A Prayer from State Street Starbucks

Dear God,

You know everything I’m going to tell you. I’m writing these words as a way of inviting friends into my prayer.


Oprah smiles on us all–hope she’s channeling you, God.

Constance* is ranting eight feet away. He’s pounding the table with his pointer finger. He’s alone, and there’s no way to join him. Years ago daughter Elena told me Constance sometimes cross-dresses and, in fact, has a home and money. I don’t know what’s true. I only know that Constance wears perma-stained sweat suits, walks everywhere, lugs a stuffed army duffle bag, and talks constantly to imagined companions or combatants.

What happened to Constance, God? I can’t imagine these wandering days and upset conversations are what you intended for him. I’m sad, choked up actually, because the only meaningful thing I can do is look at him without judgment and love a man who can’t escape a nightmare. What human being is under the soil and blather? You must know him. In your mercy, here or in your eternal arms, birth a sane Constance, bring to life a soul who can speak to real friends. He just walked outside—for air, to follow a hallucination—and he’s weary, winded. Pacing, talking, exhausting himself.


Did Constance start out like grandson Cole–loving mother and father, gushing family, sound mind?

And now he’s back, grabbing the bathroom key and aching his way down the hall. It’s hard for me to trust that in your own time and way you’ll grant him peace. To tell the truth, God, I often feel like a dunce, believing that somehow, as days turn to decades and millennia waltz toward the eventual collision of galaxies, you’ll receive Constance and me and every dog, druggie, and run-of-the-mill spirit into your grace. But I do believe–can’t help it.

And the guy who was in here an hour ago with a ponytail and booze-red face, you know, the guy with no ass to hold up his jeans: someday you’ll fill his pockets with peace more lasting than the money he was trying to pester out of his frustrated, broke friend. You will, right? Please.

Of course, there’s plenty of joy here at Starbucks, too, God. Jesse and Ricardo, our beloved Erie couple who dress as wild twins and ride a tandem bike everywhere, even in winter, were here. Thank you for them, God. Thanks for the hats they wore this morning: Jesse in a white one the Queen of England would prize, Ricardo also in a white one that reminded me of a Hostess Sno Ball. They refuse to be other than what they are, and I’m grateful for that. I find them holy.


Like Ricardo’s hat, God, except make it white and top it with coconut. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Well, Constance finally headed out and slogged across State Street, his duffle bag bouncing against his back—a light burden, I imagine, compared to the voices. I can’t see him anymore, but until his new birth or the inevitable last dance of the Milky Way, whichever comes first, I’ll keep an eye on Constance for as long as I can. Receive my offering: I won’t think any less of him than I do myself. It’s not much, I know.


I can’t quite spot Constance from this view, but I believe you can. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Lovely day, God. Ribs Fest is rocking downtown Erie, Pennsylvania. The volume swells every time somebody comes in. A couple of teenagers just entered. From the way they smell, I’m guessing a case of the munchies will drive them toward a vendor who will smile and gladly take their money.


I’ll take this opportunity to ask you, God, about your stance on legalization. (Credit: Chmee2. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

It’s a good day; it really is. Soon I’ll head out myself into the gorgeous light, the comfortable air. My meter is long spent, so I’ll probably get a $10 ticket. Anyway, please hear my thanks. It’s just that Constance was here, suffering and lost, and seeing him got into the place in my chest you have created to hold tears.

I needed to talk to you. Please help us. And if nothing else, let Constance sleep well tonight. Give him a dream that feels like your embrace.



*Not his real name.


Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Disappointment

Dear Friends:

The piece that follows is an excerpt from Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs and Other Wonders Before Your Time, a collection of notes to my grandchild(ren) when they come of age. The book, written in 2005-2006, is in the pipeline now, and I’ll holler unapologetically when it’s released.




The photograph Robert Todd Lincoln said was “the best likeness of my father.” (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I’m starting this note to you from the World of Music basement while Micah takes his drum lesson. Because tomorrow is Thanksgiving, the place is quiet with cancelled lessons: no soprano squeezing out scales, no trumpet blatting, just Micah drumming and one lone kid plucking an electric guitar. What I want to tell you about has nothing to do with music, though. Abraham Lincoln is on my mind.

You know that every morning I glance at the newspaper headlines, but I haven’t mentioned that I also listen to a radio spot called The Writer’s Almanac. In five minutes, host Garrison Keillor talks in his soothing baritone about literature and history and reads a poem. During the past week he shared a couple of facts about Lincoln that I didn’t know.

The first has to do with Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” which is one of the most beautiful pieces of prose in the English language. Since it’s short—only 272 words—I’ll type it out for you right here:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.


Union dead at Gettysburg. (Credit: Wikipedia. Photographer: Timothy H. O’Sullivan)

I already knew that Lincoln wrote this address on an envelope during his train ride to Gettysburg. What I didn’t realize was that the dedication of the cemetery, situated on the ground where hundreds of soldiers were buried quickly in shallow graves after the battle, was a grand, carefully planned affair with fifteen thousand people attending. Edward Everett, who was famous for his speeches about battlefields, went on for over two hours cataloging the battle’s endless instances of bravery and valor. When he finished, Lincoln read his slender 272 words. By the time the event’s photographer got set, his subject had already sat back down; he managed one blurry shot.


A blurry Lincoln at Gettysburg. (Credit: Wikipedia)

So restrained was the audience’s applause that Lincoln assumed his speech was a failure. Little did he know a century later school kids would be required to memorize his address, and English and history teachers would regard Lincoln, a politician, as one of the most gifted writers of his generation. Everett, however, knew a great speech when he heard one. The next day he told Lincoln, “I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.” Of course, maybe Everett was mainly stroking the President’s ego.


Edward Everett, who held forth when citizens had sturdy attention spans. (Credit: Wikipedia)

The second Abraham Lincoln story Garrison Keillor told this week had to do with the President’s letter to Mrs. Lydia Bixby, a widow who supposedly lost five sons in the Civil War:

Dear Madam,–

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.

I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.

I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

A. Lincoln

Oddly, Mrs. Bixby didn’t lose five sons. She lost two in battle; one deserted, one was honorably discharged, and another either deserted or died as a prisoner of war. Don’t misunderstand! This poor mother deserved every condolence she received, but the facts differ from those that inspired the President—if he wrote the letter at all. Most historians now believe that Lincoln’s famous letter to Mrs. Lydia Bixby was actually written by one of his White House secretaries, John Hay.


John Hay, Lincoln’s secretary and assistant. Nice facial hair arrangement. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Do any of these historical facts matter? Not to us. I bet it would have mattered to Abraham Lincoln, though, on November 19, 1863, as he sat down after saying his 272 words, to know that his speech was much better than he first thought and that history would judge him a courageous President, a wise man, and an elegant writer. But how could he have known, that man in a lone grainy photograph who felt the weight of a nation on his tired shoulders?

I Kiss Your Shoulder at First Light

Dear Kathy,

I don’t know exactly what time it is, but I’m awake. Strange, I’m still tired. It’s almost like I woke up so that I could lay here and feel my fatigue. As today’s first light shows through the boulevard’s maples, I kiss your bare shoulder. Quietly. Softly. I kiss your shoulder and rest my hand on your back.


Dawn shines through the Shenley Drive maples.

I’ve been tethered to myself lately, reckoning the distance between the man I am and the man I long to be and shaking my head. The destination is over the horizon, and the road is black ice. So I kiss your shoulder to say, “I’m more grateful for you than you can imagine,” without spoiling your last hour of sleep. There’s no reason for both of us to look out the window and contemplate mortality and, at least in my case, feel fat.


Cole’s legs and my belly: I don’t know how to break this to you, Kath, but I’m pregnant.

That’s another thing: I glimpse myself walking by windows and see the reflection of an animated pudgy-guy butter sculpture. You may remember a time when I cleaned up pretty well, when I didn’t grunt when bending over. I do the weight loss calculations and string together a couple of interior expletives: 3500 calories x the 50 lbs. I want to lose = $%#&! So, again, without your knowing it, I kiss your shoulder. And at the moment, my hand still rests on your back—a fragile man steadying himself.

Since I’ll get a nap this afternoon, I stay awake in gratitude. You don’t mope around, gazing into your naval and mentally kvetching about your wounds and flaws. Instead, you do shit, extremely beautiful and useful shit. When we needed a roof, you said, “I can do that,” and you did. Even though you used to faint at the sight of blood, you said, “I do believe I’ll become a nurse,” and then you hauled off and did it. Now, you not only treat cancer patients, but you look at them with compassionate eyes. When the downstairs bathroom got shabby, you remodeled the bad boy.


That’s some fine tile work . . . especially for a rookie.

And over the last few months, while I’ve napped, you’ve tended plants. This summer we’ll have tomatoes, basil, cilantro, and peppers, and the yard will be a riot of color because you go to work for ten hours, then come home and head to your basement “greenhouse” to make sure no plant is thirsty.


Even the animals love to hang with you in the basement greenhouse.

Now you’re awake. You roll toward me. I draw you close and kiss your boney elbow. (You could put somebody’s eye out with those elbows of yours.)

Understand, I’m not saying all these nice things about you because I’m entirely hot dog water. I’m a nice guy, patient, low-maintenance, and I do cook you some good food. I’m much less neurotic than I was years ago. That counts for something. I do more chores than back when I was a lazy slug. And I work as hard at writing as you do at gardening, though your produce tastes way better than mine.


Pretty soon, my love, I’ll make you some pasta with pesto.


It’s only May, and your flowers are already gorgeous.

The thing is, I sometimes wonder if you knew what you were getting into when you said “I do” on July 30, 1983. Elena and Matt have given us Cole, and Micah is making us proud. Good stuff! But you love the rush as a plane accelerates toward take off, and I’d rather snort wasabi than fly. You love to sail, and I’m always a-scared the boat will capsize. You like to ski and build snow forts, and I like to drink hot cocoa by a fire. In short, whatever the woman equivalent of a mensch is, that’s you. As a guy, I’m a fraidy cat, a poor man’s Woody Allen.


Please be careful! Don’t stand so close to the edge!

I do lots of mulling over as I watch you sleep. Often without realizing it, my lips are drawn to your shoulder, cool from the open window. I rest my hand on your back, cooperate with love’s gravity, and kiss you so gently you don’t feel it—most of the time. Once in a while you go hmm, and I know you understand what I mean.

I mean I’m glad we’re together. The sight of you walking in the front door is a joy to me. Falling asleep and waking up next to you is unmerited grace. This is what I’ve been saying, kissing your shoulder this morning at first light.




Flowers everywhere, including on our busted-ass back steps. This summer you’ll make them beautiful again, like you do everything else.

The Dandelion Doesn’t Command the Sun


God spoke through my daughter Elena in 2006, wearing monarchs about to take off for Mexico.

Over twenty years ago I attended a class taught by Sister Rita Pancera on centering prayer: silence, abide with the Loving Mystery. I told Sr. Rita that sometimes in prayer I feel like God is telling me something, but I hear the message in my own voice. The point of centering prayer isn’t to latch on to thoughts or images—anything—but who wants to turn down Divine Assistance? I asked her, “How can I be sure that the words come from God and not just from myself?” Her answer continues to shape my spirit: “What makes you think God wouldn’t use your own voice to tell you something?”

That was the wisdom of a woman who had spent years in prayer, and I’ve not only shared it with others, but also let myself be liberated and humbled by its implications. In every place and at all times, God might have something to say. And I’m in no position to put limits on how God speaks and through whom. (The dandelion doesn’t command the sun.)


So . . . I suppose I shouldn’t insist that God speak to me in voices of my choosing. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I heard God on blogging friend Melanie Lynn Griffin’s post about her past career, in which she and a group of colleagues met with a Navajo group to teach them about persuasion. Turns out they have no such word in their language. The young listen to their elders and don’t argue with them. After a moment of beautiful laughter and understanding, one of the elders said, “This persuasion must be a job for our young people. It is new to learn and they must lead us.” God speaks through a Navajo man. (Thanks, Melanie.)

I heard God on Winding Road when blogging friend Kerry, whose family recently lost nearly everything in a flood, charted her grieving and recovering with a moving insight: “Reclaiming order sometimes means deconstructing first and one cannot build back up until walls have been torn down.” God speaks through a young mother who got knocked down and is trying to get back up. (Thanks, Kerry.)

I heard God yesterday while reading this: “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” God speaks through Mahatma Gandhi.


Mahatma Gandhi in 1942. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

And during morning prayer, I heard God use my voice. It was a mind-whisper: Enjoy. It seems I’ve been turning damned near everything in my life into a program, something to be worked at, a goal to be pursued with one eye on the clock. I haven’t been enjoying my present embarrassment of blessings in my blood and in the cavern of my chest where anxiety has been an intractable squatter.

“Enjoy,” my spirit says. I’ve come to believe in a peculiar miracle: I don’t think God speaks to me directly, though that would be something. Rather, God helps me to hear myself—but only if I sit still. And what I heard in merciful silence was a cardinal calling out to his mate. “Listen,” I said. “Receive this song, this beauty.” In an instant I understood what God longed for me to hear.


If you sing, I’ll try to enjoy.

The people I love and the gorgeous world exist for their own sake, but they also exist for me. “Enjoy,” God said in my throat. “All of this is for you.” And so, sitting propped up in bed before sunrise, my spirit flew open like a door caught by the wind. As if on cue, I began enjoying.

Micah’s alarm went off. Because I could sleep, I didn’t go through the routine: stopping at his door at about 7:15 and making sure he is awake. “You up, Scooter?” I sometimes say. Or “Cupcake.” Or “Your Royal Dudeness.” Or “Fart-breath.” I go with whatever pops into my head. He always answers, “Yup.” But praying, I listened to him clomp around downstairs like a camel in wooden shoes. I didn’t mind. He was off to work, being a man, propelling his own ass out of bed. My son is well.

Because Kathy didn’t have to be to work until 9:30, we went out for breakfast. She savored sleeping in, and I savored our kiss when I dropped her off.

I took lunch to daughter Elena and got to hang out with her and grandson Cole. “Enjoy,” echoed in my chest, and darned if I didn’t. Vegetarian hippie food. We talked. I got to hold Cole, place my lips on his bald head, breathe in the perfume that still lingers from when God kissed him in the womb. And I snuffled his neck like a dog, which made him laugh. The whole time, I watched my daughter be a stunningly good mother. I’m so proud my eyeballs want to go flying out of their baggy sockets.


God never has to help me enjoy this guy.

The afternoon offered itself to me. I napped, prayed for forty minutes, cleaned up the kitchen, and made the dining room presentable.

Micah got home from work. My God! My son, just two years ago a heroin asshole, blesses me every day with his goodness. On Mother’s Day, he came home with a bright bouquet and card for Kathy. A quote: “To the Mom who invented fun, creativity, and a wonderful imagination in me. And taught me 50% of what I know about love and compassion.”


Happy Mother’s Day from Micah

A couple weeks ago I raged at God about some grievous assaults on children. I didn’t enjoy my rant, but as I sit here now I give thanks for the sense that prayer is about offering to God whatever I am. So glad or furious or quietly depressed, I fall backward into God. It’s the trust game kids play: fall and I promise to catch you. My game is a little different, like letting go into forever. If God’s catch isn’t unconditional, my soul will shatter. I don’t have much choice here. I don’t know any other way to be with God, so I fall and try to trust. Enjoy isn’t a sacred enough word for the safe landing.

Of course, even if my soul doesn’t shatter, other things will: sickness, disappointment, floods. So for now, I receive the cardinal’s call, my wife’s kiss, the sweet breath of God on Cole’s head, and every other way God shines on this fifty-two-year-old flowering weed named John.


Micah’s Mother’s Day bouquet still hanging in there with Baby Crash

Profile of a Great Soul: Joseph Merrick (The Elephant Man)

This afternoon as I waited for my computer to download security updates, my bored eyes fixed on The True History of the Elephant Man by Michael Howell and Peter Ford in the bookcase, and I decided then and there to tell you about Joseph Carey Merrick.***


Joseph Merrick in 1888. (Credit: Wikipedia)

As you would suspect, Merrick was called the Elephant Man for a reason. He was as ugly a man as ever lived. Born in England in 1862, Merrick showed signs of what is now believed to be Proteus syndrome when he was two years old and his lower lip began swelling. Within a few months, a tumor developed on his cheek and upper lip. Soon another appeared on his forehead, and his skin became rough and hung loosely from his body. By the time Merrick was four or five, his feet and right arm grew disproportionately large. A fall damaged his left hip, which left him with a permanent limp.

Howell and Ford’s book includes “The Autobiography of Joseph Carey Merrick.” I’ll let Merrick himself describe what came next in his life:

I went to school like other children until I was about 11 or 12 years of age, when the greatest misfortune of my life occurred, namely—the death of my mother, peace to her, she was a good mother to me; after she died my father broke up his home and went to lodgings; unfortunately for me he married his landlady; henceforth I never had one moment’s comfort, she having children of her own, and I not being so handsome as they, together with my deformity, she was the means of making my life a perfect misery; lame and deformed as I was, I ran, or rather walked away from home two or three times . . . .


The hood Joseph Merrick wore in public. (Credit: Wikipedia)

At thirteen Merrick got a job rolling cigars by hand, but his right hand grew too clumsy even for that. His stepmother’s cruelty made him prefer hunger and the streets rather than home, but his increasingly disturbing appearance prevented him from begging and drew curious crowds. As a teenager he lived in an infirmary, where he had surgery to remove the tumor from his upper lip, which hung down over his mouth like an elephant’s trunk.

In his early twenties, Merrick took to the road, displaying himself in freak shows. He saved fifty British pounds (a lot of money in those days), which were stolen by his manager, who left him stranded in Belgium. Broke, hungry, and demoralized, Merrick somehow managed to buy passage on a boat to England, where he landed in London, smelling foul and speaking unintelligibly through his twisted lips. When the police discovered him collapsed in a heap in a corner of a railway station and besieged by folks gawking at the freak, he handed them a business card he had wisely preserved during his journeys. On it was the name of a London physician, Frederick Treves, who had once examined Merrick.


Joseph Merrick in 1889. (Credit: Wikipedia)

The police found Treves, and together they hoisted the Elephant Man into a horse-drawn cab and took him to the London Hospital, where his fortunes changed. As the public heard the story of Merrick’s horrible experiences, citizens donated funds to provide for his care. Frederick Treves became his doctor and friend. After years of cruelty and humiliation, he found a home at the London Hospital. There, in two basement rooms, he received medical attention, welcomed visitors from the elite of London society (including the Princess of Wales), and lived simply for the rest of his days.

To me Merrick’s deformities and sufferings aren’t the most remarkable aspects of his story. What makes him heroic is the absence of rancor in his heart. In his article “The Elephant Man,” Frederick Treves wrote that Merrick “was not the least spoiled; not the least puffed up; he never asked for anything; was always humbly and profoundly grateful” and “one of the most contented creatures I have chanced to meet.”


Sir Frederick Treves (Credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, Merrick’s abuse and abandonment left wounds. He could never quite believe that his rooms at London Hospital were permanent and occasionally asked Treves where and when he would be moved next. Would it be possible, Merrick wondered, to live at a blind asylum or a remote lighthouse, where he wouldn’t be a spectacle? At times unknown forces plunged him into hours of despair, when he would rock and beat on the arm of his chair with his massive right hand.

“As a specimen of humanity,” Treves wrote, “Merrick was ignoble and repulsive; but the spirit of Merrick, if it could be seen in the form of the living, would assume the figure of an upstanding and heroic man, smooth browed and clean of limb, and with eyes that flashed undaunted courage.”


Joseph Merrick in 1889. (Credit: Wikipedia)

As Merrick’s disease progressed, his body became not only increasingly repulsive to others, but also exhausting and awkward for him to control. In his essay “The Elephant Man,” Frederick Treves describes one of Merrick’s problems that led to his death:

So large and so heavy was his head that he could not sleep lying down. When he assumed the recumbent position the massive skull was inclined to drop backwards, with the result that he experienced no little distress. The attitude he was compelled to assume when he slept was very strange. He sat up in bed with his back supported by pillows, his knees were drawn up, and his arms were clasped around his legs, while his head rested on the points of his bent knees.

He often said to me that he wished he could lie down to sleep ‘like other people’. I think . . . he must, with some determination, have made the experiment. The pillow was soft, and the head, when placed on it, must have fallen backwards and caused a dislocation of the neck. Thus it came about that his death was due to the desire that had dominated his life—the pathetic but hopeless desire to be ‘like other people’.

Merrick’s body may have been pathetic, but I consider him a great soul. Instead of raging at the universe, Merrick created cardboard cathedrals to give away and wrote numerous letters, which he sometimes concluded with an adaptation of two stanzas of “False Greatness” by Isaac Watts:

            ‘Tis true my form is something odd,

            But blaming me is blaming God;

            Could I create myself anew

            I would not fail in pleasing you.

            If I could reach from pole to pole

            Or grasp the ocean with a span

            I would be measured by the soul;

            The mind’s the standard of the man.


Merrick’s skeleton, not on public display, not owned by Michael Jackson’s estate, but kept in the pathology collection of the Royal London Hospital. (Credit: Wikipedia)

***Dear Blogging Friends / Readers:

This post is an excerpt from a book I’ll have coming out–God willing!–in late June. It’s a collection of notes to my grandchildren called Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs . . . and Other Wonders Before Your Time. As I write in the opening, I’ll hand the book to them when I think they’re ready and say, “Start reading this collection on a gray day.” This indie publishing jazz takes a lot of time and energy. Whew! For the next week or two my blog reading and posting will be a little compromised as I wrap this baby up. I hope you’ll still love me when I come back with full force. Oh yeah, and for the love of God, please buy Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs when it comes out. I’m trying to keep it cheap: $9.99 in paperback first, with the Kindle edition coming out a week later for a trifling 99 cents–I think. Pretty sure.

Note: in the book I can only include one photograph, that of Merrick in his suit. The rest I include here as a mixed blessing, I guess. Fortunately, great souls don’t require great bodies.

Peace and love,


A Prayer for Martin Cobb and Nigerian School Girls

A Prayer for Martin Cobb, His Sister, All Who Love Them, and for the Abducted School Girls in Nigeria

“Richmond, Va. — The family of an 8-year-old boy beaten to death as he tried to defend his 12-year-old sister from a brutal rape gathered outside their home Friday, grappling with the details of the vicious attack. They leaned on one another, crying, shaking and struggling to understand the loss of little Martin Cobb” (nbcnews.com).

Dear God:

Behind my eyes and in my throat and chest: I can’t decide if it’s a roar or a sob. Maybe both.

I believe what your servant Paul wrote centuries ago about “bear[ing] one another’s burdens,” but I’m not sure how much longer I can comply. Tired, Lord, so tired. But don’t worry. I’m not giving up, not about to fall on a sword. The problem is, my spirit can’t catch its breath. Where does ferocious evil come from? Why won’t it stop crushing your children?

I don’t mean your children poetically. I’m talking about your literal children. You know what happened days ago in Nigeria, so I say this not for you, but for those who pray with me:

A “tragedy is unfolding in Nigeria, where members of the ultra-radical Islamist group Boko Haram grabbed . . . [school] girls, most believed to be between 16 and 18, from their dormitories in the middle of the night in mid-April and took them deep into the jungle. A few dozen of the students managed to escape and tell their story. The others have vanished. (Roughly 200 girls remain missing.) The latest reports from people living in the forest say Boko Haram fighters are sharing the girls, conducting mass marriages, selling them each for $12.”


Don’t you care? Where is my daughter? (Credit: the guardian.com)

Your creation is kind of strolling along like this is no big deal. Hear my blasphemous prayer: “God damn it! God damn it! God damn it!” As you can see, I’ve no idea what to do with your priceless girls being shared and/or sold for the price of bottle of wine, so my soul sits in ancient Jerusalem’s town dump under a cross, with blood staining my trousers. Sometimes the only sane response is rage.

Of course, I’m actually drinking beer at my dining room table and feeling guilty. A restaurant messed up my order this afternoon, and I was pissed. I’m still pissed, but it wasn’t until that I sat down here and learned the news of Martin Cobb that my vision cleared. Forgive my pettiness.

Martin. My God, my God! And his sister and mother and loved ones. Just playing by the railroad tracks, Lord—a sister and brother who loved each other. The news doesn’t say whether Martin’s sister got raped, but it sounds like maybe not. I’m grateful for that, but not for the brick that smashed Martin’s head. They didn’t even have to take him to the hospital.

So, God I love, what should I pray for? Take machetes and bricks out of the world? Bring all people to their senses? Protect the vulnerable? Obviously you and prayer don’t work that way. I still love you, but I sure don’t understand.

I would like to ask that the ultra-radical Islamists’ penises catch fire, that Martin Cobb’s killer / sister’s assailant get ripped up in jail. But that’s the reptile in me praying. Rapists and murderers are your children, too—the subject for another prayer.

For your Nigerian girls who are now getting married or shared in the jungle: if nothing else, give them a sign. Something! Let them know that they are your beloved, that not everybody in the world has forgotten them.

For Martin Cobb’s sister: let it all be a blur; let her eyes have been turned away from her brother’s end; let her body and soul be well in time.

For Martin: you caught in your hand of grace the brick that smashed his skull, right? He felt nothing, right? He rests now in your lap of pure mercy, right?


Martin Cobb: “A flight of angels sing thee to thy rest.” (Credit: nbcnews.com)

For Martin’s mother and loved ones: shit, how can they continue? Martin must have been really something. Give them what they need to remember him with joy.

It’s time to close, Lord. The beer is gone, and I’m sipping an affordable red Zinfandel. Your creation is shredding itself bloody. I trust you, but just don’t know what to think anymore.


Frass from Your Oddest Planetary Brother

My list of miscellaneous notes has grown long enough to tip over. Some subjects are worthy of mention, but not full treatment. So I offer what follows as a kind of frassy salad. Reviewing a couple month’s worth of scribblings, I’m hesitant. If you read on, there’s no way to un-know what you’ll stumble upon. An idea or two might make you want to scour your mind with Ajax. And I’m pretty sure you’ll conclude that I’m about your oddest planetary brother. All this said, here’s the list. Have smelling salts handy.

1. We’ll start with the benign and merely annoying. Some mornings after dropping off wife Kathy at Erie’s Regional Cancer Center, I stop at a grocery store for a quick grab: cranberry juice, newspaper, sugar-free dark chocolate (don’t eat too much or you’ll have explosive flatulence). At 7:40, you might expect a quick transaction. Nope. About an hour ago, two lanes were open. One was occupied by a guy who had a lot on the belt, including a bizarre number of darkish bananas. At the other, a polite woman wanted smokes, but the cashier had to call for a manager to fetch them. Oh bother. Here’s the trouble: the store has roughly an acre of self-checkouts! Of course, none of them were open. In the most nonchalant way possible, I asked why. “They don’t open till 9:00.” I had already figured out the reason: somebody has to be standing by to troubleshoot. So this is a convenience how?


Handy self-checkouts . . . useful as dog turds on a skating rink!

Additional consumer incident: a couple weeks ago Kathy and I wanted to buy a chair at Bon Ton. We had a little time at around 8:00 p.m., went to the store, and located the chair. Kathy went on a reconnaissance mission to find an employee. I was beginning to think Rapture when she finally returned, slack faced. A cashier in another department informed her that we could not buy the chair, since nobody was working in Furniture. We walked out of the deserted store in silence, expecting to encounter tumbleweed or Rod Serling. I did say that Bon Ton could sit on what was supposed to be my new prayer chair with atomic force, and I wasn’t going to make the purchase on principle. Kathy returned the next day and bought it. Whatever.

2. I did away with my graying beard last week for a reason you’ve probably never heard. If I go any length of days without shaving, a dozen hairs sprout from my lower lip. Not from the flesh just south of my lip, but my lip. You know, the landing strip for Chapstick. So now I’m baby faced, not that anyone takes much notice. It’s not like when George Clooney or Brad Pitt shave off their ugly-ass beards and everybody, men included, are relieved. I’ll also mention that I can no longer dig wax out of my left ear with a fingernail, since a tuft of hair has taken up residence on my eardrum–at least I assume it’s hair. Could be moss. “What’s next?” I ask myself. I’m hoping not to experience the fate of the Coleman’s beloved lab mix Watson, who has a stiff, inch-and-a-half bunch of silver hairs growing bull’s-eye center out of his rump-hole. It’s a marvel, but kind of pathetic.


Watson years ago ready for trick-or-treating–before his unfortunate hair event.

3. Just now, Starbucks friend Barb handed me a gift card. How sweet! We were talking about miscellaneous topics, and I mentioned the kidnapped school girls in Nigeria and the South Korean kids who went down with the ship. “It’s your day off,” Barb said. “Happy thoughts.” Thanks, sister.

4. The Coleman family is about to get our 1981 Electric Commuticar back on the road after repairs made by Renaissance son-in-law Matt. Behold:


The “Goudalet,” so named because somebody told the previous owner that the car looks like a wedge of gouda cheese approaching. Kathy will be driving this bad boy to work.

5. Talented photographer-writer friend Mary Birdsong told me that the term for caterpillar poop is frass. Though spellcheck denies it, frass covers multiple varieties of insect droppings. (Side note: Mary took what I think is a stunning macro-photograph of a butterfly that will grace the cover of a frassy book I’ve got coming out in June. It’s called Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs . . . and Other Wonders Before Your Time. This collection of notes will get handed to my grandchildren when they come of age. Meanwhile, you can read it if you want. Watch for details, please!


“Daily Minder”: 1.) Eat leaf. 2.) Drop frass pellets. 3.) Eat another leaf. 4.) Drop more frass pellets. (Credit: Wikipedia)

6. Thoughtful friend and fellow Lutheran pastor Mark Fischer posted on Facebook the following quote from President Eisenhower, which comes from an address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors on April 16, 1953. I reserve my only comment for the caption:


Ike was a Republican, right?

7. For nearly twenty years I’ve written pretty much in solitary confinement. That is to say, I seldom write more than an hour a day and have had minimal contact with other writers. I think that this fact is partly to blame for my present need to reconsider my use of contractions. How stupid is that? I’ve published a decent pile of work with another book on the way (though the upcoming one is indie published–so be it), and at fifty-two years old, I’m rummaging around with the apostrophe. Here’s the rule I’ve come up with: if a contraction has more than one possible meaning, scrap it. Example: Bush’s beans can mean beans belonging to Bush or Bush is, as a person, beans. Avoiding confusion trumps casual tone.

8. Here are a couple of delightful additions to my vocabulary of expressions. Wife Kathy mentioned the first: “rode hard and put away wet.” Urban Dictionary‘s illustration: “when someone has not taken care of a horse after a hard day.” Ah, so many possibilities here. The other two come from friend and parishioner Judi Pacileo: shoveling smoke, which means worrying about and planning for something that probably won’t happen; and chin wagging, which refers to fun, relaxed conversation. Enjoy!

9. I’m oddly proud of grandson Cole, who at five months old swore for the first time when he was out shopping with Mommy and Grandma. Mommy (Elena) captured the moment for us all:


Proud Grandma Kathy with our future Mensa grandson, who seems to be saying, “Guys don’t like shopping.” I’m a little verklempt here!

10. Speaking of Cole, I baptized the little pootums this past Sunday. I should say we because my sister Cindy, also a Lutheran pastor, and I splashed the water and said the words together. Such a joy. But I mentioned to you that by the time you finish this sophomoric slog, you’ll consider me a weirdo–and probably a heretic. Here’s the deal: Cole’s sponsor (Godfather) is my son Micah. Elena and son-in-law Matt asked me if that would be okay. There’s only one snag: Micah is an atheist. My first thought was, “Aw, shit!” But I did what I always do. Prayed, sat with the issue. And a sacred irony settled on my heart. Most sponsors or Godfathers or Godmothers are frankly nothing of the sort. Most are given this awesome responsibility because they’re somebody special in the parents’ or kiddo’s life. And I’ll wager fully one half of sponsors-Godparents never acknowledge what ends up being an honorary title. Never. Ever. With thoughtful atheist Micah, Cole is going to get an honest-to-goodness spiritual companion, somebody who will accompany him where his spirit takes him. As a matter of fact, Cole will learn from Micah a distinctly Christian gentleness and sense of mercy and justice. There were promises in the baptismal service Micah couldn’t say, but there were other promises written on his face. Again, the promises many parents and sponsor-Godparents make are simply lies. So, I said yes to Micah being Cole’s Godfather. As Sister Joan Chittister once said, “Okay, go ahead and throw tomatoes. This [shirt] is washable.”


This picture gets blurry as I ask: “Could the God I love use my beloved atheist son to lead my beloved grandson to a God-pleasing place?” Lord, hear my prayer.

11. Okay, you’ve stayed with me for a long time, so here’s your payoff. I had an exchange sometime back with my blogging bud at naptimethoughts.com. She is one funny woman, so please visit her blog. The topic of our brief back and forth had to do with males and farts. The only thing I’ll say in my defense is that she started it. In her post “Boys are gross” she describes walking into her five-year-old son’s bedroom, which the kid had fart-bombed all night long. (It’s a quick read, so klick the link.) His manly output combined with his astute description of his state of health forced me into this comment: “I never met the kid, and I’m proud.”

Naptime made the mistake of responding with a question: “Men. Tell me John, why is it the potency of the fart and not the loudness that is the prize? I don’t get it.”

Here was my answer (and remember, if you read on, you can’t un-know this):

“Okay, see, there’s a fahhht hierarchy with men, whose sense of humor never graduates middle school. Third place goes to one that simply issues a loud report. First place goes to a quiet one in a confined space that takes another poor soul by terrible, horrid surprise. And second goes to a subset of first and can best be explained with an example. My daughter and son-in-law were driving along when my daughter said, ‘Sniff, sniff. What is that smell?’ Son-in-law was quiet. ‘Sniff!’ daughter said. ‘Hey, did you fart?’ ‘Yes, I did,’ confessed son-in-law. ‘Aw, dammit,’ daughter said. ‘I explored that.’ The cruelty of the second place winner is in the receiver’s conscious decision to sample and evaluate. Ok, this day’s work is done. I’ve unveiled the mystery of flatulence and modern man.”

I suppose this is more than enough for one day. And what I said about throwing tomatoes: that was a lie. I’d appreciate if you took it easy on me with my heresy. I don’t seem to be able to get anger stains out of my soul.