Reckoning a New Name

Reckoning a New Name

In Gramp’s senior years he acquired jowls. Earl Charles “Curly” Miller, my grandfather, was thin and remarkably bald. His stooped back and forward hips made his profile resemble a question mark. He wore a belt out of custom only, as his trousers rode high over the hillock of his belly.

Gramp before jowls and probably younger than I am now

For practical reasons, Gramp and I weren’t close. I was the youngest of his grandchildren, and the nine who preceded me knocked the play out of him. Also, he moved Gram from Pennsylvania to the dry heat of Arizona when I was under ten years old because of her severe arthritis.

Gramp passed in 1989, but he has been a frequent morning visitor lately. When the razor clears whiskers and foam from my cheeks, the past and future both look back at me: I’m getting jowls.

Did Gramp’s begin to show at fifty-five or am I outpacing him? This question, of course, has little to do with vanity and everything to do with aging. Season by season, I become more a grandfather and less John and Dad. The shift is glacial, but unmistakable. Even wife Kathy and grown children Elena and Micah join grandson Cole in calling me Pop. Killian is working on Mama and Dada, but he’ll chime in soon enough.

Last week, watching a squirrel nibble peanuts outside my den window, I remembered that changing names is a big deal. Abram and Sarai had to leave for the land that God would show them to become Abraham and Sarah. Jorge Mario Bergoglio had to pass through the Room of Tears before greeting the world as Pope Francis.

My new name has granted greater blessings than I had thought possible, but it has also brought on reckonings. Grandma Kathy and Pop are becoming family elders, the generation of jowls, crow’s feet and shuffles. Reflecting on this natural progression, I recognized an unflattering personal tendency: I’m kinder to the quick than to the dead.

A new friend?

Staring at the hungry squirrel’s pale auburn tail fluttering in the wind chill, I concluded that the living are works in progress, whereas the dead are finished. Stiff sentences roll off of my tongue easily when I don’t have to look the defendants in the eye.

Gramp, I must add, was a good sort. He took gentle care of Gram (let us name her, Dorothea Specht Miller) for decades, boiling syringes and giving shots. His achievement as a business executive was notable—paid cash for his fat Buicks. And as he sat outside his greenhouse, squirrels would take peanuts from his lips. I saw them nearly touch their noses to his neat mustache.

But he had flaws, no more or less than your standard, boilerplate soul. Still, without realizing it, I’ve been unduly hard on Gramp and other relatives gone on to glory.

As my own jowls grow, I name the transgressions of my parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, and am ashamed to say that my forgiveness has been lacking—as if it’s my place to forgive anybody for anything. This realization hasn’t kept me up at night, but I do repent (the Greek word is metanoia: to change one’s mind, to turn around).

Every family has trespasses that it keeps in one silent attic corner, covered in the dust of consequences and regret. One of my tasks in the years ahead will be to drag old sins out into the light and grant them my share of absolution.

Someday I’ll no longer be an elder, and this Pop’s length of days will await his children’s and grandchildren’s verdicts. I say these things now in part to ask them to be more sympathetic than I’ve been, to echo words my elders would probably like to pass along: “I made mistakes, but did my best. I still need your love.”

With luck I have plenty of years before me. By the time Cole and Killian are able to sit quietly, maybe I’ll have the neighborhood squirrels taking peanuts from my lips. That’s my goal, anyway.

“My Gramp fed squirrels the same way,” I’ll say. “He was a good man. I hope that’s how you’ll remember me.”

Killian and Pop: if my jowls become saddlebags, I have a way to hide them.

Election Eve: Standing with My Gay Sisters

unnamedThis evening before the dreaded presidential election, wife Kathy and I are heading back to Pennsylvania after visiting my sisters in North Carolina. Our objective was simple: relax!

Yesterday we awoke in the joyful home of sister Cindy and her spouse Linda. We didn’t get out of bed right away, but breathed and gave thanks for the view out the guest room window: clear sky, hanging plants and American flag rising and falling with an occasional breeze.

We also gave thanks for other loved ones who stayed the night: eldest sister Cathy and her spouse Betsy Ann; and Linda’s daughter Tina, her spouse Rebecca, their toddler son Liam and infant daughter Renley. Four affectionate and slightly spastic dogs and a mellow cat named Hermione added diversity and commotion to the gathering.

As we talked off and on about what is consuming millions of Americans at the moment, I learned that one voter’s presidential election can be another’s painfully personal referendum.

Thus far my anxiety about our country’s future has been generalized. The women I listened to over breakfast yesterday share my concern about the economy, foreign relations, immigration and the planet, but they also fear the threat a Trump administration might pose to who they are as human beings.

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Cathy and Betsy Ann

With a Supreme Court fortified by judges favored by the Republican Party, will their marriages be under assault? Will the acceptance they’ve found recently as citizens be repealed? And what about the health insurance one married partner often provides for the other? Is there any way that same-sex couples could be denied that benefit all over again? After all, if Roe vs. Wade might be up for debate after forty-three years, why not the legality of gay marriage?

Kathy and I celebrated our thirty-third anniversary this year, and we’ve never had to contemplate our vows being cancelled by the Supreme Court.

My wife shares roughly the same profile as the Democratic Presidential nominee. If she wins, I imagine Kathy and other women will feel a burden lifted and an inexcusably overdue affirmation bestowed.

What will I feel? I’m a white, heterosexual male. My validation has been grandfathered in for centuries. I can’t remember ever being denied anything because of my packaging. Nobody has ever suggested that the person I understand myself to be is uniquely lacking, broken or abhorrent. Where social stability is concerned, I’m close to the top of the food chain.

But Cindy, Linda, Cathy, Betsy Ann, Tina and Rebecca face tomorrow with a fear I recognize but can never really know.

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A safe place

I can name beauty when I see it, though, and these women are among the kindest, smartest, most upright and beautiful people in my life. The warm North Carolina air was refreshing, but Kathy and I don’t drive ten hours for the southern climate. We take time to visit our unorthodox family because we find overflowing goodness and safety with them.

If you think that gay marriage is sinful and should be illegal, I wish you could meet my gay sisters and witness their tenderness and compassion. I wish you could hear how they struggled to find peace within themselves and how falling in love turned their landscapes into rich expanses of grace.

Their troubled sleep this night is difficult to bear for love’s sake. Of course, millions may lie awake in the small hours of this morning, wondering how many of the votes cast will say, “America is not your home. You have to leave. Your language is an annoyance. Your skin is ugly and so is your soul. You’re being checked out, and this we can tell you, we’re not impressed.”

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View from Guest Room Window . . . Gay Household.

When I vote tomorrow, I’ll be thinking of my family in North Carolina and every other sister and brother who want nothing more than to run into the open arms of a compassionate country.

Now, checked into a hotel in Summersville, West Virginia, I sip privileged wine. Kathy tells me the pizza just delivered is really good. And I make this promise: “Whatever happens tomorrow, the years ahead are sure to hurt, but you’re not alone. Plenty of Americans like me–especially those who don’t pretend to know what all you’ve gone through–love you and stand with you. When you were born, the cosmos rejoiced.”

Grandma Kathy Home

Grandma Kathy Home

So the Cleveland Indians hold a 3-2 edge over the Chicago Cubs as the World Series moves back to Cleveland for at least another game. One particularly sweet spot here is my sentiment that if the Tribe loses, I can be glad for the Cubbies. Both teams are long overdue for a championship.

Alas, the Fall Classic holds diminished interest for me this year. I’m in a space that is best described by a phrase my childhood friend Vince used a lot: tons of bummage.

Joy isn’t in short supply these days; in fact, I have a surplus, more than anybody deserves. The problem is my reaction to our present American season of bummage.

“Do not lose your inner peace for anything whatsoever,” Saint Francis de Sales said, “even if your whole world seems upset.”

Sorry, Francis, but my peace comes and goes. It goes when I assume my fears about the future are predestined. It comes when I forget myself long enough to be touched by grace.

“I want to go home,” grandson Cole said.

“But, Cole,” my daughter Elena answered, “you are home.”

“No, I want to go to Grandma Kathy home.”

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At Grandma Kathy Home. Cole checks Pop. (Credit: Kathleen Coleman)

Grandma Kathy and Pop have bored our friends slack-jawed with Cole’s words, but it’s hard to keep quiet. Sometimes a moment kisses your soul and brings hope within reach again.

Cole thinks of Grandma Kathy’s house as home. Do I care that he doesn’t include Pop on the deed? Actually, I like his name better. Kathy drops everything for Cole. They play in her garden and go to the basement and make repairs at her workbench. If she cooks dinner, he stands on a chair at the sink and does a few dishes with a whole bottle of soap.

He calls our den “my room,” and he and Grandma Kathy bunk there when he stays the night, as he did last Saturday. On church mornings, she sits beside him in the backseat for the hour drive to Oniontown.

Yesterday my sluggish sermon knocked the kid out, so he crawled under the pew and nodded off at her feet. After worship she let him sleep on, and friends stopped by to chat.

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Got insomnia? Come listen to one of my sermons. Bring a pillow, join Cole. (Credit: Kathleen Coleman)

Cole was safe. Grandma Kathy was there.

He didn’t say, “Grandma Kathy’s home.” He said, “Grandma Kathy home.” My wife is home to him. The dwelling and garden are incidental.

Kathy helps Cole sew. He leans against her, watches a movie and eats pretzels and dip. She hustles him off to use the potty like a big boy.

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Hope

Watching them together, I’m positive of at least one thing that’s right with the world.

Fifteen years ago I copied a Bible verse on strips of paper and during a sermon suggested that parishioners put them on their refrigerators.

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The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:5)

The light is love. I bet my life that it will win in the end. That doesn’t mean, of course, that my Indians will whip the Cubs. And it especially doesn’t mean that my candidate will prevail.

I don’t for a moment believe that God gives us clean sheets when we’ve messed the bed.

What I do believe is this: love is the only way out of human bummage.

In 1968, during another ugly season, Thomas Merton asked, “Is the Christian message of love a pitiful delusion? Or must one ‘love’ in an impossible situation?”

When I watch a woman and a boy not yet three together, peace fills my lungs. The only way I know to abide in impossible situations is to love.

It seems like hour-by-hour I get hopeless and angry, then hear Saint Francis speaking and try to find my way back to love again. All signs are that I’m delusional.

I want to go to Grandma Kathy home, too, Cole. Let’s live there together.

My Father, My Son (or Why I Needed Chuck Blaze)

My Father, My Son (or Why I Needed Chuck Blaze)

Beyond boilerplate human regard, Chuck Blaze doesn’t matter to me. The only reason I began what I promised myself would be fifteen minutes of investigation was trivial. For the last few years, an old photograph has been wandering my desk’s geography, from drawer to sort pile to, lately, a space all its own near a corner.

A man in a suit sits holding a beer and a smoke. My father, younger than both of my children are now, stands beside him, caught just as beer crosses his lips. I have a name only because my father printed it on the flip side.

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A quarter of an hour turned into half a day of research and didn’t reveal what I imagined. Turns out Chuck Blaze was a stranger I had to befriend before understanding why his photograph hasn’t yet ended up in a box somewhere.

Chuck Blaze’s given name was probably Theodore Charles Blazowski, but confirming that would take more time than I have to give. By the time he graduated from high school he at least used the handle Blaze.

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“Not spectacular, but steady”: nothing like being damned by faint praise.

I made a trip to the library to find an obituary, which was similarly anticlimactic as well as incomplete. ‘Chuck’ served in WWII, worked thirty-five years at the American Sterilizer Company, and obviously relished fraternal organizations. But between November 22, 1910 and the same day in 1987, a couple facts are omitted. His first marriage to Aili Nokari Blaze—a war bride?—is missing, as are the names of his three brothers, all Blazowskis. By odd coincidence, the aforementioned birth and death date is not only of historical significance (in 1963), but also my parents’ wedding anniversary (in 1947).

I could be wrong here and there, but odds are nobody will object. The payoff is I tracked down the 1929 yearbook for Central High School, which gave me an idea: Could I find my father’s 1944 edition of The Bulldog from Wesleyville High School? No luck. But what about my mother’s Academy yearbook from the same year? Dolores Miller. Bingo.

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Just as I recently learned that forsythia was her favorite flowering bush and “In the Garden (He Walks with Me)” was her favorite hymn, I found out in that moment that she liked “Sunday, Monday, or Always.” Gene Paulette was a local bandleader, but I listened to Bing Crosby’s version. Truthfully, eh.

As I looked at Mom’s senior picture, a beautiful, but surreal, truth settled in: that carefree face belonged not to a mother, but a daughter.

I wished to meet this teenage Dolly, to hear her laughter before life had its way with her. She knew much joy, but if only I could prevent her portion of suffering. Her smile, so unburdened, belonged to my very own child, and the longing to preserve it caught in my throat.

An utterly new compassion took hold of me, and I’ve since wondered if such emotional revelations visit when you have lots more miles behind you than ahead. My mother, my daughter.

And, of course, my father, my son. In my dad’s last year, he couldn’t remember whether I was his brother or cousin or son. He asked whether his mother was still alive. Not for decades. He wondered what became of an old friend, Connie Diehl, and after some digging around I could give him an answer he would immediately forget.

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My father and Chuck Blaze

Dad never mentioned Chuck Blaze, whose photograph I now have in hand. What’s on the horizon he’s scanning? If I were behind him in that doorway, I’d sling an arm over his shoulder and we’d talk. He had great times, but maybe I could say something to help when life went wrong. The beer would be frosty and delicious.

My God, I could just cry.

On My Mother’s 90th Birthday

On My Mother’s 90th Birthday

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Dolores Coleman, younger than my daughter and son are now

March 11, 2016: My mother would have turned ninety today. She died on June 8, 1998, of sepsis, the result of a reattached ileostomy. Our goodbye still feels like a door left ajar. She was unconscious by the time I reached her hospital room, so the best I could do was whisper and pat her bloated, purple hand.

She was gentle and loving. I thanked her for that. And I said she gave motherhood everything. She lost sleep and sweated small stuff. I didn’t use those exact words, but that was the gist.

The only sign that she could hear me was her fat hand lifted a little, then fell. Maybe she didn’t catch every detail, but I hoped that she sensed my attempt to surround her with kindness and affirmation.

The trouble was, Mom’s end was not certain at that point. I held out hope for a turnaround, so my deathbed blessing was a precaution.

But it would have to do. She passed within a couple of days, while I was at seminary in Columbus. By the time I got back to Erie, she was bone and ash in a beige plastic urn. No tender moment with Mom in repose, no soliloquy.

And no private crying. Those came at her funeral service, called forth by a hymn, probably my favorite: “Abide with Me, Fast Falls the Eventide.” I was loud and sloppy. It couldn’t be helped.

But this was almost eighteen years ago—my Lord! Grief has aged along with me, tears giving way to a longing that visits now and then. I don’t just miss Mom, but also myself as her kid, when life wasn’t perfect, but mostly good and glad.

Much as a hymn cracked me open when I was a younger man, music now makes me feel an emptiness in my chest that can only be filled by the past. Give me communion with those who would now be a hundred or more. Let me break bread with the living scattered by the centrifugal force of passing time.

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Lawrence with ah Bobby and ah Cissy, 1969 (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Last week Lawrence Welk—of all musicians!—had me pining. At the family gatherings of my youth, elders wanted big band and bubbles on the television. Enduring Bobby and Cissy and token black tap dancer Arthur Duncan was a tariff imposed on us before we pre-pubescents could watch Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom with Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler and, of course, The Wonderful World of Disney.

My cousins and I regarded the burden as onerous, but now when “It’s The Lawrence Welk Show” belts out from the television and the accordion starts up, my mind and body want to be at Aunt Mart and Uncle Kenny’s house, in the always amiable commotion of generations.

The desire for this slice of the past is physical. I swear, when Welk goes “Ah one and ah two and ah,” my heart stirs. Even Joe Feeney’s nasally tenor makes my eyes smile.

Mom was in that joyful air, in the rise and fall of voices I can’t remember all that well anymore. I miss her. I miss bumping into those decent old souls and getting overheated running around with cousins.

The whole champagne rerun (Public Broadcasting Service) played out as I washed dishes and cooked and let a lovely ache move through me.

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Karen and Richard Carpenter with President Nixon (Credit: Robert L. Knudsen on Wikimedia Commons)

Not too many days later Karen and Richard Carpenter played the same trick on me—a PBS fundraiser retrospective. Admitting you like the Carpenters is for some people right up there with digging Barry Manilow. Confession: part of me loves them. Karen Carpenter’s voice puts me in another corner of my past’s attic. Family friends stayed late, played cards, gorged on long-gone Armand’s thin pizzas, and laughed until dizzy. I had just hit double digits, and the scene was so loosey-goosey that I scored a fair amount of beer out of the deal. All the grownups loved and played Carpenter’s albums and 8-track tapes.

Mom, who was built a little like Karen before the anorexia took over, was at the center of my memory’s comforting song. I can still see “We’ve Only Just Begun” in calligraphy at the bottom of our friends’ wedding photograph, their giddy features pinched against the flying rice. Who says “Goodbye to Love” and “Rainy Days and Mondays” aren’t happy songs? Those years weren’t too shabby, nestled in between my parents’ divorce and the ravages of Mom’s arthritis.

Part of my longing is to go back, before I knew how fragile and bruised elderly skin could be, how worry and disappointment can hunch your back, how some dreams end as wisps of smoke.

But that’s not all. I want to dunk my Grandma Coleman’s molasses cookies again, sit on the floor of a room packed with relatives as Tinkerbell blesses the Magic Kingdom with pixie dust and Fowler saves Perkins from a boa constrictor, and watch Mom tease her hair, then set it in curls with Dippity Do and bobby pins.

I wish for Karen Carpenter to sing again. I want to rewind Lawrence Welk’s sign-off and listen back when I couldn’t wait for it to finish.

Good night, good night, until we meet again,

Adios, au revoir, auf wiedersehn till then.

And though it’s always sweet sorrow to part,

You know you’ll always remain in my heart.

Good night, sleep tight, and pleasant dreams to you.

Here’s a wish and a prayer that ev’ry dream comes true.

And now till we meet again,

Adios, au revoir, auf wiedersehn.

Good night!

I’m not wiping away tears. My hand is drawn to my chest, though, and I’m sighing. Sadness and gratitude sit together. This is the best happy birthday I can say to Mom right now.

What I Hope My Grandson Will Remember

A Napper’s Companion love, love, love alert. If you’re tired of me going on about grandson Cole, you are hereby issued a pass. My next post, already in progress, will be the customary blend of joyful and brooding. For now, if you can’t get enough of bald babies, come on in.

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Cole’s friendly monster first birthday party . . . by Elena Thompson and Cole’s groupies

Following my last silly post, Naming Monsters on Black Friday, dear blogging friend NapTimeThoughts and I had a little exchange that basically ended this way:

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Fifteen little monsters up for adoption

I wrote: “Wouldn’t it be great to sit with our grandmas again? Mine would have Vernors ginger ale and big brown tins of pretzels. Heaven.”

NapTimeThoughts wrote: “Mine would have coffee ice cream and graham crackers with butter on them, and we’d be playing Chinese checkers in the den. Someday Cole is going to have this conversation with someone, you know. What do you want him to remember?”

Not only does NapTimeThoughts have a belly-laughing, thoughtful blog, but she comments generously and genuinely on mine and others. Her question here has lingered with me in the days since she asked it. “What do you want [Cole] to remember?” My answer will change over time. Since Cole just celebrated his first birthday, he would be beyond genius if he remembered anything about me, should I cash in my chips in the near future.

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Whatever you remember about your gramps, kiddo, be sure to include color!

But a grandfather can hope. My Vernors and pretzels and NapTimeThoughts’ coffee ice cream, graham crackers with butter, and Chinese checkers are details—as my friend well knows—that help resurrect our grandmothers. A soda pop bottle, a cool marble, that’s all it takes. Suddenly, a personal, particular love lives again.

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Thanks, NapTime, for a question worth a couple days’ reflection. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Good old NapTime enjoys a bit of back and forth, thank God. Her query was a gift that led me to an answer. “What do I want Cole to remember?” Assuming at this point he won’t recall my feeding him broccoli cheddar soup or his kissing my cheek with a peck and a mmmwah, I do pray that this one piece of Gramps takes hold.

Here’s What Happened

This morning daughter Elena and Cole showed up at the house. As usual, wife Kathy and Elena had a plot to hatch, so Little Lord Cole and I had to find a way to amuse ourselves. Grandma’s ginger snaps and a walk around the dining room was the ticket. Already eager to embrace multi-tasking, Cole gummed bits of cookie and reached for my mother’s old teapot on top of the china cabinet. In response, I channeled Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh—gently, without being heavy: “Cole, just enjoy the cookie. You don’t need to do anything else.”

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This is life, Cole: taste the cookie.

“Yeah, right, Gramps,” he probably thought. But Cole is a deep soul. Once he had a fresh piece of ginger snap on his tongue, I stopped roaming and looked at him. We were perfectly alone.  “Listen, Cole,” I said. “This is very important.”

He actually got still. Amazing. His only movement was the cookie lolling around in his mouth.

“You have to remember,” I said, “I love you. It doesn’t matter if things are really great or really bad, your gramps loves you. Nothing can change that.”

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Schmutz face or pristine face. National Honor Society or way out of line. A life-time promise, sir. I’ll never give up on you, and when you stumble, I’ll remind you of the good I see in you. Take that!

After Cole and Elena left, I walked around the house for a while, looking at the commonplace–the wilted blossoms of Cole’s great-grandmother’s Christmas cactus–through a watery blur of blessing.

Here’s What I Hope:

Cole will remember neither the cookie nor my words. And on glad days, he won’t need a rearview mirror to make do. But, my dear NapTimeThoughts, my answer to your question on my grandson’s first birthday is this: when he is old enough to shave and has done himself stupid harm, let spirit-memory bring back what I gave him this morning. Let him know that he is worthy of love. Let his shoulders recall these old arms drawing him close and let his cheek still feel the kiss of unconditional grace.

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You won’t always be this cute, birthday bucko. No worries. When you get pimples and smell like sweaty socks, you’ll still be okay with me.

P. S. Thanks, NapTime. And Elena, could you put this one in Cole’s memory book, please?

 

 

Rawhide, Love, and Happy Trails!

Dearly Beloved:

As the pastor of a small parish, I’m accustomed to what lots of ministers would consider a light wedding schedule. Well, in 2014 either “Trumpet Voluntary” is in the water or word is leaking out that my wedding homilies are pithy and I’ll give you your vows in nibbles so you don’t fumble them and the Lutheran service for marriage includes minimal fluff. If you’re not lighting candles or pouring colored sand or passing out roses or “there is love[ing],” I can get you hitched in fifteen minutes.

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Daughter Elena and son-in-law Matt: I officiated their nuptials in around twenty minutes ago on October 2, 2010. No fuss, no muss.

Whatever the reason, this coming Saturday will mark my eighth wedding of the season, with four out of town and this last one twenty miles from my doorstep. The “Rawhide” song is rollin’ through my head, not the Frankie Laine version, but the Blues Brothers’ rendition with John Belushi deadpanning “head ‘em up, move ‘em on, head ‘em up,” and grabbing a barely plausible whip hanging by the stage for a couple of rousing cracks and “haws!”

Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’, keep them vows a rollin’, rawhide . . . to Saxonburg, Pennsylvania. Rain and wind and weather . . . to Shippenville, Pennsylvania. Hell bent for [tether] . . . to Findley Lake, New York. Wishin’ my gal was by my side . . . to Columbiana, Ohio.

With some personal struggles making my horse gimpy in recent months, my trail time has often been taken up with wound licking and obsessing. The weddings themselves have all been joyful, even gleeful. No bridezillas, no fussy parents, no bizarre requests. Good stuff. But, sheesh, the back and forth, with miles of staring at concrete, provided the perfect venue for what Brother Lawrence called useless thoughts. Ugh! (I’m like a doggie that remedies an itch on its flank by chewing open a crater. It is possible to ruminate yourself raw.)

But last Saturday as I was driving through Ohio, minding my own business, the dying leaves got through to me. Trees lining the highway sang out every lovely cliché of autumn. It was as if creation cleared scales from my eyes, and I saw colors. Pandora’s “Zen Garden” station—serenity now!—had my ears calmed down. And as the miles unraveled, I traveled into thanksgiving. Turns out the space behind my chest that shelters laughter and tears also rents out a secret loft to a tenant who has become unkempt and dusty lately: gratitude.

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You get the idea–fall leaves along the road. (Credit: Albert Herring on Wikimedia Commons)

All the way to Columbiana I was whelmed in thanks. (Not overwhelmed, just pleasantly, peacefully whelmed.)

Thanks for Don and Janine Thompson, grandson Cole’s other grandparents. The little man spends a lot of time at their place, in part because they live a few doors up on the same street as Elena and Matt. Janine is always chasing the Cole-meister while full-time-mom Elena runs errands or takes an exit for some rest. I’ve seen with my eyes and felt in my bones their bottomless, gentle love for our boy. Knowing that he toddles around at Don and Janine’s house invites in me a cleansing breath. He is safe, spoken to with tenderness, and regarded with patience and generosity.

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Grandma Janine at Cole’s baptism

As a bonus, Cole is picking up a couple of fantastic lessons for life from his other grandparents.

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A big bonus at Grandma and Grandpa Thompson’s is cousin Shaylee, who loves Cole like crazy and comes to play.

1.) The Thompson house is trippy. Every time I drive by I chuckle a loving, admiring chuckle. It’s a typical ranch house, very well kept and attractive, but it has an addition on the roof that makes the place look like a thick letter “L” lying on its back. But here’s the thing: Don pretty much built the whole place himself. When the family needed more room, he added where he could. I dig that and am glad Cole is doing part of his growing up there because he can learn that what matters most isn’t the way a home is shaped on the outside, but the grace and care that fills the inside.

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Grandpa Don at Cole’s baptism

2.) Along these same lines, Matt told me that his dad painted his car or truck with, well, a paint brush. You can hardly tell. Every summer the Thompsons have a bodywork day when all the cars in the family get what they need. I love this! Don once told Matt never to buy a new car when you can fix an old one. He’s right. I want my little Cole-mobile to grow up believing that a car’s primary job is to roll him somewhere.

3.) Rounding a bend here: During Elena and Matt’s engagement, there was a brief point of tension between Elena and Janine. I don’t even know what it was about, but I know how it ended. They talked it out and learned from each other. So a mother-in-law genuinely listened to her perky whippersnapper future daughter-in-law, took a look within, and was vulnerable and open. Now, this is a woman I want in my grandson’s life! A healthy, wise presence.

4.) When you put together everything in the Thompson’s cool-beans household, you also get another piece of first-rate craftsmanship.

Thanks for Matt Thompson! Son-in-law Matt is like his old man: intelligent, thoughtful, conversant on an amazing number of topics, but at the same time doesn’t take up a lot of space. When he comes into a room, his countenance doesn’t shout, “Here I am!” It smiles, “There you are!” All of my neighbors once agreed—the men, too—that we want to marry Matt. This Renaissance Man could build aircraft carrier out of gravel, twigs, hair, and boogers, and, in fact, he and Elena bought what was essentially a 800-square-foot dog kennel, gutted the yuck out of it, and made it their home. Matt knows everything about inventor Nicola Tesla, including I believe the circumference of his nostrils, and quotes Carl Sagan all the time. He refurbished the 1980 electric Commuticar wife Kathy drives to work and once explained how the batteries charge and alternate their responsibilities. I listened politely as Charlie Brown’s teacher’s wha, wha, wha, ah, ah, wha, wha came out of his mouth.

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Matt and Cole: lucky man, lucky boy!

However, the fact that Matt Alan Thompson could perform brain surgery in the dark with balsa wood instruments is beside the point. He is a good man with a conscience and a large soul. Best of all, when he holds my grandson, he knows that he is in possession of a fragile blessing. I can tell. Matt’s thick hands loosen rusty bolts, but their grip on that baby is soft and kind. And he talks to Cole the same way he carries him.

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The 1980 Electric Commuticar, which the Coleman family dubbed the Goudalet because one person observed that it looks like a wedge of gouda cheese rolling down the street. It lay dormant for over twenty years, but Matt willed it back to life.

Well, enough about my son-in-law. He chose to marry my daughter, so my neighbors and I have to accept that we don’t stand a chance with him.

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Matt and baby Cole watching an old episode of “Cosmos”–no kidding!

With another forty minutes to go on Route 6, I seemed to herd other reasons for thanks ahead of me like doggies. Don’t try to understand ‘em, just rope and throw and brand ‘em. Right, then, just enjoy the yips of gratitude.

Thanks for Kathy, Elena, and Micah. I’ve fussed over them in other posts. I remain grateful.

Thanks for my church kids. Most Sundays they’re a mosh pit of rosy-cheeked silliness. We love each other.

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Austin sees Pastor John sit down with the kids to listen to music. Austin puts his Halloween costume in reverse and sits down on Pastor John’s lap. Pastor John looks like he is frowning, but he is not. His eyes are closed because he is sitting in God’s lap.

Thanks for my blogging friends. Beyond their sincere care for me and each other, I appreciate my fellow bloggers’ patience. We seem to understand and accept when one or another of us drops off the grid for a while because good vittles, love, [or] kissin’ has somehow gone a-missin’. They are unseen guests in my days—great company.

And thanks for the leaves. Gorgeous, yet in extremis. Their reality gives me hope. On the doorstep of dust, they sing their loudest. Do they see something we don’t? Maybe as they fall to earth, they know they’ll go on living high and wide.

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Wishing you glad trails, height and breadth and depth. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Rawhide, love, and happy trails!

John

Review of “Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs”

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Author introduces his yet-to-be-conceived grandchild to the world

(Blogger’s Note: Dear Friends, the review that follows appeared in my hometown newspaper yesterday. I appreciate not only Doug Rieder’s generosity, but also his sincere attempt to understand and communicate my book’s purpose and audience. I also thank Erie writer and photographer Mary Birdsong for her great cover photograph, thoughtful advice, and support.)

By DOUG RIEDER, Erie Times-News
Contributing writer

“Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs, And Other Wonders Before Your Time”

By John Coleman

Shamatha House, 201 pages, $11 paperback

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This photograph of my daughter Elena in 2006 accompanies the review.

Over the course of his new book of essays, “Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs,” John Coleman often stops to smell the roses, and he’s got a pretty good nose for it.

You’d expect as much from Coleman, pastor of Erie’s Abiding Hope Lutheran Church. But this is no preacher consoling his flock, nor one communing with a higher power. The word “God,” in fact, is rarely used.

No, Coleman addresses each of these 11 short essays to someone who doesn’t exist yet — or at least didn’t at the time of his writing. That someone turns out to be his grandson, Cole, born to his daughter, Elena, and her husband, Matt, on Nov. 30, 2013.

Coleman explains all this on the back cover, but inside the book, Cole isn’t Cole yet, but a mysterious, magical being filled with promise and potential.

“I’m aware of the sun, the trees, the longing cardinal and the possibility of you,” Coleman writes from his stilt-cabin retreat in the woods at Mount Saint Benedict.

“While you’re still a dream, I feel like talking to you. … What I have to say will feel more like floating a canoe down a creek than running rapids.”

He suggests optimal times for his grandchild to read his jottings: On bad days, “read a few notes.” On good days, don’t bother. “And on your worst days, turn to these words: Before you were born, your grandfather sat up in the trees and loved you ahead of time.”

That’s typical of Coleman, a gentle soul guided by other gentle souls: Gandhi, Kahlil Gibran, Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh and Erie’s Sister Joan Chittister.

As he promises, Coleman writes of life’s everyday occurrences, his “floating canoes” –Harriet the squirrel, the dogs and cats of his Shenley Drive neighborhood, disturbing newspaper headlines, family history, mini-essays on the Elephant Man and the Gettysburg Address, the changing face of Erie and the coming — but mostly going — of favorite coffeehouses and writing haunts like Moonsense and Aromas.

His life is full to bursting. His wife, Kathy, really does raise monarch butterflies, but also assembles furniture out of town and crews aboard the U.S. Brig Niagara. In one essay, she departs on a three-week Niagara sail. Coleman bristles over her absence but notes that her time aboard ship has given her a “longer fuse.”

At the time of this writing, the Colemans are parents of teenagers — 15-year-old Micah and 17-year-old Elena. They bring joy into his life: “I miss giving you shoulder rides,” Coleman tells his son. “I miss that, too,” says Micah. “But I can’t do that anymore. I’d crush you.”

At times, he must hold his tongue with them.

“Many lessons people have to teach themselves,” he writes.

It took Coleman a year to write “Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs” and seven years of “intermittent slashing away,” as he wrote me in a letter. He did it in coffeehouses and in cabins on stilts, but he also did it within time zones that created themselves: waiting rooms, hospital rooms, the World of Music basement as Micah hammered away at his drum lessons.

Coleman’s main conceit is that he’s writing to a grandbaby that’s not even a glimmer yet, but of course, he’s not really — he’s writing to us. There’s a sweetness to these observations, mundane as they might be, and a comfort to turn back to them.

“I suppose this is why I’ve written to you so much about the commonplace,” Coleman writes near the end. “Leaves going red, a squirrel laughing at a dog, a dad playing catch with his son, a husband taking a walk with his wife: I’ve no right to ask for more.”

But where the book starts Thoreau-like at a cabin in the woods, it ends with the running of at least one set of dangerous rapids: troubling news about Elena.

“She has a story to tell you,” Coleman writes. “She’ll sit you down and fill you in when you’re ready; only she can decide on the right time.”

Developments like this help ground “Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs.” Coleman has a wide, gentle streak, yes, but he’s as fully immersed in life’s stickiness and unpleasantries as the rest of us.

Happily, the town’s got a lot more coffeehouses now — Hortons and the omnipresent Starbucks — for him to duck into and open his writing journal.

DOUG RIEDER is the former editor of the book page.

To My Grandson, Who “Settles in My Low Places”

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.

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Cole and Layla: nappers’ companions!

Dear Cole:

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.

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Cole, you don’t have to smile or get a gold medal in the Cute Olympics. Just stand there and be yourself. That’s more than enough for me.

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.

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Hey, Cole, thanks for showing up this morning.

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:

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Dear Reader, pick the caption: “Dag nabbit, they forgot my extra side of chipotle mayo.” “What you talkin bout, Willis?” Or “I’m going to audition for the role of Wilford Brimley’s Mini Me, and I’d like to talk to you about diabeetus. Wait, where did I put my walrus mustache?”

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:

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Lousy quality photograph: “Today is another day where [sic] we can sit back and reflect on what happens in life.” I presume the sitting doesn’t refer to the throne at hand.

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No clue what these shapes are about, but below them is a riddle: “Everyone has it. What does everyone have but nobody can lose it?” Read to the end, Cole, and I’ll tell you.

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.

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You know what grown ups have forgotten: sweaty, little boy sneakers are yummy! Help me to be young again, buster.

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.

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Learning to write cursive taught me how to practice, slow down, and be patient. If you want, we could work on cursive together. Mine is rusty. (Photograph courtesy of Mark Fischer’s Facebook page)

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.

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One of the few photographs of you crying, Cole. Some people do lots of this for their whole lives. If you look at them and smile, they might feel a little bit better.

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.

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“Sandwich, you are getting very sleepy. Come to Layla.”

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.

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No low places here, Cole, only mountaintops.

I have more ideas but no more time today. Should I write you another book?

Love,

Gramps

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.

My Parental Gland

One morning in mid March, my parental gland sounded its mysterious longing in my chest. Of course, there’s no evidence such a gland exists, but I’ve got one. Made visible it would resemble a translucent almond situated behind my sternum, right where you get the wind knocked out of you.

I was pray-meditating at 7:30 a.m., propped up in bed, wife Kathy sleeping next to me. The only sound in the house was twenty-two-year-old son Micah whirling around downstairs like Looney Tunes’ Tasmanian Devil. (He could slow down his routine and still get to his painting job on time, but he makes coffee, finds clothes, throws a nutritionally hollow lunch into his knapsack, and puts on his coat in a barely-managed frenzy.) I listened and breathed. The front door creaked open and banged shut, and thud thud thud he went down the front steps; car door; engine; drove away, at a reasonable pace, thank God.

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Micah smoking his e-cig after a hard day’s work. How can you not love a twenty-two year-old who lounges in onesie jam-jams and tiger slippers?

That’s when my parental gland fired, as the car’s whir became a sigh that became silence. Kathy slept. The neighborhood was reverent. Deep breaths embraced the longing in my chest. Longing. Or call it whatever. That contradiction, that lush tundra parents inhabit as we watch our children move into the distance. Pride blossoms against apprehension’s frost.

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Frost on an orange flower–a father’s spirit watching his child drive away. (Credit: Image Source / Corbis)

Daughter walks from the car to the school building. Please. After you kiss your son’s forehead, he gets wheeled away for an appendectomy. Please. Daughter and son speed off with friends for some destination you’ll never find out about. Please. Each departure turns me, at least, into a beggar: God on high, hear my prayer.

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“God on high, hear my prayer.” Jean Valjean rescues Marius–“like the son he might have known.” (Les Miserables, Credit: Mead Schaeffer / Wikimedia Commons)

If only my parental gland had dissolved once daughter Elena and Micah reached legal drinking age. When they were teenagers I peeked between my fingers like a child as they stumbled out of sight into their respective barbed wire and razor blades: flirting with death, dancing with heroin. I’d figured on landing in a deep blue expanse of peace if they grew up and straightened out.

Both of my children are healthy and sane at the moment, but sadly, no blue expanse. Turns out my heart worries even when my head can’t name the threat. It’s that shimmering parental gland. Mine is more active than ever, gaining potency as the years call me to honesty. I love Elena and Micah so much it hurts sometimes, especially when they’re traveling alone, fading from view.

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Someone’s daughter disappears. Someone’s parental gland sounds. (Credit: Hans Berggren / Johner Images / Corbis)

My conclusion: a father’s and a mother’s hurt and sorrow reside in the same dwelling with a love that makes us want to take off after our adult children, pick them up in our arms, and rock them to sleep. That’s what my gland does, anyway. I’m not kidding. I would gladly put Elena or Micah in my lap, rest their head against my shoulder, and listen for sleep’s slow, even breathing. Ah well. Pain and longing are in love’s fine print. Deal accepted.

Now Elena is married to Matt, and they’ve given us all Cole. Judging from what a mush bucket I am already, I’m thinking the parental gland working so abundantly these days will be promoted and given grandparental duties as well. The raise in compensation so far has more than covered the increased workload. Each time my grandson cries, I’m in that lush tundra. Please.

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I pray from this place each time my children leave. (Credit: John and Karen Hollingsworth / Wikimedia Commons)

That’s what happened today when Elena, Cole, and I met at Presque Isle for a walk. The wind was chilled by snow and icy Lake Erie, and Cole was plenty warm, but in no mood for the stroller. Half a mile in, we pulled off the path for a drink. The kid’s amazing. He managed to nurse and make those calming-down snivels infants do after a crying jag. His tank full, we headed back to the car, taking turns carrying him. For a couple minutes, as I faced him forward and held him close, I whispered Grandpa foolishness against his bald head and listed in a chant everybody who loves him. But then he started blubbering again, which told me that his appetite for affection is bottomless. No problem. My grandparental gland, unlike my pancreas, is invincible.

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“Take me out of this stroller and tell me you love me! Right now!

When we got back to the parking lot, Elena changed Cole’s diaper, got him in his car seat, and we all kissed goodbye. I started my truck, but waited as they drove off. Please.

I thought about my favorite passage from Hermann Hesse’s novel Siddhartha. The main character is in anguish as his son walks away into the bliss and suffering life holds for him. A sage speaks to the father:

Do you then really think that you have committed your follies in order to spare your son them? Can you then protect your son from Samsara? How? Through instruction, through prayers, through exhortation? My dear friend, have you forgotten that instructive story about Siddhartha, the Brahmin’s son, which you once told me here? Who protected Siddhartha the Samana from Samsara, from sin, greed and folly? Could his father’s piety, his teacher’s exhortations, his own knowledge, his own seeking, protect him? Which father, which teacher, could prevent him from living his own life, from soiling himself with life, from loading himself with sin, from swallowing the bitter drink himself, from finding his own path? Do you think, my dear friend, that anybody is spared this path? Perhaps your little son, because you would like to see him spared sorrow and pain and disillusionment? But if you were to die ten times for him, you would not alter his destiny in the slightest.

This is the hardest part of possessing my peculiar gland: as Elena, Micah, and Cole walk away from me, “finding their own path,” I wonder when my chest will finally crack open from wanting to spare them. But there is no sparing them—or forcing them.

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They could toddle, sprint, or “walker” away from me. No matter. Joy and longing kiss.

Now, in my fifty-third year, I understand the covenant: a father’s and grandfather’s love breathes, honors the silence when the beloved is out of sight, and prays from a lush tundra.

Note: “My Parental Gland” originally appeared as a guest post this past March on a great blog, Kerry’s Winding Road.