Oniontown Pastoral #10: Mom, Please Tell Me About the Glammazombies

Oniontown Pastoral #10: Mom, Please Tell Me About the Glammazombies

IMG_4284My drive from Erie to St. John’s in Oniontown is never wasted. If nothing else, thoughts wander, graze and lie around with other sympathetic thoughts.

Halfway to church the other day, a tongue-in-cheek remark returned to me: “Your kids grow up and move out just as they start to get interesting.” I forget where I heard this and, in fact, disagree, but the ideas started moving.

I was remembering my mother and listening to Glenn Miller. No sniffles or tight throat, just a speculation: “By the time children want to listen to their parents, it’s too late. Mom and Dad are gone.”

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Dolores Miller

“A String of Pearls” made me think of Mom’s 1944 high school yearbook, which notes that her favorite song was “Sunday, Monday, or Always.” Crosby and Sinatra covered it, but Mom liked a version by Gene Parlette, who worked the Erie region back then.

In my imagination, Mom went to a dance, before my dad came along. Who was her date? She wore the dress from her graduation photograph, dark with bone-white lace. “I want you near every day in the year.” Was that the line of lyrics that spoke to her, Parlette singing and conducting his band? Did she dance, a bit awkward?

Then, with “Moonlight Serenade,” wonders came along.

“What was it like at home when you were growing up? What kind of a mother was Gram? What about Gramp? Did you and Uncle Earl and Uncle Ed fight? What were your chores?”

“Tell me about your friends in high school? What did you do for fun? Did you date a lot?”

I wished Mom were in the passenger seat, filling in the picture I never troubled to ask about before she passed eighteen years ago. Comings and goings in this life aren’t cordial to the past and the hours it takes to welcome stories. Some miscellaneous task always seems pressing.

But as years gather round, so does longing. Here I am, then, fifty-five pretty soon, with my wonderment pressing like a deep hunger.

I can see Mom with three or four friends, sitting on a log, probably on a beach at Presque Isle. Maybe one of my sisters or brother still has the photograph in an old hat box. The girls, smiling and carefree, are dressed in white sweatshirts and khaki pants—slacks, Mom would have called them. On the back she wrote, “The Glammazombies.”

“Mom, please tell me about the Glammazombies. Where did you get that name?”

Why do my ears finally open up when the only response is a sweet, slow clarinet over a car’s speakers as it speeds by crops and cows?

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Good questions

The truth is, all my questions wander and graze. A few lucky ones rest in the sun, full and glad, but most remain hungry, needing more.

I take in longing when it visits, but sometimes lost conversations echo in my own breath. Sentences move silently past my lips into the empty space of the passenger seat.

“Mom, tell me what gave you joy. You loved being pregnant, I know that. But what were your dreams? Some of them came true, right? And you got hurt. What brought you to your knees?

“At least tell me about the Glammazombies. You looked so happy in that picture. Tell me about that day at the beach. And you couldn’t stand your own singing voice, but let me hear “Sunday, Monday, or Always.”

“One day long ago you sang to yourself, faintly. You had a lovely voice, Mom. I should have said so right away, but I was a kid and didn’t use words like lovely back then.”

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Hope and Joy in a Roaring Wave

Hope and Joy in a Roaring Wave

Every year Erie, Pennsylvania, hosts Roar on the Shore, a gathering of approximately 165,000 motorcycle enthusiasts that makes my hometown rumble for a few days. According to the Roar’s website, its mission is “to raise money for a worthwhile charity while encouraging motorcycle riding, safety and fellowship.”

I’ll state directly that motorcycles aren’t my thing. Harley-Davidsons and their many cousins are like rollercoasters, lime Jell-o with chopped celery and carrots, romance novels and turtleneck sweaters. You can like them. I’m not against them, just parked in the eh category.

But hope and joy are my things, and generally they find me by surprise.

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Hi, kind of blurry Santa and Mrs. Claus

I was minding my own business, standing along Glenwood Park Avenue with wife Kathy and grandson Cole. The Roar’s parade of motorcycles was going by, the riders vroom vrooming—such delight in engine flexing.

Cole needed to get used to the volume, so he sat in the car, peering out the open window. My body fat, from arm bingo to wine gut to muffin tops to saddlebags, trembled in the racket. The bikes were interesting, a smorgasbord of shiny eccentricity and plain weirdness. The air was a brew of exhaust and grilled hot dogs from nearby picnic shelters.

Such sensory overload would normally have me looking for an escape route, but this loud, funky scene was rendered gorgeous—every smell, sound, and sight, I swear—by human faces.

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Happy dudes in a happy brood: one of these guys let out a vroom that sent Cole diving for cover.

Watching them rev by, I felt like crying. I should have cried. (Yes, I’m way too in touch with my tear ducts. Guilty as charged.) Face after face saw my face, and we waved at each other, human beings exchanging something pretty modest, if you stop and think about it.

What does a wave between strangers mean, after all? “You’re a person. Hey, I’m a person, too. And I see you.” That’s it.

But it wasn’t the waves alone that moved my old soul. The bikers’ dear faces were blissed out. And what an assortment: grizzly, metrosexual, young and fair, toothless, weathered, cherubic and gaunt; skin colors, check; genders, check; ages, check; orientations, check.

In other words, motorcycles marching to their guttural tunes presented me with a nice collection of humanity that, as near as I could tell, found a few miles of heaven rolling along together as a tribe.

“Why are you so choked up?” I asked myself.

“They’re so happy,” I said, out loud a couple times, almost in disbelief. “For as long as this ride lasts, they get to be happy.”

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Cole, the recipient of scores of smiles and waves

On the way home, Cole said, in as clear a sentence as his toddler tongue has yet uttered, “That was so much fun”—a perfect little word for what I’ve decided is a saving truth.

Why did 5000 bikers wave to over 20,000 spectators? Why did the eyes of those in motion shine like the sun? Why were those standing still so often laughing? Because when human beings see each other, smile and wave, some of the gladness each of us keeps inside comes out of hiding.

Lest you accuse me floating off into rosy clouds, I’ll acknowledge that a few beers and a conversation about politics and religion might ugly up lots of those silly parade grins. But then, Old Milwaukee and opinions can furrow brows in my very own family. Rancor and ridicule are always as close as our elbows.

But the joy of a smile and a wave lies in the truth that we are all more than our passions, righteous though they may be. My personhood begins with roots: I love; with luck, I am loved back; a woman gave birth to me; I can never put down my life, a heavy satchel of stories that could make you dance and cry; I’m afraid; I suffer; I have dreams.

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Tell me your dreams and stories.

I chatted this morning with Stacey, a Starbucks friend who rode and roared. She was moved, she said, by the flags and folks sometimes a dozen deep lining the route. Words couldn’t quite get at the power she felt in thousands waving.

I actually spotted Stacey and her wife in the procession and recognized their awe, which may be the best word to describe the simple, elusive hope I found in Roar on the Shore.

If only we could see each other! Not what we believe or whom we love or how genetics sculpt our bodies and color our skin.

Imagine the fragile world if our smiles and waves meant, “Hey, there, fellow person. I won’t hurt you. Let me hear all about your mother. Tell me a story to make me dance.”

Okay, I am in the clouds. But I believe in awe. Would you help me bring some clouds to earth, to where we’re standing?

Or maybe we can just look each other in the eyes. That’s not too much to ask. Good Lord, we can do that much, right?

In Defense of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

In Defense of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Blogger’s Note: The scope of the opinion piece that follows is narrow. I have views about nearly every tangential topic imaginable, but I’m speaking here only to The New York Times‘ recent editorial board opinion about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s statements about Donald Trump.

If you’re looking for the normal fare served by A Napper’s Companion, please feel free to order another entree. 

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Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Credit: Wikipedia)

Spirits of the coffee drinkers at Brew Ha Ha are merry this noontide, but I’m negotiating with a troubled heart. Former teaching colleagues Alice and Mary and I reacquainted and dissected one of our national obsessions, November’s presidential election. Since they left an hour ago, I’ve been palpating available Internet information and opinions in hopes of easing my suspicion of a terrible prognosis. The possibilities paralyze my brain and sour my gut.

The New York Times normally steadies me, but, oh, my precious, the editorial board has just poked at my gag reflex with this opinion: “Donald Trump Is Right About Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” Whew! Pause. Breathe.

In a recent interview with Adam Liptak of the very newspaper that smacked her knuckles, Ginsburg had the impudence to say, “I can’t imagine what the country would be — with Donald Trump as our president.” A couple of other remarks added color to her opinions and probably set off editors’ subjectivity detectors.

Asked if she also thought that the Senate should act on Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Court, Ginsburg practically got hysterical: “That’s their job.” Please, somebody get this woman into a straightjacket.

The board’s assessment is terse: “Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg needs to drop the political punditry and the name-calling.”

Okay, she did call Trump a faker. Bad Justice. Bad Justice. But punditry? Rising from my nausea are a litany of questions, summarized by one: “Where does punditry end and truth begin?”

Other words pose essentially the same question. “At what point does objective neutrality deny the obvious?” “When is bullshit given the full weight of fact?” And “When is denigration mistaken for discussion?”

Yes, these are dangerous questions. Whoever successfully lays claim to facts and truths has hold of power and moral high ground.

But these are perilous times. At least in politics, the historically accepted rules of engagement have been trodden under wingtips. I’m hardly the first to observe that even the pretense of civility and fair play in governmental chambers and circles is gone. And reality, fluid in the best of social climates, is now nothing but fog. Where are the brakes?

Americans who share Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s opinion about Donald Trump aren’t so much despondent about the candidate himself, but about the destination of “I, Donald John Trump, do solemnly swear that I will execute the Office of President of the United States.”

Trump will, indeed, execute the Office, and felled in the firing squad’s aim will be the languishing assumptions about how we Americans communicate with each other and come to agreements and define the world we live in. This is my dread, at least.

Adding insult to injury, the just, charitable identity we have struggled to embody—the “lamp [lifted] beside the golden door”—may give way to the hateful, fearful “angels of our nature.”

Our society has already taken many steps down a rancorous, violent path. Do we honestly suppose that we’ll find remedies to what ails America if we crown a man who delights in riling followers into stampede?

Pause. Breathe.

Am I being alarmist? Hyperbolic? Gosh, I hope so. But I don’t think so.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg knows that “the exception proves the rule.” Supreme Court Justices should keep their noses out of political controversies. Good rule. Good good rule.

But what Donald Trump says he would do as Commander in Chief—bluster though his every word may be—requires the assassination of what is most honorable in the people and the deportation of the Constitution Justice Ginsburg is sworn to interpret and uphold.

She was obliged to break a generally wise rule. She gets a pass.

The Counterintuitive Truth About Violence: The Day After Dallas

The Counterintuitive Truth About Violence: The Day After Dallas

Begin with speculation: Why do mass murderers often finish their missions by committing suicide, either by cop or their own hand? Various sources suggest self-loathing, hopelessness, a weird attempt at revenge, and a refusal to endure the consequences of their actions.

All of those reasons make sense, more or less, but this morning, riding out the dismay of yet another mass shooting, another explanation occurred to me.

After you kill people, you are in great measure dead already. Suicide is the end punctuation of the truth.

This basic idea—the violence you do to others returns home to you—is hardly new, but it is so unpalatable, abstract, and counterintuitive that we reject it, if we acknowledge it at all.

The Psalmist writes of his enemy, but speaks a universal reality: “He made a pit, and digged it, and is fallen into the ditch which he made. His mischief shall return upon his own head, and his violent dealing shall come down upon his own pate”(Psalm 7:15-16).

Arthur Conan Doyle certainly borrows from Psalm 7 when his Sherlock Holmes observes, “Violence does, in truth, recoil upon the violent, and the schemer falls into the pit which he digs for another” (“The Adventure of the Speckled Band”).

Buddhist teachings also acknowledge the result of letting yourself be consumed by anger and violence: “By doing [violence] you are like a man who wants to hit another and picks up a burning ember or excrement in his hand and so first burns himself or makes himself stink” (Visuddhimagga IX, 23).

The temptation is to domesticate such wisdom by restricting it only to terrorists and crazies. But anger is wild, violence a delinquent student. And, no revelation here, we human beings can all get pissed and throw haymakers. Who among us doesn’t take life from others, blood cell by blood cell, hour by hour? The unkind word recoils upon the speaker as surely as the shooter is wounded in his own crossfire.

Of course, not all violence is driven by anger. A soldier, for example, might wish to do anything rather than kill. Unfortunately, taking another person’s life, even for a just cause, can still be lethal for the most stable of soldiers. Some in military service die in battle, obviously. Others return home with beating hearts and tortured spirits. From 1999 to 2010, one veteran committed suicide every 65 minutes, 22 of them each day. In 2012, active-duty suicides ever-so-slightly outpaced deaths in engagement (177 to 176).

I regard members of the United States armed forces as heroes. They risk life and limb out of a deep, difficult calling. They carry out orders they may not like in conflicts perhaps troubling to them in hopes of defending their country.

It’s unfair that a noble person can survive a battle only to discover in the aftermath invisible, self-inflicted wounds. A glowing coal doesn’t care whether the hand about to throw it is right or wrong, good or evil. It burns whatever it touches.

I’m prepared to be corrected in my speculations. I’ve never taken a human life. But why did many veterans of my father’s generation remain silent about what they saw and did in World War II? Why was the scorn Vietnam vets endured so personally and spiritually devastating? Why are those serving in today’s military taking their own lives in record numbers?

Because killing kills. Failing that, it maims. The recoil of violence is so strong that even those of us who lash out only in insults and dirty looks bruise ourselves.

The sniper who murdered five police officers in Dallas was killed by a robot reaching toward him with an explosive—the fruit of his evening’s labors. But he was dead already.

And what about the rest of us? Is there any hope of stopping what has become our planetary routine of violence?

My kingdom for selfless love pandemic! But that wish amounts to whistling into the wind. What we have right now is rage, which, though understandable, is not inclined toward the Golden Rule.

Any suggestion these days ends up sounding impotent, but I’ll offer mine just the same: We ought to teach our children right from the start that any blood they shed in this life will generally include an equal share of their own.

Here’s Your Sign: In Memory of Joe Burgert

Here’s Your Sign: In Memory of Joe Burgert

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Joe Burgert

Organist and devout Christian Joe Burgert died in his sleep on June 25th at the Lay School of Theology, which was held at Thiel College in Greenville, Pennsylvania. His friends, my wife Kathy included, were devastated and knew they wouldn’t be able to continue attending class sessions, so they headed for Erie. Since Kathy had hitched a ride with Joe, she drove his car, the hatch filled with his luggage and laundry.

Traveling east on Route 322, the women in the two-car caravan had just started to grieve. Joe was a big presence, but sensitive and thoughtful. His laughter was thunderous and infective. Although health issues tired him out, he always seemed to be overflowing with life. How could he be gone so suddenly?

Kathy was hit particularly hard by Joe’s passing. They rode together, sat side by side at dinner, worshiped together, and then, pow, he was gone. But there was something else: I don’t think Kathy realized how much she loved Joe until he died. That was my experience, too. Let’s just say, Joe Burgert was a great soul.

So great, in fact, that he has helped a skeptic like me to believe in signs. For good or ill, much as I embrace miracles and the workings of the Holy Spirit, I resist explaining mysteries. “Leave them be” is my approach.

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Joe! (Credit: NASA/Gary Rothstein on Wikimedia Commons)

But it’s hard not to think that Joe reached out to his stunned friends on the highway. A bald eagle flew right at them, down the middle of the road, just at the treetops. The way Kathy tells it, they all saw the wings spread wide, almost close enough to touch, and thought the same thing: “Joe!”

He was considerate that way. If, in the governance of eternity, the dead can reach out to the bereaved, Joe would have put in a request for an eagle flyover. For days Kathy couldn’t share the story without crying. She loves eagles, scans the sky for them all the time.

Joe gave me a sign, too, I think, but to appreciate this, you have to know that I drove him crazy. He was meticulous and, even he would have admitted, kind of fussy. I’m more improvisational theater, as pastors go. We loved each other, but I tested the poor man’s patience.

A few days after Joe passed, I was running errands, my mind doing its normal noodling. Walking across a parking lot, I remembered that eagle and thought, “Hey, Joe, how about a sign for me.” No misty eyes were involved here at all. I might as well have been musing, “Boy, an ice cream cone would sure be good right now.”

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Good one, Joe. (Credit: Niceckhart on Wikimedia Commons)

Then I looked up at the storefront: GIANT EAGLE. There was my sign, and it was vintage Joe Burgert—exactly his sense of humor and sharp mind.

“Here’s your eagle, Pastor,” I imagined him saying, followed by his great laugh.

In Joe Burgert’s memory and honor, I’m choosing to believe not only that he staged my sign, but that the Communion of Saints conspired with him, joyful to the point of tears.

Oniontown Pastoral #9: Kitchen Talk

Oniontown Pastoral #9: Kitchen Talk

IMG_3909Given the number of hours I spend at the stove, it’s inevitable that my best conversations with son Micah take place in the kitchen. Dad smashes garlic or micromanages an Alfredo sauce, and son shows up with revelations and mysteries.

He and I once rehearsed the Chinese words for you’re welcome so that he could answer an elderly immigrant’s thank you at work the next day.

One evening he sputtered a profanity-laced account of a cruelty he had witnessed in a grocery store parking lot. I realized at once that his words were intended as a lament, rough-hewn, but holy.

Micah’s latest beauty parked itself in the kitchen doorway, blocking my way: “Hey, Dad, have you ever felt like you needed a reason to cry?”

“No,” I almost said, “I keep plenty of reasons to cry on hand,” but decided to give my twenty-something some space.

His explanation turned toward the haunting Celtic music from a war film, Black Hawk Down. The Breton lyrics, which sound to English speakers like groans put to notes, choke him up. Is he drawn to listen because, who knows why, tears need to be released?

Since the one activity I spend more time on than cooking is navel-gazing, long, mind-numbing speculations about sadness are always in stock.

I kept my theorizing brief with Micah, and I’ll extend the same courtesy here.

We human beings never really get over anything. That’s the pith. Every death, breakup, failure and injury sleeps folded up in our cedar chest of memory. The teacher who said you would never amount to anything? The words are preserved as if on stationary and fade with the years, but no matter, you know them by heart. And the day you received the devastating phone call? That instant is a photograph waiting for the lid to open.

We live in layers. Today’s scorching goodbye invites every other parting to come along with it. And the current betrayal may sing a solo, but it’s backed up by a choir.

Every joy also has its lineage, but most of us are content to receive a moment’s gladness without interrogation. Who asks, “Why am I having such a great day?”

No. The question left standing belongs to my son. “Do you ever need a reason to cry?” Another way of posing it might be, “Why does each hurt in the chest beg to be aired now and then?”

I don’t know, but my days of stifling the truth are past, as is the impulse to name every lump in my throat.

IMG_4284Fortunately, men’s tears aren’t frowned upon anymore, though most of mine visit privately during my hour to and from pastor work at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown, Pennsylvania.

A mandolin plays or an oboe or a gravelly voice. The land offers its countenance. I might stop at Camp Perry for some farmer’s cheese and let its salt and cream grace the drive.

Always the weight in my sternum and fullness behind my eyes arrive of their own accord—and not terribly often. A sniffle, a damp cheek. The road blurs a little.

Who am I missing? What passing wants attention? What shadow of rejection has returned to make me small? I don’t ask anymore.

“Come in, whoever you are,” I think, maybe at a crescendo. “Find the air you need.”

By the time I get home, a cleansing has usually occurred. I’m happy to start supper, ready for more kitchen talk with Micah. My lungs are filled sails.

If each soul does have a chest—cedar or hope—mine has no lock. The contents come out and go back in, awakened by music they must recognize. After fifty-four years, I suppose they’re family.

Practicing Environmentally-Friendly Speech

Practicing Environmentally-Friendly Speech

(Note: Here’s a summer re-run for your enjoyment or consternation. I originally posted this in slightly different form in July of 2013, when not many folks knew about A Napper’s Companion.)

5:28 a.m.: Birds in the boulevard’s maples sing in the first breath of light. Hoping for a scratch on her temples, portly cat Shadow waits by Kathy’s hand. This is sweet pre-dawn, an hour made for shamatha—calm abiding. I woke up around 4:30, stepped on the bathroom scale, grimaced, and returned to bed for thirty minutes of propped-up prayer. Now I have until 7:00 to do as I please. One flat note on this start to my day off is a neighborhood skunk that responded to some threat. Ugh.

There’s always something to spray about: two pounds forward, one pound back; my right foot getting chilled in the breeze, now covered by the sheet; the moppy dog across the street complaining about newspaper delivery; skunk is as skunk does. But none of this noise overcomes the silence. Even a distant train’s groan and rattle treat the morning’s meditation kindly.

I want to be kind, too, kind and loving toward this day. For starters, I just set my iPhone alarm for wife Kathy, who has to get up at 6:50 and go give cancer patients chemotherapy. She doesn’t want to keep clicking her snooze button, and I don’t blame her.

Since an out-of-town visit with a friend got scuttled, I plan—in no particular order—to visit my friendly barber Pat, go for a four-miler at Presque Isle State Park, fold laundry, buy sardines in mustard sauce (yes, I do like them and recently read that they’re a nutritional marvel), and skim The Erie Times-News at Starbucks while sipping an iced coffee with a shot of espresso, all decaf, half and half, two Splendas.

The fish, jog beside Lake Erie, handkerchiefs, and the rest aren’t this Friday’s center of gravity, though. Neither are two ABC News articles slated for Starbucks: “New Limits on Arsenic in Apple Juice” (Huh? Shouldn’t the limit be . . . none?) and “The History of Urinating in Space” (pretty sure I’ll regret this one). With luck, loving silence will be the force pulling this day together.

With luck! I hope to devote two hours to prayer and napping, both sane and quiet acts. Lots of slow, deep breaths will be signs that my spirit is blinking its eyes. Breathing in and out makes wispy sounds—not noise pollution at all. Most important for the environment, I’ll try not to litter with my mouth.

Eco-friendliness is not only fantastic, but fashionable, and I’m on board. Like many families, the Colemans have a compost pile, recycle everything we can, conserve electricity, etc. My personal care for creation also includes the unconventional measure of shutting-up. Readers who know me personally are laughing: “Seriously, John?” Far from being quiet, I’m probably known as talkative and occasionally buffoonish. To be more specific, then, I want to practice environmentally-friendly speech: healing and productive rather than wounding and destructive.

I want to talk in life-giving ways, but my mindfulness slips constantly. If I could view a daily transcript of everything that comes out of my mouth, I’d be discouraged at how many words are either unkind or unnecessary. (Don’t worry. I’m not going to lose sleep over this. Humans talk a lot of crap, and I’m human.)

Still, I want to honor the life I’ve been granted by letting blessed silence—like that of pre-dawn shamatha—replace blather, gossip, snark, and holler. To center myself for the effort, I’ve poached some quotations from the Internet:

  • “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” (Blaise Pascal)
  • “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” (Franz Kafka)
  • “The deepest rivers make least din, the silent soule doth most abound in care.” (William Alexander)
  • “Words can make a deeper scar than silence can heal.” (Author unknown)
  • And, finally, a beloved quote from Anne Lamott, which you shouldn’t read if a mild swear-word will put you out: “Rule 1: When all else fails, follow instructions. And Rule 2: Don’t be an asshole” (from Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith).

Regarding that last quote: I figure shutting-up is one of the best ways not to break Rule 2. Now that I think about it, Lamott wrote in four words what I just sweated out in a couple hundred. That’s why she makes the big bucks. I’ll be satisfied with getting a little better each day at listening to her.

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Sign hanging over my dresser–$3.00 at an estate sale