Friday, November 14, 2008

Have you paid your light bill?

It caught my ear during our October trip to Wisconsin. My Mother-in-law mentioned the arrival of the light bill. My family used the same phrase and I hadn't heard it in years.

My parents not only referred to the electric utility bill as the light bill, Mother insisted that it must be paid, in person, at the electric company. In recent years I had come to think this was due more to my Mother's need for company. But what that particular bill meant is, I think, deeper than that. And so should it be for all of us.

To understand the significance of a utility bill and the power that most of us take for granted, you have to consider the dark years early in the last century. Cities had electricity, but electric wires hadn't reached scattered farm homes even in the 20s. After the sun went down, light came from kerosene lamps and lanterns that had to be filled, cleaned, tended. They were dirty. Their light wasn't much good either. Much of the world still lives that way.

In 1928 those electric poles finally began to march out onto the rolling landscape of north western Wisconsin country. In the spring of 1929 my grandparents elected to remodel the old farm, putting electricity in the house and the barn. “The light,” my Father recalled to me some seventy years later, “changed life on the farm. We went from dark isolation to true illumination. We could milk the cows without fear of a cow kicking over a kerosene lantern and burning down the barn. The light in the kitchen and dining room were a beacon to come in from chores in the cold.”

The lights, Dad said, could be seen all the way from Hwy C, his weekend drop off point for his ride home from boarding for high school in town. He would follow the lights of home up the two mile hill. To anyone passing by, it represented the Johnson hospitality; assistance that was always given. Then the depression hit.

Grandpa's money in the bank was frozen. The milk checks couldn't be cashed. The banker visited the farm to collect the money spent on the remodeling. Meeting my grandparents and seeing the tidy, newly remodeled place, he told them to keep the cows and pay the bank when they could. Things didn't get better. It cost more to feed and milk the cows than the milk could be sold for. The only money coming in was egg money from the chickens. By 1931, conditions on the farm, as across the nation, were so dire that the Johnson's reluctantly turned the lights off to help save the farm.

Darkness descended again. Dad's walk from Hwy C to the farm was pitch black unless the moon was out. He noted that once that happened, even the stray people stopping by their door asking to work for anything to hold body and soul together, dropped off too. But any who found their way were not turned away.

If the electricity you take for granted were turned off; hair dryers, coffee pots, Ipods, the computer like the one on which I write this...would you feel poorer? Probably. But it is just stuff. Loosing the light, though, changes the fundamental environment.

We're facing a time when the darkness confronting us seems greater than at any time since they turned the lights off on the Johnson farm. Somehow I doubt that many bankers are going to visit any of us and tell us to do the best we can and pay them when we can. Maybe they should. It would be humanity and democracy at it's best – people in relationship to people, instead of inhuman accounting columns and rampant capitalism.

Light, once experienced, makes the darkness that follows it unimaginably worse.

But there is a darkness greater than the physical that confronts us all now. It is fear, loss of hope and human heart to meet the need. It is a lurking bankruptcy of spirit that threatens to deplete our natural generosity; a lack that might be what got us into this in the first place. It's a failure to believe that there is a spirit that watches over us and expects – demands – that we look beyond ourselves and our things; that we make deposits to keep our personal light bill paid up, to illuminate the darkness for others as well as ourselves.

Have you paid your light bill?

©2008 Jan Johnson Wondra

Monday, November 3, 2008


Home is more than four walls and a roof.

The salt of life was poured over me last week. It was a travel week to northwestern Wisconsin. This is where I'm from. Garrison Keillor country; home of jello salads, hot dishes and lutefisk suppers. Where people still speak with Scandinavian accents and don't know it, but you love 'em for it. There, people learn early to sprinkle their words with dry humor. I don't think my Grandpa Ausen ever walked out the door without the twinkling admonition “Don't take any wooden nickels now!” This is where wealth, by and large, isn't measured in bank accounts or spine-chilling Wall Street news, but in family, friends, and land.

This time of year, the sky is most reliably blue and the oak savannas are deep rust against the overgrown native grasses that are now mostly unfarmed. It is, I think, home.

I didn't go there for a warm family reunion, although, in the end, I got that too. I went to work on clearing out my Mother's country house. Mom died in August. She and Dad retired there and called it home for 27 years. Before them, my grandparents did the same for some 32 years. They were preceded at the place, a former parsonage, by a succession of strong Norwegian pastors and their families stretching back to when it was built sometime in the 1880's.

It is grueling to clean out an old house; more so the home of someone who never threw away a piece of string, an old coat or even the wax paper from cereal boxes because it made such great pan liners for cinnamon rolls. (But that's another story.) My brothers and sister and I were together and we did some crying and a lot of laughing and shaking our heads as we dragged unsalvegables to a big dumpster out front by the drive. Other families would find incomprehensible two items we saved back; a pair of Dad's worn and much-patched blue overalls and Mom's infamous patch coat.

It's a patch coat because no matter how many nice coats we gave her, Mom kept re-patching this ancient beige wool coat and wore it to bring in the wood or get the mail. “It's still good,” our depression-era Mother would say with a defiant lift of her chin. “And it's warm.” Home is where you can't stop your Mother from going outside looking like the penniless Baby Doe hunkered down at the Matchless Mine, I guess. Or maybe it's where you plant both the overalls and the coat and fully expect that an overall-coat tree will bloom in the spring.

I've pondered the question of home for some years now. Is home a place you're from? Or a place you seek?

For my parents, the embroidered picture by their 1880s pot-bellied stove told the story, “Home is where the hearth is,” it read. For me, the concept of home has been relative. The ebb and flow of life has seen me move from the family farm to college, to Germany, to a succession of apartments and homes from Minneapolis to Denver to Milwaukee back to Denver. “Home” is any four walls that enclose the right person,” says Helen Rowland.

Yes, and...I believe it is also the combination of people, experiences and a place that feed your body, your mind and your soul. Especially your soul.
This morning, back again at my computer, I wonder again if all of us don't need to find home within our selves first? It is, after all, the meeting point of where we have been and where we are going; an eternal place that might be full of light, or very dark indeed!