It was on an August evening in the 1990’s that our family was leaving the grounds of the Minnesota State Fair after a full, EPIC day there. We had participated in all the events that were of interest to us, eaten Fair food until we could eat no more, and admired scores of award-winning projects, plants, animals, and performances. Our exit route from the Fair would take us past the Lea and Rose Warner Coliseum, a 5,000 seat edifice where farm animal exhibitions and competitions took place.
Dusk was falling as we turned the corner toward the Coliseum — and it was there our exit was totally blocked by a procession of eight stunningly beautiful pure white horses. Our family came to a halt, and we stared in amazement as the superb horses and their liveried riders strode before us. The impressive cavalcade was quietly and steadily moving in a perfect single file arrangement from the horse barn to the Coliseum, about five-hundred feet away. Every step of the horses, every nod of their proud heads, was perfectly synchronized without any apparent instruction from their riders. It was obvious that the riders and horses were cooperating fully with each other. We watched in wonder as the column moved gracefully into the huge, brightly lit riding arena of the Coliseum and we continued to gaze after the horses until the last one disappeared from view. “Mom! What kind of horses were those?” the kids asked. “Lipizzaner,” I said, not really believing what we had just seen. “Lipizzaner from Austria.”
Instead of continuing on our way to the Fair’s exit, we raced around to the front gate of the Coliseum to get tickets for the Royal Lipizzaner performance. Unfortunately, the tickets were sold out for that night, and for the duration of the Austrian riding troupe’s stay in Minnesota. Lesson learned. If you want to see the Royal Lipizzaner up close and personal in the performance ring rather than by happenstance on the Fair backstreets, get your tickets early.
With this memory making a racket in my brain, I picked up the book, The Perfect Horse by Elizabeth Letts.
Letts has a double mission in her book, The Perfect Horse: The Daring Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped by the Nazi’s (Ballantine Books, 2016). The first is to inform the reader about the history and special qualities of the breed of horses known as the royal Lipizzaner; the second is to relate the harrowing events of the U.S. military’s involvement in efforts to rescue and protect the Lipizzaner from the Nazi’s toward the end of WWII. Letts has achieved both of these goals, producing a book that is not only well researched, winning the PEN USA Literary Award 2017 for Research Non-Fiction, but also presenting a rich story of the relationships that can develop between humans and animals and how each can offer the other trust, companionship, and love under the harshest of conditions.
I am saddened by the number of people who are suspicious of and even offended by fables, fantasy, and allegories. Imagination was an ever-present commodity in my home as I was growing up. My brothers and sisters and I walked around with a book in one hand and a pen in the other. Music was a continuous soundtrack in our home- always in the background, but often the main event, too. We children envied and emulated the quick-witted and clever around us. Mother recited long rhymes at the drop of a hat, and quoted poems & silly songs during our bath times or in other mundane, potentially boring (for her?) situations. We listened to the opera every Saturday (“Texaco Presents… the Metropolitan Opera!”) as we youngsters cleaned our large, old, kid-filled home.
And then there was the Mass — especially Sunday High Mass — a holy, ritual-filled hour that taught us the transcendence of God, the reality of miracles, and the glory of heaven. Truth, beauty, goodness, all around. Sorrow, alcohol, and physical abuse all around, too. But a book or the movies could serve as a way to cope with pain and confusion, calm one’s fears and present the possibility of a future happy ending. “Bookish tendencies” are good skills to have when it comes to dealing with the harsh realities of home.
I think my childhood reading of myths and fables helped to teach me to read between the lines in real life — which is another survival skill, by the way. I am thankful for the books of C.S. Lewis, Edward Eager. and J.R.R. Tolkien both for the comfort their works provided and the skills their stories brought with them. So, my advice to you is to read a wonderful book of fantasy soon, then trust your imagination to lead you to a deeper understanding of the world around you,
In November of this year, my friend Tracey Finck and I flew to Ocean City, NJ, to meet with Dr. Leonard Sweethttp://www.leonardsweet.com/index.php author, Dr. Karen Swallow Prior http://www.liberty.edu/academics/arts-sciences/english/?PID=7627, author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, and nine other people who gathered together to talk about books. This event was called an “Atlantic Advance”. “Advance” is a term created by Dr. Sweet which is meant to be used in place of the word “retreat.” Retreat, in the parlance of most of the Jesus followers I know, is a word that describes a time set aside by believers to seek a quiet, secluded place to pray, meditate, read scripture and have some time feasting alone with the Lord. But the word “retreat” also has the connotation of turning tail and running away in defeat. In Dr. Sweet’s view, Christians should not be retreating, but should always be advancing through the ups and downs of our Christ-yoked walk. Thus, even though our group did gather in a quiet (only because it was the off season) city, in a fascinating 1903-era boarding house removed from the present century by its architectural details and wrap-around porch; and even though we had times of prayer and scripture, and a few hours intended for solitude, the 13 roomies at the 2013 Atlantic Advance moved ahead on the sacred journey en-masse, with lots of laughter, a fair amount of tears, stimulating book-related conversations and amazing, verging on miraculous, shared meals. I understand the term “Advance” now.
Out of the 13 book lovers who attended, 6 people were pastors, so over the course of the weekend we heard some wonderful stories about other pastors. As I listened, it occurred to me that I knew a pastor story. The story didn’t get shared, though, because, 1. I am not a pastor. 2. Permission had not been granted to tell the story, and 3. I wasn’t absolutely sure how the story went because it had been 30 years since the time of its telling. Happily, I recently met with the friend who told the story so long ago. She, Brita Hillstrom Ylitalo, confirmed that what I had recalled was basically correct, clarified some of the details and gave me permission to tell this, as did Kirsti Uunila, whom I have not met personally, but who gave me permission via facebook . Thanks to both of them.
Brita, of Finnish descent, grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where there are a lot of Finnish people. Many of these hard-working, entrepreneurial and friendly folks have a common bond in religion, primarily the Finnish Apostolic Lutheran Church. Brita and her large family were deeply committed to this very conservative Finnish church, and were close friends with the head pastor there at the time, Reverend Paul A. Heideman. One summer when Brita was 15 years old, Rev. Heideman and his wife Eva opened their home to a niece. Her name was Kirsti Uunila. Kirsti was also in her middle teens and she and Brita became fast friends. Brita said that she and Kirsti were like shirt and pants, spending time at each other’s homes 3-4 times a week, if not more, often sleeping overnight. During these sleepovers, the girls would stay up talking and laughing late into the night, and were scolded by the adults in both households about being too loud, with threats of separating the girls from each other if they couldn’t settle down. The Heidemans especially were very particular about noise levels because their bedroom was directly above Kirsti’s, and Aunt Eva protected the Reverend’s time of rest.
It was during one of the sleep-overs at Kirsti’s, Brita explained, that an astonishing event occurred. Suddenly, in the dead of night, a hymn sung by Rev Heideman burst loud and clear through the floorboards. This awoke the girls, who giggled to think that if this song was loud enough to wake them up, Aunt Eva must really be irritated since the person whose rest she was protecting was making all the noise! But the commotion from the upper bedroom didn’t stop with one hymn. After the song came an opening prayer, then another song from the hymnal, then a portion of scripture. And next? Yes, a sermon. By this time, Brita said, she and Kirsti knew they were experiencing something extraordinary. They each were quiet as they lay in their matching twin beds, marveling and listening, experiencing the Holy Spirit’s power in the middle of the night, receiving the word of God in the sanctuary of the old Heideman house in Laurium, Michigan. The sermon seemed to be custom designed for them, as it was about living one’s life with intention, staying alert to God’s leading even in one’s youth, and in Rev. Heideman’s wonderful old-world style, he spoke about deflecting the slings and arrows of the enemy and seeking forgiveness of sins as a source of consolation and strength. When the sermon ended, there was the closing blessing from Numbers 6:24-26. “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.” A final hymn was sung by Rev. Heideman, then silence. The midnight service was over and the girls fell back to sleep.
The next morning Kirsti and Brita waited to hear what the Reverend and Aunt Eva had to say about the sermon in the night, but neither adult said a word, nor did they act as though anything unusual had happened the night before. To the young girls’ amazement, life went on in its usual routine. They ate breakfast, dressed in their summer garb of t-shirts, cut-off jeans and tennies, and resumed the pattern of traversing back and forth between their homes as they filled the carefree day with activity. Summer went merrily along. Life went merrily along. Brita and Kirsti grew up, graduated from Calumet high school and went their separate ways, staying in touch, but never living close by each other again.
One summer evening many years later, as Brita and I were putting our own children to bed in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan on the shores of Lake Superior, Brita shared this story with me. We laughed and I marveled at the tale. After the kids were finally down, we each took a cup of coffee from the percolator in the kitchen of the old house, and talked for a long time about the peculiar calling that is the life of a pastor. How they are called by God to expound His word to a gathering of believers on a weekly basis, but their calling might also include some moonlighting – literally. They in fact, might be moved in their sleep by the Holy Spirit to preach to a couple of teenage girls in the middle of the night to encourage them to stay alert to the things of the Lord as they make their way into the world, as they advance, toward the life that awaits them.
How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
“Your God reigns!”
I have six sisters, most of whom have been written about in King-family stories that have found their way into digital print on my blog in the last few years. This story is about one of my younger sisters, Claudia.
Claudia is beautiful, gentle, quiet, and has a very contagious laugh. She thoroughly enjoys antiques and gardens. She also loves children. She and her husband Dan have seven kids. The first four, Jake, Anna, Nick and Joe, came pretty quickly. Then there was a space of six years before Tyler, Abbey and Jesse were born.
One summer day when Tyler, Abbey and Jesse were 6, 4 and 3 years old, Claudia and the kids were playing make believe. Each of them, Claudia included, pretended to be a superhero. To add to the fun, Claudia had devised homemade capes by safety-pinning old bath towels to the back of their shirts. You can imagine the exploits and adventures that took place in the kitchen, living room and out into the front yard, with great leaps from the stairs and fast treks around the house causing capes to flare and flap.
Eventually the demands of family life, and the need for naps, broke into play time. After the kids were asleep, Claudia asked to Nick stay with the younger kids as she ran errands in and around town, one of which was going to the local public golf course to pick up Jake.
When Claudia got to the golf course Jake wasn’t there, so she went into the clubhouse and spoke to the golf pro who was at the desk. She asked him to tell Jake that she couldn’t wait for him since she had another child to pick, but that she would be back to get him in about twenty minutes.
When Jake got to the clubhouse he checked at the desk to see if his mom had come. The golf pro asked, “What does your Mom look like?” Jake told him. The pro said, ”Well, a lady who fits that description came to the desk asking for you. But you know it was kind of odd; she had a towel pinned to the back of her shirt.” Jake said, “Yep, that’s her.” The golf pro stared at Jake for a few seconds, then said, “She’ll be back for you in twenty minutes.”
Here’s what I love about this story – not just that Claudia knows how to have fun and do imaginative play with her kids, although that would be enough to make me cherish this story forever. There are a couple deeper take-aways, too:
1. Some people recognize superheroes when they see them, and some people don’t. Jake knew immediately that the be-toweled woman who came to pick him up was his Mom, The Superhero. The golf pro didn’t have a clue.
2. It’s easy to think that playing with children is beneath us as adults – that it’s a waste of time, or is kind of embarrassing and un-dignified. But it’s not. It’s simply what a superhero does. Ask any kid – they know what superheroes act like. And they can always spot a superhero when they see one, too, whether you‘re wearing your cape or not.
A young friend and mother of two little boys posted this on Facebook today:
“Watching my boys play with their hot wheel cars equals a fun and priceless moment in time!!”
It always makes my heart glad when parents catch sight of a quintessential moment that captures the joy of children at play. Those instances can occur fairly frequently, but the demands of raising kids while trying to keep life fairly organized can throw a veil over the fun of living with small children.
My friend’s comment brought this long-ago event to mind:
One summer afternoon at our home, when our grandson, Devin was 7 yrs old, and his cousin, Ryan was 5, I observed a parent’s ability to discern when one of those happy childhood moments was facing a big challenge.
On this day, the weather was beautiful and all the nieces, nephews and grandkids were scattered outdoors making the most of the big backyard and wooded lot. The girls had been exploring our large vegetable garden, and went walking on the many trails that surrounded it. The boys, Ryan and Devin, had been busy manipulating deck chairs and other movable objects, arranging them to make a rocket ship and using an old blanket as a launching pad. This had been the focus of their play for a couple of hours.
Eventually it was time for a meal. Ryan’s dad went out on the deck and called all the kids into the house to wash their hands and eat. Immediately, Ryan ran up to his dad and said, “Wait Dad, please wait! Devin and I are just about to blast off!”
“Oh,Oh,” I thought. “Houston, we have a problem.” I had been watching the boys, and knew this play time had been an especially exciting afternoon for them. I wondered what would happen now, since there was a distinct possibility that their plans to fly into outer space would be scrubbed.
His dad looked intently at Ryan for a few seconds and said,
“You’re just about to blast off?”
Ryan nodded his head vigorously.
“OK,” dad said, “I’ll give you boys 5 minutes to blast off. But then you have to land, come in, wash your hands and eat dinner.”
Ryan was completely satisfied with this answer, and ran down to the “rocket ship” to pass the good news to Devin. The mission had been saved! And to my mind, a “fun and priceless moment” in childhood had also been saved.
Looking back, I can see what wise a decision Ryan’s dad made. Wish I would have thought to say this at the time: “Houston, we have a solution.”
Thanks to an FYI from friend Heidi Osborn, I am celebrating National Handwriting Day today. Good handwriting is not as important as it used to be, it seems. In my school days, we received a grade on our report cards in penmanship. Time was set apart each day for students to practice cursive handwriting from large note books called “The Palmer Method of Handwriting,”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palmer_Method Those with good handwriting received plenty of praise from teachers, and “Good Penmanship” awards, and were envied and admired by those of us who did not develop that skill.
There were other marks of honor to look forward to in penmanship besides praise from teachers and “Certificate of Merit” awards. There was the longed for moment when your teacher said, “You may now use a ballpoint pen to write your homework assignments,” and in eighth grade we finally received permission to use a fountain pen. Yes, when you made it to fountain pen level, you had arrived.
Practicing handwriting had a dangerous side to it, also. My sister-in-law JoAnne Messmer King has beautiful penamnship, and told me this story of the day she practiced writing cursive at home as a little girl. Her father had come back from a trip to town, and put his purchases on the living room coffee table. JoAnne was home and in the living room just then. She looked through all the items on the table. A small, rectangular box caught her attention, and she opened it to find a stack of brand new checks from the bank. As she went to find a ballpoint pen, JoAnne heard a knock at the front door, and recognized one of her father’s friends. Soon the two men sat companionably in the living room visiting and drinking beer. JoAnne stayed in the living room, too, and practiced her penmanship by filling in all the spaces on the beautiful, new checks. It wasn’t until some time later that JoAnne’s father realized what type of paper his talented daughter had been using to practiice her cursive handwriting. It doen’t take much imagination to know how this story ended, but JoAnne said she did not get a “Certificate of Merit” award for her efforts.
Today, I celebrated National Handwriting Day by putting some handwritten letters and postcards in the mail, with an acknolwedgement of the day in those missives. Next year, I plan to do the same thing, but I am going to write my letters with a fountain pen. That is, if I can find one. They still make fountain pens, don’t they?
I have noticed that the word “snuck” has become quite acceptable to use these days, both in speaking and writing. It wasn’t acceptable when I was in 4th grade and wrote my first story, however. Sister Cecelia asked for volunteers to read their homework stories for the class, and as shy as I was, I raised my hand, and was chosen to read. I spoke with as loud a voice as I could muster, and amazingly, the story was well received by the class! I glanced up from my reading to find Sister Cecelia looking at me with her piercing “are you trying to put something over on me?” gaze.
“Did you write that by yourself, Teresa?”
“I guess I have to believe you. I don’t think an adult would have used “snuck” in a sentence. “Snuck” isn’t a word, you know. You may sit down.”
I sat down, emotions whipping through me. My classmates had obviously liked the story, but I had managed to do something wrong by not knowing that “snuck” was not a word. Emotionally I was a mess as I sat at my desk, but intellectually I was determined never to use the non-word “snuck” ever again. So it is with some chagrin that I have seen that very word used rather frequently as of late.
Which makes me think, where is Sister Cecelia when you need her?