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Oniontown Pastoral: Sabbatical in the Writing Hut
On Friday, July 2, 1971, I was almost 10. Evonne Goolagong beat Margaret Court at Wimbledon, and Americans were humming Carole King’s “It’s Too Late,” baby. Richard Nixon and his associates were being tricky in all manner of things from D.C. to the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Inconspicuous 7-2-71 is neatly painted on the wall in front of me in a chalky white. A normal person would have sanded the board and hit it with polyurethane, but Mr. Tyler, the previous resident of the Coleman house in Erie, Pennsylvania, obviously had good reason for dating the wood rather than burning it.
In any case, I’m far from normal. It’s not normal to make the walls and floor of your new writing hut out of hardwood scraps from an Amish lumberyard, leftover boards waiting above your garage rafters and tormented barn wood from Conneaut Lake, Pennsylvania. Ordinary isn’t turning a slab of Old Man Tyler’s wainscoting, roasted and frozen by turns over the decades, into a desk top.
Crazy is more like. What began as tame diversion has become zealous mission. Writing is mostly on hold. The summer and fall of 2020—this strangest of years—are a sabbatical during which my medium isn’t language, but boards that you might say are grimacing if they had faces.
Meanwhile, writing continues in my head. For one thing, I’ve been engaging in spiritual poetry, regarding my endeavor here as redemptive. This castoff lumber represents sisters and brothers who are rooted nowhere, who stick out like burls, whose misfortunes and trespasses are knots that make sawing iffy.
In this shed of reject materials, there are no outcasts. In fact, when handled with care and beheld with generosity, the ash and cherry and maple and pine I bought for a song or employed in honor of thrift sing of hope. Resting my eyes on misfit and forgotten boards that have found welcome and good purpose makes me glad.
Another fortunate thing: As I’ve refrained from putting down words, the kinship between language and lumber has revealed itself to me. Just as Mr. Tyler couldn’t part with the odd cupboard door or 10’ planks of pine painted red, over the years I’ve been hoisting extraneous words and expressions to my lexicon’s rafters.
Some words have simply fallen out of favor. Nobody spreads oleo on toast anymore, naps on a davenport or wears dungarees. School students don’t hang their wraps on a hook and leave their galoshes in the hallway.
Other words are so seldom called for that they get musty. I’m a devoted gourmand, but rarely say dollop. An evening beverage is medicinal, but I never drink liqueur. Reading yesterday I tripped over payola, which has never crossed my lips, but it reminded me that my parents’ generation liked to say Shinola.
And again, plenty of words have received their melancholy gold watches. Today’s cars don’t have fender skirts like my folks’ 1967 Pontiac Grand Prix did, never mind rumble seats. Does anybody still pay the light bill, unlock a door with a skeleton key or keep a milk box by the front door?
Ah, but who cares? Rummaging through heirlooms clacked out on a manual Smith Corona before computers existed is sweetness and light. My mom collected Green Stamps and sewed herself scooter skirts. My dad got his Schlitz from the icebox, called me Buster Brown and my nose a snot locker. My coaches grunted walk it off. No matter how busy my vocabulary becomes, I’ll never scrap such pieces, which form memory’s truss.
In a week or so, the carpenter’s obsession should be out of my system. The last task, a hardwood floor, is no gimme, though. The boards are as even as I can get them, a process that started in July’s steam and finished in October’s soaked chill.
I turned 59 on 10-9-2020, not too late, I hope, to enjoy some fruitful seasons of fulfilling this place’s mission. But about the floor: It will have to tolerate wet galoshes and spiritual poetry. Its boards can’t be like words brought out seldom, if ever.
No, any visitors will stand with me on load bearers like love, compassion, tenderness, justice, honesty, fairness, forgiveness and truth. Kindness, grace and mercy, too.
If the friendly Amish man’s scraps fit together, the floor will join Julian of Norwich in assuring this writer, guests and the walls themselves, “In this hut at least, all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
A Deep Breath and I’m Good Again
“It’s hell being nuts, Pastor,” Ray said over coffee. “I never know who I’m going to wake up to.”
My friend’s mental illness has been lifelong and ferocious. Hardly a day passes without one of his demons exacting misery. As I’ve mentioned in previous reports, we talk on the phone daily, usually more than once. Our conversations skip like records. He craves tobacco. He’s paranoid. He’s confused. Pray for him.
Occasionally he comes out with a revelation. “I never know who I’m going to wake up to.” If anybody else said this, you’d think he was joking about boozy one-night stands, but not Ray. Every day at 8:53 or shortly thereafter, my cell phone rings—or, I should say, quacks. I’ve recently given Ray his own ringtone so that I don’t rush to answer, not out of insensitivity, but realism. He’ll call back in 20 minutes.
Just as he has no idea what his alarm clock will bring, neither can I predict the stability of the voice on the other end of the line.
“I really want to smoke bad this morning, Pastor.” That’s a common complaint.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” I think, “smoke already!” No, I don’t advocate bad habits, but obsessing might be as carcinogenic as tar and as addictive as nicotine. My annoyance doesn’t linger like it used to, though. A deep breath and I’m good again.
Friendship with Ray is an exercise in forbearance, but it comes with rewards, chief among them is that loving him precisely as he is nudges me into loving others as they are and, no kidding, accepting life as it is.
The latest beneficiary of John’s love fest is the Coleman’s foxhound Sherlock Holmes. The facts are these. Sherlock, as I have noted in the past, is loud. If you could hear him carry on when I get home from work, your guts would quiver. Hollering won’t change this. Ignoring him won’t change this. Filet mignon won’t change this.
Now, I can boil over, or I can remember what Ray taught me: You can’t—or, I insist, shouldn’t—train people or dogs to be something that they’re not. That’s pointless and unfair. Either track down what’s lovable or start kicking friends and pets out of your pack.
Obviously I’m not talking about, say, a woman staying with an abusive man because, oh bother, he can’t change. There are limits.
But if your foxhound goes nuts on the way to the dog park, sounding off with his head hanging out the window, you have choices. That is to say, I have choices. 1.) Stop taking Sherlock to the dog park. 2.) Roar shut up until a sore throat sets in. 3.) Bark along with him. Only one of these makes since. Once the spirit takes over, the chats I have with my sleuthhound are almost as instructive as the ones I have with Ray.
Sherlock’s vocabulary is stunted, but adequate. He’s got ruff, whoop and whimper as well as several variations. Wimper is phonetically impaired, but you get the idea. We drive by pedestrians, who grin or go slack jawed. Some must wonder, “Was that driver barking like the dog?” Why, yes, he was. The performance also includes an intimate exchange. “Rah, rah, roo,” Sherlock often says, undoubtedly meaning, “I love you.” So I respond, “Rah, rah, roo, roo.” “I love you, too.”
After dashing, frolicking and indiscreet sniffing, he hops in the backseat for the five minutes home. Tired into silence, he who sheds fiercely puts his paws on the console, thrusts his head beside mine and slobbers.
Nobody has ever accused me of being tidy, so my gearshift panel is a commotion of dog hair, dust and coffee stains. Thanks to Sherlock, this dry slurry is now cemented in place by K-9 shellac. The dog has a surplus of spit, especially after playtime, and when he pants, that paddle-shaped tongue flings the slime everywhere.
I could get grouchy, but what’s the use? Scolding will never subdue saliva glands. Neither will admonition make a troubled soul wait until 9:00 a.m. to call.
I have some experience with neuroses, so I can confide in you this blasphemy. Prayer won’t still Sherlock’s thrill of the chase or cure Ray’s ceaseless mind. It’s more blessed, if you ask me, to bay with the dog or answer the phone saying, “So who did you wake up to today? If he’s giving you trouble, let’s talk a while. Then I’ll bend God’s ear for you both.”
Oniontown Pastoral: Why I’ve Been Quiet Lately
It was tomatoes cooking, the kindly surprise of their smell, that brought me around, helped my spirit to its feet and pointed me in a good direction.
If you look forward to my column in Greenville, Pennsylvania’s daily, The Record Argus, or my posts at A Napper’s Companion, you may have noticed that I’ve been quiet lately. When world and native land are convulsing in myriad ways, of what account are tomato-perfumed wisps rising in a middle-class kitchen? When the television news serves up images of relentless rage and pandemic, mentioning the cleansing joy of wife Kathy’s sunflowers bending in the breeze feels intrusive. When we human beings are enduring the labor pains of birthing a new society—and meanwhile throwing tantrums over trivialities and wetting our pants—who wants to think about a couple dozen corn stalks rising from a raised bed, the soil a mix of household compost and manure from a dear friend’s cows?
Maybe you do. I now believe my silence in recent weeks has been misguided. “Don’t go all poetic on me, John,” I imagined you saying, “about standing at a stove or pulling blessings from a garden, about how basil makes a sauce sing, about how walking by a bush of spearmint touches a place inside you didn’t know was aching. No rhapsodizing at a time like this, when so many of us are at each others’ throats and hardly an hour passes without yielding fresh anxiety and confusion.”
Of course, you weren’t saying anything like this. The fact is, I had convinced myself that what normally moves me to make paragraphs wasn’t relevant anymore. We all have bigger fish to fry, as the cliché goes.
But then those tomatoes reminded me of last summer, before the complication and misery of 2020. Kathy’s crop necessitated daily decisions. Would I make spaghetti or chili for supper? Or would I core and simmer down yesterday’s basketful, let it cool and pour it into freezer bags? More often than not, when Kathy got home from a day of nursing cancer patients, she would pause just inside the backdoor, close her eyes and breathe in.
“Oh,” her mantra went, “I do love the smell of my tomatoes cooking.” And then we’d kiss.
Yes, Norman Rockwell might have painted me wearing an apron and holding a wooden spoon straight up while Kathy looks on with rosy cheeks and a slight smile, but not one detail of the scene is embellished, honest. This was the start of our evening together. This was home and family and marriage. This was life and love.
All of these thoughts came to me wordlessly when, the other day, the pageantry of preserving my wife’s bounty started up again with the lovely scent I’ve described. She has already pulled garlic and onions, which I regularly help to fulfill their aromatic vocation, and canned some dilly beans. Cherry tomatoes are piling up, and, yes, I cook them along with the Better Boys and Romas and freeze them flat. That glad task will wait until tomorrow.
At the moment Kathy is drizzling dish liquid into a slowly filling blowup pool. Grandsons Cole and Killian are staying over this Friday night. I’m watching them from my writing hut—more on this new outbuilding on the Coleman farmette soon. Killian is running the length of the yard and jumping into the shallow foot of water, emerging suds covered and delirious. The way Cole is waving the hose around to make water snakes in the air, the pool may never reach capacity. No matter.
Planet Earth may be going to Hades in a hand basket, but even the gates of hell shall not prevail against my grandsons’ wonders in this hour. Nor can powers and principalities stop Kathy’s sunflowers, soaring six feet above the corn, from waving at me.
Silence is a skillful teacher, but its students are lost unless they listen with the ear of their heart. That was my problem. I paid attention to the faculty members who scream and shout that their subjects, crucial though they may be—war, oppression and illness—are the only ones worth studying.
So I write to insist otherwise and resume interrupting our shared daily travail with promises. Tomatoes still ripen in August and will remind you of grace if you put them on to cook. And sunflowers will bow to you when the wind is right. Remember to breathe deeply and bow in return.
Oniontown Pastoral: Afternoon of the Gladdened Heart
If my blessing had a face, it would belong to a three-year-old as yet unpunished by disappointment. Time ages us all, but it’s toil that paints pale bruises under our eyes and sculpts wrinkles and jowls. Anyway, the darling cheeks of my blessing would be smeared with grass and mud. A mother would lick her thumb and go after the mess, but the child would twist loose before the job was done.
This is for the best. What catches my aging breath isn’t in the child’s face alone, but in the anointing of sweat, dirt and spit. And especially in what once annoyed me, but now returns as longing: Being pulled close by my mother, looked at with what only ancient Greek fully captures, agape, and gently tended.
The blessing was simple: Kathy and John Coleman’s grandsons, six and four, played in our muddy backyard. They filled milk jugs from the hose and made a pond behind our garage. Given enough time, they would have built a moat. As Cole and Killian troweled new layers of crud on their skin and jeans, son-in-law Matt and son Micah sunk posts in for a fence, and pregnant daughter Elena and Kathy kept an eye on the boys and talked. I sat on the steps, mindful of the sun. The shepherd’s pie I had labored over bubbled in the oven.
My efforts, I confess, were fortified by a splash of Cabernet Sauvignon. Having skipped lunch, I wasn’t drunk, but my heart was gladdened. In this condition, I watched with outsized pleasure Cole and Killian, whom Kathy and I hadn’t seen much during the Coronavirus pandemic, lose themselves in the possibilities and wonder of their grandparents’ yard. For good or ill, we adults had decided to loosen the restrictions within our family.
Many grandparents live far away from their grandchildren, an arrangement that would dig a ditch down the middle of our lives. As the weeks wore on, we saw the boys from six feet away. We didn’t hold their hands or kiss them on top of the head or pick them up. Kathy got weepy when the subject of being separated from Cole and Killian came up and crossed her arms in a hug that came up empty.
If having grandchildren were worship, then those boys perching on my lap and leaning into my chest would be Holy Communion. I never take for granted being Pop next to my wife’s Grandma Daffy and the good fortune of our adult children choosing to reside nearby.
So the blessing was mostly this: Peace in the family, laughter in the yard, grandsons who come near again. Every once in a while a gathering of minutes is so right as to seem otherworldly. Friend Jodi told me about a day long ago when she and her brother were fishing on calm water. Leaning back in his seat and looking at the sky, he said, “I feel sorry for anybody that’s not us right now.”
That’s one way of putting it—grace tells the seconds to hush and mercy is perfect air passing over your arms and face.
Man, was I happy. Who knows why, then, my late father joined me on the steps? He would have rolled his eyes at my glass of red restorative. He was a Schlitz man, not an alcoholic, but in leisure hours he could dent a case.
50 years ago I sat with Dad on Grandma and Grandpa Miller’s porch steps. No talk. The beers had gone down quickly, and Mom was mad that he had gotten a fat tongue before family dinner. He stared somewhere far off, beyond Horton Avenue. Dad was in the dog house for good reason, but I’ll never forget how licked he was. My parents weren’t made for each other, that’s all. Sad time stretched out in front of him–and Mom, too, I know–long loveless summers of little but getting by.
It was strange, but lovely, to recall my father’s saddened heart while the great-grandsons he never met ran carefree “in the sun that is young once only.” My unmerited joy rested Dad’s defeat on its shoulder and was the sweeter for it. Maybe this is why I thought of him. That could easily have been me decades ago, slack jawed and dazed on the in-laws’ steps, a son keeping vigil. Lucky is what I am.
The face of gladness is young, fresh with promise, but it’s not real without the streaks of earth and blades of grass. That’s how I know it belongs to me.
Oniontown Pastoral: Holding My Wife During the Evening News
Our days generally begin in decent form. As wife Kathy and I are both working from home as the Coronavirus pandemic plays out, she takes one side of the round table in our den and this Oniontown pastor gets the other. I put shoulder to the church or writing wheel, as the day dictates, but last Friday I took a few minutes to smith for Kathy an over-the-top menu for lunch and dinner.
Shrimp and Lobster Bake, which came frozen in a box the size of an Etch-a-Sketch, provided a tantalizing description: “Premium shrimp and lobster blended with tomato, ricotta, fontina, and mozzarella cheese layered between sheets of pasta.” Another dinner option, Fredonia Grade School Pizza Burgers ala Sherry, owes its inclusion to a St. John’s friend whose mother once wrangled the recipe from a cafeteria worker. “A comfort entrée for the child in all of us!” I promised, but Kathy opted for the seafood.
My establishment was called “Chateau de Pop,” in honor of the grandfatherly chef. It was tame diversion for two 50-somethings making phone calls, clacking away on keyboards and hoping that an oriole would peck on the orange halves waiting by the feeders.
Kathy decided on Ham, Potato and Cheese Casserole leftovers for lunch, which may be the most deadly choice on any menu ever. It’s so shamefully bad. Think ham niblets, instant potatoes and wads of Velveeta cheese. The flourish is an anointing of melted butter that makes your eyes scrunch together with every bite. The Colemans are also a salty bunch, so the health threats posed by this dish are myriad. Had I written a teaser, it should have been a referral to a cardiologist for angioplasty.
Far more than decent, the day verged on merry. Kathy and I safely traversed the afternoon, walked foxhound Sherlock Holmes, and settled in for ABC’s World News Tonight with David Muir. That last step was a mistake. As we have all learned during our pandemic du jour, current events can send a chilly draft through chateaus both grand and humble.
Before saying what pushed my wife over the edge, I’ll note her frustration with working from home. As an oncology nurse, she shines especially as a calm, reassuring presence to her patients, many of whom are scared and confused. And Kathy is empathetic, not only at work, but also toward people whose turmoil is shrink-wrapped in one- to two-minute TV news stories.
Friday’s broadcast included a report about 26-year-old flight attendant Taylor Ramos Young, who is now recovering from COVID-19. A couple of weeks ago, he asked his father, who along with his mother was unable to visit Taylor in an ICU, “If I go on the ventilator, do you know how long I’m going to be on it?”
Kathy hears every day of patients who are dropped off at a hospital entrance and wheeled away for treatment without a loved one by their side. She can’t bear the thought.
Taylor’s father recounted his son’s question, choking on tears, spittle trailing between his lips. “How long?”
He coped better than I would have. Watching Elena and Micah walk away on their first day of school did me in. Whether children are 6, 26 or 76, a parent’s urge to protect them never expires.
When David Muir marched on to the next story, Kathy announced, “I want pizza and wings for supper.” Then she cried. I was affected, but my wife—whose righteousness inconspicuously exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees—had reached her limit.
Never mind Shrimp and Lobster Bake! She needed pizza and wings. And not just any pizza and wings, but a scandalous, large Brooklyn style with cheese and pepperoni and 40 barbecue wings from Domino’s. Domino’s! Talk about your comfort food.
What Kathy really needed was a hug, which I promptly delivered. Sounds simple, but the duration of hugs is silently negotiated. Some take a while, especially those that say, “I’m falling apart. Hang on to me.”
She did that for me months ago when, having buried too many folks I’d loved in a short stretch, I leaned back on the couch, no match for sadness. Friday was my turn.
Other than those irresistible, underachieving wings, I can’t tell you anything about that evening other than Kathy and I embraced in a timeless present. I remember giving and receiving a love that makes tomorrow possible.
God gave us arms for this purpose. To gather up each other’s broken pieces and hold them together until our faces dry and our hearts grow strong again.
Oniontown Pastoral: A Lutheran Response to COVID-19
Sometimes I’m particularly proud to be a Lutheran. When I read a pastoral letter about the Corona Virus from Elizabeth Eaton, Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I was so grounded and refreshed I can hardly tell you. Before sharing what Bishop Eaton wrote, I’ll set the stage.
Wife Kathy was just checking the latest news across the table from me in our den—the tongue-in-cheek name of the room where both of us are working from home during COVID-19’s deadly fuss. She exclaimed something from behind her computer screen. (I feel like television’s Tim “The Toolman” Taylor peering over his privacy fence at neighbor Wilson’s forehead on Home Improvement.)
My beloved may have used colorful language, but I can’t swear to it—groan. She passed along a report from NBC News about a Louisiana pastor who persisted in holding worship services in defiance of Governor John Bell Edwards’ executive order against gatherings of more than 50 people. The Reverend Tony Spell, however, packs in around 500 at Life Tabernacle Church. The trouble is, songs and amens are accompanied by airborne spittle, which passes infection.
Don’t be deceived if I sound momentarily whimsical. According to the Los Angeles Times, on March 10th a choir of 60 asymptomatic voices in Skagit County, Washington, assembled for a practice complete with social distancing and hand sanitizer, and now 45 of them have tested positive for COVID-19. Two have died.
Faith gives life, but mindless faith can also snatch life away. I don’t fault members of the Shagit Valley Chorale for rehearsing, as no restrictions had yet been announced for their county. Tony Spell’s faith, on the other hand, is dangerous. I’m sorry, it just is. “The virus, we believe, is politically motivated,” he stated. “We hold our religious rights dear and we are going to assemble no matter what someone says.”
Lutheranism rejects such arrogance. Bishop Eaton rightly referenced Martin Luther, who wrote his own pastoral letter in 1527 on a topic that hits home today. “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague” addressed a population still mindful of a scourge that killed over 23 million people in Europe 200 years before:
“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me He will surely find me and I have done what He has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person I shall go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.”
I am not a Luther scholar, nor do I possess any insight about 16th Century Germany. For this reason, I trust the ELCA Bishop’s knowledge and direction:
“Many of our [parishioners] have the same concerns as those in Luther’s day. Many of our people are anxious. Luther’s counsel, based on Scripture, is still sound. Respect the disease. Do not take unnecessary risks. Provide for the spiritual and physical needs of the neighbor. Make use of medical aid. Care for one another, especially the most vulnerable.”
This exhortation is neither soaring nor inspiring, which is why I love it. Discipleship looks pale compared to the flash and fluorescence that hypnotizes our culture. The acts of belief that move me most are nonchalant: swallowing an unkind word; listening to a loved one without glancing at the smartphone or television; shoveling a neighbor’s steps after a snow storm.
Most of all, in current circumstances, calling myself a Christian has a lot to do with using the brain God gave me. Health care professionals are begging Americans through their exhaustion and tears to stay home. Communicable disease experts say that COVID-19 is stealthy—and doesn’t the poor Skagit Valley Chorale know it?
Tell you what, as a diabetic, I’m going to listen to smart people. I don’t want to be infected or, what’s worse, pass along misery to an innocent bystander. Unless I must go into public places, you’ll find me at the Coleman house, praying for our protection and fumigating, my faith and intellect sitting peaceably side by side.