Sunday, October 12, 2014

Rwanda Again

I was in Rwanda several years back.  If you knew me then, you know that I was somewhat obsessed with that country and its history and its beautiful people.  While I was there I wrote a lot and posted all of those writings on a blog.  It is 

While we know hunger in this country, Rwanda really knows hunger.  While we have racial issues in this country – to this day, Rwanda was nearly destroyed by ethnic violence.  Over one million people were killed there in a hundred days.  It was 20 years ago. 

Most of us don’t know a lot about the Rwandan genocide.  Our government told lies about it and did not act when they should have.  The O. J. Simpson trial of the century bought off our attention for the news.  And, after all, Rwanda is in Africa.  Put simply, if it doesn’t affect us directly, most Americans don’t care about Africa. 

What struck me most about my trip there and all of my readings and my acquaintance with the beautiful Rwandan people, especially Immaculee Illibagiza (author of Left To Tell) and our photographer/driver/translator/friend Richard, was their resilience. 

Today, while Rwanda still has its problems, it is one of the most peaceful, safest, most beautiful countries in all of Africa.  Incredible as it seems, the people have moved dramatically toward forgiving each other for the violence and murder of just two decades ago.  It is nothing less than miraculous. 

When I think of my time there, I think of verdant green hills and mountains, and the genocide memorial in Kigali, the mountain gorillas we hung out with in Virunga Park, and the little church in Ntarama where so many people were killed in one single event during the genocide.  The scars of the survivors, the smiles on the children, the sunrises so beautiful they made me cry, and the stories of survival, the hard relentless work, the mass I heard in English – the priest’s very first, and our visit to Mother Teresa’s Orphanage where they never turn anyone away.

There is no particular reason I came back to Rwanda for this blog.  Maybe I need to just because those memories are slipping away.  And I never want to forget those people, that precious time.

I'll include some photos from my trip, and a blog post I wrote back in September of that year, the words taken directly from my notebook that I obsessively recorded in while I was there.  I will come back to Rwanda from time to time.  I don't want to forget.

Children from the school at Ntarama.


Chopping Wood/That is Rwanda

Wednesday 7/3/07 8:00 PM

I didn’t get to finish my thoughts on Mother Teresa’s orphanage. Just one more before I forget. There were about half a dozen guyschopping firewood for cooking in a big open area inside the compound at the orphanage. Somehow they managed to haul in some huge logs. They looked like cedar but smelled different. Three feet across. Really hard wood. It was a hot and sticky day. The men were working with machetes and really dull looking hand axes. The axes had pipes for handles. Hot. Hard work. The kind of work that would have taken about an hour in the US with chainsaws and splitting equipment. Six guys. Chipping away at tree trunks with machetes. That’s like a metaphor for how things are done in Rwanda. This scene stays with me. They had their shirts off. Their dark bodies were glistening with sweat. They were relentless. We were there for about an hour and when we came out they were still chipping away with machetes and these tiny axes, hatchets really.

Then a puff of cool breeze came. Almost as one the men stopped their labor, closed their eyes and sort of leaned into the breeze. Little smiles came to their faces. Just that little pause. That tiny sip of refreshment. Then, just as quickly as it arose, the breeze left and the men went back to work. Sleek. No body fat. Thin and muscular. Determined. Uncomplaining. Facing a limitless task – That is Rwanda.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The History of Photography

Minolta AL-F

"There are no rules for good photographs.  There are only good photographs." - Ansel Adams

When Heidi and I were young, she gave me a camera.  She got it used.  I think it cost 50 bucks back in about 1977.  It wasn’t just any old camera.  It was a Minolta Hi-Matic.  The Hi-Matic was a rangefinder.  Instead of focusing directly on your subject, you looked through a viewer and brought two little yellow images together by rotating the lens.  

While it was rather crude, even for its day, it taught me about photography.  There was nothing automatic about it.  You opened the door in back and put the film cartridge in, pulled the film across and made sure that the holes in the edge of the film reached the little sprockets on the other side.  Then you closed the door and advanced the film by snapping a few pictures, rotating a lever each time to pull the film across. 

There was a built in light meter, and you used that to set the shutter speed and aperture.  Heidi and I were self-taught.  We learned that anything slower than 1/60 of a second would likely lead to a blurred image.  Unless you used a tripod and the subject was very still.  We learned about depth of field and backlighting and when to use the flash.  

We learned to bend the rules sometimes and slow down the shutter speed for some cool effects while photographing our friends playing music in bars or while we were camping taking flashlight photos on a quarter of a second.

Canon AE-1 Program

After we were married, Heidi’s folks gave us a Cannon AE-1 (35 mm of course).  That was a sweet camera.  Great glass, single lens reflex so when you looked through the viewer you were seeing the image that was going to the film.  We got a bunch of cool lenses and attachments and filters.  When we printed out our pictures we put them into albums.  We thought we were pretty good at it. 

After a while, 35 mm became obsolete and there was a time when we really didn’t take many pictures except for special occasions.  Then an assortment of low end point-and-shoot digitals, which made taking pictures easy with relatively nice outcomes, but there wasn’t the same ownership as considering available light, setting the shutter speed and aperture, bracketing a few shots with slightly different settings and choosing the one you preferred (and LEARNING along the way). 

Now, of course, with “smart phones” I have become a fairly “dumb photographer”.   Point.  Shoot.  Apply effects (if desired).  Save.  Email or text.  We still have that old Hi-Matic, the one that recorded our early lives together.  I still break it out every once in a while to remind myself of the not-so-bad-amateur photographer I used to be.  And one day, I’ll get a digital SLR.  But for now, it’s all about being in the right place at the right time with my phone in my pocket. 

On a related note, I checked out this series of photographs taken over 40 years of these 4 beautiful sisters.  The idea was totally simple, but the effect sublime.  Four sisters sat for the same photographer every year for 40 years.  They began in 1975 – the year Heidi and I graduated from high school.  They continued the ritual 40 times.  The result is breathtaking.  When I looked at the series again this morning, I teared up a little.  I am not sure why.  Maybe it is because I see myself and my beloved in these pictures.  I know our faces are lined and our hair is graying.  While I weigh about the same, my weight is not distributed the same way it was in 1975, just graduating from Chesterton High School with my life in front of me and my dreams still being formed.  

I remembered the early pictures of my parents when they were young and frisky.  I remember thinking, Were they ever really that young?  When I misted over looking at the faces of these beautiful girls-to-women, I think it was about connecting to the changes and recognizing that beauty isn’t just with the young.  Check it out.    I'd love to know what you think.

"When I look at my old pictures, all I can see is what I used to be but am no longer.  I think:what I can see is what I am not." - Aleksander Hemon

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Donna Jean Hansen Mills

The leaves were already changing.  The sumacs and the sassafras were orange red, the true harbingers of fall in Indiana.  The corn stalks still stood but their leaves were turning to yellow and gold.  The soybeans in the fields were also yellowing.  Indiana.  The beginning of fall.  

Heidi's mom, Donna Jean Hansen Mills, just died a week ago.  As I write this, we are returning from her beautiful memorial.  We were with her when she died.  It was an honor.  I've known this good woman since the spring of 1977.  She has been a constant in my life.  And while Alzheimer's robbed her of her real self, much of our time in Indiana was about remembering who she was in her youth.  

We poured through old albums, selecting pictures for the montage that played in her memorial service.  Donna as a child, a teen, at her wedding, a young Army wife, a young mom.  Donna in love, Donna in the 60's with frosted hair, Donna at kids' birthdays, surrounded by her grandkids, in shorts, in her wedding dress, in PJs...

We were surrounded by stories of Donna as a library aide who came to the rescue when kids were unfairly punished, Donna as the defender of folks being mistreated in a nursing home.  We were reminded of her years delivering Meals on Wheels (she was also the beneficiary of these meals in her final days).  She was a strong Christian woman who devoted much of her life to the unselfish service of others.  

Her last visit to South Carolina was just days before she died.  And while her mind and body were ravaged by this terrible disease, she was more joyful in those last days than I had seen her in years.  She kept telling Heidi how happy she was.  When I played some old timey songs for her, "Camptown Races", and "Old Susannah", and "The Red River Valley", she sang.  Not the words to those old familiar tunes, but words of her own about her family, the flowers outside the window and her beloved dog.  And the tune that she sang wasn't the melody that usually accompanied the chords, but a simple melancholy harmony.  She sang her own song.  And she was happy.  Truly happy.  

What a blessing.  Because three days later, after waking up and being dressed, and slipping on her three watches and her favorite little girl shoes, after getting her morning kiss and hug from Big Bill, she just sat down on the couch and slipped away.  Her body was alive for another day and a half, but by the time I got there on Saturday afternoon, I think she was already gone.  

We were all with her when her body finally shut down, singing hymns, saying prayers and telling stories.  Tears, laughter, prayers, hugs, many kindnesses from the nursing staff.  Donna looking sweetly and serenely like an innocent child.  Whispers of love and devotion, kisses on the forehead, kisses on the back of the hand.  The screens on the machines showed the steady decline in her breathing and blood pressure, the final heartbeats.

And then she was gone.  No more fears, no more suffering.  No more indignities or confusion.  She never had to live in a nursing home.  She had very little physical pain.  She loved and was loved by many.  And she will be missed.  

While dying is just exactly as natural as being born; while death is a debt we incur the very moment we take our first breath; while none of us ever gets out here alive...  It's just so hard to say good bye.  

But the seeds of our lives go on, right?  Not just our children, but our words and deeds and stories become part of our own song.  And it is sung long after we are gone from this world.  While Donna was diminished by the disease that took her away, her song was long and beautiful and memorable.

One of Bill and Donna's legacies is their oldest child, the love of my life, Heidi Mills.  And through Heidi, our wonderful sons.  And Heidi's legacy will live on through the teachers she has connected with and the children they will teach.  And through the written words in books and chapters and articles  she has published.  And through the kindnesses great and small, that she has shown to others.  There have been many.  And by the love she has shown to me.  And so the very best of Donna will spin out and out and out.  

While Donna Jean Hansen Mills is no longer with us, her goodness lives on.  When I look into the eyes of my love - I get to see some of her mom.  

And I am blessed.

she could be your twin, she’s
that good
this understudy
who has stepped in
to play the role of You
here in the last act
in fact
those who didn’t know You
those who have only tuned in
at the last
minute to see how it all turns out
might not even believe
in fairies
or in the You we tell them about
but we know
that even though we sometimes get glimpses
of You peeking in at the window
to listen to the stories we tell about You
the stories we tell to you
that even though we hear You in a laugh
in a pronunciation
in a wordless tune
this one that we have with us now
taking care of and watching over for safe
is just Your shadow
somehow come loose
as You slipped out into the night
one toe at a time
You, I know
are already flown away
to the land of lost boys
children and childhood
where the You who never really did
Grow Up
can have your adventures
winnie the pooh and cat in the hat
dancing and harmonies
baby birds and blue jewelry
sometime You’ll have to come back
to fetch her, Your
and we’ll pin her, our last
connection to You
onto our memories and our love
onto our Good-Byes for You
we’ll give her the curtain call
You should have had
but it’s You we hope
it’s You we know
will be there to hold our hands
as you did first
with first steps
first days
when it’s our turn with the pixie dust
to dust
so feel free to sail on
You’ve uncharted islands to explore
and we’ll keep telling the Story of You
we know it by heart
for Grandma

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Don't "QUOTE" ME

Don’t Quote Me

Years ago, we lived by this tiny little marina on the lake.  “Snellgrove’s Landing” was the name of this little Mom and Pop store.  They had a little candy counter, some live bait, a few of the most common lures, ice and “GAS”.  It was a very do-it-yourself kind of place.  You’d pull up to this little rickety dock.  The pump was very old school with a dial instead of digital readout.  You young folks may not even remember those.  There was a sign that read, “Please Pay First” and an arrow pointing up to the little general store. 

When you walked up the dirt path, following the “WATCH YOUR STEP” sign, and into the store there was often no one there.  It had a dusty smell, a dry smell, the faint smell of fish and fried food and old wood and oil and gasoline and grease.  The windows were filmy and the lettering done by hand, backwards from the inside.  “SNELLGROVE’S SUNDRIES”. 

A little sign on the glass counter read, PLEASE “RING BELL” FOR SERVICE.  There was one of those old timey bells that the teachers used to have on their desks to get the class’s attention.  The one with the inverted silver dome with the little button top.  When you’d ding that bell, often the little old lady would come out with an apron on, wiping her hands and say, “What can I do for you, honey?”  She had silver hair and sensible shoes. 

Mr. Snellgrove was forever fixing engines in his little old barn.  He wore the kind of coveralls that garage mechanics used to wear back in the day.  A one-piece suit of gray with snaps up the front.  Comfortable.  Sensible.  He wore a matching gray cap with a bill and thick horn-rimmed glasses.  I loved this little old place.  It was like something from my childhood.  While their “GAS” was more expensive, I didn’t mind.  It was like a visit back in time.

Snellgrove’s had a fondness for quotation marks on their hand-lettered signs.  I’m not sure why.  But the men’s restroom was MEN’S “RESTROOM”, and the refrigerator had signs on the outside that read, ICE COLD “COKES”, and “LIVE” BAIT and “ICE CREAM” TREATS.  Every sign, and there were many, had a quote associated with it. 

I took some pictures of quotation marks used in “UNUSUAL” ways recently.  They aren’t hard to find.

This first one was from the newspaper.  You’d think they would know about quotation marks.  After a quote from a school official about the expectations and goals, “joy” is in quotes.  Maybe it's because one doesn’t expect “joy” to be a big priority for a school district.  So maybe the quotes are meant to signify how “odd” that sentiment is.  On is says  Rule 5a. Quotation marks are often used with technical terms, terms used in an unusual way, or other expressions that vary from standard usage.  That’s too bad.  Seems like “joy” should be right on top of our “priorities”. 

The next one is also about education.  During a talk about sharing news with elementary children, this slide was shown during the “presentation”.  On it doesn’t say anything about double meanings.  I think this little word play is cute but a little outside the regular use of quotes.

A friend gave us some “strawberry” jam, last spring.  In this case the quotes just make it a little more “special”.  And believe me, it was real “tasty”. 

Not sure why anyone would quotate “RESTROOMS”.  They even went to the trouble of inverting them on either end of the word.  It’s not a direct quote, or a word used in a technical or unusual way…  Maybe we just don’t like to talk aloud in a public space about what goes on in there.  Perhaps the quotes mean something like, “You know what goes on in here – and it isn’t resting”. 

In Mount Pleasant, I wonder who “said” that “Occupancy by more than 300 person is DANGEROUS AND UNLAWFUL”  It certainly sounds like a direct quote, right?  Also interesting that the blank in that sentence has the word person after it, as though this form was expected to be used by a lot of people who would only allow one single person into their establishment.  Maybe it was originally intended to be used in the “RESTROOM” above in the stalls.

My favorite recent one is from the Marriott Hotel chain.  There are two quotes used in this sign.  The greeting and the “NOT RESPONSIBLE” disclaimer.  The red underline which extends through the quote emphasizes just how completely “UNRESPONSIBLE” they really are for those carelessly unattended articles and valuables.  But why the quotes around “TO ALL OUR VALUED GUESTS”?  Seems a little insincere if you have to quote it.  

I have been guilty of an air quote or two in my life.  Often I’ll overuse them for “effect”.  Sometimes I use them with my kids just to be “silly”.  But why do people use them so often?  Other than using them for direct quotes or for unusual technical terms, I guess it is often for “emphasis”, the writer wants you to “stress” the words as you read it to yourself.  

The next time you find yourself “writing” about something, avoid the “overuse” of quotes.  I am not a grammarian by any means, but they often send a different message than what you probably “intended”.  But don’t “quote me” on that.

The picture below is just another funny example of environmental print I saw in a hotel this summer. No extra charge.  There aren't any quotation marks used here, but perhaps there should be a set around the word "YOU".

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Taming Each Other

When second graders come into the classroom at the beginning of the year, that moment is so filled with excitement.  They have special friends they haven’t seen in two-and-a-half months.  That is a long time in the life of a seven year old.  Oh, some have had play dates, but for most – the summer is a time of waiting to catch up with their buddies again.  Some kids, when they meet up again, are shy for a few moments.  They can see that friends have changed, right?  Some have lost teeth.  Some grew new ones.  ALL have gotten bigger.  Second grade faces don’t look quite the same as first grade faces.  Hair gets that summer shine.  Many are wearing new clothes.

The shyness wears off soon and they are back to being the best friends they left behind so long ago.  Disney, camps, daycare, soccer, baseball, the pool, vacations.  It pours out like a stream. 

And with me there is a shyness that I know will wear off soon.  There are several children whose brothers and sisters have been in my classes in the past.  And some I know just from being around our small school.  I went into their classroom at the end of first grade a few times to break the ice.  Since these children were all in the same classroom last year, they all remember.  We sang some songs.  “She’ll be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain When She Comes”, “Tools Was a Baby Rabbit”, “Puff the Magic Dragon”.  They will become the first songs we sing together this year. 

But our time together at the end of their first grade year was just to get acquainted.  We are essentially strangers.  Strangers who must spend two years together reading, writing stories, solving challenging problems.  We will laugh together and cry together.  There will be joy and naughtiness, hard work and laziness, magic moments as well as boredom. 

At the beginning of our time together they must put up with me telling them about our routines and rituals.  They have to learn how to share a bathroom with another class, how to put books back where they came from and how to put up chairs without clonking someone on the head.  They will be reminded of how to cough and sneeze safely (into the elbow, toward the floor), and must come to know what it means when they see the quiet sign. 

Because I have done this so many times (35 new school year beginnings to be exact) I can see the potential here.  I know we will catch lizards on the playground field and watch butterflies emerge from chrysalises. We will share who we are and as well as our dreams.  We will come to know each other’s favorite animals, colors, shows, and families. I know we will write the stories of our lives together.  I know the potential of our friendships.  Will come to love each other.  We will tame each other.  They will learn to trust me and I will trust and depend on them. 

It is quite like this passage from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry where the Prince meets the fox…

It was then that the fox appeared.
"Good morning," said the fox.
"Good morning," the little prince responded politely, although when he turned around he saw nothing.
"I am right here," the voice said, "under the apple tree."
"Who are you?" asked the little prince, and added, "You are very pretty to look at."
"I am a fox," the fox said.
"Come and play with me," proposed the little prince. "I am so unhappy."
"I cannot play with you," the fox said. "I am not tamed."
"Ah! Please excuse me," said the little prince.
But, after some thought, he added:
"What does that mean--'tame'?"
"You do not live here," said the fox. "What is it that you are looking for?"
"I am looking for men," said the little prince. "What does that mean--'tame'?"
"Men," said the fox. "They have guns, and they hunt. It is very disturbing. They also raise chickens. These are their only interests. Are you looking for chickens?"
"No," said the little prince. "I am looking for friends. What does that mean--'tame'?"
"It is an act too often neglected," said the fox. It means to establish ties."
"'To establish ties'?"
"Just that," said the fox. "To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world . . ."
"I am beginning to understand," said the little prince. "There is a flower . . . I think that she has tamed me . . ."

I know that being a teacher of little kids at the school where I teach makes me the luckiest guy around.  I get to share my favorite books with my best friends and work together solving problems and learn about how the world works and how to try to change it to make it better.  

I get to bear witness to the most amazing thing the world has known – human growth and development.  I will see them develop as readers, writers, mathematicians, singers, scientists, historians.  I will be a part of the growth of humor, capacity to care for others, and awareness of national and world events.  I will watch them grow their hair long and then cut it short, I will see little teeth come out and big old teeth come back in their place.  I will see shoes get too small and get to compliment them on their new shoes, bought just a little too big with room to grow (I’ll bet you can run fast in THOSE…). 

I can look ahead and see the time when we have tamed each other.  I see the potential energy in our relationships.  I can predict the trust and bonds that will take place in a while.  Because I have taught little ones for so long, I have faith that this beautiful group of children will learn to rely on me and have faith in my decisions. 

Now I am still a stranger.  We have not tamed each other.  Ah, but we will.