A Study of Justice

I have to clean my room,

I’m saying, “Not fair!”

Even though I make the mess,

That’s neither here not there,

Because I’m talking about justice,

I’m going to make you aware,

When you’re five years old,

Well, it’s just not fair!

(“Not Fair” by Joe Scruggs from the CD Ants)

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“Just not fair”: sometimes imagined, sometimes real. (Credit: Reji Jacob on Wikimedia Commons)

Wife Kathy’s been downsizing lately. Children’s books and CDs from when our own kids, Elena and Micah, were young are migrating toward grandson Cole, nine months old and already getting ears-full of songs and stories. He’s heard over and over “I Been Workin’ on the Railroad,” including the “Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dinah” part, “Nessun Dorma,” and another tenor aria I can never remember. Pavarotti calms him down in the car. Soon he’ll be ready for the lessons and play of Rafi and Joe Scruggs, whose music Micah was singing (poor “Joshua Giraffe,” “stuck in a zoo with buffalo poo”) on Saturday as he helped his mother put in a new basement window and I considered justice.

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A little guy like Joshua. Micah’s singing about him was a blessing. (Credit: Chrumps on Wikimedia Commons)

The Gospel yesterday from Matthew was Jesus’ “Parable of the Householder Who Hired the Laborers.” Summary: the householder pays those who worked only one hour the same as those who toiled in the sun all day. As the children’s song repeats, “Not fair, not fair, not fair.” If I had busted my hump all day, the householder’s lapels would have been wrinkled and torn. I would have yanked his beard right out of his loving, generous, foolish, unfair head.

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Some beard on Benedict of Nursia. If the houseowner had such a beard and paid me the same as people who worked an hour, he might have come out of the tussle with a Fu Manchu and not much else. (Credit: photograph by Eugenio Hansen, OFS, on Wikipedia)

In the parable, the householder obviously represents God, and the teaching is that God isn’t fair. God is loving. But I don’t intend to talk about God. The world is so full of beauty that I get verklempt occasionally, but its blood-ugliness has the same effect on me, too. God for me is above all Mystery. I have neither the nerve nor desire to explain or even speculate much about how God dwells in the here and now. God is first-string in my heart, but I’m letting God ride the bench for a thousand words or so today. All I want to do is think about justice (or as Joe Scruggs puts it, fairness).

I got in a fender-bender this morning. (Nobody hurt, both vehicles just fine. Thanks for asking.) I was merging into traffic, checked to be sure the coast was clear, and hit the accelerator. Sadly, the woman in front of me was carefully assessing the traffic—waiting for her embossed invitation to arrive—so I gave her a stout “good morning.” It took her a long time to pull to the berm, and when I looked in her window, she was crying, face in hands. She rolled down the back window, got her bearings, then rolled down the front. No, she didn’t hit her head. No, I hadn’t given her whiplash. She may change her mind about that tomorrow.

After we exchanged information, I numbly drove to Starbucks, where I’m licking this immediate wound, speculating on the rise in my premium, and tending a couple of other bumps and bruises. I really couldn’t see any damage to my truck, but her bumper, made of that wonderfully durable plastic that ripples if somebody in the backseat farts, sports a horizontal crack down the middle.

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Ah, a dimple on the chrome to the left. A 1998 with over 200,000 miles on it. Think I’ll pass on repairs.

The morning’s gravity is pulling toward the blues. Poor John! Actually, poor driver in her seventies with an Eastern Bloc name sorely in need of a vowel or two and an unfair jolt of adrenaline to work off. I’ve got no worthy complaints against fairness. Although I’ve been something of a mess lately, that’s my own problem. I like to say that I’ve got a great life, but sometimes I suck at it.

Where fairness is concerned, I’m the defendant, not the plaintiff. The evidence against me is damning:

1.) I have four weeks of vacation each year, and I’m taking one day today. Two Xanax will soon have my jittery soul calmed down. I’m on my third free refill of deliciously bitter iced decaf. Nobody’s got a knife to my throat. I don’t live, in the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, “under the bomb.”

2.) When I head home, I’ll have to decide what not to have for lunch. The house is dry and warm or cool as necessary. Bills paid.

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Too much clutter at 322 Shenley Drive, but never too many flowers.

3.) The perils I face are mostly my own doing. Too much debt. Health risks to be brought under control. All this, so far as I know, is on me.

4.) My family has come through tough times I’ve already chronicled to death. Saying more about the past here would be tiresome, but last evening is worth a comment. Kathy, Micah, and I took family dinner to Elena and Matt’s: sauerkraut and pork and cream of cucumber and avocado soup with pearl onions. We sat in their postage stamp back yard and talked as Micah pushed grandson Cole around in his play car. The soup was savory, garnished with cherry tomatoes, raw cucumber, and avocado. Nobody but Matt had any, but down to my last culinary bone, I didn’t care. I tasted the hint of cheyenne and cilantro, sipped red wine, and received the cool air and love around me. When rain blew in, I didn’t give a thousandth of a solitary damn. I stood where it was sheltered and breathed, by now shoveling in kraut and mashed potatoes. Soon, Cole needed a bath, which he entered joyfully and immediately gave his business a tug. Atta boy, just don’t be too much of an overachiever here. Dinner, holding grandson, rain, peace, and laughter. Mercy within mercy within mercy.

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Cole playing Grrrrrr with Gramps. What did I do to deserve this love? Not fair.

5.) At 5:30 this morning, Kathy said, “You’re snoring.” I rolled this way and that for ten minutes, trying to comply, but finally was informed, “Your snoring is incessant!” It takes brains to say incessant before 6:00 a.m. What to do? I wanted to stay in bed with my wife and feel the healing breezes through the screens, but the rattling of my glottis was messing with her last hour of life. So I decided to remain and let myself get only to the edge of sleep. I don’t remember ever doing this before, but it’s what I wanted. This isn’t about me, but about Kathy. She deserves such love. Until just before 7:00, then, we lay together, me keeping vigil over myself and rising to consciousness at the first sound of sleep and wet head-flesh’s gargly duet. Just before she got up, I issued a last, faint caw. She touched my cheek and said, “I’ve got to get up.” She wasn’t mad. Where’s the justice?

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Lovely Kathy’s approach to life: don’t hold a grudge; let’s get on board and get going!

6.) I emailed Kathy at work about my accident this morning. Her response landed an hour later: “Oh John Coleman, what am I gonna do with you? I might have to ground you from Starbucks. Glad you are ok. Bet little old lady gonna be sore tomorrow. Love you.” No annoyance, even though she has warned me about that stupid merge many times before. When the insurance premium goes up, Kathy will frown, shrug her shoulders, and kiss me.

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My Starbucks? No, anything but my Starbucks!

There’s more, but the prosecution has gone on long enough. Fairness has a litany of complaints against me. My only statement is this: Justice or the world or the universe owes me nothing, so I’ll try to receive indulgent love and all family dinners in the rain with a humble and grateful heart.

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Not fair that I live in such a house, but I’ll take it.

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“Talking to God about Jim Foley and the World” on YouTube

Hello, Friends:

Here’s another installment on my very slowly developing vlog (video blog). It’s kind of a bummer, so pass on this if you want to focus on sunny thoughts today. And faithful blogging friends, chances are you’ve already read this, so don’t feel obligated.

Peace and love,

John

 

An Apology to President George W. Bush

Dear President Bush:

I write to apologize. Your presidency was an awfully long eight years for me, but I read a newspaper column today that made me stop, think, and admit something to myself: From 2001 to 2009, I seldom looked at you with compassionate eyes. Instead, I allowed myself to sink into the mud of political frustration and rancor that has only gotten worse since you left office.

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“A second plane has hit the second tower. America is under attack.” Still, you read The Pet Goat to the children so they wouldn’t be alarmed. Thank you. (Credit: Wikipedia)

The column that prompts my letter is by Cokie and Steve Roberts, “What Clinton, Bush can teach us about leadership.” You and President Clinton, the Roberts report, are starting the Presidential Leadership Scholars Program, and “part of [your] mission is to demonstrate that Washington does not have to be a cesspool of toxic partisanship.” I get the impression that you and President Clinton are comparing the political climate of your presidencies with that of President Obama and trying to push us out of the muddy cesspool that is only getting more toxic. And, the Roberts note, the libraries of Lyndon Johnson and your father are joining with you in this effort.

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What would our country look like if your faces in this photograph reflected Washington’s modus operandi: good spirits and mutual kind regard and respect? Please help us to get there. (Credit: Wikipedia)

A photograph from the program’s launch shows you and President Clinton sharing a hearty laugh. More from the column: “By [Bush’s and Clinton’s] presence and performance, they embodied a key dimension of effective leadership. They showed that political rivals do not have to be personal enemies. In fact, they can actually like each other, trust each other, cooperate with each other. And they can do so while disagreeing on basic issues.” Oh, my Lord, may it be so. Please know that I’m sending prayers and every good wish your way for success.

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You look like a man giving a genuine hug–to hurricane victims in Biloxi on September 2, 2005. (Credit: Wikipedia)

I’m pretty sure this spirit of collegiality and cooperation was alive and well in you during your presidency, and occasionally it would occur to me that your job was daunting, your challenges staggering. The trouble is, that sympathetic sentiment never made the southward journey from my head to my heart. Of course, now I watch the guy I voted for trying to get anything at all done, and sadness rests in my chest. I get it. For some time now, governing has been exceedingly difficult and often impossible. We’re stuck in mud. So I feel sad for you retroactively. Forgive me for being late.

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Lots of us didn’t care much for what we considered too much grin and swagger. I’ll speak only for myself: I was being petty. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I should mention that during your years in office my next-door-neighbor and I agreed you would be a great guy to have a beer with. It’s strange, even with my passionate opinions about all that occurred on your watch, I would rather talk to you about incidentals. For example, your gaffs are legendary. My favorite is from 2002: “There’s an old saying in Tennessee I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee that says, fool me once, shame on shame on you. Fool me you can’t get fooled again.” As I read this, I laugh, but honestly, there’s no edge to it. My old frustration has softened. George W. Bush was President, but he was also a guy with a microphone in his face for hours each day. So I probably should cut him a break.

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Express yourself, Mr. President. Why not? (Credit: LyleLanley99 on reddit.com)

I also recently saw one of your paintings, the one with your feet—those are your feet, correct?—sticking out of bathwater. Again, I’m laughing, but if you were here with me this morning, you would understand at once that it comes from a loving place. You’re a fellow human being, and when you were in the Oval Office, I routinely forgot that.

The Roberts mentioned something about you in their report that I wish I had known years ago. “And during Bush’s tenure, Clinton revealed, the president would call his predecessor on a regular basis and ask for his advice.” I can see now your humanity more clearly. A man who would paint his feet in the bathtub would have no qualms about calling the guy who worked the previous shift for help.

So, Mr. President, please accept my apology. It’s not fair to bemoan the intolerance and anger in Washington when I’m a willing participant. This letter may never reach you. If by chance it does, receive my good wishes for your Presidential Leadership Scholars Program and my thanks for what I now believe to be your sincere efforts to do what you thought best for our country.

Peace and blessings,

John Coleman

“A Napper’s Companion” on YouTube

Dear Friends,

I decided to have a go at reading some of my blog posts on YouTube. I’m still learning, but I’ve posted my first attempt. It’s a love letter to my wife Kathy: “I Kiss Your Shoulder at First Light.” Unless complete ineptitude takes over, you should be able to watch/listen below.

Peace and love, John

 

My Parental Gland

One morning in mid March, my parental gland sounded its mysterious longing in my chest. Of course, there’s no evidence such a gland exists, but I’ve got one. Made visible it would resemble a translucent almond situated behind my sternum, right where you get the wind knocked out of you.

I was pray-meditating at 7:30 a.m., propped up in bed, wife Kathy sleeping next to me. The only sound in the house was twenty-two-year-old son Micah whirling around downstairs like Looney Tunes’ Tasmanian Devil. (He could slow down his routine and still get to his painting job on time, but he makes coffee, finds clothes, throws a nutritionally hollow lunch into his knapsack, and puts on his coat in a barely-managed frenzy.) I listened and breathed. The front door creaked open and banged shut, and thud thud thud he went down the front steps; car door; engine; drove away, at a reasonable pace, thank God.

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Micah smoking his e-cig after a hard day’s work. How can you not love a twenty-two year-old who lounges in onesie jam-jams and tiger slippers?

That’s when my parental gland fired, as the car’s whir became a sigh that became silence. Kathy slept. The neighborhood was reverent. Deep breaths embraced the longing in my chest. Longing. Or call it whatever. That contradiction, that lush tundra parents inhabit as we watch our children move into the distance. Pride blossoms against apprehension’s frost.

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Frost on an orange flower–a father’s spirit watching his child drive away. (Credit: Image Source / Corbis)

Daughter walks from the car to the school building. Please. After you kiss your son’s forehead, he gets wheeled away for an appendectomy. Please. Daughter and son speed off with friends for some destination you’ll never find out about. Please. Each departure turns me, at least, into a beggar: God on high, hear my prayer.

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“God on high, hear my prayer.” Jean Valjean rescues Marius–“like the son he might have known.” (Les Miserables, Credit: Mead Schaeffer / Wikimedia Commons)

If only my parental gland had dissolved once daughter Elena and Micah reached legal drinking age. When they were teenagers I peeked between my fingers like a child as they stumbled out of sight into their respective barbed wire and razor blades: flirting with death, dancing with heroin. I’d figured on landing in a deep blue expanse of peace if they grew up and straightened out.

Both of my children are healthy and sane at the moment, but sadly, no blue expanse. Turns out my heart worries even when my head can’t name the threat. It’s that shimmering parental gland. Mine is more active than ever, gaining potency as the years call me to honesty. I love Elena and Micah so much it hurts sometimes, especially when they’re traveling alone, fading from view.

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Someone’s daughter disappears. Someone’s parental gland sounds. (Credit: Hans Berggren / Johner Images / Corbis)

My conclusion: a father’s and a mother’s hurt and sorrow reside in the same dwelling with a love that makes us want to take off after our adult children, pick them up in our arms, and rock them to sleep. That’s what my gland does, anyway. I’m not kidding. I would gladly put Elena or Micah in my lap, rest their head against my shoulder, and listen for sleep’s slow, even breathing. Ah well. Pain and longing are in love’s fine print. Deal accepted.

Now Elena is married to Matt, and they’ve given us all Cole. Judging from what a mush bucket I am already, I’m thinking the parental gland working so abundantly these days will be promoted and given grandparental duties as well. The raise in compensation so far has more than covered the increased workload. Each time my grandson cries, I’m in that lush tundra. Please.

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I pray from this place each time my children leave. (Credit: John and Karen Hollingsworth / Wikimedia Commons)

That’s what happened today when Elena, Cole, and I met at Presque Isle for a walk. The wind was chilled by snow and icy Lake Erie, and Cole was plenty warm, but in no mood for the stroller. Half a mile in, we pulled off the path for a drink. The kid’s amazing. He managed to nurse and make those calming-down snivels infants do after a crying jag. His tank full, we headed back to the car, taking turns carrying him. For a couple minutes, as I faced him forward and held him close, I whispered Grandpa foolishness against his bald head and listed in a chant everybody who loves him. But then he started blubbering again, which told me that his appetite for affection is bottomless. No problem. My grandparental gland, unlike my pancreas, is invincible.

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“Take me out of this stroller and tell me you love me! Right now!

When we got back to the parking lot, Elena changed Cole’s diaper, got him in his car seat, and we all kissed goodbye. I started my truck, but waited as they drove off. Please.

I thought about my favorite passage from Hermann Hesse’s novel Siddhartha. The main character is in anguish as his son walks away into the bliss and suffering life holds for him. A sage speaks to the father:

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

This is the hardest part of possessing my peculiar gland: as Elena, Micah, and Cole walk away from me, “finding their own path,” I wonder when my chest will finally crack open from wanting to spare them. But there is no sparing them—or forcing them.

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They could toddle, sprint, or “walker” away from me. No matter. Joy and longing kiss.

Now, in my fifty-third year, I understand the covenant: a father’s and grandfather’s love breathes, honors the silence when the beloved is out of sight, and prays from a lush tundra.

Note: “My Parental Gland” originally appeared as a guest post this past March on a great blog, Kerry’s Winding Road.

Variation on a Theme by William Carlos Williams

“The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams

 

So much depends

upon

 

a red wheel

barrow

 

glazed with rain

water

 

beside the white

chickens.

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William Carlos Williams, physician by day . . . (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Literary critic John Hollander writes, “Williams ‘etymologizes’ his compounds into their prior phenomena, and his verbal act represents, and makes the reader carry out, a meditative one.”

In other words, meditative phenomena. Shamatha. Breathe. Receive.

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So much depends . . .

Kathy, Elena, and Cole drive seven hours to Virginia for a baby shower. They also visit Polyface Farms, where Joel Salatin and family love creation, collaborate with it. Elena sits on a swing and nurses Cole. She’s not ashamed. Kathy brings home a pound of bacon from a pig joyful until its last moment. Salt and earth. We taste the earth.

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A friend showed me . . . (Credit: H Zell / Wikimedia Commons)

For Sunday family dinner, we have purple potato salad and wraps: real, northwestern Pennsylvania tomatoes; avocado; feta; dill sauce; red bell pepper; chicken thighs sautéed in ground coriander seeds.

(I once saw coriander in Mary’s mortar. That’s why I thought to buy coriander, grind it, and put it with the chicken. My friend showed me.)

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I’m busy, Gramps . . .

Before Sunday family dinner, Cole works in his playhouse in the backyard. He pounds with his hammer. He examines plastic nails and a sink and makes comments about them into the perfect air. Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom (James Wright).

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Matt and Layla

Before Sunday family dinner, Elena says, “We were going to plant flowers beside the house, but Matt says he wants to keep that space open. Layla likes to run there.”

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Boulevard altos . . .

This morning, breezes lift the bedroom curtains. Kathy and I lay together, my arm around her shoulder, her head on my chest. We say nothing, listen to the trees, receive Earth’s cool hymnody on our faces and arms.

Finally: “I love you, Kathy Coleman.”

And: “I love you, too, John Coleman.”

Strange: we call each other by our full names.

 

Beheadings, Exploited Children, Uzis, Nudies, and the Hope of Garage Light

A tame one from a Blue Mountain Brewery growler was just right for last night, Tuesday, September 2nd, with its high dew point. Wife Kathy and daughter Elena picked it up for me when they were in Virginia for a baby shower. As son Micah and Kathy used power tools in the garage, I stood in front of the Kmart box fan in boxers—try to get that picture out of your head!—grateful that the neighbors can’t spot me when I’m in the kitchen. ABC’s David Muir anchored yet another day of withering news, and I sipped toward buzzdom, which was a wise course of action, considering the state of affairs.

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George “Gabby” Hayes, an actor in old westerns (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I should note that I really get up in the face of the evening news, my eyes twelve to eighteen inches from the screen. My jaw probably hangs open, too. Such a bizarre relationship we have, the news and I. Just when I decide to retreat from current events, take up residence in a media-free desert cave, and start to look like a Zen-Christian-hermit Gabby Hayes, another story grabs me by the beard. Check that: it’s not the story that takes hold of me, but the people. Maybe that’s why I’m nose to nose with what’s happening. I see faces and feel obligated to witness on their behalf, as if it’s my calling to stand with them in the only way I can: watch, don’t turn away.

Yesterday was heartbreaking. A brief recap:

ISIS militants followed through with their threat and hacked off journalist Steven J. Sotloff’s head. “I’m back, Obama,” the executioner said. Yeah, no kidding, tough guy. The victim was thirty-one. His mother begged for his release. I would have done the same. Worth a shot.

 

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Kiddos just like these are forced to work the fields to support their families. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Refugee children in Syria have to work in the fields to support their families. Parents, many of them professionals, can’t work because kids are a cheaper pay-date. So they get up at the crack and fill bags of potatoes so full they can hardly lift them. We’re talking seven-, eight-year-olds. Babies! They have lovely, sweet faces that for some time now haven’t been in schoolrooms.

A nine-year-old girl lost control of an Uzi at a shooting range and shot her instructor in the head, killing him. The gun was too much for her, she said. The report went on to show other little kids under adult supervision firing big-ass moxie weapons.

Finally, photographs of naked celebrities are being hacked and made public. This, of course, is wrong as wrong can be. The surprise for me is how many people take nude pictures of themselves or let somebody else do so. Out of consideration for public safety, I would never be undressed around a camera or smartphone.

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The best work for a child in a field . . . pretending to fly (Credit: Radius Images / Corbis)

These stories, a whiplash crash of barbaric and absurd, put me in a fog that the beer didn’t create: another beheading, babies the age of my church kiddos rushing to get potatoes into sacks to their overseer’s satisfaction, a girl who will have to live with malignant guilt forever, and nudies. The result was malaise and paralysis: a chunky guy in boxers with a nice beer in his hand, slack-face glowing in the television’s light. With a fat cigar, I would have been a poor man’s Winston Churchill. I stood there for the longest time, a blob of middle-age wishing there were a way to take those refugee children into my arms, tell them that they’re beloved, tuck them between clean sheets, and sit with them for breakfast before walking them to school. Children, damn it! I didn’t have any prayer in that moment other than sorrowful curses, weary four-letter words.

Of course, sad or pissed or ennui-drunk as you can be, there comes a point when continuing to stand around in your underwear is letting the %$&*@! with the knife win. I had done due diligence as a witness to my sisters’ and brothers’ realities, but was powerless to move on. Then, a whine rescued me.

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All it takes is two people and a drawer, and you can find hope for the world.

Out in the garage, Kathy and Micah were running sanders over our kitchen cabinet doors, getting them ready for a fresh coat. The Coleman family kitchen has seen lots of action in the last thirteen years. Ah, if cabinetry could tell stories: daughter Elena’s rants and twilight escapes and slashes on the wrists; Micah’s howling girlfriend dramas and heroin and felony and house arrest; Kathy’s toil in nursing school and glad landing as a chemotherapy nurse; my own wrestling with anxiety and depression and hours of joyful, messy cooking. The kitchen was there for it all.

So the sanders’ whine took me to the back window, where I watched my wife and son working in the garage, the light spilling out over the silhouettes of sunflowers. During one tough stretch, they went months without speaking. Micah’s hands were perpetual fists, the veins in his forearms popping. Kathy and I just tried to make it through each day.

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Love made visible an hour before dusk.

“Work is love made visible,” Khalil Gibran said. As I received the anointing of Kathy and Micah working away happily together and talking over the whine, joy sat down beside my malaise. No, my spirit wasn’t all better, but hope had taken paralysis in its arms.

I wasn’t moved by a woman and man sanding cabinet doors in a garage. My son had worked his painting job all day. He takes his responsibilities seriously and comes home tired. But he was out with his mom, not because he wanted to put shoulder to wheel for a couple more hours, but because he loves her. That was what I saw: love made visible.

When I went to bed, I kept watching in my mind Kathy and Micah in the garage under gentle light. I have a well in my chest where tears come from, and I could feel my wife and son’s love filling it with peace.

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Dear Light, please comfort your people. (Credit: Sigurdas / Wikimedia Commons)

The older I get, the more flummoxed I am in the face of evil. If the world is always going to have rancor and brutality, maybe the best I can do is make sure that one tipsy man in boxers in one house in one neighborhood in one city will never—by God!—hold the knife or make children gather potatoes. That light from the garage, fragile, delicate as a candle flame: if I could just lift it up high enough for the world to see.

P. S. At lunch today Kathy called me. She was having a crazy, frustrating day, but she knew hearing my voice would make her feel better. That’s love for you. A glance at its light, a whisper from its lips, and the world is mysteriously fit for habitation again.