Oniontown Pastoral: Boy, Could That Kid Jump!

Oniontown Pastoral: Boy, Could That Kid Jump!

This was almost 50 years ago. We were playing baseball on Wagner Avenue, home plate and bases drawn onto the pavement with chalk.

“I’m Johnny Bench,” I hollered.

A prized part of my collection of autographed pictures from the early 1970s.

The other boys renamed themselves until Tommy was the only one left. He reached into his back pocket, thumbed through bubble gum cards and said, “I’m Tom Seaver.”

That’s how it was. My friends and I watched sports on television until we couldn’t contain ourselves, then ran outside to the stadium of our imaginations. We were both crowd and announcer. We cheered our home runs and cried out our alter egos after touchdowns. I can hear lanky Paul’s “Billy Joe DuPree” from the end zone, marked by a great maple in front of my house. He roared “Joe,” that one syllable so rambunctious and giddy that it still gives me a shot of adrenaline.

With a pause and deep breath I run the highlight reels from hundreds of pickup games with their line drives, swishes and spirals.

When nobody else could play, I shot hoops in a neighbor’s driveway. More often I grabbed a football and the cap to one of my mother’s hairspray cans to use for a tee and booted field goals over a telephone wire. For hours, as dusk eased toward darkness or sleet stung my cheeks, my name was Jan Stenerud, the Kansas City Chief who kicked soccer style before anyone else.

“Time let me hail and climb golden in the heydays of his eyes,” Dylan Thomas wrote of childhood in the poem “Fern Hill.” Wagner Avenue was the home field of my heydays, back when “I was green and carefree.”

I loved every win and loss, every bruise and dream. I loved Stenerud and Bench, “Sudden Sam” McDowell, Erie’s own Freddie Biletnikoff, LeRoy Kelly and “Pistol Pete” Maravich. And I especially loved John Havlicek.

I say “loved” advisedly. I never met these athletes, but they sprinted and shot through my seasons constantly. Their names alone revive my spirit.

So this morning when I read that John Havlicek died, “No!” came from down deep, involuntarily, not as lusty as lanky Paul’s “Joe” but plenty loud over a first cup of coffee.

I wasn’t yet four years old when Havlicek deflected a pass with five seconds left to preserve a Boston Celtics’ playoff victory. Even fans too young to remember the play have heard announcer Johnny Most’s legendary call. “Havlicek steals the ball!” he shouted. “Over to Sam Jones. Havlicek stole the ball! It’s all over! It’s all over! Johnny Havlicek is being mobbed by the fans!”

John Havlicek in the 1960s. I never did get his autograph.

Through the miracle of the Internet you can binge watch the 36-second clip, which is what I’ve been doing for hours. My favorite part is when Most says, “Johnny Havlicek.” I’d heard “Hondo” before, but never “Johnny,” a nickname that’s sweet to my ears.

“I’m Johnny Bench,” I once claimed, and that was half true. To grown ups in the old neighborhood, I was “Johnny Coleman.” Time was easy then, with folks visiting on front porches, nobody glancing at a wristwatch or smartphone. “Johnny” could be the title for a blessed chapter in my life.

In 2019 I’m “Pastor John” at St. John’s in Oniontown and “Pop” to my grandsons in Erie, but I never gave up being Johnny. I can’t pass a football field without sizing up the goalposts and wondering if my leg is as good as I recall. And I can tell instantly whether a basketball hoop is regulation. In high school I could dunk with two hands, the generous thighs my mother passed down to me perfect for jumping if not for nice-fitting blue jeans.

Between these sentences, my chin is parked on my knuckles. Hondo is gone. His teammate Jo Jo White, whose jumper had a hiccup I copied, and Hal Greer, who served up the ball that Havlicek famously stole, both died in 2018.

My heydays’ players are migrating into eternity. With each obituary I settle into the truth. The maple marking our end zone has been cut down. The neighbor’s garage looks lonely without the half-moon backboard and hoop. The wire I used for goalposts is there, though Mom’s hairspray caps are nowhere to be found.

Part of our Wagner Avenue end zone today, no maple to mark the goal line.

To borrow from the poet, time lets us “play and be golden,” but it never breaks stride. The good news is, visiting the old Wagner Avenue behind closed eyes is more filled with gratitude each time I do it. I was lucky.

Johnny Coleman had a great leg, after all. And, boy, could that kid jump.

Can you see the telephone wire I had to clear? It’s still there.

 

Advertisements

Oniontown Pastoral: A Time in Germany

Oniontown Pastoral: A Time in Germany

When wife Kathy and I traveled to Berlin in March, my old wristwatch went with us. This was risky, as the second hand had broken free from its post. My digital Timex Ironman would have been the logical choice, but there was something poetic about a second hand napping as if in a hammock slung between 5 and 7. Anyway, it served faithfully for decades and deserved one cushy foreign assignment before its retirement.

Kathy and I had been in the land of oompah bands and lederhosen—we encountered neither—for less than a week when I determined that Deutschland was more foreign to my watch than to me, the greatest distance between Germany and Pennsylvania being Central European Time’s five-hour lead on Eastern Standard Time. The human condition “auf Deutsch” and “in English” is about the same.

German round bales, looking like those in Oniontown, though stacked differently

Bare branches against a German sky

Bare branches against a Pennsylvania sky

Of course, appearances insist otherwise. For example, scads of Berliners dress in solid black: fedoras, scarves, leather jackets, dungarees and boots, all black. A citizen strolling down Oniontown Road so attired would draw glances, while in the German capital you could go a whole afternoon without seeing America’s color “du jour,” pink.

And holy skinny cow! The percentage of Germans who look undernourished roughly corresponds to Americans like me who ought to give their forks a rest.

Other trifles jump out. Unsweetened iced tea, my go-to beverage, is practically anathema. Pharmacies sell medicine, never cosmetics and school supplies.

The most curious difference between the Federal Republic of Germany and the United States of America may be each country’s cemeteries. In 2010 Stars and Stripes reported what our friend and host Claudia explained to us: “Under German law families lease grave sites for a specific period of time, usually 15 to 30 years. And, if a family is unable or unavailable to renew the lease, the grave’s contents are removed and the grave site reverts to state ownership and may be reused.”

Tombstones over a century old are rare—which was disappointing news. Kathy and I wanted to visit the grave of Johann Specht, my great-great-great-great grandfather who was born in 1767, but contented ourselves with following narrow roads to Gross Köthel, the village where he abided his 66 years. We also checked out Schröedershof, birthplace of my great-great-great grandmother Magdalena Peters Specht in 1816. She immigrated to the U.S. and died in North East, Pennsylvania, about 15 minutes from my front stoop.

Out looking for Magdalena

Soon I’ll look for Magdalena’s resting place, but I won’t be wearing my old watch. The minute hand has now fallen off, which doesn’t count for much when you’re musing about ancestors, but here in the present, a quarter of an hour either way matters.

I’ve decided to hang the languishing timepiece on the wall beside my desk as a reminder of Germany.

Standing in the places my great-greats called home and wondering at crumbling stone buildings that they might have known, I didn’t cry or even get choked up. Still, these villages felt vaguely familiar, as if presences who have always loved me patted my hand, like my mother did when I was worried.

There would be no passing my fingers over Johann’s name carved in stone, but I still hoped to touch the font in which my great-great-great grandfather, also Johann, was baptized in 1811. No such luck. The church was locked, and worship was being held down the cobblestone street in an auxiliary building. Peeking in the window, Claudia, Kathy and I saw the pastor in a black suit preaching to a handful of elderly congregants. (America isn’t the only country with empty pews.)

Church where Johann Specht was baptized

You might think our trip was a letdown, but Kathy and I loved Germany and most of all commiserating with Claudia. The thing is, joy and disappointment travel hand in hand.

We saw the villages, but not the graves. We saw the church, but not the font. We saw the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Martin and Katie Luther’s home and other sites, but dragged along with us tickling coughs that persist to this very moment.

Pulpit of the Castle Church in Wittenberg–visiting clergy may not ascend!

Table at Luther’s house, where he talked many a long hour

The world is thus, here and abroad. I refuse to let perfect be the enemy of wonderful. Yesterday and today are at once poetic and broken, like my old watch, now able to remind me only that hours are passing away.

It’s still right twice a day, but the third hand must eventually lose its grip. When it does I’ll pray to visit Johann and Magdalena in glory and hope that great-great-great-great grandchildren searching for my grave will feel me pat them on the hand.

A retired watch

Hanging on and Letting Go

Hanging on and Letting Go

The photograph of Mom and Dad may as well have fluttered into my hands from a cloudless sky. They were a couple of kids, younger than my own Elena and Micah, now 30 and 27. There’s no “Dolly and Denny” followed by a date. My guess, late 1947, their first apartment, no children yet. Mom is seated, Dad standing over her shoulder, passing her hair through his fingertips. Their expressions are carefree, Mona Lisa smiles on them both. The moment is unutterably tender, the future still a blue heaven of hope.

Mom died in 1998, arthritis remedies having given more punishment than relief. The burden of divorce pained her sense of self in like fashion. I miss how she tucked my long hair behind my ear when I was a teenager.

When I had hair to tuck behind an ear.

Dad lived to be 85, but insisted in his last years that he was 88. “Is my mother still alive?” he asked now and then, anguished and embarrassed. “But she couldn’t be, could she? I just can’t remember.” He taught me to hold doors open and pay respects.

Dad’s possessions have slept in my basement since 2012–picture albums and a rattle of keepsakes. I could say that they’ve collected dust because I’m lazy or that I’ve been passive aggressive toward wife Kathy’s pleas to decide what to hang onto and what to let go of. The truth is, I didn’t want to stare into those boxes of memory and visit again with those whose absence still hurts my chest if I think of them for long.

But once the first lid was off, the choices were obvious. Dad was meticulous in documenting the mundane and daily: scores of various views of his living room and dining room and bedroom, populated only by furniture and lamps; multiples of the same snowbirds lounging beside the same Palm Bay swimming pool.

Sorting was easy. The keepers went beside me on the couch: a boyish Navy portrait: nameless relatives gone on to glory before my time; a former residence, front yard and stoop. There weren’t many of Mom, which shouldn’t be a surprise. After twenty-something years with her, Dad quickly remarried. In an instant, “Dolly and Denny” turned to “Denny and Mary.” I hold no grudge on this account. My parents simply weren’t suited to each other. Their pursed, tired expressions on and off camera often spoke to me of disappointment that wore a rut into their souls.

Gone on to glory. Nameless. Not pleased.

After separating in the mid-1970s, they both knew joy in life, but it’s hard to describe them as happy people. Their union yielded four fine children, but also a mournful descant that sounded beyond nuptial vows to the end of their days.

This, then, is how I remember my parents: two people with much to celebrate, but who often swam up upstream emotionally. For decades now I’ve thought of them with warmth, but more than a little sadness.

Such sentiments–not enough to bring tears, but plenty to clutch at the throat–stayed with me for the hours I sorted through what was dear to Dad–hanging on and letting go. Then, suddenly, that picture. 

Mom and Dad

One of my siblings told me that Mom and Dad were happy for their first eight years together. As the youngest of four, though, my memories are of a tense, distant relationship.

It’s naive to infer too much from one photograph, but I know my parents’ faces well enough to detect fakery. In this one moment, on this one day, my mother and father were glad to be together. Whatever went wrong was still some ways off.

Mom was fussy about her hair, but here it was loosely pulled back. Dad held the ponytail, gently, playfully. Beautiful. That’s the only word for it. They were both so beautiful, and to find them this way moves my soul the way an excellent port wine warms the throat.

Eventually I’ll stop carrying Dolly and Denny everywhere with me, setting them to my left while working, on this coffee shop table now and on my desk at St. John’s in Oniontown, where I stare at them, then out at the pine trees and corn stubble and red barn. After 57 years it is as if I’ve recovered a treasure I never knew was lost.

I want to take these two kids into my arms, watch them together, hear their voices again. They did once love each other, after all. I’ll hang on to this truth for the rest of my life, even as it hangs on to me.

Oniontown Pastoral: A Foxhound’s Grievances with the Polar Vortex

Oniontown Pastoral: A Foxhound’s Grievances with the Polar Vortex

The Coleman’s foxhound Sherlock Holmes didn’t care much for the polar vortex that punched millions of Americans in the throat recently. I’ll get to his complaints shortly, but first the national news, which was no laughing matter.

ABC’s David Muir put the weather’s death toll at 26. Among them was University of Iowa freshman Gerald Belz, who was found unconscious not far from his dormitory in the middle of the night and later passed in the hospital.

A simple walk to my car the other day now makes my heart break for the kid. I was underdressed, shame on me. Panic rushed through my chest when I thought for an instant that my keys were on the kitchen table in the locked house. Imagine Gerald’s fear.

Of course, America’s unwelcomed guest punished most folks less severely. Cameron, Wisconsin, Fire Department Chief Mitch Hansen’s face was all over the media, his beard sporting icicles from fighting a house fire in winds that felt like minus 50. God bless all professions that demand such grit as well as unfortunates who lack a permanent address.

Fire Chief Mitch Hansen (Credit: Bimbo Gifford on Facebook)

Before starting pastoral work in Oniontown three-plus years ago I wouldn’t have given much thought to how farmers fare in sub-zero temperatures. Now I have parishioners who have no choice but to bundle up and stride into the gale. Dave, for example, spends many hours out in the elements tending his cattle and got knocked flat during the cold spell by an overprotective cow for trying to put a coat on her newborn calf—some thanks! St. John’s members also include a dairy farmer and a handful of others whose horses and chickens don’t distinguish between shirtsleeve and Carhartt seasons.

My Oniontown license plate before the polar vortex tested its toughness

The animals themselves appear stoic enough as I drive past their fields, but not so my dog, whose temperature-related grievances are trifles compared to loss of life. Still, I’ve long believed that any undeserved pain merits loving regard. And Sherlock, after all, can’t be comforted by the knowledge that some humans and beasts have it worse than he does.

  • The Coleman foxhound’s overarching problem is his breeding. Functionally, Sherlock is a lean, 70-pound snout with heart and lungs. He is engineered to dash about maniacally, registering all comings and goings—especially the goings—of the local animal population.
  • Sadly, the polar vortex complicates giving his nature free reign. Turns out Sherlock’s paws are sensitive to the cold. Within a minute of stomping about in the snow, he is on eggshells, favoring first one paw, then another. He looks around, flummoxed and defeated. Sniffing expeditions and mad dashes at the two-acre dog park near our house are out of the question.
  • Even if Mr. Holmes’ podiatric constitution were rugged, his humans would be idiotic to go hypothermic just so he can receive communiqués from the neighborhood’s critters and run off surplus energy. In any case, he howls and flings himself about when wife Kathy tries to put numbing salve on his paws. His brilliance in olfactory matters is cancelled out by his anemic powers of deduction. “Mother loves me,” Sherlock doesn’t stop to think. “Mother is taking me outside. Mother wants to put goop on my paws. The goop will probably help. I should sit still.” Oh well.

Sherlock Holmes, waiting patiently for his breakfast

I’m giving my dog’s burdens light-hearted treatment here, but his breed combined with his weakness may have led to his arrival in the Coleman house.

He and I were out for a walk some weeks ago when a man in a pickup truck stopped and rolled down his window: “Is that a foxhound?”

“Yes,” I said, “he sure is.”

“He looks really good,” he said, “I have 25 of them. Where did you get him? A shelter?”

“Right. He was a stray, but somebody worked with him. He can sit, stay, all that.”

“You know,” the guy speculated, “he might not have been a good hunter. The owner might have just dumped him at the side of the road.”

I’ve returned to the stranger’s words again and again ever since, my heart breaking each time, even at the possibility.

My pal is a great hunter, he just can’t stand the cold: Bred for a great purpose, but foiled by one flaw. Throw in human cruelty, and you’ve got tragedy.

Yes, somebody is always lost in the cold. Some perish. The only remedy is to throw open our doors when we can for love’s sake and say, “Come on in. It’s warm in here. You can call this place ‘home.’”

Home. A place to sleep. A warm blanket.

Oniontown Pastoral: As If You Can Kill Time

Oniontown Pastoral: As If You Can Kill Time

If you saw me walking down the street, you wouldn’t say, “Now there’s a guy who values time and uses it wisely.” No, you’d say, “Gosh, he’s pudgy and rumpled. I’ll bet he’s lazy.”

A gumshoe hired to investigate me would report that I’m “bone idle” and “lackadaisical,” but he would be wrong.I prefer “unconventional.” One of my favorite lines of poetry comes from Andrew Marvel: “But at my back I always hear time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” And two expressions that annoy me are “killing time” and “wasting time.” Henry David Thoreau was right when he mused, “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.”

Frittered hours can never be recovered, but I must add that one highly organized, go-getter’s waste is this Lutheran pastor’s treasure.

Waiting in a grocery store line, for example, can be a respite if I keep my billfold full of compassion. The customer fiddling with change or rummaging for a coupon is stumbling through life just like I am. Giving the cashier the skunk eye and snorting loudly: now that’s wasting time.

Years ago I put checkout time to use by monitoring tabloids. Rather than glower at my provisions stranded on the conveyor belt, I got updates on Elizabeth Taylor’s marriage to a Martian and the cellulite epidemic among aging actors and actresses. These days I close my eyes, take in a deep breath and give thanks for food, clothing, shelter and love.

Wall light outside the bedroom: I turn it on and off gently, hoping it will last as long as I do.

Any still, mindful moment is never an assault on time, nor for that matter is a nap. I could offer here a brigade of scientific support for what history’s most prolific napper, Winston Churchill, described as “the refreshment of blessed oblivion.”

The stigma associated with napping persists, but I remain defiant. In my experience, much of what gives each day its shine takes place in inconspicuous pockets of time. My thrice-weekly commute to and from Oniontown is a perfect example. Folks ask how I like the drive and are occasionally flummoxed to hear me rhapsodize about it.

Rhapsody by Abraham Joshua Heschel

You readers of A Napper’s Companion may suspect me of blowing sunshine, but I’m on the level. Last Thursday provides a good case study.

En route to St. John’s Lutheran Church I had just finished an audiobook biography of President Lyndon Johnson and was still recovering from the revelation that he fancied interrupting meetings with male staffers to go skinny-dipping in the White House pool—and cajoled them into joining him. No funny business, only matters of state being discussed by awkward faces bobbing up and down in the water. (I’m not making this up, and, sorry, there’s no way you can un-know this piece of historical trivia.)

As the scenery on I-79 slipped by, I took my mind off of unfortunate LBJ visuals by listening to a podcast (basically a radio program over the Internet) called Milk Street, which is about gourmet cooking.

Far from killing time, I rescued it by listening as legendary foodie Christopher Kimball preached the glory of pomegranate molasses drizzled over crispy baked chicken and the foresight of freezing pots of intensely darkened roux for convenient and flavorful sauce thickening.

“But, John,” you’re wondering, “do you really need to consume more crispy chicken and gravy?”

Not really, but even if I never track down pomegranate molasses or freeze roux, knowing that I could makes life itself savory.

The same goes for wandering the expansive antique shop in Sheakleyville, where I stopped on my way to Oniontown not last Thursday but a couple of weeks ago. It feels like prayer to behold objects once commonplace but now replaced by the “new and improved”—alarm clocks that wind up, communicate with hands and measure time with ticks and tocks; blue and white Currier and Ives plates adorned with horse drawn wagons taking bundled up families home for Christmas.

Am I unconventional? So be it. The old suitcase I bought from the friendly proprietor and polished back to life has given me inexplicable pleasure. It was a treasure hiding in a pocket of time.

I have plans for this old mule.

Whether at church in Oniontown or at home in Erie or shuttling in between, I try to honor each second by harvesting the wonder around me.

Do you understand? Zooming down Route 19 without saying hello to dirty blonde horse Onslow is an injury to eternity. Likewise, noticing son Micah bending down right now in the dining room to kiss our foxhound Sherlock Holmes right between the eyes is a prayer: “Thank you, God, for this present hour.”

The ever-kissable Sherlock Holmes

 

Oniontown Pastoral: Introducing Foxhound Sherlock Holmes

Oniontown Pastoral: Introducing Foxhound Sherlock Holmes

Why do people welcome dogs into their homes? As you might imagine, I already have my answer to this question, but it’s worth asking out loud anyway.

God bless my St. John’s family in Oniontown for asking me to bring Sherlock for a visit–and bless friend Bill for the license plate.

In fact, I knew well in advance why the Coleman family adopted Sherlock Holmes, a three-year-old foxhound, on December 17, 2018. Not for an instant have wife Kathy and I regretted our decision, but as the honeymoon period of sharing 900 square feet with this hooping, nose-to-earth sleuth wanes, the consequences of rescuing a stray snap into focus.

Today’s tame reckoning takes me back to 1988, the year daughter Elena was born. “Everything is an ordeal,” I groaned. “We can’t even run to the store without holding a strategy session.” Pros and cons had to be listed. The toil of wrestling a surprisingly strong, howling infant into a car seat had to be weighed against other exertions scheduled for the day.

Daily life, though joyful, was also a snarling pack of unintended consequences. There was no end to what needed to be reconsidered in the light of parenting a fresh baby.

Dear old Watson–may God rest him–went on to glory before his partner Sherlock Holmes arrived.

Three decades later, adapting to Sherlock Holmes is child’s play by comparison. His food-in to food-out ratio is owner-friendly, thank goodness. I’ve lived with German shepherd Dutch and black-lab mix Watson before, so I know what it’s like to wander about with a shovel and hold my gag reflex at bay.

The bigger aesthetic issue is mud, which Mr. Holmes generates with a Midas touch. The chap is all leg and paw. At a sprint on level terrain, he appears to be careening down a steep hill. Bone, lean muscle and fur swing in all directions. Yard slurry flies like in a macho truck commercial.

No worries, though, as a rag by the backdoor and grass seed come spring will put matters right. Even Sherlock’s scavenging for treats can be managed with a toddler’s gate across the kitchen doorway, which has so far fooled him into doubting his steeplechase skills. Good thing, for no corner of the countertops is out of his reach. The other night Kathy spent three hours baking healthy treats for “Holmes”—her preferred handle—but left two cookie sheets of them unguarded. He consumed 2/3 of the batch, which means he’ll be lively and regular for days to come.

At the shelter our new family member was called Ollie, but the name didn’t stick.

Mr. Holmes’ need for stimulation and activity has certainly been an adjustment, but since this benefits our sedentary family, we can only thank him for three-mile walks and bracing excursions to the dog park.

In fact, our gratitude for this overgrown beagle has more to do with spiritual than physical wellbeing. I figured this would be the case.

No newsflash here. Dog owners share an understanding that living with animals taps into a deep reservoir of human emotion. If you own a computer, check out “puppy surprise” videos on YouTube. Just have Kleenex nearby. Thousands like me watch as a golden retriever or pug or dachshund gets handed to an unsuspecting person of any age or gender. First there’s a gasp, then a squeal, scream or “aw,” and, of course, tears.

Kisses on the snout follow, along with blissed out petting and hugging. Some folks go to pieces, rocking from side to side with their foreheads resting on the floor.

I myself have never cried over adopting a dog, but I’ve been undone by saying goodbye and know exactly why this Oniontown pastor bothered to take in a frightened, confused stray.

When I get home later, I’ll sit on the couch and pull his face toward mine, breathe in the earthy smell of dog and run my face over his head for as long as he’ll stay still.

If you’ve ever done something like this with your dog—or cat or whatever—you know that time stops as you take in draughts of blessing.

The end of the honeymoon–Sherlock had to be corrected for being a little too touchy about his food and intolerant of family cat, Baby Crash.

You’ll never hear me put “just” before “a dog.” The sweet nothings we whisper in our foundling’s ear can never compensate him enough for what he gives.

And what he gives is an invitation to love, especially when nothing else can draw us outside of our personal cages or stop us from chewing the cud of sad memories.

You and I were born to love. Every word or action suggesting otherwise is a bad translation of what we were created to be.

Dogs like Sherlock Holmes return us to our fundamental truth. His eyes tell me, “If you forget how to love, don’t worry. I’ll be here to remind you.”

Oniontown Pastoral: Thanks for the Christmas Spirit, Uncle Bim

Oniontown Pastoral:

Thanks for the Christmas Spirit, Uncle Bim

I’m pleased to report that my Christmas spirit arrived ahead of schedule this past Wednesday evening. Lutheran purists discourage Yuletide carols during Advent, but as a neurotic of long standing, I’m used to competing crescendos in my soul. There’s always room for joyful melodies in this pastor’s inn.

Uncle Bim and his wife Mabel

Good old Uncle Bim deserves credit for my cheerful disposition. Over lunch at Greenville’s Stone Arch recently, he gave me some great guidance. That Bim was really something! He died years ago and wasn’t actually a relative, but he reached across bloodlines and granted a stranger quiet joy, which I’ll explain momentarily.

But first, that aforementioned Wednesday evening: I was lounging when Kathy issued a terse statement: “John, I want you to decorate the tree.”

Oh, bother! Hanging ornaments on a plant that’s more porcupine than tree doesn’t make me festive. “Nothing warms me up like blowing steam off a mug of cocoa while selecting another lovely bulb,” I’ve never ever said, “then rummaging through wads of tissue paper for a loose hook.”

In truth, I bear holiday scars. My mother made me string popcorn and cranberries, and for every inch of artistry, I earned one sewing needle prick in the finger. Before that I was assigned to tinsel, which Mom insisted be applied strand by staticky strand. My method of flinging clumps from three paces back wasn’t tolerated.

For love of Kathy I feigned merriment at my assignment. The only thing worse than battling inertia would have been bursting her buoyant Christmas spirit.

Pick that one!

As I surveyed the ornaments, Uncle Bim patted my shoulder. Was the fellow whose pinched features I’ve seen only in photographs advising me? “John, look at those faded construction paper ones your kids made. Pick those.”

So I did, and as kindergarten led to third grade and graduations led to grandsons, other handmade treasures revealed themselves. Suddenly it was my turn to be the boss: “Kathleen, I’m putting up mostly the ones people made for us.”

Wooden circles became snowmen. Cotton balls grew into Santa’s beard. Starch and thread formed lacy snowflakes. I imagined loved ones, especially kids, working at kitchen tables. Felt coats dressed Popsicle sticks. Elbow macaroni took the shape of angels.

One of daughter Elena’s ornaments, with a smile to hide a missing tooth

Son Micah’s handiwork: “I’m making this for my dad.”

Our plastic tree came alive. Elmer’s Glue showing around an elf’s cheeks and cracks in the gingerbread house were dear, like a child’s milk mustache or crow’s feet when Grandma laughs.

Uncle Bim’s matchstick cross

Lifting up beauty after ragtag beauty, I thought of Bim hunched over his own kitchen table. St. John’s friend Bill told me all about his Uncle Bim at the Stone Arch. “Bim used to make crosses out of nut shells and matches,” he said. “He gave two matchstick ones, plus a basket made of old Christmas cards.”

So that’s where the walnut-shell cross in the church office at St. John’s came from! I later found the attribution—Wayne Miller, 1980—scratched in pencil on the back. Bill can’t say where his uncle’s nickname came from, but that basket still abides on his dresser and holds car keys and odds and ends. The old crosses also hang in Bill’s basement, where he retreats from the summer heat.

Uncle Bim’s walnut-shell art hanging over church secretary Jodi’s desk

Sad to say, when my own children’s masterpieces graced the family refrigerator, I would have considered Bim’s work “kitsch”—unaccomplished, sentimental. Back then I was neurotic—some things never change—and a snob.

Not anymore. At this time of year in particular, I’m drawn to what is worn thin by human touch or crooked because a halo got bumped while the glue was wet. Thank God, beauty has been patient with this Oniontown beholder.

In blessed memory I kiss hands that held the scissors. From the next room I hear the laughter of a grown son who once thought, “I’m making this for my dad.”

Don’t forget me, Bill.

The work of loving hands refuses to be silent. That’s what Uncle Bim helped me to understand. His basket made of season’s greetings and red yarn still says to his nephew, “Hey, Bill, don’t forget about me.”

My late mother’s snowflakes, nothing but starch and thread, whisper, “Remember how I loved you, John.” Other voices from here and beyond join hers.

Tonight I’ll recognize them all while praying in the light of our tree. “I love you, too, Mom,” I’ll think. “I love all of you. I wish we could be together again right now.”

My mother’s starch and thread

But I’ll be quiet, look at the ornaments up close and receive the Christmas spirit—which is to say, wipe away tears.

Oniontown Pastoral: Story of a Hero in the Small Hours

Oniontown Pastoral: Story of a Hero in the Small Hours

“Elevander and Milkus,” grandson Cole said through tears from the foot of my bed. It must have been around 1:00 a.m.

Cole and his little brother Killian had landed at Grandma Kathy and Pop’s house at 6:00 p.m. for a sleepover, followed by our Sunday drive to Oniontown for church.

Half an hour later, Kathy and Cole were cuddling when she said he felt warm. I kissed our ginger’s forehead, the temperature-taking method my late mother used. The patient was not quite burning up.

Kathy encouraged grape ibuprofen, but was rebuffed. No surprise there. Our own daughter and son regarded any remedy for a fevered brow as outrageous, possibly unconstitutional.

By 7:30, Cole was ready for bed. A scant half of our enclosed front porch serves as a prayer corner for Pop, and the rest is “Cole’s Room,” dubbed by the lad himself with the same swagger Columbus displayed in claiming the West Indies for Ferdinand and Isabella. On sleepover nights, the sofa bed there gets pulled out, and Grandma and “those babies,” as she calls them, prop themselves up on an embarrassment of pillows, lean into each other and watch cartoons.

A scant space for prayer

Kathy, it must be noted, is no grandson’s fool. She goes for a soft sell. “Hey, best buddies,” she says, “it’s time to get ready for bed.” Not time to sleep, mind you. These things must be done delicately. First, get pajamas on, then slide under Grandma’s feather comforter with nightcap in hand—juice box, tortilla chips, rack of lamb, whatever it takes. Eventually, glad bellies and slapstick animation lower the boys’ defenses and slumber descends.

The routine is glorious, every crumb and dribble of it. On the night in question, Killian was clinging to wakefulness when I retired to Pop’s Room. Cole was long gone.

Having a queen-sized bed to myself ought to be glorious, but I’d just as soon keep our quartet together the whole night through. With Grandma Kathy between them, though, Cole and Killian’s last waking moments on that lumpy sofa bed seem an adventure, as if she is keeping watch as they sail over dark waves toward dreamland.

Whenever the boys stay over, my sleep is light, ears keen, especially to a child’s cries. Kathy can normally rock and coo her shipmates back to sleep, but occasionally Pop is called upon to sing a shanty of sorts.

That’s what brought Cole to the foot of my bed. He needed a story—not from a book but one of his very own. The protagonists of choice are Elevander and Milkus, stuffed brother and sister rabbits whose names Cole inexplicably blurted out to his mother one day.

From Left to Right: Elevander and Milkus

The plots of late are as unlikely as the characters’ names. A year ago a micro-tornado hit my daughter’s house, flinging the boys’ swing set over telephone wires a full block away.

In my yarns, Cole found Elevander and Milkus hiding behind the garage after the twister. He brought them into the house and cared for them until a climbing wall replaced the swings. Then he made them a home in its shelter. Hay from Grandma Kathy’s garden provided a sweet bed, and Cole asked Killian to get lettuce and carrots from Mama for his friends.

Telling Cole a new chapter, I knew Kathy and I wouldn’t be bringing those babies along to Oniontown in the morning. They would go home instead. Still, I was determined to remain at my post and finish my duty.

After surrendering to sips of grape medicine, my boy lay nose to nose with me as I recounted the arrival of two squirrels whose tree had blown down. They had heard rumors about the boy nearby who took in a couple of frightened rabbits.

Elevander and Milkus happily shared quarters with their bushy-tailed neighbors, and Killian ran to get them peanuts from the cupboard.

Killian, full of joy, whose name will be added to Cole’s Room soon enough (Credit: Elena Thompson)

The next day, of all things, a lost pony showed up. Cole figured the rabbits and squirrels could spare some hay for their new guest until Grandma brought more. Everyone had plenty to eat, a place to sleep and love enough to believe that tornados are no match for kindness.

Part way through my tale, Cole made a bathroom run. Pausing at the foot of the bed, he put up his finger and said, “I’ll be right back, Pop.” As if I would go on without him!

Cole doesn’t realize yet that he is the hero of every Elevander and Milkus story. I want him to fall asleep knowing that real heroes are most of all kind.

Cole, awash in antibiotics, holding Elevander and Milkus, with new arrival Bunny Bunny snuggled between.

The Trouble with Love

The Trouble with Love

Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.” (Thomas Merton in Disputed Questions).

Most often breathtaking is used figuratively, but in recent days I’ve said to myself, “John, you’re not breathing. Stop and breathe.” Mass murders, hatred, relentless falsehoods and absurdities arrive in torrents.

Saturday, October 27th: Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, eleven dead. Tuesday, November 6th: The scorched earth of midterm elections. Wednesday, November 7th: Thirteen dead—most of them younger than my own children—in Thousand Oaks, California. To these news items add that state’s wildfires, which according to latest reports are 35% contained.

Credit: skeeze on Pixabay

But let’s set aside Mother Nature for the moment. Disasters of human agency take everyone’s breath away, and many Americans are further deflated by the likelihood that governmental leaders won’t lift a finger to prevent further loss of life.

Political motivations are legion, the bottom-line being that innocents’ safety ranks far below constituents’ hobbies and proclivities. Transparent lies, lame as a crumb-dusted child denying raiding the cookie jar, are piled so high that responsible citizens grow disoriented and exhausted.

Any spare energy may well be absorbed by hatred, which is eager to throw off its gloves and start swinging. Present circumstances are practically designed to bring out the fighters in everybody. Some of us struggle to hold rage against the ropes while others gleefully talk trash and punch below the belt.

Sad to say, you can sometimes find me in the ring, too. In my mind I heap insults and ridicule on my fellow citizens’ heads before remembering Thomas Merton’s instruction: “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.”

As I pause over these words, anger rises in my chest. The exhortation to love is Pollyannaish. The task is difficult. Who can accept it? There’s a physiological response when you look at folks you really want to punch in the face and remember you’re supposed to love them.

My mother, God rest her, took her upset out on doors. As a teenager I once made her so mad that she slammed the basement door, took two steps away, then returned for seconds.

Mom could have used this room when I was growing up. (Credit: Arek Socha–“qimono”–on Pixabay)

Even in the closest of relationships, love is trying. It can be like digging a pointless ditch with a swizzle stick when all you want to do is put said ditch to good purpose by shoving the person you can’t stand into it and shoveling in wet dirt?

Yet we know that this isn’t the Christian way. Actually, millions across the belief spectrum would say that they are called by conscience to love of neighbor and rejection of hatred. The problem is, anyone who has walked the path of understanding and compassion for long knows that confusion dominates comfort, deprivation overwhelms fulfillment. Being steadfast takes stamina.

This is why my gait appears drunken. Every fork tempts me toward a destination that rolls out the red carpet for my worst impulses: “Nobody deserves your consideration. They’re not really your neighbors. Put yourself first, others can pound salt. Let your tongue be barbed wire.”

All that keeps me from staggering hopelessly far in the wrong direction is one crucial insight and a whisper of grace. Love is a roomy term. Contrary to popular thought, “love” and “affectionate regard” aren’t attached at the hip. The latter simply can’t be commanded, which is convenient, since the love humanity now starves for has nothing to do with cuddling or playing footsie.

In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Merton has a revelation about his earthly brothers and sisters while visiting Louisville, Kentucky: “At the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.”

A plaque in Louisville to mark the spot of Merton’s revelation. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Merton recognized in the city’s shoppers “the secret beauty of their hearts.” He knew that they were children of the same Creator, beloved of the same God, and wanted to tell them that they were “all walking around shining like the sun.” They could also be monumental pains in the neck or far worse.

I occasionally want to give Thomas Merton’s hermitage door a few slams, but a quiet grace visits, filling me with belief: God calls me to love without reservation, especially when the effort seems foolish, even embarrassing—a little like supposing that some good might come from a man hanging on a cross.

Thomas Merton in his cinderblock hermitage. (Credit: Wikipedia)

 

Mea Culpa, Cecil Rosenthal! I Say to You, “Arise!'”

Mea Culpa, Cecil Rosenthal! I Say to You, “Arise!”

I

Tree of Life Synagogue (Credit: Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty)

Pools of blood. Let us be graphic. Scatterings of brain, pieces of brain. Let us press a fist into our breastbones as we speak. Shrapnel made of skull. Let us behold hatred made visible. The mantle soaked dark red, the scroll stained? Let us run toward the wretched truth as recklessly as police did the synagogue door. The day for decorum has passed. Platitudes be damned.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.” Yes, well, spare them. If I’m right that God is love, then the eleven who were executed in Tree of Life Synagogue don’t need a single intercession from any of us. As for loved ones, I daresay what they need far more than petitions are witnesses willing to name the evil at work and claim their share of responsibility for bringing it under submission.

Our most efficacious prayer, then, would be to stand over the still bodies, to look closely and mindfully and not to turn away. If we can’t do so in the physical Squirrel Hill sanctuary turned slaughterhouse, then we can imagine. That’s what we owe the dead. In fact, that’s what we owe ourselves. That’s what we owe our country. To stare down carnage, to rend our hearts, to reject euphemisms and the lazy comfort of denial.

Do I sound gory? Maybe so, but thoughts and prayers as numerous as the stars in the sky, well intended though they may be, make clear that what we really want is for Yahweh to swoop down and clean up our mess for us—a request that would make wise parents shake their heads and say, “This is quite a mess you’ve made. Best be about cleaning it up.”

Unfortunately, I can’t clean up what’s not real. Like Thomas, I have to put my Christian hand into all the wounds. I have to touch the mantle. kiss my fingertips, and see the Tree of Life Torah for myself.

II

I’m as culpable as any other American, “in bondage to sin and unable to free [myself],” as my Lutheran confession reads. Every Sunday I stand in worship and join brothers and sisters in owning up: “We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”

Our confession rises at St. John’s Lutheran church.

So I begin with love of neighbor, with eleven faces and the brutality of their death. Without succumbing to paralysis, I take what happened to them personally. How would it feel to be the son of 97-year-old Rose Mallinger or 88-year-old Melvin Wax, who emerged from his hiding place too early? In this moment I imagine that my own mother was one of those shot in the back of the head—as some were—and a flush of despair fills my chest.

You may accuse me of wallowing, but I consider such self-interrogation to be prayer, a way to honor the fellow human beings who have gone on to glory—or so I believe. Keeping a safe distance from Tree of Life amounts to giving wordless consent to the next massacre and all that makes it possible.

Being imaginatively present to my Jewish brothers and sisters would be beyond redemption but for the Gracious Mystery who accompanies me as I receive bottomless wounds, crevasses in beloved flesh. I’m accompanied throughout the task at hand: to announce, to myself if no one else, yet another holocaust among the quick and the dead.

III

Imagination is prayer, granting solace without neglecting reality. Imagination is prayer, a dream of healing and resurrection while confessing, “Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa!” Fist, again, three times to the breast.

I imagine Cecil Rosenthal. His face is the most real to me. He lived with his brother David for all of their adult lives. “Two mentally-handicapped men,” writes Paul Berman in Tablet. Cecil, 59. David, 54. The latter quiet, the former huge, gregarious, the life of the party.

My brothers, David and Cecil Rosenthal. (Credit: Pittsburgh Post Gazette)

Their lovely faces are without guile. God touches their cheeks, damp with tears of homecoming.

Cecil was Tree of Life’s official Torah bearer. He carried the scroll up and down the aisles so worshippers could touch the mantle with their tzizits (ritual fringes) or siddurs (prayer books) or hands, then kiss what has touched the mantle. Reverence and joy!

Outside of the synagogue community, observers may suppose that Cecil and David needed Tree of Life, but I bet my last dollar that every last congregant would say Tree of Life needed Cecil and David. Within the sacred, eyes see truths mystifying to the profane.

Now Cecil bears the Torah, walking slowly, pausing to receive my touch and witness my kiss. In this prayer, I realize that Cecil doesn’t need me so much as I need him. The word doesn’t need me. I need the word. I need Cecil to bring me the word. I’m broken.

I want to know how he and his brother died and where. I want to know if they were frightened, if they suffered, if their sweet smiles shone at the last. They were my brothers. I wonder.

IV

 I’m sorry, Cecil. I’m sorry, David. Oh, Lord, tell my brothers that I have something to say to them.

Mea culpa,” David Rosenthal. “I say to you, ‘Arise!'”

“Mea maxima culpa, Cecil Rosenthal. I say to you, ‘Arise! For love’s sake, hold before me the Torah. I have to do my part to clean up this mess, but I don’t even know where to begin. You know better than I. Bring me the Sacred Words, then return to your repose. You and David rest where you’ll be safe, once and for all.”

Tree of Life’s Richard Gottfried bearing the Torah. May Yahweh rest him. (Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)