My Debt to Mick

My grandsons are now the age of Mick when he came storming into my life. Seventeen years old with the body of a man, Mick had been living on his own for a year when someone turned him into social services. And he didn’t take kindly to being deposited in the children’s home where my husband and I were house parents.

I once read that fear can be smelled, that the sweat of terrified person actually emits signals that send the fear out to others. Nobody would have smelled fear on Mick when he showed up at the children’s home. But if fury works the same way, the room would have reeked. And while he was with us, Mick spread this ire—glaring, stomping, banging doors, smashing a hole in the kitchen wall, and threatening to bash in faces.

Back then, I didn’t understand much about teenagers. I hadn’t been the parent of teens or the grandparent. I hadn’t taught school for three decades. I hadn’t listened to inmates talk to me about how adults in their lives had messed up with them.

I wish I could do Mick again. Given a second chance, I’d applaud his ingenuity in making a life for himself. After his mom died and his dad went to prison and his drunk uncle knocked him around one time too many, Mick slept in his clunker of a car until he found a job flipping burgers, earning him enough money to rent a single room with a shared bathroom. On his off hours, Mick’s head was usually under the hood of a car, gathering skills from a street mechanic.

The caseworker had told me all this, but I didn’t sit with Mick, asking questions and paying tribute to his gumption. I was too busy urging him into the routines of a children’s home. I should have concentrated on Mick’s future, not on whether he had made his bed. I should have said no as little as possible and yes at every chance.

Mick didn’t stay with us long. He ran away. And I can see why.

I owe a debt to Mick and the other kids who came to live with us at the children’s home. I learned on these kids, as you can read in my book Yoder School. And the lessons they taught made me a better parent and grandparent and teacher.

But I feel bad. Mick was someone’s grandson.

Nearly Ninety with a New Knee

My dad’s nearly-ninety-year-old knee took him places. As a boy, he trudged two miles to school on a country road that wound through the hills of Western Maryland. On long summer evenings, he ran barefoot across the yard playing tag with his cousins. And hand to the plow, he plodded in furrows behind Bob and Fern, the draft horses, to ready the ground for winter wheat.

And it took him across the world: Israel, Turkey, Cyprus, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Liechtenstein, France, Italy, Luxemburg, Belgium, Great Britain, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Mexico, Peru, Columbia, Ecuador, and Canada.

In these last years, his knee has bent to help my mother when she fell, to wash her blood from the floor, and to spade her garden, because growing plants nourish her spirit.

But this last year, his knee has constrained him, keeping him in the house instead of on summer walks, on the couch while others rake his leaves and shovel his snow, and in a recliner at night, trying to find a position that will take away pain.

So to distract himself from the reality of a nearly-ninety-year- old body, my dad turned more fully to the life of the mind. When I dropped by to check on him, I’d find him at his computer, researching, for example, road conditions in the 1850s and how the indentured-servant system worked. Though his face was often fatigued with pain, his eyes would be alert and intrigued.

My dad’s knee did manage to take him one more place—to the hospital, where its worn-down parts were replaced with metal and plastic. And as we soldiered through the first post-op day, he seemed to manage his pain by turning to ideas. We talked about the difference between a meadow and a pasture, how President Buchannan might have staved off the Civil War, the function of applause at a sacred concert, and what it means to be one of eight billion people on the earth.

It’s been fascinating to watch my dad resolutely turn attention from his knee to ideas. But I’m looking forward to joining him for a long springtime walk with his new knee.

The Help  of a Tired Face

He was there for me every morning—Jerry Revish, with his tired face. At 5:00 A.M., when he signed on to anchor the morning news, I’d be already on the treadmill, gritting my teeth and thinking about how time slows down as speed picks up.

Though the treadmill was good for my health, I hated it. And no wonder. It was originally designed to punish inmates. On the first treadmills, inmates in British prisons stepped off their paces for ten hours a day in the summer and seven in the winter, turning wheels that pumped water and powered mills. This mind-numbing, body-breaking repetition was meant to teach a lesson, to rehabilitate, to prove that prison isn’t a good place to get free food, just in case someone was hankering after prison rations.

Unlike these inmates, I chose the pain of the treadmill.

Still, I didn’t want the company of a fresh-faced, day-brightener while I kept rhythm with the belt under my feet. I wanted someone of my own kind—someone like Jerry with hanging-low eyelids and droopy-mouth corners, someone with a lack of sleep visible on the face.

“My alarm rang before yours,” his face said every morning. “And I’m already at work. If I can do this, you can go wrangle a couple hundred middle school kids today.”

And I believed him. He had done it yesterday, he was doing it today, and he’d do it again tomorrow. He was doing it tired. But he was alert and skilled, it being no accident that he was an award-winning reporter.

And he was kind.

“Comfort the afflicted,” he liked to say, and he did.

His investigations helped exonerate a woman who had been wrongfully convicted of killing a baby. His reporting resulted in DNA testing for a man who had been unjustly imprisoned. And, away from the newsroom, he worked to establish a high-school journalism program for minority students.

Jerry Revish was known as a nice guy in a tough business.

And that became my goal each morning—to be a nice in the tough business of teaching, no matter that my face sagged.

The Silver-Hair Club

I’m in a club I never joined. Not on purpose, at least. And though we never meet, those of us in the club recognize each other, wherever we are—in airports and hospital waiting rooms, in Egypt and Ohio. We find each other in grocery stores, our carts piled high with foods younger people eat. And those of us who are fortunate are sprinkled around at cross-country meets and basketball games and graduation parties.

You might think it’s the silver hair that helps us find each other. Or the lines that give our faces character. Or the occasional grimace when a body part fails—or one of the other medals of our long passage through life. But these are only the trifling signs.

What bonds us into a club is the instant knowing. From the very first moment our eyes meet, we have the feeling that we understand each other, that we can see in each other what we each know about ourselves.

We know the realities for our time of life. For example, people, especially those who don’t know us and how quick-witted we really are, have begun to talk to us in a different style—using a singsong voice with a limited vocabulary and exaggerated words. Elderspeak some folks call it, a kind of twilight-of-life baby talk. Others see us as antiques, stuck in old ways, holding onto landlines and paper and analogue clocks and flashlights with batteries. And, we, ourselves, can feel the gradual shift from the centers of life to the sidelines—in our professions and in our families.

In one shared glance, we in the club acknowledge to each other all this we are losing.

But that quick look does more. It also celebrates what we are gaining.

Having moved off-stage, we are now the chief applauders of those still on it—our children and grandchildren and so many young friends—whose successes mean more to us than our own. Though we’re not on Instagram and TikTok and Twitter, those we love reach to us with emails and dinner invitations and earnest conversation.

They need us, these young people we applaud. And we are fortunate when they want us—those of us in the silver-hair club.

Eating Shawarma in Egypt and Popcorn in London, Ohio

We’re home, back in our 150-year-old house on Main Street in small-town Ohio. And how can it feel so good? Especially after nearly a month of alluring palaces and temples and pyramids and a cruise down the Nile and walking in a city built with Jerusalem stone.

It’s all still here—that creak on the third step, the rattle of the foyer windows, and the patina of the wide-board floors. The newel post still holds up the banister worn smooth by the hands of adults and the bottom sides of kids. The sun hasn’t forgotten how to peek through the rose-tinted living room windows. And my many clocks are still ticking and chiming and swinging their pendulums.

After eating shawarma in Egypt and upside-down chicken in Jordan and falafel in Israel, how can a bowl of popcorn taste so good? How can it be so satisfying to fill an entire glass with ice before pouring water? And I could go on—our own bed, with an American-style top sheet, bubble bath, clothes in drawers, and real Diet Cokes, not Zeroes.

My delight in these at-home pleasures has made me feel like a stick-in-the-mud old fogy. But then I read this study. Coming home, scientists have found, makes your brain release extra doses of dopamine, the feel-good hormone. At least if you’re a mouse. Mice who are returned to their home cages experienced a rush of dopamine equal to the surge from a dose of cocaine.

No wonder the popcorn was so good and the ice. No wonder the squeaky floorboards under my feet and the banister under my hand makes me feel like a child returned to her mother.

I love to travel. And I wouldn’t say that the best part of traveling is coming home. But when you’re almost seventy, it’s close.

Desert Water

I quit feeling sorry for David on this trip to Israel. At least partly. It couldn’t have been easy for him to know the king was hunting him down. But if he had to hide, En Gedi was the place to do it.

Maybe because we had just come from the Dead Sea. Maybe because the land around us had been scorched and craggy and brown, brown, brown. Maybe because without the early rains, water had been scanty. Maybe for all these reasons, it felt like God had touched his finger to En Gedi, making it a patch of paradise.

No wonder many people call it the most beautiful place in Israel.

We hiked Wadi David that runs through En Gedi. But instead of the dry desert river bed I had expected, water spilled into crystal basins along the trail, ran off rocky ledges, dripped from giant reeds and cattails, and flowed into pools large enough for swimming.

We trailed along an amazing labyrinth of narrow gorges and through tunnels created by decades of dried reeds that thatched into each other, making a roof over the trail. Sometimes we descended to the creek bed, where we stepped on rocks to keep our shoes dry. And we climbed to David’s Waterfall, which cascades a forceful 120 feet into the pool below.

Above us ibex scampered on the mountain rocks. Around us sweet dates, balsam, and persimmon grew. And in our ears was always, always the sound of a water that is perhaps the freshest and most nutritious in the world.

This is what makes En Gedi—the water. But what also makes En Gedi is the desert. The desert is necessary to truly appreciate the water. More than opposites, the desert and En Gedi are also aspects of the same thing.

On this waterside hike, I thought about the famed encounter between David and King Saul at En Gedi. Given, Saul’s animosity, what gave David the courage and grace to cut a corner of Saul’s cloak instead of killing him?

I don’t know, of course.

But maybe desert water helped.

Every Drop of Water

“Grab that water,” my husband said. “Let’s take it with us.”

We were leaving our room with a view of the Mediterranean Sea. And he was pointing to a couple inches of water in a bottle.

I was glad he had noticed.

Careful with water—this is what guides had been saying all through Egypt and Jordan and now in Israel. And it’s what we’d been reading on signs in hotels.

The theme was strong.

“I know you want sun,” our guide said yesterday. “But I hope it rains. The early rains haven’t come.”

They need these rains for drinking and irrigating, but also for harvest. Dusty olives need the washing of rain before picking.

The theme stayed strong.

Netting covers acres of banana trees holding water close to the trees, not letting it evaporate. Water-catch basins line the tops of buildings. And when water is free at restaurants, it is announced.

Our bus passed a massive desalination plant at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea.

“A growing industry for Israel,” the guide said. “We take salt from the water and sell the water to other nations.”

An hour later, we stopped in front of a small tree.

“Tamarack,” the guide said, “the kind of tree Abraham planted to worship God.”

This tree, he explained, has its own desalination system. Its roots separate the salt from the water, sending the salt to the leaves. The salty leaves are used to clean wounds and treat infections. But they also drop salt to the ground, preventing other plants from growing under it, and in this way saving every drop of water for the tree.

For sure I’m enjoying every drop that washes dust down the back of my throat.

And I’ve found new understanding as to why water flows so freely through the ancient words of scripture.

Laser Points on Ancient Messages

“Watch your step like an Egyptian,” our guide told us, “so you don’t fall down like an American.”

I didn’t mind looking down. The granite pavers under my feet had been worn smooth for thousands of years. Who had walked on these pathways, I wondered as the guide took us through the famous Temple of Hatshepsut, the princess who pulled the baby Moses from the Nile.

“Watch your step,” he said at the Step Pyramid of Zoser, the oldest pyramid ever built, dating back to 2700 B.C.

He said it at the Tomb of King Tut and at the Avenue of the Sphinx and at the storehouses Joseph built and at Cheops, the most colossal pyramid ever built.

I haven’t fallen, not yet. But it’s hard to watch your step in a place where looking is learning. We, with our smart boards and slides and video conferencing, have nothing on ancient Egyptian visuals. In Egypt, there is literacy in the statuary and on the walls of temples and tombs and gates. And on ceilings—which takes your eyes even further from your feet. In the hieroglyphics and symbols and stone-chiseled drawings, you can read biographies and histories and strategies and beliefs.

What a delicious anachronism to watch guides explain meanings by moving their laser pointers across ancient messages reaching forty feet high.

As I watched guides teaching the throngs of people who came to see what they could learn, I reflected on a trend I noticed in the decades I taught. Students, it seemed, more and more attended better, made greater sense of content, and remembered longer when I made concepts visible. When their eyes had nothing to see, their brains disengaged.

We are now leaving the visuals of the temples and tombs to head through the wilderness. The people Moses led away from Egypt and across the desert missed what they left behind: fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic. And likely, so did Moses.

But as I look across the vast spaces of the desert, I can’t help but think that Moses looked up at the empty skies and missed the messages on the walls.

It Must Be Something!

We’ve been spoiled this year, for sure! A trip through Europe with our son and his family. And now we’re flying again—to visit three countries new to us but ancient in civilization: Egypt, Jordan, and Israel.

For the first leg of our journey, I sat beside a young man headed to France to teach English. He’s giving teaching a try, he told me. He might like the classroom.

“But I have another idea,” he told me.

Though he had seemed travel fatigued a moment before, he became suddenly buoyant.

“I’m thinking of urban planning,” he said.

I waited, sure more was to come.

“You know what I’d like to do?” he asked. “I’d like to develop a network of trains across the United States, like in Europe.”

I hesitated, not wanting to spoil his dream.

“Did you know,” I asked, “about the interurban railroad?”

“Tell me,” he said.

And so I told him how, a hundred years ago, the interurban electric railways crisscrossed the United States, how even a kid could hail a railroad car from in front of the house where I now live in London, Ohio, and go to the big city to see the Columbus Buckeyes play ball or to a movie in Springfield, or just keep going all the way to Chicago to visit a grandma.

He looked at me as though I had ridden the interurban myself, as if to him, a hundred years seemed endless.

“It must be something,” he said, “to know what happened all those years ago.

We each turned to our own devices—me to my computer and him to his phone. But his last words stuck. After all, we are going to places where we’ll delve into millennia, not centuries.