Writing Days

Writing Days

The feeders during a lull in the snow, waiting to receive their fill

The house is calm. A wind chill of 13° has wispy snow swirling on Parkway Drive. The bird feeders look at me, wondering when they’ll get their fill. Soon, I promise.

Now the furnace kicks on, joining the weather and passing cars in a chorus of groans and sighs.

Now Baby Crash appears on the desk, offended that I’m not than cradling her, whispering sweet nothings—“Are you Pop’s good kitty cat?”— and feeding her treats. She licks my knuckle and considers taking a pinch of skin between her fangs. Her eyes are calculating.

But who can write while anticipating a nip from those needles a cat puts on display with each yawn? I set her on the floor and return to my dream.

Yes, my dream. Its elements are silence, bitter coffee, a view, a desk and something to say. For most of this March day, I’ll abstain from television and music and mute the smartphone (the mother of all misnomers).

No dashing around the house, yanking the silverware drawer open and shutting it with a thud and rattle. I once read that you can tell a lot about people by the way they close doors. The principle occurs to me often when, as May Sarton once said, “The house and I resume old conversations.” Let meditations be gentle. Hold the hours with a light grip. Listen to my own footfall on the wooden floor. Take it easy on the doors. Take it easy on my neighbor, as I should on myself.

A lot happens slowly on what I call “writing days”: prayer, chores, errands, coffee with friends, babysitting now and then.

Building permit for a den

And writing happens, especially writing. This is warp and woof of my dream: long draughts of time and space to play with words. Sometimes I write at Starbucks, but increasingly these days sentences get woven on this enclosed front porch, termed a “den” on a building permit from 9-7-65. While moving in, I found the form tacked to pegboard in the basement and framed it—something resonant about our home’s sanctum being four years my junior.

Wife Kathy and I have always called the room in our abodes set aside for contemplation and creation the “study.” Here on Parkway we feel obligated to use the space’s given name, though “den” fits a smartly dressed world beater who exudes confidence and authority—hardly yours truly.

“Study,” on the other hand, connotes humility, since one who labors there is a student at heart. That’s me, chronically rumpled and staring up slack jawed at some vertical learning curve.

First thing this morning I sat here in prayer, reckoning my good fortune. On Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, writing is limited primarily by stamina. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, the pen sleeps as I head for Oniontown. The hour commute during winter is rich with the pale gray of leafless trees, and my reward is arriving to work with the sweet brothers and sisters at St. John’s Lutheran Church.

“Living the dream,” some folks joke when asked how they’re doing. For me this is actually true, which is not to say that dreams come without complications.

Don’t be deceived. She bites.

Baby Crash’s teeth occasionally draw specks of blood.

Following an evening church meeting recently, I crawled through a freakish whiteout on Route 19 coming down the hill toward the Rainbow Valley Restaurant. The view cleared within a few miles, but the brief ordeal reminded me that troubles relish showing up unannounced.

My dream of writing days—the whole enterprise, I mean—has witnessed two squalls.

First, when dreams come even partially true, the spirit is tricked into believing that it has finally arrived in paradise. Nice try. Postponed grief and old upset hushed by stoicism never hesitate to drop in when I’m savoring solitude. In fact, gladness practically whispers to decades of unresolved life junk, “Hey, John’s defenses are down. Hurry, he’ll never see you coming.”

Second, a dream fulfilled does not—I repeat, does not—guarantee happiness, which is a stand-alone project. Am I alone in this experience? Circumstances are agreeable, better than could be expected, in fact, yet the throat is tight with sadness, the chest bruised with longing.

Joy

Writing days have highlighted the truth that happiness lives under no obligations. Now and then it appears unbidden and licks my hand. Mostly, though, my dream fulfilled leaves a spot open at the table, but joy doesn’t show up unless I send her an invitation.

This arrangement seems more than fair to me.

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Writing and the Narrative of Suffering

I’ve never thought much about where my writing comes from, maybe because time for it is constrained. For over a dozen years, my habit has been to drop wife Kathy off at work or children Elena and Micah at school, then land at Starbucks or some other coffee house and peck away at a keyboard. Words have shown up faithfully, and the twenty to thirty to sixty minutes I manage most mornings are blissful, though my subjects sometimes involve torment.

Some people escape to their woodshop to make lamps shaped like whales, others prefer quilting, still others take photographs. To borrow from Stephen King, “I just flail away” at paragraphs—happily. In my experience, joy isn’t the best motivation for reflection. Why dig around my insides to figure out what makes me write? Does an old guy who has yards and yards of miniature train tracks set up in his basement sort out his aesthetic?

But now, after thirty years of fussing with books, poems, stories, and essays, I finally have good reason to ask myself, “Why do you write?”

Pema Chodron is to blame. Better put, I’m to blame for inviting this Tibetan-Buddhist monk into my soul. Pema, the first American woman to be fully ordained, directs Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia. She writes books with titles like The Places That Scare You and Smile at Fear. I’ve known about Ani (sister) Pema for a while now, but not being a big fan of fear, I’ve resisted getting close to her teachings.

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Pema Chodron in 2007 (Credit: flicker.com on Wikimedia Commons)

I am interested in Buddhism, though, and Facebook obviously knows this. A video course called “The Freedom to Choose Something Different” kept popping up on my News Feed, accompanied by Pema’s face. I finally watched a sample and thought, “Oh, crud, this sounds like advice I need to hear”—needful enough that my credit card took a $67 hit.

The presentation was spartan. A nearly eighty-year-old nun in a maroon robe talked, answered questions, and sipped water. And it’s way too early to tell, but she may have significantly reduced my neurotic load.

I won’t presume to offer here a detailed summary of her seven hours of lectures, but the key concept is shenpa. The word is already dear to me. Pema describes the shenpa phenomenon as “getting hooked.” Minute by minute, day by day, people and events yank our chains, sucker punch us, break our hearts, or merely Taser us with annoyance. Mild: being cut off in traffic. Major: getting fired. Whatever the instigation, human nature is to think about the pain, explain it to ourselves, create stories about it, argue against it, and brainstorm the demise of those responsible.

We hope that letting our obsessing and verbalizing run their course will ease our suffering, but actually the opposite happens. As the storyline (Pema’s term) gains momentum and energy, we feed the fire of our anger, fear, jealousy, whatever.

Pema’s central teaching is that continuing to develop the storyline in hopes of feeling better is like trying to put out a fire with kerosene. The best action is to shush the shenpa-speak gently, without self-reproach, and focus on your in-breath and out-breath.

In case this all sounds like transcending suffering, well, sorry. No levitating in the lotus position. When the storyline is silenced, the physical sensations that accompany anger, sadness, and so on remain: the lead in the stomach, stiff neck, lump in the throat, fury rising in the chest. Pema’s counsel is to breathe with the feelings, to touch them instead of running away. Referring to her own panic attacks of the past, she said one of her teachers told her to lean into them.

Hush. Lean in. Yes, yes, I know, this is nothing new, especially the hush part. Don’t dwell on your problems. Do something to take your mind off things. Let it go. Lots of ways to say it.

But for whatever reason, Pema’s situating the practice of quieting shenpa within the context of meditation works for me. For years I’ve doused my inner coals with lighter fluid, thinking that they would eventually burn out. It’s sobering, though liberating, to learn that those emotional embers have the density of a black hole. Some of them might glow forever.

There’s just one complication with Pema’s sanity saving lesson: I’m in the storyline business. Words are allies, not enemies. For the first week I tried to be mindful of getting hooked and not starting up the potentially endless narration, I lost all desire to write. Nothing would come to me.

Oh, boy. “Is my writing essentially shenpa-speak?” I worried. For a couple of years, I’ve concentrated on A Napper’s Companion, and while gladness and wonder are frequent visitors, much—maybe most?—of the work begins with suffering. The death-resurrection pattern is well worn here.

The impulse to peck away returned quickly, but now I’m left with discernment. Writing and shenpa are unquestionably neighbors. The former has brought decades of gratification and comfort. Negotiating with the latter, away from the desk at least, has been a spiritual and physical sinkhole. Much anguish.

Most of the time I’m self-aware enough to know when my words are kerosene. But I’ve also teased, harassed, and howled on paper at my injuries, frustrations, and sadness.

Flailing away at paragraphs is a vocation, so I’ll have to lean into ambiguity: When does creation give healing and clarity? And when does creation pick at the scabs of suffering, keeping the mind’s wounds fresh, the body weary and shaken?

I imagine the answer to both questions will sometimes be, in the same breath, “Right now.”

Naming Monsters on Black Friday

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Birthday-boy Cole and his sister Layla catching a nap

Friday, November 28, 2014: While millions of Americans fed this day’s gaping maw of capitalism, I engaged in my own form of madness. For seven hours I sipped decaf redeye after decaf redeye at a Starbucks miles away from the shopping traffic and named monsters. Daughter Elena sewed and stuffed fifteen of the little weirdos, and my charge was to come up with biographical snippets for each of them. My motivation was compelling: each monster would be given to a young guest at grandson Cole’s first birthday party this coming Sunday. Parents would read the bio; kids would squeeze, lick, and gnaw on Elena’s handiwork. In the midst of much online research, I informed my erudite table mates of incidentals (e.g. kangaroos do not, in fact, burp) and learned, stifling laughter, what “upper decking” means. When at last I looked up from the screen to see the patrons spinning–no lie!–I knew it was time to go home for a nap. When I awoke, I had a Philly cheesesteak with handsome Cole and family, then sent the following to Elena in preparation for Sunday. Enjoy . . . if you dare.

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Battersby “Juano” de Vamp

Battersby “Juano” de Vamp: Battersby’s love for the night life and chatting with the ladies led to the first part of his nickname, Juan—this being Don Juan, a fictional character who enjoys hanging out with women. The “o” part of his nickname came from his buddies, who discovered that “Juano” rhymes with “guano,” which is bat poo. But don’t worry about Battersby. He gets his pals back by sneaking bites of their cheesecake—when they go out for dinner—and leaving his distinctive single tooth mark in their dessert. Juano’s favorite Maya Angelou quote: “I don’t trust any [monster] who doesn’t laugh.”

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Babbatte “Hang” de Vamp

Babbatte “Hang” de Vamp: Babbatte’s nickname, which she would gladly lose, comes from her childhood inability to say “fang.” “Listen, young lady,” her mother would say, “get back into that bathroom and brush and floss your fang.” Babbatte would insist that she already “bussed her hang,” the “f” sound being painful for little de Vamps, until they build up a callous on their lower lip. Hang wears ribbons on her ear and bats her eyelashes to make a point: “There’s a lot more to me than this pearly white fang!” Babbatte’s favorite Katherine Hepburn quote: “If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.”

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Kenneth “Ken” Knipmeier

Kenneth “Ken” Knipmeier: Everyone thinks “Ken’s” nickname is short for “Kenneth.” Not so. Ken grew up playing with his older sister Babs’ Ken dolls. When his friends played “snow wars” with G. I. Joes, Ken brought a Ken doll to the battle, insisting his Ken’s ski outfit would keep him warmer than the soldiers’ thin layer of olive and black camo. From childhood on, Ken always made it a point to follow his own instincts. Kenneth’s favorite Chinese proverb: “A wise [monster] makes his own decisions, an ignorant [monster] follows the public opinion.”

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Barbra “Babs” Knipmeier

Barbra “Babs” Knipmeier: The unusual spelling of Barbra’s first name can be blamed on singer Barbra Streisand, after whom she was named. From the time she could hold something and babble at it, she clutched a Barbie doll. For a short time, Barbra’s parents called her Barbie. At her first birthday party, however, Dad put on a bootleg Streisand’s Greatest Hits CD. When “[Monsters, monsters] who need [monsters], are the luckiest [monsters] in the world,” tears ran down Barbra’s cheeks. She wasn’t sad or hungry or poopy. She was verklempt. “Oh,” Mom said, remembering the singer’s nickname, “our little Babs is crying. My word, how sensitive she is!” During her rebellious teenage years, Babs was crazy for Madonna, but now considers her namesake the best female artist now living. Barbra’s favorite Barbra Streisand quote: “There is nothing more important in life than love.”

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Rosalyn “Ozzie” Hightower

Rosalyn “Ozzie” Hightower: How many monsters have nicknames because other monsters mess up their regular names? Rosalyn—born an identical twin—got stuck with “Ozzie” because her sister Jocelyn couldn’t say “Rozie.” Ozzie doesn’t hold a grudge, though, since she has other challenges to overcome. Even with all the odd appearances in the monster world, Ozzie, with eyes perched on arm-towers and baby in a pouch, gets teased by other monsters. She wears a smile because she refuses to be bummed out by smart remarks. And you’ll never hear a mean word come out of her mouth. Her baby’s name: Jillian. Her favorite Chinese proverb: “A bit of fragrance clings to the hand that gives flowers.”

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Jocelyn “Joey” Hightower (and Jack)

Jocelyn “Joey” Hightower: Jocelyn, born an identical twin, gave sister Rosalyn her nickname, but “Ozzie” returned the favor. Jocelyn’s parents chose her name because it rhymes with Rosalyn—sort of—and planned to call her “Josey,” but “Joey” was the best her sister could do. At first it was “Doughy,” so Jocelyn was at least grateful she escaped being thought of as a dinner roll. Joey is a brave marsupial in a sometimes unkind world, giving lippy monsters a little what-for when they talk smack, especially against Ozzie. She doesn’t go looking for trouble, but she doesn’t hide from it, either. Her baby’s name: Jack. Her favorite proverb: “One can easily judge the character of a [monster] by the way they treat [monsters] who can do nothing for them.”

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Boris “Chops” Pillosevic

Boris “Chops” Pillosevic: Of Serbian descent, Boris got his nickname not from his razor-sharp bottom canines, but from his cheerful, steady nerves in the face of danger and his favorite dish: lamb with a mint, yellow tomato, and sweet corn salsa. In high school, Chops won “The Guy You Want Most in Your Foxhole” Award. Today, he is an interior decorator. His favorite Charles Atlas quote: “Nobody picks on a strong [monster].”

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Nevena “Marigold” Pillosevic

Nevena “Marigold” Pillosevic: Sunny and cheerful by nature, Nevena’s nickname comes from her given name, which is Serbian for “marigold.” Lovely Nevena is easily surprised, which led to school classmates always jumping out from hiding places to scare her. “Ohhh,” she would squeal, then have a giggling fit. No longer in school, Marigold still can’t help watching out of the corners of her eyes for the next prank. Poor girl. Watchfulness is tiring, so she loves to nap, though she spends the rest of the afternoon yawning. Nevena’s favorite Chinese proverb: “You cannot prevent the [monsters] of sorrow from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from building nests in your hair.”

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Retina “Lovey” Glover

Retina “Lovey” Glover: Retina’s nickname comes from many years ago. Her first love, Leonard Palmer, called her “Lovey” because her lips always seemed to be puckered for a kiss, and he couldn’t stop looking into her eyes, all three of them. The name fit then and still does today. If you ever need a monster to talk to, Lovey is the one. No matter your age, she’ll bounce you on one of her knees, kiss your cheek, wink three times, and give you a little hope. Lovey’s favorite Chinese proverb: “One joy scatters a hundred griefs.”

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Leonard “Lensie Poo” Palmer

Leonard “Lensie Poo” Palmer: Leonard’s nickname comes from many years ago. His first love, Retina Glover, called him “Lensie Poo” in a moment of awkwardness. He was so gushy with her, calling her “Lovey” and staring into her eyes, that she said the first cute thing that came into her mind: “Lensie Poo.” Once their circle of friends passed around this juicy gossip, Leonard—a bright, bookish kid—was forever after “Lensie Poo.” He was a little disappointed when, at a monster class reunion, Lovey confessed that nothing in particular was behind his nickname. But Lensie Poo worked with what he had been given, using his warm-and-fuzzy nickname was an ice breaker with strangers. Leonard’s favorite Spanish proverb: “Since we cannot get what we like, let us like what we can get.”

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Cyrus “Clopsy” Henson

Cyrus “Clopsy” Henson: Cyrus, Cyrus, Cyrus! It’s not easy for any monster to grow up perfectly round, but Cyrus’ early life was awkward, indeed, before he learned to roll. Until the age of four, Cyrus moved about the world by flipping himself forward like a pancake. Each time his big, wet eyeball hit sidewalks or hardwood floors, it sounded like a horse stepping in a mud puddle. “Clop. Clop. Clop” So, the other monsters declared, “Clopsy” it was. “Cy,” as his sister is kind enough to call him, doesn’t show his emotions easily. He is the strong, silent type. The only way you know that Cyrus is sad is when he leaves tear drops on his way from point A to point B. Cyrus’ favorite Chinese proverb: “The journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single [roll].”

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Sydney “Cookie” Henson

Sydney “Cookie” Henson: Not many youthful dreams come to pass. So it was with Sydney, who long ago aspired to be an actress. Roles for round, blue characters being rare, she was over-the moon about reading for the role of Cookie Monster on Sesame Street. “The part is mine,” she said, rolling home. Ah, Sydney. Years passed before she stopped complaining about that amiable oaf’s fame. “He is bulky, blue, and hairy,” she would say to anybody who would listen. “So spray paint him white and cast him as the Abominable Snowman!” Her family loved her a lot and told her, “You know, you’ll always be our ‘Cookie.’” The older she got, the more she understood that being her family’s Cookie is better than being a television star. Sydney’s favorite Chinese proverb: “Not until just before dawn do [monsters] sleep best; not until [monsters] get old do they become wise.”

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Rudolph “Rudy” Tuberski

Rudolph “Rudy” Tuberski: There’s absolutely nothing interesting about Rudolph’s nickname. Monsters with his name get called “Rudy,” and he’s fine with that. As any of his buds will tell you Rudy is a real meat-and-potatoes guy, very grounded, no-nonsense. His philosophy is simple: smile, laugh a lot, keep an eye out for your fellow monster, and don’t hog all the gravy in life. Rudolph’s favorite Charles Schultz quote: “Good grief, Charlie Brown!”

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Eartha “Yammy” Tuberski

Eartha “Yammy” Tuberski: Some monsters dislike their given names. Growing up, Eartha complained to her parents: “Eartha! Eartha! Where in the world did you get that name? It makes me sound like a clump of dirt.” In truth, Eartha was a great kid. Her parents were loving and gentle. And she did her chores, minded her manners, got good grades, and was about as happy and playful as the next monster. Still she couldn’t stop griping about her cloddish name. Patient as her parents were, her brother Rudy reached his breaking point. “Good grief,” he hollered one day, “will you quit your yammering.” Thereafter, in his youthful insensitivity, he called her “Yammer,” and in tender moments, “Yammy.” “Well,” Eartha thought, “at least Yammy sounds cheerful, kind of sweet.” When she introduces herself, monsters figure she is saying, “Tammy,” and, blessed with the wisdom of years, she doesn’t generally correct them. Eartha’s favorite Beatles song: “Let It Be”.

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The first-ever, formal portrait of Loxi “Picabo” Nessor

Loxi “Picabo” Nessor: In spite of Loxi’s endearing smile and welcoming blue eye, she is extremely shy. Her nickname has nothing to do with the old baby “I see you” game. She loves to water ski, but prefers snow, since for mysterious reasons she ends up under the waves rather than on top of them when water is the venue. Loxi watched so many hours of the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary that friends started calling her “Picabo” after the winner of the Super G, Picabo Street. The cute handle embarrasses her, so she closes her eye and dips down her head when she hears it. Loxi’s favorite Rosanne Barr quote: “I’m mostly introspective and don’t talk to [other monsters]. I get into a real quiet, meditative place.”

It’s 11:10 as I sign off. Black Friday of 2014 is almost over. My nap has worn off, and the monsters and Cole are tucked in, the latter until tomorrow morning, the former until Sunday afternoon, when monsters and humans will sing, eat cake, and wish a happy baby many more.

Report from Wonder Woman’s Paradise

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My Wonder Woman in her driveway garden.

Fortunately for the world, not everybody functions like I do. Some people aren’t constantly gazing into their spiritual navels, slowed to ennui by every fluff of emotional lint. Some look outside themselves and thrive on creation rather than contemplation and midday oblivion. Just as I have a longing that can only be quieted by a siesta, some have visions that relentlessly draw them forward into action. My wife is a vision sort.

“Hey, Kath,” I’ll say, “want to take a nap with me?”

“No thanks,” she’ll answer. “I have things I want to do.”

Thank God for Kathy and people like her. I embrace my way of being, but recognize that while I soothe my twitchy spirit with rest, others tend their restless souls with motion. And their way is as legitimate as mine. Siestas are good for those who need them, but the goal in living is to figure out what works for you in the shot glass of time you’ve got on this planet and bloody well do that. What my wife needs to do is create, and as a result, I’m one lucky napper. While I rest and write and cook, she makes paradise. I’m not exaggerating.

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Kathy’s roof, seven years old and still keeping the family dry.

Kathy and I moved to Shenley Drive in 2001. Within five years, we needed a new roof. In a normal-ish family, either a paid roofer or the husband would have been up on the roof. The Colemans aren’t normal. The woman of the house asked around about hiring a contractor, frowned at what she heard, and said, “I’ll do this myself.” And she did—sort of. A handful of family helped out, but Kathy did most of the work and most importantly, made it happen.

Roofing a house is my wife’s most ambitious project, but she constantly has friends and neighbors shaking their heads. “Huh?” they say. “You made this? You did this?”

“Yes she did,” I jump in to say. I not only saw her make-paint-hammer-sew-whatever dozens of marvels, but I took pictures. In no particular order, here’s photographic evidence of my Wonder Woman’s paradise. (Some of these shots appeared in previous posts.)

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The tile work of a rookie. Looks perfect to me.

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Wonder Woman at work making pillow covers for what she calls her “lounge.” She made window shades with the same paisley print. It works!

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When son Micah began recovery from his heroin addiction, Kathy remodeled his former basement bedroom and named it her “beach house.” Here’s a little school above the bed. She didn’t actually make this one.

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What Kathy calls her backyard “puddle.”

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Kathy’s tomato plants got so tall this summer she had to build a whatever-the-heck this is for them to lean against.

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One of my work stations, lovingly created by Wonder Woman. She re-upholstered all the cushions when they became sun worn.

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A Kathy Coleman patio: she dug all the bricks out of a half-assed gazebo in the middle of the backyard, designed a groovy-shaped patio, and laid the bricks down. I hauled a little gravel on this project.

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A view from my patio work station. Garage roof by Wonder Woman.

A lot of Kathy’s projects are practical, but plenty are just plain fun. She likes nothing better than to share surprise paradise with loved ones.

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A play tent for next-door neighbor Caroline.

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Handmade handbag for a friend.

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Another handmade handbag for a friend. You could sell this baby at J. C. Penney.

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One Christmas Kathy made wine-cork boards for the wine drinkers on Shenley Drive.

Each Halloween, Kathy’s paradise spills out into the front yard in the form of decorations.

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A Halloween shark leftover from a recent celebration bites the love seat in Kathy’s beach house.

All of my wife’s creations are actually child’s play compared to her day job. She’s a chemo nurse, loving and caring for cancer patients. “He was one of ours,” she says, scanning the obituaries. “So was she.”

I love the woman, and I love her vision. While I nap, she creates life. And while I work, she works, too, passing along life to those even Wonder Woman can’t save. Of course, that doesn’t stop her from trying.