Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Sibling Stories II

I can’t write only about my brother. I have a sister, twelve years my junior. And I have stories about her, too, although they have a difference cast than the ones about my brother. Since my sister is more than a decade younger than I, and since I stayed in the United States when my parents, along with my brother and sister, returned to Zimbabwe, distance separated us. Subsequently, many of my stories have that quality—sweet stories that are made more poignant by the distance that separated us.

My sister’s arrival is the first specific instance I have of having my prayers answered. I don’t remember exactly why, but I became obsessed, at age twelve, with having a sister. As I alluded to in a previous post, I had a sister, three years my junior, who died. Since I had a living breathing brother, I guess I must have thought I needed a sister to complete my sibling portfolio. Anyway, I began praying. Fervently. Please, Lord, give me a sister. Imagine my absolute delight when my parents picked me up from boarding school at the end of term, and my brother blurted out—“Guess what, Mommy’s going to have a baby!” As I recall, he got punished for that premature announcement. I suppose my parents wanted to tell me. Of course, I was absolutely convinced that prayers are answered.

While my mother was pregnant, I developed
rheumatic fever. Because I required intensive nursing care, and because my mother did not have the energy to provide it, I temporarily moved in with one of the missionary women who was a trained nurse. (She remains one of my hero role models—a strong independent single woman who, in my child’s eyes, could do everything!) In due course, my mother went to the nearest town, Bulawayo, to have the baby. When she returned home, to the mission station, she brought along my sister—a wizened, wrinkled, red-faced baby. I was crushed. This is what I prayed for? Really!

Well, it didn’t take long for her to turn into a very cute toddler. When she was three, and I was fifteen, my parents returned home (that is, the United States) and when they left to go back to Africa, I stayed behind. Thus began my long distance relationship with my sister.

My parents would periodically make tape recordings that they sent to me, to keep us in touch. My brother would dutifully and breathlessly report on the goings-on at school. When it came time for my sister to contribute, Mother would prompt: “Say hello to Donna.” My sister Denise would balk. NO! Then she would query in this small tremulous voice—is Donna inside that machine? My mother, with clear amusement in her voice, would say—no, but if you talk, she will hear you. PAUSE. NO, Denise would say. And so the conversation went, back and forth. Mother cajoling, Denise resisting. She never did say anything directly to me. Of course, the whole conversation was caught on tape.

I heard stories about my sister, of course without witnessing them. She was, as they say, “a pistol.” She crawled out of her bedroom window, while she was supposed to be napping. When my father caught her, and brought her back to the bedroom, he cautioned her. If she did it again, he would punish her. Well, of course, she did it again. And when Daddy retrieved (from across the busy street they lived on, no less), he began to spank her. NOTHING. No crying, nothing. When he investigated, he found she had prepared herself for the inevitable punishment by putting on multiple pairs of training pants, thereby padding her bottom.

When my parents returned home, and we all lived together again, I was twenty, Denise eight. The house we lived in had three bedrooms. So, Denise and I shared a room and a double bed. I was not prepared for a kicking restless pre-teen sister thrashing around the bed. I complained to Mother, but the sleeping arrangements were unchanged.

Now we are older (much!). And the age distance between us seems insignificant. As for the geographic distance, half a continent, we can overcome that through email!

Thursday, August 24, 2006


I mowed today. After weeks with no rain—I mean NO rain—the grass is downright crunchy. However, there are pesky weeds that insist on rising above the downtrodden grass. So I mowed.

It was difficult to see the stripes of the mowing pattern marking where I had already been. And given the lack of growth, shorn grass was no help. That got me to thinking—there’s almost a metaphor of life in that. Without growth, finding the track of where we have been is difficult.

What can I say. . .mowing is an inherently boring task, so thinking helps pass the time. That’s not to say that I resent mowing—I really don’t. There’s a sense of accomplishment that comes anytime I throw myself into a manual task. Plus I reap the benefit of the physical exercise (and then can skip my personal pledge to do a half hour of exercise each day).

A month ago, I wrote a poem about mowing, inspired by another trek back and forth across the yard. Herewith:


Heading out to mow
I trace the pattern
Of my long worn habits
Criss crossing then diagonal
Varying nary an inch
Concentric circles round the trees
Reveal faint tracks from former tire treads
Always around—sometimes clockwise
Sometimes counter
Someday I should reverse the pattern
Back to front then side to side
Mercy!—would the task get done
Or would the newness distract
And divert me into new paths?

By Donna F. W.
© July 2006

Monday, August 21, 2006

Surviving Unintended Retirement

In the fall of 2001, I began a personal journey that I call “Surviving Unintended Retirement.”
Along with many people around the world, I know exactly what I was doing when I first learned that two planes had flown into the
World Trade Center. I had just left an internal meeting in the health insurance company where I worked at the time. I visited the small gift shop in my workplace, and heard the radio talking about this catastrophe. I rushed back to my office, and began obsessively checking CNN for updated stories on the unfolding events.

OK—how does anything to do with this event in the world’s history relate to my retiring. While there was no direct cause and effect, because of contiguous timing I link the attack on the World Trade Center with my unintended retirement. The next month, October, my boss called me into his office to review my annual performance evaluation. Having gone through this ritual many times, I expected little difficulty. He began by complimenting me on my work over that past year, indicating no problems. But, all that, he said, is moot as your job has been eliminated. To say I was stunned is to understate my reaction.

Thereby was launched my unintended retirement. At first, technically, I was unemployed, seeking future employment. But the truth was retirement was two years away in my personal planning anyway. So I call it unintended retirement. The suddenness of being launched into retirement meant I began retirement without all my plans in place.

The transition was not easy. Through that first year, I had to figure out how to survive unintended retirement. I have come up with several guidelines.

First, don’t rush. The boon of not having to go to work gave me time to do those myriad projects I had squirreled away in my mind, for some future time. The temptation of having so much personal time was to try to do everything the first week. I quickly realized that I needed to pace myself. I have recorded all the projects I want to do, and select one or two a week to work on.

Second, keep in touch. I decided to try to arrange one or two lunches a month with friends and former colleagues. What a treat to be able to go out to lunch, catch up on work gossip, and then when lunch is over, go back to my leisure as my friends go back to WORK!

Third, look to the future. My first ever full time job upon college graduation was teaching college. I love teaching, and had often wondered if I would ever get back to it. In November, two months after learning my job was being eliminated, I responded to an ad for adjunct professors at the local community college. I spruced up my resume, emphasizing my teaching background and educational connections, and presented it to the dean. Without any fanfare, he said, “Oh, yes, you’re qualified.” Then within several weeks, I got a call and my retirement career began.

I teach writing at
HACC, anywhere from one to three courses any given semester. Now, my unintended retirement is becoming so busy that I constantly wonder—is it time to retire, again?

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Power of Stories

Sometimes stories stay with us for a long time, and with their magical power weave a spell over our psyches.

As a child of missionaries, I remember being transfixed with
the story of Jim Elliott, and the other men with him, who died in the Amazon jungle. I don’t recall the precise year—probably late 1950s. For reasons completely unfathomable to me, I suddenly began thinking of him several months ago. (As I write this, I realize a possible reason—these events occurred in January, 1956, 50 years ago.)

Truth is, I couldn’t recall his name. But with the Internet, ferreting out such information takes just a few clicks of the mouse combined with a little savvy intuition.

It did not take me long to find several sites that recounted the story. The bare bones details—eager young college student burning with zeal—at Wheaton, no less—exhibits early some of the leadership qualities he will display later in his life. He meets and marries a young woman named Elisabeth and soon they are off to the Amazon jungle to carry God’s word to those indigenous people who have not experienced civilization much less hear God’s word.

Jim and Elisabeth team up with several other couples, young husbands and wives equally eager for the spreading of the gospel. They have, among their number, at least one experienced pilot. So for a few weeks after they reach Ecuador, they fly up and down a portion of the Amazon River. They have selected the particular target tribe precisely because that tribe had so little contact with the outside world.

The missionaries are powerfully motivated by the ringing words of Christ’s so-named Great Commission—“Go into all the world.” Well, this is certainly part of “all the world.”

It is equally clear they are mindful of the incredible danger involved in forcing contact with native tribes untouched by outside forces. So Jim puts a pistol handgun in his pocket. The plan is—if anything begins to go wrong, he can fire over the heads of the natives and scare them.

Having spent a couple weeks buzzing the natives and dropping gifts from on high, the men—for that is who is going to make the first contact—decide it is time for a face-to-face meeting. No more
deus ex machine.

They land, and soon a few native men emerge from the jungle. It seems there may have been some initial pleasantries exchanged. But then, suddenly and without warning, arrows and spears fly. One after another the five missionary men die.

And never a shot is fired. The pistol stays dormant in Jim’s pocket. By the time I read this detail from the laudatory Internet account, revelation hits me full force. He wanted to die! Why else fail to carry out the pre-planned warning shot?

This belief of mine is like a thunderbolt. When I first heard this story, as a child living in Africa with my missionary parents, I thrilled to the details, even as I was horrified at the possibilities. Of course, I romanticized the story. Might I lose my parents to belligerent natives?

I have a mind’s eye picture of the photographs that appeared in a contemporaneous Life magazine—the smiling men alive, the small insignificant plane, the placid imperious Amazon, the bodies strewn along the banks or floating in the river.

For weeks, I fixated on the story, struck by the unnecessary tragedy of it all. I mouthed the names of the men. I noted the coincidence of family details—that Jim and Elisabeth’s baby girl was born in the mid-1950s, making her close to my sister’s age. I grieved as though these were lost family members.

So resurrecting the story recently renewed my old fascinations. And then I came upon that one unrevealed detail—Jim Elliott had a pistol in his pocket that he never fired.

Perhaps he was right to want to die. I doubt that he really sought to leave this life—to leave behind Elisabeth and their daughter. But, deep down, he may have sensed the consequences of his death. When the wives waiting back at camp did not hear the planned-for radio contact, they knew something was wrong. They tried to no avail to raise the men. Then a search party headed out, and soon the grim scene was discovered. All dead—all young men gone. Eventually, after the bodies had been retrieved, other missionaries did contact the natives. They even determined who had shot the fatal arrows—and redoubled their conversion efforts and succeeded.

While a student at Wheaton, Jim Elliott had written: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” Could it be that is why he wanted to die?

As I said at the outset, stories stay with us a long time. This particular one has held me in its thrall since I was a child and even today I am both attracted to and repelled by the details.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Sibling Stories

I am blessed to have two siblings—a brother and a sister. And, in my view, I am blessed to be the eldest, which means I have accumulated “the stories” of the doings of these siblings. I thought about holding this post until May or June (when, respectively, my brother’s and sister’s birthdays are) but that is WAY too long considering the urge I have to recount a few stories.

Let’s concentrate on brother stories. My brother, Daryl, is five years my junior. (It should be noted that between us was a sister, Dorothy, who died at age 7 months as the result of malaria fever. I think most kindly of Bill Gates and
his efforts to eradicate malaria. Also, of marvelous researchers like Dr. Phil Thuma who is working in Zambia toward that same end.)

Perhaps like any older sib, I somewhat resented my brother’s arrival in this world. I tend to think that it had much to do with the manner of his arrival. My parents were missionaries in
Zambia (then called Northern Rhodesia) at the time, and since the mission station (Sikalongo) was some distance from the nearest hospital, at Victoria Falls, my mother and another missionary woman, went to Vic Falls some days in advance of the expected birth date. Of course, I was along “for the ride.” When my mother went into labor, it was sometime during the night, so the other missionary woman and Mother bundled into the mission truck, with me, and drove off to the hospital. Both women went in to check my mother in, leaving me, sleeping, in the truck. You guessed it. . .while they were gone, I awoke and freaked. At least, that’s what my memory tells me. Then, when presented with a brother as a reason for my having been abandoned, I wasn’t quite mollified.

Fast forward three years, and picture my brother, now a toddling three year old, on the mission station. One day, I was sent off to find him, which I did. He was squatting under the mission bell, a large bell elevated on a tower. There was Daryl hunkered down, with a small stick which he was poking at a baby snake. Daryl urged the snake on saying “Go, snaky, go!” Rule of thumb, all snakes should be considered poisonous until otherwise determined.

Fast forward a few more years, and we are now living in Zimbabwe (then called Southern Rhodesia). I am attending Eveline High School, an all girls' school in Bulawayo. Daryl is a new boarder attending Hillside Elementary School, on the other side of town. Sundays was free time for us high schoolers, so I rode the bus across town to get to Daryl’s school in time for visiting hours. We played together, for however long the visiting time lasted, and then I would have to leave to get the bus back to my school. Daryl was always loathe to part, so he would take a ball we had been playing with, and chuck it some distance, and then say plaintively (yes, that’s how I recall it)—“Fetch the ball, Donna; fetch the ball!”

My goodness, the world of blogging enables one to recall for all the world (or at the least few readers of a blog) the quaint stories of one’s brother. But, just in case you missed it, I do love him! Next time on siblings stories—my sister.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

In Praise of Writing

One of the things I like to do best is organize. I just love to start cleaning out closets, drawers, shelves, whatever, wherever "stuff" is stored. This has been a week for cleaning out. Today it was the kitchen, but yesterday it was the study closet.

I have accumulated several generations of purses and decided it was time to
freecycle a half of dozen. So, prudent person that I am, I first went through each purse looking in all the nooks and crannies for left-over whatevers. Mostly cough drops or emery boards. But, in one purse--EUREKA--I found my Cross fountain pen that I had not been able to locate for years--I mean literally years.

Now, I love writing with a fountain pen. Oh, sure, I get blue ink all over my fingers. My pens, regardless of brand, never fail to leak on me. I take it as a sign of reciprocated love. There is something about holding a fountain pen, and writing with it. No other writing instrument adapts so thoroughly to the writer holding it. If you own a fountain pen, you know that you alone are the writer who can write with that pen.

Have you ever tried writing with someone else's fountain pen? If she has owned it for a while, you will find you cannot write well with that pen. The angle of writing, the pressure applied to the nib, all combine to shape the nib in such a way that the owner is the one who can coax the fountain pen to write.
All of which leads me to write in praise of writing. Not just the act of writing, not just capturing one's thoughts with writing, but the actual method of writing--thank goodness for fountain pens. Especially found ones!
P.S. note the link on "stuff"--George Carlin does an absolutely brilliant routine on stuff--how we tend to collect stuff; how we can't live without our stuff; and how we have this pathological need to take our stuff with us. Of course, fountain pens do NOT fit into the category of stuff.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Academic Freedom

The recent case of Kevin Barrett, an adjunct faculty at U. of Wisconsin/Madison raises some challenging questions about academic freedom. Apparently, Barrett, who lectures on a part time basis on the subject of Islam, has given talks (outside the classroom) in which he sets forth his theories that two airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center, and the resultant fires, could not have caused the buildings to collapse. He believes that actually controlled explosions did the fatal damage. Further, he holds that the Pentagon was not hit by a plane, since it is one of best protected buildings in the country in terms.
OK--so his views aside, predictably, pundits and politicians are now falling all over themselves calling for him to be relieved of his teaching a course on Islam. So much for academic freedom.
Whether the events of 9/11 were in fact
"an inside job," as Kevin Barrett claims, or whether the events are as the 9/11 Commission found, one thing is certain. If we bridle people who express their views, we have already become a totalitarian state and whether we win the "war on terror" or not, we have lost what it means to be a free nation.