A Man of Second Chances

The late Trappist monk Thomas Merton included the following confession in one of his famous prayers:

I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself . . . .

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Optimism

Me, neither, especially the last part. If you want to know the truth about me, best ask somebody else. But one thing I have learned over the years is that I’m an optimist, occasionally to the point of foolishness. How I know this doesn’t matter. I just know.

At 6:20 this morning I woke up ahead of the alarm. This was a good waking, not the wretched sort when you would pay a $100 or sell one of your nostrils for just one more hour of sleep before heading off to work or chores. I was fresh, mulling over the fine possibilities on the horizon.

Before my twenty minutes of prayer, I listened to The Writer’s Almanac podcast, which concluded with a poem by Rita Dove entitled “Dawn Revisited.” The first lines had me:

Imagine you wake up

with a second chance

Heck, yeah! I believe in second chances, endless chances. (I would like to share the entire poem, but copyright blah blah blah.) The following made my soul’s lungs fill with new air:

The whole sky is yours

to write on, blown open

to a blank page. Come on,

shake a leg!

Preach it, Rita! Every once in a miraculous while, my spirit’s stirring converges with a friend’s innocent remark or an adagio or a poem. As soon as I finished pray-meditating, I actually wanted to “shake a leg,” and here a voice visited with encouragement: “Come on!”

The poet spoke about three hours ago, and I’m still rolling. Afternoon can be a slog because old wounds and griefs sometimes visit; breathing gets leaden. My past has strong hands, which it uses to grab my throat and back me up against a cinderblock wall. “Listen, little bitch,” the past says, “you’re not going anywhere.” It squeezes harder: “Just try to heal up and move on, punk!”

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Cold, bright day. A new blue page ready for words.

Sometimes, but not today. Sadly, I’m not a fighter, so I won’t be telling the old hurts to “go pound salt.” A story is told about Mahatma Gandhi being confronted by an angry man threatening violence against him. Gandhi embraced the man, who collapsed in tears. I’m no Gandhi, but this is my way. Today, if the past intrudes, I’ll kiss its lumpy head and say, “Not today. I’ll take care of you, but you’re not going to choke me.” In other words, I’ll breathe and keep shaking a leg.

Such mindfulness and discipline take a lot of energy. Still, the sun is bright, the sky is clear, and I have hope. Wednesday, February 25th is a second chance. Actually, I’ve lost count of what chance this day is. Above my desk at the church I have a drawing of a bald man sitting in meditation (in Desert Wisdom: Sayings from the Desert Fathers by Yushi Nomura). The caption in calligraphy goes,

Abba Poeman said about Abba Pior

that every single day he made a fresh beginning.

What luck! This morning must be my millionth chance, since I often start over a couple times during my waking hours. The present can be better than the past.

So, goodbye for now. I need to go write on the sky.

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Joy Whispers to a Cracked Rib

Think the movie Home Alone. Think Joe Pesci’s character slipping on icy concrete, going airborne, and slamming down on his back.

That was me two Sundays ago, on my way to church, where I had to breathe and make sense. The difference was, Pesci’s stuntman actually took his fall. As a middle-class, middle-aged man, I personally came down on a step and cracked a rib. Before the echo of my shout died, I thought, “Wow, that was loud. Neighbors will come running.”

A couple of them did hear, I learned later, but thought nothing of it. I lay there, unaware that old #12, that southern most of ribs connected to the spine but not the cage, was compromised. “Did you puncture a lung, Mr. Wingtips?” I wondered. After thirty seconds, I said, “Well, I guess we’ll find out.” I rolled to my feet, staggered to my truck, and drove to clergy work, which included crouching to look toddlers in the eye and telling them that Jesus loves them just the way they are. Doesn’t matter if they’re autistic, hyper, or angelic. Whatever. Jesus loves them. (Don’t ask me how I know this. I just know!)

In the nearly two weeks since my slapstick, my cracked rib has led to a couple of insights.

1.) Yes, the stabbing pain is inconvenient, but I’ll take it over bronchitis, the flu, or even the common cold. Sitting still works wonders for rib pain but does nothing to stop coughing and sniffling.

2.) Cleansing breaths are a blessing. At no point did taking great lungs full of air hurt, so I figure I got off easy. Coughs, sneezes, laughs, yawns, and—of all things—burps were followed by yelps or arghs.

3.) Slow down and wise up! The icy step that got the better of me was clearly slippery. I could see as much and thought, “I’m going to text [wife] Kathy when I get to church and ask her to salt the steps.” I was in a hurry; even so, I put my left foot down with slow-motion, geriatric caution, like I was testing pool water with my toe. No matter: away I went. Starting with that moment I looked up at the leaden sky and wondered about the damage, I’ve been trying to pay attention. “Curl your fingers back when you chop celery, John.” “Take your time walking across that freshly mopped floor.” And even, “Slow down and taste your food.” If only I were half as much a gourmet as a gourmand!

4.) Losing a little weight would go a long way. I’m not sure whether my back fat cushioned my landing, but I know belly blubber makes me lumbering—not to mention I can hear carbon dioxide hissing from my lips when I tie my shoes.

Important as all these lessons are, I’m most grateful that my cracked rib continues to reinforce an observation I wrote about recently, one that has made me feel light and hopeful at least as often as bummed and brooding: Disaster and injury shout. Joy whispers. Crap shines a klieg light in your face. Blessing relies on stick matches.

On that Sunday of the fall, with my roar still sounding over Erie’s bayfront, the family (that would be Kathy, son Micah, daughter Elena, son-in-law Matt, and grandson Cole) had dinner at Cole’s house. When Kathy and I walked in the door, we found the little man asleep on the couch.

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This face wouldn’t be cherubic much longer.

Since it was around 5:30, Cole needed to get up so he would have some tired left for bedtime. Elena woke him up, which led to a case of the grumps and snivels. Grandma Kathy took a bullet for the unit and distracted Cole with her iPad—poor Kathy!

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I have no idea why Cole is naked. When I saw this, I thought, “So what if he goes.” That’s love, I guess.

When food time arrived, Micah took over, feeding Cole toddler friendly bits from his antipasto. They sat together for what seemed a long time to me, spaced out on the recliner as ibuprofen conversed with sassy #12. I remember thinking that at twenty-three, sharing my salad with a wee squirm-ster would have held zero interest. Micah gleefully babysits his nephew and plays with him until Cole squeals and Unka Mike is sagging.

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Cole, wearing the bathrobe Grandma Kathy made for him, poaching Uncle Micah’s salad.

Two days later, just as the ancillary sites I’d offended were registering their complaints, I received a short via text message from Julie, who recently moved with her husband and three daughters from Erie to Lexington, Kentucky. I had posted my antics on Facebook, and the girls had something to tell me.

It can be hard to hear the well wishes of children and a grandson who can now say please, baaaa, uh oh, bye, hi, and I you (I love you). Rage and rancor are such bigmouths. Blessing won’t bluster. I have to be mindful, listen, and refuse to let the world’s volume trick me. Peace and gladness thrive only if I take the trouble to look.

One more piece of evidence: late the other night as I was driving home after church work, the gravitational pull of 322 Shenley Drive made me want to lean on the gas pedal. I didn’t speed, but I wanted to. Why? My urgency was about going to bed. Kathy and I would get under the covers, maybe watch a little TV and talk for a while. Then we would sleep. Our skin would touch along our bodies. I would kiss her shoulder.

Now don’t start hearing “Brick House” in your head. No singing—and I quote—“Chicka bow chicka bow bow.” Think overweight, pasty man with cracked rib. Seriously, cut it out!

The tug I felt on I-79 was love. How quiet and blessed is this? I wanted to get home to be with my wife, fall asleep next to her, and draw her close. Creation’s groans never let up, but, I knew, grace would whisper us to sleep. I intended to listen.

In Gratitude for Annoyance

There’s no denying, over the last two years I’ve been out of sorts. A Napper’s Companion has often been a long-suffering sounding board as I’ve droned, waxed, and howled. Sure, joy has visited for long spells, but if life were a bar graph measuring months, more than a few of them would dip below emotional zero.

When feeling sorry for yourself becomes a habit, it’s actually refreshing to find yourself merely annoyed rather than crestfallen. Narcissus stared into a pool of water and beheld his beauty. I’ve only recently pulled my gaze away from my navel, which is a deepening pool of the unspeakable—I speak literally here. Weight loss is in my future. Anyway, events that would have reduced me to curses and sighs a few months ago now hardly register on my graph. In fact, I’ve been laughing.

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Narcissus by Caravaggio (Credit: Wikipedia)

“Laughing? The hell you say, John!” Yes, from the belly right into the crevasses of existential paper cuts. Feels good.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that wife Kathy and I bought a 1000 square foot house. Downsize and all that. Kathy loves me, but doesn’t fully trust me to do grown-up quality work on the new place. So far I’ve been cleared to wipe down shelves and cabinets with Murphy’s Oil Soap, prime old thirsty walls and our bedroom closet, and scrub and sweep the basement. Fans of physical comedy would pay up if I could produce a video of my efforts.

Painting a closet is like doing calisthenics in a phone booth. I got flat white prints everywhere on my person, not from my brush, but from bumping into what I just painted. The language was mild but repetitive, damn it after damn it plunking as if from a leaky faucet. The worst part was tapping all quarters of my head against wet shelves. (Former owners, Mr. and Mrs. Tyler, God rest them, were a shelf- and hook-happy Depression-era couple. Random hooks and shelves stick out from walls, woodwork, and crannies like Betty White flipping me the bird. How many items can you actually hang up? Used and washed Saran Wrap to dry? Lonely socks?)

When the job was finished, I expected to see in the mirror a balding man with ridiculous blotches of paint all over his head. The sad fact was, aside from an Ash Wednesday-level smudge on my forehead, nothing much had changed. Turns out flat-white primer is a good match for my hair. I can apply Just for Men Touch of Gray, paint another closet, or go natural? It’s good to have options. My policy is to refrain from laughing at my reflection, but in this case I gave in.

Video of basement duty would appeal to folks comfortable laughing at actual pain. The space is clean, dry, and stand-up-friendly, mostly. A couple of fixtures make this six-foot man dip, and one run of ductwork can be cleared only by a hobbit. Of course, units of especially dusty shelves ran parallel to the damn it ductwork. During the three hours I spent bobbing, weaving, push-brooming, scrubbing, and absorbing the perfume of Murphy’s Oil Soap, I forgot to limbo ten times. Ten matches of fathead versus galvanized steel. Two knocks resulted in language. A few got harrumphs, and the rest snorts. A week later, my head still looks like a wounded cantaloupe.

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Yes, this is my scalp. God help me. And, heck, why not an age spot or two?

Fortunately, I don’t have any goose eggs as big as our black Lab-terrier mix Watson’s. The fatty tumor on his left flank is so ridiculous we finally took him thirty minutes from Erie to a veterinarian who specializes in animal homeopathy and chiropractic. As I wrote recently, the old mutt is gimpy, and the present steroids and NSAIDs don’t seem to be helping much.

When the veterinarian entered the examination room, I liked him before he said a word—a skinny old guy wearing jeans, a craze of wiry gray hair, and a bushy mustache. He could have been Clem Kadiddlehopper’s brother. (I mean that as a compliment.)

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Red Skelton (center) as Clem Kadiddlehopper. (Credit: NBC TV on Wikimedia Commons)

He talked rapidly and passionately, flitted in and out of the room to mix potions, and finally poured out on the counter bottles, an envelope, and a medicine dropper. With no other social segue than “okay, bye” he was back into his homeopathic sanctum. We paid, hoisted Watson into the truck, and headed for home.

On the way down, in the vet’s office, and on the way back to Erie, Watson was calm. As soon as we were in the door, Kathy administered the first dropper full of homeopathic pain relief. Did the new experience send a ripple along Watson’s bowel? Make him feel momentarily tipsy? I’m not sure what he felt, but I know squirtle when I smell it. That’s what we call doggy fear fluid in the Coleman household. I’m used to dogs squirtling in the car or at the vet’s office, but safe at home, the ordeal passed?

He lay beside me at the dining room table, dazed and wretched. His eyes said, “Yeah, yeah, I know. Sorry.”

Dear blogging friend naptimethoughts explained to me in a generous comment the anatomical cause for squirtle and described how the sacs in question sometimes have to be manually expressed. My grand-dog Layla occasionally gets plugged up, and her vet offered to show daughter Elena how to glove up and give relief right at home for free. “Ah, no.”

Last evening Kathy and I made a run to the new house and took Watson along. Was it that my lift into the truck squeezed his belly? Or has he acquired a hair trigger? Whatever the case, the cab hazed over with Eau de Sacs. Today in frigid Erie, Pennsylvania, the sun warmed the truck seats, normally a bonus. Obviously, nature toasted the spots where my old pal pressed his rumpus against the fabric, freeing up the squirtle for continued enjoyment.

Ah, if the day’s worst ambush is a dropper-full of Watson’s anxiety juice, I’m golden. Is it possible to find an elderly dog’s harmless infirmity endearing? I think so.

It’s at least as possible as enjoying the supreme annoyance that is football’s Super Bowl. The family was over, and we took in the Seattle Seahawks’ last offensive play, when team strategists squirtled away the game by passing from the one yard line rather than handing the ball to Media Day wag Marshawn Lynch.

The highlight of the game for me was halftime. Katy Perry rode a twinkling gold behemoth and ascended into artificial fog, but grandson Cole stole the show. Sitting in Kathy’s lap, he made the best possible use of the spectacle: his fine eyelids slipped, slipped, slipped.

As I watched Cole’s commentary, I thought something that might seem dark at first: if somehow we humans aren’t suited for eternity, if an arbitrary sac of years in the here and now is all we get, then I might be okay with that. I hope for forever, but I got to watch this boy in his grandmother’s lap, as treasured and lovely as can be. Katy Perry fell quiet, or may as well have, and I figured that witnessing such love was more than enough justification for a lifetime.

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My grandson in his wagon: take that, Katy Perry! (Credit: Elena Thompson)

In the annoyance and blessing of recent days, I’m starting to feel whole again. I guess that’s what I’ve been trying to say. I could learn to like this.