Socks, Pasta, a Memory of Heroin

IMG_0539This Memorial Day weekend I spent an hour sorting socks. The only detail that makes this chore noteworthy is how long I put it off. Eighteen months? Two years? I don’t remember. Why so long? The short answer is, “My son was hooked on heroin, got arrested, and spent ninety days under house arrest.” Micah was a free man as of January 28, 2013, but when you’re a felon, freedom is relative—no driver’s license, no job, hours in group therapy. You’re free, but your penance is lengthy and leaden.

The clean Micah (for almost a year now) is fantastic. With the drug and its relentless, frantic acquisition gone, he’s growing into the twenty-one-year-old man I figured might be under all the junk. He’s not a roaring maw of rage and narcissism. His wardrobe is now polychromatic. He’s patient, generous, quick-witted, and curious. He’s still a slob, but his Titanic is restored, afloat; I’m not about to rearrange his deck chairs. The future is hopeful.

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1848 Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe at 39, a year before his death (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But as anybody who witnesses a loved one’s addiction knows, life consists of one emotional butt whipping after another. I pulled the afghan tight under my chin every afternoon and received what Edgar Allan Poe called “sleep, those little slices of death.” He loathed them. I loved napping as a protest against reality.

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Shredded Basement Paneling, a Scar of Micah’s Worst Months

Days and siestas are much improved as of May 29, 2013; still, mixed in with the relief and stability of Micah’s recovery is residual pain from the past. In the way a marathoner’s body needs time to heal after 26.2 miles, my mind and spirit continue to ache now and then from those times Micah smashed objects in his basement bedroom or paced around the house with clenched jaw and trembling fists. I’ve done some reading on PTSD and wonder about myself. (The particulars of Micah’s, wife Kathy’s, and daughter Elena’s experiences are theirs to tell, so I’m not going into them.)

One sign that I’m healing has to do with socks. An hour seems like nothing, but for however-long-it-was I couldn’t gather up sixty scrawny minute’s worth of energy to pair them. Some people get rid of stress by cleaning. Not me! For whatever reason, then, a couple days ago I dumped that basket on the bed and sorted. Since Micah was in the habit of wandering around in stocking feet, most of the pairs were the sickly gray of dirt that doesn’t yield to bleach. Some were salvageable. Nearly all of them needed to be washed again after multiple seasons in the basement—they smelled like a bunk at summer camp. Random artifacts hid between the folds and in the toes.

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The Throw-Aways

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A Few of My Pairs, Emancipated

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Random Items: BBs, a Bracket, Wood, and What-the-Heck?

Part of me wants to be ashamed of putting off such a simple chore, but as today’s slogan goes, “It is what it is.”

As socks piled up during Micah’s fury, non-perishables also accumulated in the Coleman household’s black-hole-of-a pantry. A couple months ago I reached in and discovered that every time I went to the grocery store a pound of pasta rappelled into my shopping cart. I’d basically been shopping unconscious. “In case we’re out,” I must have thought. We’ll be in good shape with angel hair, linguine, egg noodles, and shells for a while.

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Got Starch?

I asked Micah to read this post before publishing it, and he approves. (He did suggest one change. I’d described above the bunk at summer camp as dank, but he reminded me that word doesn’t just describe moldy caves.) Last night he was catching a smoke on the front porch when I told him through the screen door that I was proud of him, of how well he’s doing. “You know, Micah,” I said, “a lot of what I’m writing about now is what’s going on with me.”

He answered with selfless insight: “You had to live through my addition. You ought to be able to write about it.”

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Micah in December of 2012: Six Months Clean and Experiencing House Arrest’s Cabin Fever

Like I said, the future is hopeful. Micah’s earning back his freedom and learning patience and persistence. I’m healing slowly, waking up to all the socks and pasta that have been keeping vigil as I lurch toward normal.

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The Family Dog Channels Nigel Bruce

IMG_0017The Coleman family’s black lab, terrier mix is named after Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick, Dr. John Watson. In Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, Watson is intelligent, insightful, not like Nigel Bruce’s portrayal of a hapless, bumbling partner to Basil Rathbone’s smooth-operating Holmes. If you want to see a faithful adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, find the Granada Television’s series starring Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke (or David Burke). The Brits keep close to Conan Doyle, so when Watson seems inept, it’s only because he’s working beside Holmes, who can solve a crime by noticing how butter has melted or how a rope has been cut. Nobody can keep up with Holmes.

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Credit: Wikimedia Commons

When the name Watson came to me, I was thinking of Hardwicke or Burke, but the dog I fell in love with the moment neighbor Meg brought him as a stray to our door has proven to be more like Nigel Bruce’s Watson. He’s the friendliest dog you’ll ever meet, though you wouldn’t think so if you rang the doorbell. He barks so loudly and long that you’d think his eyeballs would fly out of his head. Then you come inside, he sniffs you, you pat his head, and he says in dog language, “Let’s play fetch.”

He’s amiable, but kind of sluggish. Toss him a piece of filet mignon, and it’ll hit him between the eyes and land on the floor. He’ll pause, sniff, gingerly take it between his front teeth, and let it roll back onto his tongue—as if it might be a little square of plastic explosives. Even as an old guy who’s seen as much as the next dog, he still hasn’t figured out the vacuum cleaner. He’s never been able to trust it.

I could name a dozen annoying habits Watson has (example: he fidgets and meanders constantly during his daily constitutional so that our backyard looks like its been aerated), but he’s such a faithful napping partner I hold nothing against him. When this dog dies, I’m going to be in trouble; that’s how close we are.

We have a routine. I say, “Okay, Watty, you want to go take a nap?”

I start up the stairs, and nine days of out ten, I hear Watson’s labored, clicking steps behind me. He’s nine and has torn both ACLs—we had one repaired, no cheap date.

I lie down on the bed, pat the other side, and say, “Come on, get your spot.”

He looks up at me as if to say, “You know I’m a gimp. Why do you do this to me?” But then he hops up, pirouettes, and plunks down.

From this point on, Watson has a menu of behaviors to choose from. If there are no disturbances, he’s asleep quickly.

As he settles in, he often devotes two or three minutes to making old mutt smacking noises with his fat wet mouth. It’s as if he’s tasting and re-tasting whatever he last ate. If he doesn’t let up, I say, “Watson, seriously!” and he stops, snorts, and puts his chin on his front paws.

A few days ago wife Kathy and daughter Elena took him for a walk on a warm afternoon, so it was a pooped Watson who joined me on the bed. He was panting so hard the bed rocked to his breathing’s fast, jerky rhythm. Eventually I opened my eyes. Not only was he being loud, but every ten seconds a drop of spit fell from his exercise-swollen tongue. I was okay with this. It’s hard to get mad at a senior citizen who’s just worked out.

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Note the Bead of Saliva About to Fall

On the other hand, it’s hard not to get annoyed when dog-walking traffic is brisk on Shenley Drive and Watson has to warn all passersby that he’s watching. He slides from the bed, sticks his snout against the screen, and hollers. All it takes to quiet him is a gentle “Watty, I don’t want to hear it,” but then he switches to short, throaty groans. He only relaxes again when everything’s clear.

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“Hey, That’s My Boulevard!”

Amazingly, most days I fall asleep. On wakeful afternoons, I remember how blessed it feels to rest next to a dog that channels Nigel Bruce.

Watson’s also my prayer partner, especially when I sit propped on the bed. Here we follow the siesta routine because to him sleep and prayer look a lot alike. I will admit that last week he came close to upsetting me. About fifteen minutes into a half-hour sit, my pal hopped up on the bed, looked at me with confused eyes, scratched the comforter to make a sweet spot, glanced at me again, then flopped.

Warning: if you have a twitchy gag reflex, you may want to pass on the rest of the story.

Thousand-one, thousand-two, thousand-three. Then the retching began.

(Coleman pets have had a long-standing policy of getting sick in aggravating places. First, never on tile; always on carpet. Second, if you value something, secure it. I once left a new Asus laptop open in my study, and a cat named Greasy Spot leapt onto my desk and had the mother of all appointments with loose bowels on the keyboard. The computer survived but was thereafter known as the craptop. And third, it is possible to hide hairballs. Years ago a cat left one in the toe of one of my moccasin slippers. Imagine how I discovered it.)

About that retching: “On the bed, Watson,” I said. “Really?”

Really. I won’t get detailed (you’re welcome), but it was a blonde, abundant, single unit.

I went downstairs to fetch wet rags and returned to find that—remember, you were warned—the puke was gone. I mean, gone. Watson was no longer confused; in fact, he seemed pleased.

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My Satiated Cud-master After Interrupting My Prayer

I went through the motions, scrubbing away at where the incident had occurred, but, wow, the dog doesn’t even clean his food bowl that well. Glad it hadn’t happened on my pillow; I’d never have known.

Confession: I finished praying before taking the comforter to the basement. And I wasn’t angry at my buddy. What’s a little barking and barfing between loved ones? This afternoon he’ll be joining me again for blessed oblivion.

My Hungry Ghost Will Have Eggs Benedict, Please.

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Credit: Mark Schumacher

I first met Hungry Ghosts a couple years ago while riding Amtrak’s Silver Meteor from Philadelphia to Orlando. I was reading Savor by Thich Nhat Hanh and R. Lilian Cheung, who write, “Buddhism describes creatures known as pretas, or Hungry Ghosts, who have insatiable appetites for food, drinks, or other cravings. They are desperate beings who are always hungry, with tiny mouths; long, narrow necks; and distended bellies. Though they are constantly ravenous, driven by the desire to eat, their tiny mouths and necks prevent them from swallowing the food they ingest.”

On the unhappy way to see my father and step-mother, both of whom were suffering from dementia, I immediately recognized myself as a member of the Preta family. The train rocked, jerked and clattered, but it may as well have been a monastery. Since everybody was a stranger, the journey was mostly conversation-optional, which was convenient. I wasn’t in a chatty mood. The condominium complex where my father and step-mother lived struck me as sterile and surreal, like something out of a Tim Burton movie—irk! And the two people I was traveling to visit were sure to repeat themselves constantly and bristle at my encouragement to move into an assisted living facility. Maybe because I was bracing myself for the forty-eight cruddy hours ahead, the insight that the Preta clan’s DNA twined in my soul wasn’t depressing. As long as I was in a dark space already, why not uncover a little brokenness? It was as if Savor were diagnosing me with a condition I knew afflicted me, but couldn’t name.

I don’t have a tiny mouth, narrow neck, and distended belly, but I am frequently ravenous and occasionally desperate. And, sadly, I can swallow lots of food and drink. My real relation to the Pretas, though, is the way I sometimes eat: quickly, mindlessly, excessively. It’s not pretty. I’m much better now than I used to be, but as the saying goes, “Two steps forward, one step back.”

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Triple the Hollandaise, Please! (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Today was one step back. Two dear friends and I shared breakfast at Perkins Family Restaurant, and I went at my order like a Hungry Ghost: eggs Benedict, home fries, and potato pancakes. Since I engaged in a modified fast yesterday (diabetes makes a strict fast difficult), I started dreaming of this meal over twelve hours in advance.

And, man, was it good. Perkins has fantastic hollandaise sauce, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I ordered extra on the side. The home fries were crisp, the potato pancakes with salt, butter, and sour cream were—I’m just going to say it—almost sexy. Were my eyelids fluttering as I ate? Were my eyeballs rolling back? Maybe.

When I finished the first half of the eggs Benedict and home fries, the mindful, buzz-kill side of me said, “Wow. That was great. And actually, you’re full. You could stop now, take the rest home.” Ha! By the time I had one pancake left I was uncomfortable. But the company was great, the conversation light, and ten minutes later I looked at that lonely pancake and thought what all we Pretas think: “Ah, what the hell.”

Hell is right. After exorcising myself from Perkins, I sat at church in the pastor’s study in a stupor, too full of fat, salt, starch, and chicken embryos to think. If it’s possible to be drunk on food, that’s what I was. The work got done, but I’m not sure how. The only thing that kept me from napping at 10:30 a.m. was that it really would have been an abuse of the company clock. My congregation is great to me, a gift not to be taken for granted.

But when normal siesta time came around, I was a bloated, white walrus in boxer shorts, slack-jawed on my bed at home. (For your own safety, don’t try to picture it.) Four hours after pushing the cleaned plates away, I still felt like I was with-child. Sometimes when you overeat, you can feel food sloshing around in your stomach, right? No sloshing here. There was no room for liquid or air. My whole torso was a sad, weary, dense wad of breakfast.

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Carl Brutannanadilewski of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, a Brother Preta (Credit: Wikipedia)

Here it’s important to pause and confess–the point of this post–that a siesta isn’t always a glowing expression of good health. Some afternoons, sleep is an expression of disappointment and self-loathing—that’s only a slight exaggeration. I napped lustily a few hours ago not only because the Preta in me was exhausted, but also because I was tired of myself. As everybody knows, the weaknesses that keep circling back to you again and again are a drag. Just when you think you’ve left a struggle behind, it shows up in dirty sweatpants and a wife beater and sprawls on your couch in all of its whiskery, flabby glory. Tiring, very tiring.

It’s nearly 7:00 p.m., but nothing for me anytime soon—still full. Maybe some soup later on. The nap did help, and I did get to start my day by laughing with friends, for whom I give thanks every day. I’m grateful that my Hungry Ghost isn’t a frequent visitor anymore, but when he arrives, the truth is, sometimes he gets the better of me.

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Credit: Mark Schumacher

So What If There’s a Toilet in My Breakfast Nook?

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Great Tile Work for a Rookie

For over two weeks now, the one-and-a-half-bath Coleman house has been down to one toilet and no shower. Kathy, who wears the family tool belt, decided to remodel the full bathroom. As the project got underway I was on retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, so the hygiene situation at home wasn’t an inconvenience. (Kathy got by showering at Best Fitness, where she works out; Micah’s tidiness-optional these days.)

Since landing back in Erie last Saturday, I’ve showered at a wellness center with a really long name where I work out. Neighbors Joy and Kevin are also great about our invading their shower. The point is, we’re all staying as clean as usual.

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In Kathy’s Lounge, a Cabinet with Deodorant, Tools, Hand Cream, Paint, and Brassiere

The house is suffering, though. Parts of the bathroom—impeccably clean toilet, sink, and cabinet—are camped in the breakfast nook during the delay. Various cosmetics and toiletries are cohabitating with tools and paint on a cabinet in the room off the bathroom Kathy has named her lounge. A few days ago Micah needed Neosporin for some chaffing somewhere—I didn’t want to know—and dug through a tote parked beside a table in the dining room; after several minutes he stood up with a sigh, waving the puny tube above his head.

Even the garage hasn’t escaped the mess. The bathroom door, hidden under decades of paint, rests like a pale cadaver across two sawhorses next to Kathy’s puffer, a kind of Yugo among sailboats. Micah’s spent hours sanding and burning away at that door and still has more work ahead.

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The Puffer’s Garage Mate

In short, our bathroom—6’ x 8’, tub included—is out of control, like a puppy not yet housebroken, leaving surprises everywhere. Kathy had hoped to have the shower working by the time I returned from Kentucky and arranged a few days off work to give herself a reasonable shot, but remodeling projects are always booby-trapped. Estimate your time and expense, then double both, and that’s where you’ll end up, if you’re lucky.

Once Kathy returned to work, progress slowed considerably. Messing with caulk and tile is tough after you’ve nursed chemotherapy patients for ten hours. As I write this post on Monday, Kathy plans to throw herself at finishing the shower on Wednesday, her day off.

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Lace Tablecloth with Neighboring Tote, Neosporin at the Bottom

You’d think having one toilet, no shower, and bathroom artifacts strewn about would be frustrating after going-on three weeks, but I can’t bring myself to care. (You might be thinking, “Well, maybe you could bring yourself to help out,” but that would be a mistake. I’m solid with avocados and cilantro, passable with a paintbrush, but an idgit with power tools. We’re all much better off if I make snacks for the skilled labor.)

Why don’t I care? No kidding, it’s the spirit of siesta, the impulse to stop, settle down, rest, and consider. First, I’ve got an incredible wife who actually enjoys swinging a hammer, cutting grass, and planting basil and tomatoes. On a pragmatic level, I’ve got it made. Kathy’s creative and anything but a slouch. So take six months on the bathroom if you need to, dahling! If necessary I’ll go out back, squirt myself with Palmolive, and turn on the hose.

IMG_0549So what about the mess? I’m not fastidious to start with, but in the unlikely event that having a commode in the breakfast nook bothers me, I know how to make it go away: just close my eyes. And Mennen Speed Stick smells the same whether I put it on in the bathroom or my lovely wife’s lounge.

I don’t say this out of any sense of pride or with any pretense: my life is more joyful than I have any right to expect, joyful largely because I pray (really a lot, I have to admit), nap, and breathe. When I stick to this program, most of the complications that would have upset me years ago fall into the it-just-doesn’t-matter category. (For a great expression of that huge category, check out this You Tube video.)

Yes, prayers, naps, and deep breathing! Having a splendid wife and children helps. Oh, and Zoloft doesn’t hurt either.

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The One Plant Whose Name Kathy Doesn’t Know Calmly Abides in the Breakfast Nook by the Toilet

Diddy Wa Diddie and a Lovely Daughter

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The Key in Question (Honest!)

Yesterday. Weird. Wonderful. I’d just finished praying, propped up in bed, when daughter Elena’s dog ringtone barked. 8:01 a.m. I’d intended to set my Zen bell app for another fifteen minutes, but duty called. Elena (almost twenty-five) locked her keys in her house. Could I zip up and let her in with my key? Of course. I’d be there in ten minutes.

“Don’t rush, Daddy,” she said. “My boss knows I’ll be a little late. I’ll be at [mother-in-law] Janine’s,” which is two-minute walk up the street. (As it happened, Janine couldn’t find Elena’s house key either.)

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Photo Credit: waferboard

So I dressed, fed the animals and, well, rushed, but it still took me twenty minutes to get there. I figured Elena would be on the porch pacing and drumming her fingers on the railing. Nope. She was inside sipping coffee, talking with Janine and cute-as-an-acre-of-daisies niece Shaylee, and so disgustingly not in a hurry that she immediately brought me to myself.

Shamatha—calm abiding. Habit energy’s anxious gravity eased up. I breathed in, breathed out.

“I walked up here, Daddy,” Elena said when we got into the car, “and said, ‘I’m going to have myself a cup of coffee.’”

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Elena with Her Handmade Cupcake Piñata

I waited in the car as she let herself into the house, brought back the key, and headed to her car. In the three seconds it took her to get from my jalopy to her (and princely son-in-law Matt’s) Subaru wagon, joy settled inside me. Her ponytail bobbed and bounced; her flowing dress swayed. What a lovely daughter! She seemed in that instant like a five-year-old again—sweetness and light, giddy in the sunshine and wind.

I drove back home to pick up son Micah (twenty-one) and get him to a couple hour’s of community service yanking weeds and slinging peat moss. Along the way I pulled over on South Shore Drive to witness the sun coming through the spring trees on the boulevard.

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Micah’s body clock has goofed itself into third-shift mode, so I woke him three hours after he’d gone to bed. In year’s past when he was in the midst of mighty struggles—more on those someday, with his permission—he’d have been a winey little witch, but he got up, ate a bowl of Raisin Bran, hopped in the car, lit a cigarette, and joked with me till I dropped him off. “Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles!” Boy is becoming a man.

Before driving off, I texted chemo-nurse-wife Kathy, who had told me she expected a crazy day at work. Every now and then I send her what we call a Pocket Note, a taste of gladness she can read over lunch. “Kathy Coleman gets tired and is very busy,” I wrote, “but she genuinely cares about her patients. And that’s wonderful.” As I hit send, I heard the voice of Jack Nicholson in my head: “Well, aren’t you the little ray of sunshine.”

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Jack Nicholson (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

On my way to the church, I plugged my snotty iPhone into the car speakers and listened to Leon Redbone’s rousing version of “Diddy Wa Diddie” on You Tube. (Yes, I know about the song’s double entendre, but don’t care. Want a song that’ll make you want to laugh and dance? Have a go.) It was so good I listened to it twice.

And the day went on like this, blessings lining up on the road before me. Micah’s last-minute therapy appointment forced me to abbreviate my siesta, but even this alteration to my plans didn’t take the shine off the afternoon.

While my son unpacked the meaning of life, I perched two minutes east on West 26th Street on Brick House Coffee Bar’s porch, nursed an iced latte, and did some church work—what a gift to have a flexible schedule and technology that lets me get work done literally anywhere!

I could go on, but you get the idea. “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” That’s how John Lennon would have described yesterday. If Elena hadn’t locked herself out, the day might not have glowed as it did.

Thanks, my dear, for inspiring Thursday, May 16th to be full of gentle, mindful sanity!

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By the Driveway

Confessions of an Itinerant Contemplative

I consider it an outrage that I woke yesterday morning with the well-intended but terrible song “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” playing in my head. Who sang that? Was it Placido Domingo and John Denver? No. That was another sweet one, “Perhaps Love,” or as Placido sang it, “Puh-da-hahps Love.” Was it Willie Nelson and Domingo? Close. Willie Nelson and Julio Iglesias!

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Okay, Boys, Show Us Those Irresistible Smiles (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

I wish the tune would go away, but I’m grateful for the thought it coaxed out of me. In their hit, Willie and Julio take on the character of itinerant Don Juans, loving a girl at every stop on tour—oh, brother! Wherever they go, they love. I, on the other hand, am an itinerant contemplative, praying and napping (my two requirements for contemplation, anyway) wherever I go. All I need is a decent spot to sit or recline.

Years ago most midday rest came at home, but now the pastor’s study regularly hosts blessed oblivion, as does the car if I’m faced with a long wait. And, of course, travel has never prevented napping. I’ve taken siestas in cars and on buses, trains, and ships, but never on a plane–too nervous. I’ve probably napped in over half of the fifty states. In the next few years I hope to nap in Europe.

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An Office Napping Spot, Set Up in Thirty Seconds

And prayer: I’m apt to pray wherever I can sit down.

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Beloved Home Prayer Chair

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Pillow That Turns Bed into Prayer Chair

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A Quiet Nook at the Wellness Center

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Prayer Chair in the Messy Pastor’s Study

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View from the Prayer Chair in a 1999 Mazda 626

A couple of places you’d think would be good for contemplation actually don’t work very well.

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Lovely Church Sanctuary, Many Seats, But Every Noise in the Building Echoes Here

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Beautiful Zen Garden at the Wellness Center, But Hard Benches and High Thermostat

I don’t often need to nap in public, but I’m always praying out in the open. Some people get mad about their doctor being behind schedule, but unless I’ve got somewhere else to be, I close my eyes, sit still, and breathe. I’ve prayed in a probation office waiting room a few times and even managed it in the natter of the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. In a coffee shop? Yes. In a department store while wife Kathy tries on clothes? Sure. In a library? Absolutely. I used to feel self-conscious when folks passed by, but what for? I don’t mind being known as the pudgy guy with owl glasses who sits around with his eyes closed.

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The Library of Congress; I’d Pray This Reading Room (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

When this long, cold spring on the shore of Lake Erie breaks, I’ll take the show outside, too: the front porch, back patio, and Presque Isle State Park are all in the running. In fact, if I had more time today, I’d find some shade at Presque Isle and chase down an hour’s siesta with half-an-hour’s prayer. It’s sunny and 77 degrees. The rest of this week won’t be so nice, but before long I’ll have more places to nap and pray than I know what to do with. For now I’ll settle for an hour in my own bed–that is, if I can shut out these playboys singing “to all the girls [they] once caressed.” “And may [they] say [they’ve] held the best.” Ugh!

The Gift of an Unvarnished “No”

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Dom Edmond Obrecht (Photo Credit: Abbey of Gethsemani)

This past Thursday, the last full day of my retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, was extravagant and challenging. As usual, I wrote in the morning at the Java Joint in Bardstown, then returned to the abbey for lunch. I had it in mind to ask the guest master if I could enter the cloistered area of the monastery to look at the graves of those who died long ago, some of whom I feel like I knew: Dom Frederic Dunne, Merton’s first abbot, and his predecessor Edmond Obrecht, and the abbots before them. I’ve read so much about them it’s as if they’re friends.

At 1:00 I caught the guest master outside his office. “Do you have a minute?” I said. “I have a question?”

His body language said, “Oh, bother,” but he said, “Sure, come in.”

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Dom Frederic Dunne (Photo Credit: Biographia Cisterciensis)

I said, “It’s a simple question, and I’ll understand if the answer is no.”

“That’s quite a forecast,” he said. “Okay, no.” He laughed. Before I could get my question out, he followed up: “Okay, maybe.” Big smile.

A little awkward. “Maybe’s a start,” I said. “I was wondering if I could look at the monks’ graves in the enclosure after Compline tonight?” The Great Silence begins after Compline, when the brothers go to bed. I figured there’d be no chance of disturbing anybody.

Before my words were out he was shaking his head: “No.”

Silence.

“Okay,” I said, nodding and keeping my word that no was all right.

More silence.

“Yeah, that was all,” I said.

“Oh,” he said. “That was easy.”

“Yeah. Thanks.” I walked down the hall and climbed the stairs to my room. Of course, I was crushed—temporarily at least.

IMG_0482Okay, this was no big deal, but nobody likes to receive such a flat out denial to a reasonable request. Nobody would have been around? Who would have been hurt by my walking softly on those graves?

When I reached my room, it was my normal prayer time, so I began to do what I always do, which was try to make myself peaceful before I’m finished being hurt and pissed. So I let myself have some time to be put out. Eventually, as so often happens with shamatha—calm abiding—in the Sacred Presence, truth arrived. My reaction wasn’t about the kind, but honest, guest master, but about me.

No doesn’t work for me on any level. I’m terrible about saying no to myself (this is partially why I’m a diabetic), and I agonize about saying no to others. When somebody says no to me, suddenly I’m an adolescent with a quivering lip. Why? Long story, birth family, blah, blah, blah.

Anyway, during those forty-five minutes I sat in silent prayer after what felt like a rebuke, I understood that the guest master had actually given me a gift.

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During Worship at Gethsemani, Retreatants Don’t Sit with the Brothers

Often in this life, the answer is no. No, no, no! There’s no dressing it up, no making it palatable or painless. It doesn’t matter that the question is reasonable. And this isn’t about the old saying that “God answers all prayer, but sometimes the answer is no.” None of that business of cleaning no up and making it a buddy.

Central to being mature and healthy for me is the ability to say and hear the fullness of no. I’m not there yet, not even close. No kidding, I’m glad now that I heard no unvarnished. Later at Vespers I saw the guest master and thought to myself, “I wish I were more like him.” Thank you, brother!

After forty-five minutes of prayer, my gut relaxed, and I felt in my body what I knew in my head: I’d received a severe blessing. That’s how growth happens.

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Brother John (Photo Credit: Abbey of Gethsemani)

The extravagance I mentioned came in the presence of Brother John, who shared pizza and Chimay Trappist Ale with me in the Norton Speaking Room. Thursday was the Ascension of Our Lord, an observance for Christians and an occasion for monastic partying. On festival days, the brothers crack excellent beer and eat something unusually delicious for dinner. For Brother John, the celebration consisted of two beers and two pieces of pizza. I consumed the same, but under normal circumstances, I’d consider such a meal dainty. John has his hungry ghosts (stay tuned for a future post on these ravenous spirits) under control; me, not so much.

IMG_0466My Gethsemani retreat was crowded with blessings. I enjoyed free-range siestas, long hours of prayer, plenty of reading and writing at the desk by the window, and especially those talking dinners with Brother John. I even appreciated remembering my father’s death and hearing the guest master’s no.

I wish my most important lessons didn’t feel like a punch to the sternum at first, but that’s how learning seems to happen for me. Some foolishness needs to get expelled so there’s room for health and insight.

It’s Sunday afternoon now, back home in Erie, Pennsylvania. For Mother’s Day the Coleman family will go out for all-you-can-eat shrimp, but first I feel a nap coming on. Being away is great, but getting back home is better still.

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Man and Beloved Cat, Together Again.

Apothic Red, Java, and the Weeping Birds of Gethsemani

I used to make retreats hard work. Stick with the program! Pray, read, worship, rest, walk (or run), and write—this last one has always struck me as okay because writing for me is a way of meditating. This Gethsemani retreat has been different. I haven’t turned my short stay into an exercise in competitive contemplation. Relax, Coleman.

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Small Prayer Sculpture in Meditation Room, Gethsemani

I’ve enjoyed a splash of wine in the evening, sitting at my desk, writing, and giving thanks for the cool breeze on my arms and face.

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For Medicinal Purposes

I’ve spent a couple of hours each morning in Bardstown, about fifteen minutes from the monastery, at The Java Joint. It’s unique in my experience: trippy, artsy to the eye, but Rush Limbaugh blusters on the radio—thank God for ear buds and Pandora—and, pleasant as the employees are, the coffee’s, well, ugh. Still, it’s been an amiable second home this week. Oh, yes, and free Wi-Fi.

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A Writer’s Java Joint Perch

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A Bust Vase in the Java Joint Japanese Garden (Suggesting What Many Women Claim, That Breasts Are Like Snowflakes

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Painting in the Men’s Room by Cantrell, 2008 (What Are They Putting in My Coffee?)

I’ve also permitted myself a touch of interior grumbling, which is way out of line, considering what a gift this week has been. Yesterday morning I visited graves not within the monastic enclosure. Mainly I wanted to see the resting places of Fathers Louis (Thomas) Merton, Matthew Kelty, and Roman Ginn. Merton’s marker was so slathered with sacred litter that I had to nudge the leavings aside to photograph his name. Kelty’s and Ginn’s bore pilgrims’ droppings as well. I felt mildly cheated, wanting to pay homage to these monks I regard as spiritual masters, not look at what amounts to big fat red lipstick kiss marks all over the crosses bearing their names. But, thankfully, these harrumphs were fleeting, quietly scolded into silence by a few good laughs at my own fussiness.

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Father Louis (Thomas) Merton’s Grave Marker

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Father Matthew Kelty’s Grave Marker

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Father Roman Ginn’s Grave Marker

I’ve even enjoyed some healthy irreverence. I have to think that Father Louis Merton is buried next to Abbot James Fox for cosmic reasons. According to Merton’s journals, he considered his abbot something of a megalomaniac, and they drove each other nuts for many years. Yet their bodies rest together, Dom James and Father Louis, hopefully having come to terms.

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Contrary Neighbors, Dom James Fox (Left) and Father Louis (Thomas) Merton

My last couple of posts have mentioned the birds of Gethsemani, the singingest flock I’ve ever heard. In all irreverence, I have to say they’re prolific in another common means of expression as well. One photo below shows a chair that obviously serves as a bird latrine. The other photo shows part of a statue called The Epiphany. Lovely work, and at first glance you might think the young Jesus is miraculously crying for our troubled world. Quick, call the Vatican! Ah, well. Turns out that the boy’s forehead is a favorite perch, and the tears are wept by birds lightening their burdens before take off. (How one enterprising sparrow or robin managed to weep into poor Jesus’ eye socket is a mystery.) Everything is sacred, and nothing is sacred.

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The Birds’ Loo (I’ll Take a Pass on This Prayer Chair)

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An Ambivalent Expression (For Good Reason)

I even used to feel guilty on retreats if I napped for too long. It didn’t stop me, but the voice of fervor and time’s winged chariot hurrying near were always on my mind. Not so now. Yesterday’s siesta, so needful, lasted two hours—two hours of snoring and drooling with abandon, followed by fifteen minutes of staring in a stupor at the ceiling. Lovely! In a couple hours, I’ll rest again, for as long as I please.

This is my last full day on retreat. Tomorrow I’ll head to Columbus, rattle around there for an afternoon, sleep one night in a hotel, then get home Saturday. In spite of the rugged stretch in prayer yesterday morning, this week has been joyful, freeing. Some would say I’ve been a retreat cheat, slinking off to a coffee shop in the morning and sipping wine in the evening. But this has been my retreat.

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North American Robin (Just Like One That Wouldn’t Keep Still for a Portrait This Morning, Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Gethsemani’s birds speak for me, in their singing and in their weeping.

Viewing Dad’s Death Loop at Gethsemani

There’s an irony about the word retreat. By abandoning routine cares and responsibilities for a few days or a week, I can take long siestas, write, read, pray a lot, and finally re-enter the world refreshed. Of course, the daily slog serves a mental health purpose, though not necessarily a healthy one. Keeping busy helps me stay distracted, mostly unaware of the emotional sediment swirling around my soul.

So far this Gethsemani retreat has been joyful, restful, and undisciplined: no agenda, other than what I want to do in the present moment—within the confines of a monastery, of course. Fortunately, I’m a tame enough person that what suits me is being quiet and thoughtful. Call me a cheap date.

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By Gethsemani Balcony Before Sunrise

This morning was tough, though. As I prayed out on the balcony, a memory I’d hoped to retreat from stopped for a visit. Surrounded by cool air and bird song, I remembered the last time I saw my father. He died in January of 2012 in a nursing home, oddly enough while I was on retreat in a hermitage at Mount Saint Benedict Monastery in Erie, Pennsylvania. The call from my brother Ed came around 1:00 a.m. when I was in bed, not sleeping.

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View from Hermitage Porch, Mount Saint Benedict Monastery, Erie, Pennsylvania

He’d called me in the early afternoon the day before to say the end was near. I left the hermitage intending to stay with Dad until he passed, playing-by-ear what I’d to with the rest of my retreat. When I arrived, he was unconscious, but restless.

“I’m here, Dad.”

He responded by reaching up in the air as if he were trying to pull pillows to his chest and howling—that’s the only word for it. He sat up part way and let out a roar mixed up with a sob.

Not the comfort I was hoping to provide.

I took Dad’s hands, but he wouldn’t be consoled. He squeezed so hard I thought, “This man’s got way too much vinegar in him to die anytime soon.”

For the hour I was with him, he sat up part way at least a dozen times and howled. Not a single howl, but a few strung together. His hands crushed mine and reached for invisible pillows. Over and over. He was having a nightmare that he knew was a nightmare, but he couldn’t will himself awake. That’s what I imagine, anyway.

Sixty minutes of this was enough. I said goodbye as best I could and drove back to the hermitage. What did I do that evening in the quiet woods? No idea. I only remember thinking that I had to let my father die alone because if I weren’t there he might calm down.

Dad had the most tortured death of anybody I know. I’m not just talking about his deathbed, but his final months. Every time I visited him, he reached for me and cried, tortured by his dementia. The only thing he knew was that he’d lost his mind, and he couldn’t stop trying to get it back. He could never let go into oblivion. “If I had a gun,” he often said, putting two fingers to his temple in the universal suicide gesture.

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Untitled, Mark Rothko, 1970, the year of his suicide (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

When I touched Dad’s forehead at the funeral home, it felt like cold, hard rubber. In eighty-five years he never lost one of his wavy gray hairs, but nothing was left underneath them.

So this memory compilation of my father ran in a loop during morning prayer. I guess it was my morning prayer. Restful as retreats can be, a visitor like this can be tiring. My siesta this afternoon will be sweet, delicious.

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A Gethsemani Siesta

In this moment I’m not sad. I accept that Dad’s death loop has to run every once in a while until I’m finished grieving, which may be never. So be it.

For some reason I feel light, as if some emotional sediment floated downstream. It’s strange to think that part of the reason I retreated eight hours to Kentucky may be that I needed to see Dad die again as birds sang around me in the morning air.

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Morning Mist over Monks’ Graves

A Siesta in the Brothers’ Peace

IMG_0367I’m looking out at spring from the third floor of the Retreat House at the Abbey of Gethsemani. Compline finished half an hour ago with the monks chanting in the dark sanctuary their love song to Mary, and now the birds outside my window are singing their own love song as the light grows thin; farther off, a mourning dove says something truthful. The only discordant sounds belong to a few of my fellow retreatants, who aren’t sure what all the “keep silence” signs are about. No matter. It’s Monday evening, and from now until Friday morning, I’m in a place founded on a Christian version shamatha—calm abiding. Shh. Keep quiet, inside and out. Listen.

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Photo Credit: Stahrman

A retreat in the rolling hills of Kentucky–or anywhere, for that matter–isn’t for everybody. Slowing down, closing your mouth, and hearing what you’ve been trying for years to shut out can make you squirmy, claustrophobic. Your spirit can feel like your feet do after wearing roller skates for a few hours: numb, unreliable. What sane person would actually take vacation time for shamatha and the emotional reckoning it invites? And who would choose calm abiding as a career?!

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Photo Credit: The Abbey of Gethsemani

If you’ve never visited a monastery and only read a description of the monastic routine, you might think cloistered monks are squandering their lives. Wouldn’t it be better for the three- or four-dozen men who live at Gethsemani to leave the enclosure and get their butts into the trenches and help the poor? Isn’t praying and remaining silent and making cheese, fudge, and fruitcake a waste of a human being’s seventy or eighty years on this planet? Some say so.

What many find hardest to understand about a monk’s vocation is this: monks believe that they stay in one spot and pray not only for themselves, but more importantly for my sorry carcass, your probably much more healthy and well-adjusted carcass, and our crazy world that keeps busy shooting and blowing up innocents. Daffy, but true. I once saw a video in which a brother from the Abbey of the Genesee said that the day he believes he lives as a monk only for himself will be the day he leaves the monastery.

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Photo Credit: Stahrman

This belief that monks live for others is made concrete by their hospitality. I don’t know the exact number, but I’m guessing there are thirty to forty pilgrims with me in this Retreat House, which is attached to the monastery proper. We each have our own bedrooms and bathrooms, and there are also rooms available for men in the floors above where the monks themselves live. How much will this stay cost me? Depends on what I can afford. Money’s tight right now, so I’ll leave a check for $100 when I leave. The meals alone, simple but tasty and hearty, are worth more than $100. If I left nothing, I’d never hear a word about it. The next time I come here, I hope to give much more.

Of course, I didn’t take vacation time for a retreat at Gethsemani because of the bargain. I’ve come here to rest, to get centered, to tend my sanity.

The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani

Around 2:15 this afternoon I spotted the spire of the abbey church. I got out of the car, grabbed my bags, and walked toward the Retreat House. Within twenty seconds I’d entered the silence. When the lay receptionist saw that I was the Rev. John Coleman and handed me my key, he told me about how I could concelebrate the Eucharist—something a Roman Catholic priest might want to do. Sweet old guy, really.

“Well,” I said, “I’m a Lutheran pastor.”

He smiled. “Aren’t we silly? All these divisions.”

“Yep,” I said, “we sure are.”

“When you’re elected Pope of the Lutheran church,” he said, “you can change all this.”

We had a good laugh, and I took the elevator to my room.

After leaving my bags, I headed for the sanctuary balcony, where I sat down after the conclusion of the prayer period called None, which ended at 2:30. Five monks were still praying quietly in their seats. I prayed with them for a few minutes and wondered if I could live their silence, day after day, month after month, year after year. No.

And by prayed with them I mean sat long enough to honor what they were doing. I assume they were giving God—or whatever name you want to assign eternal grace and mercy—room to take up residence in their spirits.

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Guest quarters (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After watching over them on the balcony, I went back to my room and lay down on the twin bed. For much of the eight-hour drive from Erie to the-middle-of-nowhere Kentucky, I mentally reviewed all that I planned to sort out and accomplish at Gethsemani. The closer I got to the abbey, the more I was convinced that I needed to let go. For my days here, there should be no plan, no agenda. No shoulds!

The monks who spent so many hours in prayer, together and alone, knew they didn’t possess wisdom themselves. The best they could do was sit still and let wisdom come to them—or rise up within them. Whatever.

On the twin bed in my room, I closed my eyes at 3:00 p.m. And in this place of letting go created by hundreds of monks, I slept for an hour. Then, for another thirty minutes I lay there, breathing deeply, neither asleep nor awake. I got up grateful.

The brothers have prayed in this place for over 150 years. I took my siesta in the embrace of their peace.

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