November 8, 2014: your Christmas cactus is in full bloom. It may be my imagination, but every year the blossoms seem to show up a little earlier. We could now call your beloved old plant a Halloween cactus. How many holidays will pass before the pink flowers open up at Easter?
You know, Mom, you’ve been gone sixteen years, and I always figured that the older I got, the less I would miss you. Actually, the opposite seems to be true. The heaviness in my throat in this moment is greater than when I wrote you last year. The reason is your great-grandson Cole. I imagine the deep gladness you would know in holding him, talking to him as I do, sitting quietly as the minutes pass, watching him in ceaseless motion. You would say the same thing as we do: “He’s so busy.”
Most Sundays we have family dinner, Mom. I’m not sure why as your son I didn’t insist on this practice years ago, but I didn’t. I’m sorry. People who say that they have no regrets in life probably aren’t looking closely enough. Anyway, after we finished eating, Cole got fussy. Had you been there and not been burdened with arthritis, you would have picked him up and walked around the house, talking to him. I can see you telling your great-grandson about this and that. The decades glow and soften in my mind: there you are, my late mother holding my beloved grandson. It’s nice to see you.
But since you aren’t here—not really—and weren’t there after dinner to occupy Cole, I did. Our first stop was your Christmas cactus. I told him a little about the plant, but before I knew it I was telling him about you. Of course, I said you would love him like crazy and other things you would expect. But as he looked on momentary peace at your plant, I told him that when his mother was a toddler, you peeled grapes for her. Peeling grapes: that’s love. “Your great-grandma would do the same for you,” I said, imagining you putting bits of the pulp into his mouth.
Next stop: the photograph of you in your wedding dress. “My gosh, Cole,” I said, “look at how beautiful your Great-Grandma Coleman was.” I was focused on you and Cole, but was also aware of somebody looking over my shoulder and saying, “Oh, yeah! She was beautiful.”
Tours with tired babies last only so long, so that was about it. Elena, Matt, and Cole packed up and headed home. Tomorrow being Sunday, we’ll go through the same ritual, and most likely I’ll use the spatula from home. No kidding, Mom, every time I pick it up, I remember you. Maybe I’ll show Cole, tell him it was yours.
I wish you could be with us. We would sit at the dining room table and look at pictures. This afternoon I was missing you, so I went upstairs and pulled out some albums. Time passed. Two photographs held me up a while: one of Elena and one of Micah. I could see Cole in both of them.
I said before you were beautiful, but I’ve become suspicious of time, reluctant to accept its authority over us, covetous of eternity. More must await us beyond this lovely, troubled land, where early we toddle on fair-skinned, sausage legs and late travel tentatively, afraid of the fall that might crack our aching bones. There must be more because you deserve to hold this child, to kiss his promise of red hair—however this can happen in the Eternal Calm and Splendor.
So, Mom, I’ll correct myself: you are beautiful. I don’t visit your grave often, with its pound or two of ash and bone the required number of feet below. Better: I exchange this earthly chronology for one I compose myself. I close my eyes. Now, you pass your hands over my children’s cheeks as you did decades ago and speak to them gently. Cole sits on your lap. You bounce him and lean forward to look at his round face. Like the rest of us, you get lost there.
As you and I sit together, I hold your hand, still the softest I’ve ever known. Since this is my time, your knuckles and joints don’t blossom with arthritis—no pain. I’m looking at your skin and veins, Mom, and kissing your hand. Your eyes are closed. You hear me say, “You live.”
I woke up from my Sunday afternoon nap half an hour ago and now sit in the dining room a few feet away from your Christmas cactus. It’s been jostled and broken a few times in the fifteen years you’ve been gone, but Kathy has always used the remnants as starters, which she gives away once they take hold. Guests marvel and ask how old the plant is. I wish you were here to tell me.
I miss you, Mom. Driving around at night this time of year, I listen to the empty space you left behind. People are getting lights up on their houses, and I’d love to pick you up, go slowly through the neighborhoods, check out the colors shining in the darkness, and hear you mmm and ooo. I’d love to watch Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune with you after dinner, neither of us saying much. And I wish you’d have been with me during the last couple of days.
Yesterday, November 30, 2013, your fourth great-grandchild, Cole Martin Thompson, was born at 7:15 a.m. Elena did the hard part, and her husband Matt and Kathy were there to help. I know, women give birth every day, but Cole’s arrival is almost beyond belief for Kathy and me, so joyful that it seems surreal.
Elena and Micah have been through a lot since you died. Elena remembers you walking with her to get ice cream before your arthritis got bad. They both remember the dollar toys and candy bars you had waiting for them when we came to visit—Hot-Wheel cars, little rubber ladybugs, and 3 Musketeers. Kathy and I will never forget you peeling grapes for Elena when she spent the night at your place. Their memory of you is dim around the edges, but they still talk about you with great love. You were gentle and understanding with them, long before their troubles began.
Their teenage years were tough. Elena got into wearing all black and scratching and slicing her wrists bloody. She and friends gave each other tattoos and piercings. Worst of all, in high school she swallowed a handful of pills and wound up in the hospital. And Micah was hooked on heroin and smashed up his room in our basement during a few years of madness I still don’t understand. He’s a convicted felon, which will follow him the rest of his life. He and a friend cooked down fentanyl patches and injected the narcotic into her arm. She overdosed and nearly died, and Micah took the blame. The one good thing about your death is you didn’t have to walk the floor, as you used to say, worrying about your grandchildren.
While much of this madness was going on, Kathy was in nursing school. I can’t imagine how she was able to get mostly A’s, graduate, and start work as an oncology nurse while our kids were in various stages of meltdown. But she did, which shows what a strong spirit she has.
I was a mess. Being a pastor was still new to me, so as I tried to take care of parishioners, I barely functioned myself. I can’t tell you how many times when Elena was missing in the middle of the night or when Micah was roaring and screaming, I wanted to show up at your apartment and lie down with my head in your lap. That’s some picture, huh—a forty-something man with his mommy rubbing his balding head. I had to settle for two-hour naps of escape by myself. I swear, Mom, there were times I wasn’t sure I’d survive. You gave birth to a man whose fragility didn’t make for a particularly disciplined, wise parent. I could have done a better job.
But this is why after fifteen years I want to write you. There’s a place in me that longs to tell you that after all Elena and Micah have been through, we—your son, his wife and kids and son-in-law—found ourselves together in a hospital room looking at a greater blessing than I’d considered possible.
It wasn’t just the birth of my first grandchild that moved me. It was that Elena has grown into a mighty—no pain medication during labor!—wise and lovely woman with a husband who’s in every way more than I have a right to expect.
It was that Micah has been clean for over a year and has a full-time job as a painter. You know, he cried when he first saw his nephew and said that Saturday, November 30, 2013, was the best day of his life.
I let Micah hold Cole before I did. “Would my son live to see adulthood?” I wondered years ago, listening to furniture being demolished in the basement. Yesterday, I watched your grandson hold your great-grandson. I breathed in and out, Mom, and thought for the first time in my life that if I suddenly died in that moment, all would be well, that I would have known as much joy as any man deserved.
Life offers no guarantees, other than one day we’ll all join you. You’re ash underground. My ashes will be scattered somewhere. Cole, whose head is still bruised from pressing against Elena’s pelvis, will eventually follow us. I don’t know what eternity looks like, but my prayer is that somehow we can share the holiness of these days—you, your parents and grandparents, your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
And yes, Mom, I know it’s possible that I’ve written this letter only for myself—a hopeful, neurotic middle-aged man—and that you may be nothing more than the bone and cinder your children buried in June of 1998. But I can’t help believing that existence is as abiding as your Christmas cactus and as fair as your great-grandson Cole.
For as long as I have left, I’ll hold on to this belief and pray to see you again. Lifetimes from now, may we all embrace, tell stories, and watch colors shine in the darkness.
Letter to a Kindred Spirit, Off to College
Sorry for starting this sendoff with a cliché, but “time is flying” lately. Same with life, especially when fifty sneaks up on sixty. That’s me. Every once in a while I want to grab a day by the scruff to keep it from running away. That’s right now.
In a few weeks you’ll be off to Pittsburgh’s Chatham University, two hours south on I-79 from home in Erie. You’ll take leave, knowing that your tribe can and will hop behind the wheel as soon as you call and show up before tears of homesickness have time to dry.
You and I both know you’ll do some crying, right? I’m not trying to be a rain cloud here. You have—in case you haven’t noticed—family and friends who swoon over you with love and support. We’ve watched you overcome serious illnesses, distinguish yourself academically, hang onto your sweet self and take a full step into adulthood. Along the way, disappointment and grief have gotten up in your face, but you’ve stood your ground. Yes, ma’am, you’ve made us proud.
And you, on your part, hold a love for us that’s overwhelming at times, isn’t it? You find comfort in having family and friends in your house, even if you’re not in the same room. If we leave without saying goodbye, you’re a bit hurt. When Kathy, Micah and I moved from the house next door, you got choked up talking about it for months.
Such wondrous love as yours comes with a price. This is actually my reason for writing to you, other than to say what you already know: “I love you and am sad that for most of the year, you won’t be across town.” If only time would cooperate when we try to hold it still. If only those dear to us never disappeared over the horizon. You and I know better, right?
We’ll see each other often enough, but the move to college can be decisive. On August 22, 2018, you’re off to the Steel City. Four years later, who knows where circumstance and intuition will call you? Will we be able to reach you in a day’s drive? I guess we’ll all find out together.
Anyway, you’re smarter than I am, and don’t bother arguing with me on this point. There’s hardly anything I can say that you haven’t learned or already suspect. Studying and self-discipline have been folded up in your suitcase for many grades now. Those lumps from childhood have taught you not to get knocked out by upsets that might have your classmates on the ropes. And romance? Sure, you might get stung, but brains aren’t your only gift. You’ve got a strong, insightful heart. You’ll outmaneuver each Don Juan.
You’ll also make friends and crush exams and write amazing papers, no doubt in my mind. But I do have a vision of a moment that might come out of nowhere and leave you shaken.
You’ve just walked into your dorm room. Outside it’s dusk, inside the light is thin. The heavy knapsack slips from your shoulder onto your study desk. Strange, nobody is around, not your roommate, not other girls coming and going. The air is heavy and quiet. You check your smartphone. No text messages, no missed calls. It’s been a crummy day. A good friend has been acting like a jerk, for no reason you can think of. Or a guy you kind of like clearly isn’t interested in you (the fool). Or maybe you’ve just been out of sorts.
Whatever the case, it’s only you, your room, Chatham University and Pittsburgh. That’s it. Not even a test to study for. Being alone is normally OK with you. But now, standing in the gray silence, you want to be in Erie, bellied up to the kitchen counter and snacking on leftover Alfredo I sent home with you and telling your brother or sister to cut it out and hearing your mother call you “Abber Dabbers.”
You would give anything, when darkness comes, to lie down in your attic bedroom and stare at the familiar moonlight and shadows on your walls. More affection than you could ever need would be one flight of stairs away.
But you’re alone at school, listening to yourself sigh.
Trust me, Abbey, I’m not out to depress you. This letter is actually a gift to slip into a moving box and read again when you forget that you’re not only mighty, but mindful—which is why I’ve dared to send you off to college with this sad portrait.
4:30 p.m. on a December day like the one I’ve described will probably visit you. We’re “kindred spirits”—another cliché, sorry. The mere nuance of life can make us tear up or shove our faces into the dirt. So I know that your solitary dorm room on an overcast afternoon might fill your chest with a longing more insistent than you had thought possible.
If so, you listen to your forever neighbor Flanders*. This may be the only advice I have to offer you.
When you feel so alone that you want to climb out of your skin, stand still and keep listening to yourself breathe. Don’t run. Don’t busy yourself. In fact, do more than stand still. Lean into the loneliness. Taste it. Hold it gently by the scruff so it won’t get away. If you cry, cry like a big baby. And know this: When you let loneliness have its way with you for a little while, it will pass eventually without much of a fight.
By the time you feel more yourself, you will have passed an exam beyond book learning. A college freshman doesn’t have to be lonely very much, but when you do, Abbey, you’ll be able to handle it. For sure, call somebody who loves you. Call me, but if there’s no answer, you know what to do.
Being mighty has a summit: Standing alone with yourself and not trying to escape. You’ve got this!
*Flanders is my nickname with Abbey’s family.
Belated Happy National Napping Day!
Blogger’s Note: I had this post almost ready to go yesterday. Events conspired against me, though. Since A Napper’s Companion is thus far a gratis gig, the scrumptious words that follow had to wait until this morning. Enjoy a day late. Peace, John
Thirty-five years ago at Behrend College in Erie, Pennsylvania, Mr. Michael Tkach did me a life-changing service. His persuasive writing class convinced me to become an English major. I was a milquetoast Business Management student, but once Tkach—pronounced tack—made me wrestle with fallacies, my major took a hairpin left–English it would be.
My former professor is now a friend, and today I owe him a second, albeit more quiet, thank you. The following Facebook message from Mike just landed in my box: “National Napping Day! I didn’t know about this, but I thought you might.”
I do, in fact, know about today’s sane and gentle observance, always the day after our clocks spring forward an hour, but without fail I forget. According to wowktv.com, “William Anthony, Ph.D., a Boston University Professor and his wife, Camille Anthony, created National Napping Day in 1999 as an effort to spotlight the health benefits to catching up on quality sleep. ‘We chose this particular Monday because Americans are more ‘nap-ready’ than usual after losing an hour of sleep to daylight saving time,’” said Dr. Anthony, also known as the Napmaster General, in a BU press release.
The host of a blog called A Napper’s Companion should have this date circled in red on the calendar. I have one defense: for me, every day is National Napping Day. Thanks, Mike, not only for giving me a great steer decades ago, but also for sounding the alarm about this holiday.
“National Napping Day is probably for amateurs anyway,” Mike concluded. “You’re a pro.” I wish, old friend. Dedicated volunteer is more like.
When I started www.ANappersCompanion.com almost three years ago, I shared piles of information to defend and encourage napping. If you’re intolerably bored, you can dial back many months and find more benefits of the blessed oblivion of midday than any reader could wish for.
But I don’t write much about napping anymore. First, the practice no longer needs any defense. Research rendered in snappy graphics are all over the Internet. Facebook crackles with exhortations and celebrations. Big business has slowly caught on to the wisdom of not only allowing naps but also dedicating space to them. Bill and Camille Anthony have served us well.
To date I’ve posted 179 essays on A Napper’s Companion, and one entitled “Napping Pods for $12,985: A Commentary” has been visited more than any other. By far! And much to my chagrin. I wish a couple of my other posts had attracted such numbers. WordPress sent me an alert yesterday that my stats were soaring. Cool beans, but nearly all the interest was in napping pods.
I’ve never even seen a pod in person, by the way. I remain a garden-variety napper who finds that a couch or bed works fine. A floor is okay, too, as long as I have a fluffy pillow. My siesta strategies haven’t changed over the years.
But circumstances have eased. Pitiful as it sounds, napping used to be serious. The last fifteen years or so have included intense, excruciating stretches, some of which regular visitors to this blog know about. During the worst times, knocking off for an hour in the middle of the day was essential. I either stepped off the planet into oblivion or imploded. Heck, I almost broke down anyway.
It would be nice to say that I’ve grown or gotten stronger, but I’m as vulnerable as ever, unequal to many gauntlets humans must run. But for whatever reason, swords and clubs are fewer these days, challenges that slash at my spirit mostly disarmed.
I’m still devoted to naps not because I’ll fall apart without them but because they’re good for me. Some folks do well sleeping in one long session over twenty-four hours. I’m happy for them—really. Others’ schedules don’t allow a siesta, which is a shame if they’re tired.
National Napping Day has plenty of scientific support. I’m buoyed by the fact that my daily rest is blessed by research, but I’ll close my eyes in an hour mostly for subjective reasons. Napping is my way of kissing myself on the forehead and saying, “You’re trying to be a good man, John. Lie down and breathe.”
Happy National Napping Day and love to you all.
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.
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.”
Peace and love,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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,
Dear Loved Ones:
Here’s a bulletin! Over the last few years I’ve been discouraged about the state of the world. World: language doesn’t get much bigger. Solar system, galaxy, universe, and eternity all out rank world. In addition to a couple of newspapers and websites, my source for Earth’s latest information is ABC’s World News with David Muir. On the surface, this makes sense. If I want the most important updates available, why not depend on one of the big three television networks still broadcasting free of charge?
On the other hand, what makes the American Broadcast Company so wise? A few days ago after prayer-meditation, I beat Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the magi to the stable in Bethlehem and had an epiphany, joyous and liberating. The various media have much to report, but they can’t cover everything. This one man’s Teletype constantly receives breaking news deserving of airtime and headlines. World News isn’t only the latest financial collapse, governmental absurdity, or breathtaking slaughter. It’s also unseen sacrifice, modest dreams fulfilled, or simple tenderness.
As sickly as things seem these days, grace is everywhere, and probably more abundant than evil. But because I consume so much distressing information, I’m conned into believing that humanity is circling the drain. How foolish! My personal sources have told glad tidings of great joy lately. With love and hope, then, I offer A Napper’s Companion Christmas Letter made up of stories not covered by the mainstream media.
For Coleman family dinner, I was working so hard to perfect a chicken in a spirited mustard sauce that I neglected the corn chowder. I said to daughter Elena, “Hey, Len, would you mind trying to fix the chowder?” She hit it with nutmeg, salt, white pepper, a splash of hot sauce, and coriander ground with a new mortar and pestle from friend Mary. I contributed a stick of butter, and together we reached savory. Best of all, before we sat down to eat I hugged Elena and kissed her on top of the head. She said, “I love you, Daddy.”
In millions of kitchens, we help each other out with joy and speak of love. Snark and bicker visit, but I’ll wager overall we’re more kind than cranky.
At a party last week, I sipped wine in the kitchen with friends Karri and Joe and kibitzed. Two of their daughters sat off to the side talking. Lauren is about to graduate from college, and Emily is in high school. Rarely would I tell anybody to freeze for a picture, but I figured this one might win a Pulitzer. Yes, Virginia, siblings can get along and do better than that: they can take care of each other.
I recently visited a severely ill man and his family. He sat on the couch with feet up on an ottoman. His wife patted his leg, spoke words of comfort, and kept his morphine ahead of pain and distress. The man’s brother wrote a prayer, which he asked me to read—no way he could get the words out. It was simple, humble, fervent. We sat in silence afterwards, passing around Kleenex.
“You’re a good man,” I said. “You know that right?”
A slight tear ran from the corner of his eye. “I’ve tried.”
We all put a hand on the man and entrusted him to God’s care. When I stood to leave, his wife said, “John, wait. He wants to give you a hug.”
For over thirteen years I’ve watched death. Driving away from this visit, I took an unexpected gift with me. What a loving, attentive end, as gentle as any I’ve been blessed to witness.
And I know that this day, in lands everywhere and all fifty states, the living hold the hands of the dying and whisper, “You can let go. We love you. We’ll be okay.”
I’ve received a couple of gifts lately that are particularly moving. Both made and bought, they remind me that people who celebrate Christmas are thinking of each other, finding a present that will be received like a kiss on the cheek and a moment’s cheer to the heart.
No doubt, Christmas is awfully commercial, but we’re trying, aren’t we? Most of us? We do want to bring joy. On the news you see Black Friday stampedes, but not the man standing alone in the store aisle, praying to find his beloved something pleasing.
A young guy with low-slung jeans was waiting to cross the street as I drove up to the intersection. He started out, saw me, then held up. I motioned him on. At the curb he glanced back, smiled, and waved. I smiled back and shot him the peace sign.
Human by human, peace is sent out, received, and returned. I see it all around me.
I know an astute, witty, practical nine-year-old who still believes in Santa Claus. She leaves him a letter each Christmas Eve by the candy jar.
“What do you write him?” I asked.
“Things like ‘I hope you like bringing everybody presents.’”
Her father says, “She still believes in magic.”
I’m sure she is not alone.
Starbucks friend John and I talk about our dogs. In decent weather he brings his boxer Harley and has coffee outside. John and I both aspire to live like a dog—in the moment, not self-absorbed, often overjoyed.
John loves Harley and shows it. Every once in a while I see a news story about horses starving in barns, but, you know, I bet most pet owners are like John. Most of us are this way, right? We make sure our dogs and cats have enough to eat and drink, gush over their eccentricities, and treat them like our children?
I know I love my dog. This morning old gimpy Watson hopped up on the bed with me as I was getting propped up for prayer-meditation. I’m not sure how much longer he’ll be with us. Like our two cats, Watson came to us as a stray. A clumsy soul, he tore both ACLs years ago. We fixed one, but couldn’t afford surgery for the other. He has fatty tumors on his flank, one the size of a tennis ball. We chase pills down his throat with treats. (I bet lots of you have stories just like this one.)
I set my Zen bell for twenty minutes, unpropped myself, lay down, and rested my face on Watson’s side. “I love you, buddy,” I said. He huffed and made the old mutt smacking sounds with his mouth I’ve come to love. “I’m glad you stopped by.” I rubbed his soft ear between my fingers. “You’re a good old pal.”
The world news tells us our home is in peril, with all of its explosions and arguments. This Christmas, sisters and brothers, I claim for us another world, one I recognize every way I turn. Join me. Everywhere I see souls unable to contain their love and sacred wishes.
Blogger’s warning: yes, this is another schmaltzy letter to my grandson. If you’ve had enough of the sentimental grandpa schtick, get away from here, quickly.
In the first chapter of the book I wrote for you I included a quote by Kahlil Gibran: “Joy and sorrow are inseparable. Together they come and when one sits alone with you, remember that the other is asleep on your bed.” Well, joyful boy, you have come to sit alone with me this morning.
Sister Joan Chittister shares the right words from the Tao to describe what your ten-month-old self has done for me:
The best people are like water
They benefit all things,
And do not compete with them.
They settle in low places,
One with nature, one with Tao.
That’s it, Cole. You “settle in [my] low places.” You’re way too young to live out the fullness of the Tao, but you’re off to a good start. Months before pronunciation fully descends upon your lips, you find your Gramps’ dry river beds and parched earth and make them live again.
Blame your mother for this observation and sentimental letter, which I trust her to print and slip into your memory book. (Copy that, Elena?) She sends your photographs out to family and friends, and the world gushes. This morning your face caught me at a vulnerable moment and ran into a place in my soul that must have gone cracked and sunbaked. At once, leaves and blossoms spread wide and tall.
The thought that came to me after I swallowed back tears was how much I’m looking forward to talking with you. These days I’m mostly talking to you. I love saying pretty much what’s on my mind in the moment. But, little paisano, when you get a bit older, you and I are going to do some talking together. When I was writing your book I got into the habit of saving things up to chat with you about–that’s what the whole thing was about. Now that you’ve shown up and we’re having lots of preliminary, mostly one-sided, conversations, I find myself stumbling on things we’ll have to chew on in the future. (Just a note: you and I growling at each other is a hoot for now, but there’s room for growth.) Here are a couple of thoughts we can fuss with:
1. This first one is more a find than a discussion topic, but I have to share. Preface: I make it a habit not to use my smart phone while in the bathroom, but there are exceptions to every rule. A few days ago I attended a clergy meeting at the Riverside Inn in Cambridge Springs, Pennsylvania. It’s a charming, rambling old place, so I shouldn’t have been surprised at the sophistication of the scribblings on the bathroom stall. Be prepared, Cole, most of the time men’s room literature begins with “Here I sit, brokenhearted . . . ” or “For a good time call . . . .” Riverside Inn patrons are a thoughtful lot–evidence provided below as captured by my iPhone:
2. After washing my hands, I headed back to that meeting and enjoyed a lecture by one of my old seminary professors, Dr. Brad Binau. He mentioned that he resists the assumption that multitasking is good. I’m really looking forward to thinking this one over with you because in a dozen years tending to multiple tasks simultaneously will not only be normal, but expected. I agree with Dr. Binau, but this is probably just me being an old fart. You might have the chance to teach me and open my mind. Can’t wait.
3. Some smart adults are saying that school children should no longer be taught cursive handwriting. By the time you read this, you might not even know what I’m talking about. Old fart thinking out loud again: lots of times I don’t really know what I’ve learned until years after somebody teaches me the lesson.
4. I’m busy today. I have to drive to Columbiana, Ohio, about two hours away, for a wedding rehearsal, then turn around and drive two hours back home. Tomorrow I have to officiate at the wedding, so I’ll do the same thing. Why not stay over night? The road time makes sense, but it’s a long story. Trust me. Anyway, as I was walking into Starbucks this morning, I said, “Hey, how’s it going?” to the guy emptying the trash. (The least we human beings can do is lay a smile and a “hello” on each other.) The trash guy–I should know his name–took my question seriously and told me about almost throwing up this morning and being late for work. His description went on for a while, and the gravity of coffee and writing pulled me away from him. That’s when I caught myself. This guy has bosses and co-workers chomping on his ass, and his job is emptying trash cans and picking up litter and slop. No dishonor in this work whatsoever, but I imagine his childhood dreams didn’t involve him wearing a rain suit and tending garbage. So, could I quit stepping away from him as if to say, “I don’t have time for you”? Could I face him for five minutes, give him my full attention as he has his say with the world, and witness this life? He’s one of God’s beloved, after all. So, I stood there and listened until he turned away from me to get back to work.
Please listen, Cole, because this is very important. I didn’t share this story so you would think Gramps is a swell guy. The thing is, some people walk through this life without a grandchild who will “settle in their low places” or without anybody at all. I don’t know that this is true of the trash guy, but since it could be, maybe for a couple of pitiful minutes I could offer a little rain for his cracked earth. I hope we get the chance to talk about this. Better yet, when you get a little older, we’ll go “out and about,” as your Grandma Kathy says, and “settle in low places” wherever we find them.
5. A couple days ago I stopped at your house for lunch. We talked as we always do. Layla looked so longingly at my sandwich she may have been trying to hypnotize it. I fed you bite after tiny bite of noodles in an Alfredo sauce.
Hugging you goodbye, I thought of how your mother used to fall asleep in my lap and how, on rare occasion, I managed to carry her gently to bed without her waking up and lie down next to her for a nap. She fit into a low place of sorts, the hollow of my body curled around her. Oh, best buddy, I hope once or twice to know again with you that joy of a siesta. I wouldn’t even have to fall asleep. Listening to you breath and watching your assertive little nostrils and fine eyelashes would grow hyacinths and sunflowers in the thirsty places of your Gramps’ soul.
I have more ideas but no more time today. Should I write you another book?
P. S. The answer to the riddle is supposedly “your shadow.” I thought of this but disregarded it because in the dark or on a cloudy day, you might not have a shadow. Reminder: some riddles are lousy.
Blogger’s Note: This post is nearly 2000 words long. I’ll understand if you can’t spare the time. Peace and love, John
I try to nap an hour each afternoon and pray so often lots of people would consider me lazy. Breathe in, breathe out. Be mindful. Let go, John. Let go. I’m coming up on twenty-five years of practicing contemplative prayer. When I started I was in terrible shape: depression, panic attacks, and a constant buzz of anxiety in my body. In contemplative prayer, I sit in the quiet dark with the Loving Mystery, who saves me. Not saves as in are you saved? I mean saves me from despair and gives me hope and just enough sanity to get by. Just.
The more I know, the less I understand.
All the things I thought I figured out, I have to learn again.
The truth is, I don’t know or understand much, nor have I figured out much. The wonderful Lutheran folks I serve as pastor might find this confession troubling. Sorry about that. Each day begins with a foundational proposal: Okay, let’s try this again. This, of course, is life. I often feel embarrassingly inadequate to its great gift. I’m driftwood in the presence of Gracious Light. What little I have figured out, I have to keep learning again. I say a constant, wordless prayer: Have mercy. Teach me one more time.
Last Wednesday was a case study in all that I’m haltingly articulating here. The day proper began at Starbucks with me sipping my summer usual, an iced decaf coffee with a decaf shot of espresso (a.k.a. a redeye or a tall iced what’s the point?). The agenda was light, no troubles on the horizon, no stressful deadlines lurking, but I had a surplus of nervous energy. I was either going to blow soothing kisses to my adrenal glands or spend the hours ahead rushing toward no place in particular.
A chance chat with Starbucks regulars Rick and Noreen helped. They had just returned from a cruise—their destination escapes me at the moment—still tan and fresh. Noreen wore a fedora, a stylish cancer accessory. She looked great, but was in the midst of treatments, sixteen or eighteen more to go. “But who’s counting?” they said. I told them Abiding Hope, the congregation I serve as pastor, would pray for them. (After thirteen years in a collar, you’d think I would have some understanding of how prayer works, but I’m as clueless as a toddler trying to figure out a good reason for kale. If nothing else, I think it must please God to hear “touch Noreen with your healing hand” rather than “grant me a true aim as I launch a missile at that 777.”) Be welcome to join me in a loving word to the Creator for Noreen and Rick.
The determined, vulnerable eyes of people looking into the mortal abyss made me slow down. I can think of no better way to honor what fellow human beings are going through than to sit still with them, receive as much of their reality as possible, walk mindfully across the parking lot to my crappy truck—watching along the way for traffic and appreciating the pilgrimage of clouds—and dance and bicker with my path and what lines it.
At the church, before settling in at the standing desk, I made a trip to the mailbox, and that’s when I really began learning again what I had already figured out. The lesson, of course, was (and is) to live in the moment. The cliché is “stop and smell the roses.” The blessings as morning turned to afternoon and to evening reminded me of such wisdom, but also granted me joyful humility. Each time I encountered another wonder, I was convinced anew that I have no idea where I’m going in this life and why. I’m vertical, ambulatory, taking nourishment, blah-blah-blahing, and gaining weight, but somehow or other I don’t feel in charge of my travels. It’s as if a great community of mystery appears one lovely sister or brother at a time to greet me: “You thought you were going to the mailbox, but you were also sent out to meet me, to hear my teaching, to receive my anointing.”
On the way to the mailbox and back:
After work I went to Radio Shack.
On the way home from Sally’s nest, an old powder blue Mustang was riding my tail, and annoyance almost blinded me. When I pulled over to let the guy pass, a sibling greeted me.
Late in the afternoon I went for a run on the sidewalk trail at Presque Isle, northwestern Pennsylvania’s treasure which juts out into Lake Erie.
Wednesday’s spirit has continued to give me blessings beyond its allotted hours. On Friday I went to the bank to pour what turned out to be $138 into a coin counter. At least that’s what I thought. Turns out my mission wasn’t about turning change into bills, but something else.
On Saturday wife Kathy and I had a yard sale presumably to get rid of some excess and make a few bucks. As a steady rain splashed our event, two surprises taught me again what I thought I had learned:
Actually, I confess that literal brothers prepared my heart a couple weeks ago to receive Wednesday’s wisdom. I had driven two hours to Saxonburg, Pennsylvania, to officiate at Caity and Ian’s wedding, and lovely Kathy was kind enough to come along. A few hours before the nuptials we saw a small sign along Route 8: Holy Trinity Byzantine Monastery. I drove past the turn off, but Kathy said, “John, you know you want to go see it.” So we did a u-ey, wound through four or five rolling miles of corn fields, saw that the monastery had a book and icon store, and decided to ring the bell.
Father Leo and sweet incense greeted us. I asked about the store hours. “Oh, we don’t have any hours,” Father Leo said. “Whenever anybody rings, we open up.”
We followed him down a hall to a 15′ x 20′ room which looked like it hadn’t seen business for some time. He turned on the lights and said, “Father Michael will be here in a minute. He’s just finishing lunch.”
Father Michael showed up immediately–he must have run. Gentle voice, gentle man–lonely man. After ten minutes of back and forth, he laughed: “I love to talk. We don’t get many visitors.”
Showing us shelves of icons, he wiped the dust off of one with a fingertip: “Father James took care of the store. He worked on this almost full time. He died in . . . ,” Michael said, looking somewhere past us for the year, “. . . in 2012. Abbot Leo and I are the last ones left.”
I knew at once that Kathy and I had driven nearly to Pittsburgh for two reasons: to join a hundred people at a wedding and to bear witness to Father Leo and Father Michael. If you’ve never visited a monastery, you might not be able to imagine the love, kindness, wholeness, and warmth of a place where silence and patience are profound.
“I don’t know if your abbot would permit it,” I said to Michael, “but could I take a picture of the two of you?”
After another twenty minutes of talk, Leo and Michael lead Kathy and me to their chapel and, in a gesture of hospitality that nearly moved me to tears, Leo opened the gate to the Holy of Holies. And, of course, we talked some more: about the celebrant facing away from the congregation not to disregard them, but to lead them to heaven; about the hand-carved wooden tabernacle that took seven years to make. Eventually, Leo closed the gates, and I took their picture.
I plan to write Michael soon. He told me earlier in the store that he is beyond ecumenical. “We’re all one,” he said. I bet he and Abbot Leo would welcome me to enter their quiet sometime soon, for a couple of days. In my letter I’ll ask. And I have a feeling my friend Mark would like to join me and meet these two monks with long beards and agape hearts.
Two nights ago I sat in the Coleman front yard in my favorite lawn chair, stared at the sky, and thought of Michael, seventy-six years old, and Leo, six years his senior. I toasted them, thought of them alone in the corn fields, wondered how much longer quiet and sacrificial welcome will call this planet home, and asked God to remind Michael and Leo that they’re not forgotten.
Dead overhead I saw a single star. The glow of Erie, Pennsylvania, dimmed all but one. How many lifetimes would it take to get there? And was it even a star? Maybe it was a planet. No matter. As it happened, I hadn’t sipped wine in the darkness only to sing the day’s fuss to sleep. I had sat still and looked heavenward to receive a slight kiss of light and an invitation: Let go, John. Let go. The community of mystery will save you. Amen