Oniontown Pastoral: Why I’ve Been Quiet Lately
It was tomatoes cooking, the kindly surprise of their smell, that brought me around, helped my spirit to its feet and pointed me in a good direction.
If you look forward to my column in Greenville, Pennsylvania’s daily, The Record Argus, or my posts at A Napper’s Companion, you may have noticed that I’ve been quiet lately. When world and native land are convulsing in myriad ways, of what account are tomato-perfumed wisps rising in a middle-class kitchen? When the television news serves up images of relentless rage and pandemic, mentioning the cleansing joy of wife Kathy’s sunflowers bending in the breeze feels intrusive. When we human beings are enduring the labor pains of birthing a new society—and meanwhile throwing tantrums over trivialities and wetting our pants—who wants to think about a couple dozen corn stalks rising from a raised bed, the soil a mix of household compost and manure from a dear friend’s cows?
Maybe you do. I now believe my silence in recent weeks has been misguided. “Don’t go all poetic on me, John,” I imagined you saying, “about standing at a stove or pulling blessings from a garden, about how basil makes a sauce sing, about how walking by a bush of spearmint touches a place inside you didn’t know was aching. No rhapsodizing at a time like this, when so many of us are at each others’ throats and hardly an hour passes without yielding fresh anxiety and confusion.”
Of course, you weren’t saying anything like this. The fact is, I had convinced myself that what normally moves me to make paragraphs wasn’t relevant anymore. We all have bigger fish to fry, as the cliché goes.
But then those tomatoes reminded me of last summer, before the complication and misery of 2020. Kathy’s crop necessitated daily decisions. Would I make spaghetti or chili for supper? Or would I core and simmer down yesterday’s basketful, let it cool and pour it into freezer bags? More often than not, when Kathy got home from a day of nursing cancer patients, she would pause just inside the backdoor, close her eyes and breathe in.
“Oh,” her mantra went, “I do love the smell of my tomatoes cooking.” And then we’d kiss.
Yes, Norman Rockwell might have painted me wearing an apron and holding a wooden spoon straight up while Kathy looks on with rosy cheeks and a slight smile, but not one detail of the scene is embellished, honest. This was the start of our evening together. This was home and family and marriage. This was life and love.
All of these thoughts came to me wordlessly when, the other day, the pageantry of preserving my wife’s bounty started up again with the lovely scent I’ve described. She has already pulled garlic and onions, which I regularly help to fulfill their aromatic vocation, and canned some dilly beans. Cherry tomatoes are piling up, and, yes, I cook them along with the Better Boys and Romas and freeze them flat. That glad task will wait until tomorrow.
At the moment Kathy is drizzling dish liquid into a slowly filling blowup pool. Grandsons Cole and Killian are staying over this Friday night. I’m watching them from my writing hut—more on this new outbuilding on the Coleman farmette soon. Killian is running the length of the yard and jumping into the shallow foot of water, emerging suds covered and delirious. The way Cole is waving the hose around to make water snakes in the air, the pool may never reach capacity. No matter.
Planet Earth may be going to Hades in a hand basket, but even the gates of hell shall not prevail against my grandsons’ wonders in this hour. Nor can powers and principalities stop Kathy’s sunflowers, soaring six feet above the corn, from waving at me.
Silence is a skillful teacher, but its students are lost unless they listen with the ear of their heart. That was my problem. I paid attention to the faculty members who scream and shout that their subjects, crucial though they may be—war, oppression and illness—are the only ones worth studying.
So I write to insist otherwise and resume interrupting our shared daily travail with promises. Tomatoes still ripen in August and will remind you of grace if you put them on to cook. And sunflowers will bow to you when the wind is right. Remember to breathe deeply and bow in return.
Thanks John. I needed that!!
You got it, sister.
Thank you for coming back. I found myself wondering about you and the family the other day – please let them all be okay. I grieve for the pain and loss of others, and the country, but I also need to rejoice and relax in your simple pleasures, the hope we will return to “normal” some day, that life goes on. No matter how dark it seems, love drives the Colemans on & you pull us along with you.
Hi, Janet. It’s good to be back, having recalibrated some. Peace.
So nice to have you back! I’ve missed you .
Miss you, too. Hope all is well.
Good to see you back. Peace to you and yours, John.
Thanks for writing this, John. You have been on my mind lately.
Hi, Tom. Boy am I behind on responding to comments. Hope all is well with you and Judy. You stay well, too.
Oh, so delightful and authentic. Indeed, the tomatoes came again in August … like “wheat arising green.” Thanks for continuing to “make paragraphs!”
Hi, Jim. Thanks much. I’ll keep trying to make paragraphs if kind folks like yourself will have a look. Peace, John
I once had this very issue when the bombings in Paris cafes had taken central stage in every news outlet’s releases. I moaned to a very wise woman, “How can I write about humor and hope, found in the daily ridiculousness of a bustling large household, while such sorrow and tragedy are going on?” The wise woman simply replied, “My dear, in the midst of sorrow and tragedy is exactly when hope and humor are most needed.” Thank you, John, for your service to the world, when your gentle, loving, poetic, whimsical delights plant their stake in the midst of chaotic times and beckon our attention to, not only what once was, but what currently exists if we have eyes to see. You’ve been given a gift…thank you for sharing it with the world. May you be blessed a hundred-fold.
Thanks so much for this thoughtful and generous response. I guess we do need to hang on stubbornly to a day’s basics: food, pets, love, etc. I hope all is well with you and your words. Peace, John