A Letter to Parents from a Middle-Aged Pop

A Letter to Parents from a Middle-Aged Pop

Dear Parents (Especially New Ones):

I’m a Christian-Buddhist-pastor mutt in my mid-fifties, married to Kathy for thirty-two years. Daughter Elena and son Micah are grown, the former and her husband Matt having given us grandson Cole and promising us another grand-someone in the spring.

Yesterday Elena, Cole, and I (Pop) went to a nature center for a toddle in the woods. Nearly two, the boy is steady, but the path was strewn with branches and limbs from a recent windstorm. I kept close, spotting his steps, saying in my head, “Don’t fall! Don’t fall! Don’t fall!” My mother did this with me, too, so the anxious parent-grandparent impulse has genetic force behind it.

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Watch out! Don’t get poked in the eye.

Or is the force my childhood home, which was loving and attentive but nerved up? I’m certainly not the first to observe that children take family vibes along when they grow up and move out. I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to love in healthy ways and navigate through anxiety. In my late twenties it was full-blown panic attacks. In middle-age, it’s mostly trying to distinguish love from appeasement and not to turn every emotional speck of stardust into a blackhole. I pray-meditate a lot.

Lately my spiritual practice has drawn me to Tibetan-Buddhist Pema Chodron, whose teachings are weaving themselves into my thoughts and actions. In a recent post, Writing and the Narrative of Suffering, I offer a brief summary of my novice understanding of some key concepts Ani Pema works with. If what follows is interesting, I invite you to have a look.

I was watching one of Pema’s videos this morning when I was grabbed by her flawless diagnosis of my parenting experience:

Trungpa Rimpoche coined the phrase idiot compassion, or you could say idiot loving-kindness. Some of you may have tried raising your children this way and you’re wishing you hadn’t. You can’t bear to see them in any kind of pain, so you give them whatever they want. [Doing this] is like trying to assuage someone’s thirst by giving them saltwater.

I’m overjoyed to report that Elena (27) and Micah (23) are doing well these days, but my unintended lesson about suffering sometimes made their journey a walk on glowing coals. By regularly showing them idiot compassion, I taught them that pain can be eliminated.

Let’s be clear about my motivation. I could claim that I wanted to spare them disappointment, sadness, frustration, whatever, but that was only 25% true. More pressing, say 75% true, was my need to overcome a father’s discomfort. This is idiot compassion, idiot loving-kindness. It could also be called selfish compassion or artificial loving-kindness. I try to make myself better by denying my child the reality every human being has to confront sooner or later: Life is sweet, but it also slaps your heart and punches your spirit.

Years ago in seminary, my Enneagram results indicated that conflict in close proximity could be crippling. Conflict, pissing and moaning kids, discipline and tough calls: It was all crippling, so much so that to find relief I undercut wife Kathy’s strength, wisdom, and wishes.

So Elena wore black makeup, dated guys I should have shown the door, and watched and listened to what she damn-well pleased. And Micah bought weed with money I gave him, dropped out of high school, and put less effort into my feeble attempt at home schooling than I did.

There’s more, some of it worse, but you get the idea. All my reasoning sounded convincing at the time, but now I look back at myself. That younger man was doubled over, rendered frantic and sick by the need to steady the ship, to calm the waters. If you think I was stupid, you’re right.

Given this scathing review of my parenting skills, you might imagine me constantly ripping myself a new one. Other than sighing, I don’t do much self-reproach. What compassion I possess also extends to myself. I mistook indulgence for insight. The glasses I saw through were, in fact, blinders.

So I put down these ideas. I’m not telling you what to do, but mistakes are great teachers. What I believe now is this: Allowing children to experience necessary suffering may well be the highest form of love.

And I’m glad that it’s not too late for me to learn. Cole fell three times on one patch of slick leaves–two near-splits and one averted face plant. I stayed back. He was fine, of course. Someday he’ll get a fat lip or a bruised soul. When he does, I’ll pick him up and tell him the truth: “I know you’re hurt. Sorry I couldn’t stop it. The best Pop can do is stay close and hurt with you.”

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Elena and Cole–three spills later and belly laughing

Peace and love,

John Coleman

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A Pastor’s Goodbye Letter

Dear Abiding Hope Family:

If you’ve been by my office lately, I understand your amazement. You’ve taken in the clutter and generally said boy or wow. The pastor’s study can be like my late mother’s junk drawer. Any object without a clear, immediate destination goes in the junk drawer (a lonely C battery, a half-used packet of mini Kleenex, a ceramic hippopotamus from a box of teabags) or the pastor’s study (a floppy sunhat, an old bag of Swedish fish, an unopened pack of small Depends–someone might be able to use them). One of you winked and mentioned that a huddle formed recently over the need for an intervention.

And you see only part of the squalor. Yesterday I filled five trash bags by emptying out a filing cabinet hidden behind my closet door. Notes from seminary might be interesting as artifacts, but if their contents haven’t already been put in my heart and written on my mind, then I’m in trouble, as is anybody who would call me Pastor.

I’ve gone through hundreds of books and filled two boxes with keepers. Over the years a formidable theological library has happened my way, one collection from a studious pastor ready to retire and another from one who left behind an apartment groaning with bound ideas and counsel. The titles displayed on bookcases look learned, but as gray overcomes the final evidence of brown on my chin, the day has come to admit I’m much more writer than scholar (or theologian in residence, as parish pastors are supposed to be) and more fellow pilgrim than wise guide.

My mess and excess have let these realizations sink in and sharpen my awareness that most of what I’m moving out of the pastor’s study will be stored in my chest along with all I own in bliss and sadness, in the space that holds rants, laughter, and sighs.

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Baby Jesus, bless it all: the old candy canes, the banner, books I’ve never read, the mirror Elena looked into as she put on her wedding gown before I walked her down the aisle, then turned around and did the wedding.

Herbie was a bricklayer disabled young by heart disease. The whole time I knew him he had oxygen slung over this shoulder. Doctors tried everything, even a procedure that included poking holes in his heart. Weary, often in pain, he and his wife Loretta thought and prayed. We were visiting in their living room when she said that Herbie had decided to stop taking medication. The enough moment had arrived.

I sat beside him on his hospital bed, put my arm around his shoulder, and he let go. I’ll never forget the feeling. He cried and sagged against me, and I knew that his soul beheld a journey that starts with surrender. Surrender, that’s what we shared, the final human consent.

I held Herbie around a dozen years ago. When I leave my keys on the desk and walk out of Abiding Hope this coming Sunday, my arm will still be around his shoulder.

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The little key is for the thermostat.

On Sundays during Holy Communion, children come forward for a piece of bread and a blessing. I cheat. Some argue that little ones don’t understand the Sacrament, which may or may not be true, but I’m certain they know what it means not to share what everybody else receives with such reverence and devotion. So I break off a little piece, a foretaste.

I get down in their faces and say, “Now you need to remember, Jesus loves you exactly the way you are.” I don’t pretend to know the mind of God, but if this isn’t true, my ship is going down in boiling water. Anyway, the world devotes much time and effort convincing us to improve, so I figure hearing a word of unconditional love over and over can’t hurt.

When I stand back up from each blessing my knees crack, but I don’t feel a thing. The sacred space in my chest can’t forget the expectant eyes, the whispers of yeah or okay when I tell them to remember.

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“Go in peace! Serve the Lord!” I’ve had this photograph taped on my office door. These kiddos go with me.

Your life is coming in for a hot landing. There might be debris, flames and black smoke. Nothing to do but hang on, so you show up at my messy office, where you predict the devastation, anticipate the casualties. You need Kleenex.

Cancer. Betrayal. Death. Joy, too, babies and victories. But whether you’re in a free fall or glad flight, the pastor’s study is mainly a place to search through the box of answers you bring with you and to remember, always remember: In messes or atop mountains, we’re never alone. Our Unseen Guest, as my Grandpa Miller called Him in table grace, is with us, but when you and I hold hands and pray, we’re way beyond caring whether God is a boy or girl. We believe in the One in whom we live and move and have our being: God. Those three letters are plenty. The wreck may end up worse than you fear. We look at the cross and recall that Jesus crashed hard. With uncertainty scattered everywhere, we breathe in God’s old promise: “I will not leave you or forsake you.”

A promise and each other, that’s what we’ve got. When you walk out of my office, you leave me a gift that I’ll always hang on to: the image of your face as we crossed the valley of shadows and how it brightened when you felt the Unseen One traveling with us.

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Your chair, holding a box of keepers. It will still be waiting for you when the next pastor arrives.

Your face. Abiding Hope faces. I keep them all in a safe place. And I want you to know, I have the faces of those you love and have gone on to glory.

At the funeral home, after everybody passes by the body, I stay behind. The funeral directors close the doors, then lower your loved one into the coffin and fold in the fabric. I watch. I want to be the last person to see that face because love should consume the moment. I see to that. Before the lid clicks shut, I say inside, “I’m still here. You matter.”

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Beloved Abiding Hope faces, the quick and the dead. Old brother Earl (front row) has gone on to blessed rest.

Of course, I will carry with me some objects that bear weight. The two most important are t-shirts that have a story behind them. They came from you, though you may know nothing about them.

During my first few years at Abiding Hope we had a fair number of teenagers, my daughter Elena and son Micah among them. Our youth group was lively, and two adult advisors made t-shirts for everyone. The trouble was, Micah wasn’t much interested in participating, heading as he was down a dark path that involved black clothes and a volcanic temper.

One evening when I showed up for an activity, Karri handed me a white shirt with “Pastor John” embroidered under “Abiding Hope.” White was our color. But then she handed me a black one with “Micah” and “Abiding Hope” in a barely visible dark purple: “If he won’t wear white, maybe he’ll wear black.” Mary did the stitching, I believe, but I don’t know who came up with the idea.

Over the years I’ve grown to understand that all of Abiding Hope handed me those t-shirts. You have always said, each in your own way, “Show up in your own color. You might find love here, maybe grace and hope, too. And an arm around your shoulder.”

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All are welcome at the Table of the Lord! This is Abiding Hope.

My soul can no more leave you behind than my body can bury its own shadow. We belong to each other.

But now I’m off to another church family, where I’ll come to love more faces. I’ve got a couple days to finish boxing up the pastor’s mess. Thank God you and all we’ve shared are already packed in my safe place–no rust or moth there. For a while I’ll be putting some tears next to you, then sighs, and eventually, joy and gratitude.

Love, peace, thanks, and so long,

Pastor John

Well It’s All Right: An Open Letter

Dear Everyone,

I woke up singing this morning, a losing-weight-but-still-fluffy guy sliding into jeans and the Baja hoodie Kathy lovingly de-hooded for me years ago. Gimpy Watson had to pee, so out we went, the song coming along:

Somewhere beyond the sea

Somewhere waiting for me . . .

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Out back, where Watson kills the grass with his pee, where I hum Bobby Darin.

The trouble with this swaggery Bobby Darin thing, which I both love and hate, is I don’t know all the words. Back inside, I finished putting myself together and noodled around with the signature lines:

I know beyond a doubt (HA!)

My heart will lead me there soon

HA! is the best part—so dated, so got-the-world-by-the-stones, so satisfying. Darin could walk on stage, say, “HA!” and I would cheer. Forget the lover on golden sands and birds flying on high. HA! and a smirk are plenty.

I crooned these juicy lines a few times, each HA! rattling the windows.

“Somebody’s peppy this morning,” Kathy called from the bathroom.

“That’s right,” I said, praying another song would break into my head. Yelping out HA! eventually triggers the gag reflex and makes you light-headed.

If your home has its standard measure of weirdness, a family member turning twelve lyrical words into a mantra might not be noteworthy, but in the midst of my heart dragging my smarm around the house, I noticed: I was singing. This hasn’t happened much recently, and certainly not upon waking, which generally amounts to a twenty-minute game of drag-ass.

About this singing, I’ll observe only that it’s not because I’m leaving one pastoral call and moving to another. Nothing is ever simple, is it? It’s possible to be both excited about a destination and bone-sad over a departure. My heart doesn’t know how to beat right now.

Which is why I appreciate the present singing. Before morning coffee, “Beyond the Sea” was relieved of duty by “End of the Line” by the Traveling Wilburys. Ah, Roy Orbison’s sweet warble, Tom Petty’s blessed assurance kissing me in my plump Chevy HHR:

Don’t have to be ashamed of the car I drive

I’m happy to be here, happy to be alive

“This is most certainly true,” my Lutheran-Zen brain answered. Ashamed of the car I drive? Ha! I have better shames than transportation. Happy to be alive? Why, yes, don’t mind if I am. Happy to be here and receive all kinds of music.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve realized a beauty that has always been offering itself to me. When I walk from the house to the car, at least one bird is in the sky or on a wire or atop a tree. Friend Mary could tell me all their names, just as Kathy can identify nearly every flower. My memory is Teflon with such details, but I can witness and give thanks.

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A bird that friend Mary can certainly identify (Credit: Wikipedia)

I make that forty-foot trip from house to car and back again multiple times a day, and only once has a bird not accompanied me. Sometimes it’s a tiny, lone eye-song flying on high. Why have these companions been invisible for so long? A hardened heart and blinded eyes, maybe, projects of my own doing?

But gladness improves vision. As peace increases, the commonplace comes alive. Right before Kathy and I headed out the door a few hours ago, the kitchen windowsill said hosanna.

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Tomatoes from Kathy’s garden ripen, only after I had given up and decided to make cream of green tomato soup out of them.

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Rosemary from friend Denise, basil in water experiment, a ripening peach–each one a “hosanna.”

And yesterday Elena, Cole, and I had homemade vegetable soup and bread for lunch. As my wonder-of-a daughter poached eggs, my savior-grandson walked toward his bedroom and said, “Pop, come. Pop, come.” The message was of burning-bush proportions. I followed.

Cole is into hammering these days, so we went at rubber balls and his miniature electronic drum set, which said “Let’s jam again soon” each of the hundred times he turned it off. After lunch Elena got out his new piggy bank, and we all counted as he slipped in coins.

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Each time Cole says “Pop,” I stand on holy ground.

When I said, “Pop has to leave now,” Cole said, “Cole leave.” Referring to yourself in the third person is not only charming when you’re almost two, but also infectious.

“Oh, you want to go with Pop?” Elena said. “No, Cole has to stay here.”

My little buddy sagged at the screen door, his face widening into a pitiful toddler cry as I waved goodbye. By the time I reached the Chevy, I could see he was on to the next attraction, tears already drying.

“Pop, come.” Cole is calling me. Birds and songs are, too, as is the Lover of Souls: “Wake up, child,” Love whispers to me, “greet your sky-neighbors and sing. Two lines are enough. Even a HA! of joy will do.”

Love,

John

Writing and the Narrative of Suffering

I’ve never thought much about where my writing comes from, maybe because time for it is constrained. For over a dozen years, my habit has been to drop wife Kathy off at work or children Elena and Micah at school, then land at Starbucks or some other coffee house and peck away at a keyboard. Words have shown up faithfully, and the twenty to thirty to sixty minutes I manage most mornings are blissful, though my subjects sometimes involve torment.

Some people escape to their woodshop to make lamps shaped like whales, others prefer quilting, still others take photographs. To borrow from Stephen King, “I just flail away” at paragraphs—happily. In my experience, joy isn’t the best motivation for reflection. Why dig around my insides to figure out what makes me write? Does an old guy who has yards and yards of miniature train tracks set up in his basement sort out his aesthetic?

But now, after thirty years of fussing with books, poems, stories, and essays, I finally have good reason to ask myself, “Why do you write?”

Pema Chodron is to blame. Better put, I’m to blame for inviting this Tibetan-Buddhist monk into my soul. Pema, the first American woman to be fully ordained, directs Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia. She writes books with titles like The Places That Scare You and Smile at Fear. I’ve known about Ani (sister) Pema for a while now, but not being a big fan of fear, I’ve resisted getting close to her teachings.

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Pema Chodron in 2007 (Credit: flicker.com on Wikimedia Commons)

I am interested in Buddhism, though, and Facebook obviously knows this. A video course called “The Freedom to Choose Something Different” kept popping up on my News Feed, accompanied by Pema’s face. I finally watched a sample and thought, “Oh, crud, this sounds like advice I need to hear”—needful enough that my credit card took a $67 hit.

The presentation was spartan. A nearly eighty-year-old nun in a maroon robe talked, answered questions, and sipped water. And it’s way too early to tell, but she may have significantly reduced my neurotic load.

I won’t presume to offer here a detailed summary of her seven hours of lectures, but the key concept is shenpa. The word is already dear to me. Pema describes the shenpa phenomenon as “getting hooked.” Minute by minute, day by day, people and events yank our chains, sucker punch us, break our hearts, or merely Taser us with annoyance. Mild: being cut off in traffic. Major: getting fired. Whatever the instigation, human nature is to think about the pain, explain it to ourselves, create stories about it, argue against it, and brainstorm the demise of those responsible.

We hope that letting our obsessing and verbalizing run their course will ease our suffering, but actually the opposite happens. As the storyline (Pema’s term) gains momentum and energy, we feed the fire of our anger, fear, jealousy, whatever.

Pema’s central teaching is that continuing to develop the storyline in hopes of feeling better is like trying to put out a fire with kerosene. The best action is to shush the shenpa-speak gently, without self-reproach, and focus on your in-breath and out-breath.

In case this all sounds like transcending suffering, well, sorry. No levitating in the lotus position. When the storyline is silenced, the physical sensations that accompany anger, sadness, and so on remain: the lead in the stomach, stiff neck, lump in the throat, fury rising in the chest. Pema’s counsel is to breathe with the feelings, to touch them instead of running away. Referring to her own panic attacks of the past, she said one of her teachers told her to lean into them.

Hush. Lean in. Yes, yes, I know, this is nothing new, especially the hush part. Don’t dwell on your problems. Do something to take your mind off things. Let it go. Lots of ways to say it.

But for whatever reason, Pema’s situating the practice of quieting shenpa within the context of meditation works for me. For years I’ve doused my inner coals with lighter fluid, thinking that they would eventually burn out. It’s sobering, though liberating, to learn that those emotional embers have the density of a black hole. Some of them might glow forever.

There’s just one complication with Pema’s sanity saving lesson: I’m in the storyline business. Words are allies, not enemies. For the first week I tried to be mindful of getting hooked and not starting up the potentially endless narration, I lost all desire to write. Nothing would come to me.

Oh, boy. “Is my writing essentially shenpa-speak?” I worried. For a couple of years, I’ve concentrated on A Napper’s Companion, and while gladness and wonder are frequent visitors, much—maybe most?—of the work begins with suffering. The death-resurrection pattern is well worn here.

The impulse to peck away returned quickly, but now I’m left with discernment. Writing and shenpa are unquestionably neighbors. The former has brought decades of gratification and comfort. Negotiating with the latter, away from the desk at least, has been a spiritual and physical sinkhole. Much anguish.

Most of the time I’m self-aware enough to know when my words are kerosene. But I’ve also teased, harassed, and howled on paper at my injuries, frustrations, and sadness.

Flailing away at paragraphs is a vocation, so I’ll have to lean into ambiguity: When does creation give healing and clarity? And when does creation pick at the scabs of suffering, keeping the mind’s wounds fresh, the body weary and shaken?

I imagine the answer to both questions will sometimes be, in the same breath, “Right now.”

My Problem as a Parent

A couple of weeks ago daughter Elena and I lunched on Reubens while grandson Cole chipmunked curly fries.

“Cole,” she said, “swallow your food before you take another bite.”

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Sorry, buddy, but the answer is still “no.”

“My biggest problem as a parent,” I said, “was that I couldn’t watch you suffer.” I had complimented Elena a moment earlier on her heart of flint when Cole pitches fits over major and minor upsets. A distinctive strength is needed to stand clear and let a child, or any loved one for that matter, endure inevitable pain. Elena has got the moxie and nodded in agreement that I don’t.

I never have. There are good reasons, family dysfunction, blah blah blah. But as I stare down the barrel of fifty-four—one highlight of my birthday will be the delivery of new blades for my Panasonic wet/dry electric razor—rummaging through the dynamics of home over two score years ago isn’t on my agenda.

Still, I’ve been doing naval gazing in excess lately, mainly because I’m pulling up vocational roots, leaving the church family I’ve served for fourteen years, and assuming a part-time call starting November 1st. You name the emotion, I’ve got it going. My late father’s favorite song, “Feelings” by Morris Albert, plays in my head. “Feelings, whoa whoa whoa feelings.” Rats!

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Oh, Abiding Hope, I’ll miss you.

Sadness has the upper hand at the moment. During prayer this morning, a sob seemed to be building. When that baby cuts loose, all the handkerchiefs in my drawer won’t handle the tears and snot. Fatigue also has me by the collar. Having a projectile crying jag stuck in your throat is draining.

The point is, I’m raw, looking inward, giving thanks for peeks of goodness, lamenting valleys of deficit—which brings me back to watching loved ones suffer. My favorite quote from Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha touches my feelings:

Do you think, my dear friend, that anybody is spared [the path of suffering]? Perhaps your little son, because you would like to see him spared sorrow and pain and disillusionment? But if you were to die ten times for him, you would not alter his destiny in the slightest.

Same goes for daughters, wives, friends, et. al. While swimming in the river of ambiguity is comfortable, agony plunges me under. I haven’t given up hope of knowing peace in currents of distress, but each passing birthday ups the odds against me.

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Joy visits in the form of lipstick flowers at the house wife Kathy and I are getting ready to sell.

In case you think I’m beating myself up, don’t worry. I just want to be truthful and authentic. No posturing, no rationalization. If I’m full of crap about myself, it won’t be intentional.

And in case you think John’s October days are nothing but whoa whoa whoa, don’t worry. Joy visits frequently, reminding me that my gifts keep pace with shortcomings.

Case study: It’s 7:54 p.m. in the Coleman house, and son Micah (23) and I have been talking about, well, feelings. The conversation consumed forty-five minutes, half of which consisted of his account of anger behind the wheel.

My boy was following a fogey from Wyoming, probably a poor soul for whom Erie may as well have been the D.C. beltway. Micah was pissed. Trying to get from one worksite to another, he could see only his nemesis’ gray hair.

“Breathe in anger,” Micah said. “Breathe out compassion.”

I was quiet. Where the hell did he get this?

He went on: “I was thinking that when you’re old, you’re probably not in a hurry. Maybe you’re alone and don’t really want to get home.”

I closed my eyes.

“You know, like, if I’ve been home all day and I think of getting a Gatorade, I’ll just say, ‘I’m going to go get a Gatorade.’ So I go, and I don’t give a shit about getting back.”

“Yes,” I thought, “this is what I’ve been trying to teaching you.” But I kept my mouth shut.

Turns out my son has been taking in some Thich Nhat Hanh talks on YouTube. Days ago he mentioned the name to one of his doctors, who replied, “How long have you been seeing him?”

Micah joked that the famous Buddhist monk isn’t covered by our insurance and is out of his price range anyway. He was trying to sit with his emotions, he explained, not run away from them, not deny them.

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You’ve learned. Micah. Now teach your father.

All these years! All the rages during which I despaired at my son’s future. Addiction. Arrest. Felony. Moving on. And somewhere in the crevasse, at the bottom of the bottomless ice that froze away twilight after twilight of my peace, he heard a word or two. Now he is looking down his fragile old man’s path. Maybe sanity will be there, maybe truth.

I’ll take every lump my weaknesses have earned, but a gentle soul is also due its compensation. Micah got the Zen business from me. My foolish enabling put Kathy, Elena, and Micah through hell, but my refusal to close compassion’s door made this evening possible.

The jerks who get in my boy’s way have their own stories, just like he does. He swears at them one day and expects that the next day somebody else will curse him. But before his sputters swell into rants, he breathes in and out. Compassion floats in his messy car along with the coconut vapor from his electronic cigarette. Maybe the driver in front of him is choking on grief or so lonely that any errand beats an apartment’s dim silence. At last he understands.

Birthday presents this year will be incidental blessings. I’ve already received extravagant gifts. My daughter is a stronger, wiser parent than her father. My son is falling in love with the world.

Why All This Crazy Killing? America’s Rights Addiction

Dear Friends,

The following essay first appeared under a different title on A Napper’s Companion in April of 2013. I had about -10 followers at that time, so my 2700+ words amounted to whistling into the wind. So I’m dusting off this old post, stripping it of photographs, and raising it up the flagpole again.

Why am I repeating myself? Yesterday morning, yet another kid walked into yet another classroom and started shooting, this time at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College. Add one more wretched absurdity to our national profile. This long, detail-heavy, occasionally sarcastic, probably boring rant still stands as my opinion of what ails America and has us paralyzed in the face of a shameful body count.

This is your last chance. Everything below the pizza is an absolute bummer. If you’re having a good day, save this for one when you’re already in a funk.

Love and peace,

John

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“Hello, yes, I’d like to order a one-acre pizza with cheese, pepperoni, and mushrooms for pick up.” (Credit: Jon Sullivan on Wikimedia Commons)

In late January of 2013, a boy’s stunned, pale face greeted me on msn.com along with this headline: “Teen: horror movie inspired crime.” “Here we go again,” I thought, but clicked on horror anyway. If you don’t want to feel sick, don’t read on.

On October 3, 2012, Jake Evans (17) killed his sister Mallory (15) and mother Jami. In a four-page confession, Jake explained that he’d watched Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake of Halloween several times earlier in the week, and the movie got him thinking. “While watching it I was amazed at how at ease the boy was during the murders and how little remorse he had. Afterward, I was thinking to myself it would be the same for me when I kill someone” (dailymail.co.uk). He planned to use a knife, but he thought some more: “If I were to kill my mom and Mallory, I wouldn’t want them to feel anything, so I decided to kill them both with the .22 revolver I stole from my Grandpa.”

Since Jake’s aim was sloppy, his sister died hard. He told the 911 dispatcher, “This is really going to mess me up in the future” and “I’m really worried about, like, nightmares and stuff like that. Are there any times [sic] of medications, and stuff?” Jake ends his written confession by summarizing all his stuff: “I know now though that I’m done with killing. It’s the most dreadful and terrifying thing I will ever experience. And what happened last night will haunt me forever” (dailymail.co.uk).

Jake still has family left, though he doesn’t want to see them. His father and two other sisters weren’t at home at the time of the killings. Red-headed Mallory looked like a cross country runner you’d see featured in the hometown newspaper. Jami appeared precisely forty-eight years old, probably wished God had given her more or a chin, and like many of us in middle age, carried a few surplus pounds; same with her husband. Jake looks like a lanky kid who’d help push your stalled car to the berm and say, “No problem.” His surviving sisters look like peas from the family pod. In short, the Evans were normal-looking, well-groomed white folk from the affluent Fort Worth suburb of Aledo.

Of course, something was amiss, with Jake if with nobody else. He had breathtaking mental illness. And yet, his 911 call and the last lines of his confession demonstrate a mindset that’s yanking America along as if by a nose ring: shooting his mother and sister was “dreadful and terrifying” for [Jake]; his sister’s screaming is really going to mess [Jake] up in the future; the experience “will haunt [Jake] forever.” The kid’s narcissism is glaring, but if we think the germ that was lethal in him isn’t making America sick, we’re kidding ourselves.

Adam Lanza, James Holmes, Jared Loughner, Sueng-Hoi Cho, Eric Harris, and Dylan Klebold: the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre isn’t the only American who has called them monsters and lunatics. It’s hard to blame folks for using these words, resonating as they do with our collective rage and dismay. The trouble with such labels, however, is they provide cover for us law-abiding citizens as we ignore our own inconspicuous lunacy. If we can put all Auroras at the feet of sick monsters with assault weapons, the rest of us can give ourselves a clean bill of health. Right?

I don’t think so. We Americans are rights junkies. Not all of us, of course, not even most of us, but the news is packed with stories of people who do lousy things simply because it’s their right. Many would argue that this addiction is healthy, even patriotic—Don’t Tread on Me! But rights, like all wholesome things, are best consumed in moderation.

Admit it: American’s don’t do moderation very well. We binge on practically everything. According to theweek.com, Americans consume 36,500 acres of pizza each year—that’s 1,327 Ellis Islands of pies; solutiondown.com spins the numbers differently, allotting each of us 23 pounds of pizza annually; we like fries even more, 29 pounds yearly. And we can’t get enough of ourselves either.  Smartmoney.com notes that in 2010 Americans spent $33.3 billion on cosmetics and other beauty products; oprah.com has us spending $10,677,415,674.00 on cosmetic procedures that same year. It’s an odd curse: we eat like pachyderms, but can’t stop looking in the mirror. Is it fair to say we Americans can be stuck on ourselves?

In The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude, Dr. P. M. Forni of Johns Hopkins University explains what happens when stuck on myself evolves into sucks to be you: “When the healthy pursuit of self-interest and self-realization turns into self-absorption, other people can lose their intrinsic value in our eyes and become mere means to the fulfillment of our needs and desires.”

Jake Evans’ confession and 911-transcript are part of the story of extreme mental illness, but his me-me-me thinking poses questions to the rest of us garden-variety neurotics: Has “the healthy pursuit of self-interest and self-realization” in America turned into “self-absorption”? And have other people lost “their intrinsic value in our eyes”? I think so and suggest that our narcissism has combined with a lust for individual rights to create a super virus. What we the people are allowed to do with constitutional protection has become what we should to do with a clear conscience. The result: our sense of individual rights has become perverted.

Most of the studies I’ve come across on the rise of narcissism pin the problem on young people, which may explain why some of the mass murderers of late are committed by males in their teens or early twenties. The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement by Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, which received lots of attention when it came out in 2010, claims that narcissism is as prevalent among college students as obesity. And according to the American Freshman Survey, published yearly by the Higher Education Research Institution at UCLA, narcissism among young people is at a fifty-year high (dailycaller.com). Like Dr. Jim Taylor, however, I think our problem cuts across age groups. In “Narcissism: On the Rise in America?” he writes, “The indifference, egotism, disrespect and lack of consideration that are central to narcissism are also reflective of the increasingly polarized and vitriolic tone of our current body politic, recent unethical corporate behavior, the rise in cheating among students in school and the gamut of bad behavior among professional athletes” (huffingtonpost.com).

The statistics may say that young people are this country’s leading narcissists, but as Taylor suggests, you need only look around to see that all generations are getting in on the fun. And by fun I mean, morally scurvy behavior that’s technically legal. The United States of America is by definition a country of freedom, which means that people who exercise their rights without a sense of responsibility are protected. So be it. Telling a child he’ll never amount to anything is free speech. I don’t think you’re legally bound to correct the waiter or waitress who leaves that shrimp scampi off your bill. You can invest in a company that makes life a misery for its employees—it’s probably profitable. We can’t go ten minutes without tripping over a right.

Nancy Lanza was within her rights to amass the arsenal that her son put to sinister use. So were the Pennsylvanians who, according to pennlive.com, responded to Sandy Hook by purchasing 133,241 firearms in December of 2012 (versus 84,486 in December of 2011). No law stands in the way of Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween. Interested in making a great deal of money? Market a video game like Activision’s Call of Duty.

There’s no proof that repeated viewings of Halloween enticed Jake Evans to kill his mother and sister. And while pilots frequently hone their skills on flight simulators, nobody can prove that Adam Lanza’s endless hours spent in his boy cave pretending to cut enemies down in Call of Duty had anything to do with his massacre of the innocents in Newtown (nypost.com). If you believe Wayne LaPierre, the solution to gun violence is more guns; all teachers ought to be packing.

Of course, in the middle of acres of rights exercised out of simple greed and selfishness, serious artists take heat for legitimately challenging us. Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ was protested by theologically constipated Christians, but I found the film thoughtful and daring. Robert Mapplethorpe’s erotic photography unsettles me, but I suspect that was part of his purpose. Defending his “Piss Christ” photograph, Andres Serrano challenges Christians to consider the full horror of the crucifixion (guardian.co.uk.com). Anne Sexton’s poetry is graphic, but if ever I trusted that a poet was burning to get human beings to acknowledge her particular experience, I trust Sexton.

I trust the authenticity of Scorsese, Mapplethorpe, Sexton, et. al., but I don’t trust those who accept no responsibility in consideration of their right to free speech. That doesn’t mean I’m about censoring them. But trust them, respect them? No. (Point of clarification: if you could walk into a movie theater, kill twelve people and wound fifty-eight others with a poem, I’d favor some poem control. But the poets and serious artists I know aren’t the shrill voices in America’s rights-binge debate, and Mapplethorpe’s photographs, as far as I know, never led anyone to massacre others with whips and fists.)

For reasons I don’t understand, reading about Mallory and Jami Evans so soon after Sandy Hook has proven my tipping point, my enough moment. Since I first saw Jake Evans, another young face has looked out from msn.com. Somebody please show me a sweeter-looking kid than Hadiya Pendleton, the fifteen-year-old Chicago honor student who was shot and killed days after performing with her school band at Obama’s inauguration. Michael Ward (18) and Kenneth Williams (20) apparently thought Hadiya was part of a gang trespassing on their turf, so Ward fired into her group of friends huddled in a bus stop, and Williams drove the getaway car (usnews.nbcnews.com).

It’s actually odd that these gangbangers were caught. According to nation.time.com, “In 2012, 506 people were killed in [Chicago]. Only 25% of those murders were solved.” Obviously hundreds of people with faces less lovely than Pendleton’s are being cut down, plenty of them kids who aren’t in school bands. And the trouble is, so many are dying coast to coast that we the people are at our wits’ end. It’s been about three months since Adam Lanza opened fire, and slate.com estimates that another 2,605 people have been shot and killed. (Update: as of April 19, 2013, the number stands at 3,526.) (Update: as of April 15, 2015, we were at 82,033.)

The Violence Policy Center, a pro-gun control organization, notes that in 2012, there were “31,326 gun-related deaths nationwide” (slate.com). That’s 10.9 of every 100,000 citizens. So what explains the roughly 1,119 Sandy Hooks of various denominations we had in the United States in 2012? Nobody seems willing to contemplate, much less admit, any personal responsibility for or even indirect participation in the carnage.

Don’t blame the NRA. Wayne LaPierre and company are only protecting Americans’ Second Amendment rights. In 1999, the NRA ran an ad in USA Today stating, “We believe it’s reasonable to provide for instant background checks at gun shows, just like gun stores and pawn shops.” Now it’s Charlton Heston all the way: you can have my gun when you pry it “from my cold, dead hands.”

Don’t blame James Wan, director of the 2004 film Saw. (In one scene, a young guy has sixty seconds to dig a key out from behind his eyeball or a mask of nails called a Venus Fly Trap will snap shut, with unfortunate results; I won’t ruin it for you.) Don’t be too hard on Tom Six for his 2009 First Amendment tour de force, The Human Centipede. (How are the three humans in this bug sewn together? Imagine the worst.) Rob Zombie was only commenting honestly when he said in a vanityfair.com interview, “I don’t think my movies have a lesson. Or if they do, I guess it’s that it’s a f—ed up world and you’re probably f—ed too.” Nobody in this genre of the film-making industry is at fault; watching folks lose their intrinsic value in tormented, demeaning ways can do viewers no harm.

Don’t blame Rockstar Games for producing Grand Theft Auto or Activision for Call of Duty or parents for letting their kids play with these killing simulators. The latter’s Modern Warfare 3 grossed $775,000 in its first five days on the shelves—that’s over ¾ of a billion sweet expressions of free speech (guardian.co.uk). And about the former, one video game enthusiast tells me that you—you being, say, an eleven-year-old boy—can hire a prostitute, have your way with her, shoot her, take your money back, then speed off to other adventures. No matter. The Entertainment Software Association assures us that “years of extensive research . . . has shown no connection between entertainment and real-life violence” (newyork.newsday.com). (So you don’t think I’m pretending to be guiltless, I’ve let violent games and movies into my home. I regret that.)

Don’t blame citizens who reject outright the possibility that even the most miniscule limitations placed on weapons and magazines might save a life or two. Restrictions only punish law-abiding gun owners. Besides, any more gun control measures will shove America down a slippery slope, resulting in the Second Amendment falling off the constitutional cliff.

In short, as long as my DNA isn’t on the AR-15, I’m acquitted. As long as nobody can put me at the scene of the crime, I’m behaving like a responsible citizen. This is the epidemic logic of our time. It’s also the self-absorbed reasoning of a rights junkie.

It should not, however, be the reasoning of unselfish citizens of conscience. When deciding whether to exercise a right, I should consider how my constitutionally protected words or actions might impact others, whether I know them or not. Rights and responsibilities have to be held in healthy tension.

Bud McKelvey of Hermitage, Pennsylvania, strikes a nice balance. His February 7, 2013 letter to the editor of the Erie Times-News, two excerpts of which I share here, is encouraging: “When I bought my first pistol, I was told that there was a five-day waiting period before I could get my gun. The five days were to check my background. The exact words I told the gun dealer were ‘I don’t care if it takes you a month. I have nothing to worry about.’” And “I’m a firm believer in the Second Amendment, but when the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, they didn’t have weapons that could fire 600 rounds a minute, and at the time, the British had their soldiers quartered in the colonies. Naturally, they wanted everyone to be able to keep and bear arms. They didn’t mean for people to be able to slaughter their neighbors and groups of people.”

Bud McKelvey understands that, to paraphrase an old high school Problems of Democracy teacher, his rights end where his neighbor’s nose begins. “And who is my neighbor?” It takes only a small leap of compassion to recognize that my neighbors live not only next door, but in Newtown and Aurora and beyond. “Am I my brother’s and sister’s keeper?” Bloody right I am! I envision the faces of my many friends and family members whose spiritual beliefs are all over the map, and while they may not agree entirely with my argument here, I bet they’d answer Cain’s question as I do. Most Americans probably would, too: I am my sister’s and brother’s keeper. If I have to ask whether somebody is my neighbor, I already have the answer. Most Americans, not necessarily those with the loudest voices, know this.

At last, then, I land in a naïve, idealistic place. No matter what legislation sneaks through Washington, our body count will be disconcerting until our national rights binge abates. Before speaking freely, I ought to wonder whether my message might unnecessarily harm others. Before demanding unlimited access to weapons with frightening power, I could acknowledge that some limits are reasonable. It wouldn’t make for safe and sane roads if I could put a GE90-115B jet engine in my Mazda 4×4; a magazine with a 100-round capacity poses the same kind of hazard. Before doing anything at all, I should ask myself if my words or actions are in any way helpful, challenging, or constructive.

In land of the free and the home of the brave, our greatest patriots are often those who decide, for the sake of the common good, to refrain now and then from exercising their constitutional rights.

Under the Clock

Getting out of bed this morning was like lifting an anvil. Both wife Kathy and I lay slack-jawed through alarm after alarm. I’m not sure choosing Bach’s Goldberg Variations as my iPhone wake up call was a good idea. Such a gentle, thoughtful melody, but I now associate the first few measures with the shared human struggle of starting a day.

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Six already? Come on!

We tried to hold each other the way some wives and husbands do, with Kathy’s head on my chest and my arm around her. That worked for five seconds, thanks to bursitis in my left shoulder. So, we adapted. I put my arm down, she slung her arm across my belly, and we listened to the morning household. Son Micah’s obnoxious alarm nagged him—he was tired, too. Watson made old-dog dozing huffs and grumbles. Baby Crash, the most beautiful cat I’ve ever seen, played drumrolls by dashing around the hardwood floors.

“How old is Baby now,” I said out of nowhere, “four?”

“Six,” Kathy said.

“Six! How is she six?” I was only off by two years, but still, 1/3 of her life. The passing of time weighed in on my chest like a second anvil.

My God, where are the decades going? Next week I’ll turn fifty-four. How can that be, when I walk tentatively through the world, shaking just like I did trying to summon teenage bravery to ask a girl out on a date? Gray hair sticks out of my shirt collar. So why do I feel the same as I did when Kathy and I were dating, thirty-five years ago? Hot summer day. We were watching television, and I had one long, pathetic hair sprouting from my left nipple.

Innocently, Kathy spoke and acted in the same instant: 1.) “What’s that?” 2.) Reach toward hair. 3.) Grab ahold. 4.) Yank.

I screamed. Carbon dioxide hissed from the pinhole in my areola.

Kathy laughed, hard. “Oh, was that attached?”

“Yes.”

I now have hundreds, maybe thousands of chest hairs, but I still remember that first, overachieving pilgrim, its lilt to the left, a jaunty kink 2/3 of the way to top, not a suggestion of gray. My Precious.

I’m still that kid. My God, where is life going?

Mountainous questions are on my mind lately because I’m leaving the folks I’ve served as pastor for the last fourteen years, moving on to a small congregation. There isn’t any dishonor in my departure, but it’s not quite the way I wanted to go. I expect my exit on October 25th will be loving, but probably not celebratory.

Yesterday afternoon I went to an art show in downtown Erie. A couple of friends have work displayed, and I figured abandoning myself in shape, color, texture, whatever would be therapeutic.

IMG_3878When I arrived at the old Boston Store, a spacious building that used to be home of one of Erie’s proudest establishments, my first priority was to find the men’s room. It’s tough to get lost in art when your Kegel is clenched. The show would wait a few minutes.

I walked mindfully past a cluster of radio stations that now squat where women’s shoes or sheets and comforters used to be displayed. When my eyes fixed on the great clock hanging at the center of the place, I remembered that my mother, dead seventeen years now, worked at the Boston Store.

After confirming my suspicion that in all the acreage of the grand department store there was no obvious place for a middle-aged man to pee, I returned to the clock. “I’ll meet you under the clock,” Erie-ites used to say. For a while, a restaurant used that name and location. Now, all that’s left is an expanse of tan tile floor.

I looked up, checked the time, and missed my mother. In my mind she walked under the clock, no hint of arthritis yet, tastefully dressed, mascara and lipstick perfect.

The silence was of a comforting dream. I’m not too proud to admit that when I’m going through changes, trying to keep my footing, I want to be with my mom, to connect with the love that held my head when I puked and endured my adolescent travail.

Could Mom still abide in a great cradle of Eternal Love—the Love I invite each day to take hold of me, still the crazy waters, lift my anvils, and use me for Love’s sake in this wonderful, stressed world? I couldn’t feel her presence, but as I breathed in and out under the clock and received the quiet of deserted space, she seemed to live.

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Wrong

My God, where are we all headed? And how much time is left? The great clock was no help—four clocks, actually, one on each side. Only one was correct. Two others agreed but were wrong, as was another that lagged two hours behind, or rushed ten hours ahead, depending on how you figure.

The art show, when I got there, was as good as any collection can be when a guy is pressed at his equator. My friends’ works were so compelling that I’m looking at them again now, behind closed eyes. (Thanks, Mary and Mike.)

In today’s sky, wisps up high seem fixed, while full white clouds just above me ease to the southwest. Over Lake Erie, a long gray assembly floats in the same direction.

Where has the time gone? I may as well ask, “Where are the clouds going?” Rhetorical questions, sighs of the soul.

I didn’t make it to the church this morning. There’s much to do before I leave, but this week of telling loved ones that I won’t be their pastor for much longer has me feeling like the tender, gentle, awful sentimental Tin Man after Dorothy kisses him goodbye: “Now I know I’ve got a heart ‘cause it’s breaking.”

Always breaking, always healing back up, I suppose. In the end, I’m content to ask questions without earthly answers, breathe them up to the sky and let the wind blow them from sight. I’ve built my life on the promise that clouds, souls, and mysteries find their way to a loving place.

Now, the promise tells me to go home, take a nap, do dishes, and pick up Kathy from work. In other words, the Promise says, “Go, now, and join the day you’re given.”

P. S. A note to blogging friends: For the last couple of months, I’ve been guilty of what I call selfish blogging; that is, posting without reading much. Please forgive me. I’ll try to catch up soon.