Friday, October 31, 2014

Don't forget Mother Nature

Our Halloween weather today could not have been more fitting: stormy, cold, wet, windy, grey. I needed to drive in and out of Chicago one more time, finalizing some repairs on our condo before the new tenants move in tomorrow. The drive to Chicago in mid-morning proved a challenge insofar as the high winds were concerned, but conditions were dry. By the time I got into town, however, there was a steady mixture of rain and sleet and snow. The wind continued to gust quite fiercely as I drove north along Lake Shore Drive. Lake Michigan tossed and rolled and smote the shoreline and the breakwaters with mesmerizing strength. I wanted to keep my eyes on all that lake activity, but it also seemed important to keep the car under control!

Later in the afternoon I headed back south along the drive. Weather conditions were worse. In fact, as I left our condo to load my bits and bobs into the car, I had to struggle against wind-driven sleet. It made me remember the line 'Tain't a fit night out for man nor beast from an old W.C. Fields film.  The southbound journey kept me busy controlling the car. Traffic was lashed by powerful wind gusts that drove an astonishing amount of sleet onto the cars. And all the while, every time the road approached the actual shore of Lake Michigan, I could see the grey, angry waves washing over the beaches. I think I like Lake Michigan best when storms drive it into Chicago.

It's easy to forget how fickle and dangerous open water can be. The beaches that stretch so invitingly in the summer disappeared today. And the harbors in which the boats ride safely in good weather rocked and rolled from the wind-driven waves. Mother Nature put on quite a spectacle today.

The final, entertaining touch, however, occurred whilst I was battling my car on the Indiana Tollway, heading home. My hands welded themselves to the steering wheel, as those dangerously high winds rocked the car pretty strongly. While I fought that battle, the sleet pelted everything relentlessly and a flotilla of semis hemmed me in. Nerve-wracking? Indeed. But, here's the entertainment: as I'm desperately focused on safely navigating this patch, WFMT Chicago begins broadcasting Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries"! Yes, indeed, the perfect soundtrack for my own wild ride. I felt like Freya herself!

I laughed and let loose a few Valkyrie-inspired whoops and drove on.

Thursday, October 30, 2014


Driving back to Indiana from Chicago today, I had to stop for the opening and closing of a bridge down around 89th Street. This part of the south side of Chicago is its "port", where quite large ships bring in various types of cargo from Lake Michigan. It's the one area of Chicago that reminds me of Tidewater Virginia. I'm always interested to see what type of ship is causing the bridge to be opened. Today's traffic delighted me! And I was probably the only one in the line of cars feeling delighted.

The boat harbors along Chicago's lakeshore empty out at this time of year (I think they officially close on November 1st), and the boats' owners must move them into winter storage. Guess where much of this winter storage is? Exactly. Just past my bridge. So I was treated to the migration of six sailboats of varying sizes as they motored from Lake Michigan inland on the Calumet River to their winter homes. As they went upriver, a tug passed them, heading out into the lake, pushing a ponderous barge full of shipping containers. I think I must start bringing my camera along in the car--the afternoon sun bathed the whole scene in autumn's glow and those sailboats were worth a photo.

Whenever I've had the opportunity to spend time sailing, I haven't wanted to come ashore. Nothing really equals the way a sailboat speeds up and heels over when the sails fill, when you hear only the swish of the water as the boat cuts through. A sailboat is alive in a way that a power boat never could be.

I often wish I had even a small sailboat here, because South Bend is near quite a few inland lakes and is only a short drive to Lake Michigan. My family and friends always talk me out of it (quite prudently, of course). They also talk me out of buying a Vespa, but that's another issue. I console myself with the thought that my cousin Charles owns a satisfyingly large sailboat back in Tidewater and I can sail with him.

The boat I would really like to own would be a Hampton class, a two-person open cockpit sailboat developed in Hampton Roads back in the 1930s. My Uncle Jeff, who was a born sailor, sailed and raced them with the Portsmouth Boat Club when I was growing up. I loved to watch. It comforts me to know that the Hampton Yacht Club still has a fleet of Hampton boats that race frequently in the area, and that I actually could buy a new Hampton if I wanted to.

Here's a tip for an enchanting series of books featuring sailing: the Swallows and Amazons books by Arthur Ransome. Ransome based the stories on his own childhood experiences. He writes about several groups of children who spend their school holidays learning to sail in the Lake District in England during the 1930s. My daughter and I discovered the books decades ago, and I re-read them every so often. If you have children, I recommend them. If you like a solid but charming narrative, regardless of your age, I heartily recommend them. The boys and girls in the books mix sailing with all sorts of imaginative and independent play. They are good shipmates, warm friends, brave souls, and incredibly practical to boot.

The Swallows and the Amazons taught me that a good ship needs a good crew. A good crew knows how to work together, how to respect the strengths of each member, and how to balance their focus on the job at hand with their pleasure in being on the sea.

I hope I get caught by a boat parade next time I drive to Chicago!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Seas of Red

I have been thinking lately about one of the most arresting and haunting commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. Over the past several months, hundreds of thousands of ceramic red poppies have been installed in the moat surrounding the Tower of London. There will be over 888,000 poppies by November 11th. These represent the members of the armies of the British Empire who died during the war. The name of this commemoration is "Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red". Over the weeks, the poppies have "spilled" out of one of the Tower's windows and have gradually filled up the entire moat. In the most recent photos,  the Tower is surrounded by a 'sea of red'.  I am awestruck by the artist's idea for this project and I wish I could actually visit the Tower itself. A moat filled with blood. Each poppy representing someone's father, son, husband, brother, cousin, or friend.

I have hiked through some of the battlefields of World War I in Flanders. I have walked through Tyne Cot cemetery and seen the "crosses row on row". I have visited cemeteries filled with German soldiers' graves. I have stood at the Menin Gate in Ypres and read the names of the missing. No one can stand in those places and be unmoved.

Many, many historians have analyzed and described World War I over the past century. The soldiers and sailors and airmen are now often viewed as pathetic 'victims'.  I choose rather to salute their courage and sacrifice and brotherhood in the face of unimaginable terror and certain death.

How different the 20th century would have been if this had truly been the "war to end all wars", if only the Great War had made us wiser. The sanguinary spectacle at the Tower of London is an unforgettable witness.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Witness of Grace


One of my favorite phrases from the New Testament is "so great a cloud of witnesses", from the letter to the Hebrews. As I was converting some treasured family VHS tapes to DVDs recently, I began to think about the kinds of witnesses that have appeared in my life. What better way to comment on them and perhaps to share some of the insights from them than to start a blog?

My thoughts will be wide-ranging, to be sure, because I have, now that I think of it, lived a long life already and have heard and seen witnesses of all types. You, dear readers, may expect comments about faith, family, friends, art, architecture, music, literature, gardening, travel, storytelling, history, and nature. I will enjoy sharing whatever wisdom has come to me from my own great cloud of witnesses.

As it is my Aunt Grace's 88th birthday today, let me just share some thoughts about her. First of all, she is a survivor of three types of cancer, all within the last 15 years. That is a staggering witness in and of itself. She has the most positive attitude and has coped with surgeries and alopecia and gradually diminishing mobility. Nonetheless, she and my Uncle Bob still regularly visit local restaurants, go to the latest movies (she is way ahead of me on that!), enjoy social gatherings with friends, and travel. She never complains to us, never falls prey to hopelessness, and never exhibits a "why me?" response to all of these challenges. What a witness to the power of love and hope! Talking to her today, I learned that she's recently been doing one of the "Great Courses", using CDs, to brush up on the Latin she studied in high school. Soon she'll be doing a course on music theory. She puts me to shame!

What else has she taught me? She has lived her name so beautifully: grace. As a Navy wife, she moved frequently, managing long deployments of my uncle with patience and strength. She always seemed to look for the interesting and positive features of each new city, and her friends are legion. She kept a welcoming and lovely home at every stop, and even today is hospitality itself, despite her physical challenges. Perhaps the roughest part of her life was the birth and death of her second child, my cousin George. He lived only a few months. I know from my own experience how this shatters a mother. Yet my aunt picked up the pieces and showed us how to move through the valley of the shadow. I drew on her witness when my own daughter died shortly after birth.

Aren't I blessed with such an aunt? And hasn't her life borne witness to her faith? I have a high standard to emulate.