Missing Dad Earl: Five Years Gone

On August 28, 2012, in Family, by Jody Ewing

This article has been cross-posted on the Iowa Cold Cases blog.

Mom and Earl

Five years ago today, my family received news no family ever expects to hear. We were fortunate, however, in that we received a gift few families get to experience when crime comes knocking on one’s door; we each got the opportunity to see and speak to our loved one — and him to us — one last time in conversation not focused on any final goodbye, but words of hope, love, and the promise of many more tomorrows.

Those tomorrows lasted just four more days before my stepfather, Earl Thelander, succumbed to burns sustained in a home explosion brought about by copper thieves. He died September 1, 2007, four months shy of his and my mother’s 25th wedding anniversary.

Mom and Earl had been out the night before working on the rural home they were preparing for a renter — the same country home where my maternal grandparents used to live — and the late-night or early-morning burglars who cut and stole propane gas lines and let the home fill with gas have yet to be apprehended or charged in the crime. My stepdad’s case remains unsolved.

Earl and Mom early on, fixing up a rental property.

Two months after his death, my mom, Hope Thelander, wrote about what she missed most about her husband and best friend; with permission, I’d posted her story to my blog. Read the blog post here.

Today I’d like to post the things I miss most about a good man I felt privileged to call “Dad Earl.”

I miss the way he always looked at my mom.

I miss how he’d always throw back his head in hearty laughter.

I miss the way he so carefully pushed up his glasses, his fingers wrapped around the outer edges, when deep in thought. 

I miss watching him carefully tend to his tomato plants and point out those he had marked for BLTs.

I miss watching his face when speaking on the phone to one of his kids.

Earl getting ready to plant tomatoes.

I miss witnessing his meticulous attention to detail whenever he went about fixing something … anything … he made sure things got done right the first time.

I miss hearing the way he’d begin a sentence with “If a guy were to . . .” because he never stopped considering new ways to approach a task at hand.

I miss seeing him sitting in his favorite chair at the kitchen table, sipping coffee from his favorite blue mug.

I miss his silent disapproval and how he’d slowly look down into his lap whenever he heard someone make a judgmental comment about another. 

I miss him at family birthday parties, at family barbecues.

I miss seeing him in his favorite pink oxford shirt that always made him look so handsome.

I miss seeing him behind the wheel in his maroon and silver Dodge pick-up truck.

I miss him. 

Earl enjoys a day at my grandparents’ farm outside Onawa, Iowa.

Features

On November 20, 2011, in , by Jody Ewing

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Johnny Cash and Hugh Waddell

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Most people knew him as “The Man in Black.” Many called him an icon, a true American treasure. Some called him by his given birth name – J.R. – but to those who loved and laughed with and knew Johnny Cash best, he was simply known as “John.”

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Getting Ready for Talk Radio

On February 7, 2011, in Entertainment, Writing, by Jody Ewing

Moebanshees Lair promoI’d be lying if I said I wasn’t just a little bit nervous about tomorrow night. I’ve been interviewed for television news programs before, have spoken before large crowds, and even appeared as a guest on Chris Matthews’ Hardball on MSNBC. But, I’ve never done a live radio show before. There will be no retakes.

Tuesday night (February 8) I’m the weekly guest on the Internet Talk Radio show Moebanshee’s Lair. The visionary talk radio program was launched by Asylums Gate in June 2008, and covers topics such as the sciences, environmental issues, criminology, history, politics, mysteries and more. I’ve had my hands and feet in a few of those over the past two decades — still have them in a couple.

Still, I find myself surprised whenever someone is interested in what I have to say.  To me, the real interest lies in the subjects I just happen to write about. (Yeah, I know; I just violated that spurious rule about never ending a sentence with a proposition. But I simply couldn’t force myself to write something like … about which I happen to write — or whatever.)

At any rate, I’ll have to remember not to talk too fast. Or speak too loudly (a family curse). I’m prone to do both — especially if I’m nervous. I’ll just have to be strong. Confident. Act like I know what I’m talking about. (Did I mention I love breaking rules?)

Past guests on Moebanshee’s Lair have included legendary Latin jazz guitarist Eddie Benitiz, anthropologist John Sabol, animal rights activist Amanda Sorvino, retired L.A. police detective & author Steve Hodel (The Black Dahlia Case), and actor Michael Patrick Boatman (Spin City, Arliss,Hamburger Hill). I am humbled.

The radio show airs Tuesday evenings from 10 p.m. to 12 midnight eastern daylight time, is hosted by Moebanshee and is carried on http://www.gameconradio.com/. Like I said, I’ve never done this before, but I think you just go to that link and can tune in by a link they’ll provide. And yes, I really am looking forward to talking about that which has mattered to me over the course of my life (so far), and it’s always a good thing reminding people of the many unsolved murders we still have here in Iowa.

I will stick Post-It notes on my telephone that say things like “Slow down” and “Don’t speak too loudly.” They only need to hear me on the other end of the line, not in Argentina.

And I will be strong. After all, if I can play hardball with Chris Matthews, this should be a piece of cake! I hope you’ll tune in.

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We Are as Great as…

On September 1, 2008, in Crime, Family, by Jody Ewing

I greeted today with unexpected feelings. All kinds of tangled roots of hope.

We are as great as the dreams we dream.

It’s been one year, you know. Already. A year ago today since Dad Earl succumbed to burns he received after copper thieves raided a rural country home and, in the explosion that followed, stole from an entire family a major force in all our futures.

As great as the love we bear.

Dad Earl may not have survived, but we did. He’d already taught us all how to do so.

Earl Thelander's headstone My mother had the poem “We are as great as the dreams we dream” inscribed in the headstone she will share with Earl.

As great as the values we redeem.

He taught us all about responsibility. Accountability. Values. We will not forget.

And the happiness we share.

We’re still a family. No explosion can tear that apart.

We are as great as the truth we speak.

He taught us to speak only the truth. Hard truths — no matter how difficult — are always easier to bear.

As great as the help we give.

He gave it freely. One never even had to ask…he was just there.

As great as the destiny we seek.

He sought none for himself, only recognizing that in others.

As great as the life we live.

He lived a life most of us could, and can, only hope to mirror.

Dad Earl, above all else, was a humble and giving man…quick to point out what he perceived as his own insignificant role in other’s successes…while all those blessed to be in his life rose to all he’d told them they could be.

Dad Earl had big dreams. Ours. He redeemed our values. He shared our happiness. He spoke our truths. He helped us all, and he gave freely of himself. He helped us seek our destinies. And he lived a great life defined by making a difference in those lives fortunate enough to have crossed paths with him.

We miss you, Dad, Earl. Dad. Earl. Honey. Grandpa. And even to some, Mr. Thelander. You were so much to so many.

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Mom and Earl: They’re Famous, You Know

On March 9, 2008, in Crime, Family, by Jody Ewing
Hope and Earl Thelander

Hope and Earl Thelander

I swear I wasn’t intentionally eavesdropping. In fact, I’ve wanted to tell this story for a long time. I’d been saving it for a chapter in my book, but feel now I’ve got to share at least part of it as it relates to “Dad Earl” and my mother, Hope.

The year is 1992. We’d just recently moved to Northern California, where my husband had been assigned as an ammo inspector with the Department of Defense. My 11-year-old daughter, Jennifer (who, being very shy, made friends no easier than I had at her age), had unexpectedly brought two friends home from school. After introducing them to me, she ushered them toward her bedroom door, where on the other side I assumed they’d talk privately about the most important matters of the day — boys, teachers, moving to a new school and what-on-earth-ever-brought-you-Here?

But before they reached my daughter’s bedroom door, I couldn’t help but pick up on her words, and I had to stop and listen.

“Yeah, we’re from Iowa,” she said, “but you probably know my Grandma and Grandpa Thelander. They’re famous, you know.”

She said it so matter-of-factly. The tone languished somewhere between a child’s innocent bragging and one already versed in that which makes other people proud.

“Really?” I heard one of the girls respond.

“Oh yeah!” Jennifer said. “My Grandpa Earl and Grandma Hope … you know, the ones who rent out all those apartments? Everybody knows them and I thought for sure you’d have heard of them…”

And then her bedroom door closed and I heard only muffled voices.

I remember smiling, and thinking:

How could I have so underestimated the importance of what my parents do? Even my own daughter, at such a young age, clearly understood the role my mother and stepfather played in our community. Together, they bought old buildings and worked long hard hours renovating them into apartments to provide affordable housing for the less fortunate in our small town.

How could I have known that 15 years later, my stepfather would in fact make international headlines for having been killed trying to make life better for others?

The article in Australia’s Scone Advocate may have a couple minor details wrong (Earl was preparing the house for a new renter, not to sell), but the underlying truth rings loud and clear: copper theft isn’t a problem limited just to Iowa, nor even to the United States. It’s become an international problem, and is costing hundreds of thousands of dollars along with innocent lives.

Though Iowa legislators currently are working on House Study Bill 660 in efforts to control illegal copper theft sales, thieves continue to find willing salvage buyers at recycling businesses throughout and state and the U.S. In Las Vegas, Nev., where salvage yards have gone from 60 visitors a day to over 250 visitors a day with salvage wire, KVBC News Channel 3 Investigators recently purchased nearly $200 worth of copper pipe at a local home improvement store. Then, along with a hidden camera, they took the copper out to sell for salvage. The station randomly picked three recycling businesses from the phone book to see if they’d be asked for photo identification, required for salvage sales in Las Vegas.

All three salvage yards — the Silver Dollar yard on Lossee, Nevada Recycling, and a yard at Lakewood — purchased the copper without any identification. The seller’s ID as logged by Nevada Recycling? Zippy McGee.

With copper content at all-time highs between $3 and $4 a pound, the stories of copper theft are growing almost as fast as the illegal sales. In Buttonwillow, Calif., $10,000 worth of alfalfa withered and died after thieves stripped copper wires out of irrigation systems throughout California. Almost $38,000 in materials was stolen in June 2006 in 10 copper theft in Yelm, Olympia and Tenino in Washington state, and in Tacoma, the frequency of copper theft in the Nalley Valley industrial area now has investigators helping businesses install camera surveillance. Kentucky has seen at least three electrocution deaths associated with the theft or removal of electric copper wire. And just last month, Detroit Firehouse No. 42 experienced delayed response times due to a repeat copper theft.

I dare anyone to find a single state where copper theft is not a major problem. Still, to date there has been but one single innocent man who lost his life because of copper thieves. He became famous, all right, but I suspect my stepfather, Earl Thelander, would have preferred to remain anonymous and live out the rest of his life doing what he loved most: spending time with my mother, fixing up and providing homes for those less fortunate who couldn’t afford housing elsewhere, enjoying his family and grandchildren, and tending to his tomato plants.

[flowplayer src=’https://jodyewing.com/videos-files/please-support-hsb-660.flv’ width=512 height=384 splash=’https://jodyewing.com/videos-files/please-support-hsb-660-splash.jpg’ autoplay=false]

 

This used to be a home. That was before copper thieves came in the night and cut propane lines and let it fill with gas to later explode with a man inside. That man was my stepfather, Earl Thelander.

My grandparents used to live here. After my grandfather died, my folks purchased the rural home from my grandmother (who’d come to live with them in town after Grandpa died) and fixed it up as a rental property. This is how my folks earned their living; they worked hard fixing up homes and apartments for those needing housing in this small community where everyone knows everybody else.

They’d recently installed new insulation and put permanent siding on the house. They cared for their tenants’ homes the same way they cared for their own, making sure everything always worked properly and that families who lived in their rentals were comfortable and happy.

Now, it’s nothing but a pile of rubble . . . a haphazard scattering of bricks, nails, metal pipes, a tumbled-down chimney and ashes laid out in layers like a melted accordion.

Earl had gone to install a new water pump. After authorities were notified of the break-in and the property had been aired out, Earl returned several hours later to begin work. He died trying to make life better for others.

Despite a $5,000 reward for information on those responsible for his death, there has been no arrests in the case.

The Iowa Legislature, however, now has House Study Bill 660 assigned to a Judiciary Subcommittee. I pray this bill will become law. For Earl. And for the thousands of other lives affected financially and in countless ways by what has now become a nationwide problem.

Copper Thieves Steal Lives.

Please join me in supporting Iowa House Study Bill 660.

He Thinks He Got Away with Murder…He’s Wrong

On February 1, 2008, in Crime, Family, by Jody Ewing

We humans, by nature, are forgiving people.

We should be.

After all, we all make mistakes. None of us are perfect.

We all, at one time or another, have done or will do something so incredibly stupid we can only hope and pray our neighbors … our friends … and (God forbid ) our families, never discover about our sinful souls.

These mistakes, however, do not by nature involve taking the life of another human being.

At one time, and despite the ordinary man’s quest (and, often, need) for vengeance, I truly felt I could forgive those responsible for taking my stepfather’s life. My mind enlisted every kind of reasoning.

The explosion, which occurred in the home's basement blew out upstairs walls around the wooden frame house. The explosion, which occurred in the home’s basement, blew out the upstairs walls around the wooden frame house Mom and Earl and family members had just finished insulating and re-siding. See a “before and after” slideshow of both inside and outside the house in All That Remains.

I told myself, the thief/thieves didn’t deliberately mean to cause Earl’s death. And when they broke into the farmhouse and cut and stole the copper propane lines to later sell for scrap metal worth perhaps $10 to $15, they probably didn’t realize the basement’s cut lines would continue to discharge propane gas into the house. And even that they probably didn’t think about the smallest actions and reactions — the plugging in of a fan hours after the burglary when the house had long since been aired out — that would lead to an explosion and melt the skin from a man who, even at 80, still worked hard every day and was there to install a new water pump in one of the rental properties he and his wife depended upon for their livelihood.

The truth is, I envisioned the thief and/or his accomplice (yes, there were two of them present that night) coming forward, acknowledging the fact one had burglarized what used to be my grandparents’ former country home while the other kept watch, with at least one of them asking for forgiveness and saying something like “This didn’t turn out like we thought it would,” and last, but certainly not least, “I am so very sorry for the painful death this caused for Earl Thelander and for what this has done to his wife and 11 children.”

Yes, laugh if you will at my unusual (and perhaps unrealistic) expectations from a petty thief. But, given the number of individuals who know who did this (make no mistake; there are many), and given the leniency and understanding my family has extended in the first five months following my stepfather’s unnecessary and untimely death, we honestly expected a day would come when one good man (or woman) would step forward and do the right thing.

Thus far, they have not.

Even where pleas to one’s conscience have failed, so have our family’s attempts to rouse anonymous tipsters with a $5,000 Reward.

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” said the British Statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke.

I only wish Mr. Burke were around today because I’d sit him down and tell him, “Evil will not triumph this time.”

Not with Earl Thelander. Not with this family. And we’re a forgiving family. But, our patience is running out.

So is time . Not just for those responsible for Earl’s painful and needless death, but those who know who they are and what they did. They, by God and under law, will be held just as accountable.

It’s not too late for them to still do the right thing. But, the clock is ticking.

Make no mistake about it.

A Message from my mother …

On November 7, 2007, in Crime, Family, by Jody Ewing

The post below is a message from my mother — as only she could write — in regard to what led up to and what happened immediately following the copper theft home explosion that claimed my stepfather’s life.

Two months after Earl’s death, Mom wrote this letter by hand and asked me to post it on my blog for her. I did take the liberty, however, of adding one of my favorite pictures of the two of them. They were still this much in love and so very happy right up until the day the copper thieves stole Earl’s life from him and from us.

Here is what my mom, Hope Thelander, wanted people to know.

Earl and Hope, the early years Earl Thelander and Hope Ewing before they married in 1982. A few months shy of their 25th wedding anniversary, Earl died from burns suffered in a house explosion after copper thieves stripped propane lines from a rural home the couple were renovating and let the home fill with propane gas. Earl and Hope had been working daily at the home  — which formerly belonged to Hope’s parents — and had reported the burglary and gas leak to local authorities earlier that morning. After all officials left the rural residence and Earl returned later that day to install a new water pump and tank, the home exploded when he plugged in a squirrel cage blower to help dry water from the basement floor due to water lines the copper thieves had also cut and stolen.

November 1, 2007

Two months ago today, my husband of nearly 25 years passed away at Clarkson Burn Center in Omaha of burns he suffered from an explosion at my parents’ old home in rural Onawa. Earl and I had purchased the home and had been finishing up work there after one of my daughters and her husband moved out.

Since the accident on August 28, and Earl’s subsequent death four days later, my family and friends have taken all interviews in order to protect my feelings at such a terrible time. There have been several newspaper accounts of that day, and though I am extremely grateful for the media’s help in keeping this investigation in the forefront, as Earl’s wife I feel I need to address some misinformation as to what actually took place.

Earl had turned off the propane at the tank when he first arrived at about 8:30 a.m. He then had me call the sheriff’s office to tell them of the break-in.

Between approximately 10-10:15 a.m., Sheriff Pratt and Officer Joe Farrens arrived to take a statement. At that time Sheriff Pratt, Joe Farrens, Earl and myself, my brother-in-law, Dave Anderson, and my daughter, Kysa Ewing, went through the house opening windows. (We later were told we didn’t have the explosion then because the oxygen level was too low.)

We all came back home to Onawa, having left open all windows and doors to ventilate the house.

At approximately 11:30 a.m., Earl went back to the farm to hook up a new water pump and tank in the basement. Ordinarily, I accompanied him when he was working at the farm, but he insisted it wouldn’t take long and that he would not be too late for lunch.

My nephew, Norman Johnson, arrived at our Onawa home shortly after that, bringing Earl and me some lunch.

Shortly after 12:00, Earl came in the door with his burned shirt hanging around him in shreds. He was badly burned and said the house “exploded” when he plugged in a squirrel cage blower to dry the water on the floor that had leaked after the water lines on the water heater had been cut. (Not to air any remaining propane fumes as has been mistakenly reported in the media.) Norman and I – not the ambulance – took Earl to the hospital where Dr. John Garred Jr. called for life flight to take Earl to the Clarkson Burn Center in Omaha. Dr. Garred explained to us the prognosis of someone Earl’s age surviving the vast scope of the third-degree burns was not good — despite Earl being otherwise quite healthy.

Four days later, after being kept in an induced coma to prevent pain, Earl passed away. At his side to say last goodbyes were his children, stepchildren, grandchildren, and myself.

We have been through anger, frustration, grief, loneliness and disbelief that he is gone, particularly because he was taken away so suddenly and there was so much more he wanted to do with his life. I miss him so much.

I miss the coffee breaks (every 15 minutes).

I miss him watching Bill O’Reilly’s “No Spin Zone” at 7 p.m.

I miss seeing him fill the bird feeders and calling me to see a cardinal whenever they would fly in.

I wanted so badly to have him see that his three puny tomato plants produced literally hundreds of tomatoes.

If there is anything to be thankful about over this, it is that he didn’t have to endure months of painful treatments for his burns. In addition:

I’m thankful he didn’t know I was diagnosed with breast cancer six days after his funeral.

I’m thankful he was able to get out of the basement and drive home to me.

I’m thankful that he woke me up at 4 a.m. August 28 to look at the eclipse of the moon with him in what we didn’t know then had just become our last morning together.

I’m thankful that instead of five children, I have 11 to help me with the things he’d always insisted on doing himself.

Yes, he was a good man, a good friend, and a wonderful husband and father.

We will all miss him, but we will work together to solve this senseless and needless crime.

In Earl’s memory

Respectfully yours,

Hope Thelander

The Tangled Roots of Hope

On October 30, 2007, in Crime, Family, by Jody Ewing
Earl Thelander getting ready to plant tomatoes

Earl Thelander outside his home preparing to plant his annual tomatoes.

In the film To Kill a Mockingbird, there’s a scene where young Jem goes back to the Radley’s collard patch late at night to retrieve the britches he’d abandoned earlier after snagging them in a fence. Some days later, when his sister Scout catches him admiring the trinkets he found in a tree near the Radley home, Jem confesses to her the truth about the night he went back after his pants.

When I’d left ’em, they were all in a tangle and I couldn’t get ’em loose, he says. But when I went back for ’em, they were folded across the fence… sort of like they was expectin’ me.

For the past two months, every time I pulled into my mother’s driveway and saw Earl’s tomato plants spread out further and thicker than they were the day before, I could hear echoes of those words … sort of like they was expectin’ him

Like a loyal dog sitting faithfully by the door — an ear tilted sideways, awaiting familiar footsteps and sounds of the master’s return — the tomato vines kept listening, leaning, yawning, spreading out their arms to sleep and curling themselves around the empty lawn chair’s legs where he once sat and then waking to another day to nudge against the bright yellow Tonka truck toy he’d parked in their bed … almost as if they still were expecting him to come back home and play and pluck an annoying weed from their loom like an unsightly burr from a retriever’s golden coat.

He had waited for them first, using his index finger and one good eye to sight the one he’d chosen as his favorite.

“Right there. It’s already turning red. See it?” he’d said, hunching over and pointing into the sparse vines. And I’d followed his gaze to where the small but plump orb blushed amidst its less developed sister fruit. “That’s the one I’m waiting for,” he’d said proudly. “That one’s mine.”

On his knees, he’d planted these seeds and gently blanketed them with soil and cared for and tended to them with the same kind of commitment he bestowed upon all things he molded and created with his own two hands. But some time in the night’s dark hours, the Boo Radley of Jem and Scout’s deepest fears came to rob this man of his life and loves and the pleasures he derived from taking simple moments like these and turning them into something spectacular.

Still, his tomato plants waited.

They waited while … six days after his funeral … my mother passed by them on her way to the hospital for the breast lumpectomy and returned with her breast cancer diagnosis.

They waited and spread out toward the east while … one week later … Mom’s doctor told her she needed to make a decision.

Earl Thelander's tomato plants

Earl's few tomato plants produced hundreds of tomatoes.

They waited and spread toward the west and wrapped around the heart-shaped sign reading “Grandpa and Grandma – Kids Spoiled Here While You Wait,” while … two and one-half weeks later … another car took her away for the mastectomy and returned with all these other vehicles and so many lively children.

They waited while … amidst all the muffled voices and words like metastasized and chemo and numerous close calls with small running feet and shrill laughter and surprising phrases like bad-year-for-tomatoes-everywhere and questions like he-did-what-with-his … new buds spurted forth and heavier vines swept down and around them like mother hens pulling rowdy chicks back and away from the busy traffic in Earl’s driveway.

They waited and snaked around the legs of his white chair and climbed up higher for breathing room and a view of dozens more green offspring below while … careening near the chair’s arm where he used to lay his elbow … they sucked in the late October sun as new words like collapsed lung and it’ll be freezing soon drifted over the rail near the door and filtered down between the effervescent green foliage.

And so, as the month drew to a close and I returned my mother to her home after the morning’s hospital visit where they made her blood radioactive to prepare for chemo treatments and she said we need to get the tomatoes out by nightfall lest they freeze, I looked down at the tangling vines and thought about how their roots of hope had somehow spawned hundreds of tomatoes, and, against all odds, continued to multiply and produce as if their very life — or, perhaps, ours — depended upon it.

“But some of them are still so … small,” I said. “They haven’t even had a chance to ripen.”

Yet, I knew.

Like Jem and Scout and Dill mourning summer’s end, Earl’s tomato plants hadn’t yet realized their season had come and gone. Their life cycle, like Earl’s, left so much still ripening on the vine.

Still, I could not bring myself to pick them. Perhaps I wasn’t yet ready to say goodbye to summer. Perhaps I wasn’t yet ready to say goodbye to the interlocking green stems that still drew energy from the sun and soil. Perhaps I wasn’t yet ready to say goodbye to Dad Earl. Cutting down his tomato plants — even in the face of a freeze that surely threatened to kill them all — was too much like severing all hope he’d return once again to gather his offspring in his arms … if only for one final moment.

In Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find, she, like Harper Lee, recognized that which separates good and evil and redemption from sin.

In Earl, we found a good man. In Earl, we found our own Atticus Finch.

And his spirit, I know, will be there with us when we go to sleep at night and it will be there when we wake up in the morning.

The Faces Behind Those Who Loved Dad Earl Thelander

On October 28, 2007, in Family, Videos, by Jody Ewing

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Yeah. It’s us.

The faces behind those who loved Dad Earl, as well as some of the events and people that often have made the days of our lives feel like ordinary miracles.