A Dream Yields, A Blessing Takes Hold

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Field near Prospect, Pennsylvania: a dream view

Solitude, unmasked stars and planets, the shocking cold before dawn, generous draughts of silence: decades ago I wanted this world. Someday, for sure, I would own a house in the sticks with some acres. But—one season following another—age can plow old dreams under, let longing lay fallow, and call a soul to entertain wishes again at the right time or to give them up all together.

The catch is, living more than a holler away from the nearest neighbor is perfect for me. I should want to wind up in the country. I’ve had plenty of great neighbors, some of them like family, but population-density can be a nuisance, right? One former neighbor always fired up her leaf blower whenever I lay down for a nap. It sounded like Carol Channing trying to clear her sinuses. Another neighbor enhanced home security with a nuclear front-yard lamp—impossibly bright. In a step of first-string, All American effrontery, he installed a black shield on the panel facing his house. Why sear every retina on the boulevard, after all? One guy tried to save us by covering the light with a sombrero, only to find it returned to his stoop the next morning.

But such annoyances never drove me from Erie, Pennsylvania, with its 99,542 residents. Columbus and Baltimore, two real cities I’ve called home, were fantastic. So why the persistent sense that I should hear a creek running outside my window? I’ve been thinking in recent years that my dream of rural living was not, in fact, stirred by desire, but by obligation. As a writer who prays a lot, I should want to live a couple hours to the east in Potter County, where deer outnumber humans. Why wouldn’t I want the Coleman home to breathe like the hermitages of my many spiritual retreats in the woods?

This question has occupied me ever since I accepted a call to serve a rural congregation a couple of months ago. The hour’s drive from Erie, where I continue to live, to St. John’s Lutheran Church outside Greenville, Pennsylvania, provides time to sort things out. I listen to tenor arias or fingerstyle guitar or nothing, watch the gray land roll toward the horizon, and let my mind do anything but worry—its default mode.

Wouldn’t the horses I pass on Route 19 be a better routine for my eyes than the strip mall before me at the moment? Shouldn’t I want to move close to the Amish, whose black buggies on District Road tell me to slow down?

I don’t know where “Don’t should on yourself” came from, but the earthy advice points my way. Maybe my closest neighbors should be black bears, but my fifty-four-year-old joys and aches rest easy in a neighborhood, within a stone’s throw of a lady who uses electricity to herd leaves and a better-safe-than-sorry man whose light insults the stars. Being a few minutes away from a ripe avocado, a bottle of cheap red wine, and coffee in a clean, well-lighted place fits me.

Truth: As the days flow by, my old dream yields to a small house in Erie, where I regularly smack my head on the basement ductwork. Less than half the size of the house Kathy and I raised Elena and Micah in, this blue-collar hermitage a mile from my high school feels just right. I don’t want to be anywhere else.

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Out the Pastor’s Study window at St. John’s

But the story doesn’t end here. Even as Parkway Drive becomes home, a blessing takes hold when I head south to St. John’s. It fills me as I wonder why some horses wear blankets and others don’t. It abides with me as I work in the pastor’s study, try to offer the folks a good word on Sunday morning, and eat chicken pie with the seniors at the Stone Arch Restaurant: The land and its stewards reach out and pull me in, as if to rest against the bosom of the Lord.

Winter is being coy with us in northwestern Pennsylvania, but my view of the blonde corn stubble out my study window calms my heart. And the parishioners I’ve gotten to know wear their goodness without pretense.

The other day Parish Secretary Jodi got a call reporting that we have roof leaks dripping into the church lounge. She hadn’t finished passing along the news when Anne and Dave’s car pulled up in the parking lot. They had also received word and were coming to check things out.

The problem and temporary fix were quickly settled, but in a fifteen-minute crevice of the morning, Dave and I talked. More importantly, I listened. Amazing what you can learn in a quarter of an hour.

Dave is a retired veterinarian who restricted his practice to cows. He still has twenty of them, three of which are calving. You can take the veterinarian out of the cattle, but apparently you can’t take the cattle out of the veterinarian. I mention this detail because Dave had been overseeing developments before showing up at church and had work clothes on: think dusty Carhartt-type coat and a long-punished hat with earflaps aspiring to be wings. Anne tried unsuccessfully to smooth those flaps, but Dave said, “I like it this way.”

Confession #1: I want to be like this guy. If his hat looks poised for flight, so what. It feels right on his head. And, really, isn’t that what counts when you’re making sure cows get off to a good start in life?

Confession #2: It took me a few seconds to open up my ears. How long have I known that wisdom isn’t restricted to the monk’s cell or the desert hermit’s cave or the scholar’s podium? Riches for mind and soul can also germinate under a quirky lid. Fortunately, I forget easily, but remember with light speed.

Confession #3: The instructions I gave myself wouldn’t suit a sermon, so I’ll give the G (all ages admitted) version: “Listen up, pal,” I thought, “this man has something to teach you.” I caught two lessons in five minutes, not a bad return on the time investment.

Lesson #1: Dave said, “Everything is born to die.” I recalled at once some years ago asking farmer and author Joel Salatin about vegetarianism, and his response was similar. Dave brought me back again to the possibility that death’s inevitability is less important than how it’s attended. He described slaughterhouses he had visited where the cows walked a curved chute toward a pitch-black elevator. Cows will hug an outside wall following a curve—natural to them, I guess. And when they emerge from the darkness, their end comes immediately. No fear or trauma, no months of anxiety about diagnoses and treatments and the dying of the light.

Everything is born to die: not a callous statement or lazy rationalization, but a confession. Salatin pointed out to me the arrogant assumption that the death of a pig is necessarily more noteworthy than the cooking of a carrot. Sounds silly until you understand that the observation lies far down the anthropocentric path. Salatin didn’t use that fancy word, but that’s what he meant. Parishioner Dave can speak for himself, but I bet he knows more about life and death than I do. His days involve walking land I only visit and touching animals I know from a distance. Best to learn from him with an open, humble spirit.

Lesson #2: Dave cares about those twenty cows. His words, voice and manner had a tenderness about them. An animal’s suffering or an injury to the land would pain him. He doesn’t emote as I do, but I know love when I see it—not the love shown in a photograph of an infant in a boot, but the love visible in a retired veterinarian keeping vigil to be sure a calf gets on its feet. The calf will grow and be sold someday, but it’s loved no less for that.

I gathered all this from a man wearing a hat with wings and speaking softly. Acreage in counties close to St. John’s wouldn’t suit me, but traveling there a few times a week is healing my spirit in ways I’m only beginning to understand. And I didn’t count on being edified by folks like Dave and Anne, who would read this and probably tell me to quit fussing.

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Rooftops and bare trees on Parkway Drive

But I’m going to fuss. Tonight I’ll fall asleep next to beloved Kathy in a blue-collar hermitage. And tomorrow morning I’ll drive an hour to tend my flock in a place where you can see the stars.

Right now, across Parkway Drive, a neighbor puts away fake garland. Kathy just lay down on the couch and mentioned that from her angle, all you can see is rooftops and bare trees.

I thought, “You could almost be in the country.”

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A Zen-Christian Night Teaching

Running into Thich Nhat Hanh is always cause for celebration. I’ve never visited Plum Village, his community in France, never heard him speak in person. Still, like millions of his mindful followers, I consider him family.

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Thich Nhat Hanh in Paris in 2006. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Last night he showed up in a short dream. Thay, as he’s known to his students, and I stood in the Coleman family kitchen. I can’t remember his exact words, but he said that in his family they drink tea from small cups. He smiled, gently rested his hand on my forearm, then placed a tea pot and a cup on the counter. He smiled again. That was it.

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Credit: Michele Constantini

In this moment, I breathe in and out and savor Thay’s night teaching. Most of my dreams are anxious, like I’m enrolled in a college calculus class and forget to attend all semester. But I receive Thay’s visitation as a blessing from my Judeo-Christian God. “Drink slowly from the little cup,” both say. “Why are you always rushing?” Thank you, Thay. Thank you, Lord. Your spiritual hybrid gratefully accepts the healing lesson.

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Stop to notice the spider plant blossoms reaching to the sink in the church bathroom.

A week ago Thich Nhat Hanh showed up in the form of words: “To be is to inter-be,” he writes. “We cannot just be by ourselves alone. We have to inter-be with every other thing.” For Thay, garbage and flowers inter-are. “The affluent society and the deprived society inter-are. The wealth of one society is made of the poverty of the other.” The same goes for people. Reflecting on the suffering of a young prostitute in Manila, Thay observes, “Looking deeply into ourselves, we see her, and we will share her pain and the pain of the whole world. Then we can begin to be of real help.”

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Neighborhood sage Patrick with well-loved Tin Man. This Down’s syndrome kid’s a master at inter-being.

Half an hour ago, sipping a Starbucks redeye, I was inter-are with a tall, skinny guy standing in the long line: shaved head, felt newsboy cap, great puff of a graying beard, black long-john shirt, corduroy pants. For all I know he may have been the most neurotic soul in the coffee shop, but he appeared so overwhelmingly corduroy that I thought to myself, “That dude. I want to be like that dude.” And now, darned if I’m not relaxed—chunky, tight-bearded, balding, but relaxed. I’ll take it, thankful that inter-being is concrete, tangible.

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A dog channels my corduroy brother. I want to be like this dog. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Five minutes more and I’m off to the church for office time. In prayer this morning, I leaned everything I had into the loving bosom of I Am. In the night, Thay touched my arm. I can still feel I Am and Thay. I’ll take them both with me, along with the corduroy man who blessed me with his peace.

So Long to an Expired Dream

Some dreams sting to give up. Some principles need a whipping to change.

I’ve been writing nearly every day for over twenty-five years. Before that I was an English major, publishing my first short story in a decent literary magazine in 1984, my senior year of college. A master’s in creative writing from Johns Hopkins followed. I’ve said many times that I learned more in three half-hour individual sessions with John Barth and a couple of manuscript reviews from Doris Grumbach than I did all the rest of that expensive year.

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The afternoon editor James Olney called to accept my sequence of poems about Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, felt like a breakthrough–years ago!

With essentially a graduate degree in fiction writing in hand, I moved back to Erie, Pennsylvania, with wife Kathy and promptly started writing poems and teaching college composition. 1985-1989 was a productive stretch. In my study at home I’ve got a box full of journals, rags, and newspapers containing one of my essays here, a poem or two there. I was on track for getting a poetry collection out within five years.

Toward the end of that period, Kathy and I bought a house, she gave birth to our daughter Elena, and I had a nervous breakdown. I muscled through panic attacks and depression, popped Xanax only when desperate, taught my classes, and kept on writing, this time nonfiction. I wanted nothing more than peace, so that’s what I wrote about.

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Groovy cover, customers eh.

Questions from Your Cosmic Dance came out in 1997 (Hazelden), The Unexpected Teachings of Jesus in 2002 (Jossey-Bass). An agent sold the first book, for which I received a $6000 advance. In the course of finding an agent for the second, I connected with an acquisitions editor who thought my proposal sounded promising. The publisher advanced me $4000. I consider both books the work of a young writer—hardworking, persistent, competent. Sales were modest, which is a euphemism for disappointing.

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In “Publishers Weekly,” I received a scorching unsigned review from a schmutz who didn’t take the trouble to understand the intended audience. The book got buried–not that I’m bitter.

I kept at it, though, squeezing in an hour every morning smithing a couple hundred words about something. When sixty minutes weren’t there, I’d do thirty—whatever. I have a couple of manuscripts at various levels of blah; with a ton of effort and a sturdy attention span, I might be able to get them into publishable shape. Another manuscript, which I’ve entitled Oh! Be Joyful: Notes to My Future Grandchildren, is a proofread away from something I’d ask a reader to pay for.

I won’t whine about the process of trying to find a publisher for this book, which I genuinely believe would be appreciated by the audience for whom it’s intended. I’ll only mention that an agent gave it a go and waved the white flag; meanwhile, I occasionally felt like I was selling the book’s soul and my own in the process.

So the book sat. I wrote some more. Years passed. M. Somerset Maugham said, “Writing is the supreme solace,” but maybe that’s if you’ve got readers. I’m fifty-one now and gravitate toward Sylvia Plath’s thinking: “Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing.” Thousands of my words sit cobbled together in files and on hard drives and now in clouds, having moved from the solace of composition to the stink of storage. Though I say this myself, I’m not a crap writer. I’m not great either. But I’m decent enough for my work to land in somebody’s hands. A few weeks ago I wondered if I would labor morning after morning, year after year, making chairs and stacking them in a barn for nobody to ever sit on. How dumb is that?

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Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Roger Fry. Go ahead, call her lazy for self-publishing! (Credit: Wikipedia)

Why have I let my word-furniture pile up for so long? Because of a dream and a stubborn standard. The literary milieu I was brought up in dismissed writers who self-published. Serious writers never paid reading fees and never sent material to what was referred to as a vanity press. Even though Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, and Walt Whitman had their own work printed and sold, I’ve always considered not getting into print through traditional gatekeepers (i.e. agents or editors) an admission that I’m really not talented or, worse, ignorant of my own mediocrity.

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The indie-published Charles Dickens with a fierce wind at his back. (Credit: Wikimedia)

Sue Grafton articulates what is still a prevailing attitude, particularly among writers who have reached the Promised Land: “Self-publishing is a short cut and I don’t believe in short cuts when it comes to the arts. I compare self-publishing to a student managing to conquer Five Easy Pieces on the piano and then wondering if s/he’s ready to be booked into Carnegie Hall. Don’t get me started. Oops . . . you already did.” After indie-authors threw a few well-deserved haymakers at Grafton, she apologized: “It’s clear to me now that indie writers have taken more than their fair share of hard knocks and that you are actually changing the face of publishing. Who knew?! This is a whole new thrust for publication that apparently everyone has been aware of except yours truly.”

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Sue Grafton (Credit: Wikipedia)

Maybe the detective novelist’s mea culpa is sincere, but it tastes bitter to this clock-is-ticking writer who doesn’t believe in short cuts either. It’s hip and intelligent to be an indie-filmmaker, but lazy and bumbling to be an indie-writer? My tipping point came a month ago when a small press rejected a manuscript eighteen months after I’d submitted it. Here was the deal: send the manuscript, a check for $25.00 (the no-reading-fee rule is slipping), and a CD with the manuscript on it. A month later my dollars were in the press’s bank account, and the waiting began. Two follow up e-mails and a letter, tic toc. At last a recently hired submissions editor returned everything I’d sent along with a complimentary book, ironically a collection published by the family of a poet whose life ended prematurely. The rejection letter—like most writers of my generation, I’ve got a fat file of them—didn’t acknowledge his boss’s using what I’d submitted as a doorstop, but he did let me in on a secret: “We receive far more submissions than we can possibly comment on or publish.” No lit, Sherlock. I’ve also had an essay with a sharp online journal since March, this after a general e-mail to authors stating the editors’ hope to have news on submissions in a month or so. It’s been “5 months, 21 days,” the handy submissions manager just now told me. At least this journal is saying something. Many agents, publishers, and editors state with an occasional apology that writers can feel free to submit, but they should simply accept silence as rejection. I trust that folks in the publishing world are overburdened and underpaid, but no response is rude. No, thanks might irk a few writers, but at least the door gets closed.

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“$9.99 for as many books as you can fit into a hand basket”–the destination of many printed books. Is print on demand really slummy?

Basta! A Napper’s Companion started in April of 2013 in part because of frustration at shabby professional treatment and a desire to connect with readers who might enjoy my work. Through this blog I’ve found gladness in sharing, which is the right word, since I’m happily tapping away at this keyboard gratis.

With luck, in a month or so, I hope to have Oh! Be Joyful: Notes to My Future Grandchildren available on Kindle. After that I’ll indie-publish a paperback edition—I’m whipped but still can’t bring myself to say self-publish. Let me indulge my denial a little longer. We’ll see what happens down the road.

My blog is “in celebration of napping . . . and all sane practices.” I’m saying so long to an expired dream for sanity’s sake. It’s time get my word-chairs out of the barn and put them around tables and on front porches, where people can relax on them and disappear into a book.