Friday, May 26, 2023

Fifty Years Ago in Ulster


Walking along the city wall of old Derry, my mind slipped back to the first time I had been in Northern Ireland.  It was 1973, and I was in the midst of a semester abroad program through the University of Edinburgh. One long weekend, I took it into my head to go see Ireland, knowing from stories my father had told that I had Irish ancestors in my family tree.

          Back then, the accepted mode of travel for students on limited incomes was hitchhiking, and this was how I got from Edinburgh, Scotland to Liverpool, England. I couldn’t hitchhike across the Irish Sea, however, so I bought passage on an overnight ferry to Dublin. This way I didn’t have to pay for lodging.

          When I arrived in the Irish capital early the next morning, I wasn’t sure what to do next. Many friends in college had talked about the Guinness Brewery, so I went there for free samples. After a draught or two—or four—I felt energized enough to wander around seeing the sights. Following my usual travel pattern, I found the Dublin Youth Hostel that afternoon and stayed the night. 

    The following day, I decided to explore the countryside of the Emerald Isle. It was only March, but the land was moist and green, living up to its moniker. As I walked along the roadways, I held out my thumb each time I heard a vehicle approach. It turned out getting rides in Ireland was quite easy. The people were very friendly and helpful. In one day I got all the way from the east coast of Ireland to the western side to Killarney, whereupon I found the Youth Hostel there, as well. 

          That evening a rainy cool front moved in. It struck me that I had only two days to get back to Edinburgh for school. Unperturbed for the most part, I set out for Dublin again the next morning, walking along with my thumb out. I’m not sure what I thought I would accomplish that day since there was no way I could walk all the way across the Emerald Isle in a day. As it turned out, I didn’t have to. One of the rides that stopped for me on my trek back from Killarney was a group of three young men in a small compact car.

          “We’re heading over to Kilkenny to visit a friend,” they said. “He’s sure to have a lunch for us. You’re welcome to come along.”

          Some people might say I was foolish to accept this ride with three males I didn’t know. But in some strange way, I wasn’t worried. God has seen me safely thus far, I thought. I’ll just keep following his lead.

          When we arrived in the town of Kilkenny, they went straight to what looked like an old church. Parking the little car, they led me into the ancient-looking stone building. A man in a rough brown monk’s robe met us in the hallway and exclaimed, “Ah, so good to see you fellows. I see you’ve brought a friend. Come on in, I have a light lunch here to share. There’s always enough for a guest.” (Years later, I’d learn there was a deeply-rooted belief in Irish culture to help the stranger or traveler along their way, whether by food or other means.)

          After our meal of fruit, cheese, and bread, the monk asked me, “Where are you heading today, dear?”

          “I have to get to Dublin,” I replied.

          “Ah, well then we’d best help get you on the right road,” he smiled.

          The next thing I knew he was standing beside me in his long brown robe, helping me thumb a ride. Of course the very first car stopped. Yes, they were going to Dublin. As I climbed into the car and waved good-bye to my new friends, I couldn’t help thinking that it would be nice to have a monk along on future hitchhiking trips.

          I arrived back at the Dublin Youth Hostel shortly after dark. Getting out my map, I contemplated how far I still had to go in only one day. Another fellow-lodger was looking over my shoulder.

          “You don’t want to hitch in Northern Ireland,” he said. “It’s not safe like it is here. The Troubles, you know.”

          I was well aware of the Protestant and Catholic violence in Ulster in the 1960s and 70s, so I wasn’t all that keen on visiting Northern Ireland at all. “I’m not sure I could hitch all the way from Liverpool to Edinburgh in a day, though,” I said. “The ferry would take half my travel day.”

          “You could take a train from here to Belfast.” He pointed at the route on my map. “There you could get to the Larne Ferry to Scotland. That would connect you with trains to Edinburgh.”

          This would be more expense than I’d hoped, but it did give me a guarantee of making it back to my goal in one day. So the next morning I bought a ticket for the Belfast train.

          Riding along, I watched the green countryside of the Republic of Ireland fall away behind me. Trains often travel through the bleaker parts of cities and landscapes, and this ride was punctuated by high walls with barbed wire and broken glass embedded in the tops of stone or concrete walls.

          Once we reached Belfast, I was told I had to go to a different station to change trains. At an information desk, I asked the attendant, “Which bus do I need to take to get to the Larne Ferry train?”

          “No buses are running,” came the reply. “One was bombed last week.”

          My heart did a flipflop.

          “You’ll have to walk,” the attendant’s voice continued. “Here, take this city map. It shows you which streets to take.”

          My heart pounded as I took the city map and set out in the streets of Belfast. Walking along one row of glass-fronted shops—with bars protecting them from possible outside violence--I happened to hear a low rumble. When I turned my head, I saw a huge armored tank rolling by, British soldiers--with their guns ready--seated on top.

          This was the mental picture my mind jumped back to when I was standing on the ancient city wall of Londonderry almost fifty years later, looking at the fence constructed to keep out the Molotov Cocktails which were being thrown from Bogside.


          As our tour group walked to the next stop, I told the guide about this Belfast adventure, especially the tank.

          “How old were you?” he asked.

          “Not quite twenty-one.”

          “I find it very surprising that you’d so such things alone, and so young.”

          I shrugged. “Maybe I was foolish, but God took care of me.”






Friday, May 5, 2023

Beginnings of "An Irish Odyssey"


An Irish Odyssey

Chapter 1

           The sign pierced my deepest mind: “England is Ireland’s Enemy.”

It was as harsh in its style as in its words, printed in black block letters on white, a sign framed on a metal stand.  Not your usual graffiti, and there was plenty of that in Londonderry’s streets, even in 2022.

          As we walked along the city wall of Old Derry, our guide pointed out where the wall had been raised and augmented by chain link fencing and razor wire.

          “Below us,” he said, “Is the Catholic neighborhood of Bogside.  Up here on the other side of the wall is one of the headquarters of the Protestant forces.  Why do you think they made this wall higher?”

          “To keep the Catholics out?” said a member of our tour group.

          “Even more than that,” the guide replied.  “People down below would throw bottles filled with flammable liquid over the wall and into this building.”

          “Ah, Molotov Cocktails,” someone else said.

          “Yes,” said the guide.

          “I’m confused,” I said. “I thought The Troubles ended with the Good Friday Peace Treaty in 1998.”

          “I suppose you could say so in theory,” the guide added. “But even now each side has different interpretations of what that document means. I guess you could say it ended the particular Troubles here in Northern Ireland, but the sectarian differences between Ireland and England are deep-rooted.  The history goes all the way back to the English King Henry VIII, in the sixteenth century. That was when Henry established the Church of England, the beginning of Protestantism.”

          “So he could defy the Pope, right?” said a woman beside me.

          “Yes, and all because he wanted to divorce his first wife so he could marry Anne Boleyn,” added a man behind me.

          Our guide was smiling and nodding his head. “The strangest part is that both sides—Protestant and Catholic—living here in Ireland rarely attend church.”

          “So it’s not really about religion at all—”

          “Of course not,” the guide nodded.  “It’s all politics, and always has been. England has always considered this island a big problem, ever since King Henry. One side commits violent atrocities, and the other side retaliates in the same way.  The spiral never really ends, though right now we’re in a period of relative peace.”

          “Except for the occasional Molotov Cocktail?” the man behind me laughed.

          “I’m confused,” I said, raising my hand. “Which name is correct here—Derry or Londonderry?”

          Again he smiled, “If you’re Catholic, it’s Derry. And if you’re Protestant it’s Londonderry.”


Sunday, March 26, 2023

It Wasn't My Superpower--It Was God's


This week I finally retired from a 31-year career of teaching music.  During those years I taught private lessons in piano and guitar, even oboe.  Also taught preschool music classes through Kindermusik and Musikgarten, classroom elementary general music, beginning band, and directed many children's and adult choirs. I've lost count of how many Christmas Concerts and Spring Programs I put on.

It all started in 1990, when my 9-year-old son missed the children's choir, from our former home in Montana, after we moved to Michigan.  At his urging I started one at our new church home in Tawas City, Michigan.  One thing led to another after that, as God slowly nudged me into a field I never thought I was qualified for.  The children's choir led to adult choirs, and my piano teacher in Michigan, Kaye Phelps, encouraged me to begin teaching beginners.  She mentored me and knew when to push me, as I learned more than I could ever have imagined.  Teaching something really increases your learning, I discovered.  By the time we had to leave Michigan and return to Montana, I'd been teaching music over 16 years.

During this same period, the Lord got me in the "back door" of a Master's in Music Education program at Concordia University, near Chicago.  I was able to take my classes there in the summer, so I could continue my music teaching jobs in Michigan, and graduated with an MME in 1998.  I still look back amazed that I was admitted to a Master's of Music program with no Bachelor's degree in music.  My BS was in Biology and Environmental Education!

 When my husband retired and we returned to build our retirement home here in Montana, part of the floor plan included a music studio.  Here I taught students of all ages, from preschool through senior citizens for another 15 years.  Once I reached 70, I knew it was time to retire, and move on.  God had morphed me into a music teacher by giving me the skills I needed.  It was not my talent, but His, and He deserves all the glory.  He provided me with what I needed to do the ministry He called me to.

I have been blessed with getting to know over 500 students over these past years.  And many tell me that I have blessed them, too, with the gift of music--whether they moved into music teaching and performance themselves, or just enjoy playing or listening to a favorite song.  Those are things, I still hope to do.  Some of the most-beloved songs of my teaching years now bring tears of joy to my eyes.

I don't know what God has in store for me around the next bend, but I know He has a plan. Right now it looks like I'll still be writing some historical fiction, and doing acrylic painting. (The music studio is already in the process of being converted.)  One of my favorite composers, Johann Sebastian Bach, wrote these letters at the end of every piece he composed: SDG.  They stand for the Latin words, "Soli Deo Gloria" -- To God Alone Be the Glory!  That's my motto, too.

Monday, February 27, 2023

I Thought This Was Pure Fantasy, But Now It's All Around Me

 Has anyone else noticed how our culture is shifting away from the written word to the visual? I don't even know how many streaming services are out there. Many people don't want to read a book if they can watch it on a screen. (I know some of you still read, so don't get mad at me. Otherwise you wouldn't be reading this.)

For me, all this streaming, YouTube, TicToc, etc, reminds me of the future world I projected in my first book, "Peaks at the Edge of the World"-- where books are obsolete and forbidden. It's almost scary to see it coming to pass all around me. By the way, I must add that the seed of my idea was inspired by Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451".
From my first book, begun 50 years ago and first published 10 years ago, several other have been spawned. And my focus has moved from sci-fi to fantasy, and on into historical and contemporary fiction.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

In the Deep Midwinter

 As the year of 2022 comes to a close, I feel a wisp of melancholy seeping into me.  Nothing in the world is any better than it was last year.  In fact, things are just continuing to get worse.

I know it's partly the effect of the short days, long nights, and gloomy weather.  I admit I do have SAD ( seasonal Affective Disorder) so I try to sit under my full spectrum light as much as I can.

But some things are not like they used to be.  Just as an example, our winter this year arrived on November 1, which is technically the middle of fall.  The ancient festival of Samhain, which we celebrate as Halloween, marks the midpoint between the Summer Solstice and the Autumn Equinox.  Odds are that our winter here will last until nearly May 1, which some still celebrate as May Day.  It's the outgrowth of an ancient festival, Beltane, which marks the midpoint between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice.  The result is our winters up here in northern Montana can last 6 months, from Samhain to Beltane.  Not complaining, just telling the truth as I see it here.  I think the Celtic peoples had it right.  They called Samhain the last day of autumn, and Beltane the first say of spring. Sure fits here.

 Sometimes friends tease me and say, "What happened to Global Warming?  I remember when Climate Change used to be called Global Warming.  A lot of people in the southeastern US this year are probably wondering why they have broken all kinds of cold temperature records. We have actually broken cold temperature records here in Montana, too.  At least half the US has been crippled by what is being called "The Blizzard of the Century."  I hate to say this, but more extremes in weather patterns are one of the effects of Climate Change.  Some places will receive extreme cold or heat.  The "usual" storms like blizzards and hurricanes will become more intense as our earth's atmosphere tries to adjust to the changes in temperatures of our bodies of water, especially the oceans.  Sorry to say this, but the next "Blizzard of the Century" may happen well before we reach the 22nd century.

Many people claim there is no such thing as Climate Change because they don't want the status quo of our energy systems or their pocketbooks and stock market investments to change.  But no matter whether people believe it or not, these storms, droughts, and potential famines are going to continue.  Maybe all this isn't caused by human activities, but change is coming one way or another.  And there's nothing we can do about it, except perhaps try to control our carbon dioxide emissions, and be more prepared for extreme and unusual weather.  For example, I think the South needs to take this as a wakeup call. 

I often wonder if becoming a snowbird would help me with these long winter blues I tend to get. My hubby and I have investigated various possible places to go, but none of them feel right so far. (Last March we went to southern Utah and northern Arizona, only to encounter cold weather and snow there, too.) And after this huge Christmas storm, I think I'd rather stay here up north, where we are prepared for this type of weather.

At any rate, I'm considering joining my cat.  With the record cold, she started spending her days sequestered in my stuffed closet, hiding under my overhanging clothes, and other piles of stuff I've accumulated in there.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Wishing You All a Most Blessed Christmas!

This fall has left me behind.  When we got home from Britain the end of September, I had a cold (or something) which set me back.  October slipped by and winter arrived early on November 1.  Yikes.  So I haven't been writing much as I try to get all my ducks in a row.  I have good ideas for blogs but they never seem to make it to my computer.  Sorry.  Here's a joint project by Paul, me, and our cat, Josie.

Greetings from Montana!                                                                               Christmas 2022

I (Paul) just returned from a hike with a Thursday group called Over the Hill Gang.  It was a lovely sunny day and a cold start at 8 degrees.  It was a good time to think about this year’s Christmas letter as we hiked to a fire lookout overlooking Glacier National Park, The thought hit me on the way down after sharing the trip Frances and I took in September. We traveled to the British Isles after two years being postponed due to Covid restrictions. We flew to London and were met outside the terminal and led by hand to our hotel. It was so nice to let the tour director take it from there.  Twenty two days on land tour, 17 hotels and 3600 miles covered throughout England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland. Okay, so what has this to do with our annual Christmas message? Well, as part of the tour we were entitled to having a porter bring our baggage to our room and upon leaving pick it up outside our door in the morning.  Our pastor recently preached a series talking about the baggage we all carry around with us.  What did he mean about baggage?  The baggage of past mistakes, failures, fighting, revenge, gossip, just everyday mean thoughts or dislikes we carry with us.  In other words, our sinful nature.  Okay it’s another one of Paul’s sermons but please hang on.  You see Christ Jesus came to earth to carry our baggage of sin. He carried it to the cross for us.  We could do nothing on our own, as this baggage is much too heavy and bulky to carry ourselves. That’s it, all I have to say! Christ is the reason for our Christmas season. His birth and resurrection is for all who believe. We pray you recognize his love and grace for you.  Thank Him for carrying the load.  Merry Christmas, and God’s blessings in the New Year!

Okay, it’s my turn now.  Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Josie, the Erler’s cat for the past 4 years.  I came from the Humane Society as a very well-fed stray, over 20 pounds.  I want to make clear that Paul and Frances aren’t my owners. They’re my staff, being sure I’m fed twice a day, petted & cuddled often, and cleaned up after. My main activities are eating and sleeping. I also like it when Frances’ piano students come to pet me and say hello. I think there are 9 students right now. Most of the time I recline beside my scratching pole in the sunshine by the sliding door. I don’t like to go outside, and don’t catch any mice.  When they travel, I have to go to Emilie’s house on the other side of town. I hate riding in the car, and spend most of my time there hiding under Emilie’s bed. Mike, her boyfriend, pets me and calls me “Fat Cat.” I spent ten days there last spring during Spring Break, another two weeks in July when they went camping with dear friends the Sundbergs and Hazelbakers in Idaho, and a whole month when they went on that trip to the British Isles. And they never brought me any presents! () Emilie got some, though. By the way, they did see that pile of ancient rocks called Stonehenge. I also enjoyed getting acquainted with Frances’ brother Dan when he came in August.

As Paul already told you, he still hikes about once a week, Frances tries to get walks and Tai Chi classes in at the health club.  Both are singing in choirs again. They’re happy Covid restrictions are over—for now. Frances still writes books.  Her next one, “Lauren’s Dark Passage” is coming out in April 2023, and one more is in the publisher’s hands, too, probably for 2024. She’s kept busy with her Christian Women’s Club and a new Christian Writers’ Group called Footprints. Oh yeah, she’s also started acrylic painting, and even sold a couple of pictures. Paul still creates wall d├ęcor with upcycled piano parts. He is running out of parts, though, so if anyone has an old piano to take apart, he would love to have the keys. This year they were accepted for a juried arts and crafts show at the Kalispell Fairgrounds over Thanksgiving weekend. Frances puts photos of the products on her Facebook page: “Frances Erler” or you can email

Emilie and Jon are still teaching, though that job gets more challenging every year. I’m told Emilie is in her 16th year of teaching kindergarten here in Montana. Jon teaches Middle School Social Studies in Washington State. I never go to school, since I’m just a cat. But I’d rather sleep in the sun, anyway. Emilie goes hiking a lot, once or twice a week. Jon likes to camp and hike in the Washington Cascades, too. He and his roommate, Adam, have started gardening—flowers and vegetables—in pots on their patio. Emilie also gardens in pots on her deck. I don’t think Paul and Frances are much into gardening anymore. Visitors are always welcome here at my house. I may even jump on your bed.



Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Some Thoughts on Economics and Equality

         Some people think I'm a Socialist because I tend to point out problems I see with Capitalism.  But that's not the case.  It's just that I do see some things about our current economic system that are problematic.  I remember asking my dad about this years ago, when I was only 14 years old.  (Guess I've always been a deep thinker.)  

    Dad's response was, "Well, it works better than anything else that's been tried, like Socialism or Communism."  He was right, of course.  But in all the 66 years of my life since then, I still haven't found an answer to my question.

        The first problem I see with Capitalism is that in many ways it's still a class-based system like the one that has dominated Western Civilization almost since its inception.  We still have an elite group even though it's now not royalty or feudal property owners.  Now we have CEO's and well-paid lobbyists and lawyers, who keep the wealth concentrated in the hands of a powerful few.

        And in order for these people on the top to have the "capital" to invest in industrial growth, that money needs to be concentrated with them, or so the system assumes.  This means Capitalism needs a large supply of cheap labor in order to amass these funds for the top.  

        By the way, the word "Capo" in Latin, and the Romance languages descended from it, means literally "the Top" or "the Head".  It's where we get the words Cap, Capital, and Capitalism.  (Ask any musician what D.C. means in a piece of music, and they'll tell you it means go back to the beginning, or the "Top" of the piece.)

        The history of our American Economy illustrates this idea of cheap labor well.  In  the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, there was a surplus of cheap labor--immigrants, even slaves, children and women.  After Child Labor Laws were established and slavery was abolished, there were still floods of poor immigrants coming in from around the world.  They were looking for a better life for themselves and their families, and so they were willing to accept menial and even dangerous jobs for low wages, in hopes of improving things for their descendants.

        Yes, there were a few large companies who took better care of their workers than most did.  But it was mainly churches and other non-profit organizations who tried to help the desperate poor.  It's no wonder that the idea of Labor Unions and Collective Bargaining found fertile soil with many of the poorly-treated laborers.  Most people seem to forget that is what Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is observing.  Now it's become nothing more than another long weekend, a celebration of the end of summer, and another chance for businesses large and small to promote and advertise themselves through "Labor Day Sales."

        Now that the flow of cheap labor has dropped drastically because of labor laws and curbs on immigration, it's really no surprise that most large companies have outsourced their manufacturing to Third World countries where they can still find cheap labor.  But what will happen when that source dries up?

        I admit that I don't have any answers, but I think we need to mull over some of these things.  How can we have an economy that gives dignity to everyone?  How can America really fulfill its promise of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" to every citizen, not just an elite few?  I hesitate to point this out, but the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were landed gentry, part of "The Top" of society at that time.  They said, "All men are created equal", but many of them owned slaves.  Were they thinking of them as "equal"?  I'm not sure.  Even after over 200 years of existence, our country hasn't really reached this ideal of equality.

        No, I'm not a Communist or a Socialist.  Those systems haven't worked either.  Human greed and government corruption eroded them.  In fact, that seems to be what is happening to our country, too.  No one wants the parties to sit down and submit to arbitration.  No one seems to be looking for what is fair, for "Liberty and Justice for All" as we say in our Pledge of Allegiance.   Instead, we're divided into camps that shout at each other rather than talking to each other.  Each side vilifying the other as wrong, and claiming their side to be right. This is a dangerous road.  At this point, all I feel I can do is pray to God in Heaven to heal and help us learn to be more like Him--for He is the one who truly wants liberty, justice, and hope for every one of us.