Thus Spake the Rabbi

My stride has been ragged lately, my groove flummoxed. As the poet said, “Nothing is plumb, level, or square.” Or the politician: “What a terrible thing it is to lose one’s mind. Or not to have a mind at all. How true that is.”

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Old buddy Watson, twelve years of family joy

Joy is largely to blame. Wife Kathy and I had friends over the other night to catch up. When eyes turned toward me, I said, “I’m happy,” which took some explaining. During the last couple of years, though surrounded by more love and support than anyone deserves, I have been tired and stressed. Maybe burnout is the word. Against all worldly good sense, Kathy and I raided my retirement funds and bought a hermit-sized home. (“You might come to regret that,” an old colleague said, and I couldn’t disagree.) I left a fourteen-year, full-time pastorate and accepted a part-time call seventy miles south of Erie, right through the region’s snow belt. Oh, and we haven’t sold our big house yet.

We Colemans have either lost our minds or found them. It could be that you have to lose one mind to find another. Since gladness and good sense seldom form right angles, I’m not surprised that my stride and groove—constructs of a neurotic brain—are stepping lightly these days.

I didn’t use these words exactly to unpack “I’m happy” for my friends, but they understood. Forced to choose between weary, anxious circumstances standing in crisp formation or calm ambiguity weaving like a drunkard, I’ll take the latter.

That is to say, I have taken the latter and am learning to embrace uncertainty and surprises. Lately sleep has been whimsical. A new work schedule has taken issue with my long-standing afternoon habit of napping. Like an AARP veteran, I’m reading in bed at 8:30 p.m. and surrendering by 9:00 or 9:30. The result: I wake up at 2:00 a.m., float to the bathroom, return to bed, and abide in a space that is to sleep what free association is to therapy.

Neither refreshed enough to get up nor drowsy enough to disappear, I breathe. Deep breaths, yes, but not those of my past, taken to lift a burden just enough to endure another hour or hush a remark that can’t be retrieved. If insomnia is an enemy, my peculiar wakefulness is a bearer of gifts.

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A bulge on the forehead: “soon and very soon,” Watson

Darkness is upsetting if you’re trying to find something, but it’s a gentle companion if you’re waiting to be found. A few nights ago snoring found me, not my own, but wife’s and dog’s. The sounds, joining for a moment then going their own ways, were blessings. Kathy has been swollen, weak, and achy for the last couple of months, and neither we nor the doctors know why. No matter what noise it makes, her sleep is medicinal. I welcome it. And Watson has weeks rather than months to live. The fatty tumor on his flank is getting hard. The growth on his forehead pains him more by the day. I now hope to come home and find that he has slipped away while dreaming that he and I are going for a run like we did years ago. His snore means that we don’t have to say goodbye quite yet. God bless his kind soul, even our walls and floors will miss him. I think now of his eyes, alive and expectant when Kathy and I left him this morning, and am close to undone.

The first decoration I nailed up in the Coleman’s new home is wisdom from a rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel.

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Thus spake the rabbi

“Just to be” in a warm bed next to Kathy; “just to live” one more day with Watson: these are the teachings of wakefulness. My chest rises and falls, each in-breath a blessing, each out-breath sacred.

But my darkness isn’t deceptive. It would never say to a lost soul, “Just to be is a blessing.”

Instead I hear, “One corner of your joy will always be uneven, cracked with grief. Whatever mind you possess, it will never be satisfied.”

In this moment, I close my eyes to learn, invite the 2:00 a.m. wakefulness, and hear the rabbi more clearly. Breathing is grace. I survive on love. And I pray: “When my dog dies, Holy One, please help him not to be afraid.”

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15 thoughts on “Thus Spake the Rabbi

  1. John, I “stole” a copy of your photo of the rabbi’s wisdom so I will have it to view over and over. Sometimes a person just needs to hear/read those words and soak in them, so to speak. I trust that you Colemans have not lost your minds and that you have indeed found them. My prayers are with Kathy and Watson and you as you all continue your journeys “onward and upward”. Cheers, Deb

    • Thanks for the prayers, Deb. Glad you burgled Heschel’s words. I walk by them probably ten times a day and see them once or twice, which is enough, I guess. Peace, John

  2. Ah John, this post brought tears and a slight smile, a vigorous nod of the head. Thus spake the rabbi,many so lived John. And the gift of your sharing these spaces in between – a blessing. Thank you

  3. I don’t know the particulars of your recent experience. I was once told that “burnout is a cop out”. You have not lost your mind. Sorry to say but you have important work to accomplish in the process of change. Change is not easy particularly as we get older. My Grandmother once told me that it’s too bad you are at the end of your life when you get the answers. I never asked what she meant. I do know that things happen for a reason, Sometimes we just don’t get it in the moment. My saying is, “Spring will come again-in spite of all of us”. Cathy

    • Thanks for the encouraging words, Cathy. I’m grateful that I’m receiving a few answers while there’s still a little time for them to be of some use. And you’re right, “spring will come.” Peace, John

    • Thanks for taking time to comment, Sharyn. I always want folks to know as much of the truth as is possible. Peace and best, John

  4. I, too am going to bed earlier and earlier and get to wake up around 2:30am for a time of non sleeping. If I’m comfortable (knee and left leg in general), I tolerate the wakefulness very well. If in pain, I put Netflex on my notebook with earphones and watch re-runs of the The Vicar of Dibley or Keeping Up Appearences………and kind of zone out to finally sleep again.
    In relation to old Watson. I understand how you feel and hope with you that he falls asleep in relative comfort to sleep on. But you and Kathy may have to face taking him in kindness to his discomfort to allow your vet to put him to sleep. We have had to do this with several dogs. The last one we had to put to sleep was Bandit. She had lymphoma and was suffering so. And this time, Jim and I went with her and stayed with her so the last thing she heard was Jim and I telling her was what a great dog she was and how much we loved her. As sad as this was, it was far better to recover from than just dropping her off and walking away. If, sadly, it comes to that for you, please stay with Watson, it is a very gentle easy death and the kindest thing you can do for the animal who has been your friend and protector for so many years. I’m crying now. love in Christ, Judi

    • Hey, Judi. “Keeping Up Appearances,” oh heck yeah. Kathy and I were addicted to the Buckets for a few years. Thanks for sharing your wisdom. I’m betting we’ll have to take Watty to the vet to be put to sleep, mainly because I think his tumors and arthritis are mainly painful, but he could linger for quite a while. And you’re absolutely right, no way in hell our old buddy will die alone. I know Kathy and I will be there, probably Micah, too. I’m tearing up, off and on. I imagine saying goodbye will be blurry, but beautiful. Love back atacha, John

  5. John,

    A prayer for you all as you watch and painfully know the enviable is to come with Watson. We are on the constant daily watch and question with our dear Liberty (the dog not our freedom) with the great debate of are we doing the wait game for us or her. No truer friend and companion to us all, and I know you have that same love for dear Watson. I hope that the days left are painless, knowing in my heart my hope is big. Prayers for them both and the rest of us too.
    Peace and love,
    Carrie

    • Hey, Carrie. It’s hard as hell to say goodbye to a dog, isn’t it? They’re so without guile and bullshit. Just love, protectiveness, and begging for treats. Thanks for the prayers. You’ve got my mine for Liberty coming back at you. Much love, John

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