Friday, September 30, 2011


This town is so lonely it’ll make you old before your time;
Let me take you in my arms, hold your body close to mine…
                                                                                             ~Ian Tyson

Every year at this season it comes over me: the hermit thing. The urge to take a stack of books and notebooks and my laptop and head off to the cabin for a week alone—to study for a season’s worth of sermons or work on a piece of curriculum or write that baptism book for parents.

I have, in fact done this every year or two, and the drill is always the same: After a nine hour drive across the plains and badlands, the Black Hills rise and then disappear in the twilight. The road winds steadily up and into the Hills until, at over a mile high, I arrive at the cabin just after dark. If I’m lucky there’s a fresh snowfall to light my way to the porch steps. I unlock the door, drop my suitcase on the floor, get a fire going in the twenty degree cabin, then finish unloading the car (under stars that shimmer “like salt on black velvet”). I unpack my suitcase, set out my laptop, and continue to build up the fire. Thirty degrees. I busy myself cutting some bread and cheese, and uncork a bottle of wine. Forty degrees. It is quiet. There is no TV or radio or internet or CD player. The cabin is surrounded by the darkness and miles of the Black Hills National Forest, and the walls are made of logs twelve inches in diameter. Quiet. At about sixty degrees I sit in front of the fire with the bread and cheese and wine. I take a sip and it hits me: “This is kind of lonesome.”  I’ve enjoyed my hermitage for about forty-five minutes, and I have six days and nights ahead of me.

There are three troublesome things about my isolated scenario: One is that I am an extrovert. Not the wacky Krusty the Klown extrovert of my youth – I’m sliding closer to the midline every year – but I’m still defined by that Myers-Briggs truism that an extrovert is “energized by being with people.”  The second problem is that I’m madly in love with my wife, and I just left her behind for a week – in fact made deliberate plans for what I kept claiming was going to be a “great week – really productive!” And now I’m here at sixty degrees (with a forty-five degree bedroom waiting for me) while she’s at home watching Glee. And here’s the thing – she’s happily watching Glee. Oh, she loves and misses me, but she is – as an introvert – conveniently energized by being alone! (I need to keep insisting that she “misses” me, because when I come home she persists in telling me how nice her week was. She especially delights in reporting, “When I got out of bed, all I had to do was pull up the spread, and it was made!”)

The third problem is that the Sage Creek Grill, one of the best restaurants in the Black Hills, is (what I quickly come to think of as “only”) ten miles away, in Custer. It’s too late to go tonight, I suppose, but something to look forward to tomorrow – after I get a few pages of reading and writing done, of course. (One year I bought fifty dollars worth of groceries to take out to the cabin for my solitary meals. But the lure of the Sage was such that at the end of the week I dropped the groceries off at my sister’s in Rapid City on my way back east.)

But the morning dawns cerulean blue and snappingly cold. The cabin is now cozy warm, and those twelve inch logs will keep it that way with the occasional tending of the fire. (The same logs whose thickness made my bedroom so quiet that in the middle of the night I got up, rummaged around, and turned on a fan – for the noise.) I bundle up to sit on my favorite porch chair with a cup of coffee, devotions, and visible breath. Quick cup of coffee and quick devotions because it is cold.

Back inside, I open the laptop on my specially-built-out-of-lumber-scraps custom laptop desk. I lean back in the chair, do that  backwards entwined finger-stretching-knuckle-cracking thing, stare at the screen, then notice my watch, recalling that the Sage Creek opens for lunch at 11:00. Time for a shower, then twenty minutes to town, lunch with any of my area friends or relatives I can coax into joining me (if I'm lucky, this will be a laughter-filled "hour" that stretches into the afternoon), twenty minutes back, and, to work….

(Let me pause here to report that I actually have accomplished much sermon-planning, curriculum-writing, and, yes, finished that baptism book using this routine. The reader will be excused for wondering how.)

I started these fanciful forays into creative loneliness when Caryl was teaching, and we were usually unable to coordinate her schedule with my Study Leave calendar. (Yes – Study Leave! My Mom once said, “I don’t care what you call it, it’s still vacation.” My Mom!!!) But now Caryl is retired, and she’ll go with me this year.  I love it, but it’s actually a trade-off: On the plus side, no lonely nights with cheese and crackers; but then, whenever she sees me leaning back and eying my watch she gets to say, “How’s that sermon coming?”

The extrovert in me will be pleased with the company; the introvert in her will be fed by the quietness of the cabin. We'll go to the Sage Creek once or twice.

And it will only take a little bit longer to make the bed.

Monday, September 19, 2011


I’ve always thought of myself as clinically happy. Despite the glibness of that phrase, I mean it quite literally: Whatever the chemical wash is that douses the brain in depression or cheer, I got the happy stuff. When knocked down, I get up. When disappointed, I’m OK after five minutes. But recently I had a one-two punch that knocked me back for more than a few minutes – enough to give me a sense, however limited, of what people who suffer actual depression might experience.

I want to pause here and explain that I’m just fine; those who love me (thank you) need not wonder what veiled sorrow I’m hiding. In fact, the purpose of this post is not about my temporarily depressive burden, but about the fairly simple way it was lifted.

Although I’m more than willing to describe the various items that were weighing me down, I won’t do it here, not because I’m trying to hide them, but because they would cause anyone with real problems to respond, “Oh, boo hoo!”

Part of it was quantitative. To borrow a description that I once heard my friend Jeff use: “I don’t have a full plate – I have a Lazy Susan spinning in front of me!” It was a number of things coming together in what was a busy season to begin with – kind of like that “Stress Scale” that you’ve probably seen:  The Christmas season, 12 stress points; a new baby, 39 stress points; moving to a new home, 20 points, etc.

The only thing that I’ll mention specifically is the tax audit, because that’s what seemed to affect me out of all proportion. It was like throwing a large ham onto the spinning Lazy Susan – a sort of crash. (It was a routine and not a “targeted” audit.) But all of this is just set-up to what inspired this little essay: the "take-away."

My take-away from this episode (or episodes), which are now mainly behind me, is the therapeutic value of having someone to talk to. I’ve known of this concept all my life; I’ve preached about it; I’ve taught it; I’ve written about it in this blog, and it’s not that I’ve never applied it to myself before, but, at least professionally, I’m more often playing the role of the listener. But every once in a while I rediscover the healing benefits of talking to someone about what’s on my mind.

In the case of the spinning plate of cares, I benefited from talking to different people about different things – sometimes I did so purposefully; in one instance I connected somewhat accidentally with someone with whom I had a helpful conversation. The most surprising revelation was how much better I felt after I talked to the tax auditor. The content of our conversation was not all that positive (the audit, in fact, did not go well for me), but it seemed as though the combined psychological and physiological elements of talking with another person had a biochemical effect on my brain and my body. Endorphins? Ions? It’s like taking a shower after a grueling racquetball game – even in defeat. The shower washes away the defeat along with the grime, and, post-shower, all the world seems new. I felt a bit like the young man who once told me, after a counseling session, “I think ya done me some good!”

An obvious element of the dynamics of this is that – especially with something like an audit – the mind can work mischief, so the value of talking is not only psychological, but also factual: One’s imaginings may be worse than the real story – so better get the straight scoop.

A woman once approached me to unburden herself of something that had been bothering her for six weeks -- something she had said to me the last time we talked. I didn’t want to seem unconcerned, but I had to tell her honestly that I had forgotten it about ten seconds after she’d left my office. So I’m glad she carried that load for only six weeks and not six years. Talk it out.

Perhaps a word about the nature of my audit conversation is in order: I found the auditor’s office in a nondescript building on the outskirts of a nearby city. I’m glad that I had decided ahead of time not to try to be funny or smart, because when I walked in, sitting behind a gray steel desk was Agent No-Nonsense. She reminded me of Mrs. Narsgaard, the Sunday School superintendent who took over our sixth grade class when we literally ran our teacher out of the room. We straightened right up. And so did I, on the other side of the audit desk. I don’t mean this mockingly. I came to love Mrs. Narsgaard (she was actually my Mom’s best friend), and I liked the straightforwardness of the agent. I can only imagine the number of times that woebegone clients, sitting in the same chair I was in, succumbed to fear, trembling, and tears. Although she was, in one way, as steely as her desk, something in her manner convinced me that she would treat them fairly and gently.

I shed no tears, but she was kind, firm, and (unfortunately) thorough. I felt as though I’d been heard, and a load was lifted. Later, in a follow-up conversation, she actually said something very much like, “Now, I hope this has been a lesson for you.” But by then it sounded like a word from Mom.