Dear Lyla,

I have taught summer school at Wartburg for many years and during this time of the year campus has a very different look and feel to it. For one thing it is very quiet with fewer folks around in general. But the one thing I noticed years ago is that it is the best time to get to know our international students well; as many of them stay on campus during the summer and work on campus. I try to get to know as many students as I can and learn from them; about their pursuits, passions, cultures and the like. What I learned last summer was that the socio-political environment is of great concern to our international students in particular. Many of them are wary of travel outside of the United States or afraid to visit home while enrolled at school for fear of not getting back into the country. It is also important for them to make sure their documentation is up to date. That is where this story starts. One of my students needed to get his passport renewed. Adeboye is from Nigeria and the closest consulates are Atlanta, GA & Washington D.C. A friend of his had agreed to drive him to Atlanta as it was closer than D.C. The fastest route from Waverly, Iowa to Atlanta is to follow the Mississippi river to St. Louis and then head east through Indiana, then south through a bit of Kentucky on route to Georgia. Shortly before Adeboye left on his voyage south, the NAACP had released a travel advisory for minorities traveling through Missouri. After all of the racially motivated events that had taken prior in the months leading up to last summer this made me extremely fearful for Adeboye’s safety. Anyone who has ever met him knows he is a gentle giant; soft spoken with a wicked sense of humor. I was terrified, Adeboye is a tall and impressive figure and someone who would be easy to profile. I talked about my concerns with him. We talked strategy for safety, travel routes and most importantly I made him promise to text me at every stopping point along the way. This was early August and while he was in transit on his way back to Waverly the events in Charlottesville VA were unfolding. On Sunday, August 13th the events of the previous day became more clear and more gruesome and the level of vitriol surrounding the tragedy from those defending the KKK and those counter to those views reached a fever pitch. I was drained and worried for the safety and emotional well being of our students and when I got to my office on that Monday I was reading the news and just started to cry. That is when Adeboye walked into my office to show me in person that he was well and had no issues in updating his passport in Atlanta. Being a compassionate individual, he asked me what was wrong and I told him that I was spiritually exhausted by the hate and I was so angry because the silence from my own lips on these matters were deafening. As we talked through our concerns, and different perspectives, we came to the conclusion that we didn’t have to wait for anyone to make a statement that would capture what we were feeling; we could make a statement ourselves. A short, but important one, Hate Has No Place at Wartburg College. That phrase is not new, it has been used by many, but we could make it Wartburg specific. So we created an orange and black themed piece of art that boldly proclaimed our position in English and confidently reiterated that statement in several different languages on the post card sized sign itself. It wasn’t meant as a great manifesto or grand gesture; Adeboye and I were hurting and this provided some balm for our injured hearts.  Initially only 60 copies were printed and I went from office to office just asking folks if they wanted one to put up in a public space. We never shared the impetus for the cards or the co-creation story behind it. It was a quiet gesture but one that we thought was important. We quickly ran out of cards and I had more printed. It seemed like every office had one. We thought, let the healing and meaningful dialogues begin! And then this winter semester one of the vans outside of the student center was found with racist epithets etched into the frost. It seemed for us that the scab had been picked off the wound. However, we were approached by some amazing leaders on campus about using the Hate Has No Place Here design for a rally they wanted to have to begin the healing process and open up the lines of communication. Adeboye and I were quite adamant that no permission was needed. We had created something that we hoped would become part of the fabric at Wartburg; seamless as if it always belonged to the community and not to us. Since the rally, stickers, buttons and more cards have been made and it fills us with hope to see them around campus. We are not naive, we know that hate had found its way to Wartburg and we have to wrestle with that as a community. No poster, button or sticker will be an adequate substitute for difficult and meaningful dialogue; but we hope it serves as a reminder to make room for those difficult conversations and be ever vigilant so as not to give hate a permanent place at the table.

Two More Sleeps

Dear Lyla,

Only two sleeps until Christmas Day. Your Great-Aunt Debbie arrived last night and your boy cousins are due in a few hours.  Already Aunt Debbie, Grandma and I have consumed several pots of coffee this morning and have reminisced several decades in the span of a few hours. We were decked out in bathrobes and grubby clothes, having laughs and pumping our veins with caffeine; this is the way Christmas break is supposed to be.  When you are surrounded by loved ones, good conversation, tasty food and enough coffee grounds in the pantry to last until New Year’s; you are rich beyond measure. Nothing under the tree this year will last longer or be more important than the memories you will make in the next few days. You will carry them with you forever. I will tell you a secret Little One, they do not fade over time. If anything, they are more vibrant and accessible as you age. Along with the memories will come a sense of comfort, purpose and belonging. Today as you, Daddy, Grandma and Aunt Debbie are out shopping and I wait for the boys, my mind drifts to the Christmases of my past. I realized that it has been 19 Christmases since your Bumpa went to heaven. While you would think my memories of my father may fade with time, the memories  I have of him at Christmastime are so fresh it takes me by surprise. Your Bumpa loved Christmas, everything about it. Hanging up lights and swearing a blue streak when  a bulb would go out, watching us put up the tree, listening to Grandma’s Elvis album (Blue Christmas I think), decorating cookies and the games. I remember the games most of all. We would play cards or board games until we could barely keep our eyes open. What I do not remember were the presents. Oh, there were plenty under the tree but I simply cannot recall what Santa brought us. I have a feeling this will be your legacy as well; memories that are rich and warm, recollections of all of the people both present and past that you will carry with you for many years to come. Only two more sleeps my most beloved child, but until then there is much coffee, conversations and card games to be had.

Going to see the King

camera blackDear Lyla,
I must confess, school was difficult for me when I was young. The subjects I studied did not cause distress, rather the feeling that I never quite fit in was the cause of much anxiety. Often I felt like an observer, instead of an active participant in my life. High school was particularly brutal for me socially and emotionally; though perhaps those around me never would have guessed that was the case. We did not have social media back then, and for that I am somewhat grateful. Back then my world was very small, I had no idea how varied the human experience truly is. All I knew is that when it was time to leave high school I would never look back. For the most part, that is still true. I do not lament missing high school reunions nor do I feel a pull northward when homecoming season is in full bloom. However, with the advent of social media, I have been curious as to what happened to those who walked the halls of adolescence with me all those years ago. As you know, storytelling runs through my veins and my curiosity for new methods of communicating the narrative is endless. Although the written word and still photography are like old friends, film’s siren song is calling and I must answer. While you will always be my muse, ghosts from the past have been whispering. Social media has given me a glimpse into how the lives of old school mates might have taken shape, but online repositories are charlatans and convey only what we want others to see. Viewing sanitized profiles creates a haze and numbness around memories of teen angst and bruised feelings. In some measure it has been soothing to reconnect to those I left over 20 years ago. I admit to feeling surprised at some of the paths that my peers have taken, where they ended up and with whom. One journey that holds particular interest belongs to a man named Chris, he goes by the name “King” now and lives in San Francisco. I have been most intrigued by his story. How does a young man from a town of less than 200 from northern Minnesota end up becoming a cultural fixture in the Castro district? What is his story? How has he shaped and been shaped by others? Does he feel the pull of the past or does he live contentedly in the present? What will the story I tell about him reveal about me? These are questions that will soon be explored Little One. In less than two weeks I am going to see the King and listen to his tale. I am not sure what will happen when our narratives collide in the filmmaking process. What I do know is, when the time is right, each of us will have a story to share.

Snow Day

12418831_10156581337870105_1847855357891011100_oDear Lyla,

When I was little my sister and I would listen to the nightly weather with great interest and intensity during the winter months. We hoped to hear the words “nor’easter” or “white-out conditions.” Living in Minnesota meant that we almost always went to school unless a storm of apocalyptic proportions was making its way to the north central region of the state; even when severe predictions were made a snow day was never a guarantee and was never called the night before! Fast forward more years than I care to count, and here I am scouring the various weather outlets tracking “Winter Storm Kayla.” The discussions between Daddy and I are “will it pass us to the North,” “will it be as severe as they predicted or will it be a light dusting not worthy of all the angst we have seen televised, tweeted and texted over the past few days,” and “will Tuesday be a snow day?” Of all of these questions the last is of the utmost importance. Our contemplation of Tuesday’s forecast is not due to worry about missing a day of school, rather it means the three of us will be together with no classes, meetings or events to distract our family unit. When I was your age a snow day meant building forts, making snowmen and snow angels with my sister until we couldn’t feel our fingers and our scarves were crusted over with the ice. After frolicking in the snow my sister and I would waddle back into the house to be greeted by Grandma Jo with a hot cup of cocoa and a crackling fire. In retrospect it seems like it took forever for us to warm up again; we took great delight in snuggling deep into the blankets and spending the rest of the afternoon reading or playing board games. Snow days are the best! It was true then and it is still true today; a snow day can liberate a person in the most unexpected ways. So here’s to hoping the snow falls heavy tomorrow Little One; here’s to hoping for a bonus family day this week that is unencumbered by obligation and mundane distraction.


Dear Lyla,

It has been a while since I have written, too long. While I have good intentions it seems that the busyness of life gets in the way. Papers to be graded, meetings to attend, dishes to wash, activities to go to; the list is endless. Yesterday my “to-do list” included attending a faculty meeting. Faculty meetings are fairly mundane and a routine part of my existence; this one was just like many of the others, with one notable exception. As per usual a faculty member stepped to the front of the room to open the meeting with a devotion or words of inspiration. While I expected Dr. Nolan to read some inspirational poetry or perhaps a famous soliloquy that would resonate with the ranks of the teaching faculty, she did something a bit unexpected. She asked each of us to close our eyes and “do nothing” for one minute, she would be the time keeper. I recognized this technique as it is one I use often with my students to get them to understand the importance of being still, quiet and reflective in a world that has so many distractions. Our faculty acquiesced to her instructions and the room, normally electric with chatter, was muted and peaceful. When the exercise started I was focused on enjoying the hushed environment because I knew that minute would fly by; but it didn’t. That minute stretched on for what felt like ten and I began to feel uncomfortable and agitated. We had things to do, was this a trick by Dr. Nolan? I am fairly sure that nothing duplicitous was happening with my colleague at the helm willing us reflect and relax. That minute humbled me. I preach to our students constantly about taking time for themselves and to purge the toxic buildup of banal worries. As for me, I confess I had a difficult time doing so. I have elevated my own status as to be seemingly above such needs; there is work to be done after all. I was wrong. If a simple minute of silence creates such angst, I have work to do. One of the things that I love about you best Little One is that you seek solace and isolation when you need it. You extract yourself from loud or busy situations when you need your “alone time.” That kind of self-awareness is precious; I hope you never lose it. Perhaps when it comes to nurturing myself with stillness you, my dear child, are the teacher and I have much to learn.

lyla on trackDear Lyla,
One of the things that I love most about you is your unconditional acceptance of everyone you meet. It seems that you never meet a stranger and your heart is an ever-expanding space. Such unbridled acceptance comes with it a willingness to suspend your disbelief and embrace wild tales. Daddy finds your enthusiasm for a well-spun tale both delightful and disturbing; to this end he has tried to teach you the art of sarcasm and debate at a tender age. When I was young I too was more apt to believe someone than to question his or her motives; your Bumpa warned me that my gullibility would not end well. Unfortunately for me, your Bumpa was somewhat of a soothsayer in this regard. I would fall for the same line over and over again; always disappointed that things did not end differently. Sometimes my willingness to buy a story was based on fear. I recall one summer in particular when your Aunt Patti targeted my squeamishness for her own personal gain. She and I would always have chocolate milk at night in the table in front of the window, which Grandma Jo kept open to cool the living room down. When I wasn’t looking Patti would hit her knuckles (so I was told when I was older) on the underside of the table and declare, “A frog just jumped through the window and landed in your milk!” I would bring my gaze back to my glass, which would still be rippling from the hard knock to the wooden table. Horrified I refused to drink my milk. Patti would bate me and dare me to drink the frog-flavored concoction. In my resolution I would shove the glass at her demanding that she drink it if she was so brave; which she did, deliberately, slowly and dramatically. As you might have guessed, there was no amphibian to be found at the bottom of the glass. We repeated this one act play many times over the summer until at last Grandma Jo intervened on my behalf. Bumpa used to tease me about being gullible and warned me that it would some day be my downfall. In some ways Bumpa was right, I can be too trusting and ignore the ache in my gut that signals a warning. On the other hand, if we become too cynical we may lose our ability to show empathy to others. I choose not to live in a world where there aren’t second chances; I suppose the price for that is a level of vulnerability. My hope for you Little One is that you maintain your ability to accept others for who they are and that you have the wisdom to know when it is time to give someone an opportunity for redemption.  Keep that heart of yours open Little One; someone, somewhere will need it some day.

Right Church, Wrong Pew

lyla flowerDear Lyla,

When I look at you I can clearly see both daddy and me staring back. You have the color of my eyes, but the slope of his forehead. His nose sits squarely in the middle of your face while my hair provides the frame for your face. It will be all but impossible for you to deny your parentage; our DNA has lefts its unalterable mark on you. Although your chromosomal inheritance is clear in your physicality, it is your mannerisms and your language choices that truly reveal your lineage. Often I will hear you utter phrases that parrot my own language choices and I am taken aback at how much you have already assimilated from daddy and myself. Your penchant for science fiction at the tender age of six is entirely daddy’s fault and your need for happy endings with a soundtrack rest entirely upon my shoulders.  Since you began to speak I have marveled at how much of our family history is already embedded into your vocabulary. The ability to turn a phrase or tell a story is certainly part of one’s personality, but it occurs to me it is also a map of one’s family culture. I often hear myself responding to someone that I am “finer than a frog’s hair.” While the chuckle in response is certainly gratifying and I would like to think myself clever; the use of that phrase is most likely due to the fact that I heard my grandfather say that more times than I can count. My uttering the phrase keeps him in the present with me even though he passed away when I was in the seventh grade. Language is a way to keep my dad close as well. Although you never met Bumpa or listened to him spin a colorful yarn, he has certainly influenced you. When you get yourself into a sticky situation and I say “you are up a creek without a paddle,” that’s Bumpa talking to you. When I get frustrated and say, “I am as unhappy as an outhouse mouse,” you are hearing your Bumpa. Grandma Jo also has a specific vernacular all of her own and I am afraid you and I will both someday lament our housekeeping and say “It looks like the wreck of the Hespers in here.” Or we will make a silly mistake and declare “Right church, wrong pew.” The point is Little One that we are more than our DNA. We are a reflection of our familial heritage and those who go before us live through us in many different ways. You come from a long line of talkers Little One; your ancestors have left you with a hefty collection of colloquialisms and one-liners…use them well.

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