April 09, 2020 2 Comments

By Kathleen Dunlap

During my teenage years, my family lived in a small village in southern Germany. In the large house next to ours lived an older gentleman named Johann surrounded by a huge garden of various flowers and vegetables. As we chatted one day, across the fence that separated our yards, he told me that as a young man, he had worked as a city planner in Nuremberg, Germany.

A city planner for Hitler’s Third Reich.

His job was to review the blueprints for the massive buildings that Hitler planned to build. He was a part of the crew who laid the foundations. He silently worked while horrors raged in the war. Chaos reigned around him, yet he continued to lay each brick over the other with a thick layer of cement mortar in between them.

He sought continuity. He wanted stability. He craved normalcy. He practiced putting his head down, ignoring the horror, and pretending everything was okay.

I’m not sure it worked.

His voice stayed quiet and reflective, as he told me his story. Nazi parades, high-powered speeches by the Fuehrer, frenzied crowds pressed in the area to listen to the propaganda. Soldiers lined the streets, rigidly practicing war drills. Neighbors fought against neighbors – no one trusted anyone else. Fear invaded every movement.

He later married, had two kids, retired from city work, and planted his large garden. A life of routine and predictability.

And that was that.

I wondered: If he could go back to his younger self, would he make different choices? Would he stand up to the injustice of his time? Would he secretly find the Resistance and partner with them? Would he find a way to shed some light on a dark time?

If he had, would he have ended up gunned down as a traitor? Would he have suffered in a concentration camp too, as had so many others had who had resisted? Would he have survived the brutalities of a War that tore apart countries, families, and soldiers?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, nor am I sure that Johann did either.

It makes me think of Moses.

You, know – Moses? The guy played by Charlton Heston in the old Ten Commandments movie? The patriarch of both the Jewish and Christian faiths? The outcast Prince who later led a whole nation of slaves to freedom? The one who called down multiple plagues upon the land of Egypt—everything from blood to frogs to insects? He was a part of a terrifying, hair-raising tale of destruction and hope, faith and defiance. Moses was center stage for the whole episode.

But he didn’t want it. Before the plagues and the power and the purpose, was a man who had run away from it all. He hung out in the desert, shepherding sheep that belong to his father-in-law. He was married, had two kids, and a mini donkey. All good here. When the Divine approached him, he presented more arguments as to why he wasn’t interested in doing the job than thinking about becoming the hero of the story.

Resistance emanated from him.

There is one common thread in these stories. Johann, Moses – they wanted to be ordinary. I want to be angry at them for their passive resistance to greatness. I want to rail at them for not caring about humanity’s biggest issues, for not wanting to make a difference, for ignoring all the signs of evil.

But I get it.

I, too, crave the ordinary. I desire the familiar comforts of a beautiful home, a healthy family, steady income, and fulfilling work. It’s so easy to shut out noise around me – the evils that haunt me – the challenges that face my world, my country, my neighborhood. I can get up every day, go to my straight-forward, no-nonsense office job to complete long lists of tasks, climb into my 4-wheel drive Jeep, pick up my kid from preschool, pop a pizza in for dinner, and end the night on a cozy couch while the TV entertains me.

I understand why Johann wanted it. I get why Moses resisted leaving it.

And yet…

Scattered throughout the routine of my days are small opportunities. I could put my head down, focused on my next layer of bricks to build my life. Or, I could notice the burning bush in my backyard and approach it.

The moms fighting for safer gun laws need my signature.

My elderly neighbor needs me to shovel his sidewalk after a heavy snow.

My local library needs me to deliver books to homebound patrons.

The homeless shelter needs the extra winter coats that are hanging in my closet.

The Syrian refugee women who have started their own businesses in a refugee camp, making soap and selling it online request me to make a purchase.

My local farmer is asking me to buy his fruits and vegetables to support his business.

These are not overtly extraordinary actions. They may not lead to an entire people being freed, as in the case of Moses. Yet, they poke me out of my comfort zone. A movement to see what the blazing bush represents, knowing that my small action may be a catalyst in the life of someone else. Mother Theresa said, “When we ultimately go home to God, we are going to be judged on what we were to each other. It’s not how much we give but how much we put in the doing, that’s compassion in action.” What we see as insignificant might mean the world to someone else. That is our calling. That is our purpose.

After our conversation, Johann gave me fresh tomatoes and zucchini. “For your dinner table.”

My family enjoyed delicious fresh harvest that evening. No, we didn’t build a wall or lead a million people to freedom. But, I think we were kinder, more respectful to each other. As I watched Johann meander around his giant garden later, I knew I would never feel ordinary again.



Kathleen Dunlap lives in Colorado with her husband, son, and two crazy dogs . She enjoys cooking new recipes , knitting , and exploring the mountains . Her work has appeared in Woman's World and The Denver Post. You can find more of her work at www.kathleendunlap.com. She's also on Facebook at:  https://www.facebook.com/kathleen.e.dunlap.


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Photo by J W on Unsplash

2 Responses

jennifer Figgie
jennifer Figgie

June 09, 2020

Thank you for all of it, for acknowledging the pull toward being ordinary and inconspicuous, raising meaningful questions about what makes us want to run away from the myriad opportunities to make a difference. And for quietly inviting us to look for the extraordinary moment in others’ sometimes incomprehensible actions. Perhaps this will allow us to lean into and celebrate our own extraordinary moments, whenever and however we determine the courage.

Yvonne Maloan
Yvonne Maloan

April 18, 2020

Powerful, challenging, subtle — this is a beautifully written and deeply thoughtful piece. I’m so grateful to have encountered this essay and through it am being nudged to ask where it is that I am emanating resistance. Ahh, the lure of the ordinary, the soothing balm of ignoring others’ struggle … thank you for sharing this piece.

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