Light and Life Versus the Execution of a Shadow

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Santa Claus on Black Friday (Credit: Jason Stang)

Crying sits in my chest and leans on my throat. Zoloft be damned, I’ll be wiping away tears before this Black Friday of 2013 is over—tears and snot.

(Blogger’s Note: I apologize in advance for some of what follows. This post should be an outburst of  joy, but if you’ve been sticking with me any length of time, you know I try hard to be emotionally honest. So I’m going to tell the truth.)

I’d planned on being a curmudgeon today about Black Friday’s syphilitic insanity infecting Thanksgiving. I have lots to say about that but will hold off for a while. Instead, I’ll share the e-mail and Erie Times-News story that are making this 8:50 a.m. at Starbucks complicated. Bad news first.

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Alois Alzheimer, official sponsor of Alzheimer’s disease (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Headline on page 2-A of the Erie Times-News on November 29, 2013, right under a lovely piece by Kevin Cuneo about the luscious scents of Thanksgiving cooking overcoming his dog’s skunking of the family home: “Man fatally shoots roving Alzheimer’s patient.” Here’s the story (skipping paragraph breaks):

CHICKAMAUGA, Ga. – Authorities in northwest Georgia said a man shot and killed a 72-year-old he thought might be an intruder but turned out to be a wandering Alzheimer’s patient. Walker County police told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that Ronald Westbrook had walked about 3 miles in the sub-freezing temperatures before knocking on Joe Hendrix’s door just before 4 a.m. Wednesday. Hendrix’s fiancée didn’t answer, instead calling the police. Sheriff Steve Wilson said before deputies arrived, Hendrix went into the backyard with his handgun, where he saw Westbrook in silhouette. Wilson said the 34-year-old Hendrix recalled giving Westbrook several verbal commands, but the advanced Alzheimer’s patient didn’t respond. Hendrix then fired four shots. Wilson said charges could be filed but that Hendrix didn’t violate any laws by walking out into his own yard.

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Robber! Rapist! Murderer! Oops, sorry. Just an old guy. (Credit: Jesse Reardon / Twila Reardon)

I don’t think walking out into his yard was the objectionable part! Some months ago I shared a post entitled Viewing Dad’s Death Loop at Gethsemani in which I described my father’s dementia. I’m the proud owner of a I Survived My Parent Going Bat Crap t-shirt. For me, it wasn’t Ronald Westbrook knocking at Joe Hendrix’s door. The man’s name was Denny Coleman, he was eighty-five, and he was so far gone that while staying at my house, he wandered into the wrong room in the middle of the night and pissed in my clothes basket. It was my confused, tormented dad who, lost and freezing, knocked on a door. When nobody answered, Dad walked into the backyard and stood in the corner, in the dark. Some guy started screaming at him, but since he couldn’t even remember whether his son was his son or uncle or brother or father, he stood there silently. Then Hendrix shot my dad’s silhouette four times. Then Dad wasn’t flummoxed or agonized anymore.

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That should about cover it.

That’s how I processed the article. Conveniently, as I sat breathing, “White Christmas” played in the background, with Bing Crosby whistling like my dad used to. Of course, I also immediately thought of the woman in suburban Detroit who knocked on a door in the middle of the night because her car broke down and ate lead for the effrontery. God didn’t make enough tears and the devil didn’t make enough expletives to communicate my sadness and rage. If Hendrix had actually shot my dad, the upset would rise to another terrible height, but I’m just saying that 133-word story out of Chickamauga has sucker punched a once-in-a-lifetime morning. No worries. I’ll work the ache out of my jaw, pop four ibuprofen, and move on to today’s best news story, which showed up via e-mail:

Hi John Coleman,

Did Elena call you? She is in early labor, dilated three, probably gonna have the little guy today. If you feel the love, would you bring me a Starbucks after you leave? How am I gonna concentrate today?????????????????????????????????

Love you, soon to be grandpa

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Yes, soon-to-be grandma, I’m feeling the love.

(Yes, my wife calls me John Coleman.) If question marks are any indication, Kathy is giggling and jitterbugging at work, The Regional Cancer Center. As soon as I read her note, that cry I mentioned rose in my chest. It will come out in its own time.

Like Dr. John Watson, I’m guilty of telling this story wrong-end foremost. As it happened, I read Kathy’s sweetness-and-light message, imagined holding my grandson and kissing him on the head, then opened the newspaper, where a befuddled old man’s killing had me staring at my father, scared in the darkness.

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Elena on Thanksgiving. I think my turkey gravy induced labor.

So what wins? The execution of a shadow? Or light and life? It seems like the former is always throwing a haymaker at the latter, meaning to knock it out of the ring.

My money’s on light and life. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. That’s what the Gospel of John claims, and even if I weren’t a Christian, I’d still believe it. Sorry for being a fool, but the alternative is too much to bear.

With luck, light will shine this Black Friday. My grandson may enter a bright land he couldn’t have imagined and be embraced immediately by dazzling love. Let that also be so for Ronald Westbrook, Denny Coleman, and one day, you and me.

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The Sacrament of Trying on Boots

Yes, yes, I know: Mother Teresa was accused of financial impropriety and of accepting contributions for her ministry to the poor from questionable sources. Her defense was that the poor were more important than the motives or morals of benefactors.

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Mother Teresa of Calcutta (Credit: Wikipedia)

Say what you will, I love Mother Teresa. She was a saint—or will be soon enough. Two of her quotations guide my thinking. Friend Michelle had the first printed and framed for me as a gift: “I would rather make mistakes in kindness and compassion than work miracles in unkindness and hardness.” I keep these words on the wall in front of my desk. The second quote is just as powerful: “There should be less talk; a preaching point is not a meeting point. What do you do then? Take a broom and clean someone’s house. That says enough.”

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Amen

Underneath all of Pastor John’s patience and compassion is selfishness. I don’t like to sweep floors, not even my own, and I covet time. Andrew Marvell’s lines often haunt me: “But at my back I always hear, / Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.”

For reasons I don’t understand, Mother Teresa’s words have visited me lately to remind me that her broom is a metaphor and many days my most useful, loving action is invisible, inconspicuous, known only to a person or two and a gray sky or a lonely afternoon.

A couple days ago a friend—let’s call him Gene—asked if I’d take him to buy a new pair of winter boots. He laughed as he told me about one sole of his old pair flopping around like a drunk’s tongue as he walked home. Finally he gave up, took off the wounded boot, and hobbled up his gravel driveway, one socked foot wet and tender.

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Some glue might have fixed Gene’s boot, but oh well.

So I picked Gene up, and within fifteen minutes he was trying on boots. One problem: health issues render him listless sometimes; tying his shoes or buckling a seatbelt can be exhausting. Though it was a bad day, Gene, as always, was aware of my time. He tried to hurry, but our footwear errand had him sagging to the Walmart floor. Every movement was a labor: tugging the wad of tissue paper from the toe of the boot; unraveling the laces and flipping down the tongue; and—my Lord—pulling on the boot.

After watching for a minute, I said, “I got you, Gene.” So I helped him find the right size, get the boots out of the box and onto his feet, each time pulling up his weary white socks, and watched silently as he did test runs. He tried on four pairs, finally settling on ones without laces, like cowboy boots with chunky treads and generous toes.

The second pair into this process it occurred to me—breathing, shamatha—that helping Gene in, ugh, Walmart, was sacred. He droops from the effort of taking money out of his wallet, and all he needs to make his life significantly easier is somebody to take forty-five minutes and spot him as he buys boots that won’t rub a sore on his ankle.

I also knew that Gene needed more than new boots. He needed to know that I wasn’t impatient or annoyed. So I put my hand his arm and said, “How about I help you get that on?” And, “Don’t worry, Gene. I’m not in a hurry.” And, in the case of a pair with a dozen eyelets, “Hmm. You’ll be an hour getting into these. By the time you get them tied, you’ll be too tired to go anywhere.” Like I said, Gene and I are friends. We had a good laugh.

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Prescription for joy. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

A couple minutes after I dropped him back off at home, my cell phone’s Sherwood Forest ringtone sounded. It was Gene, but since I was driving, his call went to voicemail. The message: “I just wanted to say thanks again for helping me, John. See you.”

Mother Teresa also said, “We cannot do great things on this earth, only small things with great love.” I’m not sharing Gene’s and my excursion because I’m a great guy. I’m a normal guy with the usual human portion of self-absorption, a guy with an aversion to brooms, but I got lucky. In a moment of potential frustration I was blessed with a visitation of the Spirit.

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You’re holding gladness in your hands, little sister. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

A friend’s boots broke down. We got him a new pair. We did it together with love. I close my eyes, breathe, and days later the sacrament of trying on boots still cradles my soul. This is gladness.

The Healing Properties of Sleep and “Tuxedo Junction”

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A crested duck, which I first encountered in Camden, Maine, where a flock of these darlings outside our hotel room kept wife Kathy and me up at night with their gossiping. (Credit: Anna Barberis)

Yesterday I felt like I was—as wise colleague Roy once put it—being pecked to death by ducks. The roads were populated by drivers who had cold lard for blood and cud for brains. Or they were staring at cell phones with that dazed, dunderheaded expression people wear when texting. Or they were fussing with the bag of frozen haddock or whatever in their backseat and assuming that the 153 cars behind them would gladly wait until all was situated.

I have a patience surplus everywhere except in the car, where I growl, grunt, sigh, squeal, sputter, and in moments of high upset, speak in Technicolor. You don’t have to count five 1000’s before reacting to the turning arrow. The %$&!# accelerator’s on the right! If you press your foot against it, your delightful Nissan Cube will get out of my crappy 1998 Mazda 626’s way. You’ll reach your destination. My sophomoric, un-centered spirit will unclench. It’s a win-win. Please. (Philosophical question: If you curse in your car and nobody hears, does it count against you?)

I’m ashamed of my traffic-temper, but take comfort that my ranting occurs in a contained space. And I don’t give people the finger or the skunk eye, either. But, boy, auto-John doesn’t gaze at humanity with compassionate eyes.

Of course, I can’t control the ducks behind other cars’ wheels, but I can silence the quacking from my radio—and did so this morning for sanity’s sake. On November 6th, as usual, Micah and I listened to National Public Radio for the ten minutes it took to get him to the day’s painting job, and the half-hour home, including a stop or two. The stories were newsworthy, but they struck me as crazy layered on crazy.

Story One

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So tired! (Credit: corbisimages.com)

“During the last few decades the average American has lost an hour and a half of sleep per night,” Marketplace’s Ashley Milne Tyte reports. “Sleep researchers at Harvard say the workplace is suffering to the tune of $63 billion a year as a result of insomnia, and all the health and productivity problems that go with it.” Gail DeBoer, a credit union president in Omaha, has felt the pain. “Her restless nights began when she got her first smartphone a few years ago. She’d look at email just before she went to bed. But it didn’t end there. ‘I’d wake up at two or three in the morning thinking about work situations,’ says DeBoer. ‘I’d start sending emails because it was on my mind.’ After that, she never really got back to sleep. She began having regular headaches. Still, she told herself she was fine on about five hours a night.” Eventually, she wised up, quit checking e-mail before bed, got eight hours of sleep, and—go figure—the headaches stopped.

We are such suckers! Notice I say we, as in me, too. Where did we ambitious Americans get the idea that we ought to be checking in with the office at 11:00 p.m.? And what denial are we in that e-mailing or texting at 2:00 a.m. on a regular basis seems healthy? Most of all, what makes us think our minds and bodies are going to comply with a 20% reduction in sleep? Huh?

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Napping in Costa Rica. (Credit: Wikipedia)

The news crackles lately with revelations not only of sleep’s necessity, but also its healing, restorative power. When I hear such reports, plump with research, I think to myself, “Yeah, no kidding.” It’s like hearing scientific evidence that your head’s going to hurt if you smack it against a cinder block. I’m glad that sleeping—and, therefore, napping—is slowly becoming smart and hip, but is our task-oriented tunnel vision so severe that we need to be convinced to get some sleep? I guess so.

Story Two

Investigating payday lenders, who do $49,000,000,000 in business each year, Planet Money’s Pam Fessler decided she’d go online, type in mostly fake personal information, and ask for $500. She didn’t really want a loan, only to see what the application process was like. Within a minute of clicking send, she got an offer of a loan up to $750. She’d have to pay it back within a week and the charge would be $224. That would be an annual rate of 1300%. No thanks. She logged off, but was hounded with phone calls from various lenders for months.

Fessler notes that if you take out such a loan, lenders require your bank account number, and whether you like it or not, you’re paying on time. They simply suck the dollars right out of your checkbook, ahead of your rent if necessary. They don’t care.

One comment/question: A 1300% yearly interest rate! Why is this practice legal?

Story Three

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From the Coleman family pantry. Don’t remember when we got them, but I guarantee they’re crispy.

According to Audie Cornish of All Things Considered, the Food and Drug Administration proposes that we do away with trans fats, also known as partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. The reason: people’s hearts are going bad. Adding “hydrogen atoms to a molecule of oil” keeps food from spoiling, but what’s more important, a box of Ritz Crackers that stays fresh for a decade or the cardiac health of the American public? The FDA says the latter.

I’m on the FDA’s side, but can’t help thinking that if we’re worried about the condition of people’s internal organs, we should take advantage of a two-for-one special and protect thousands of hearts and lungs by getting rid of cigarettes, which also harm bystanders. No innocent ever got heart disease from the second-hand partially hydrogenated vegetable oil of a Chips Ahoy.

Story Four

Another NPR report, which I’m not going to look up: an undocumented farm worker described through a translator how her boss made her go with him to an isolated field to get her paycheck. Before handing it over, he demanded her panties and oral sex. Such workers are reluctant to go to the police for fear of being deported or blackballed. What the hell?

Story Five

“Washington State Says ‘No’ to GMO Labels.” This report on whether we should be informed if our food has been genetically modified upsets me not because I care a great deal about the issue, but because of who’s in the fight. “Out of state companies such as Monsanto, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestle poured millions of dollars into the campaign against labeling, which argued that adding GMO designations would make food more expensive and confuse customers.” Ah yes, consumers need to be protected against their own stupidity. “In ads, they said that the labels would increase the price of food for a three-person household by $350 to $400 per year.”

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Soybeans: Bet you cash dollars they’re Monsanto’s. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

I first heard of Monsanto in the 2008 documentary Food, Inc., which you should watch only if you never want to look at your dinner plate the same way again. I seldom subscribe to guilt by association, but if Monsanto is on one side, I’m probably on the other. This agricultural giant was in the news recently because, according to techdirt.com, the Supreme Court decided in its favor that farmers “planting their own legally purchased and harvested seeds can be infringing” on Monsanto’s patent. Don’t believe me? Check it out. I honestly believe the company is evil.

There were other stories, but you get the point. I’ve mentioned in at least one previous post that I’ve cut back some on news consumption. What’s different about this particular day of underwear as ransom for a paycheck and our poor, sleep-deprived country was the physical effects listening had on me. My neck was tight, my throat made guttural comments, and the spot beneath my sternum that wants to push out a holler when I get mad was about to let loose.

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The single-engine plane Glenn Miller was flying in was lost over the English Channel in 1944. (Credit: Wikipedia)

I want to be an informed, responsible citizen, but Thich Nhat Hanh is right in observing that the media we ingest have as much of an impact on us as the food we eat. So I’m counting news calories today. The definition of the term is arbitrarily slanted toward the negative, as if it’s more urgent for us to know what’s tortured in the world than what’s redeeming. Until the pendulum swings the other way, I’m planning to preserve my mind and body and listen to the Glenn Miller station on Pandora.

After my nap, which is just ahead, I have to go pick up Micah. “Tuxedo Junction” will wake me up without bringing me down.

An Embarrassing Measure of Blessing

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Baby Crash, who must be fed.

A Saturday morning routine has taken hold by surprise. As Kathy and I wake up at leisure—the one day that doesn’t begin with the aria of Bach’s Goldberg Variations set as the alarm on my snotty iPhone—we stay in bed, talking, breathing, warming to the hours ahead. “What do you have up for today?” We have friendly negotiations, then when she heads downstairs to feed dog Watson and cats Baby Crash and Shadow, I pray/meditate for half an hour. After paying bills, we run on separate rails until suppertime. It’s a calm, sane arrangement.

Yesterday I had a shamatha moment—calm abiding, clear awareness—before Kathy got out of bed. As she lay against me, her hair was all over my face. I breathed in its scent—a glad habit—and looked out through its wild lattice at the turning trees on the Shenley Drive boulevard. Sun and fall leaves behind my wife’s brown hair—a double blessing.

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When I woke up, the storm had passed, leaving the Coleman family with firewood.

Another day last week as I settled into my nap, I watched those same beloved trees get thrashed by wind and rain. Though the temperature was in the forties, I opened one window about a foot so the hiss and deep ah of the weather could sing me to my rest beneath a feather quilt. Before sleep came, inhaling and exhaling the joyous riot outside, I remembered the fortunate position I’m in.

Each day I can take the Siesta Exit off of Interstate Absurdity and rest for an hour. Even during hectic stretches, I can usually pull to the berm for a twenty-minute power nap. The world is catching on to the restorative benefits of midday oblivion, but most people I know don’t have the liberty to do what has become central to my spiritual practice—stop, halt, cease and desist, for just a little while. The twenty to sixty minutes of repose isn’t counted as company time—as my brilliant grad school professor John Barth was fond of saying. When I add up work hours to make sure I’m earning my pay, nap isn’t part of the tally. Folding sleep minutes into compensated minutes would be sane, but at this point in our assumed societal covenant, it would be unethical. (Google and the Huffington Post provide napping pods, but I don’t know if they actually pay employees to nap. After a cluster of near misses, baggy-eyed air traffic controllers are cleared to close their eyes as long as the friendly skies are adequately monitored.)

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Even Thomas Edison napped in his midday valley.

No, my blessing is a flexible schedule. I regularly work from 4:00 to 5:00 a.m. shaping programming for the church, then go back to sleep. Or I catch up on e-mails between 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. In a certain respect I’m always working, praying/meditating without ceasing, dreaming about what’s possible, opening myself to the Spirit’s leading. So at 2:30 p.m., when my forehead gets heavy, I surrender.

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The Shenley Drive maples that bless my siestas.

If I’m at church, the siesta kit finds its place on the floor of the pastor’s study, and I set my alarm for an hour ahead. At home, I lie on my left side in bed, look out the window at the Shenley Drive maples, and remember Kathy, who nurses cancer patients all day long and can’t stop to rest, son-in-law Matt, who nurses machines and has to slog through his midday valley, or son Micah, who paints with minimal breaks and comes home sweaty. I watch the maples from the barren branches of February to the swollen greens of July to the fiery leaves of October and reverence people who have no beloved brown hair to kiss or no bed at all. Then, especially when the weather plays against the trees, I nod off, embraced by an embarrassing measure of blessing.