Letter to a Man on a Motorized Bicycle

Dear John:

I don’t know your name, so we may as well both use mine.

The first time I saw you, my wife Kathy was with me, and I confess, you gave us a laugh. We didn’t object to your chosen transportation, but you’re not a small man, and your bike is low slung. It reminded me of an old motorcycle with a sidecar. Bundled against November, you were out of proportion to your ride, like President Lincoln on the back of a Shetland pony.

I saw you again yesterday on the way home from picking up a bottle of Crane Lake Petite Sirah. The temperature was stuck in the thirties, cold weather for buzzing around Harborcreek, Pennsylvania, with your face uncovered. Still, maybe you like the wind against your skin. Maybe you’re wisdom in disguise, your one lonely horsepower a choice rather than a consequence. What the hell do I know?

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Your bike reminds me of this old 4.5 horsepower, John. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Not much is the short answer. I’ve already laid out my total knowledge of you. Everything else is a guess. I guess you would prefer a car to bike powered by, what, a lawn mower engine? I guess you made mistakes or ran up against bad luck or both. You have what I’ll euphemistically call some issues? You’re on meds or not. And you’re mostly alone, right?

It seems like I’m trying to excuse you and your ride, but if we were shooting the breeze over coffee, I would tell you about myself. Then you would know that I’m in no position to defend, explain, condemn, or absolve anybody. I’m on meds. My years are punctuated by silly choices. And like lots of citizens we both pass on Buffalo Road, I’m not far from needing dirt-cheap wheels.

I would explain, too, that as you disappeared from my rear view mirror yesterday, I didn’t say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” The sentiment is humble, but I’m not sipping an overpriced Americano because God has been gracious to me. And it makes me nauseous to think that your knuckles get raw when you ride in the rain because God has denied you grace.

If we were together I would laugh and say, “Boy, John, shit happens, doesn’t it?” That’s as much explanation as I have.

There’s a lot I couldn’t share, at least not until cup three or four. I live on God’s grace, but that has nothing to do with my pudgy Chevy or your bike, my excess or your need. I bet neither one of us merits much in the way of blessing or curse. “It is what it is” would have to be enough from me for today.

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Are my wheels better than yours? I’m not at all sure, John.

Down the line, if we got to be friends, I would ask if you’re okay. The truth is, you might be way more okay than I am. A man who doesn’t mind being seen traveling on a contraption when snow is forecast probably has a thing or two to teach me.

Better still, I would say that sharing my name with you would be a privilege. And maybe you would look into my eyes, past the dark circles, and understand I was guessing about you not because you need my approval, but because you already have all the grace that’s mine to give.

Peace,

John

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A Dusty Syrian Boy Presents Me with Questions

Dear America,

My God, we’re all so sad, enraged, and perplexed, at least those of us not inclined to strap on explosive vests. I’m not talking about people directly traumatized in Paris or, on this morning of November 20, 2015, victims in Bamako, Mali. Their suffering is beyond our poor power to add or detract.

But I probably shouldn’t speak for you, only for myself, an American who will have to try not to eat too much for supper tonight. I’m not worried about bullets and bombs in my nonchalant town, though shrapnel is far more likely to come my way than lottery winnings. And nobody on the shores of Lake Erie has grumbled lately about a swarm of Syrian migrants.

In short, the Coleman family is viewing developments from the bleachers, which is plenty close. Last evening wife Kathy and I watched a video of a rubber boat full of refugees from Syria via Turkey landing on Greece’s Lesbos Island. Folks from Samaritans Purse, a Christian organization run by Franklin Graham, waited to receive them. Of course, like UNICEF and the Red Cross, SP will gladly take checks or credit cards, so I get that.

But you can’t stage the tears of cold, soaked toddlers. And they were lucky, unlike Aylan Kurdi and his brother and mother, whose boat overturned on September 2, 2015.

Sobbing live kids and dead ones facedown on the sand get my attention. I ache for the adults, but babies make me get real. You might be able to get pissed at Abdelhamid Abaaoud, but not at the boy I saw shouting, “Asma! Karima!” This dusty little Syrian wailing his dead sisters’ names presents me with questions. Maybe they’re your questions, too. My rants and lamentations are bottomless, but they call forth only anger and grief.

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A dusty Syrian boy (Credit: YouTube)

Asma and Karima deserve more from this American in the stands. The least I can do is wonder about myself.

I wonder . . .

  • what it means to say that I’m a Christian. How high up in the nosebleed seats can a follower of Jesus sit? At what point am I compelled to move down closer to the action, to risk my own wellbeing for a child? When do little ones falling off of rubber rafts make me take the baby step of believing—not acting, mind you, only thinking—that imperiled foreigners have a claim on my safety?
  • if ISIS is my lion. The historical accuracy of Christians being torn apart by beasts is now in question, but the story remains instructive for contemporary believers. Certain moments in history decisive for followers of Jesus. For at least some early Christians, sacrificing to Jupiter and Juno was a line they refused to cross. German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer climbed the gallows because he realized that a church cooperating with Nazis was no church at all. He used the term status confessionis to label a situation that forces a Christian’s hand. On a personal level I summarize the discernment as a question: Can I call myself a Christian if I agree that it’s okay to refuse sanctuary to refugee children? From my safe seat, I acknowledge that my soul can be devoured even if my flesh is intact.
  • how long anger and fear should voice my convictions. On the evening of the Paris attacks I paced and said to Kathy, “I won’t think this tomorrow, but I can understand people who say we should bomb the hell out of terrorists. Tell them if anybody else gets killed, that’s on them.” But that was my reptile brain talking, the one that creates faint pilgrims and lonely brothers. What kind of American am I if negative human emotions clog my heart? Regardless of my beliefs, shouldn’t courage and compassion have my last word?
  • how to respond to a question from my son Micah, who actually is on my side. In just a few words, he took all remaining slack out of my deliberations. No way to finesse myself out of the bottom line. “You’re for letting in refugees,” he said, “but are you willing to risk [grandson] Cole’s life?” Well played, son. It took days to work out my answer—or rather, my question. I should say that in a week the Coleman family will celebrate Cole’s second birthday. He has turned me into a complete bore. He is practically all I talk and write about. I’d dive on a bucket of live grenades for the kid. So my question is devastating: “If I were a grandfather in a rubber boat, trying to comfort a soaked and sobbing Cole, wouldn’t I want a nation to risk welcoming me in for his sake?”
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My grandson: Is he worth risking your life for? And if him, why not the dusty Syrian boy? (Credit: Rachel Kaye)

There’s no joy in my questions, much less my answers, which are probably clear enough to thoughtful fellow Americans. But a man in the bleachers eating his fill of ballpark franks and sipping draft beer shouldn’t complain.

Syrian refugees are only in my thoughts, not much of an inconvenience, really. As a spectator I am a passable American and a legitimate Christian.

Peace and love,

John

Waking from a Dream of Separateness

Waking from a Dream of Separateness*

In the midst of shamatha—calm abiding—lately, I’ve been having Fourth-and-Walnut moments. Thomas Merton (1915-1968) enthusiasts know what I’m talking about. One of the famous monk’s most beloved writings comes from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, which Thomas Moore calls a “mind-bending collection of short pieces”:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness . . . .

As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

But even if it were possible to tell a friend or stranger, “You know, I see past your skin and know we’re family. Do you understand that you’re beautiful?” it wouldn’t be advisable. First, I would appear to be on an acid trip. And second, I would stomp all over the moment with my inadequate words.

It’s better to stay quiet, as I did last evening over a few Lucifer Belgian ales at the Tap House with old college teaching colleagues. One guy, who has been retired for over ten years but looks in better shape than I do, nursed his beer and held forth at length. But this wasn’t a self-indulgent, drunken monologue. Behind my friend’s animation I witnessed his soul’s lightening. He is engaged in a life-long lover’s quarrel with the world: what he loves, he loves recklessly; when he rails, he rails through clenched teeth. He has got the universe caught up in a fierce embrace.

Another shining spirit is a woman I saw at church this morning. I won’t name her because she would be embarrassed, but as she volunteers with more efforts than I probably realize, she gives off life. We had a belly laugh when she showed me a potless plant. Obviously somebody had broken the pot and put the dirt and root system back in the stand. There’s no way I can imagine being alien from this friend.

Yet another church friend hangs his paintings in the office. Parish Administrator Michelle and I love the work of this self-taught guy whose basement is full of decades of canvasses. He and his wife are getting on in years, but their gentleness glows. Being with them for ten minutes can bless a whole morning.

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Hanging on the church office at Abiding Hope

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Taped to my office door, a portrait of me by Meghan, a kid who emits showers of sparks. I especially like my nostrils.

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Barista Abbey wearing a little girl’s crown

Of course, Thomas Merton was talking mostly about strangers in his Fourth-and-Walnut epiphany, and the more I’m able to give myself to the refreshment of siestas and the sanity of prayer, the more I notice great light all around me. Some time ago here at Starbucks, I saw barista Abbey knitting as a young friend made crowns. The kid was happy, proud of trying to fashion power and might out of construction paper. As I talked to them for a few seconds, we belonged to each other.

Unfortunately, sometimes shining people cause sunburn. A young woman here at Starbucks just had a lover’s quarrel of her own via cell phone. After a short, tearful fight, she retreated to the restroom, where I imagine she is crying some more. I’ve never seen her before, but have an empathetic pit in my stomach for her. And now she is gone, out into the 90-degree swelter with her puffy eyes, damp cheeks, and upset heart.

I’m still here in the air-conditioned shamatha of 4:02 p.m., glad that the sad girl was mine and I was hers (though she knew nothing about it). Most of all, I’m grateful not to suffer from the dream of separateness. I belong to everyone. Everyone belongs to me.

*This post first appeared in slightly different form on A Napper’s Companion in July of 2013.

Mindfulness in a Driving Rain

The foundation of happiness is mindfulness. The basic condition for being happy is our consciousness of being happy. If we are not aware that we are happy, we are not really happy. When we have a toothache, we know that not having a toothache is a wonderful thing. But when we do not have a toothache, we are still not happy. A non-toothache is very pleasant. There are so many things that are enjoyable, but when we don’t practice mindfulness, we don’t appreciate them. (From Peace Is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh)

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Baby Crash watching common rain, the Buddha looking in

Just now I closed my eyes and paid attention to my non-toothache. My mouth looks like a demolition derby in there, so I can vouch for the venerable Buddhist monk’s counsel. And sometimes I think my soul looks like my teeth—cracked, patched up, cavernous, important pieces missing.

Just now, with open eyes, I took in a full breath and enjoyed the air flowing back out past my throat and through my nose. My body, relaxed and light, isn’t cramped with any of the absurdities my mind habitually puts it through by narrating potholes into sinkholes and possibilities into finalities.

Happiness is fantastic, but okay will do. Hold the drama-trauma, blue cheese, and skydiving, and I’ll likely be fine. My job is to pray-meditate, walk mindfully, and swaddle Overthinking, kiss its spongy head, and shush it to sleep.

Even inclement days are sweet when my chops aren’t being busted and when I refuse to itch old scars open. Last Friday was one of those days. Weather has never bothered me, but Friday, November 13, 2015, was stern. Each chilly, gust-whipped raindrop was a slap on the cheek.

Poor daughter Elena couldn’t take Cole, now a Ninja of motion, to the playground, which is why I received a call at 10:11 a.m. Toddlers can turn homes into Thunderdomes.

“Hi, Daddy.” Was that a quiver of desperation in her soft greeting? “I was just wondering what your schedule was like today, if maybe you wanted to do lunch or something.”

Here’s a summary of our negotiations:

1.) Elena: Could we please not have lunch at my house? [X]

2.) Elena: There’s a play place at the [Millcreek] Mall. Maybe we could get a Starbucks and let Cole play there for a while. [X]

3.) Daddy: Then we could find somewhere to have lunch. [X]

4.) Elena: There is a God. [X]

We met at noon-ish, fed quarters to a fire truck and convertible, picked up coffee, and settled in at the official play place—and by settled in I mean kept Cole from making a break for the concourse, which he did four times, and from dispensing hand sanitizer until his fingers were raw.

After ten minutes of crawling through tunnels and nearly colliding with a dozen or so children of other desperate parents, he announced “Cole done” and copped a few sips of Pop’s decaf latte. Next he gnawed an eggroll and noodles while Elena and I had bourbon chicken.

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Cole likes coffee and spicy food

Then it was time to go. An hour with a toddler doesn’t allow for segues: ride the choo choo train, slip and almost fall on the padded turtle, get hurt feelings because the thick-boned boy hopped on the tug boat ahead of you, sample coffee, squeeze duck sauce on your egg roll, and refuse to hold Pop’s hand when it’s time to go home.

So we ran together, my little buddy’s jelly bones all akimbo. Before we reached the door, Elena insisted: “Do you want to ride in the stroller or let Pop carry you?”

“Pop!”

Bullets of rain got us right away. Cole’s face pinched in, and two steps later I felt his head settle on my shoulder.

“Aw, are you getting tired, buddy?” I said.

“No,” Elena said. “That’s what he does when it’s too windy.”

I must say, mindfulness is getting to be a habit for me, and it’s not for nothing. My bald spot and glasses were getting pelted, but so-the-hell what? A grandparent is made for the moment when the grandchild leans in. Love, fatigue, or safety could be the reason, but who cares? I still haven’t figured out exactly what a parent is made for, mainly because I was a trembling neurotic in that role. But Pop, I’m meant to be a shoulder for my grandson. The rest of me—I sometimes believe—is vestment.

“You okay, pal?” I said.

“Yeah.” One lilting syllable, almost a chirp.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that mindfulness can turn neutral into joyful. A non-toothache is hardly noteworthy. Neither is being able to breathe through your nose. Standard operations, that’s all. A two-year-old using his grandfather’s shoulder to hide from cold rain is about the same—thirty unremarkable seconds across the parking lot to the car.

Commonplace but for one truth: while my embrace kept Cole dry and warm, I found my own shelter from the elements.

If You Were My Daughter

By the time you took your first sip of coffee, a cop had already shown up, taken information from barista Tony, and loaded two pet carriers and bag of cat food into his cruiser. I didn’t see the woman pacing in the parking lot, trying to stay calm through a frantic phone call. I didn’t see her throw her arms up in the air, hop into her car, and speed off. Somebody else did, though, and got her license plate number. Now she is in trouble. You don’t leave a cat, dog, and Meow Mix in Starbucks’ parking lot and hope for the best.

If you were my daughter, I would have told you the whole story as soon as you sat down, ending with how sorry I felt not only for the pets, but also the woman. As if thinking out loud, I would ask what crisis led her to that moment and say as an aside, “Ah, hell, I guess we all do things we can’t take back.”

If you were my daughter, you would already know that I always want love and understanding to have the last word, which often makes my heart like a mutt the neighbors let bark outside hour after hour, the temperature sinking on a December night.

But you’re not my daughter. You spoke on your phone so quietly I could tell only that the language wasn’t English. The likelihood of my offspring randomly sitting down next to me and having a conversation in, say, French, is remote. And, of course, I wouldn’t have been stopped short at first by your beauty. I would know your birthday, where you are in your twenties.

You didn’t stay long, ten minutes and out the door. I watched and wondered. What car is yours? Where are you off to? But you walked so aimlessly, taking pictures of God-knows-what, I figured maybe you weren’t headed anywhere. Not to the bulky old Buick or maroon minivan, not to the Fox and Hound English Pub and Grille or Shoe Carnival or Ollie’s Bargain Outlet.

I stood to see you off. Your leather knapsack—almost empty?—was finally a black dot against your jean jacket. Then you were gone, and I couldn’t decide whether to be happy or worry. Going no place in particular can feel like grace if you know how to be alone and you’re not shouldering much weight.

If you were my daughter, I would be glad we didn’t talk about what you missed: the woman now rushing from suffering to punishment; the long-haired cat with eyes wide and still, waiting to slip from a carrier to the warm, bright sleeping spot on the back of the couch; the cop transporting animals, both trying not to be thrown by sharp turns, both able to remember and love.

If you were my daughter, you would probably say, “Damn, Daddy, lighten up.”

“Yeah,” I would say, “you’re right.”

But I might not be clueless about your next stop. Hopeful? Desolate? Either way, we could meet for lunch, and I would say, as if thinking out loud, “When a father loves his daughter, she always has at least one good place to be.”