Honoring My Ancestors

As the Great Wheel turns and time moves forward into Fall, I’m reminded of many traditions I’ve experienced over my lifetime.  In my childhood years, the winding down of Summer into Fall was a marker of life slowing down into the important activities of reaping what we had sown.

Alfred Albert Raatz and Theodore Julius Wagner (ca. 1958)
Childhood farmhouse near Oakes, ND (ca. 1981)

 In growing up on a farm, Fall was the time where harvest was nearing its end and we made the ground ready for winter.  We began to tend to all of the various aspects of our property by doing maintenance on buildings, mending fences and arranging our equipment to be stored.  This time of slowing down and gathering our crops often meant coming together with neighbors and family to help.  There was more time spent together as life seems to condense more and more as the temperature drops toward the long winter ahead.  

Mildred and Theodore Wagner (ca. 1958)

When I consider life slowing down from Spring toward Winter, I’m reminded of the parallels of my life and that of people who have come before me.  The Spring is a time of birth and renewal.  Summer is about growth, learning and expanding.  Fall is about reaping the harvest or seeing and experiencing the benefits of all your hard work, and the ending of a cycle toward death.  And finally, there is Winter.  Winter is about reflection on the prior year, resting and healing.  It’s also about planning toward the coming year and preparing for new life to come in the Spring.

In the Christian traditions it is known as All Hollow’s Eve (Halloween), All Saints Day and the Day of the Dead.

Gordon, Larry and Marvin Raatz
Goldie and Alfred Raatz (ca. 1959)

In the traditions of the various peoples and religions, Fall was often in alignment with honoring the dead.  In the Christian traditions it is known as All Hollow’s Eve (Halloween), All Saints Day and the Day of the Dead.   In the Pagan traditions it is known as Samhain.  And the Druids called it Calan Gaeaf.  Some of those traditions also considered Fall the end of their year.

Marvin and Alice Raatz (ca. 1970)

 In my research and some of my own personal experiences, I’ve found that Fall really does feel like the completion of a cycle, or in a way it could be considered a kind of death.  While this can feel very depressing, it is a natural cycle that is part of life on this planet and something we should honor.

The beginning of October is also a very emotionally turbulent time for me.  It is especially turbulent because three significant events happened on October 8th.  On this date in 1936, my mother Alice Marie Wagner was born.  On this date in 1966, my wife Melissa Anne Strack was born.  And on this date in 2007, my father Marvin Dale Raatz was killed in a car accident. It’s is a difficult time because there is a part of me that wants to celebrate the birth of two very significant women in my life and another part of me that still mourns the tragic death of my father.  I try to look at his passing by celebrating his life, and in doing so attempt to merge my feelings together between birth and death.  But how am I ever going to be able to reconcile my emotions around these polar opposites?  Perhaps there is no way to reconcile the feelings.  Perhaps it’s better to honor them both equally.

Alice and Marvin Raatz (ca. 2001)

In the spirit of the traditions of the Ages, for the month of October I am honoring my ancestors.  I am honoring my Father, my paternal and maternal grandparents and all who came before them in my lineage.  I am also honoring those in my life who have come before me that are not of my bloodline.  I believe that part of who I am today can be traced back to not only the genetics of my lineage, but I also others who have touch my life in very specific and lasting ways.  While I believe that I came into this life with my own personality, goals and innate abilities, these things are inextricably woven into all that has happened before me.  Much like the Butterfly Effect, all of the major and seemingly minute actions of the life, the Universe and Everything (before I was born) has come together to create a completely unique person.  In that vain,  I honor all of life that has come before me to this day.

Until the moment that I draw my last breath, it is important for me to remember that my own actions in this life not only shape my own experience, but also that of countless others.

Grave – Marvin Dale Raatz (02/28/1929 – 10/08/2007)

Until the moment that I draw my last breath, it is important for me to remember that my own actions in this life not only shape my own experience, but also that of countless others.  Just as the flap of a butterfly’s wings can contribute to a hurricane’s creation, I have a responsibility to live my life honorably.  I must remember that my actions matter to those that are close to me and to the person I pass in the street.  This perspective is a game changer which moves me outside of my own head-games in into a role of power and influence.  It is in the act of honoring my ancestors that I am reminded of the importance of my life and actions for those who come after me. 

Dwight Raatz,
September 28, 2019

I Feel Like A Weirdo

The More
Radiohead – Creep (cover) by Daniela Andrade

I recently stumbled across the song “Creep” by Radiohead and boy can I relate.  I’ve often felt completely out of place in this world, feeling lost and frozen.  My overactive mind spins the webs of connections between past experiences, relationships, decisions and perceived future to create a story that feels so real.  It feels like this story makes sense, that I’m a weirdo and a creep.  All of the “facts” seem undeniable and irrefutable so why even argue with it?  Why not just accept the fact that life sucks and figure out a way to just step out of it?

I thought about the “stepping out” option many times over the decades and the main thought, the main reason I’ve always stayed around was because of my family and what I know it would do to them if I made that choice.  This has kept me alive up to this point. The reason is sound and workable, but even that reasoning has limits and loses its power over time.  The mind will find a way to rationalize why it really doesn’t matter to my family either.  Where does this leave me?  Am I out of excuses?

I’m writing this because I want you to know that I’ve thought all of these thoughts, I’ve created all of the scenarios of why I don’t belong here, I’ve imagined all the reasons why no one really cares.  And finally here is what I’ve discovered.  All of the shit I’ve been making up and believing is a big fucking lie!  The world I’ve imagined is just that, an imaginary, twisted, false, narrow minded, nightmare.

Now, for those of you who are feeling pretty shitty about yourself or your life, I want you to know you are currently under a spell.  Yes, you read that right, you are under a spell that was cast by you and by many in your life, and you know not of what you are thinking.  Your mind is been hacked by the repetition of negative thoughts, experiences and the environment of doom and gloom news, movies and other media.  It’s all just a bad dream that has no basis in what is really true.  If you only knew a small fraction of who you really are, you would laugh about the ridiculous notion of what your mind has cooked up!  You are much largerand much more significantthan your human mind can even fathom, and that my friends is the really shitty part of growing up in the human mindset we’ve been lead to believe is true or real.

Hush now baby, baby, don’t you cry.
Mama’s gonna make all your nightmares come true.
Mama’s gonna put all her fears into you.
Mama’s gonna keep you right here under her wing.
She won’t let you fly, but she might let you sing.
Mama’s gonna keep baby cozy and warm.
Ooh baby, ooh baby, ooh baby,
Of course mama’s gonna help build the wall.
                  – Mother by Pink Floyd

What if I told you that everything you know is not what you might think it is?  Much like the movie The Matrix, we live in a made up construct that has rules that we (I mean everyone) have developed over time.  These rules include language, social structure, traditions, what we can wear after Labor Day, etc.  If you think about it, when you were first born, just out of the womb what did you really know?  Some say we know everything we need to know. Some say we are just an empty shell waiting to have knowledge poured into us by our parents and teachers.  I don’t really know whose right, but I do know that we can breath, blink our eyes, cry when we are in pain, and we learn through our experiences.  You’ve likely heard of stories of people being found in remote jungles or forests that have thrived quite well without the modern day structures of language or drive through coffee shops.  Even so, they have developed a structure to live within. Even though it may not have been “given” to them by others, it does still exist to them.  The difference between the person in the remote jungle and someone growing up in south Minneapolis is that the person in the jungle is more likely living as close to a true version of who they really are.

The Matrix – The Pill Scene

What you might consider as real is really just a dream.  Your perspectivehas been trained to see the world around you inside of a framework that you’ve created over time. There is nothing inherently wrong with this idea, but the important thing to remember is that you created it and you can also change it.  This means that whatever shitty life you feel like you’ve been given or fell into, you have complete control over what you think about it and how you react/respond to it every day.  

I’m reminded of a storyof a man who had a job working in a toll-booth (obviously years ago) and every day, people would see this man dancing inside this small booth all while doing this job.  One day a woman was so curious that when she stopped to pay her toll fee, she asked him, “Why are you dancing?”, and the man replied, “I’m having a party. One day, I’m going to be a dancer and my bosses are just paying for my training.”  This story has always stuck with me over the years because it’s a lesson in how we can decide how to look at and see our own circumstances.  We can decide how we are going to view them and how we are going to feel about them as well.

Google Images Search for Neuroplasticity

There are a few ways to look at how you view your life.  One of them is the scientific perspective that over time with repetitive thoughts and emotions, your mind creates a common pathway for the “energy” of your thoughts to travel and come to a normal endpoint or reaction.  This is known in the scientific realm as Neuroplasticity, which is “The brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life.  It allows nerve cells in the brain to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment”.  From this perspective, it only makes sense that if you repeatedly think or are exposed to negative thoughts or beliefs, the brain will simply follow suite and create the necessary pathways to accommodate this thought process.  

Consider this, when humans were first walking the earth trying to figure things out, our brains began to develop from a more primitive (survival) method to our current human abilities. We learned to create and express ourselves all while still holding on to some of those primitive survival modes.  This primitive “mode” is sometimes called the “reptilian brain”.  The whole purpose of the “reptilian brain” is to survive and to avoid harm.  So when you are exposed to a trauma or threat of some kind, that part of your brain builds the necessary pathways to make sure if you ever get into that or any similar situation, you would be ready.  This sense of “readiness” puts us into a fight or flight mode, which served us well for thousands if not millions of years.  Now, fast forward to modern day man where our traumas are a whole different level of threat to us. Most of them are not life or death level concerns; however, that part of your brain doesn’t know any difference between the threat of a saber toothed tiger and the bully at school who is relentless about making your life a living hell!  Eve so the reaction and purpose of this is the same, to keep you alive and prevent you from harm.

Google Images Search for Reptilian Brain

The good news is that with our new super fancy brain, we now have something we didn’t have before: awareness.  Awareness allows us to supersede the reptile mind and make a different choice.  It allows us to decide to train our minds and brains to create new neural pathways simply by choosing and practicing. There are likely many methods to do this, and some of them are through guided mediations, daily journalling, affirmations, daily positive mindful rituals, etc.  Choose what is best for you and give it at least two months to create a new “habit” in your mind.  I read recentlythat it takes 66 days to fully create a new habit, so get going!

Another way to consider your “life view” is from the perspective of generational trauma (including past lives and current familial lineage). You may have even heard of the idea of coming into this life with a particular plan, a purpose that you wish to experience or even having a karmic debt to pay. I believe that karmic energy is always seeking balance and if you’ve experienced trauma (or if you created the trauma) in your life. This can create an imbalance that needs to be rectified in this life or in a future one.  All of this is just another path that gives you the opportunity to grow and expand beyond the narrow, or possibly ignorant, view of life you had before.  

In my own experiences, it’s those times when the Universe has presented a situation (giving me the opportunity to step up and grow) where I’ve run away from the opportunity because I was too afraid. What I’m learning is that the fear I’m holding on to is directly related to one or more experiences in my life where I felt un-safe or like I was not enough.  As I grow older, the events where I experience anxiety are becoming not only more frequent, but also from things that are less and less dramatic.  I’ve been doing work around this phenomenon by working with a coach, reading about various strategies around my own anxiety and keeping an open mind about all the possible reasons I feel the way I do.  I believe people who feel this same way have been “trained” to cover up the pain by using some sort of coping mechanism like prescription medication, recreational drugs, meditation, sex, alcohol, etc.  Basically utilizing external means to cope with the anxiety rather than to discover its true source.  I have used several of these methods over the years only to be in the same place I was before.  But you know, that is just part of my journey.  I had to go through each of those things in order to grow in my own awareness around my issues.

I’ve learned that my anxiety is not about me being broken or not enough.  My anxiety is simply a “language” of my physical and mental bodies trying to tell me that something needs to change.  When I’m out of alignment with my true path or purpose, the Universe has a way of sending you little (or not so subtle) messages to help you course correct.  It’s really up to you to listen to what you are feeling and then dig into the source to find the best path to healing.  

Sometimes the feeling of anxiety isn’t from trauma.  In my case one of the big things I found was that my body was overloaded with Candida which was causing and manifesting other kinds of chronic illnesses including respiratory, joint pain, depression, gut issues, mental focus, etc.  I learned to listen to my body and then take the necessary steps to resolve as much of these issues as I could with alternative methods. Many of the steps I took had to do with adjusting my diet and discovering what my body needs or does not want.

Some other steps I took included working with a personal coach and healer who helped me develop daily practices including gratitude, forgiveness, self love and setting boundaries.  The healer was trained in several modalities that helped remove “stuck energy”, allowing my body and spirit to be released in order to heal. This was a really important step to help me feel lighter and more focused.

Another avenue I’m working on is learning more about my own past lives and how they are connected to the anxiety I feel now.  It was fascinating to learn that in a past life where my father was highly abusive to me. He found every opportunity to belittle everything I did and make me feel unsafe.  In that same session I saw how I began to treat my own son in a very similar way.  This showed me how the pattern is just handed down, generation after generation, lifetime after lifetime.  The cool part of the session was when my coach had me imagine what my father’s life was like.  Why was he so unhappy and mean?  I saw a vision of him also being physically abused by his father.  This perspective allowed me to have empathy for him and to open my heart to send him love and forgiveness.  In this simple act of forgiveness, I felt a great weight lifted from my own heart.  I felt that some of the lost power from this generational trauma was reclaimed to me!

It’s interesting to see that you can see how these practices and experience are directly in alignment with developing new healthy neural pathways I mentioned earlier. It’s important to harness the power of the human mind and body to truly know what needs to be changed. We are discovering every day through our advancements in science that many of the old traditions (where some people find them “whoo whoo”) actually have truth backing them up by science.  Don’t you think that’s pretty cool!?

At this point you many be wondering why I’m telling you all of this and what does it have to do with you and your issues?  I’m telling you this because I think it’s a powerful way we can collectively grow beyond the negative cycle we find ourselves in.  Not everything I said in this piece is going to resonate with you.  Heck some of it my even piss you off, but that’s okay.  My purpose of sharing this is to plant a seed.  I hope to create an opening for a slightly different perspective on your life and your purpose.  I believe that down deep, we all know what we love to do and what we are passionate about.  We’ve just gotten stuck in the limiting beliefs that were handed down to us in one way or another.  You have the power to break the spell you’ve been living under.  Perhaps you will help free some of the other people in your life to wake up to who they truly are and what their truth really is.  When you take your power back, you have the opportunity and duty to help others gain their own power.

I invite you to step back from whatever belief system you have and just for a moment, consider one of the perspectives I’ve presented above.  Try it on for awhile to see what you might discover for yourself and about the world around you.  I’ve found that traveling and putting myself into the world of others has really helped me shift my perspective on many things.  You can do the same right here and now and not even leave your neighborhood.

Dwight J. Raatz
April 7, 2019

Force of Habit

The More

The other day Melissa and I came home after a day out shopping and doing errands.  After parking the car we started gathering our things and Melissa went into the house carrying the first load.  It took some time for me to arrange what I needed to haul in but then I headed for the house as well.  Upon getting to our door, I turned the knob and found that the door was locked!  Realizing that I did not have my keys, I managed to use my elbow to push the doorbell to our apartment.  In a couple minutes, Melissa pulled open the door apologizing and said, “Oh sorry!  Force of habit!”.  

The “force of habit” got me thinking.  How many of us do things habitually every day without even thinking about them?  I’d guess that there is a high percentage of things we do that are mostly “muscle memory” or habitual actions.  Habits aren’t necessarily bad or abnormal, and I say that they are good things if the habits are healthy. Habits enable us to function very effectively in many situations all while allowing our minds to contemplate and resolve other more pressing issues.  I believe that these cognitive abilities are part of why we has humans have been so adaptive in surviving on this planet.

In thinking deeper about the “force of habit”, I started to consider some of my own emotional habits.  I thought about how many times I’ve slipped into anxiety about a situation and I have really no idea why I ended up there.  Or when I find myself in a sort of dissociative state where I’m replaying something that happened until I’m in a full blown state of depression.  These things seem to happen to me even without much intent or proper cause.  What if these two states of emotion are more about being a habit and less about being mentally or physically ill?  

As I’ve been growing in my awarenesses around my depression and anxiety, I’ve been noticing that their cause isn’t just from once single source.  I’m finding evidence that mine has been related to physical stresses, emotional trauma, energetic sensitivity and even past life events that have carried forward.  I’m realizing that working through the issues of these emotions is not necessarily solved by doing one thing.  I believe we all need to be open to all possibilities that may be a source of whatever we are struggling with in our lives.

In doing a very quick and informal Google search on creating habits, it says that it can take about 2 months to create a habit.  While this might be true for some things, I believe that a habit can start as soon as you decide it should exist.  Granted it might be a bit bumpy at first, but I think it can be done rather quickly if sufficient intent is placed on the habit.  I think the human mind is so powerful that once we decide something and fully commit with a clear vision, we will implement this change almost immediately in our lives.

Recently I committed to myself that I wanted to evolve my habit of anxiety into a healthy state by the time I turn 54 years old (coming in May 2019).  What I found is that this simple act of seeing the Vision or end point, Deciding, and then Committing (VDC) to it, everything starts to shift into accomplishing that goal.  I’ve found that articles I read, people who talked with me, and communications I receive, all started to move me in that direction.  The other part of the VDC is connecting it to honoring yourself.  If you honor yourself through committing to the goal, then your chances of reaching it multiply rapidly in your favor.

The “habit force” is just another tool in your arsenal that you can now use and leverage to fulfill whatever dream or goal you have.  Consider it’s power and how it can help you, but remember what Stan Lee said, “With great power, comes great responsibility.”  Use it wisely my friends.

Dwight J. Raatz
February 26, 2019

Adventure in Paradise

For the past few years my wife Melissa and I have travelled during the Christmas holiday week.  It has been a convenient time since it is a bit slower for both of us as clients are busy with their own holiday events.  This year we decide to venture to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. 

It is intriguing and fascinating traveling in countries where language is a barrier in communication. It seems that when we are in familiar surroundings we

can oftentimes become lazy and complacent with our communication. This can lead to being more disconnected from the people your communicating with and ultimately becoming isolated within your own “world”. When you are faced with a language barrier, you can’t help but being totally present with the other person.  You have to be thinking in each moment how you can best express yourself so that you will be understood. This might involve a combination of using some of the local language you’ve picked up, facial expressions, body language and of course smiling. Lots of smiling :-).  

Traveling has really been a great teacher for the practice of being present, but you don’t have to travel to get this experience.  You can “travel” down the street to the local diner or even just going to the grocery store can provide you with opportunities to engage with people who may have some kind of communication barrier with you.  Those barriers could be physical, intellectual, learned (like language), or even in emotions or beliefs.  Opportunities to be present with others, what they need, and how you might be able to assist are all around us every day.

We booked an AirBnb that was a shared space rather than having the whole apartment or house to ourselves.  I was intrigued by this as it reminded me of some hostiles I’ve stayed in and the host sounded like a lot of fun when we initially reached out to ask some questions.  In my past travel experiences living in a shared space, I’ve always met amazing people from all around our beautiful planet, and I hoped this trip would be no exception.

One of the things I’ve come to expect with traveling is the unexpected and I try my best at rolling with any issues that come my way.  Traveling is always a challenge, even in the best of circumstances.  While this all sounds very wise and easy, it really isn’t that way for me.  If you know me at all, you know that anxiety has been an ever present part of my life for years and I’ve done a lot of work around expanding beyond this limitation.  Traveling, as you may know, can make you a bit anxious at least at some level.  For me, it usually starts a few days before the trip and continues in varying levels until at least a few hours after arrival, once I know I’m safe at my destination.  For this trip the anxiety dropped off almost immediately after landing.  We had arranged with our host to have a taxi waiting for us and sure enough, after we made it through the gauntlet of transportation and tour experience “opportunities”, we found our driver outside holding a sign with my name on it!  We were greeted with a smile and immediate assistance with anything we had to carry.  Then as if that wasn’t enough, our host was even there by chance and stopped to talk with us about our next steps in getting to her condo!

Getting to know our housemates was one of the best experiences of our trip.  We met people who were currently or originally from Russia, Great Britain, France, Argentina, Bolivia, Venezuela, Andorra, Switzerland and Spain.  And this was just who we met and lived with for a few days!  I loved to hear stories of their lives, their goals and dreams, and what they have experienced in their own travels.  There is a kind of kindred spirit that develops among travelers that spend even a short amount of time together that can live in you for a long time.  The effort you spend on getting to know that person living next door, down the block or on the other side of the planet can change your life and make the world a much better place.

Our AirBnb host was amazing at giving us ideas about areas near the condo that were interesting to visit.  Some of them were beaches,restaurants, tours and hiking locations.  One of the places we decided to travel to on our own was Macao Beach and to Montaña Redonda mountain.  We decided to go on an adventure of our own and explore these places.   On previous trips we’ve talked about renting a little motor-scooter and use that to get us around rather than renting a car or using a taxi. So we thought it would be a brilliant idea to rent a scooter for this trip so we headed out from our condo in search of a motorbike. Little did we know what we had in store for us emotionally or physically.

If you’ve ever been to Punta Cana, you will see motorcycle taxis everywhere.  They are kind of like vultures buzzing around the unsuspecting prey.  If you stop walking too long they will converge and pester you to give you a ride somewhere.  “No problem mister.  No problem, I will take you.”, they repeat.  It can be dizzying at times to stay focused and repeat back, “No gracias!”. But this time we had an especially persistent guy on a motorbike stop and ask what we needed.  We tried several times to avoid him but he stayed on us.  Finally we said we were walking to find a scooter rental place. He lit up and told us to hop on and he would take us.  “No problem.  I will take you. Free taxi. No problem.”, he repeated.  Finally I looked at Melissa and said, what the heck, should we do it? She said, “Sure, let’s do it!”   Much to my surprise we hopped on this tiny motorcycle with three adults and off we went!

It was a bumpy ride, but in a few minutes we were at a little cycle rental place and cigar rolling shop.  Don’t ask me how these two things go together, but on this day they did.  The taxi driver quickly introduced us to the shop owners and he also began doing a bit of translating for us.

“No problem.  I will take you. Free taxi. No problem.”  

At first it felt good to have someone helping us, but this however went away quickly.  The rental fee was a bit more than what we were told to expect by our host and we didn’t have the exact pesos to pay so we needed to exchange some US dollars.  We agreed to make the exchange and I handed over a $50 bill.

One of the men took the bill and walked toward a local shop.  The taxi driver told us he was getting it exchanged, however he was gone a lot longer than I would have expected.  This was the point where my anxiety started to kick in.  I thought, we were just taken for 50 bucks and there wasn’t a thing I can do about it.  The taxi driver then walked toward the same shop and we just stood watching.  A few minute later, they came back holding several bills of the local currency. In the meantime I had done some quick calculations and knew about what I should be getting back.  Then the driver started standing closer and talking quickly about the exchange rate and how the shop needed to take some for the exchange.  But when I looked at the amount I knew it wasn’t even close to the right amount.  I said loudly, I want all of the money back first, then we can rent the motorbike.  The taxi driver said something to the guy who did the exchange and then he pulled out of his pocket 350 pesos of our money and handed it over.  I gave the money to Melissa and asked her to count it as I couldn’t focus with my anxiety rising quickly.  The taxi driver persisted and got closer to me and talked even faster.  My mind was swimming with anxiety and anger at this point, but I felt a bit better once she said the amount worked out to be correct.

Feeling a bit more in control with all the money, and hearing the man say, “No problem. You want to rent right?  What’s the matter?  No problem.”  Finally I looked at Melissa and asked, do you still want to do this?  She nodded her head and I said okay to the man.  Quickly they took the money I gave them for the rental and the taxi driver actually reached over and pulled 200 pesos directly out of my hand saying something like, “And this is for my time.”  Free taxi, but I guess no free translation services!

Wanting to get out there as soon as possible, we collected our helmets and found the bike we were to use.  Unfortunately, my anxiety was in full blowout mode at this point and I could hardly speak.  I waved Melissa to get on the back, gave her some initial instructions on how to be a passenger on the bike and off we went.  I don’t remember much of the next 20 or 30 minutes other than stopping to check my directions (thank god for the local SIM card in my phone and being able to use Google maps to navigate!).  The road, the drone of the motorbike and the amazingly beautiful landscape passing around us was soothing and meditative.  I was focused on our goal to get the Montaña Redonda as our first stop and about an hour and a half later we arrived at our destination.  The bike’s tachometer worked, but not the speedometer or trip-meter, so it was a bit challenging to get a sense of how far we had travelled.  In checking the maps later, it looks like we traveled about 45 miles.  Let me tell you, two people on a small scooter for that kind of distance is not advisable in any way.  Take my word for it, rent a car or at the very least two motorbikes!

“To the west we saw a lush valley with more hills, mountains and trees as far as you could see.  It was simply beautiful. ”

We were advised by our AirBnb host that the hike up the mountain would cost five dollars each to access, but what she didn’t tell us is that you had to pay rent to park your motorbike and they would relentlessly hound you to pay them in excess of $40 to get a ride to the top! This being confusing, we once again relied on our host for confirmation and advice.   She suggested paying the $5 and just start walking and likely someone would come along and pick us up for maybe 100 pesos ($2.00).  So off we started walking and sure enough in about 10 minutes a huge truck came lumbering up the washed out, rocky and very steep road.  When we stood aside to let it pass and it stopped and the man asked if we wanted a ride.  We asked how much and he said, “No problem, no charge, get in.”.  Well, fool me once is what I was thinking about this offer, but he persisted and started to open the cab door.  We said okay, but decided to ride in the back of the truck.  The man shrugged his shoulders and we climbed in the back for what had to be one of the roughest and brutal rides I’ve ever experienced!  We should have ridden in the cab because sitting in the very back of a huge rocking truck causes one to be launched up in the air and jostled around relentlessly for what seemed like forever!

In reaching the top, we felt elated to have reached our goal.  We got out and offered the man 200 pesos for his trouble, which seemed to surprise him and he looked very grateful.  My anxiety was subsiding and the natural surroundings really helped me to calm down quite a lot. We spent about an hour at the top taking photos of the surrounding landscapes.  There were lagoons to the east of us and further out we could see the ocean.  To the west we saw a lush valley with more hills, mountains and trees as far as you could see.  It was simply beautiful.  There were little shops at the top, a small cafe and some cool swings you could ride which made you feel like you were swinging out into the vastness of the sky.  

We even saw some people with broomsticks that would put them between their legs and then jump while someone took their picture hoping to look like they were flying!

When it was time to go, we caught another ride to the bottom of the mountain with some locals in a small club-cab pickup.  This ride was much smoother as we were able to sit inside and listen to the man and women in the cab talking amongst themselves.  It was curious not to understand a word of their conversation but also to know that what they were talking about was likely no different that what you and I would chat about in the same situation.  We gratefully payed the man 200 pesos for the ride and then found our motorbike waiting for us.  Since our time was getting short, we decided not to journey further on to Miches to see the beach we had heard about there.  We did decide to head back and stop at Macao Beach on the way to have lunch.  Our timing needed to be fairly precise as we did not want to be riding a small motorbike on a busy highway at night, so off we went!

Did I mention that riding on this road would be like riding on a two-lane state highway anywhere in the US, except this road was in perfect condition and you were almost completely alone on the road 90% of the time.  We were surrounded by the beauty of the rolling hills, mountains and rivers and we felt grateful to be heading home back to somewhat familiar territory.  We had been on the road for about 10 minutes when I started to notice the motorbike making some strange noises.  I glanced down at the instruments and the gas gauge showed it to be a bit over half full and nothing seemed out of the ordinary.  Then slowly, the motor was running slower and slower and Melissa said, “What’s wrong?” and I said, “I have no idea, but we are coasting!”.  We slowed to a stop on the side of the road and started to assess the situation.  We looked all over the bike and could not find a gas cap, but figured it must be under the seat.  We poke and prodded around every edge and side and underneath and found no switch or lever to let us open the seat cover.  We stood there completely confused and quite speechless.

Just when we were going to have to decide what to do next, a man driving a small motorcycle came driving down the road going the opposite way.  We looked up at him but I did not expect him to stop. He apparently had glanced at Melissa and she waived to him and sure enough he slowed down and turned around to where we were stopped.  This man looked like a 30’s something professional of some kind.

I only say this because his clothes were a kind of business casual and he wore small plastic bags around each of his shoes (I assumed in order to keep the bugs off) and bound at the ankles.  This man spoke zero english so we spent the next ten minutes or more using body language, pointing and trying in earnest to pick out any words we could from what he was saying.

Strangely, he pointed to us and to the bike and at first I thought he was telling us that we needed to push the bike.  I assumed at this point he was going to help us and we’d have to push it and follow him, but he insisted that we sit on the bike and then, for some reason, he would stick his foot out in front of him.  It looked he wanted us to get on and put our feet up, but this made no sense.  Confused, we simply decided to do what he said and get on our bike and put our feet up.  

The next thing we knew, he drove up behind us on his motorcycle, stuck his foot out and started pushing us!!  I was incredibly shocked that anyone could even do this on a motorcycle, but off we went!  Luckily the road was sloping down hill and even the small dirt path off the highway was sloping in our favor (and his).  He pushed us for about 5 minutes until we arrived at a very small village where we got off the bike and started pushing (since the road was now going up hill).  He kept pointing and saying, “Mecánico, Mecánico”.  We looked up the road and started pushing the bike toward where he was pointing.  The man yelled at a few other people and they all began to walk by us and pointing to a small home on the side of the village’s main road.  When we stopped we could see what appeared to be a birthday party happening for what looked like two twin girls.  There were decorations all over the front of the home with Minnie Mouse posters and happy birthday banners with a big number “4” on it.  The girls were all dressed up in pink, white and black and the family was eating boiled crab.  They looked extremely happy from what I remember.

I messaged our AirBnb host letting her know what was happening and she said were on quite the adventure and that Dominican’s can fix anything!  We watched as people gathered around us and the mecánico figured out how to open the seat of the motorbike and verify that we were indeed out of gas.  About then, a young girl perhaps 12 years old walked up and asked us in clear English if she could help.  This girl’s english sounded like she could have been from Minnesota or many other cities from the US.  She seemed pretty relaxed as she ate her crab and translated to us what was happening.  She said the man was getting some gas for us and also where we could find the closest gas station on our way back home. 

They were able to spare about a 1/2 gallon of gas and when I asked how much I owed, all they asked for was some money to cover the gas.  I turned to the man who had rescued us off the road and tried to give him some money, but he refused.  When I pressed him to please take it, he looked at me with compassion and smiled his appreciation for me asking, but refused again.  I was overcome by emotions and I reached out and shook his hand and repeated, “Gracias, Gracias, Gracias”.  I held myself together long enough for us to turn the motorbike around and head back to the highway before I began allowing all the emotion out by crying and taking deep breaths.  We drove for another fifteen minutes or so before we had to take a detour off the main road to find the town of “Las Lagunas de Nisibon”, where we found the Texaco gas station and filled up to the very top!

“I held myself together long enough for us to turn the motorbike around and head back to the highway before I began allowing all the emotion out by crying and taking deep breaths.”

After getting back on the road, we both were feeling better and more confident.  We drove for another 20 minutes until we saw the turn off to go to Macao Beach.  The beach was a bit off the highway and we had to drive through a small village and out through some open areas until we reached the ocean.  The beach was stunning but very windy that day.  As we were walking the beach looking for a place to have our lunch, we ran across our housemates who had spent the day at the beach and were just leaving. They suggested that we walk around to the far end of the beach were the wind wasn’t so strong.  It was a nice area to observe people playing in the water and we witnessed a photographer taking pictures of what appeared to be a young couple’s wedding vacation photos.

Since it was getting late in the afternoon and we wanted to be home before it was dark, we headed back to the motorbike and observed groups of people in various degrees of celebration.  Some were local families at the beach, some were groups having some kind of tour experience, some where couples on vacation and there were also singles just hanging out.  It was interesting to think about how in each case we were all in the same exact place, but we were all having very different experiences and will take away vastly different memories.  I was especially delighted by a couple young entrepreneurs hanging out where people came off the beach to leave.  When they saw that we were trying to clean sand off our feet to put our shoes back on, they rush over to us with little brushes and started to sweep off the sand from our feet. They were laughing and having fun but I also knew this was one of the ways they made money for themselves and likely their family.  It was funny, after I handed one the boys 200 pesos (thinking they would split it) the one boy said, “What about me?”.  I pointed at the other boy with the money and that boy said (with laughing smile), “No you didn’t work.” and started running away laughing with the other chasing him.

As we got closer to Bravaro the highway became a four lane road (think interstate highway), and the traffic was really building.  We had observed many other motorbikes riding on the shoulders so I did the same.  As we drove we saw a large vehicle stopped along the road on the shoulder, blocking our path.  I started to slow down and was looking in my mirror to see the cars looming behind me in the full lane.  I glanced ahead calculating the distance I had and the chances I’d make it off the shoulder in time to miss the vehicle and not get run over by the following traffic.  To add to my challenge, there was a pavement ledge between the shoulder and main highway lane that I needed to “jump” in order to go around the car ahead.  The time came and I made the turn to jump the curb and the small motor bike tires grabbed onto the ledge and jerked the motorbike to the left and I immediately tried to compensate and not crash.  In the next few seconds, I’m not really sure how we survived.  The bike jerked from left to right several times as we went onto the lane, then back to the shoulder before we swung around the parked vehicle and narrowly missed it!  I mean really, can this trip get any more stressful, holy crap!

As the sun was lowering on the horizon, we rode bumper to tire to bumper on the streets of Bravaro snaking our way back to our condo.  When we finally arrived home and approached the gated entrance the security guy jumped out and waved us to drive in and park.  I was amazed because, how did he even know who we were, but he smiled and showed us in and where to park the motorbike.  As this point were were tired but feeling okay.  When we walked through the apartment door, we saw many of our housemates hanging out in the living room all smiling at our arrival. They had heard from our host of some of our adventure and we filled them in on the rest.  Their reactions shocked me because I really felt like I’d been raked over the coals that day and was shot.  They listened to our story and smiled and said things like, “Wow, you really had an adventure you’ll remember.” or, “You guys are so brave and amazing!”.  I was momentarily speechless at their pride for us and how they viewed the same events in a more positive way.  As we walked back to our room and cleaned up for the evening, I reset my thinking of the entire day and decided that we are really amazing, and that despite the challenges we did it anyway.

After everything that had happened and being completely out my comfort zone and out of my element, I survived.  I was completely bare and vulnerable in multiple situations that day.  We were bullied by the motor-taxi driver, nearly had some of our cash stolen by the rental guy, rented a motorbike with no instructions on operation or who to contact if we had issues, drove a very small motorbike almost 100 miles round trip, road up a washed out road to the top of a mountain, ran out of gas, and nearly crashed our motorbike avoiding a car on the side of the road. Any one of these things are challenging, but having them all happen in the same day is insane!

When we ran out of gas we were completely helpless and at the mercy and compassion of one man and his small village.  I had no choice but to let go of my control. Keep in mind that this is not an easy thing for me to do and honestly, I’m not sure if I could have learned this on my own in any other way.  I now believe this day was hand crafted by the Universe to help me grow and to show me that I can let go and be safe; that being bullied or taken advantage of doesn’t mean I’m weak; and being vulnerable to life can be a blessing.  I’d been repeatedly shown compassion by many people and all I needed to do was trust and accept. These were all powerful lessons that I will take with me on our next adventure.  🙂

Time to celebrate our adventure!

Dwight J. Raatz, January 2019

Rites of Passage to Belong

The More

Next year, in June, my niece is going to get married. I’ve been reading on her social media account about all of the stresses she’s been going through to plan the wedding in addition to holding down a full time job and studying for her master’s classes. By all accounts, she is doing a lot and has every right to be stressed. I know I would. Then I got to thinking about it a bit more from a larger perspective. What if the whole thing was super easy? What if the wedding planning was done by someone else? What if the going to school was effortless? What if money was no object and working was really unnecessary? Would it all mean the same to my niece in the end? Isn’t it the struggle that gives it all meaning and a deeper understanding of yourself and others who have done this same thing before you?

When you think about any event you have gone through in your life. Perhaps it was getting your first car, having your first kiss, graduating from school, having a baby or maybe even retiring from 30 years of working. These events or rites of passage give you an experience you can now use to not only have more wisdom, but also to be able to relate to others. It can also give you a sense of belonging. I think about this often when I observe my son and his wife struggling as they begin their married life and raising their young boys. I think, yep, been there done that (with a knowing look on my face). This knowledge and wisdom help me feel like I belong to a group of parents and grandparents that have gone before me. I can now have a perspective on life that they have and, I hope, that my son and daughter-in-law may someday have as well.

I think it’s been said that humans, by nature, are social beings and we thrive better in groups by feeling connected. Studies have even shown that if babies are not held our touched, they will get very sick and sometimes just give up on life. We want to belong in any way we can. Through our experiences we can not only belong, but we can also gauge how successful we are in our life. We can use the comparisons of our experiences to know how to feel about ourselves. Are we normal? Are we doing things correctly? Do we fit in or not? Even if we think we don’t fit it in, that in and of itself is a form of belonging. We then belong to a group of outliers or rebels. Belonging makes us feel safe in the midst of what can feel like a very chaotic world.

It’s also been said that life is a struggle. I’ve often thought of this statement as negative or not looking at the bright side. But now I’m not sure I agree with that perspective. I think that most of the “bright sides” that you can think of are really are born out of struggle. Sometimes the struggle is your own and sometimes the struggle has been done on the part others. I think it’s important to honor the process of the struggle and those that have gone through it. I also think it’s equally important that we move on from the struggle. It’s important to acknowledge that it has given us wisdom and to enjoy the of the fruits of our labor. Some people will forget this critical part of the process and get stuck in reliving the struggle and perhaps even feeling like a victim of it.

I challenge you to step back on your life for a moment and see all that you have accomplished. Take note of your struggles and your victories and then take a long, slow, deep breath and know you have made it. Now, when you see others struggling similarly, you can show sympathy for them. Better yet, have compassion for them and offer them your help. This is how we awaken to who we truly are as human beings. This is how we evolve and grown in this life together.

Dwight J. Raatz
10/14/2018
(a.k.a. Suffering to Belong)

Boston – Wicked Pissah

Boston, Massachusetts has a population of roughly 670,000 people with that number swelling to over 2.3 million to include commuters during the work week. You can then add on top of that the thousands of tourists visiting every day from around the world. It has a rich history in the beginnings of America that still have effects on our nation to this day. These are just some of what we learned on a recent long weekend trip to the beautiful Boston area and a very worthwhile trip it was!

 

Preparing and Navigating

 

For this five day trip, we stayed at an Airbnb in the largest of Boston’s neighborhoods, Dorchester.  Founded in 1630 (just a few months before Boston was founded), Dorchester was annexed to Boston in 1870. We loved the architecture of the houses in the area we stayed.  It was common to see signs on houses with placards stating the year they were built.  Many houses and buildings were over 150 years old.
We’ve utilized Airbnb many times in the past and each time we are pleasantly surprised at what we experience in each location. While it may seem a bit unnerving to stay in a “non-commercial” establishment, we’ve always felt safe and we’ve made it a point to connect as much with the owner’s of the place as well as the locals in the area.  It’s important to us to make an effort to experience as much of the local flavor of the area and to follow the traditions of the people living there.  This includes eating in local restaurants, shopping for food or items we need in the area markets, and more importantly, talking with the people living there.  I can guarantee that the most transformative experiences you will have is to connect with the people living in the area.  Find out what kind of work they do, ask them for suggestions on things to see and places to go.  The people of the area know the secret places and if you ask, they will share them.

 

Since we knew were were going to be mostly staying local to the Boston area, we decided not to rent a car during out stay.  This has been a trend for us on recent trips and we highly recommend it.  While it may be necessary to rent a car for some places you travel, spend some extra time to find out what kind of public transportation options there are.

 

On this trip we utilized a taxi from the airport to our Airbnb.  We chose the taxi when we first arrived due to how late it was in the day.  I don’t know if all the taxi’s are set up the same way, but we were introduced to the mobile app Curb.  It was super easy to pay for the cab ride and it has a feature to “hail” the cab similar to Uber where it will find you at your GPS location.  We also used Ubera few times when our feet were dog tired and we just needed a ride to our next destination.  Uber is super convenient, significantly cheaper than the taxi and more readily available. The one downside that we found with both Curb and Uber is that neither of them successfully hailed a ride early on the Sunday morning of one of our excursions.  We ended up walking in the rain for about 15 minutes to the hotel where our tour guide picked us up.  It wasn’t bad though.  We were prepared with umbrellas and the walk was invigorating!  This is another important tip, check the weather in advance of your trip and check it before each day begins.  I use the Weather Channel mobile appand it is proven to be pretty accurate no matter where we’ve travelled in the world.

 

MBTA – Red Line Train

Lastly, we also used the local Boston metro transit (MBTA) as our primary mode of transportation.  I’ll have to admit, I’m always a bit apprehensive about using metro transit just about anywhere.  I’m not sure why that is exactly, but each time I’ve done it, I’ve never been disappointed. When we first booked out Airbnb, one of the things I looked for is how close the place was to the local train station, and the place we stayed was about a 6 minute walk from the JFK/University of Massachusetts Redline train station.  This was incredibly easy to use and the key to feeling more comfortable is to spend a few minutes reviewing the map the outlines each train and the stops related to where you want to go.  Don’t spend too much time with this as it can feel a bit overwhelming, just get a feel for the trains (named by color, red line, blue line, etc) and the general directions they travel. A couple mobile apps that were helpful are MBTA Boston T Transit Map by Todd Elliot Schrock where you can see train arrival and departure times as well as a “zoomable” transit map.  And mTicketby the MBTA can be used to see train times and to purchase tickets for individual rides as well as other options.

 

If you have a smart phone, your best friend for getting around will be to use a regular navigation program.  I mainly use Google Maps or the iPhone Maps app. If you type in the the destination where you want to go, then select the mass transit option (this appears like a bus or train icon on the iPhone version), it will tell you which bus or train is closest, its arrival time and how to get there.  This method is far superior to using any other type of app that I found so far.  The downside to using your smartphone for navigation is that is tends to suck up your batter charge pretty fast.  A couple things to consider when doing this I found super help is to bring along an battery charger and to take screen shots of maps or navigation directions.

 

When using a navigation program, you can view the map or text directions to where you need to go.  I used my phone’s screen-shot feature to save images of the steps as pictures I can view without needing to be connected to the internet.

 

Screen shots save battery!

This was super helpful in saving battery power as your day goes on.  Plus, be sure to close down any apps you aren’t using (especially navigation or social media apps as they use the most power).  Spend some time reviewing your phone’s power usage and learn how to conserve power in any way you can.  There is a sense of safety you have when you can find out where you are and how to get home, so do what you can to save your battery power.  You can stop into your provider store for assistance, or ask your 10 year old granddaughter how to do it!

 

For the battery charger, there are two options, bring along your normal wall plug adapter and cable(s) in case you have an opportunity to plug in (helpful at some restaurants).  And secondly, you can buy an external battery that you charge in advance of your day trip, then when your phone is about dead, you can plug in the battery to your phone to charge it back up (be sure you bring along any necessary cables to make either option work).

 

Tours and Sites

 

On most of the trips we plan, We try to pre-book at least one or two excursions depending on the amount of time we have slotted. One of the events is usually a tour of some kind that will give us some history of the area. For the rest of the time away, we like to keep it loose and flexible allowing us to manage our time and interests based on how much energy we have or the overall interest in the area in general.  On this trip we planned for a walking tour of The Freedom Trail(via Airbnb) and for a day trip to Cape Cod (via Trip Advisor/Viator).

 

Boston Freedom Trail

The advantage of the walking tour (and the part that I love) is being able to connect more one-on-one with the other people in the group as well as the tour guide.  The downside to this type of tour is that you have a pre-set time frame (about 3 hours) to get through the entire 2-1/2 miles of the walk and to touch a little bit on each historical site.  As with any tour, the value is in how well the guide know’s their subject and how they keep it all interesting will managing a group of people.  For this tour, the guide did a fairly good job even though he was a law student and history was only a side interest. There are many Freedom Trail tours that you find out there and we passed other groups as well. My advice is to do some research on the guide or tour company to make sure it has what you are looking for.

 

If I had to do the tour again, both my wife and I agree that we would recommend doing the Hop-on Hop-off Bus/Trolley Tours option. The down side is that you don’t get that personal connection of the walking tour, but that’s about the only trade-off.  There are trolleys running all around the main attractions of the city with regular stops every 10 minutes or so.  Like the title states, you can hop-on or hop-off the trolley any time.  The hours vary, but they run during normal business hours from what I see. The nice part of this tour is that you basically get to see all the same parts we did on the Freedom Trail walk, except you get to hop-off and spend more time at each location.  If you choose this option, you may want to pick up a guide for the trail to learn about the significance of each location.  Also, since there are tons of tours happening all the time, you can likely hear what other guides are saying while you are there.  Also, (especially for you older folks) you get to ride around on the bus which gives you time to relax.  You can ride the route as long as you want all day long, no limit!

 

The tour to Cape Cod was a full day affair.  We started the day by walking to one of the hotel pickup points near our Airbnb location (which you had pre-book).  We then picked up a few more people and headed for the main transportation “terminal”.  From there people re-arranged to find the tour they signed up for.  We hit the road at about 9:30am with the tour bus driver giving us a play-by-play of information on Boston, the suburbs, highway system, and various attractions and history as we went. It took about 1-1/2 hours to drive south to our main first destination of Hyannis Port, MA which is located on the opposite side from Cape Cod Bay on the Atlantic ocean. Hyannis is a quaint little town with many shops and restaurants to choose from.  It’s also the launching point for many high-speed ferries to the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.  We had about 2-1/2 hours there where we ate our first lobster (pronounced laahbstah) at Fresh Ketch

Yummy Laahbstah

of the trip as well as other succulent sea food.  We also picked up some reasonably priced sweat-shirts and we even had time to enjoy an ice cream at Katie’s Ice Creamwhich even had some non-dairy coconut ice cream options!

 

One other stop in Hyannis was visiting the John F. Kennedy memorial park located by Veterans Park Beach and near the Kennedy Compound. This was a beautiful place and access to the water was easy to dip in your toes to cool off.

 

Next on our day tour was stopping in the small town of Sandwich, MA which is the oldest town on Cape Cod at a mere 379 years old!  It is known for the many advances Deming Jarves made in glass molding and pressing technics.  We witnessed a glass blowing demonstration at the Sandwich Glass Museum and spent time visiting

Dexter’s Grist Mill

Dexter’s Grist Mill and walking around the neighborhood taking in the architecture and a local cemetery. This was a cute little village that I could have definitely spent more time discovering more of what they had to offer.

 

Our last stop on this tour was in Plymouth, MA.  Normally the tour we were on included a boat cruise on Cape Cod Canal, but due to the weather being cold, windy and rainy, the cruise portion was call off for safety reasons.  Instead of the cruise, the tour added on a stop in Plymouth where we saw the Plymouth Rockand the National Monument to the Forefathers.

 

Plymouth Rock – 1620

Seeing the Plymouth Rock was very interesting and it even had a park ranger giving an oral history of the location and its place in history.  It was somewhat anticlimactic, but worth the time to see it and take in the history of the area. The more impressive site was the National Monument to the Forefathers.  According to the tour guide, this is an often-missed site that not a lot of locals even realize is there.  It’s hidden away near a residential area of town, but impressive nonetheless.  It is thought to be the largest solid granite structure of it’s kind and it was quarried from local Quincy granite.  I highly recommend finding this gem and taking in the messages given on the monument.

 

Beyond Cape Cod, the Freedom Trail and the countless number of historical sites to see in the Boston area, we also took in The Yard of Harvard University and Harvard Square in Cambridge.  The history behind this school is amazing to say the least.  It has given us eight US Presidentsas well as many captains of industry, entertainers, attorneys, etc. It was amazing to walk the Harvard Yardknowing that some of the most influential people of our history had walked there in the epicenter of the oldest part of the campus. We also visited the Harvard Memorial Church and witnessed the dedications to the many who fought and died for our country that attended Harvard.  We even saw the statue of John Harvard put our own bit of shine on his shoe tip!

 

The Boston Experience

 

Just in our short time in the Boston area, we saw quite a lot of interesting sites, but I feel we only exposed a small tip of the Boston iceberg.  Perhaps the most important aspects of the trip to me were connecting to the

National Monument to the Forefathers

beginnings of our nation and to the original tenets of the pilgrims who landed in Plymouth in 1620 (Liberty, Education, Law and Morality).  The basis for these tenets were a guiding force for the beginnings of our country and can even be seen in the writing of our Constitution.

 

Another important aspect to our trip was honoring and connecting with the people of Boston and all who visited.  It truly felt like the melting pot that we are as a nation.  We saw and heard many different people and their unique languages.  For me this actually gives me hope in our future.  That all of these people mixed and mingled without any issues.  Everyone seemed to go beyond being “tolerant” of others, but rather to being compassionate.

 

There is something special about discovering the vernacular of the locals in various places I’ve traveled over the years and in Boston I learned and enjoyed a couple new phrases.  One is “Wicked Smaht” and the other is “WickedPissah”.  Wicked Smaht refers to someone being really smart and Wicked Pissah means really awesome.  I’ve decided to work these phrases into my on vernacular in honor of the people of Boston.

 

Boston, you are wicked pissah!

 

Dwight J. Raatz
Travel, Non-Fiction
July 27th, 2018

Being, Human Being

The More

How are you choosing to experience being a Human Being in this life?

There are many ways to experience life as a human. You might decide to follow your own path and passions which may go against the grain of family or society. I’ll call these people Mavericks. Or, you may choose to observe and completely follow the queues of society, friends or family in hopes of being non-confrontational and pleasing. I’ll call these people Pleasers. I’ve met people at both ends of this spectrum, but for the most part, people are usually somewhere in between with a higher percentage trending toward being Pleasers. For the purposes of this essay, I’m going to look at the Pleasers and to a greater extent, the ones that not only look for the approval of other people, but also look for meaning or purpose outside the realm of humanity.

I would consider myself to be a “Transformational Pleaser”. This is someone who once was fully embedded in being an unconscious Pleaser (or someone who does not know they are a Pleaser); to someone who is consciously transforming the skills I’ve learned as a Pleaser to my own advantage. I am now leveraging these skills and adopting more Maverick attributes as I grow and mature as a human. I would like to dive deeper into this concept in order to more fully understand it for myself and hopefully to give you insights into your own life.

Being raised the youngest of five siblings I found myself observing my siblings, how they interacted with each other and my parents. I was much younger than my next oldest sibling which limited my interactions with them in having shared growing experiences. In my observations of them, I found it useful to figure out how I should behave based on what they did. I observed the conflicts they had and tried to make adjustments in how I behaved to avoid those same conflicts. Finding that this was a good strategy, I began using these same methods with my classmates and teachers in school. I became a master at blending in and being able to have good relationships with most anyone older or younger than myself. I honed an already natural ability to intuit the mood of a person, what actions they were taking and then morph my own actions to coincide or match theirs. I believe this ability allowed me to gain favor in many people’s eyes as I did everything I could to make their life easier and to please them. I continued to use this ability throughout my younger years and on into adulthood.

The major downside to being a Pleaser is that I didn’t fully connect to who I was as my own person. I had little self confidence in my own abilities, nor did I even realize the enormous amount of knowledge I was gaining through my experiences as a Pleaser. I did not realize that I had an innate sensitivity to almost everything that I encountered. It hasn’t been until the last five or ten years that I’m becoming shockingly aware of how sensitive I really am. Recently, I took an online test based on Dr. Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). The HSP test asks a series of questions to determine your level of sensitivity to not only emotional attributes, but also physical ones as well. I scored a 27 out of 27 being the highest level of sensitivity possible. This test was a real eye opener and confirmed even more that I need to pay attention to the information I’m getting from all my senses and to trust it as being important to who I am. This test, along with the experiences I’ve had over my years, are allowing me to gain more and more confidence in who I am as a unique human being.

Nearly fifteen years ago, around 2003, I purchased the book Conversations with God by Neale Donald Walsch. This was the time of my life I would consider myself to be on a seeker’s journey. I’d never really felt connected to or comfortable with the dogma and teachings of the church and I was looking for something to make sense of how I felt. I consider this book the first solid connection to something that made sense to me and aligned with how I’d felt for years about religion. This got me very excited that I was not the only one who felt the way I did. The concepts and experiences that Neale was writing about seemed to be taken directly from my own thoughts and ideas. I was intrigued to think that if someone else could have these same thoughts, that maybe I wasn’t so weird after all.

I became more and more excited with feeling like the answers to my questions might be found in other sources. I began to experiment with other traditions and rituals including Wicca, Paganism, Modern Mystery School teachings, and even with the ancient traditions of the Shaman in the Peruvian Amazon jungle. Each of these experiences seem to open up an even deeper hunger for more answers. I became a regular at psychic events to get readings, learning about Numerology, Astrology and Tarot; participating in various events all aimed at folding back the reality I saw myself in. This was all in hopes of revealing a deeper meaning under it all and hopefully a better understanding of who, or better yet, what I really am. I became trained as a Reconnective Healing practitioner, Reiki Healer, and as a Breathwork practitioner. I found I had a natural ability for all of these modalities and experienced sessions with clients that I have no scientific explanation for what I witnessed.

In all of these experiences I discovered that I am much more than what I was lead to believe. I’ve discovered that I am more than human. I know and believe that I am a Being of energy and light that is so immense and powerful, that I cannot even wrap my own human mind around the concept. I believe that I am part of the All there is, and I have no fear of ever losing that. I believe that I am a spiritual being having a human experience, as the saying goes. Knowing this is amazing and thought provoking, but ultimately it has taken me to a dead end. I’m still a human being, so now what?

With all that I feel that I’ve learned and know, it became clear to me that the seeker’s journey is worthy and even necessary for those who feel lost or unsettled such as I did. I believe that each of us that feel disconnected from life need to find a way to connect to our purpose, who we are and even more importantly, what we really are. I believe that for some, until we have clarity around this, we may live a life unfulfilled and disjointed. Everyone’s seeker journey is as unique as they are, but it’s important to say that some of us get stuck in the process of being a seeker. For some, the seeker process can be like an addiction to discover more and more about the answers “out there”. Like I did for a time, some continue to rely on answers from external sources such as spirit guides, Angels, psychics, etc in order to understand their life, why things are happening and what the hidden meanings are behind things. There isn’t anything wrong with these sources but for some people, they cannot make any decision for themselves without first consulting these sources.

As my seeker journey progressed, one of the repeating themes that I discovered was to trust myself, my own wisdom and my natural gifts. Without having my journey, I recognize that I would have never known what my gifts are (or at least the ones I know of now) or what I really am in the grand scheme of existence. I never would have known how to trust myself or even known how to interpret the information I receive. I also, would have never known how to stay open to what will likely continue to be revealed to me in the future.

With all of this said and done, I now turn back to me as a human being and need to decide, what do I do now? What do I need to do to fully experience my human life on this planet, in this time in history, in this body, with this family, with these people around me, with the limitations, boundaries and abilities that I have? I get to decide how deep do I dive into each event and if it’s really worth the effort. Is it really necessary to attribute every mood or feeling to planetary movements or alignments? Do I need to look up the meaning behind the time on the clock when I woke up at 2:34 am? Do I need to confirm with a psychic if I should stay in a relationship or not? Maybe I just need to decide to get more sleep. Maybe I need to eat a better diet so I don’t wake up in the middle of the night. Maybe I should just trust myself and say yes to the relationship and find out where it takes me.

I now have the power to respond to life instead of react. I can choose to observe life from a perspective of trusting the process and doing what I can to be a responsible human. I can choose to be compassionate and loving to others. I can choose to honor the process that others have chosen for their life. I can choose to be a model and mentor when necessary. And, I can choose to encourage others to see their own power. Choosing to live my life fully in the human experience is really why I’m here, but sometimes it takes knowing more, before you can settle into that role.

Through my journey, I now know that nothing will change where I’ll end up, when all of this is done. I will go back to the All There Is once again. The question is, what experiences as a Human Being will I take back with me?

Dwight Jon Raatz
July 25th, 2018
Essay, Non-Fiction

Hidden Blessings

The More

I believe that everyone goes through a series of important events in their lives that shape the person they will become as an adult. Some people have called these moments “rights of passage”, and somehow these key moments make slight course corrections in our journey. In remembering my younger years, I can recount experiences that still effect me in various degrees even to this day. I think perhaps the most significant experiences a person can have as a child, involve the people in their immediate family. Being the youngest of five children, and nearly six years younger than my next oldest sibling, the experiences I had in my young life were a bit more “mature” compared to other kids my same age. My mom would always tell me, “Your siblings always wanted you to be older and act older. They never let you just be a little boy.” This was probably why, as I grew older, I was always more comfortable around older people when it came to social interactions. I understood the more mature nuances of body language and topics of conversation.

One of the advantages of being mentored by my older siblings was being shown and taught how to do the things that they did. This included everything from operating farm machinery, to handling farm animals, to enjoying various recreational activities like snowmobiling and motorcycle riding. My brothers, Dale and Randy, both had their own motorcycles and I envied how they could just hop on their bikes and ride, and I was stuck riding a pedal bike (even though it had a cool red, white and blue banana seat and sissy bars with tassels). I tried to make the best of my bicycle by building little ramps to “launch” myself off of or popping wheelies. But who am I kidding, nothing compared to being able to drive fast and make huge jumps over gravel piles on a motorcycle.

When I was about 8 or 9 years old, I remember riding my first motorbike. It was called a mini-bike and it had a small 3-1/2 horse Briggs and Stratton motor and you accelerated by simply pushing on a lever on the handle bars which made it go, or you pulled on the brake handle to stop. You didn’t have to shift gears, so it was very easy to operate, at least it looked like it was when I watched my brother do it!

The day came when my dad said I could try riding the mini-bike myself. I remember that both of my brothers and my sister Becky were all outside in the back yard of the house. My dad was holding the bike and said, “Okay Dwight, to start this motor you need to make sure that the gas valve is open. See this lever right here? You need to make sure the lever’s arm is set in the same direction as the gas line.” I said, “Okay dad, I see”. Then dad said, “Next you want to move the choke lever right here toward the back. See it right here, it says, “Choke”? I said, “Yes, I see it.” “Okay”, he continued, “Now you want to grab onto this rope handle here and give it a few pulls until the motor starts. Now as soon as it fires up, you want to move the choke lever back to the “Run” position, otherwise it will flood it and die. Make sense?” “Yep, I think so. Looks the same as starting the lawn more right?” My dad smiled at me and said, “You got it. Okay, now watch” I watched intently as my dad gave the cord a couple swift pulls and the engine roared to life. I could feel my heart starting to race and I looked around at my siblings scattered about the lawn. My sister Becky was pulling dry linens off the clothes line and my oldest brother Dale was tossing a football around with Randy. I looked back at my dad and he said, “You ready to give it a shot? All you need to do is push on this lever and give it some gas to go.” I nervously climbed onto the bike seat and held onto the handlebars. The motor was idling and I could feel the vibration of the bike through my entire body.

Luckily, I was tall for my age so I had no problem being able to put my feet down on the ground to steady myself. I thought, “Okay, how hard can this be? I know how to ride a bicycle so I can do this. I just don’t have to pedal.” With that, I slowly pushed on the gas lever and I felt the spinning clutch grab ahold of the belt and I lurched forward. I could hear my dad say, “Keep it straight until you get a hang of it.” My brothers were yelling, “Watch out Becky, he’s coming your way!” I looked quickly ahead of me and I could see the clothes basket on the ground and my sister started to scream, “Turn, turn!!” My left arm had a mind of it’s own and it jerked the handle bar just in time for me to wiz by my sister and all the clothes in the basket.

It was an amazing feeling! I was free on this little motor bike and I felt like a king. As I circled the house turning to the left a bit more and doing minor course corrections, I came around the house back to where my dad was standing. He yelled, “Go, go!” I felt my confidence rise and my brothers were laughing at the expression on my face, which was likely pure horror mixed with wide-eyed joy. I began my next trip around the house feeling more and more confident. I decided to move the handle bar back and forth so I could sway a bit and I felt like I was a big time motor-cross rider. I passed by my dad again and he yelled, “Okay, when you come back around, I want you to stop.” I thought to myself, “Stop? My dad never told me how to stop!” I focused on making another round of the house and as I approached my dad, he said, “Stop.. stop!” and as I blew past him I yelled, “I DON’T KNOW HOW!” I could hear my brothers roar with laughter as I continued my next revolution around the house. As I came around the house again, I could see that my dad was ready. As I approached him, he stuck out his big strong arm and swept me up off from the bike seat in one motion and the mini-bike continued on and crashed to the ground and sputtered to a stop.

“Whew!”, my dad said. “I got you!?” I found myself equally in shock and laughing at the same time. I felt relieved that I was saved by my dad. It was the most exhilarating moment I’d had at my young age and I loved it. I was hooked on the freedom and joy that riding motorcycles gave me and grateful that my dad spent time with me and encouraged me to take this risk. I felt like I had made another step in growing up and my dad and siblings were there to witness it. This began my love affair with riding motorcycles.

When I turned 10 years old, my parents gave me my first “real” motorcycle on my birthday. I remember waking up on the morning of my birthday and seeing a motorcycle helmet setting on my bedroom dresser. I still remember thinking, “Who put this helmet in my bedroom?”, as I was still trying to wake up. Then with a rush of excitement, I held my breath and pulled back my curtains and looked outside at the farm-yard. And there it sat, a brand new Honda XL-75 motorcycle with gold and black coloring. I quickly pulled on my blue-jeans and a shirt and bolted for the hallway and stairway going down to the kitchen. I think I had tunnel vision as I don’t recall seeing anything else but the door leading out to the front of the house. I stopped a few feet from the motorcycle and just stared. It was a cross between a dirt bike and a street bike so it had all the accessories including mirrors and turn signals. Unfortunately navigating a motorcycle with more power had its downfalls which including tipping over many times. So as you can imagine, the turn signals broke off first and then the mirrors got a bit bent out of shape. In hind-sight, I should have just taken them off until I mastered the bike, but a 10 year old doesn’t really think that far ahead. I rode many miles on that motorcycle riding the pastures, hunting gophers, herding cows or riding around the local gravel pit. I was my first real feeling of independence as a boy and I loved it!

It was mid-summer of 1978 and I was barely 13 years old, and on rare occasion there were days that have perfect weather and not a lot of work to be done. This is unusual as we lived on a working dairy and grain farm, where continuous hard work was the norm. This day was unusual. It was a Saturday in July and our parents were off on a day trip to visit relatives at an annual family reunion in Wahpeton, ND. The only people home were my older brother Randy and me and we had finished our morning chores and had the rest of the day to ourselves before the evening chores began.

My brother Randy is about 7 years older than me and ever since I can remember, I idolized him. He was very outgoing, he had a lot of friends, played sports, acted goofy and loud, loved music, and was a very free spirit. I wanted desperately to be like him and I wanted him to like me. But as it is for many sibling relationships, it’s not that easy sometimes. For some reason, I was never able to get close to him when I was younger. He tended to ignore me and would often tease me for various reasons. Even with all of that, I still tried to connect when I thought I might have a chance.

Randy and I had decided to go for a motorcycle ride around some of the fields on our property. By this time I had upgraded my motorcycle and I was now riding a used Honda XL-125 dirt bike; so keeping up with my brother who was riding a XL-250 was a little bit easier. One of the reasons my parents had decided to take time off for the family reunion was because we had received a heavy rain storm the night before. This had caused all the hay fields to be soaked and many of the ones we had already cut would not be ready to bail until they had dried. The even better part, was that this also made the fields soft to ride on and some of the lower areas of land were full of water. Randy and I raced around the fields on our bikes weaving in and around the slough areas kicking up mud and hollering our heads off. This was an amazing time for me because I felt like, for the first time, I was bonding with my brother.

As we rode around, Randy had spied a particular low spot of land that was covered with water which was about 20 to 30 feet across. I saw him waiving me over as he sat by the edge of the pond with his bike. When I rode up he slipped up the plastic visor on his helmet and said, “Hey, let’s see if we can make it across the pond. You wait behind me and if I make it across, you give it a shot okay?” I said, “Sounds great!”. So I revved up my motor and circled around behind him. He turned and gave me the “thumbs up” and pushed his visor down. I watched him pull his clutch lever and put it into first gear. He revved is motor a few time and then let the clutch go and off he flew toward the water’s edge.

In that very moment time stopped, and everything went into slow motion. I was simultaneously witnessing my brother rocket down this hill and then seemingly gliding across the water of this little pond, and feeling a barrage of mud, water and dirt being splattered all over myself and my motorcycle. I had mud in my mouth, on my face, stuck to my clothes, helmet and boots. In that very moment I could hear nothing, everything was frozen and I was in shock! In the next moment, I began to laugh hysterically and this folly! I grabbed my handle bars and turned away from the pond and began driving out of the field and toward the house all while belly laughing at what had just happened. In the next moment, I saw my brother ride up next to me with and expression of horror on his face, and probably frightened that I was crying or hurt. He then saw that I was laughing and started to laugh with me. We rode back to the farm house and recounted our little adventure and laughed while we used the hose to wash down our bikes. To this day, I still don’t know if he had planned to splatter me with mud or if it was just a, wrong place at the right time, kind of thing. It really didn’t matter because I had gotten what I wanted from my brother, to be seen and to be connected with. If I could, I’d do it all over again.

My oldest brother Dale is only a year older than Randy, but he has a very different approach to life. In a word, I would describe him as steadfast. He is like the metronome of our family with a steady, constant beat that moves forward resolutely and without failing. He has a saying he likes to use when talking about tough times, he says, “We just need to press on.” and that is exactly what he does every day.

Like both of my parents, Dale is a very hard working person. He always looks at whatever task he is given, or decides to do, and breaks it down into a sequence of steps. I always admired him as a young boy because if I was ever confused about what needed to be done or how to do it, I would just watch him and listen. He always seemed to have a plan and it felt like it was very well thought through. It gave me a sense of safety and comfort to know that he was around to rely on for guidance. He was also my protector in a way. When my brother Randy would tease and bully me, Dale would intervene if he was there. I remember one time, I was upstairs in our farm house and Randy was relentlessly bullying me to the point of tears. And just then, Dale came flying out of his bedroom, yelling at Randy to leave me alone. I was stunned. I don’t remember anyone ever standing up for me before like that. I was grateful that I had a protector in my oldest brother.

Like most farm families, we oftentimes worked together. I remember one summer day when bailing hay in the alfalfa field west of our farm, I was told to join my two brothers and dad. I needed to learn how to ride the bail skid that was pulled behind the bailer and stack the bails as they came off from the back. The bail skid was basically two 4ft x 8ft pieces of plywood bound together by a metal frame to make a flat 8ft x 8ft square skid that was hitched behind the bailer. As the hay bails came out of the bailer bound by twine, you would grab the bail and stack it in a criss-cross pattern on the bail skid until the stack was about 5 or 6 feet high. Then when it was a full stack, you would take a large metal rod and drive it into the ground through a two inch gap between the pieces of plywood which would force the entire stack of bails off from the skid. Stacking bails was hard work, but I loved being able to help my dad and brothers. We told jokes, yelled directions back and forth with dad and tossed the bails higher and higher.

When we had stopped for a break to drink water and eat some sandwiches my mom had made for us earlier in the day, I remember listening to my brothers talking as my dad worked on the bailer. All of the sudden, Dale began jumping around like he was dancing and yelled, “Oh crap, what is that.” and both Randy and I looked at him with confusion because we didn’t know what he was talking about. Just then, Dale began hitting the side of his leg with his hand saying, “Shit, shit, shit…” Then he grabbed a big section of his blue-jean pant leg in his hand and squeezed it hard. Randy and I, still stunned, said, “What’s going on!?” Dale yelled, “I have a mouse trying to crawl up my pant leg!”. Both Randy and I started roaring with laughter! “Holy crap!”, Randy said. I was out of breath laughing as I watched Dale trying to unbuckle his belt and pull off his pants with his one hand in the middle of the hay field. Dale managed to do all of this without loosing grip on the mouse. Even in the throws of having vermin crawl up his leg, I was impressed with how Dale remained in control and determined. This was another example of how I looked up to him and how to behave in a crisis. Finally after removing his pants and dumping out the body of the mouse, we re-assembled ourselves and continued to “press on” with our bailing.

Dale was also the first person in our family to really go off on his own. First he ventured into the Peace Corp in Guatemala where he leveraged his knowledge of agriculture and animals by assisting with irrigation, animal management, and raising turkeys. When he would come home for visits, it was always amazing to hear his stories of the experiences he had there. After the Peace Corp he met and married an woman from Brazil, then he joined the Air Force which took him and his family around many places in the USA and the world. The experiences and knowledge he gained has always amazed me and I could listen to him for hours on end and never get bored. I think I would have to say that Dale has inspired me the most to become more curious about the world and not afraid to travel.

For many young boys, idols are often characters in books, television or in the movies, but for me it was my dad and brothers. Each experience I had whether it was triumphs, teasing, work, or being protected; each had a significant impact on who I am today. I see each of these moments as gifts and even blessings. I look up to these men in my life and yearned to be connected to them. It’s now over 40 years later and I still have that same yearning and I think I always will.

Dwight Jon Raatz
Memoir, Non-Fiction
3/3/2018

The Present

It was dark, cold, and snowing outside as I found myself wedged into the back seat of my dad’s blue 1978 Oldsmobile Delta 88. My mom was in the front seat and three of my siblings were in the seat next to me as we waited for my dad to come out of the house. It was Christmas Eve and we were on our way to my grandparents house for the annual gathering where we exchanged gifts and ate way to much food. I remember staring out the car’s front window into the garage. I was looking at the house entrance door when I said, “What’s taking him so long?”. One of my older siblings smiled at me and said, “I think dad had to go to the bathroom.” I was quite then as I listened to the car heater blasting out hot air and I could feel the heat building inside my jacket. I thought about the small plate of cookies with a half-glass of milk we left on the counter for Santa. I was excited and anxious about having this man or super-natural creature in our home when we were gone. I felt a sense of wonder how Santa could get all of the presents delivered across the world in one night, but also excited to see what he would bring.

The drive to my grandparents house was usually met with cold snowy weather and there was always a sense of tension about being stuck in the snow or even stranded at their house and not being able to get home. Since I was very young, I had to release my fears of this and have faith that my father knew best and would always keep us safe. The conversation during our drive was usually about local events in the town or sometimes a bit of gossip about the relatives we were going to see. I mainly did not have any input, and for the most part would just listen and try to make sense of it all. I found that my thoughts would drift back to the counter at home where the cookies sat, wondering at what point he would break into our house to eat them and leave us gifts under our tree. I wondered what else Santa would do while he was there. Did he go into my room? Did he take a dump in our toilet? In a way, the thought of this creeped me out, but I wasn’t supposed to feel that way. After all, Santa was a good guy right?

When we reached my grandparents farm, the yard had turned into a makeshift parking lot. The snow had been plowed carefully allowing a maximum number of vehicles near the house. As we unpacked ourselves from the warm car we immediately could feel the cold sharp wind on our faces. My mom said, “Take the roaster inside Becky. Boys, you grab the bags of gifts from the trunk and take them into the house.” Without much fuss, we followed orders and gathered our food and gifts. As we walked slowly toward the house, I could hear the crunch of snow under each step as I steadied myself for any unseen ice. Growing up in the northland, I had created a sense of the earth and how to interact with it based on the season. I had a respect for the outdoors and always guarded myself for the unknown and the unseen.

As we came closer to the house, I could hear the voices of many people inside. I could smell the aroma of turkey and savory foods coming out the door as we entered the house. We were met in the porch entry by my Uncle David with him saying, “Hello! Come on in! It’s a bit crowded as usual. You can put your boots and shoes over there, and coats can go in the closet if you can find a spot.” We quickly surveyed the room and found a place to stash our things.

As we filed through the door into the kitchen, I could see my grandma Mildred at the stove wearing a flower print apron over a dress that was likely the one she wore everyday. She was tending to the mash potatoes, turkey and various other traditional foods. She had an innate non-verbal way to direct what happened in the kitchen and everyone understood this language. She was a quiet presence in the home from what I remember. Whenever I would visit the farm in the summers, she was always working in and around the house. I would often spend time helping her tend the chickens, pull weeds from the garden, and taking lunches out to the fields for the men. I loved my grandma as she always smiled at me and gave me hugs. When I got sick, she tended to me with practical remedies and patience.

I also saw that my Aunt Caroline was sitting at the table talking non-stop with her sister Ginny who was blocked in between her and the wall. “Well, I couldn’t believe it when Tim was just standing there holding the tire iron and not moving, and I says, “Tim what are you doing?” And he looks up at me and says, “Nothin ma, just thinking about which is the best tire to use.”, and I says, “Well, what would Robert do in this case? Maybe you can just ask him.” and he says, “Okay ma.” And then …” I saw the look of numbness on Aunt Ginny’s face which was common when faced with the onslaught of words from Aunt Caroline. It was amazing, as I could swear that she had some kind of special ability to speak without ever pausing to breathe.

It was often overwhelming to me to take in all of the people in the house. My mom was one of 10 children which made for many aunts, uncles, cousins and associated spouses and children. The home was packed with people in every corner and room on the main floor. I would scan the room to see familiar and unfamiliar faces. The room that most of us kids would occupy was the back porch of the house. This was where my grandma kept her freezer with my favorite cookies and of course a cupboard with an assortment of toys. When I arrived in the room, I found my cousins eating cookies they had found in the freezer (lucky not my favorite ones) and sitting around card tables telling stories of their farms and families. I also noticed there was a strange young boy there sitting next to my cousin Duane. I found out later that his name was Jimmy Crud who was an exchange student from New Zealand staying with Duane and his family. Jimmy seemed like an odd sort with his black framed glasses and crocked smile, but that will story will have to wait for another time.

My cousin Duane was sitting at one of the tables shaking his head with a half-smile as he listened to my cousin Dustin spin another of his never-ending tales. Duane had bright red hair and his cheeks always seemed red too from their constant exposure to the cold winds and sunshine of the North Dakota winter. Dustin had dish-pan blonde hair that was always tousled and he had a facial twitch that always seemed like he was winking at you. Dustin said, “I was feeding the cows, so I was driving the 1456 tractor pulling the feed-wagon into the pasture, you know the one where Uncle Newton as that big angus bull? Well, as I was driving in the bull wouldn’t move, so I jumped down and yelled at him and gave him a swift kick in the side! Boy did he beller and run!” On hearing this, I looked at Duane and my other cousins and they were either rolling their eyes or shaking their heads. Dustin’s younger brother Cameron said, “You are so full of shit Dusty. That bull would have squashed you like a bug if you got off that tractor. They don’t call him old grumpy for nothin!” Just then my uncle Roger poked his head in the room and said, “Ok kids, it’s time to pass out presents.” Duane said, “Ok, let’s go!” As we were getting up, Dusty pushed Cameron out of the way so he could be first out of the room. Cameron gave him a playful kick in the butt. We all started pushing them both through the door into the living room trying to prevent a fight from breaking out.

Christmas presents at these events would involve bringing a present for someone of your own age and gender. These gifts would have a label stating, “Boy, Girl, Man, Woman” and then numbered. When it came time to open gifts, each of us would pick a number and when the gift’s number was called, you would get it regardless of your age or gender. I often thought this was confusing, but somehow it seemed to worked. As my cousins and I filed into the living room, Uncle David had a small basket raised higher than eyesight and he said, “Okay kids, reach in and pick out a piece of paper for your number. Remember, just pick one.” Each of us obediently stepped up one by one and took out a small piece of paper with a number on it. Immediately, Dusty exclaimed to our group, “I got number five, what did you get Lyle?”, speaking to another cousin of ours who was about my age. Lyle said, “I got number 23.” “Hah!”, said Dusty, “I’m going to get a better present than you because my number is before yours!” Once everyone had a number, my uncle David said, “Now there are 23 of us here tonight and I thought we’d do something a bit different. I think we will start in reverse order.” I could see that Dustin was obviously annoyed at this change-up of things. David looked over at Lyle and gave him a quick wink but I don’t think anyone else noticed. David said, “Who’s got number 23?”. With a smile on his face, Lyle said, “I do!”

When the presents were all passed out, we had the opportunity to exchange it with someone else if you wanted to. This was likely the best part of the gift exchange as it encouraged us to engage with each other and was often accompanied by laughter and poking fun at each other. Lyle ended up getting a new pocket knife with a pearl inlaid handle. Dusty received a girl’s gift which was a small toy pony that had a long braided mane and colorful saddle. Dusty tried desperately to trade the present with someone, but even some of the small girl cousins would not give him the satisfaction. He ended up walking over to the pile of presents belonging to my aunt Ginny (who’s daughter Kara was several years younger than I) and mumbled, “Stupid present to get.” and he quickly laid in on the pile and walked away. I think he was feeling a bit sheepish about spouting his mouth off and ending up with a girl’s toy.

When I look back at these visits, what I really enjoyed most was hearing stories of my grandparents, aunts and uncles as they homesteaded the area, grew their farms and worked the land. I never had a sense that Christmas or the presents given where the important part of this time of year. I thought of the bible stories of baby Jesus, the Wise Men and the Angels. I thought of the teachings of Christ and how it felt right to me that this time of year was about connecting with each other and most importantly, giving to those less fortunate. It may seem strange to most, but the receiving of a random present given with no consideration of who I am, made no sense to me. I always felt awkward in having to act surprised and happy at what I received. I was amazed when I observed that as quickly as the presents were opened, they were then piled up and readied for whenever each family left for the night. All of the “pomp and circumstance” of the presents and reasons for them was over as quickly as it began. Even in my young mind, I could never reconcile the way we gave presents to each other, with what I was being taught about the reason for Christmas. It was all so rote and mechanical that my feelings would get muddled and confused.

As the evening wound down and people were stuffed with food and drink and feeling the effects of the tryptophan high we got from the turkey, we parted ways and packed into our cars to go home. A few minutes into our drive home I asked, “Mom, why do you think Dusty tells such tall tales?” I looked up to see her shaking her head and she said, “I don’t know Dwight. Maybe he’s just lonely.” I wasn’t quite sure what to think about this. Everyone seemed to have an attitude about Dusty. I’ll admit I was uncomfortable with him at times too. I just wish I would have been a better cousin and friend to him.

The rest of the drive home was a bit treacherous as the snow was coming down harder and the roads were difficult to navigate. I was getting pretty sleepy and my mind was wondering about what we would find at home. Would “he” have been at our house? I had mixed feelings of excitement and fear each time I’d think about it. I suppose this is normal, but I never really had anyone else I could ask.

It varied from year to year on when my family would open presents. Sometimes it was the night we returned home from my grandparents, sometimes it was the next morning. This year we had left the farm fairly early as we had heard the weather was going to get worse. Arriving home we drove into the driveway to find a two foot snow drift had formed across the main area of the yard. It blocked our passage around to the car garage. My dad had to decide whether to try driving through it, or parking and getting out the FarmAll tractor to scoop a path through it. To this day, I’m not really sure why my dad decided to go for it. He put the car in reverse and backed up almost to the highway. He said, “You ready?!” and my brother Dale said, “Yes!” Then putting it in drive, by dad punched it and headed straight for the snow drift. I’m not sure how fast we were going when we hit, but all you could see was white powder everywhere. The car lurched left and then right and I slide forward off my seat onto the floor. We almost came to a complete stop but managed to have enough momentum to punch a hole through the drift and make it to the other side. With a cheer and small applause, we continued our way around to the garage entrance. We all piled out and grabbed the loot from the evening and the left over food we just “had” to take home with us and headed inside for the evening.

It wasn’t until a few years later that I was told the truth about Santa and why it always took dad so long to get out of the house on those cold Christmas eve nights. To tell the truth, I actually felt relieved when I found out that the sanctuary of our home was not being violated by a old man who had a passion for making toys for boys and girls, and loved it when they sat on his lap to hear their secret toy desires. I think it was about this time that I was able to clarify how I really felt about getting presents at Christmas. Now that the “Santa” mystery side of the equation was resolved, the only thing left was giving and getting the presents themselves. I had a strong belief that the act of giving presents was supposed to include two things. First, it was a way to honor someone you cared for. If you knew them well enough you could buy them a gift they really needed or wanted. Secondly, it was supposed to be a way to give to those less fortunate than ourselves in order to give them some joy and respite during that time of year. Unfortunately, what I witnessed about Christmas and giving gifts usually did not include either of these things. As I got older, this phenomena became more and more prevalent. I can’t say that I never received presents that I wanted, but I seemed to be very disenfranchised by the whole process and began to resent it. This effected me for years to come.

When we all got into the house, my mom turned on the stove top and pulled out a Jiffy-Pop popcorn pan to cook up a treat for us all as we prepared ourselves to open presents that night. I looked at the counter where I had left the cookies and milk and only saw a few remaining crumbs on the plate and just a few drops of milk in the glass. I looked around at my family, but no one else seemed to care that someone had been here when we were gone. I backed into a corner of the room and looked around thinking, what if he’s still here?! I cautiously looked around the edge of the doorway toward the living room and Christmas tree only to see blinking lights in a darkened room. I made sure to stay close to my mom pretending to want to help her with the popcorn and heating up the apple cider. I wasn’t about to go into the other room by myself. My brothers could go first!

My dad had come in from the garage and announced that the car was fine after our snow drift rampage. We all gave out a sigh of relief and I could see my dad winking at my mom as she smiled at him with a knowing look. It was a few years later that I finally had some kind of clue what those looks meant between them, but that’s a whole other topic for another time. Dad walked into our dining room and over to the stereo cabinet sitting in the corner of the room. He put on the traditional christmas album he always played. It had a kind of Mexican mariachi band sound with trumpets and of course, accordion music. He began to bob and weave in front of the cabinet to the beat of the music. I could always tell when my dad was in a good mood based on how close attention he paid to the music being playing. I remember one time in the milk barn, he was sitting on a small metal milk stool next to the calf pens when K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s song, “Shake Your Booty” came on the radio. I was watching him move to the music when the “Shake, shake, shake…” part came on, he raised both of his legs straight out in front of him and shook his knee high rubber barn boots. He fell straight off the stool onto his butt on the floor! He was laughing the whole time and it always made me smile when he goof around.

When the popcorn and cider were ready, we all gathered in the living room to find our spots for the remainder of the evening to open our presents. It was always the job of the youngest in the family to pass out the gifts, so I got busy sorting and routing the gifts to everyone in my family. I enjoyed finding each of my gifts and piling each of them safely as I’d keep count of them (just in case one of my siblings got any smart ideas to steal one). Once they were all passed out, we took turns opening one gift at a time. I didn’t realize it then, but as much as I liked to see what the gift was, I actually got more excitement from not knowing what was in each box. To this very day, having an unopened box represents endless potential of what it could be. Even if I order something on-line and get it a few days later, I will still let it sit on the table for awhile before opening. I know what should be in the box, but there is still a chance it could be something completely different! As I slowly opened each of my gifts, the mystery of the gift and the day faded a bit more.

There were a few times over the years that I tried to convince my family the idea of all of us giving to a local family in need rather than giving gifts to each other. This idea came about as we would struggle to figure out what to give each other. This was especially difficult when our families began to grow. The ideas I had were met with understanding and they seemed to like it, but they could not move away from the habit of giving presents to each other. We did however adjust our consumeristic practices a bit more when the family became so large it was very costly to buy for everyone. For several years we drew names so you would buy for just one other person. Then we moved to just buying the young children gifts, and finally dissolving the family wide gift exchange all together.

One thing that kind of revived my feelings toward giving presents, and the idea of Christmas, was when I started having my own kids. I supposed there was a part of me that could relive those days of fantasy, and I wanted my boys to feel that sense of wonder around the season. The hardest time came on the day that my youngest son also found out the truth about Santa. He took the news pretty hard. For some reason my older son had figured it out and when he was talking with his mom about it she said, “If you still want to get something from Santa, just don’t say anything.” When my youngest son found out he was crushed. At first I thought it was because the illusion or fantasy of Santa was something he whole heartedly believed, but later on I realized that it was not that at all. He was crushed because the two people he trusted most had lied to him for years. I also believe he was an advocate for the Santa story in the midst of his friends when they were telling him it wasn’t true. When he found out later that it was all a lie, he was very embarrassed. As a parent who subscribes to the story of Santa and tells this tale to their children, I think it’s difficult to know when you should let them in on the truth. I know for my son, he was angry about this for years until he himself started to have children, and now I see him spinning the same tale to them.

I became more and more hardened toward Christmas and the holidays the older I got. Nothing about this time of year is joyful for me. The season’s purpose is lost to consumerism, spending time together was at a minimum and a struggle to organize, and even if I told someone the things I wanted, it is usually ignored. I thought that the illusion of Christmas was just that, an illusion; and very few people actually remember what it’s all about. I dread this time of year more and more, especially after I got divorced and remarried and my family splintered even more. It feels as if our children see it as a burden or inconvenience to spend time with us. There is a huge focus on what should be bought without much consideration for actually spending time together. At the ending of the season we are left with things we don’t need, a lot of debt we also don’t need, and a sense of emptiness that we really never had time to just sit and connect.

I’ve been asked for many years to tell people what I want for Christmas. I have become adamant that all I want is time with my family. To me, this is the most important thing there is since I can see and feel how short life is. I can connect to my childhood an now understand that it was the time that I spent with my family that meant the most to me. Time is all I ask. If someone needs to give me something tangible, then write a card out to me that says it’s good for one date with them. It doesn’t need to be extravagant. We don’t need to spend a bunch of money on restaurants or meals. I’d be happy just to sit with my each one in my family and talk about life and how things are going for them. I want to hear their stories, their struggles and their dreams. I want to be available to them to help them in any way I can. This to me is the real reason for Christmas. To be present for the ones I love and in return, for them to be present for me.

Dwight J. Raatz
12/02/2017

Little Tin Cup

When I turned eighteen years old my dad called me into the kitchen where I saw him sitting by himself. As I walked closer I could smell the grease and dirt on him from working in the machine shed where he often spent hours repairing farm machinery and working on motors. Sitting on the table next to him I saw a little tin cup that I had never seen before. He told me to sit down as he had something to share. This was odd because dad never spent much time talking with me about many things, but I could tell this was important. He pointed at the little cup and said, “You know what that is?” I said, “Looks like a small child’s cup.” He smiled and said, “You’re correct. This was mine when I was quite a bit younger than you are now. I found it out in the shed when I was clearing out some old boxes. I’d like you to have it.” I was surprised as gifts were unusual in my family, especially personal ones like this. I picked up the cup and turned it over in my hands. When I looked at the bottom of the cup I noticed a small marking on the underside that looked like small balloons tied to some kind of pitch fork. I looked up at my dad with curious eyes, and it was then that I noticed a small tear rolling down his cheek. This was something else I had never seen.

My dad was a very quite man, who spent the majority of his time dedicated to working on our small farm in south-eastern North Dakota. When he spoke, I tended to listen to him intently because his words were often few and direct about whatever topic was on his mind. My siblings and I always new our dad loved us, he just never showed it in a physical way or through the words he spoke. You could tell everything you needed to know from they way he looked at us and his body language. This method of raising us made us all very observant of the world around us. I became very sensitive to movement, intentions and sequences of events. For example, watching him work putting up a fence, you had a sense of the rhythm and sequence of how the fence was constructed. When he would hold the wire up to the fence post, you knew the next step was to staple the wire to the post using a hammer, so you would just do it without being told. Some of the ways we all worked as a family was like dancing, instinctively knowing the next step and movement.

Even at eighteen years old, I never really knew much about my dad’s life or even his family for that matter. My siblings had told me some stories they’d heard from our cousins about my dad’s childhood being pretty hard. His parents, my grand parents, were very strict orthodox catholics. They lived and raised their family in a remote region of eastern Germany near Dresden. Their whole lives revolved around hard work and strict discipline doled out by my grandfather on a regular basis. I was told that my dad and his nine siblings shared a large barracks type room on the third level of the a farm house. The room had five bunk beds where the children were paired up by age from oldest to youngest. I was told the room had a wooden floor with only one small round window near the peak of the roof. There was a large trunk sitting on the floor in front of each set of bunks where the kids had to store all of their personal belongings. There were no shelves, dressers or chairs in the entire room and it was painted a dark forest green color. Only one small light bulb hung from the ceiling that barely lit the room. I also heard from my oldest brother, that there was some kind of horrible accident that happened years ago to my dad’s family, but no one spoke about it. Ever.

As I sat there at the kitchen table looking at by dad, I couldn’t help but sense that this small tin cup had a significant connection to something or someone in his past. I placed my hand on his and said, “Thank you dad”. As soon as I touched him, he immediately pulled back and wiped the tears from his face. He cleared his throat and blinked his eyes a few times as though he was waking from a trance.

I said, “Dad, you okay?” He looked at me directly and focused his eyes on mine. “Jeremy”, my dad said, “this little tin cup is very special to me. I thought I had lost it years ago when we moved here to our farm, but today the Good Lord saw fit to bring this cup back into my life. This cup is the only thing I have left of the house I lived in as a young boy. You may not know this, but when I was about 10 years old, my childhood home was ravaged by fire, destroying the entire house and my whole family died except your uncle Hans.” I was shocked to hear this. I knew that my dad and Uncle were orphans, but we never knew how they came to be that way.

“Wow, really dad? What happened, what started the fire?”, I said. “Well Hans and I were outside feeding the last of the pigs before going into the house for dinner. All of the others had gone in before us to start cleaning up. I remember dumping the last bucket of old table scrapes in the trough when we heard a series of loud popping noises coming from the direction of the house. I looked at my older brother and said, “What was that?”. He said, “Those were gun shots!”

My dad continued his story and said, “We both dropped our buckets and took off running toward the house. It was about a 100 yards away, but it seemed like an eternity before we even got close. As we were running, I was thinking about how things had seemed even more tense than usual around the house. I remembered hearing mom and dad fighting in their bedroom the night before. I couldn’t hear what they were saying but there were loud shouts and I could hear my mom sobbing. At one point, I heard a door slam with footsteps going down the stairs to the main level. I thought about how my mother just stood in front of the kitchen sink, staring out the window while we all ate our breakfast earlier that morning. I remember how my dad would make these occasional grunting noises and glance over at my mom.”

I couldn’t believe what my dad was telling me. I never knew any of this and I could tell that, for some reason, he was finally ready to tell someone about this part of his life. I sat there mesmerized, as my dad said, “When Hans and I where about half way to the house, we could see a bright orange glow coming from the front windows of the house and smoke was starting to billow out of a few open windows. As we got nearer, we both started screaming and yelling fire, fire, get out… get out!!!”

With these words, I could hear my dad’s voice crack as he caught his breath while holding back his sorrow. “We couldn’t believe what we were seeing.”, my dad continued. “When we reached the front door, Hans grabbed the door handle and jumped back yelling in pain from the burn he just received from the scalding hot metal door knob. I put on the pair of leather gloves I had in my back pocket, turned and pushed the door in yelling for my family, “Get out… Fire!”

My dad’s eyes were wide and his face was flush as he said, “Just as I stepped into the blazing front room, I was horrified to see my mother and all my siblings sprawled out on the floor, all with horrified expressions on their faces and blood coming from their foreheads and chests. I could hardly breath as the smoke was filling my lungs. Hans had reached the room and grabbed me from behind by the shoulders yelling, “We have to get out of here!” I pulled away and yelled, “Dad, Dad! Where are you!” With that I looked over toward the kitchen doorway and saw him sitting on the floor. He was holding a large pistol in his hands that I’d seen many times before. It was from his time serving in the German army under the tyrant Adolf Hitler. My dad was saying something over and over, that I could barely make out. It sounded like he was saying, “Only pure blood. Only pure blood.” He just kept saying it over and over. I yelled at my dad to get out of the house and he raised his eyes to meet mine and I could see a crazed wild look in his eyes. He looked at my brother and has he did, he raised the gun and pointed it directly at Hans and pulled the trigger.”

As I listened to my dad tell his story, I thought, this was incredible! I had no idea what to do with this, but I couldn’t stop listening.  I could feel that he was on a roll and needed to keep the story going, and to be free of its grip on him. As he spoke, he was very animated, with his hands and arms flailing about and rocking in his chair as he spoke. It was almost like he was seeing and reliving it all again.

“It was like I was having a nightmare.”, my dad continued. “In that instance, I simultaneously braced for the gun to fire and jerked backward crashing into Hans. I heard the gun fire and both my brother and I tumbled onto the floor. I could hear Hans scream in pain. I quickly turned over and saw him holding his left arm with blood coming out. I saw that he was hurt bad but still moving. In the same instance, I spun around to see my dad trying to get to his feet all while pointing the gun in our direction. I screamed, “Dad what are you doing?!” and just as he steadied himself to fire again, we heard a loud CRACK from above us. We both jerked our heads up to see one of the large ceiling beams above my dad give way and crash directly down on top of him. I rushed toward my dad only to see one of his hands lying motionless from under the burning beam.

The intensity of the fire was growing and I knew it was too late to help him. I turned and saw that Hans was crawling toward the front door. I ran and grabbed him around the waste and even though he was twice my size I pulled him up, and in a blur, we both ran out of the house just as we witnessed the house’s front porch and roof cave in.”

With that, my dad stopped his story and looked at me as if coming out of a dream. He shook his head and reached for the glass of water sitting on the kitchen table and drank it all. As he set the glass down, he said, “I almost lost my entire family that day. It wasn’t until years later that I heard more stories about my parents. They had spent several of the first years of their marriage trying to have kids, but weren’t having any luck. Being a virile German man, my father just assumed my mother was barren, but then surprisingly, my mom became pregnant with my oldest brother Frank. And just like clockwork, they began to have kids one after the other until all 10 of us were born. I just never would have dreamed I’d loose them all in such a horrific way and least of all by my own father’s hands.”

“I remember a few days after the fire”, my dad continued, “my brother and I sifted through the rubble of the house and the only thing of value we found was this little tin cup that my mother always had on her night stand.” And with that, he reached over and picked up the cup where I’d placed it. He said, “I don’t think I would have ever found it if it hadn’t been for our neighbor Ephraim helping us that day. He seemed to take the tragedy pretty hard now that i think of it. He was a good man who lived alone in a small house about a mile from our farm. Every year for many years he would help my dad during the planting and harvest seasons. Ephraim was a Jewish man who was kind of a loner in our part of the country. We thought the world of him because he would always make us kids a small gift on each of our birthdays. This seemed to work out because all our birthdays happened when he was working at the farm. We always wondered why he was a bachelor. Some say he had a girl in his younger days, but their love was forbidden, and her family moved her away to live with a distant relative in Dresden.”

When my dad looked at me, he seemed to be a lot calmer. He looked at me in a loving way and said. “I just want you to know Jeremy. I love you very much. I know I don’t say it…  well, at all really, and I’m sorry for that. I know this was a lot to hear in a story of my childhood, and how Uncle Hans and I became orphans. I don’t know if I’ll ever understand why my dad did what he did, but I thought it was important that you knew. I just hope that moving forward, we will try to talk more. I know I’ll certainly be trying my best.” With that, my dad stood up and put his hand on my shoulder for a second, and then strapped on his bibs and walked out the door to the yard.  As I watched him out the kitchen window,  I had a huge urge to go after him and hug him.  I knew that it wasn’t quite time to do that, but I knew somehow, someday we would get there.

I sat back down at the kitchen table and picked up the tin cup. I turned it over to examine the symbol on the bottom. I took out my pocket handkerchief and rubbed off the dirt and grime stuck to the cup from years in the shed. As I rubbed, I could tell that the symbol I was seeing was not balloons tied to a pitch fork, but it was a Jewish menorah that had little oblong flames coming out of each candle stick. I smiled and thought about Ephraim and how he had made my dad feel as a child. I was glad that he had that kind of man in his life and I wondered what ever happened to him. Maybe some day my dad will tell me the rest of the story.  Maybe…

Dwight J. Raatz
11/05/2017
(NOTE: The events depicted in this post are fictitious. Any similarity to any person living or dead is merely coincidental.)