen and headed for the far wall of the kitchen, stopping themselves with their hands against the kitchen wall. An awkward turn-around, and the route was retraced, all the way to the front door which opened into the living room. Eventually, they all got to be very good at skating, and the oak floor, although not intentionally abused, probably earned the right to appear in an advertisement for the durability of hardwood floors. The boys gleefully raced back and forth, chattering and laughing as they did so.

With enough exertion, and with the trusty wood stove at its normal winter setting, they'd sometimes get uncomfortably warm and begin to shed layers of clothing.

One December evening Hiromi and I were reading quietly in the living room and the boys were skating noisily--in their underwear, I noticed distractedly, but with no major concern. It was nearing bedtime. We had no close neighbors, we had a long driveway, and the curtains were pulled shut.

But someone noticed a bit of commotion outside, and Shane went to the window to look out. As he pulled aside the curtain to peek, the curtain--rod and all--chose that moment to fall off the bracket that held it in place at the window. With the curtain at his feet, Shane stood exposed in front of the window. At that instant, he recognized the source of the commotion. "Carollers!" he shrieked as he skated toward the bedroom as fast as he could manage with all the necessary twists and turns. The boys all panicked and practically fell over each other trying to disappear quickly.

We invited the carollers inside, and the boys soon reappeared, properly clad in the plaid bathrobes I had made for my brothers when they were the size my boys were that year.

The carolling young people sang energetically, and if it hadn't been for the smiles playing around the edges of some of their faces, I might have been able to convince myself that no one had noticed our lack of preparation for their visit.

Ping Pong in the Dining Room

One year at Christmas when our finances were in shambles, my husband, Hiromi, believed we could not afford even the smallest of Christmas gifts for our children. He had told me, and I began to try to think of ways we could provide good memories for the family in spite of not being able to buy gifts.

Hiromi's work environment at the time was not particularly pleasant. The boiler factory where he did the final testing on boilers was old, and its 85-year-old owner, who still came to work every day, understandably had no interest in making investments in the facility.

When the weather was hot, Hiromi had to fire the boilers as usual, and the temperature inside the building sometimes reached 115 degrees. When it was cold outside, the frigid air rushed in every time the huge overhead doors opened to bring in steel or move out a finished boiler, so he was seldom completely comfortable. All this discomfort might have been more bearable if the job had paid well, but it didn't. But this was the job the Lord had provided after a long search when Hiromi had been laid off from his job in clinical engineering at a hospital that eventually ended up in bankruptcy court. It was better than nothing.

While many of Hiromi's co-workers were hard-working, it was for the most part a group of people who struggled to get by on the wages they earned. One of them was Roy. He was elderly, but could not afford to quit working because his wife had health problems and she did not yet qualify for Medicare. So Roy continued to work so that the company's health insurance could help pay the medical bills. He confided this to Hiromi one day, and Hiromi sympathized. "I know how it is," he said, "I can't even afford to buy my boys anything for Christmas."

After a moment's silence and without a further word, Roy reached for his wallet and pulled out a twenty dollar bill. "Here, take this and buy something for your boys," he said quietly.

With that money, we purchased a table tennis set I had seen advertised. After this, we still had about a third of the money left. Thinking my part-time-auctioneer, part-time-builder brother might have some ideas, I asked him if he knew what the official ping pong table size was and whether he had any ideas about how we could make one. "I have several tables here I got once at a sale," he said. "I think I paid six dollars for each of them. One of those would be a lot better deal for you than trying to make one." Joy, joy!

At Christmas when we gave the boys their gift, we told them about Roy and Lowell and the kindness and provision of God that made possible the purchase of the ping pong table and equipment.

We all helped each other assemble the ping pong table over the top of the Ethan Allen dining room table, a purchase from Hiromi's wealthier single days. When we situated the whole assembly just right, the table extended through a wide opening into the living room. A buffet crowded in on one side, and the end of the wall dividing the living room and dining room nearly reached the table on the other. A little room was left at each end for the ping pong contestants to stand while playing the game. Scraping by the table without bumping into the wood stove in the living room or dislodging the clamp at the end of the net across the table was a bit of a challenge for me, but the table stayed for a long time that winter. We ate meals at one end of the table and had school there after the dishes were cleared away.

The boys played and played ping pong, and the Christmas joy lasted far into the dark days of winter.

God bless Roy, wherever he is.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Pavarotti at Six O'Clock in the Morning

My husband, Hiromi, loves the singing of the Italian operatic tenor, Luciano Pavarotti. He once heard Pavarotti on television during his lunch break at the hospital where he worked at the time, and promptly purchased a recording of his. Mind you, my husband does not speak or understand Italian. In fact, "O Sole Mio" is about as far as Hiromi ever gets in singing the words of Pavarotti's songs. But he does that with great enthusiasm. He loves the powerful sound of that big man singing and worked for a long time to learn to sing the same high notes Pavarotti sings with such ease. But alas, the high E has always escaped his grasp.

At one time in our lives when everyone needed to get up around 6:00 A.M., Hiromi took to serenading the boys with his best Pavarotti rendition to wake them in the morning. At that time of day, the soaring notes and great volume were especially annoying, so no one really developed a love of Italian opera during that time.

And then one day we heard that Pavarotti was giving a concert in Wichita, a city within an hour's drive from our home. It was part of a tour billed as Pavarotti's final USA appearance before his retirement. Tickets were expensive, and we didn't buy any. But as the time came close, Hiromi confided in me that if he could just go hear Pavarotti, that would do for the whole year's gifts--father's day, birthday, Christmas--everything. I told him that would be fine with me, but I didn't want to have to mess with the details of buying the ticket. He happily did the legwork and found that the cheapest tickets were already sold, so he bought a $100.00 ticket. Only a few of those were left, plus a number of the $300.00 tickets.

Hiromi enjoyed the evening of the concert beyond his expectations. He got to sit in the front row, in a $300.00 seat. Beside him sat an elderly man, a native of Italy, who had brought his daughters to hear the music of his homeland. Throughout the concert, the elderly gentleman explained to his adult children what the words of the songs meant, and Hiromi got to listen in.

I learned later that in Italy, opera is not the music of the elite, but the equivalent of folk music in other countries. This explained to me why it has such a huge following, and so many lilting, singable melodies.

When Shane, our second son, began to take voice lessons, his teacher selected for him a book of Italian music to study and work on during and between lessons. Hiromi teased Shane about becoming the next Pavarotti--not likely since Shane has an unusually low bass voice--but Hiromi felt vindicated for the good judgement he showed by having introduced Shane early (in life and in the morning)to Italian music.

Hiromi has introduced all of us to many kinds of music we would likely never have learned about otherwise.

One evening we had dinner with a young farmer from France in the home of mutual friends. After supper, Hiromi asked the young man if he would sing a "Chanson," a type of solo characteristic of French music. The man obliged, and sang a lovely folk song and told us what it meant in English. Our host followed by singing a German song in the Gregorian chant style, and then Hiromi sang several Japanese songs--one in the old fashioned style now sung mostly by entertainers such as geishas, and one simple children's song about fireflies on a summer night. I still think of that night with pleasure.

More recently Hiromi has taken to listening to and singing Hebrew religious music. The last time he had a topic and the closing prayer in church, he sang the "Blessing of Aaron" or "The Aaronic Blessing" in Hebrew as the benediction. (He had the foresight not to tell the boys ahead of time what he was going to do.) He has a nice voice and is not too shy to use it in public.

Besides all these atypical musical interests, Hiromi has learned to sing four-part harmony as many Mennonites love to do. His fine ear, his natural curiosity, and his willingness to venture into unfamiliar territory have all stood him in good stead. It's been a privilege to accompany him on his musical journeys.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Stalwart Survivors

In the sometimes harsh environment of South Central Kansas, I find it instructive to notice what trees, shrubs, and flowers survive for a long time in unattended places like abandoned farmsteads, old cemeteries, and neglected roadsides and ungrazed pastures.

Right now on our coffee table stands a lovely bouquet of pink apple blossoms. They were gathered by my friend who had gone to the trouble of asking the landowner of a deserted farm if she could pick them for me. They cheer me every time I look at them.

I remember Sunday afternoon childhood walks to a place near us where only the outline of a foundation remained where a house had once stood. But the irises around it were alive and well.

Peonies grew at the graves outside a long-empty white, wood-framed church building our family worshipped in for about ten years after it was purchased by a member of our congregation. Spirea flourished by the front steps to the church.

Daylillies carpet one of the few very steep roadside banks on the route I used to take to school while I was in college. Its sharp incline apparently has protected it all these years from fastidious operators of the roadside mowing machines.

Lilacs now growing in our yard were once shoots transplanted from the old barn by the pasture my father rented for many years.

Along railroad right-of-ways, unmowed roadsides, and in ungrazed pastures, every year I see waves of lovely prairie grasses that are now being offered in the nursery trade. The wildflowers among them add to my list of candidates flowers such as blazing star, blanketflower, goldenrod, coreopsis, pitcher sage, vervain, winecup, purple coneflower, sunflower, spiderwort, yarrow, artemesia, butterfly weed, false indigo, daisy fleabane, wild larkspur, globemallow, pincushion cactus, prickly pear cactus, yucca, wild onion and garlic, and possibly others I'm forgetting at the moment.

In any locale, scouting abandoned homesites and cemeteries and poorly maintained areas seems like a good way to identify failsafe candidates for creating a low-maintenance landscape of your own. I see it as learning from the Creator of the natural world, and benefiting from the wise investment of people who lived here long ago.

Wild Swans of China

I just finished reading a book featuring the lives of three generations of Chinese women who lived during the tumultuous 20th century. The book is Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang, 1991. The author is the woman of the third generation of "Wild Swans"--the title being associated with the meaning of their Chinese names.

The book is riveting partly because of how breathtakingly idealistic, yet clear-eyed and competent the characters are in the face of incredible duplicity and charades of noble cruelty around them. The principled behavior of the author's father is examplary, especially amazing because of his apparently never having been exposed to any absolute written standard of morality. He joined the Communist party after he began to see it as the answer for lifting up the poor of China whom he had empathy for, although he was not one of them. When Communism took a cruel and illogical turn, he refused to change with it and protested against it directly to Chairman Mao. Because he had been second in command in his provincial government he had many opportunities to make friends in that position. But he came to lament that he did not remain a nobody. Along with the privileges of being an official and having many friends, he suffered intensely when the tides of party power turned against him for his refusal to cooperate blindly with orders from headquarters.

In Jung and her mother and grandmother, I see many characteristics I can identify with. The idealism, the curiosity, the love of literature, even the boldness when I know what is right (which is probably no more encouraged in women from my background than it was in theirs) are part of who I am just as it was part of who they were.

I feel now much like I felt immediately after our first child was born. I saw our baby's complete helplessness and dependence on others for safety and sustenance, and realized, with a good deal of emotion, that many mothers who felt as loving toward their child as I did toward mine, did not have the means to provide their child with the most basic necessities. I cried then for the pain of those other mothers. Now I weep for the pain of women like me in China whose lives were so wretchedly torn and stained because they had the misfortune to be born in a place and time where lies and cruelty were the order of the day. . . and the weeks and months and years and lifetimes.

Right now I feel deeply grateful for a way of knowing what is true. I have the benefit of living among people who care about living out the truth, and who can help keep me from straying into runaway idealism that is separated from reality. My curiosity can be directed toward worthy subjects and objects, my courage toward worthy causes, and my love of literature toward a greater understanding of life and truth.

With the aid and grace of God I can be sure that the end of life will not bring disillusionment for me, but affirmation and confirmation. I wish for my Chinese brothers and sisters the same assurance, especially now that I've seen how much they are willing to sacrifice in its pursuit.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

A Passion to Follow

Yesterday a dear friend of mine called to see if I wanted to come to her backyard observatory to look at sunspots through her telescope. I did, and drove the mile and a half to her place and saw them for the first time in my life.

I also saw her notebook where she had faithfully been charting the changing view of those sunspots, carefully drawing the sun circles and the spots in the right location. They are to be shared with a group working together as amateur astronomers.

Last summer, as long as we could tolerate the voracious mosquitoes, a group of us gathered in the alfalfa field near their house where she had set up the telescope for us to look at some of the most dramatic features of the night sky during that season.

Every month, she faithfully distributes copies of the "Heavenly Minder," a newsletter she writes, with information on what to watch for in the night sky.

On the day I went over to see the sunspots, she had been in her observatory at 3:00 in the morning. As she told me happily when she still had three teenagers at home, "At that time of the night, no one needs me." While she does what is necessary as a homemaker, grandmother, and farmer's wife, she is passionate about her hobby, and sacrifices sleep to pursue it.

I admire anyone who commits passionately to something, especially when one is tuned as Suzy is to seeing how the created world reveals the Creator's glory and power.

Today during church I caught a glimpse of another kind of passion. We had a missions emphasis service and a commissioning for a young family from our church that is going to a Muslim country as "tentmakers." It turns out that since their teens, both parents have felt called and drawn to live among these people. They have worked hard to prepare for this task, not the least of which has been acquiring the skills to train computer software developers in their destination country.

When this 28-year-old man inquired of his (now) wife's father whether he had permission to begin a courtship with her, he told her father that he foresaw a future in a Muslim country for his family. In a testimony at church this father affirmed again the permission he granted that long-ago day for his daughter to share in the young man's commitment to the Muslim world.

What an admirable passion!

In contrast, some of my passions seem less noble.

I do know something about how to live ordinary life passionately, and I try not to take anything for granted. Perhaps this is the reward for having endured times of suffering in the past.

I rejoice when I see the open friendliness and peace on the face on a student who used to have a closed and cloudy countenance. I enjoy conversation with my colleagues in school and in the farmer's marketing world I'm part of. My Sunday School class members are precious to me, and I desire a good life for them.

I'm grateful for emotional and physical health and the vigor to embrace the tasks of each day. I've learned to identify every bird I see as I drive along the road, and I love to greet each season's wildflowers like the old friends they are by now. I admire the healthy body of every farm animal, and I can't stay out of the livestock barns at the state fair. I can't see pictures of any landscape or flower bed without naming to myself the common and botanical name of the plant material, or perhaps noting the unfamiliar ones for future research. Every meal I cook has me totting up the nutrients contained in it, and the laundry I do is a review of fabrics and what I know about their manufacture, characteristics, and care. I exult in reading or listening to a well-turned phrase or a well-organized essay,sermon, or speech. A nicely decorated room or a well-thought out landscape give me great pleasure. A carefully crafted position statement on the subject of education is a particular delight. I know what hard work these accomplishments involve.

All these bits of information that are now part of who I am were acquired during a time in my life when I was passionate about learning about them.

Our oldest son's hard work and demanding schedule has finally put a bachelor's degree within the next year's grasp--at age 24, with fulltime employment since age 16, and I'm happy in his pleasure.

Our middle son's passion is singing, and a friend who got an invitation from a friend on Broadway invited him to sing there with her this summer at the Lincoln Center at the Werner Brothers talent scouting event. He has no illusions about instant fame, but he likes the idea of being around singing people, and for now he sings at weddings, coffee shops, county choral society productions, and informally with friends. I love to see him cultivate his passion.

Our youngest son, Grant, has a current passion I sometimes have a hard time feeling peace about: radio-controlled airplanes. He spends hours in his friend's plane shop at the same place where he helps regularly with doing the evening milking. He's become very good at building airplanes, but I'd like to have him home during some of the hours he spends in the shop, forgetting too often about banalities like supper and sleep. But I rejoice too that he has a good trustworthy friend and is in a good environment when they are together. And Grant has learned about things that God may use in his future, perhaps as an MAF pilot, so I rejoice in this passion also.

My husband, Hiromi, is passionate about things like learning to understand the relationship of ancient Phoenician Bible texts to Aramaic ones. My eyes glaze over pretty quickly when things get detailed in our conversation about these things, but when his research and collation is finished and the time comes, I will help him to put what he finds into words that others can understand. And I admire his passion for sticking to a job that has taken years, and will take more years of hard work.

I can't imagine living a passionless life, and I thank God for the environment of peace and plenty we live in that allows us to indulge these passions, if not to our heart's content, at least enough to add tremendous richness to our lives.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Belch Heard Round the Forest

Our high school choir includes all the students, singers and non-singers alike. The director's considerable challenge is to get them all to enjoy singing, doing their best to create a pleasant listening experience for the audience.
As a final dress rehearsal for the series of programs to be presented in our supporting churches, the choir presented a program at a nearby nursing home. The audience contained the usual mix of alert, appreciative elderly friends, and some who struggled to stay awake. I was part of the audience.
All had gone well through the first part of the final song: "A Woodland Symphony." The warblers had warbled, the frogs had ker-chugged, and the nightingales, magpies, and chickadees had carolled forth in turn and on cue.
The next part was to be a grand finale with everyone continuing to repeat their own part while the next group joined in. The director raised his hands, ready to give the signal to begin. Just then, one of the less alert, front-row members of the audience belched loudly enough for me to hear it near the back of the chapel. The choir suddenly lost their sober focus, but tried to be attentive to the director. He brought his hands down and the warblers warbled bravely for about 2 syllables, then dissolved in helpless laughter. The director was having similar problems. No less than 5 attempts later the symphony finally got far enough to include the ker-chugging of the frogs.
Beside me, Yoshinori, who sometimes had trouble understanding all the English words, had understood what must be a universal source of humor--the unexpected intrusion of earthy normalities into formal (perhaps self-consciously so) events.
On the last day of going to school with us before returning to Japan, he referred to this incident by saying, "I think this is my favorite memory."
God bless the sleepy little lady in the front row for adding so much merriment to our program and our memories.