Monthly Archives: September 2014

Two Roatans

This week I happened on a PBS travel show in which a charming young woman was exploring exotic sites in Central America, one of which was the island of Roatan in Honduras. She hiked, scuba dived, and dined in elegant style on the their gorgeous beaches. She had a blast and learned interesting things about their culture and history.

Coincidentally, some friends had just spoken in church about their own trip to Roatan, spending six months there with their two teenagers, Ethan and Ellie. Family goals certainly included fun, but with their main focus was on serving others and learning to “do hard things” by lowering their standard of living. With no car, they walked, hitchhiked, or took buses and taxis. They only had electricity and hot water some of the time, no washer and dryer, unwelcome bugs, and a rustic home that needed frequent repairs.

The kids did home school for three months, often doing homework in a hammock, then attended a local school the last three months. It was a tough adjustment walking a mile and a half to church and over two miles to their current service project, but they hung in there. They learned to sing to pass the time and get to know people along the way. By trip’s end, the grumbles turned to good memories and gratitude for a rich experience.

What’s the difference? Our first traveler focused on fun and experienced Roatan strictly as a tourist. My friends lived the life of the locals, eating in “hole-in-the-wall” cafes no tourists ever saw or cooking their own food bought at the native market. They volunteered at the local orphanage, in a mobile dental clinic, at the local library, photographed headstones for, and more.  Here are some of their personal photos. I wholeheartedly recommend their blog:  What I Learned in Roatan

Ethan and Ellie at Mobile Dental Clinic Used by permission, All Rights Reserved

Ethan and Ellie at Mobile Dental Clinic
Used with permission, All Rights Reserved








Ethan at Lighthouse Ministries Orphanage Used with Permission, All Rights Reserved

Ethan at Lighthouse Ministries Orphanage
Used with Permission, All Rights Reserved

Ethan and Ellie in Paradise Used with Permission, All Rights Reserved

Ethan and Ellie in Paradise
Used with Permission, All Rights Reserved









Roatan Library Donation Box, Painted by Mom Stephanie Used with Permission, All Rights Reserved

Roatan Library Donation Box, Painted by Mom Stephanie
Used with Permission, All Rights Reserved

I can’t help but wonder how this trip will affect Ethan and Ellie’s future, compared to kids raised with not only a silver spoon in their mouths but also in their souls, living for themselves and not so much for what they can give back to humanity.

I think of the following scripture in Matthew 16:24-27:

Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?  For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works.

Jesus was the ultimate example of serving others, not Himself. I think Ethan and Ellie learned precious lessons in Roatan, not just how to do good but also how to live a happier, more fulfilled life, connected to the grand, eternal cycle of life.

Two Roatans.  Two perspectives in life.  One on self, one on others.  It’s a choice we all face.  And just like the two roads that diverge in a wood, that choice makes all the difference.


Silent Mountains

In 2001, I went on a student tour of Europe. While in Italy, I wandered out to the balcony of our hotel room late one night to just sit and let my thoughts wander over the amazing experiences we were having. Gradually, I noticed some very large, dark shapes on the skyline and quickly realized they were mountains with not a light showing on any of them. They seemed to ring the city like silent sentinels from the past. I imagined they were symbolic of the dead civilizations of Europe whose remains we were viewing on this trip:  Greek, Roman, and Etruscan. All were gone but they cast long shadows, still influence our lives today, and provided the foundations of Western Civilization. I wondered if we, with all our modern ways and seeming cultural security, will ever suffer the same fate: Dust to Dust, Ashes to Ashes, as the saying goes. But no matter, I’ll celebrate what we’ve achieved over the last 1500 or more years. My thoughts then turned to other mountains of influence in my life: The University of Iowa where my father and grandfather both spent their entire working lives, along with the dads of almost all my friends. I attended a University “lab school” where professors’ kids were taught by the brightest and best graduate students and senior faculty. The entire weight and majesty of Western Civilization gradually unfolded before my initially reluctant eyes, but that reluctance turned pretty quickly to a love affair with history, music, and art. Try visiting Mozart’s birthplace in Salzburg with his glorious arias piped into every room – it’s enough to melt the hardest heart. Or view Bernini’s sculpture The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa in Rome and try to hold back the tears.

Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini Courtesy I. Sailko, Wikipedia

Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Courtesy I. Sailko, Wikipedia

I attended college classes in four ancient granite buildings that surrounded the “Old Capitol” building, set in the center of what we called The Pentacrest, five buildings that were the heart of the College of Liberal Arts at the University. The photo below was taken by my father on a cold winter day which I prize above all my memories of the sunny spring days I spent there because so much of my education was gained by not only braving the elements (I walked or took the bus to classes in all weather), but by braving the wilderness within – my life was forever changed. From that foundation, all the subsequent learning in my life found a harmonious home. What a heritage and how grateful I am to those who made it possible. Other personal mountains that surrounded me were the standards of hard work and honesty I found all around me – my own family and others who dedicated themselves to something good and greater than their own self-interest. And I’m grateful for the example of neighborliness of my parents, especially my mother who took special care of Frank and Cenie next door and Mrs. B on the other side. I didn’t have the same inclinations, focusing more on my life and friends, but that example now informs my current efforts to provide some service to my friends and neighbors.

What are your silent mountains? Maybe take some time now to contemplate them and pay a little homage.

Old Capitol, Iowa City Family Photo, All Rights Reserved

Old Capitol, Iowa City
Family Photo, All Rights Reserved

Dealing With Loss

Yesterday I expect we all revisited the horror and sadness of of September 11, 2001. I was teaching in a suburban high school at the time. During first period, my students and I watched in disbelief as the second plane hit the World Trade Center. It was a day of shock, tears, and sober reflection. Where were you that day? I expect you remember it as vividly as I do.

It’s a short step to remembering other losses: my grandparents, aunts and uncles, and finally my own parents. There were other, less obvious losses: leaving my hometown, moving away from my beloved New England, seeing my children grow up and fly the coop. I miss teaching and the energy of adolescence, designing some of my best lessons while walking to the front of the classroom! I am certainly mourning some aspects of my lost youth with its fullness of health and vitality.

How have I dealt with each loss? Sometimes less well. For a long time, I just tried to stuff my grief after moving from New Hampshire to Utah. That simply didn’t work, caused a mild depression, and stopped me from discovering the very real opportunities for happiness and fun all around me, until I realized what I was doing, and stopped living in the past.

A friend once told me about two people in a family who’d lost someone close to them. One avoided grieving and had emotional and physical health problems for a long time, as a result. The other, while almost hysterical in her grief, worked through it much more quickly, emerging on the other side with a balanced focus on good memories.

So I’ve learned to feel my feelings and work through them, no matter how ugly, and I agree it’s a better way. When my elderly mother was dying of cancer in 2004, she was given no hope of recovery, but we had the gift of being able to say goodbye over six months. I took every opportunity to spend time with her.  One long August weekend, I was the only visitor. We watched old movies, reminisced, and addressed a difficult dynamic between us. She gave me my grandmother’s china and boxes of books from her shelves. I cried pretty hard on the drive home, but when the funeral came in early January, I could fully celebrate her life and achievements with our large family, a true memorial.

Finally, I have the perspective of eternity grounded in my Christian faith. I recently participated in sealing some ancestors in eternal marriage and children to their parents in the Boise LDS Temple (their choice to accept or not). It’s like a window above my head opened, and I could see the grand vistas of blessing and opportunity that await all of us in the next life. We have the firm hope of reunion with those who’ve gone before us and the promises that we can keep progressing indefinitely. I take a great deal of comfort in that, as well great anticipation.

What will it be like hearing meeting with my Great Aunt Ella who married Judge Henry Shute? She lived in Davenport, Iowa, and he was from Exeter, New Hampshire, a widower with two children. I can’t wait to hear how they met and what their life there was like. He was a judge in the local police court for many years, finally turning to writing fiction about the many boys who came before him. The best known is The Real Diary of a Real Boy (available for free on Kindle). He had many short stories published in magazines like the Saturday Evening Post and was called the Mark Twain of Exeter.

We all have amazing stories behind us and those unfolding before us. That is my focus and ultimate comfort. I hope it is yours as well.

Polstead Church, Suffolk, England  Courtesy Image 362353

Polstead Church, Suffolk, England
Courtesy Image 362353



The Tip of the Plow

I just finished a historical novel I absolutely loved, The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd (author of The Secret Life of Bees). She writes about real-life sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké from a slave-owning upper class family in Charlotte, North Carolina. They both detested slavery and were pioneers in both the Abolitionist and Women’s Movements in the early 1800’s. Ms Kidd writes an imagined inner life for Sarah and her personal slave Handful that is beautifully drawn and fairly faithful to the facts. Their passionate dedication required intense personal sacrifice but they never compromised their principles.

This story reminded me of a phrase voiced by a former real estate broker discussing levels of risk in property investment.  Land is riskiest and developers are at the tip of the plow. They must invest a huge amount of money, time, and vision before they earn a single dollar. One wrong decision and they could lose it all. Certainly Sarah and Angelina were at the tip of their plow in both movements, and suffered greatly in the process.

It’s a vivid image: I picture the pioneer plow biting into tough prairie sod and the stress on it, the abrasion of stones and roots wearing the blade down quickly. The people behind the plow had to be equally tough. Others also come to mind: explorers, inventors, entrepreneurs, saints and martyrs. But are we, more ordinary people, ever at the tip of the plow? I know I have been and I have the emotional scars to prove it!

In the 1990’s I bought into a condo complex, recently converted from an apartment building. 48 different homeowners took over an aging building, electing seven of us to the first Board of Directors. We faced arcing electricity in the utility room, defective boilers and roof, plus thousands of bats under that bad roof! We buckled down, got legal advice, and solved those problems one at a time, first winning a settlement from the developers. I was treasurer and legal liaison, so many, many nights my stomach would be in knots about how to make these people accountable, how to sell extra assessments to our fellow owners so we could replace the roof, and how to unseat a volatile HOA President.

After five years, we triumphed over all these difficulties. Those of us in the vanguard were worn out and others were elected to carry on. They only had to deal with issues like enforcing the rule on uniform window coverings, kids running in the halls, and which lawn care company to use. I don’t regret my experience as it gave me the confidence I needed to tackle real estate at age 59 when I needed a change from teaching learning-disabled teenagers.

I reflected many times on the early scouts and pioneers who conquered the tough Midwestern prairie, harsh weather, and unfriendly native Americans. They were followed by the settlers who came in and built it up, in relative security. My Kent ancestors were settlers, not pioneers, building up Davenport, Iowa; opening a drugstore in nearby DeWitt; or starting the Photographic Dept. at the University of Iowa. I hope they appreciated those who came before and plowed the ground for them.

Where in your life are you at the tip of the plow? I see valiant friends stand for principle in their families, integrity in their work, or courage in the face of horrible adversity. Perhaps that’s our frontier today, where our own plow blade bites into the heart of experience.

Plowing by Carl Larsson Courtesy, in public domain

Plowing, by Carl Larsson
Courtesy, in public domain