Rawhide, Love, and Happy Trails!

Dearly Beloved:

As the pastor of a small parish, I’m accustomed to what lots of ministers would consider a light wedding schedule. Well, in 2014 either “Trumpet Voluntary” is in the water or word is leaking out that my wedding homilies are pithy and I’ll give you your vows in nibbles so you don’t fumble them and the Lutheran service for marriage includes minimal fluff. If you’re not lighting candles or pouring colored sand or passing out roses or “there is love[ing],” I can get you hitched in fifteen minutes.

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Daughter Elena and son-in-law Matt: I officiated their nuptials in around twenty minutes ago on October 2, 2010. No fuss, no muss.

Whatever the reason, this coming Saturday will mark my eighth wedding of the season, with four out of town and this last one twenty miles from my doorstep. The “Rawhide” song is rollin’ through my head, not the Frankie Laine version, but the Blues Brothers’ rendition with John Belushi deadpanning “head ‘em up, move ‘em on, head ‘em up,” and grabbing a barely plausible whip hanging by the stage for a couple of rousing cracks and “haws!”

Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’, keep them vows a rollin’, rawhide . . . to Saxonburg, Pennsylvania. Rain and wind and weather . . . to Shippenville, Pennsylvania. Hell bent for [tether] . . . to Findley Lake, New York. Wishin’ my gal was by my side . . . to Columbiana, Ohio.

With some personal struggles making my horse gimpy in recent months, my trail time has often been taken up with wound licking and obsessing. The weddings themselves have all been joyful, even gleeful. No bridezillas, no fussy parents, no bizarre requests. Good stuff. But, sheesh, the back and forth, with miles of staring at concrete, provided the perfect venue for what Brother Lawrence called useless thoughts. Ugh! (I’m like a doggie that remedies an itch on its flank by chewing open a crater. It is possible to ruminate yourself raw.)

But last Saturday as I was driving through Ohio, minding my own business, the dying leaves got through to me. Trees lining the highway sang out every lovely cliché of autumn. It was as if creation cleared scales from my eyes, and I saw colors. Pandora’s “Zen Garden” station—serenity now!—had my ears calmed down. And as the miles unraveled, I traveled into thanksgiving. Turns out the space behind my chest that shelters laughter and tears also rents out a secret loft to a tenant who has become unkempt and dusty lately: gratitude.

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You get the idea–fall leaves along the road. (Credit: Albert Herring on Wikimedia Commons)

All the way to Columbiana I was whelmed in thanks. (Not overwhelmed, just pleasantly, peacefully whelmed.)

Thanks for Don and Janine Thompson, grandson Cole’s other grandparents. The little man spends a lot of time at their place, in part because they live a few doors up on the same street as Elena and Matt. Janine is always chasing the Cole-meister while full-time-mom Elena runs errands or takes an exit for some rest. I’ve seen with my eyes and felt in my bones their bottomless, gentle love for our boy. Knowing that he toddles around at Don and Janine’s house invites in me a cleansing breath. He is safe, spoken to with tenderness, and regarded with patience and generosity.

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Grandma Janine at Cole’s baptism

As a bonus, Cole is picking up a couple of fantastic lessons for life from his other grandparents.

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A big bonus at Grandma and Grandpa Thompson’s is cousin Shaylee, who loves Cole like crazy and comes to play.

1.) The Thompson house is trippy. Every time I drive by I chuckle a loving, admiring chuckle. It’s a typical ranch house, very well kept and attractive, but it has an addition on the roof that makes the place look like a thick letter “L” lying on its back. But here’s the thing: Don pretty much built the whole place himself. When the family needed more room, he added where he could. I dig that and am glad Cole is doing part of his growing up there because he can learn that what matters most isn’t the way a home is shaped on the outside, but the grace and care that fills the inside.

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Grandpa Don at Cole’s baptism

2.) Along these same lines, Matt told me that his dad painted his car or truck with, well, a paint brush. You can hardly tell. Every summer the Thompsons have a bodywork day when all the cars in the family get what they need. I love this! Don once told Matt never to buy a new car when you can fix an old one. He’s right. I want my little Cole-mobile to grow up believing that a car’s primary job is to roll him somewhere.

3.) Rounding a bend here: During Elena and Matt’s engagement, there was a brief point of tension between Elena and Janine. I don’t even know what it was about, but I know how it ended. They talked it out and learned from each other. So a mother-in-law genuinely listened to her perky whippersnapper future daughter-in-law, took a look within, and was vulnerable and open. Now, this is a woman I want in my grandson’s life! A healthy, wise presence.

4.) When you put together everything in the Thompson’s cool-beans household, you also get another piece of first-rate craftsmanship.

Thanks for Matt Thompson! Son-in-law Matt is like his old man: intelligent, thoughtful, conversant on an amazing number of topics, but at the same time doesn’t take up a lot of space. When he comes into a room, his countenance doesn’t shout, “Here I am!” It smiles, “There you are!” All of my neighbors once agreed—the men, too—that we want to marry Matt. This Renaissance Man could build aircraft carrier out of gravel, twigs, hair, and boogers, and, in fact, he and Elena bought what was essentially a 800-square-foot dog kennel, gutted the yuck out of it, and made it their home. Matt knows everything about inventor Nicola Tesla, including I believe the circumference of his nostrils, and quotes Carl Sagan all the time. He refurbished the 1980 electric Commuticar wife Kathy drives to work and once explained how the batteries charge and alternate their responsibilities. I listened politely as Charlie Brown’s teacher’s wha, wha, wha, ah, ah, wha, wha came out of his mouth.

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Matt and Cole: lucky man, lucky boy!

However, the fact that Matt Alan Thompson could perform brain surgery in the dark with balsa wood instruments is beside the point. He is a good man with a conscience and a large soul. Best of all, when he holds my grandson, he knows that he is in possession of a fragile blessing. I can tell. Matt’s thick hands loosen rusty bolts, but their grip on that baby is soft and kind. And he talks to Cole the same way he carries him.

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The 1980 Electric Commuticar, which the Coleman family dubbed the Goudalet because one person observed that it looks like a wedge of gouda cheese rolling down the street. It lay dormant for over twenty years, but Matt willed it back to life.

Well, enough about my son-in-law. He chose to marry my daughter, so my neighbors and I have to accept that we don’t stand a chance with him.

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Matt and baby Cole watching an old episode of “Cosmos”–no kidding!

With another forty minutes to go on Route 6, I seemed to herd other reasons for thanks ahead of me like doggies. Don’t try to understand ‘em, just rope and throw and brand ‘em. Right, then, just enjoy the yips of gratitude.

Thanks for Kathy, Elena, and Micah. I’ve fussed over them in other posts. I remain grateful.

Thanks for my church kids. Most Sundays they’re a mosh pit of rosy-cheeked silliness. We love each other.

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Austin sees Pastor John sit down with the kids to listen to music. Austin puts his Halloween costume in reverse and sits down on Pastor John’s lap. Pastor John looks like he is frowning, but he is not. His eyes are closed because he is sitting in God’s lap.

Thanks for my blogging friends. Beyond their sincere care for me and each other, I appreciate my fellow bloggers’ patience. We seem to understand and accept when one or another of us drops off the grid for a while because good vittles, love, [or] kissin’ has somehow gone a-missin’. They are unseen guests in my days—great company.

And thanks for the leaves. Gorgeous, yet in extremis. Their reality gives me hope. On the doorstep of dust, they sing their loudest. Do they see something we don’t? Maybe as they fall to earth, they know they’ll go on living high and wide.

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Wishing you glad trails, height and breadth and depth. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Rawhide, love, and happy trails!

John

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Review of “Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs”

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Author introduces his yet-to-be-conceived grandchild to the world

(Blogger’s Note: Dear Friends, the review that follows appeared in my hometown newspaper yesterday. I appreciate not only Doug Rieder’s generosity, but also his sincere attempt to understand and communicate my book’s purpose and audience. I also thank Erie writer and photographer Mary Birdsong for her great cover photograph, thoughtful advice, and support.)

By DOUG RIEDER, Erie Times-News
Contributing writer

“Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs, And Other Wonders Before Your Time”

By John Coleman

Shamatha House, 201 pages, $11 paperback

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This photograph of my daughter Elena in 2006 accompanies the review.

Over the course of his new book of essays, “Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs,” John Coleman often stops to smell the roses, and he’s got a pretty good nose for it.

You’d expect as much from Coleman, pastor of Erie’s Abiding Hope Lutheran Church. But this is no preacher consoling his flock, nor one communing with a higher power. The word “God,” in fact, is rarely used.

No, Coleman addresses each of these 11 short essays to someone who doesn’t exist yet — or at least didn’t at the time of his writing. That someone turns out to be his grandson, Cole, born to his daughter, Elena, and her husband, Matt, on Nov. 30, 2013.

Coleman explains all this on the back cover, but inside the book, Cole isn’t Cole yet, but a mysterious, magical being filled with promise and potential.

“I’m aware of the sun, the trees, the longing cardinal and the possibility of you,” Coleman writes from his stilt-cabin retreat in the woods at Mount Saint Benedict.

“While you’re still a dream, I feel like talking to you. … What I have to say will feel more like floating a canoe down a creek than running rapids.”

He suggests optimal times for his grandchild to read his jottings: On bad days, “read a few notes.” On good days, don’t bother. “And on your worst days, turn to these words: Before you were born, your grandfather sat up in the trees and loved you ahead of time.”

That’s typical of Coleman, a gentle soul guided by other gentle souls: Gandhi, Kahlil Gibran, Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh and Erie’s Sister Joan Chittister.

As he promises, Coleman writes of life’s everyday occurrences, his “floating canoes” –Harriet the squirrel, the dogs and cats of his Shenley Drive neighborhood, disturbing newspaper headlines, family history, mini-essays on the Elephant Man and the Gettysburg Address, the changing face of Erie and the coming — but mostly going — of favorite coffeehouses and writing haunts like Moonsense and Aromas.

His life is full to bursting. His wife, Kathy, really does raise monarch butterflies, but also assembles furniture out of town and crews aboard the U.S. Brig Niagara. In one essay, she departs on a three-week Niagara sail. Coleman bristles over her absence but notes that her time aboard ship has given her a “longer fuse.”

At the time of this writing, the Colemans are parents of teenagers — 15-year-old Micah and 17-year-old Elena. They bring joy into his life: “I miss giving you shoulder rides,” Coleman tells his son. “I miss that, too,” says Micah. “But I can’t do that anymore. I’d crush you.”

At times, he must hold his tongue with them.

“Many lessons people have to teach themselves,” he writes.

It took Coleman a year to write “Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs” and seven years of “intermittent slashing away,” as he wrote me in a letter. He did it in coffeehouses and in cabins on stilts, but he also did it within time zones that created themselves: waiting rooms, hospital rooms, the World of Music basement as Micah hammered away at his drum lessons.

Coleman’s main conceit is that he’s writing to a grandbaby that’s not even a glimmer yet, but of course, he’s not really — he’s writing to us. There’s a sweetness to these observations, mundane as they might be, and a comfort to turn back to them.

“I suppose this is why I’ve written to you so much about the commonplace,” Coleman writes near the end. “Leaves going red, a squirrel laughing at a dog, a dad playing catch with his son, a husband taking a walk with his wife: I’ve no right to ask for more.”

But where the book starts Thoreau-like at a cabin in the woods, it ends with the running of at least one set of dangerous rapids: troubling news about Elena.

“She has a story to tell you,” Coleman writes. “She’ll sit you down and fill you in when you’re ready; only she can decide on the right time.”

Developments like this help ground “Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs.” Coleman has a wide, gentle streak, yes, but he’s as fully immersed in life’s stickiness and unpleasantries as the rest of us.

Happily, the town’s got a lot more coffeehouses now — Hortons and the omnipresent Starbucks — for him to duck into and open his writing journal.

DOUG RIEDER is the former editor of the book page.

To My Grandson, Who “Settles in My Low Places”

Blogger’s warning: yes, this is another schmaltzy letter to my grandson. If you’ve had enough of the sentimental grandpa schtick, get away from here, quickly.

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Cole and Layla: nappers’ companions!

Dear Cole:

In the first chapter of the book I wrote for you I included a quote by Kahlil Gibran: “Joy and sorrow are inseparable. Together they come and when one sits alone with you, remember that the other is asleep on your bed.” Well, joyful boy, you have come to sit alone with me this morning.

Sister Joan Chittister shares the right words from the Tao to describe what your ten-month-old self has done for me:

The best people are like water

They benefit all things,

And do not compete with them.

They settle in low places,

One with nature, one with Tao.

That’s it, Cole. You “settle in [my] low places.” You’re way too young to live out the fullness of the Tao, but you’re off to a good start. Months before pronunciation fully descends upon your lips, you find your Gramps’ dry river beds and parched earth and make them live again.

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Cole, you don’t have to smile or get a gold medal in the Cute Olympics. Just stand there and be yourself. That’s more than enough for me.

Blame your mother for this observation and sentimental letter, which I trust her to print and slip into your memory book. (Copy that, Elena?) She sends your photographs out to family and friends, and the world gushes. This morning your face caught me at a vulnerable moment and ran into a place in my soul that must have gone cracked and sunbaked. At once, leaves and blossoms spread wide and tall.

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Hey, Cole, thanks for showing up this morning.

The thought that came to me after I swallowed back tears was how much I’m looking forward to talking with you. These days I’m mostly talking to you. I love saying pretty much what’s on my mind in the moment. But, little paisano, when you get a bit older, you and I are going to do some talking together. When I was writing your book I got into the habit of saving things up to chat with you about–that’s what the whole thing was about. Now that you’ve shown up and we’re having lots of preliminary, mostly one-sided, conversations, I find myself stumbling on things we’ll have to chew on in the future. (Just a note: you and I growling at each other is a hoot for now, but there’s room for growth.) Here are a couple of thoughts we can fuss with:

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Dear Reader, pick the caption: “Dag nabbit, they forgot my extra side of chipotle mayo.” “What you talkin bout, Willis?” Or “I’m going to audition for the role of Wilford Brimley’s Mini Me, and I’d like to talk to you about diabeetus. Wait, where did I put my walrus mustache?”

1. This first one is more a find than a discussion topic, but I have to share. Preface: I make it a habit not to use my smart phone while in the bathroom, but there are exceptions to every rule. A few days ago I attended a clergy meeting at the Riverside Inn in Cambridge Springs, Pennsylvania. It’s a charming, rambling old place, so I shouldn’t have been surprised at the sophistication of the scribblings on the bathroom stall. Be prepared, Cole, most of the time men’s room literature begins with “Here I sit, brokenhearted . . . ” or “For a good time call . . . .” Riverside Inn patrons are a thoughtful lot–evidence provided below as captured by my iPhone:

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Lousy quality photograph: “Today is another day where [sic] we can sit back and reflect on what happens in life.” I presume the sitting doesn’t refer to the throne at hand.

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No clue what these shapes are about, but below them is a riddle: “Everyone has it. What does everyone have but nobody can lose it?” Read to the end, Cole, and I’ll tell you.

2. After washing my hands, I headed back to that meeting and enjoyed a lecture by one of my old seminary professors, Dr. Brad Binau. He mentioned that he resists the assumption that multitasking is good. I’m really looking forward to thinking this one over with you because in a dozen years tending to multiple tasks simultaneously will not only be normal, but expected. I agree with Dr. Binau, but this is probably just me being an old fart. You might have the chance to teach me and open my mind. Can’t wait.

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You know what grown ups have forgotten: sweaty, little boy sneakers are yummy! Help me to be young again, buster.

3. Some smart adults are saying that school children should no longer be taught cursive handwriting. By the time you read this, you might not even know what I’m talking about. Old fart thinking out loud again: lots of times I don’t really know what I’ve learned until years after somebody teaches me the lesson.

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Learning to write cursive taught me how to practice, slow down, and be patient. If you want, we could work on cursive together. Mine is rusty. (Photograph courtesy of Mark Fischer’s Facebook page)

4. I’m busy today. I have to drive to Columbiana, Ohio, about two hours away, for a wedding rehearsal, then turn around and drive two hours back home. Tomorrow I have to officiate at the wedding, so I’ll do the same thing. Why not stay over night? The road time makes sense, but it’s a long story. Trust me. Anyway, as I was walking into Starbucks this morning, I said, “Hey, how’s it going?” to the guy emptying the trash. (The least we human beings can do is lay a smile and a “hello” on each other.) The trash guy–I should know his name–took my question seriously and told me about almost throwing up this morning and being late for work. His description went on for a while, and the gravity of coffee and writing pulled me away from him. That’s when I caught myself. This guy has bosses and co-workers chomping on his ass, and his job is emptying trash cans and picking up litter and slop. No dishonor in this work whatsoever, but I imagine his childhood dreams didn’t involve him wearing a rain suit and tending garbage. So, could I quit stepping away from him as if to say, “I don’t have time for you”? Could I face him for five minutes, give him my full attention as he has his say with the world, and witness this life? He’s one of God’s beloved, after all. So, I stood there and listened until he turned away from me to get back to work.

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One of the few photographs of you crying, Cole. Some people do lots of this for their whole lives. If you look at them and smile, they might feel a little bit better.

Please listen, Cole, because this is very important. I didn’t share this story so you would think Gramps is a swell guy. The thing is, some people walk through this life without a grandchild who will “settle in their low places” or without anybody at all. I don’t know that this is true of the trash guy, but since it could be, maybe for a couple of pitiful minutes I could offer a little rain for his cracked earth. I hope we get the chance to talk about this. Better yet, when you get a little older, we’ll go “out and about,” as your Grandma Kathy says, and “settle in low places” wherever we find them.

5. A couple days ago I stopped at your house for lunch. We talked as we always do. Layla looked so longingly at my sandwich she may have been trying to hypnotize it. I fed you bite after tiny bite of noodles in an Alfredo sauce.

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“Sandwich, you are getting very sleepy. Come to Layla.”

Hugging you goodbye, I thought of how your mother used to fall asleep in my lap and how, on rare occasion, I managed to carry her gently to bed without her waking up and lie down next to her for a nap. She fit into a low place of sorts, the hollow of my body curled around her. Oh, best buddy, I hope once or twice to know again with you that joy of a siesta. I wouldn’t even have to fall asleep. Listening to you breath and watching your assertive little nostrils and fine eyelashes would grow hyacinths and sunflowers in the thirsty places of your Gramps’ soul.

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No low places here, Cole, only mountaintops.

I have more ideas but no more time today. Should I write you another book?

Love,

Gramps

P. S. The answer to the riddle is supposedly “your shadow.” I thought of this but disregarded it because in the dark or on a cloudy day, you might not have a shadow. Reminder: some riddles are lousy.

Micro-Post: A Birthday Postcard to Loved Ones

Dear Blog and Regular-Old Loved Ones:

Yesterday, October 9th, was my fifty-third birthday. At 8:30 a.m., as I was sipping at Starbucks, I received an inconspicuous present that I want to share with you.

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This is what fifty-three looks like–beard probably six months away from eliminating any need for a collar or necktie.

I had just finished a refreshing, philosophical discussion with Star-buddy John about goodness, forgiveness, and consequences and was getting back to polishing a depressing blog post when an unsteady, elderly woman shuffled past my perch with a hot beverage. She must have given her cup a random squeeze because the lid popped off and hot whatever it was started spilling over her trembling hand. I love Starbucks, but if they make their lids any more flimsy, they may just as well go with Kleenex or phyllo dough. She looked like her car just crapped the bed at 2:00 a.m. in rural Wyoming (redundant?). Anyway, I did what all of you reading this would have done. I stood up, said, “Let me take that for you,” pressed the lid on, and carried the cup to her table. She thanked me, and I made a remark on those darned lids and went back to writing.

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No, young lady and old lady . . . thank you!

As I sat there, though, my insides were calm and blessed. It felt like a gentle spirit breeze or a hug held for three extra seconds. Ah! In half-a-minute’s time, a young woman, maybe twenty-five, tapped me on the arm and handed me a gift card. “I saw what you did,” she said. “There’s $5 on this. We’re just not nice enough to each other in this world. Thank you.”

Hey, friends, this is not about me. I’m sitting guess where again this morning and thinking about the reason my soul knew healing after doing what all of us would have done: maybe we were built to look out for each other, so when we actually manage to do so, it feels like Eden–the place we were intended to be all along. Plenty of shade. Food enough for everybody. Kind faces everywhere you look.

Did the Loving Creator make us for grace and mercy? I hope so. I think so. That would mean there’s good hope for the world.

Love,
John

Coming to Myself from a Distant Country

Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. (The Gospel of Luke 15:11-24)

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The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773) by Pompeo Batoni (Credit: Wikipedia)

Most Christians I know read this Parable of the Prodigal Son from the perspective of the faithful son, whose verses I didn’t include. He worked hard for his father “all these years” and stomps off, resentful that his narcissistic punk brother is about to enjoy some “fatted calf.”

I understand the faithful son, but more often I feel sympathy for the Prodigal son. Now let’s be clear: for the first part of the parable, he is—to employ a theological term—an asshole. Imagine proposing to your folks that they hand over your inheritance before they die. It’s amazing that the father doesn’t simply have his son flogged or thrown off a cliff. But he doesn’t, and off the kid goes to get sozzled and satisfied.

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The Prodigal Son Living with Harlots by Johann Wolfgang Baumgartner (1712-1761) (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Having missed any early-adult period of drunkenness, debauchery, and licentiousness, I don’t relate to that side of the Prodigal son. Instead, I find myself standing with the hungry kid and the pigs at that moment “when he came to himself.” What gorgeous phrasing! The New International Version of the Bible says, “when he came to his senses,” but “came to himself” more accurately describes a universal human experience. At least it resonates with me.

Here’s my prodigal process. In the parable, the son, wanting to party and get horizontal, leaves behind his best self, the self he comes to recognize only by getting his face rubbed in pig sludge. He also happens to travel to a different country. My story works differently, but ends the same. I stay right where I am and come to understanding not dallying with prostitutes—I do drink some wine—but frittering away my inheritance by succumbing to stressors that seem perfectly matched to my weaknesses.

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If I looked this good anxious, I might not complain. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I don’t know what the Prodigal’s household was like. (Yes, it’s a parable, so there’s no real background, but work with me here.) Maybe he was pampered. Maybe he got away with everything. His big brother probably hated him from the start. And since nothing was ever good enough for the Prodigal, the second he passed puberty a hedonistic frenzy was inevitable.

The Coleman household for me, the youngest of four children, was full of love, but like so many families of my generation, we panicked at any rocking of the boat. Many people my age know exactly what I’m talking about, and whole disciplines and vocabularies have evolved to explicate and heal family systems and all the frazzled, wounded boomers they’ve produced.

Don’t rock the boat: the colloquial mantra of 2225 Wagner Avenue. Of course, I didn’t have the maturity to realize it at the time, but being outwardly upset or angry was not acceptable. When it happened, everyone’s guts turned to water. A top priority, then, wasn’t to be happy and well-adjusted (who knew what that meant back then?). Just let the waters be calm! As long as we were acting okay, then everything was okay. Yeah, sure.

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Ah, still waters! Might be Three Mile Island, Love Canal, and Vesuvius underneath, but as long as there aren’t any whitecaps, we’re solid. (Credit: Thomas Bresson on Wikimedia Commons)

I can’t speak for my siblings, but this fallacy has followed me into adulthood and climbed the walls of my psyche like ivy. Over the last thirty years, this plant has been ferocious. Whereas the Prodigal got lost in harlots, booze, and hunger, I’ve found myself lost dozens of times over the years when people don’t act okay. Nothing different than back home. When someone isn’t being normal, then do something to get ‘em normal again! Don’t fix the problem, mind you, but get ‘em normal. (Let me state, again, my home when I was growing up had much to praise. Everyday wasn’t a dysentery epidemic. And on a different subject, I’ll also toss out, if you’re going to get lost in something bad, reckless sex and drunkenness might be more fun than crippling anxiety and paralysis, but I can only speculate here.)

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Sometimes ivy takes over so it seems like there’s more plant than stone. (Credit: Psyberartist on Wikimedia Commons)

So the Prodigal “comes to himself” standing in a field with pigs and staring longingly at what one blogger says are carob pods. Hunger has granted him an epiphany: “What in God’s name are you doing? Go back to yourself. Whatever is good and wise within you, return to that. Now!” I envision him taking those first steps back toward himself. The parable teaches that the young man is going back to his father (God), but I choose to hang onto those words, “when he came to himself,” and let God and the son marry. The long walk toward God is the walk toward himself.

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Mmm! An overripe, dehydrated banana? A used, sunbaked . . . ? Oh, never mind? Carob pods. (Credit: Roger Culos on Wikimedia Commons)

A few twilights ago at 4:10 a.m., my walk began, not away from squandering inherited wealth, but from squandering myself. I awoke content. For the most part, this isn’t how things have been going over the last couple of years. I’ve been feeling the crack, sting, and ache of ivy digging into my brick and mortar. So what do you do when you’ve been hurting lately, and contentment shows up a couple hours before the alarm goes off?

Pee. That was my first decision. My second was to prop myself up in bed next to sleeping Kathy and pray. And breathe. And enjoy. Then, like the Prodigal, I came to myself. I have no clue why. All I know is that I somehow saw clearly the fallacy I’ve been living under for far too long. Weakened by the pull and weight of my personal ivy, I’ve gotten lost. Prayer, running, and dietary sanity—outward signs of the inner John—have shrunk or ceased altogether. I used to get up before dawn to pray and write, then jump into company time. Most days included four or five miles on the track. Meals weren’t perfect, but they were generally mindful.

Well, in recent months you can forget all that shit. So why, as I sat straight up with the cool, dark air touching my arms, did I come to myself? “What in God’s name are you doing? Go back to yourself. Whatever is good and wise within you, return to that. Now!”

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Son Micah working on a two-pound Rice Crispy Treat after a hard day of painting. Laughter comes more easily after I find myself

I guess the timing of my Prodigal moment doesn’t matter. Nor do I need a reason that I felt welcomed and embraced, as if I had left myself for a distant country and returned. An embrace. My body received it, as when your chest meets another chest and you rest your cheek on a beloved shoulder and know you’re not lost anymore.

In the parable, the father sees his son in the distance and runs out to hug and kiss him. Then they finish the walk home. I got hugged and kissed, too. Maybe it didn’t come from God, but it sure seemed like a greater “Welcome home, son!” than I could have given myself.

This home isn’t on Wagner Avenue or Shenley Drive. It’s the home I believe we all have to find for ourselves over and over again. For me, it’s about “coming to myself”: held close by One who rejoices that I’m found, sitting next to my sleeping wife, putting my soul’s arms around all those I love, and believing that Mystery has ways of making weak brick and mortar strong again.

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My soul’s arms hold Cole when I come to myself

An Overcast Sky Sings My Revelation

Note: All photographs in this post appear courtesy of Giuseppe Colarusso. Mr. Colarusso, I’m in your debt. Thank you.

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Have you ever had a morning when the environment collaborated with your spirit to yield a revelation?

A gentle rain persists out Starbucks’ window—looks like all-day. The Neil Young songs playing are mostly unfamiliar, but his voice, mournful and easy, soothes me. Milan, the manager of a tuxedo store in the Millcreek Mall, just showed me some absurd photographs by Giuseppe Colarusso, and laughs poured out of my tears reservoir. Damn, it felt good! (I’m convinced, by the way, that sorrow and joy swim in the same waters.)

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Inside my fifty-two-year-old soul, rain also falls, a voice that sounds a bit like crying sings, and here and there, cleansing laughter comes out, inappropriately loud, and turns heads toward me. I’m having a revelation, at once comforting, sad, and playful.

There’s a popular saying these days: It is what it is. Like all maxims it will fall out of favor soon enough, but I plan to appreciate It is what it is (IIWII: pronounced eye-why) while it’s around. IIWII says, “Okay, everybody, the time for acceptance has arrived. We can talk lots more about the situation at hand, complain, dissect, laugh, kvetch, wrestle, curse, and so on. But we should understand that, despite our best efforts, some things aren’t going to change. So let’s just deal. Let’s move on.”

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In this same spirit, a voice like Neil Young’s sings loving words into the ear of my heart. They sound like this overcast sky looks—pale gray pillows: “John, you are who you are.”

Has your life run like mine? Do you struggle to change characteristics that seem, as the years unfold, like matters of wiring? Do you promise yourself that the next time such and so happens, you’ll do better? You’ll be stronger, calmer, smarter, more centered, less sensitive, or whatever more or less you need to be? If your life hasn’t gone this way, you may want to escape and read something more in line with your reality. But if my questions resonate with you, I have one more for the list: At what point in the progression of decades is it best to say, “I am who I am. It’s time to make decisions based on the person I am, not on the person I would like to be”?

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In March of 2006, I wrote in my book Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs to my future children’s—Elena’s and Micah’s—children about identity:

Be warned: the blood in your veins will predispose you to Coleman attributes, some of which you’ll like, and some you won’t. I would like to pick which of my qualities you’ll inherit and which ones will pass you by, but we both know fate doesn’t work that way.

Elena and Micah got your grandmother’s strong, crooked teeth rather than my straight, weak ones, which is to their advantage. Braces can align smiles, but the only cure for rotten teeth is pliers. Micah, who at fourteen brushes his teeth only when I remind him, had zero cavities at his checkup a couple weeks ago. Elena, who at seventeen brushes like a grown up, had two puny cavities. By the time I was their age, I had a couple dozen fillings. If your teeth fall apart, blame me.

Elena inherited my hips, which were wide even when I was running forty miles a week, but Micah got a skinny frame. If you carry extra pounds from the waist down and end up with pants tight at the hips but baggy at the waist, blame me.

When you glance at your reflection in a storefront window and wonder how you got to be who you are, you’ll have plenty to blame me for.

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Mark Twain was supposed to have said, “I’ve had lots of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” If you squander days fretting about problems that never materialize, blame me. If you have bottomless patience, too much patience, occasionally stupid patience, blame me. If you’re smart enough to spot brilliance in others, but aren’t brilliant yourself, blame me. If you endure inexplicable anxiety and depression, blame me. If arguments leave you weary and shaken, blame me. If anything gorgeous makes your spirit ache, blame me. Blame me and forgive me.

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In the eight years that have passed, little has changed. If anything, I may have lost ground where inner-strength and tranquility are concerned, and I’m just as vulnerable in relationships as ever. I am what I am. So, in this moment, Neil Young sings me a question: “Is it time shape your circumstances around the person you are rather than force the person you are to strain and stretch around your circumstances?”

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Does that make any sense? Does there come a point in the maturation process at which you decide to stop trying to muscle your way again and again through situations you weren’t designed to endure? Can there come a revelation when you see clearly that loving and embracing the person you know yourself to be requires that you say goodbye to the person you would prefer to be?

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Such a moment descended on me with this morning’s precipitation. For most of my adult life, I’ve been trying to transcend troubles like a levitating bodhisattva or Jesus asleep in the stern during the storm. Turns out I’m as loving and compassionate as they come, but I’m in equal measure fragile and nervous. I’m not enlightened. And a mustard seed is a boulder next to my faith—if, indeed, faith means an abiding sense of peaceful trust.

I’m a guy sitting in a coffee shop full of pilgrims on a gray day—a guy with more years behind than ahead who has finally, mercifully, gently realized that I am who I am needs to prune IIWII, plant fresh manure around its roots, and dance prayers for rain and sunlight.

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This damp Monday is nurse-wife Kathy’s day off from trying to kick cancer’s butt. Obituaries of her patients say day-by-day, “IIWII.” She loves me in spite of my snoring, recognizes that IIWII is spanking me good, and agrees that it’s time to dance and pray. We’ve made an offer on a fixer-upper, 854 square feet, on the other side of town. Maybe we’ll hear something this week. Boy oh boy, will we have to trim away at what our present 2,100-square-foot house holds—if our bid tops the flipper we’re up against.

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No matter. Who cares if the clouds sprinkle me on the way to the truck? I’ll head for church work, knowing that IIWII often has the last word, but not today. (Does IIWII have you by the throat? I’m thinking strength your way!) Lovely Kathy and I may move into a puny house–or not. Either way, I will toast the bodhisattva Jesus I would prefer to be, give him a kiss, and tell him it’s time to move along.

P.S. The flipper won this round.

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Giuseppe Colarusso