Love Thy Neighbor

January.24.2012

When I was growing up, the concept of neighborhood came easy. My best friend lived next door and all the houses around us were families we knew and cared about. If someone needed something, neighbors were eager to help.

Now that I live in relative isolation, I realize I probably took that sense of community for granted. We have neighbors here, but to visit almost any of them, it would take more than a simple walk to get to their house.

That is, except one. There is a small private cabin that is essentially in the middle of camp. The cabin was here prior to the camp being established, so that alone makes for a unique dynamic. They even have to drive on our driveway to come and go from the cabin.

During my first several years, this cabin was only used in the non-winter months. I had a good relationship with them and I hope they feel the same.

However, In the last two years, it has been a little different. One of the relatives of the family has been staying in the cabin through the winter despite not having running water or a furnace. I’m sure that cannot be an easy existence, but it typically does not impact me or the camp other than a few times that I’ve needed to pull his car out of the snow.

Our neighborly stance became strained this summer though. On one instance where I was already kind of at my wits end, I saw a vehicle going way too fast on our road, probably in excess of 30 miles per hour. I yelled as loud as I could to slow down. I knew that our kids often walk on the road between our house and camp, so that kind of driving really was not safe.

I confronted him on this when he returned to camp with as much self control as it could muster, but all the anger that should come from a father worried for his children’s safety. Needless to say, this confrontation made things a little awkward going forward.

Fast forward to last Friday. I was working in the office when this neighbor came running in.

“I need your help.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I think I have a chimney fire.”

Now, it is probably important to clarify something. While I have spent the last 6 years here trying my best to fake it till I make it when it comes to being a rural community member. I do know that the word “fire” is bad though.

I went over to the house and I could see flaming ash flying out of the chimney. The wavy lines of heat stretched two feet out of the top of the masonry. This is not good.

When I entered the cabin, I was met with a blanket wall. He had divided the house to try and trap the heat, but in the process it also trapped the smoke. I pulled back the blanket and could not see more than a few inches in front of me.

My mind raced as I tried to put together the best way to put out the fire. Would it be dangerous to put water on it? Would it make the masonry crack or explode if it cooled too fast?

As is often the case with these odd situations, I called our camp maintenance manager for advice. He told me to put salt on it. I didn’t ask questions and found a bag of ice melt on the front step. It quickly choked out the fire and slowed the heat as the oxygen was stripped out of the chimney.

Once things slowed down, my neighbor thanked me and we parted ways.

It is hard to say that helping someone in an emergency is following the commandment to love thy neighbor, but it’s a start. I like to think that I would have the same heart and intention in a less dire circumstance, but only time will tell if that is true.

January.18.2012

When it is too cold to ice skate and sled, it is still warm enough for ballet.

Going for supplies

January.17.2012

If there is one thing that I took for granted living in a more urban area, it was going grocery shopping. I remember when I was growing up and I would ride my bike to the grocery store just for something to do. Now, going to the grocery store is a much more complex situation.

Today was one of my days off for the week. As such, we began planning our trip to the store the day before. Even that seems ridiculously to me. We are going to get food, not robbing a bank. If getting cereal ever becomes an Ocean’s 11-esque ordeal, it is probably time to reevaluate your life. But I digress…

So we decided that in order to maximize our trip, we would do the following: buy some groceries, buy a present for a birthday party the kids were going to later in the week, pick up a prescription and get the oil changed in the car. It was a full slate, but when all of these conveniences live 45 minutes from the motherland, it pays to consolidate your travel.

As we started to plan the itinerary (paging Mr. Clooney to the set), we realized that our best bet was to eat a large lunch, then make the voyage. That would buy us enough time to complete our tasks and end the trip with supper at a fancy fast food restaurant. It has become a bit of delicacy in our family.

I dropped Jamie and the kids off at Wal-Mart and drove the car over to the auto shop. I had not accounted for the bitter cold of today. I trudged through the snow and wind and I could feel my face getting red and wind burned. I stopped short of Wal-Mart and checked on the prices of a new cell phone plan for Jamie and myself. I could have done it another time, but then again when you are in the urban jungle of Portage, WI, it’s best to strike while the iron is hot.

I finally made it to Wal-Mart: The holy land of small town middle America. Considering our geography, it is not uncommon to be met by Amish families at this particular location. I used to think how odd it must be for them to be here surrounded by so much “stuff” but I am quickly realizing that my existence is really only a beard and a few horses away from theirs. We are both here stocking up for the next few weeks in hopes that nothing breaks or runs short in between.

We do our shopping and the only hiccup is when our 4 year-old son gets stuck on his master plan for the day: “I want to build a robot.” It may sound odd, but it’s par for the course with him. He is a creator of things. This morning he was cutting and taping together booklets of paper. When asked what he was doing he simply said, “I am making Bibles. For people who don’t have them.”

As we prepared to leave, we noticed huge lines at the registers. Through the murmurs of the crowd we hear that the “computers are down.” Considering the technological era we live in, it was about the vaguest description of the situation I could think of, but I later pieced together that what they meant to say was that credit and debit card payments were down. Uh oh.

Total panic in the current financial paradigm of Wal-Mart. You can see on the faces of most people in line that they live and die by the plastic with little plan B. Thankfully we pay our church offering every week by check and the checkbook was still in our family traveling luggage. God saves us from personal chaos again.

Before a riot begins, I make my exit. Time to get the car. Back out into Siberia…

We finally get everything loaded and eat dinner. Just as we are settled in and prepare to make the drive back home, Jamie suddenly remembers we almost forgot the prescription we needed filled. A near crisis averted.

It was at this moment I realized something. We are the modern day equivalent of frontiers people. We make this journey to the big city general store to refill our pantry, our medicine cabinet and to maintain our lives. Forget something and it will hurt. Remember something and it is a victory. Every trip is different. Every trip is an adventure. Especially with four kids in a Wal-Mart.

On diversity…

January.16.2012

[Context: A group of 40 people were at camp this weekend from a church in the Milwaukee area. This is the conversation I had today before breakfast with the pastor’s wife, Linda. These moments in the dining hall before anyone else arrives tend to be amazing.]

Me: Good morning!

Linda: Good morning. How are you?

Me: I’m good. Just struggling to get this fire going. You and your husband just came in last night, right?

Linda: Yes. He feels it’s important to be in the pulpit, so we had to wait until service was over.

Me: Well, I’m sure the people here appreciate it. Not a lot of pastors would make that time after a full day on Sunday.

Linda: Oh, we enjoy it.

Me: How big is your church?

Linda: The building is about 3,800 square feet but our attendance is about 100 people soaking wet.

Me: Really? Considering the diversity of this group I thought it was a much larger church. Even in this group, it seems like you have every race, age and demographic covered.

Linda: We are really blessed. We have been at the church for 20 years now and when we first started we prayed that we would be a church of diversity.

Me: I think that one was answered. We have a lot of different groups come here, but usually they are all the same cultural background. I mean, in Wisconsin it’s mostly the same caucasian crowd every time, but occasionally we serve hispanic, korean and hmong groups as well. It is rare to see it all intermixed so completely like your group.

Linda: It wasn’t always this way. Over time we had a few families join that had adopted children of different races and it let visitors realize that this was a place where this was a part of who we are.

Me: That’s wonderful and kind of sad.

Linda: Sad?

Me: It’s sad that it means there are places they might not be a part of a church because they are different.

Linda: Yes. That’s why we were praying. [warm smile] We pray for your family often too. Your little kids are just precious but we know you probably sacrifice a lot by being out here.

Me: Thank you. That means a lot to me. Getting to visit with groups like yours is what keeps us going. I love that my kids get to see so many different people even though we live way out here.

[Conclusion: From there, she carried on with setting tables and I continued to struggle making a fire in the fireplace. I didn’t remember until later that it was Martin Luther King Day. It was good to hear that diversity can occur in a church not out of some false intention or feeling of obligation, but instead of a pastor’s earnest prayers to serve everyone with the love and grace of Christ. I need to have a heart like this whenever I have multiple groups at camp that I desire to see live and fellowship together during their time at this place.]

Blogging is so 2003. Or earlier. I have lost count, but this is probably the fourth or fifth attempt I have made at keeping some form of a digital journal. They all start out with good intentions. I do well for about a month and then I remember that we are still slave to a 24 hour day that is divided by a great wife, four active kids, a demanding job, all along trying to growing closer to Christ in all I do. The prospect of writing anything down for “fun” clearly falls off that list quickly.

This latest attempt is not something I really wanted to do. I was not inspired by someone else’s great writing or a movie. Instead, this boulder was pushed off the cliff by a simple question by my grandma a few weeks ago.

During the great holiday extravaganza that is Thanksgiving and Christmas, I offered to drive my grandma home from my dad’s house as it was quite late. I don’t get to spend much time with my extended family, so it was really good to have a simple one-to-one conversation with her.

While most family conversations follow the formula of how the camp is great, the isolation is hard, but my family and my church get me through, this conversation had a curveball. After my biography, my grandma simply asked me, “Do you write anymore?”

I was kind of stunned. I am not and never have been a writer of any great consequence, but my family knows that I enjoy it. Or at least I did at some point.

After trying to figure out just what the question meant, I stammered out, “No. Not really.” 

I couldn’t see my grandma’s face as I was driving, but I swear I could feel her expression. It wasn’t disappointment or any amount of disapproval. She had been the mother of a large family and probably understood my situation. But it felt like she was almost heartbroken that I wasn’t doing something I enjoyed.

So that brings us to this. I’m sure this outlet is ripe for content. From my conversations with friends, I know my life is kind of unique. I look forward to sharing it and hopefully reuniting with my love of writing. At least for a few months…