Naming Monsters on Black Friday

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Birthday-boy Cole and his sister Layla catching a nap

Friday, November 28, 2014: While millions of Americans fed this day’s gaping maw of capitalism, I engaged in my own form of madness. For seven hours I sipped decaf redeye after decaf redeye at a Starbucks miles away from the shopping traffic and named monsters. Daughter Elena sewed and stuffed fifteen of the little weirdos, and my charge was to come up with biographical snippets for each of them. My motivation was compelling: each monster would be given to a young guest at grandson Cole’s first birthday party this coming Sunday. Parents would read the bio; kids would squeeze, lick, and gnaw on Elena’s handiwork. In the midst of much online research, I informed my erudite table mates of incidentals (e.g. kangaroos do not, in fact, burp) and learned, stifling laughter, what “upper decking” means. When at last I looked up from the screen to see the patrons spinning–no lie!–I knew it was time to go home for a nap. When I awoke, I had a Philly cheesesteak with handsome Cole and family, then sent the following to Elena in preparation for Sunday. Enjoy . . . if you dare.

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Battersby “Juano” de Vamp

Battersby “Juano” de Vamp: Battersby’s love for the night life and chatting with the ladies led to the first part of his nickname, Juan—this being Don Juan, a fictional character who enjoys hanging out with women. The “o” part of his nickname came from his buddies, who discovered that “Juano” rhymes with “guano,” which is bat poo. But don’t worry about Battersby. He gets his pals back by sneaking bites of their cheesecake—when they go out for dinner—and leaving his distinctive single tooth mark in their dessert. Juano’s favorite Maya Angelou quote: “I don’t trust any [monster] who doesn’t laugh.”

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Babbatte “Hang” de Vamp

Babbatte “Hang” de Vamp: Babbatte’s nickname, which she would gladly lose, comes from her childhood inability to say “fang.” “Listen, young lady,” her mother would say, “get back into that bathroom and brush and floss your fang.” Babbatte would insist that she already “bussed her hang,” the “f” sound being painful for little de Vamps, until they build up a callous on their lower lip. Hang wears ribbons on her ear and bats her eyelashes to make a point: “There’s a lot more to me than this pearly white fang!” Babbatte’s favorite Katherine Hepburn quote: “If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.”

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Kenneth “Ken” Knipmeier

Kenneth “Ken” Knipmeier: Everyone thinks “Ken’s” nickname is short for “Kenneth.” Not so. Ken grew up playing with his older sister Babs’ Ken dolls. When his friends played “snow wars” with G. I. Joes, Ken brought a Ken doll to the battle, insisting his Ken’s ski outfit would keep him warmer than the soldiers’ thin layer of olive and black camo. From childhood on, Ken always made it a point to follow his own instincts. Kenneth’s favorite Chinese proverb: “A wise [monster] makes his own decisions, an ignorant [monster] follows the public opinion.”

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Barbra “Babs” Knipmeier

Barbra “Babs” Knipmeier: The unusual spelling of Barbra’s first name can be blamed on singer Barbra Streisand, after whom she was named. From the time she could hold something and babble at it, she clutched a Barbie doll. For a short time, Barbra’s parents called her Barbie. At her first birthday party, however, Dad put on a bootleg Streisand’s Greatest Hits CD. When “[Monsters, monsters] who need [monsters], are the luckiest [monsters] in the world,” tears ran down Barbra’s cheeks. She wasn’t sad or hungry or poopy. She was verklempt. “Oh,” Mom said, remembering the singer’s nickname, “our little Babs is crying. My word, how sensitive she is!” During her rebellious teenage years, Babs was crazy for Madonna, but now considers her namesake the best female artist now living. Barbra’s favorite Barbra Streisand quote: “There is nothing more important in life than love.”

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Rosalyn “Ozzie” Hightower

Rosalyn “Ozzie” Hightower: How many monsters have nicknames because other monsters mess up their regular names? Rosalyn—born an identical twin—got stuck with “Ozzie” because her sister Jocelyn couldn’t say “Rozie.” Ozzie doesn’t hold a grudge, though, since she has other challenges to overcome. Even with all the odd appearances in the monster world, Ozzie, with eyes perched on arm-towers and baby in a pouch, gets teased by other monsters. She wears a smile because she refuses to be bummed out by smart remarks. And you’ll never hear a mean word come out of her mouth. Her baby’s name: Jillian. Her favorite Chinese proverb: “A bit of fragrance clings to the hand that gives flowers.”

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Jocelyn “Joey” Hightower (and Jack)

Jocelyn “Joey” Hightower: Jocelyn, born an identical twin, gave sister Rosalyn her nickname, but “Ozzie” returned the favor. Jocelyn’s parents chose her name because it rhymes with Rosalyn—sort of—and planned to call her “Josey,” but “Joey” was the best her sister could do. At first it was “Doughy,” so Jocelyn was at least grateful she escaped being thought of as a dinner roll. Joey is a brave marsupial in a sometimes unkind world, giving lippy monsters a little what-for when they talk smack, especially against Ozzie. She doesn’t go looking for trouble, but she doesn’t hide from it, either. Her baby’s name: Jack. Her favorite proverb: “One can easily judge the character of a [monster] by the way they treat [monsters] who can do nothing for them.”

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Boris “Chops” Pillosevic

Boris “Chops” Pillosevic: Of Serbian descent, Boris got his nickname not from his razor-sharp bottom canines, but from his cheerful, steady nerves in the face of danger and his favorite dish: lamb with a mint, yellow tomato, and sweet corn salsa. In high school, Chops won “The Guy You Want Most in Your Foxhole” Award. Today, he is an interior decorator. His favorite Charles Atlas quote: “Nobody picks on a strong [monster].”

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Nevena “Marigold” Pillosevic

Nevena “Marigold” Pillosevic: Sunny and cheerful by nature, Nevena’s nickname comes from her given name, which is Serbian for “marigold.” Lovely Nevena is easily surprised, which led to school classmates always jumping out from hiding places to scare her. “Ohhh,” she would squeal, then have a giggling fit. No longer in school, Marigold still can’t help watching out of the corners of her eyes for the next prank. Poor girl. Watchfulness is tiring, so she loves to nap, though she spends the rest of the afternoon yawning. Nevena’s favorite Chinese proverb: “You cannot prevent the [monsters] of sorrow from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from building nests in your hair.”

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Retina “Lovey” Glover

Retina “Lovey” Glover: Retina’s nickname comes from many years ago. Her first love, Leonard Palmer, called her “Lovey” because her lips always seemed to be puckered for a kiss, and he couldn’t stop looking into her eyes, all three of them. The name fit then and still does today. If you ever need a monster to talk to, Lovey is the one. No matter your age, she’ll bounce you on one of her knees, kiss your cheek, wink three times, and give you a little hope. Lovey’s favorite Chinese proverb: “One joy scatters a hundred griefs.”

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Leonard “Lensie Poo” Palmer

Leonard “Lensie Poo” Palmer: Leonard’s nickname comes from many years ago. His first love, Retina Glover, called him “Lensie Poo” in a moment of awkwardness. He was so gushy with her, calling her “Lovey” and staring into her eyes, that she said the first cute thing that came into her mind: “Lensie Poo.” Once their circle of friends passed around this juicy gossip, Leonard—a bright, bookish kid—was forever after “Lensie Poo.” He was a little disappointed when, at a monster class reunion, Lovey confessed that nothing in particular was behind his nickname. But Lensie Poo worked with what he had been given, using his warm-and-fuzzy nickname was an ice breaker with strangers. Leonard’s favorite Spanish proverb: “Since we cannot get what we like, let us like what we can get.”

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Cyrus “Clopsy” Henson

Cyrus “Clopsy” Henson: Cyrus, Cyrus, Cyrus! It’s not easy for any monster to grow up perfectly round, but Cyrus’ early life was awkward, indeed, before he learned to roll. Until the age of four, Cyrus moved about the world by flipping himself forward like a pancake. Each time his big, wet eyeball hit sidewalks or hardwood floors, it sounded like a horse stepping in a mud puddle. “Clop. Clop. Clop” So, the other monsters declared, “Clopsy” it was. “Cy,” as his sister is kind enough to call him, doesn’t show his emotions easily. He is the strong, silent type. The only way you know that Cyrus is sad is when he leaves tear drops on his way from point A to point B. Cyrus’ favorite Chinese proverb: “The journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single [roll].”

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Sydney “Cookie” Henson

Sydney “Cookie” Henson: Not many youthful dreams come to pass. So it was with Sydney, who long ago aspired to be an actress. Roles for round, blue characters being rare, she was over-the moon about reading for the role of Cookie Monster on Sesame Street. “The part is mine,” she said, rolling home. Ah, Sydney. Years passed before she stopped complaining about that amiable oaf’s fame. “He is bulky, blue, and hairy,” she would say to anybody who would listen. “So spray paint him white and cast him as the Abominable Snowman!” Her family loved her a lot and told her, “You know, you’ll always be our ‘Cookie.’” The older she got, the more she understood that being her family’s Cookie is better than being a television star. Sydney’s favorite Chinese proverb: “Not until just before dawn do [monsters] sleep best; not until [monsters] get old do they become wise.”

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Rudolph “Rudy” Tuberski

Rudolph “Rudy” Tuberski: There’s absolutely nothing interesting about Rudolph’s nickname. Monsters with his name get called “Rudy,” and he’s fine with that. As any of his buds will tell you Rudy is a real meat-and-potatoes guy, very grounded, no-nonsense. His philosophy is simple: smile, laugh a lot, keep an eye out for your fellow monster, and don’t hog all the gravy in life. Rudolph’s favorite Charles Schultz quote: “Good grief, Charlie Brown!”

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Eartha “Yammy” Tuberski

Eartha “Yammy” Tuberski: Some monsters dislike their given names. Growing up, Eartha complained to her parents: “Eartha! Eartha! Where in the world did you get that name? It makes me sound like a clump of dirt.” In truth, Eartha was a great kid. Her parents were loving and gentle. And she did her chores, minded her manners, got good grades, and was about as happy and playful as the next monster. Still she couldn’t stop griping about her cloddish name. Patient as her parents were, her brother Rudy reached his breaking point. “Good grief,” he hollered one day, “will you quit your yammering.” Thereafter, in his youthful insensitivity, he called her “Yammer,” and in tender moments, “Yammy.” “Well,” Eartha thought, “at least Yammy sounds cheerful, kind of sweet.” When she introduces herself, monsters figure she is saying, “Tammy,” and, blessed with the wisdom of years, she doesn’t generally correct them. Eartha’s favorite Beatles song: “Let It Be”.

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The first-ever, formal portrait of Loxi “Picabo” Nessor

Loxi “Picabo” Nessor: In spite of Loxi’s endearing smile and welcoming blue eye, she is extremely shy. Her nickname has nothing to do with the old baby “I see you” game. She loves to water ski, but prefers snow, since for mysterious reasons she ends up under the waves rather than on top of them when water is the venue. Loxi watched so many hours of the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary that friends started calling her “Picabo” after the winner of the Super G, Picabo Street. The cute handle embarrasses her, so she closes her eye and dips down her head when she hears it. Loxi’s favorite Rosanne Barr quote: “I’m mostly introspective and don’t talk to [other monsters]. I get into a real quiet, meditative place.”

It’s 11:10 as I sign off. Black Friday of 2014 is almost over. My nap has worn off, and the monsters and Cole are tucked in, the latter until tomorrow morning, the former until Sunday afternoon, when monsters and humans will sing, eat cake, and wish a happy baby many more.

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A Soul Message to My Regulars

Dear Regulars:

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Elena’s old teacher notes that some students can’t find Europe on a map. You never know what the Starbucks regulars will kibitz about. (Credit: Wikipedia)

So what else would I be doing at 8:21 on a Monday morning? I’m at Starbucks, surrounded by regulars: a couple of lawyers dressed for court; a retiree who by coincidence was daughter Elena’s social studies teacher; a young artist who sketches fairies and dragons and buzzes half her skull down to stubble; an engineer numbed by an online meeting; and a woman who pours out her life for children and grandchildren. I’ve talked to all of them, some more than others. They feel like beloved cousins. Such goodness in these folks.

All tables are taken. The guy in my seat tries to pull the reigns on aging and negotiates with a temporarily bum shoulder. “Shoveling snow really did this to you? Do you need three ibuprofen or four?” “Make it four.”

As I sip a refill, the sun shines, then hides, then shines again. Breathing in and out, I think of you, whenever and wherever we inhabited each others’ days:

childhood

high school

college

graduate schools

seminary

old neighborhoods

and

jobs

grocery stores

coffee houses no longer

offices and waiting rooms

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Gilman Hall at Johns Hopkins: it’s been thirty years. Herb and Rosemary, hi! Armand and Lynda, I’ll see you on the other side, right? (Credit: Wikipedia)

You aren’t showing up all at once. No, I receive you one-by-one, gratefully. Caroline. Bill. Jeff. Nancy. A procession of Garys. Because I know others by your names, namesakes straggle in. Welcome, everyone.

Hello, Becky, sister of Steven from Diehl Elementary School. (She had her leg amputated below the knee, then later—I don’t remember how long—she died, ten or twelve. Cancer.) Look into the eyes of glory, Becky. Belly laugh with the other children.

You don’t have to walk among the quick to be one of my regulars.

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Hyacinths always remind me of you, Gram–the curls of your wig.

Grandma Miller, your fingers are folded back into knuckled wings! I see your hair curled like hyacinths and your swollen face, but I can’t hear your voice anymore. I was sixteen. If it is permitted, Gram, please be there to receive me.

Hi, Alice, a wealth of Johns (that sounds wrong in a couple of ways), an embarrassment of Marys, more Kathys than I know what to do with. Matthews and Marks.

Now a tangible Patty shows up to share my table. That’s fine. She brings other Ps with her. Pauls, Pegs, Phils, one Penelope, and a lone Poopsie.

So many Richards and Elizabeths!

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Why have you arrived here, Anne Frank? No matter. All kids’ faces are sweet in my eyes. All are welcome. (Credit: Wikimedia)

What’s this? Jesse? I never knew you, but here you are, a sweet obituary face. Those who love you still dream you in their arms–your dear smile alone tells me this. I wasn’t expecting to welcome strangers to this gathering, but my plans seldom work out. So come in, Jesse. Stand glad with me in this warm light. Thich Nhat Hanh, wake up and bow to me. I’m listening. Rise, Ann Frank. Find your way home, Nigerian school girls. All of you, join Patty and me at this table.

Oh, my Lord, friends I’ve never seen or held are asking to join me in this public grace–names beginning with S, N, R, D, K, C, M. The alphabet isn’t long enough, though, miraculously, there’s room at this table, in this column of sun, for all of you, my regulars of many initials.

I don’t want to pretend. During these coffees in this now constant light, you haven’t all arrived. But wherever you are, I’m waiting. If mornings and afternoons are bitter and twilight is fretful, I’ll sit with you in safety. And if you have too many blessings to carry, hand me a few. We’ll give thanks together and I’ll share what you’ve given with others and probably hang on to one for myself.

I love you, friends. Your faces—skin creased by decades or still fair, eyebrows raised in surprise, or cheeks flushed with excitement or trouble—are dear to me.

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This face, such as it is, welcomes you. Come share the light, rest a while.

If you haven’t visited today, don’t worry. You will soon. Meanwhile, know that whether this day is good enough to travel by its own steam or so lousy it refuses to budge, call on me for a visit. The shoulder pain has eased enough for me to put an arm around you.

We’ll be calm and glad. If clouds take over, so be it. Present to each other–just two or three gathered–we can shine anyway.

Peace and love,

John

Dreaming My Way into an Old Lady House

In the early 1970s writer May Sarton moved from her beloved home in Nelson, New Hampshire, to The House by the Sea (her journal of those days). Like some lucky pilgrims, Sarton had ample time to make her move. “I had two years in which to dream myself into the change,” she writes, “sell Nelson, and pull up roots.”

Kathy and I are in the process of dreaming ourselves not into a spacious home on the coast of Maine, but into a 1,000 square foot house on Erie, Pennsylvania’s east side. Our zip code will go up six digits, but our space will shrink by over half. Downsizing, we’re calling it. We closed on the place a few days ago, but we’ve been picturing what will go where and what will disappear. Kathy is lobbying for an ambitious kitchen remodel; I’m smiling at the corner on the enclosed front porch where my desk and prayer/meditation chair will squat; both of us are imagining.

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A little light in the hallway–just enough

Last evening I said, “You know, we’re going to have to get used to the loss of space and no upstairs.” Kathy agreed, and as I’ve wandered about, distances seem abbreviated. I’m not concerned, though. The rooms are already endearing themselves to me, mainly because I see signs of the former owners everywhere. I’m guessing the husband and wife–the latter perhaps passing recently, the former having departed some years ago–were my parents age, born in the 1920s, shaped by the Great Depression and forged by World War II. Admittedly, all of this is guesswork.

I’ve been calling our new home, which the former owners purchased in 1949, an old lady house. She and her husband could easily have been curmudgeonly and strange, but signs of their thrift and good stewardship have me thinking they were upright folk. He–I’ll name him Ernest–nailed lids to the basement studs and kept screws and nuts in jars twisted secure. He also recycled cabinets, lining them up and keeping, what, half-used cans of paint and turpentine inside. One door near Ernest’s workbench was set up for a padlock, and a mirror strategically angled so he could see who was coming down the steps makes me wonder if he liked to keep a bottle of Gibson’s 8 handy for a secret pick-me-up on boring afternoons.

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Is this what Ernest kept locked up?

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Ernest didn’t have to venture more than five feet from his workbench if the “great whiskey” got to be too much for him.

She–Arlouine, let’s say–kept the well-worn carpets vacuumed. Grab bars in the bathroom suggest she tried to stay in her home as long as possible? But eventually raised toilet seats don’t help much. I imagine her, thin and brittle with iron gray hair, propped up in a nursing home bed, staring into the distance. Was she a fearful soul? I ask only because of something odd left behind in a hall closet.

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Sacred water in profane hands

So Arlouine was Roman Catholic. (We Lutherans don’t go in for Holy Water, our idea being that God has blessed that life source far above our poor power to add or detract.) For a couple days I laughed at the idea of Holy Water in a spray bottle, but Starbucks friend Sean, also a Catholic, gave me a compassionate nudge, probably without realizing it. I don’t remember his exact waords, but when I showed him the photograph he acknowledged the old practice of keeping Holy Water around the house. His take was kind, though, along the lines of “sometimes you’ll try anything that might help.” Point taken. Our fears hide in plain sight, like cobwebs near the ceiling or rust in the medicine cabinet; a spray of blessed water can do no harm.

Arlouine and Ernest’s bedrooms have tile that is so ugly it’s kind of charming.

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I’m not sure what all those tile plants are, but they look to be in pain.

Besides the Holy Water, the best find in the old lady house is the newspaper under the tile. I lifted up a corner to be sure the floors are hardwood–yes!–and found The Erie Daily Times (Night Final) dated November 8, 1949. My own parents’ firstborn, Cathy, was not yet a year old. Mom and Dad are both gone now, and my sister can retire any time she is ready.

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37-cent matinee

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Okay, so skinny depictions of women aren’t exactly new.

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Liquors, a Hammond, and Hazel Lowry’s smooth vocals: 1949 Erie, Pennsylvania, at its most refined

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Captain von Trapp’s first fiancé? I’m not going to lie: I’m frightened.

Oh, Arlouine and Ernest! You put that paper down sixty-five years ago, a prudent layer between the tile and wood. I’ll grant you, there’s no pressing need to update that flooring. Of course, Kathy and I will refinish the hardwood, probably put down a faux Persian rug, something tasteful. If I’m the one who slices your old drab leaves down to trash-bag size with a drywall blade, part of me won’t be happy.

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Possibly more thermometers than electrical outlets in our new home; maybe Kathy and I will keep this one to remind us of Arlouine, Ernest, and all those who have sailed on to glory.

I believe your way is for the best and will try to remember it as I dream my way into your home: Be sure to finish those leftovers. Put that old metal table in the basement and fold laundry on it. Don’t pull up perfectly good tile. And–I confess it makes sense–keep Holy Water in a spray bottle. A mist is more than enough.

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Tabernacle for the Holy Water; all woodwork in the house is like this

 

Thanksgiving Letter to My Late Mother

Dear Mom:

November 8, 2014: your Christmas cactus is in full bloom. It may be my imagination, but every year the blossoms seem to show up a little earlier. We could now call your beloved old plant a Halloween cactus. How many holidays will pass before the pink flowers open up at Easter?

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Your matriarch of Christmas cacti

You know, Mom, you’ve been gone sixteen years, and I always figured that the older I got, the less I would miss you. Actually, the opposite seems to be true. The heaviness in my throat in this moment is greater than when I wrote you last year. The reason is your great-grandson Cole. I imagine the deep gladness you would know in holding him, talking to him as I do, sitting quietly as the minutes pass, watching him in ceaseless motion. You would say the same thing as we do: “He’s so busy.”

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Your busy great-grandson in his Halloween costume–grrrr!

Most Sundays we have family dinner, Mom. I’m not sure why as your son I didn’t insist on this practice years ago, but I didn’t. I’m sorry. People who say that they have no regrets in life probably aren’t looking closely enough. Anyway, after we finished eating, Cole got fussy. Had you been there and not been burdened with arthritis, you would have picked him up and walked around the house, talking to him. I can see you telling your great-grandson about this and that. The decades glow and soften in my mind: there you are, my late mother holding my beloved grandson. It’s nice to see you.

But since you aren’t here—not really—and weren’t there after dinner to occupy Cole, I did. Our first stop was your Christmas cactus. I told him a little about the plant, but before I knew it I was telling him about you. Of course, I said you would love him like crazy and other things you would expect. But as he looked on momentary peace at your plant, I told him that when his mother was a toddler, you peeled grapes for her. Peeling grapes: that’s love. “Your great-grandma would do the same for you,” I said, imagining you putting bits of the pulp into his mouth.

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Was Cole looking at that glow in the center, Mom, the light of forever?

Next stop: the photograph of you in your wedding dress. “My gosh, Cole,” I said, “look at how beautiful your Great-Grandma Coleman was.” I was focused on you and Cole, but was also aware of somebody looking over my shoulder and saying, “Oh, yeah! She was beautiful.”

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You are younger here, Mom, than both of my children are now. It’s hard to make the years stay in the right order.

Tours with tired babies last only so long, so that was about it. Elena, Matt, and Cole packed up and headed home. Tomorrow being Sunday, we’ll go through the same ritual, and most likely I’ll use the spatula from home. No kidding, Mom, every time I pick it up, I remember you. Maybe I’ll show Cole, tell him it was yours.

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Still my favorite spatula

I wish you could be with us. We would sit at the dining room table and look at pictures. This afternoon I was missing you, so I went upstairs and pulled out some albums. Time passed. Two photographs held me up a while: one of Elena and one of Micah. I could see Cole in both of them.

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That’s Elena, Mom. I caught her, promise. That’s also Cole’s face.

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Here’s Micah, Mom, foreshadowing his nephew’s two front teeth and swagger.

I said before you were beautiful, but I’ve become suspicious of time, reluctant to accept its authority over us, covetous of eternity. More must await us beyond this lovely, troubled land, where early we toddle on fair-skinned, sausage legs and late travel tentatively, afraid of the fall that might crack our aching bones. There must be more because you deserve to hold this child, to kiss his promise of red hair—however this can happen in the Eternal Calm and Splendor.

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Kathy used to raise monarchs, Mom, and Elena used to wear them. Wish you could have seen.

So, Mom, I’ll correct myself: you are beautiful. I don’t visit your grave often, with its pound or two of ash and bone the required number of feet below. Better: I exchange this earthly chronology for one I compose myself. I close my eyes. Now, you pass your hands over my children’s cheeks as you did decades ago and speak to them gently. Cole sits on your lap. You bounce him and lean forward to look at his round face. Like the rest of us, you get lost there.

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Cole on pumpkin carving day. We would have rinsed him off and handed him to you.

As you and I sit together, I hold your hand, still the softest I’ve ever known. Since this is my time, your knuckles and joints don’t blossom with arthritis—no pain. I’m looking at your skin and veins, Mom, and kissing your hand. Your eyes are closed. You hear me say, “You live.”

Love,

John

Humility Needed as the New Millennium Clears Its Throat

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It’s chili. You eat it. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Last week while eating lunch at Coffee Culture courtesy of a parishioner’s gift card, I felt them: the twitches of meaningless impulse. Open up the MacBook. Check the iPhone. Write a few notes. Skim the newspaper. These twitches were both mental and physical: adrenaline-fueled, microbursts of habit energy. I saw Ronald Reagan smiling and delivering his famous 1980 debate line to me: “There you go again.”

This is Mindfulness 101! When you eat, eat. When you read, read. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Don’t just do something. Sit there.” I know all this stuff, but even with pray-meditating twenty minutes twice or thrice daily, I constantly forget. Early into my huge Caesar salad and spicy ambush chili, I remembered, “John, you’re allowed to just eat. You don’t have to be doing something else.” As I replay that moment, the image of my late dad pops up, his fussy dementia hands going: fidget, fix, reach, button, smooth, worry. Madness.

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Ahhh. In the chapel at Mount Saint Benedict Monastery.

Don’t be afraid. This is not a rant, kvetch, or lament. Like everybody else, I’m responsible for the state of my own interior, which is getting some special attention these days. This morning I sip coffee and release my old inventory of anxiety, breath by breath. I’m good—well, getting better, let’s say. By 10:00 a.m. I’ll be at Mount Saint Benedict Monastery, trying to stay ahead of worries in progress.

In the words of the recently departed Joan Rivers, “Can we talk?” Is it just me, or is it quite a chore to remain centered as this new millennium clears its throat? Assemble the following ingredients: middle-class income, spiffy technology, and submission to contemporary attitudes toward time and labor; then, bam, like Emeril Lagasse, add pinches of garden-variety stress and a personal crisis or two. What do you get? You get a guy with an expanding torso, irritated tongue, jerking brain and muscles, and pleading spirit: For God’s sake, relax, will you.

The first thirty or so years of my life weren’t jerky. When I think about growing up and even college and graduate studies, 2014’s brisk march of time and frenzy of labor comes into clear view. For years I’ve had Han Solo’s bad feeling about this. Recently I happened upon an article by Dr. Peter Gray, who put some good words to my concerns. He graduated from high school in 1962, a year after I was born, but his description of childhood sounds a lot like mine:

In the 1950s, when I was a child, we had ample opportunity to play. We had school, but school was not the big deal that it is today. Some people might not remember, but the school year then was five weeks shorter than it is today. The school day was six hours long, but at least in elementary school, two of those hours were outdoors playing. We had half-hour recess in the morning, half-hour recess in the afternoon, a full hour lunch. We could go wherever we wanted during that period. We were never in the classroom more than an hour at a time or for four hours a day. It just wasn’t the big deal, and homework for elementary school children was essentially unheard of. There was some homework for high school students, but much, much less than today. Out of school, we had chores. Some of us had part-time jobs, but for the most part, we were free to play for hours a day after school, all day on weekends, all summer long.

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Beloved wife Kathy is still in touch with the power of play. This is our front yard on Halloween. The trick-or-treaters were slack-jawed with wonder.

I don’t know about the shorter school year, but Gray nails it for the 60s and 70s. I neither noticed nor appreciated the wide fields of time that opened up after school and in the summer. My single academic stress was trigonometry. Bless his heart, teacher Chet—an old anomaly who went by his first name—gave me a passing D one quarter to save my National Honor Society hide. Beyond that, my turmoil had to do with divorced parents and withering nerves with the ladies. But when my twenty-two-year-old Micah was in school, the whole family was constantly stressed. The homework was oppressive, especially for a kid who didn’t engage well with books and worksheets. I’m out of the loop now, but can’t imagine the expectations have eased much, if at all.

One of my favorite memories is of Micah’s fourth-grade teacher talking to wife Kathy and me about our son’s messy daily planner. “Daily planner?” I thought, “Micah’s follow through with toilet paper is sketchy, and you want him to keep a to do list? You’ve got to be &^%$# kidding me!” Of course, we nodded politely. Twenty-six-year-old daughter Elena faired much better academically, knocking off homework in study hall and devoting her teenage suffering to bi-polar disorder—at least we think that’s what it was. For me, 1988 through 2012 was a long stretch of parental confusion and convulsion peppered generously with joy.

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Micah in, what, kindergarten? His first grade teacher didn’t have much use for him, with his silly heart.

It would be whiney of me to blame academics for Micah’s troubles growing up, but I saw in his school experience seeds that have grown into the view of life that had me jangled over my lunch last week. I should first say that my son had many wonderful, skillful, appropriately affectionate teachers. My only gripe is with a few along the way who seemed to dislike children.

I get the impression that lots of teachers are frustrated by the Weltanschauung that stresses kids out and has adults multi-tasking themselves into hemorrhages. (Check out the excellent reflections of my blogging friend Beachmum for some insights on how some teachers feel.) We’re caught in a powerful current, a way of being that constantly vexes gladness. This way, the delight of pharmaceuticals, is driven by hubris and faulty assumptions.

We humans are overconfident in our knowledge. It’s an attitude thing. How many of us got pudgy twenty years ago because we watched our fat intake and gorged at the carbohydrate trough? One at least. Today, we’re assured that the sophistication and competence of the United States health care system make an Ebola outbreak here highly unlikely. Forgive my dis-ease. This has nothing to do with researchers, doctors, and nurses, who no doubt take their work seriously and have good intentions. But what seem to me to be preliminary findings are regarded as conclusive.

I may be in the minority, but the precaution of requiring people who have worked closely with Ebola patients to lay low for three weeks seems reasonable to me. Zipping Kaci Hickox into a tent was perhaps unwarranted—even though the tent was inside a hospital building, not outside as I foolishly first thought—but asking her to avoid contact with folks for a while is prudent. Given the ferocity of Ebola, the fuss over a twenty-one-day quarantine is surprising. Is that really a burdensome sentence, even if all the evidence suggests that a health care professional isn’t contagious? I suppose if you’re absolutely positive that we know all there is to know about Ebola, then ¾ of a month feels like a year. (More on time later.)

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How sad: a “really inhumane” recipe. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Kaci Hickox could probably use a port-a-potty, not wash her hands, and stick her fingers in thousands of Maine residences’ mouths and not pass along a single case of Ebola. In fact, I’m not worried, but I do harrumph at the prevailing lack of humility, any sense that our knowledge might be incomplete, indignation toward those who maintain skepticism, and willingness to sling lawsuits so quickly. And Hickox’s comment that her treatment was “really inhumane” may be a stretch. Newark’s University Hospital didn’t shove her adrift on an ice flow; they put her in an indoor tent and brought her Kentucky Fried Chicken.

My point with the examples of carbohydrates and Ebola is that once we’ve decided we know something about science, we dig in our heels. According to Peter Gray, what we know about education and child psychology might also be mucking up future adults. In his aforementioned article, he identifies . . .

a “school-ish view of child development” – the view that children learn best everything from adults; that children’s own, self-directed activities with other children are wastes of time. We don’t often say it that way, but that’s the implicit understanding that underlies so much of our policy with regard to children, so childhood has turned from a time of freedom to a time of resume-building. 

Gray presents convincing evidence that our adult impulse to micro-manage childhood learning and development (i.e. not letting kids play, make up their own rules, work out their own conflicts, and generally not getting the hell out of the way and leave them be) is burdening a generation. Depression, anxiety, and suicide have been on the rise in recent decades. (Here’s a link to his article, “Kids Today Are More Depressed Than They Were During the Great Depression. Here’s Why” if you want his numbers.) My concern: like Gray, I remember when my habit energy wasn’t jangled and so have a shot at making changes to restore my peace. But what if all you’ve ever known is a relentless impulse to accomplish something and a haunting sense that if you’re playing or resting, then you’re wasting time? Gray argues that there is a crucial, “evolutionary function of play.” Again, follow that link if you want to explore his reasoning.

Our experience of time is irrationally rushed and troubled. Isn’t this really the impulse that drives multi-tasking, texting while driving perhaps being the most hazardous example? On his television show Phil Donahue used to hold the microphone in audience members’ faces and say, “So little time.” Those words knuckle our heads and slap our asses. You need to perform several actions at once because you don’t feel like you have enough time.

I offer one flimsy piece of evidence, a phrase that is regularly spoken by my adult children: real quick. Catch the urgency? “Dad, can I see your laptop real quick?” “Dad, can you hold [grandson] Cole real quick?” My thought is generally, “No.” I want you to use my laptop for as long as you need it. And, damn it, you hand me that baby, it ain’t going to be real quick.

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A painting by the late, self-educated Milton Sontheimer, whose work helps me to center myself

As proof that we can safely slow down, I present Milton Sontheimer of blessed memory. Toward the end of his life, which came about a month ago, congestive heart failure had reduced his pace to a crawl, but Milton always moved as if he had more time than he needed. The walls of his home with now-widowed Mary are crowded with his paintings. For years, he baked Communion bread for our church and wrapped it in foil, using and reusing the same piece until wrinkles rendered it flimsy. Wise Milton: no rush—and no waste.

We assume that because technology exists, we should make full use of it. Many thoughtful people are aware of this observation, but I want to credit the last two sages who have brought it to my attention: Beachmum, whom I’ve already referenced (I read back some ways, Mum, and couldn’t find the citation; I know you wrote it, though), and Dr. Brad Binau, a professor from my days at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, whom I mentioned in a recent post. Smart phones, tablets, notebooks, and laptops exercise centripetal force—literally, almost, considering how often my ear and nose are smashed up against my iPhone.

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Our opulent enemy? Why? (Credit: Saberhagen on Wikimedia Commons)

We peer over our reading glasses at people who are apparently lost, confused, or just making up their minds. I’ve learned to be watchful for what I call periods of discernment both in myself and others. In thirteen years as a parish pastor I’ve sat with scores of pilgrims on their way to new lands of the spirit. They wonder what to tell loved ones who want to know what’s up. I suggest, “Tell them you’re taking some time to figure things out.” These are stretches of months, even years, to honor, not stampede through. A couple days ago I heard the following what-I’m-saying story on The Writer’s Almanac about the poet C. K. Williams:

His two greatest passions in high school were girls and basketball. He was a good basketball player, 6 feet 5 inches, and he was recruited to play in college. But then he wrote a poem for a girl he was trying to impress, and she was actually impressed, and so he decided he should be a poet instead. He dropped out of college to move to Paris because that’s where he thought a poet ought to live. He didn’t write at all while he was there, but he did realize that he didn’t know anything and should probably go back to college. He said: “It was an incredibly important time. Not much happened and yet my life began then. I discovered the limits of loneliness.”

My point, I guess: if I’m not willing to be lost, I might not ever be found.

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A three-hour nap in a monastery guest room–a remarkable blessing

Endnote: I did make it to Mount Saint Benedict Monastery. (Obviously I wrote much of this post after my retreat.) I won’t bore you with the whole day, other than to pass along two details. 1.) I took a three-hour nap in the afternoon; the twitches of habit energy wear a guy out. And 2.) I noticed while reciting psalms with the sisters that they spoke more quickly than in the past. Their recitation is still spacious, but the gentle silence between verses is now thin. I don’t know why.

Lord, spare the sisters and us all from contemporary adrenaline and grant us mindful, humble impulses.