A Guitar in the Sky Brings Me Back to Myself

I’m not sure how to describe the last month. An awakening? A healing? Whatever. All I know is my spirit feels like my eyes do in the morning, after I rub them and the world comes into focus. What little truth I know has been closer to me than it has in years. The clarity hasn’t given itself all at once, but in instants of inconspicuous awareness.

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Amiable English professor Kirk and his pup Ryan.

One month ago today—September 19, 2013—while perched at Starbucks, I read a short piece in the Erie Times-News: “Coffee? Leave your gun at home.” “Starbucks,” the report begins, “says guns are no longer welcome in its cafes, though it is stopping short of an outright ban on firearms.” Whew. Glad I hadn’t brought my glock with me. My immediate thought: What’s the big deal? I understand the need for Starbucks to issue a press release to announce this—what?—friendly request, but what have we come to when a coffee shop has to ask patrons not to show up packing? A confederacy of dunces? I tore the article out and slipped it into my bag. A truth was being lifted up to me, something obvious when seen under a certain light. (Note: I happen to be writing this at Starbucks, where Kirk Nesset happily works away with Pomeranian pup Ryan on his lap. I suggest Starbucks put out word that well-behaved dogs are welcome.)

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“Iron Mike” Webster, who died at 50. His autopsy revealed chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Some doctors estimate that his brain had suffered the equivalent of 25,000 car crashes. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Then I watched “A League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” on PBS’s Frontline, my jaw growing more slack by the moment. Everybody’s affronted by clear evidence that the National Football League has been playing dumb for years and covering up what it knew about how unhealthy it can be for a man to have his clock cleaned every Sunday. Seriously? The NFL deserves to get its knuckles cracked—more than 765,000,000 times—for letting its lucrative human demolition derby go on and on, but we’re not dealing with a league of denial here. We live on a planet of denial. What sane player or fan would suppose that you could repeatedly slam your head against other heads, bodies, and the ground and not spend your retirement dazed or worse? And don’t say, “Oh, but they wear helmets.” Um, okay, but no protection is going to prevent your brain from smashing about your skull if your head smacks into a hard surface. My point: this Frontline program holds a truth, but it’s not about football. It’s about a society’s capacity for reason. I love to watch football, but how compassionate is it to watch men risk destroying themselves? Time to give it up.

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A Rolodex like Mom’s, except hers was an ugly orange. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Next: on October 10, 2013, the Erie Times-News carried a short article by Patrick May of the San Jose Mercury News: “Tech stress: With proliferation of digital devices, we’re freaking out.” (Side note: Nobody forwarded me the memorandum announcing the change in practice of capitalizing first letters of words in a title. I’m not against it, but it looks wrong.) Mike Kushner, co-owner of Palo Alto, California’s Bay Area Computer Solutions, describes the rabid stress techno-junkies live with: “We see people crying; we see people angry; we have people lash out at us because we can’t recover what they lost . . . . People are under incredible pressure these days because of how dependent everybody is on their computers and especially their smart phones.” Boy, I’ll tell you, all this iTechnology is, in the words of Rick Postma of Holland, Michigan, “slicker than a harpooned hippo in a banana tree.” My mother of blessed memory kept a $1.99 K-Mart Rolodex on her end table and never once cried or lashed out over lost contacts. Meanwhile, I and thousands of others suffer from, as May puts it, “’phantom vibration syndrome,’ that creepy sensation that your smart phone is buzzing in your purse or pocket when in fact it isn’t.” As an iPhone owner, I ask members of the tribe, “Have we lost all good sense?” Suspected truth: We have.

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“”The Good Samaritan” by Amie Morot.

Next: A few days ago fellow Starbucks barfly Alan stepped out outside on the porch where I was sitting, raised his closed eyes to the clouds, and took in a cosmic breath. “Yeah,” I said, “things could be a lot worse, huh?” Alan is Zen2 (tall, lanky, constant half-smile, slightly wild gray hair). He told me about a twenty-year-old guy he met at the Regional Cancer Center: “My throat cancer was nothing compared to what that guy had.” We breathed together a few times, then he bowed slightly and walked to his car, chewing his scone on the way. Truth: at every possible opportunity, close my eyes, breathe, and bow to my neighbor. (“And who is my neighbor?”)

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“I want a human being.” (Credit: Wisson/Jordan)

Next: I was standing in line at the bank. An old guy sat in an armchair and voiced a single desire into his cell phone:  “No, I want to talk to a human being. No, I want a human being. Any human being who’s there. No, I want a human being.” Of course, he was speaking to an automaton, but speaking a sane truth all the same. Is it too much to ask for a human being? On the phone? At the grocery store check out? On the front porch? I’d like to invent a social media just for this man. I wouldn’t (and couldn’t) name it Facebook. I’d just call it Face.

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A guitar in the sky brings me back to myself.

Finally: Micah needed a drum pad, so we stopped at Erie’s World of Music. As he walked to the door, I stayed in the car and reached for my iPhone—a habit, impulse. For no particular reason, as I thumbed my phone’s snotty leather cover, I looked out my window at the sky and saw a guitar. I used to park in that lot once a week for Micah’s drum lessons and never noticed that guitar next to the World of Music sign. A wordless question brought me to myself: John, aren’t there better things to look at than text messages, e-mails, and ABC’s news stories? Check out the guitar in the sky and while you’re at it, receive the sky.

I’ve don’t think objectivity exists, but I do believe in truths. Though I’m not smart enough to define them, I now have sightings. Truths rest at my feet or hover in the sky when I’m aware, when I breathe. I see them and give thanks. I feel like myself. I feel at home.

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Kilimanjaro Dancing on the Head of a Pin

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Elena a couple weeks ago

“Who would have ever thought we would get to this day and that it would be so joyful?” wife Kathy said from the kitchen doorway. Her question embraced me so completely that I didn’t even say goodbye. I just stood there in the quiet, mixing up Greek potato salad, my contribution to daughter Elena’s baby shower.

Well-meaning friends tell you that your teenage kids will outgrow their problems and turn out fine, but, of course, sometimes they don’t. Everybody knows this, but when you have good cause to wonder whether your daughter or son will live to see legal drinking age, folks who love you want to offer hope. I don’t blame them. When Elena was a Goth chick carving LOVE and HATE into her wrist, disappearing in the middle of winter nights, and gobbling a cocktail of pills, I knew enough to translate all words of comfort. “I love you,” was the real message. “I see what you’re going through. Don’t lose heart.” I never came close to giving up on Elena, but I never let myself wander far from the truth, either. When you attempt suicide as a way of calling out for help, you might die. Happens all the time. When you sneak out at 3:00 a.m. to trek across town through slush to a creepy boyfriend’s house, you might get hurt in ways you can’t yet imagine.

As Kathy stood in the doorway, I’m sure she was remembering those four or five years when worry about Elena constantly had us by the throat: “Who would have ever thought we would get to this day and that it would be so joyful?”

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Go ahead, tell me this old sanctuary doesn’t glow!

When the Greek potato salad was ready, I took it to the church fellowship hall, which Elena, Kathy, and a herd of helpers had decorated within an inch of its life. I’d led hundreds of worship services in that hall, formerly the Abiding Hope Lutheran Church sanctuary, but never have I seen that simple Cracker Jack box room glow more than it did when I put my bowl on the buffet table and stood still as if in a dream.

If all goes well Kathy and I will be grandparents toward the end of November. Holding my grandson for the first time, I may think, “Who would have ever thought . . . ?” After what the Coleman family went through when both Elena and son Micah were teenagers, I regard every joy as a miracle—Kilimanjaro balanced on the head of a pin. Witness the wonder through tears, but, baby, don’t forget it could tip over.

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Micah, making me proud every day from 8:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.

While Elena, her husband Matt, and our future grandson seem solidly on the path to okayness, Micah also has Kathy and me saying, “Who would have ever thought . . . ?”  When he was going through his wall-smashing, heroin-shooting days, Kathy and I questioned whether he or we would make it to joyful. Now, not only did he report this morning to his full-time painting job with snot-jammed sinuses, but he’s been going over to his grandmother’s house lately. He who once stuck with a job a couple months at best enjoys helping her with chores and hanging out with her, watching movies and kibitzing. He’s been clean well over a year and is about to turn in his 401(k) paperwork. Somebody pinch me!

An old volcano dances on a pin: that’s the Zen half-smile I took with me into the Pastor’s Study as the ladies ate, laughed, and whooped for a couple of hours in the glowing fellowship hall. I put my mats, blanket, and pillows on the floor and took a delicious, mediocre nap. A couple text messages joined with laughter forte to hold me on the edge of sleep. No matter. When I got up and checked on the party, nothing had tipped over.

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Dear Lord, Join me for a turtle brownie? Amen

For me, shamatha—calm abiding—in the presence of fragile joy is the best way I know to be grateful. I did thank God for Elena’s great day. I do thank God for Micah peeing clean and grappling with his grandmother’s weeds. But my thanksgiving is complicated: it’s about inviting God to celebrate with me; it’s not about thanking God for easing up on me and setting my kids straight. Maybe this is the way to say it: I don’t give thanks; I am thanks.

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Cover of Sanskrit translation of Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha.” (Credit: Wikipedia)

During Elena’s and Micah’s crazy days, I found comfort in Hermann Hesse’s novel Siddhartha when the ferryman smiles and comforts a suffering father, Siddhartha:

Ask the river about it, my friend! Listen to it, laugh about it! Do you then really think that you have committed your follies in order to spare your son them? Can you then protect your son from Samsara? How? Through instruction, through prayers, through exhortation? My dear friend, have you forgotten that instructive story about Siddhartha, the Brahmin’s son, which you once told me here? Who protected Siddhartha the Samana from Samsara, from sin, greed and folly? Could his father’s piety, his teacher’s exhortations, his own knowledge, his own seeking, protect him? Which father, which teacher, could prevent him from living his own life, from soiling himself with life, from loading himself with sin, from swallowing the bitter drink himself, from finding his own path? Do you think, my dear friend, that anybody is spared this path? Perhaps your little son, because you would like to see him spared sorrow and pain and disillusionment? But if you were to die ten times for him, you would not alter his destiny in the slightest.

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Kibo summit of Kilimanjaro (Credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, it’s not as though the path of samsara—the life journey of death, suffering, and rebirth—ends with a first child or a full-time job. Kilimanjaro is always losing its balance.

“Who would have ever thought we would see this day and that it would be so joyful?” How many nights did I stare into the darkness, wondering, trying to breathe? We all have to walk our own path, and for Elena and Micah, at the moment, the footing seems good. What I’m trying to say is, “I am thanks.”

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Elena ready to welcome our grandson to the world.

A Zen-Christian Night Teaching

Running into Thich Nhat Hanh is always cause for celebration. I’ve never visited Plum Village, his community in France, never heard him speak in person. Still, like millions of his mindful followers, I consider him family.

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Thich Nhat Hanh in Paris in 2006. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Last night he showed up in a short dream. Thay, as he’s known to his students, and I stood in the Coleman family kitchen. I can’t remember his exact words, but he said that in his family they drink tea from small cups. He smiled, gently rested his hand on my forearm, then placed a tea pot and a cup on the counter. He smiled again. That was it.

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Credit: Michele Constantini

In this moment, I breathe in and out and savor Thay’s night teaching. Most of my dreams are anxious, like I’m enrolled in a college calculus class and forget to attend all semester. But I receive Thay’s visitation as a blessing from my Judeo-Christian God. “Drink slowly from the little cup,” both say. “Why are you always rushing?” Thank you, Thay. Thank you, Lord. Your spiritual hybrid gratefully accepts the healing lesson.

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Stop to notice the spider plant blossoms reaching to the sink in the church bathroom.

A week ago Thich Nhat Hanh showed up in the form of words: “To be is to inter-be,” he writes. “We cannot just be by ourselves alone. We have to inter-be with every other thing.” For Thay, garbage and flowers inter-are. “The affluent society and the deprived society inter-are. The wealth of one society is made of the poverty of the other.” The same goes for people. Reflecting on the suffering of a young prostitute in Manila, Thay observes, “Looking deeply into ourselves, we see her, and we will share her pain and the pain of the whole world. Then we can begin to be of real help.”

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Neighborhood sage Patrick with well-loved Tin Man. This Down’s syndrome kid’s a master at inter-being.

Half an hour ago, sipping a Starbucks redeye, I was inter-are with a tall, skinny guy standing in the long line: shaved head, felt newsboy cap, great puff of a graying beard, black long-john shirt, corduroy pants. For all I know he may have been the most neurotic soul in the coffee shop, but he appeared so overwhelmingly corduroy that I thought to myself, “That dude. I want to be like that dude.” And now, darned if I’m not relaxed—chunky, tight-bearded, balding, but relaxed. I’ll take it, thankful that inter-being is concrete, tangible.

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A dog channels my corduroy brother. I want to be like this dog. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Five minutes more and I’m off to the church for office time. In prayer this morning, I leaned everything I had into the loving bosom of I Am. In the night, Thay touched my arm. I can still feel I Am and Thay. I’ll take them both with me, along with the corduroy man who blessed me with his peace.