Micro-Post: Inconspicuous Blessings

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Two hours ago I brought lunch to daughter Elena and grandson Cole. Teething is knocking steam out of the little man’s groove. Elena has him chewing white socks dipped in water and frozen stiff. Seems to work.

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I don’t know what you’re saying, Gramps, but I dig it!

As I ate a hippie pizza with feta and Greek olives, Elena had a vegan sandwich. Cole lay on his blanket, and I went on and on: “I’ll be bringing Grandma by when she gets out of work so you can see her. Actually, I’m bringing her here so she can see you.” “Do you have any idea how happy you make me?” “I’m leaving two pieces of pizza for your daddy so he’ll have a snack when he gets home.” Cole had no clue what I was saying, but he was smiling huge.

It occurred to me that this kid enjoys a continuous loop of kind, affirming, happy talk. I don’t think he’s ever in the presence of angry voices. No   tone or gesture communicates anything other than extravagant love. I don’t take any of this for granite, as one of my college English students once wrote. Nor do I take credit. This is good fortune, baby! For my part, I’ve done as much to mess up my loved ones’ lives as I’ve done to bless them.

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Cole with Grandma Kathy and Great-Grandma Edna–a smile fashioned by gentleness.

After kisses on the head and piggies, I took joy out into the rain, into my truck . . .

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. . . and into the grocery store, where I bought salmon, asparagus, and avocados for this evening’s supper. After Kathy (Grandma!) and I visit Cole–oh yeah and by the way Elena and son-in-law Matt–we’ll go to Starbucks and make plans for our vacation in Maine in late July. Then, home for some easy cooking. Home–shelter, warmth, love, forgiveness, understanding.

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Not home, but the house my home fills.

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In ten minutes I’ll pick up a bottle of chardonnay, then stop at home long enough for a siesta and a couple chores. I’ll give the pets treats, which they always expect when I walk through the door. When I go upstairs for a delicious hour of sleep, I’ll stop on the landing, where Kathy has a plant that is flowering, longing to reach through the window and touch pure light.

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Before my nap, stop for a couple of seconds. Look.

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When Kathy gets into the truck, I’ll kiss her, rest my cheek against her hair. She knows my weaknesses, but still loves me.

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Just this: I’m grateful for these inconspicuous blessings, arriving quietly, humming a song that sounds like grace and mercy.

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The God I Love: A Letter to My Friends

Dear Friends:

A little after 9:00 this morning I called Denise at church and told her I’d be laying low today. Low happens to be my usual perch at Starbucks with an iced decaf coffee deepened by a shot of espresso and lifted by cream and Splenda. Bittersweet.

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Out on the boulevard, a maple with buds smaller than capers.

This Easter Monday, which we pastors often take off, looks and feels like spring—bright, but with enough chill in the air that you’d never mistake it for July. After a confounding winter, the trees might actually get around to budding, provided we can string some gentle days together.

April 21, 2014, is the kind of day you’d walk out your front door, take in a breath that makes your lungs unfurl, and believe for a second that joy might carry you away.

My watch says 10:23; its hands ask in their dying language, “What’s wrong with you? A sweet sky is being wasted.” I close my eyes, keep company with the mud in my chest and the catch in my throat. Then the Eternal Voice whispers, “Don’t worry, John. I’ll keep you.” (Some of you think I’m listening to nothing but my own desperate hope. And I’m fine with that. Honest. You might be right.)

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Gladness has its own hands, I guess.

To all of you taking five minutes to read this letter, please consider this an offering. I believe in God because of mornings like this, when nothing more could be asked of weather and circumstance, but when sorrow still throbs like a toothache in the soul.

Sorrow. Okay, sorrow about what? That’s the rub. Who knows? I’m convinced the sadness I’ve experienced over the years regards itself as family that is obligated to visit when my calendar clears and my emotional doors are ajar. So which blue relative is reclining in my spirit, looking at me with watery eyes?

June of 1998? Mom’s hand was purple, swollen three times normal. I held it, cold and taut. “If you want to go, Mom,” I said, “I understand. But I want you to know I love how gentle you are, how you’ve loved Elena and Micah, how you always tried to help me. And if there’s anything you feel bad about, I love you and believe you always tried as hard as you could to do what was right. And if you can get better and live, that would be really great.” I should have stayed until she died two days later, but I went back to seminary in Columbus. What was I thinking? “I’m sorry, Mom.”

January of 2012? Pleasant Ridge. Nothing against the place, but what an insulting name! Two physical therapists tried to get loopy Dad out of his wheelchair for a walk. They held him up by his waistband, but his knees wobbled and a diaper sagged from his boney ass. Why? What for? “I didn’t have the presence of mind to tell them to let you be, Dad. I’m sorry.” A couple days later, he lay in bed, howling and grabbing at the air. For what? More time? Another chance? “I left after an hour because my loving voice made you thrash like a drowning man, so I’m not sorry, Dad. Just haunted.”

A thousand other losses, failures, injuries? Who knows? They refuse to identify themselves, and I’m terrible with their faces and names. Still, they are relatives. More than that, I have the feeling God is holding their hand when they show up.

Sure, I believe in God because of this day’s wonder and my current nave full of blessings, especially grandson Cole. But sorrow—inconvenient kin—is my faith’s mast, at least on these present existential breakers. Without sorrow, my sails have nothing to hang from.

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My Wagnerian Cole. You fill my sails, chubby cheeks, but I’m also trusting God not to forget your first week of life in the ICU.

Here’s my confession: a God who can blossom as healthy babies, Grand Canyons, and love-making deserves worship. But a God who cradles misery and refuses to let it slip away into denial or insignificance deserves love. This is the God I believe in.

I often sit with people who are being sucked under by worry and turmoil. As I join them in ashes, a quiet joy rises up in the sacred conversation. Just as nothing tangible in creation is wasted, so I think God takes hold of everything. Everything! No waste.

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Ashes. One of the many homes God makes with us?

When Cole was born, Micah looked at him and cried. What a great belief moment. How could God waste the grace of those tears? If the fluid and chemicals I haul around as whiskers and cellulite will change form for eternity but never disappear, why shouldn’t I also assume that the fullness of human experience is in its own way cosmically material, never to be lost?

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Spring flowers. Autumn’s fallen leaves. Love. Disappointment. All cosmic matter?

And I mean all experience, an idea that demands a dark, holy logic. When I was in fifth grade, Mom met me at the door after school. “John, you knew your father and I would split up someday,” she said. “He is down at the courthouse now filing the papers.” I think I cried for a minute as she held me. I’m not sure. Then I ran to Eddie’s house. “Holy hell,” he kept saying. “Holy hell.” We climbed our usual tree in his backyard and sat in silence. “No, Mom, I didn’t know.” And, my friends, this memory still has me longing for a hug I don’t expect to enjoy this side of glory. (Don’t feel sad for me. We all have our pockets stuffed with scraps of life we figured were in the waste basket or attic. Right?)

Is this my visitor now, as morning bleeds into afternoon? A day when I was a lost boy? Maybe so. In an hour, odds are decent I’ll walk outside and be light enough for the warm wind to shock me with new life. Whatever happens, I believe in the God who remembers a kid sitting shaken and afraid forty years ago up a tree. A God who remembers how I couldn’t stop crying at Mom’s funeral when we sang, “Abide with Me, Fast Falls the Eventide.”

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Elena and Micah in 2006, as the rough years were starting up. They’re both great now, a fact I celebrate daily. But I believe our struggles add compost to the flowering universe.

“God,” I pray right now, “remember your creation’s joy, but especially how spring shines on our grieving hearts. You do remember, right? That day in 1990 when Kathy and I buried mutt Bandit’s ashes at Wintergreen Gorge? Just a dog, but we were hurting. Amazing how we still miss him. I trust that you recall Bandit’s hundreds of seizures and step out of time with me and watch the way Kathy holds his head and wipes away drool. I love how you remember. Amen.”

Breathe in. Breathe out. I hear silence in my chest, which is a good answer. Until we find out the Great Mystery, stay with me: join in all of my comforting embraces; sit with me in a tree when I am a stunned boy; hold my hand as my father howls.

Love,

John

Dear America: A Response to Our Mass Violence Du Jour

Dear America:

Jeff Weise. Nidal Malik Hasan. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Aaron Alexis. Ivan Lopez. Adam Lanza. Seung-Hui Cho. Mark Robert James Essex. James Holmes. Jiverly Wong. Michael McClendon. Scott Evans Dekraai. Omar Thornton. Robert Hawkins.

Could you pass a test matching these guys with the places and dates of their shooting sprees? Me neither. I’ve limited the list to cases after 2000 in the United States, and even at that I’ve missed some massacres. (For answers, check here.)

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Fresh-faced high schoolers, minding their own business. (Credit: Odilon Dimier / PhotoAlto / Corbis)

On Wednesday, April 9th, sixteen-year-old Alex Hribal took a more primal approach to mass wagon-fixing by “stabbing wildly with two kitchen knives” at twenty-one teens and one security guard (cnn.com). The location was Franklin Regional Senior High School in Murrysville, Pennsylvania—just in case you want to make a flash card to study for any exams on violence in the future.

Don’t mistake my irreverence for a flippant attitude toward tragedy; I’m not dismissing the agony of the fallen, their loved ones, or the murderers and their families. My fellow Americans, I’ve had about enough of us! Good sense at its most basic level has left the national building, and our willingness to compromise for the sake of public safety has taken a nap from which it refuses to awaken.

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“And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” White House portrait of John F. Kennedy by Aaron Shikler. (Credit: Wikipedia)

I voiced my frustration with US in a lengthy post last year after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre—first graders and adults riddled with a Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle, if you’ll recall. A few days ago it was a lone kid slicing away. The Associated Press reports that Hribal “doesn’t appear to have a history of misbehavior or any known mental problems.” My frustration this time isn’t with the Murrysville “enigma,” who will be prosecuted as an adult. In the weeks ahead the media will accompany shrinks into the young man’s psyche until the guessing game grows tiresome. Then, we’ll all move on to Justin Bieber’s next tantrum or Miley Cyrus’ next twerk. In a month or two, someone will lash out, killing or injuring another dozen or two, and we’ll do what we always do: scratch our heads, look for behaviors foretelling violence, and ask what can be done to prevent such a horror from happening again.

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All right, no running on school property, and nobody gets hurt! (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I can’t take it anymore! We—you and me—are insufferably, embarrassingly full of crap. We mean well. Our hearts are in the right place. The trouble is, our brains have slumped into a stupor of denial. Example: WSEE television news (CBS) in Erie, Pennsylvania, hit me with the following viewers’ poll the evening after the Murrysville stabbings: “Which of these is the best approach for keeping kids safe in our schools?

  • metal detectors at entrances
  • cops in the hallways
  • training to identify problem kids
  • homeschooling”

Homeschooling? Really? If this isn’t waving the white flag, I don’t know what is. Sure, the poll here is sincere, but come on. Every time a bunch of innocents bleed, we engage in flaccid Monday-morning quarterbacking and half-assed introspection. We wring our hands, look at the ground, sigh, and worry the change in our pockets. Why are we at such a loss? Because serious, effective steps to reduce explosive, indiscriminate violence require more heroic honesty and moxie than we Americans possess. The truth is, we’ve surrendered to the worst angels of our nature and followed them down dark, destructive paths so far that we’ve forgotten what the gentle light of sanity looks like. Consider:

  • Video game sales in the United States for 2013 totaled $15.39 billion (joystiq.com). In the top ten of sales are Grand Theft Auto V; Call of Duty: Ghosts; Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag; and The Last of Us (thefiscaltimes.com). We’re talking about killions of games being played by teenagers, with the activity being essentially this: sneak around and blow people (or zombies) away. So, let’s review: countless young people spend relaxing evenings rehearsing mass murder via convincing media—from a first-person point of view.
  • When those little ones and brave adults got cut down at Sandy Hook Elementary in Advent of 2012, Americans of good sense figured that at long, sad last, something definitive would be done about crazy weapons falling into the hands of troubled souls. Sure, ramping up gun control measures after weapons already populated millions of homes would have amounted to closing the barn door after the horses had galloped off, but at least we could have tried to limit the scourge. Even then we Americans, at least as represented by our elected officials, lacked resolve and stamina. Twenty of our children were taken away in minutes, along with six adults trying to protect them, and still our collective will was trodden under foot by thuggish lobbying and political cowardice. God forbid a congressman or senator should piss off Wayne LaPierre.
  • As if real and mimicked slaughter aren’t terrible enough, two films in recent years raise the bar on gore. James Wan’s 2004 film Saw includes a delicious scene in which a young guy has sixty seconds to dig a key out from behind his eyeball or a mask of nails called a Venus Fly Trap will snap shut on his face. I won’t ruin it for you. Meanwhile, Tom Six’s 2009 tour de force, The Human Centipede, has three young adults sewn together, arse-hole to pie-hole. What message can be found in such leisurely matinees? Rob Zombie, who remade Halloween in 2007, was candid when he said in a vanityfair.com interview, “I don’t think my movies have a lesson. Or if they do, I guess it’s that it’s a f—ed up world and you’re probably f—ed too.” Edifying, huh?
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Theatrical release poster. I suppose Zombie has a point. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Can there be any doubt that the Constitution has become a document to exploit rather than a treasure entrusted to us for the sake of freedom-loving people everywhere? Sadly, our stewardship of the Founding Fathers’ labor and risk often deteriorates into spats over freedom of speech and the right to bear arms.

Let’s be clear—and brief: Roadstar Games wasn’t motivated by free speech in 2011 when its Modern Warfare 3 grossed $775,000,000 in its first five days on the market. Rob Zombie admits that the First Amendment isn’t on his mind. And anybody who argues that Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson would condone the ownership and abuse of the weapons on steroids available today is engaged in somnambulistic thinking. There’s a difference between words and actions protected by the Constitution and words and actions hiding behind the Constitution.

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A document that brings us together or divides us? (Credit: Wikipedia)

Those who use the Constitution as a cover for extravagant profit have played a part in creating a world where massacres are commonplace. I can hear the objection already: Okay, Coleman, prove it. It’s clear at this point that no evidence I could present would satisfy the Entertainment Software Association, for example, which offers this assurance: “The truth is, there is no scientific research that validates a link between computer and video games and violence. Instead, a host of respected researchers has concluded that there is no link between media violence and violent crime.” No link? None?

Today, filmmakers, video game manufacturers, gun zealots, and Washington suits are either unwittingly caught in the gravitational pull of personal rights over collective responsibilities or gleefully scamming a Constitution that depends on the best intentions of the people. In any case, the situation is a wretched shame. A controller and screen invite us to simulate savagery, and we’re all one DVD away from witnessing the most perverted tortures imaginable. One result among many: the killing or maiming of innocent folks in public places is officially on the menu of possible, though extreme, responses to private despair and rage. The world is now thus.

But enough of this line of complaint. My letter to America is directed to those of us who aren’t consumed by the daily cluster of governance or who produce mad visions of media violence. Let’s wake up from our collective nap of denial and feigned shock. Are any of us actually surprised at the mass killing du jour? And do we as individual citizens think long and hard about how we can keep kids safe in school? Be honest, now.

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Not all napping is cute. Come on, let’s wake up. (Credit: Hal Beral / Corbis)

Shooting imaginary people (or enemies or zombies or whatever) until they’re a scattering of juicy, red mush is not a benign pastime. Automatic weapons with well-endowed magazines are readily available to those lost souls who decide to live out the marksmanship they’ve practiced over and over. Films that display nothing but sadistic cruelty plant toxic seeds. Add these realities up, and we have a distressing American truth: our commitment to individual rights is massacring our sense of responsibility to each other.

And this truth is costly. Remember December 14, 2012, when Adam Lanza cut loose in Newtown, Connecticut? Between that date and December 31, 2013, Slate.com estimates that 12,042 or more people have died at the wrong end of a gun. Slate has now stopped counting, but you can bet folks minding their own business will keep getting shot or stabbed, alone or in klatches.

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White House meetings are great, like this one after Sandy Hook, but no number of politicians can make us change our hearts. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Like you, I’m grieved and angry. But surprised? Please. Enough already! Armed guards, metal detectors, and psychologist can’t save us from ourselves. (Neither can legislation: point taken.) I pray that we can change, stop strangling the Constitution, and love our country and neighbor as much as we love our freedom.

Love,

John Coleman

Micro-Post: A Morning Note from My Daughter

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“All right, Mr. DeMille. We’re ready for our closeup.” (Credit: DLILLC / Corbis)

Blogger’s Note: If you read my last post, “Why Babies Fill Us with Longing,” you’ll appreciate daughter Elena’s description of what grandson Cole does when he’s not busy being cuter than a bucket of Shar Pei puppies. Enjoy!

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So, Mommus Maximus, you’re not mad at me, are you? (Credit: Elena Thompson)

Dear Mom and Dad,

It’s been a funny morning. Cole soaked through his diaper onto the bed (my bed, ugh). Then when I took his diaper off he peed on his own face! So I decided to give him a bath, but the washcloth I had over his bits didn’t hold the explosive poop that is all over my bathroom.

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Just wondering, Mommy: I’m the one who got pee on my face. So who really got the worse end of the deal? (Credit: Elena Thompson)

Thank God for dogs.

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Layla, the clean up dog, having committed a crime several weeks ago. Blogger’s Note: I’m in favor of dogs taking care of any and all messes. I’m pretty sure they regard whatever hits our gag reflex as a five-star delicacy. (Credit: Elena Thompson)

If it weren’t for the semi-good night sleep I probably wouldn’t have found it so funny.

Love,

Elena

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What’s that you say, Momma-Lhama-Ding-Dong? It’s Grandpa’s day off and we’re meeting for lunch? Cool! I’ll have more fountains and poo-canos ready by then. Thanks for the bath! But say, isn’t it time for a snack from old Lefty? (Credit: Elena Thompson)

Why Babies Fill Us with Longing

Grandson Cole showed up at 4:30 Monday, just after my siesta—an hour of what Winston Churchill called “blessed oblivion.” With the exception of a kink in my neck, I seemed to be living within a cleansing breath. Rested. Peaceful.

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Son Micah tries to borrow his nephew’s eternity.

Cole, on the other hand, was fresh off a visit to the doctor for vaccinations. The poor little poop took hits in both thighs. Daughter Elena said infants generally have two reactions to injections. They either conscientiously object by sleeping through the process or scream as though they had been knifed. Cole opted for the latter in a display that his mom imagined would for an adult have constituted finger pointing and expletives.

The result: Cole napped off the effrontery in his car seat, which was perched on the dining room table. While wife Kathy, Elena, and son-in-law Matt huddled in the kitchen to discuss how they might rip away at cabinetry to make room for a new refrigerator, I hovered over my grandson. His profile reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock. Maybe because of the exertion, his cheeks were puffy, and the tip of his tongue stuck out—micro-raspberries blown at the man and his pricky needles.

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“Good evening and welcome to our show.” Cole doing his Hitchcock.

I beheld for a minute, then did what I always do: rested my lips and nose like a feather on the top of his head and breathed in. My lungs were at once filled with . . . well, here’s the problem. There are no words for what takes up fleeting residence in me.

People marvel about how great babies smell, but their sacrament reaches way past our noses. A grandmother I know once gave the perfect response to looking at, holding, and smelling a baby. She scrunched up her round face, put fists beside her cheeks, trembled, and squealed, “Ooh, I just want to eat them up!”

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One standard-issue baby head–ah, but get close. Is that Forever?

Of course, not really eat them, as Jonathan Swift clowned in A Modest Proposal. More like receiving eucharistic baby-ness. Infant cup. Child bread of life. I’m not speaking figuratively. I mean this: When I run my finger across Cole’s cheek, look into his blue eyes, trace the delicate shape of his crying mouth, and rest my lips and nose against his sleeping head, I want to take the fundamental cole-ness of Cole into myself, to unite with his his-ness.

My grandson evokes in me a soul response. If I were the only parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, or whatever adult to feel this bottomless longing toward an infant, I’d keep quiet, but my experience is close to universal. What is it about little ones that draws us close and takes hold of our eyes and won’t let go? If you put the Coleman family at the Taj Mahal, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the regular Gardens of Versailles, or, say, the Garden of Eden, we’d all look in amazement for a minute or two, then turn back toward Cole: “Aw, how’s the Cole-slaw, the Cole-meister, the Cole-o-rama, the Cole-mobile? How’s the widdle boody boody boo?”

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Versailles. Groovy, but check out my baby! (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Correct me if I’m wrong. What in heaven’s name is it about babies? On Monday as I stared at, kissed, and inhaled my grandson, an answer gave itself to me. Infants are new arrivals from eternity. They come from where we numb adults came from, and I believe they also come from where we are going. They were in the indescribably strong, gentle bosom of Forever, receiving milk and love songs from our cosmic Parent of Grace.

That’s it! That’s what I feel on my lips and breathe in as if my spirit were suffocating: Cole still has on his head the kisses of our Creator and on his cheeks whispered promises of mercy. The perfume hasn’t worn off yet. That’s it!

And I wonder: Did Cole hear my college friend Ken Sonnenberg–gone a year after graduation in a six-week gale of lymphoma–reading poems that may visit Pennsylvania as soothing breezes? Did he hear Fred Rogers say, “You’re going to be the only person in the world just like you, and people can like you just the way you are”? Sweet Lord! Did the cole-ness of Cole brush up against my mother in the vast lap of God?

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A Bronx cheer for “the man.”

Okay, this is a theological mess and a potential heresy, but I’m going with it. What better explanation? In that slight kiss on Cole’s head—and when you kiss your baby’s head?—I view worldly wonders, embrace every person I’ve loved, and dwell in the soft thunder of God’s heartbeat. I disappear into blessed oblivion with my recent immigrant from Mystery.

Finally Cole woke up, dull and dazed. Is it still a shock when he opens his eyes to our faces? He stared at me. He does that a lot. The kid knows a jester when he sees one. So I sang Marvin Gaye’s hymn “Got to Give It Up”—yes, in unapologetic falsetto:

I used to go out to parties

And stand around

‘Cause I was too nervous

To really get down

And my body yearned to be free

So I got up on the floor and found

Someone to choose me

No more standin’ along side the walls

Now I got myself together, baby,

And I’m havin’ a ball

Cole tracked me as I danced, probably confused about his new residence and all of our cackle and fuss. Not one smile for Gramps. No matter. Grandma Kathy bent close and said, “How’s my best buddy?” That got us a half-smile from his Buddha face. Plenty. More than enough. Eternity sighed in my chest.

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My grandson laughs the Sacred Presence. I’m sure your beloved one does the same–and just as beautifully!

P.S. If you like this post and are new to A Napper’s Companion, be welcome to take the following for a spin:

https://anapperscompanion.com/?s=Letter+to+My+Late+Mother&submit=Search

https://anapperscompanion.com/2014/03/01/a-letter-for-my-grandsons-memory-book/

https://anapperscompanion.com/2014/03/29/a-declaration-of-light/