Posted by: Mark Nielsen | December 24, 2008

Risk & Reward, At Christmas & Through the Year

As promised, I offer below the online version of our family Christmas letter, complete with a handful of helpful hyperlinks. If you’re snowed in like we are here in Chicago, make a cup of tea, take a break from wrapping and cooking, and poke around in somebody else’s life for a little while.

Many thanks to my growing number of repeat visitors and readers. And to the newbies, welcome! Feel free to comment, and have a great week!

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Blessings of the Season, O Friends and Relations!                                 (Nielsen “Wall of Words”)             Dec. 2008


We ran through a half dozen possible metaphors for this letter, symbols to capture our experience the past few years, since the last time we wrote (2004? yikes…) : Reunions. Treadmills. Doorways. Poet Robert Frost’s “Road Not Taken”. New fruit. Old wine. HDTV conversion vs. personal conversion.

We’ll come back to some of those metaphors, but haven’t settled on just one, because life can’t be boiled down to a perfect little image or moment. Even if it could be, we usually don’t have the perspective needed to understand that image until we’re old and wise. So instead, life is about the little stories we live and then retell– details, scenes, some of which may be edited out at the end. We don’t really control all the parts of the plot anyway. So becoming mature is hard work, as we accept and integrate all those details and choices, some of them brilliant, some of them really, really dumb.


Like the story my sister Karen reminded me of this morning, from my childhood, when my friend Mark Cummuta and I played chicken with lawn darts. We can talk abstractly about how boys will be boys, testing the limits of what’s acceptable or dangerous (both socially and physically). We can talk about our “shadow” parts, both male and female. Or we can just get that picture, of a steel-headed lawn dart sailing through the air, landing inches from my ten-year-old foot, as I tried judging the dart’s trajectory and whether to move that foot. (I didn’t. No blood, though. Was it sheer luck?)


Our son Graham is only six, but there are moments when I really see him, when I can tell he’s having one of those moments of testing. He doesn’t always pass the tests, nor do we pass all of his. But he grows either way. He tends toward “heady” activities (e.g. playing on the computer). On Independence Day, he shocked my cousin Nick, who tried to trip him up by asking how many planets have rings. “Four,” answered Graham (correctly, go look it up). “I’m taking this kid home with me!” Nick shouted. Or this test: Graham played tee-ball (I was assistant coach), and though he isn’t quite a “natural athlete”, and whined about going sometimes, he did okay and made friends. He’ll get better at taking those risks, eventually, for better and for worse. The more we love and trust him, the more he‘ll learn to trust God and himself, to feel safe and head in new directions (and make strange choices of his own, hopefully not ones involving lawn darts… no trips to the E.R. for him yet, knock wood…).


            In the case of Sue and I, we’ve taken risks and headed in new directions of our own lately, only some of which we had a choice about. For Sue, the change she could see coming but could not avoid was the loss of her father Richard Nickerson, in the spring of 2007. It turned out to be a good family reunion, as funerals often are. But her main feeling since then is the discomfort of inhabiting a sort of matriarchal role before she feels ready (and as the youngest of her nuclear family, it also feels odd).


            The other change Sue could feel coming for years, but could only make by taking a pretty big risk, was leaving Deerfield High after 21 years there. She had grown gradually more tense in the chairman role and the overall environment, so despite some strong friendships, she made a lateral move and is now chair of the English department at Grayslake North H.S. It’s about an hour’s drive north (on good days, at the right time), and is a school that’s more of a “blank slate” in many ways. It feels right, despite (and sometimes because of) the students, teachers, and pace being so different than the North Shore situation she left. Our friend Jim Croegaert’s song Changes has been back on her mind a lot.


            As for me, I took a risk and got “back on the horse” to teach again in the fall of 2006, at Chicago Mennonite Learning Center. I taught fine and performing arts, and later added in P.E., at this mostly Latino K-8 school on Chicago’s South Side. It was a good experience, and even felt like an arrival at something I had been aiming at for years. But then, another plot twist I had no control over: the school closed for the 2008 school year due to funding problems. So now I’m looking for work again, admittedly adrift in the present economic environment (and not sure if another unconventional school exists where I will fit in). But I’m still trusting (mostly) that I’ll land where I belong, perhaps teaching at the college level (now that I’ve accepted I’m a do-gooder/intellectual/teacher type, which usually means not making a lot of cash in this world). Still slogging away at a novel, too, though more creative energy goes toward blogging. I’m getting a small but steady blog readership by now, which is cool. And I did some sculptures on a lark and showed them in a friend’s small gallery this fall, also new and fun.


            I also underwent and am still experiencing a formal rite of passage, by attending a sort of men’s monastic boot camp/retreat run by Franciscan priest Richard Rohr in August 2008. Despite (and even because of  ?!?) a horrible case of poison ivy, the rites were a powerful, healing experience, opening up new relationships and “inner” doors (to my past and future) that I didn’t really have access to before. I call myself a “once and future Catholic” because of men and experiences like this, where the Ancient of Days and the glorious Present come together, where the Big Picture clears up some, where we weep and laugh, wrapped in comfort and safety.


            On the other hand, as a family, we’ve stepped down a new road by beginning to attend an “emergent” Lutheran church, after about twenty years at the old one (Reba Place, a Mennonite church). New one’s Redeemer Lutheran, a smallish ELCA in nearby Park Ridge. “Emergent” means more than I can go into here, but it’s partly about renewing those ancient ways, stretching, being a more inclusive “both/and” community, with God and other people. We sometimes miss our friends at the old church, and have been permanently “Mennonized” in many ways (peace-oriented, conscientious about money & power, skeptical of social authorities). But the new church is good, too — not just by being different (less stale?), but also by challenging us (like acceptance that these new folks ain’t perfect, not a perfect “fit”, but might benefit from what we bring to the table, or can gently teach us how we’re not perfect, either).


            So we’re taking life as it comes here at the Nielsen household, …that is, when we’re not escaping to Grayhaven, the very different household at the rural Wisconsin lake cottage we bought a few years back. Though a bit hard to pay for given our downward mobility, Grayhaven’s still, in a word, good, … a real blessing. Lots of fun to downshift, turn off the boob tube, harvest new and tangible fruits of our labor from apple and pear trees, grape vines, raspberry bushes; fun to drink mint tea made from our own onsite plants, and maybe pull a Northern Pike out of the lake if we’re lucky (though I’m still a lousy fisherman… anyone out there want to come up, mentor me a bit?). We even got ourselves a used John Deere lawn tractor this year, another rite of passage in some circles. We live a sort of creative tension, a bi-coastal urban/rural existence (Lake Michigan/Lake Kristine). Challenging, but interesting, to maintain two houses, …and get to know two different sorts of people and lifestyles, a division the 2008 election season painted in stark contrast at times.


            We want to stay grateful for opportunities like the lake house– and a new president and direction for the country—because gratitude is good for the body, the soul, the brain, even entire societies. Plus, if there’s one thing that personal and international changes/crises do, it’s force a re-evaluation of one’s life, so we stop taking things for granted. Gratitude, even for painful stuff, is another sign of spiritual maturity, like radical forgiveness and that readiness to risk and try new things. Plus, the new brain science (an area I’ve been reading and writing about lately) makes pretty clear the danger of getting stuck in those old ruts, trudging through life like we’re on a treadmill, being averse to risk and change. Which is one reason Sue and I have gotten an actual treadmill this year and improved our exercise regimen, to keep thinking and acting “young” even when the temptation to feel old is stronger every day. Of course, it helps to have a six-year-old around the house to remind you– one who gets so excited about the ceramic, light-up Victorian Christmas village that he can’t keep his hands off of it.


            I’d offer more personal and extended family news, travels and things we’re glad about (or sad, like our favorite sports teams), but I’m afraid it would turn into a somewhat boring, obligatory list –and if there’s one thing I hate, it’s being boring. (Or maybe I actually AM boring… if so, ignorance is bliss!) If you wish to read more Graham stories or personal reflections, go to the blog. The underlined or colored words in this letter are hyperlinks (in emailed/online versions only… obviously), linking to my poems, blog entries, outside sites of interest –all tagged here for your click-thru amusement or chagrin.


Because them that knows me know I seldom lack for opinions to agree or disagree with, and I’m never a’feared to let you know us better. And them with the stamina to get through this whole letter know it, too, …a journey which our entire family thanks you for joining us on.


Have a safe, exciting, and genuinely NEW, new year.


All Our Love,

Mark, Sue & Graham Nielsen



  1. I read your email version of your Christmas letter and dropped over to your blog to leave a comment. First, thanks for the Christmas letter; we too of late have taken a break from Reba and started attending 1st Presbyterian after 30 years of Reba. What will always trouble me about a place I have loved for so long is that you can just walk away and know one will trouble you as to why. We did return for the Christmas Eve Service as they wanted Mary to lead the opening candle dance and I played a shepherd (it had been years since I had been in a play) with our grandson Charlie as a sheep.

    Blessings on your future to you all three. John & Mary

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