Letter to a Kindred Spirit, Off to College

Letter to a Kindred Spirit, Off to College

Dear Abbey,

Sorry for starting this sendoff with a cliché, but “time is flying” lately. Same with life, especially when fifty sneaks up on sixty. That’s me. Every once in a while I want to grab a day by the scruff to keep it from running away. That’s right now.

In a few weeks you’ll be off to Pittsburgh’s Chatham University, two hours south on I-79 from home in Erie. You’ll take leave, knowing that your tribe can and will hop behind the wheel as soon as you call and show up before tears of homesickness have time to dry.

One of Chatham’s stately buildings

You and I both know you’ll do some crying, right? I’m not trying to be a rain cloud here. You have—in case you haven’t noticed—family and friends who swoon over you with love and support. We’ve watched you overcome serious illnesses, distinguish yourself academically, hang onto your sweet self and take a full step into adulthood. Along the way, disappointment and grief have gotten up in your face, but you’ve stood your ground. Yes, ma’am, you’ve made us proud.

And you, on your part, hold a love for us that’s overwhelming at times, isn’t it? You find comfort in having family and friends in your house, even if you’re not in the same room. If we leave without saying goodbye, you’re a bit hurt. When Kathy, Micah and I moved from the house next door, you got choked up talking about it for months.

Such wondrous love as yours comes with a price. This is actually my reason for writing to you, other than to say what you already know: “I love you and am sad that for most of the year, you won’t be across town.” If only time would cooperate when we try to hold it still. If only those dear to us never disappeared over the horizon. You and I know better, right?

No way to slow it down, right, dear friend?

We’ll see each other often enough, but the move to college can be decisive. On August 22, 2018, you’re off to the Steel City. Four years later, who knows where circumstance and intuition will call you? Will we be able to reach you in a day’s drive? I guess we’ll all find out together.

Anyway, you’re smarter than I am, and don’t bother arguing with me on this point. There’s hardly anything I can say that you haven’t learned or already suspect. Studying and self-discipline have been folded up in your suitcase for many grades now. Those lumps from childhood have taught you not to get knocked out by upsets that might have your classmates on the ropes. And romance? Sure, you might get stung, but brains aren’t your only gift. You’ve got a strong, insightful heart. You’ll outmaneuver each Don Juan.

Your fortune

You’ll also make friends and crush exams and write amazing papers, no doubt in my mind. But I do have a vision of a moment that might come out of nowhere and leave you shaken.

You’ve just walked into your dorm room. Outside it’s dusk, inside the light is thin. The heavy knapsack slips from your shoulder onto your study desk. Strange, nobody is around, not your roommate, not other girls coming and going. The air is heavy and quiet. You check your smartphone. No text messages, no missed calls. It’s been a crummy day. A good friend has been acting like a jerk, for no reason you can think of. Or a guy you kind of like clearly isn’t interested in you (the fool). Or maybe you’ve just been out of sorts. 

Whatever the case, it’s only you, your room, Chatham University and Pittsburgh. That’s it. Not even a test to study for. Being alone is normally OK with you. But now, standing in the gray silence, you want to be in Erie, bellied up to the kitchen counter and snacking on leftover Alfredo I sent home with you and telling your brother or sister to cut it out and hearing your mother call you “Abber Dabbers.”

You would give anything, when darkness comes, to lie down in your attic bedroom and stare at the familiar moonlight and shadows on your walls. More affection than you could ever need would be one flight of stairs away.

But you’re alone at school, listening to yourself sigh.

Trust me, Abbey, I’m not out to depress you. This letter is actually a gift to slip into a moving box and read again when you forget that you’re not only mighty, but mindful—which is why I’ve dared to send you off to college with this sad portrait.

4:30 p.m. on a December day like the one I’ve described will probably visit you. We’re “kindred spirits”—another cliché, sorry. The mere nuance of life can make us tear up or shove our faces into the dirt. So I know that your solitary dorm room on an overcast afternoon might fill your chest with a longing more insistent than you had thought possible.

You can trust this face, right? No, not the moose, your beloved Flanders.

If so, you listen to your forever neighbor Flanders*. This may be the only advice I have to offer you.

When you feel so alone that you want to climb out of your skin, stand still and keep listening to yourself breathe. Don’t run. Don’t busy yourself. In fact, do more than stand still. Lean into the loneliness. Taste it. Hold it gently by the scruff so it won’t get away. If you cry, cry like a big baby. And know this: When you let loneliness have its way with you for a little while, it will pass eventually without much of a fight.

By the time you feel more yourself, you will have passed an exam beyond book learning. A college freshman doesn’t have to be lonely very much, but when you do, Abbey, you’ll be able to handle it. For sure, call somebody who loves you. Call me, but if there’s no answer, you know what to do.

Being mighty has a summit: Standing alone with yourself and not trying to escape. You’ve got this!

Love,

Flanders

*Flanders is my nickname with Abbey’s family.

 

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I’ll Find You, Art, in the Sunset Dance

Art and I had a routine. He poked his head into my office doorway, checking to see if the coast was clear—a few times a week since Doris passed nine years ago.

“Thought I’d come in and bug you for a few minutes,” he said, then had a seat.

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Friend Art

Half-hour by half-hour we picked through his life and pulled out stories as if from attic boxes: Korea, close enough to the action to hear the shells whistle; a garage-building crew in the old neighborhood and the keg they were bound to finish and the world spinning; Doris dying alone in the afternoon while he ran errands—he never quite forgave himself.

“Well,” Art said, standing up, “I’ll let you get back to work.”

“But, Art,” I always answered, “I have been working.”

He had to stop on the way home for something, maybe boloney. Samwiches every day for lunch get boring. After a while you forget to eat.

Art got to church first on Sunday mornings, unlocked the doors and set the bulletins out. But arthritis clamped down on his shoulders so badly that he gave in and got a crew cut. Combs and spoons weren’t his friends anymore. If I had a nickel for every time I fixed his collar or untwisted his suspenders . . . . Getting to worship became a project, weary and burdensome.

This past winter Erie, Pennsylvania, was cruel. Art’s car and many others at Niagara Village were snowbound, but the wind chills would have kept him inside anyway. He had time to dwell on the indignities of age: obstinate hearts, lungs, and bowels. And loneliness. He looked at Doris’ picture on the wall and told her, “Send me my ticket. I’m ready.” He lay in bed before dawn, anxious and hazy, and wondered if what he was feeling was death.

Kidney failure pushed him over the edge. I was there when a kind doctor leaned in close and with his manner as much as his words let Art know that forgoing dialysis was just fine. We prayed.

Oh, his poor arms, torn and purple.

Loved ones and nurses took in what was happening. Muffled tears. Compression devices off of his calves, the Velcro cackling. A tube or two removed. I don’t remember, exactly.

Art’s faithful son Mark went to make calls. Suddenly, Art and I were alone.

“What do you think Doris will say when you get there?” I said.

“Probably ‘What took you so long?’”

“Can I tell the [church] people what’s going on with you?”

“Yep, tell them I’m going home.”

I held his hand as he looked far off. Death wouldn’t arrive for a week or so, but he seemed to be peeking into another doorway, one where the coast is always clear—so I believe.

“Are you okay with this, Art?” I said. “Are you at peace?”

He was already on his way: “Yep, just help me through the door.”

Still holding his hand, I cried without him seeing.

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Church was home for Art. He always kept a prayer candle lit for Doris.

The sanctuary filled up for Art. We gave him a good send off—big choir, his boys sharp in uniform, loving words and a salute from his eldest, “How Great Thou Art” sung by one of his beloved church-grandchildren. We ended with our beautiful old prayer poem: “Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant, Art. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.”

The next morning I gathered with family at the cemetery. We said more words—“earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”—and slid Art’s urn in next to Doris’. Some hugs later, I drove away through the deep, winding green of summer. I can’t recall what I did the rest of that day.

I sit now with coffee, keeping company with a few more tears that are still floating in my reservoir.

And I sit with an understanding: nothing can rush sadness through the door after a friend dies, especially one you’ve said to many times, “Here, let me fix your suspenders.” It was my privilege.

IMG_3583Last evening, knowing the best I can do is keep my own door open wide enough for grief to go in and out freely, I drove with wife Kathy to Presque Isle, to beaches that feel like home.

The Lake Erie sunset was on. Yes, a sunset, stunning cliché of the western sky, light everybody sails into eventually. Wind kept the landscape in motion, waves and light playing in the last few minutes of day.

Kathy and I stood at the water’s edge and held each other. The air moved over us—I want to say blew through us. As I breathed in and out, we seemed to be welcomed in by the sinking sun, the clouds mysteriously still, restless Lake Erie, and all the quick and the dead. We embraced each other, and creation embraced us.

It would be satisfying to say that I sensed Art’s presence, but that would be a slanted truth. Rather, resting my cheek against Kathy’s hair, receiving her cheek against my chest, my soul knew the hope of a gathering, a cosmic dance of sun, water, wind, sand, grass, and hearts. The song is of mercy.

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A pale vault opening

Just after the sun set, a pale vault opened in its place, glowing in the memory of the great light. I felt as though I was looking into the dance, moving with it as much as anyone can without joining it entirely.

What does death feel like? Art wondered, and so do I. Now he knows. I pray that it’s like losing yourself in a dance, completely embraced, yet free, too amazed by color, light, and love to straighten your collar or imagine that anybody has ever died alone.

Blogging, Awards, and the Longest Acceptance Speech Ever

I’m a slow one, I am, but I catch on eventually. When I started A Napper’s Companion almost a year ago, it was a selfish endeavor. Editors were taking forever to get back to me about book submissions, and when they did, the answer was “Nope.” My morning writing discipline, nourishing as it was, occasionally felt like solitary confinement. So I stuck my neck out there with a blog, wanting mostly to get my stuff under somebody’s nose rather than letting it rot in my laptop’s guts.

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All right, put your nose under those spectacles and read my stuff! (Credit: Radius Images / Corbis)

As the months have passed, I’ve received several nominations for blogging awards. The first time it happened I tried to track down the source of the award. Dagnabbit! Every road led to another blog. “Ah ha,” I thought, “this is a blogging gimmick.” So I settled on a policy: say thanks, be polite, but don’t engage.

But then something completely unexpected happened. Part one: it dawned on me that it was selfish to expect other bloggers to read my work if I didn’t read theirs. So I read and came to regard reading not only as an ongoing pleasure, but a responsibility. I don’t schedule blocks of time for keeping up with blogs I follow, but a couple times a week it happens: Coleman sits with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and has great fun with my friends. Yes, I said it: friends. That’s part two: I never ever expected to find such a wealth of cool, funny, thoughtful friends in the WordPress community. I don’t suppose we’ll ever actually meet; hell, I don’t remember where most of them live. A few of them don’t pay much attention to my blog, but that’s okay. We’re comrades and considering the likes and comments some receive, they could spend several hours a day just following their followers and commenting thoughtfully. Not possible. Love them anyway.

Anyway, I’m accepting an award nomination today. I’ve known for decades that “writing is a quiet game”—can’t seem to track down who said so originally. What I’ve learned lately is that the blogging landscape is lovely, but, damn, is it crowded. WordPress stats say, “Over 409 million people view more than 13.1 billion pages each month.” Holy crap! But in the midst of all these voices, I’ve come to really connect with a little choir. In between reading posts, I think about my blogging mates (Australian lilt required). I hope they’re doing okay, and for some walking in the valley of the shadow, pray they’re still among the quick.

Among bloggers, awards are a way of patting each other on the back and extending genuine appreciation. Do we hope to increase our traffic a smidgen? I suppose so. But I’m accepting a nomination from blog bud nap time thoughts (I’ll do the same for another from kerry’s winding road in a separate post) for a human reason. She’s saying thanks, and I’m responding, “You’re welcome. And thanks back atcha!” I’m spreading and feeling the love.

I’m accepting a nomination for “the Quintet of Radiance Award,” which is actually a bundle of five awards. What the hey, why not go for a bundle? “Most Influential Blogger Award,” “Awesome Blog Content Award,” “Inner Peace Award” (by which my friend must mean “the Chunky Neurotic Dude Award”), “Sunshine Award,” and “The Versatile Blogger Award.”

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My only obligation is to describe myself using the alphabet, but because I’m a sunshiny little pain in the arse, I’m going to use the letters to describe things I like. This may at times read like a shopping list:

A: Abiding Hope family (the church I serve as pastor), avocado, asparagus, artichoke hearts, anything Alfredo, art, America’s Test Kitchen, atheists and agnostics (see last item in this series), and agape (Greek for God’s unconditional love)

B: basil, books, blogging, cat Baby Crash, the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, the Buddha, Big Band, David Brooks (best right-of-center columnist), and Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”

C: (so-cute-you-just-want-to-poop-your-trousers-along-with-my-grandson) Cole, curry, cardamom, cilantro, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, Chipotle Mexican Restaurant, Julia Child, contemplation, and compassion

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Grandson Cole. Admit it, you kind of want to poop, right?

D: Desitin (should I join grandson in pooping), E. J. Dionne (best left-of-center columnist), dill weed, delete, dude, and dang

E: (wonder-daughter) Elena, eggplant (dredge in egg and flour, fry in grease, delete nutritional value), El Canelo Mexican Restaurant, and eros (Ew! This from a pastor? You bet. Gift from God!)

F: feta cheese, friends, Food ala Floyd, and fubsy (which means “short and somewhat squat”)

G: gravy (any denomination, salty and fatty, bitte), guacamole, Greek olives, and gentleness

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Straw, please. (Credit: Koji Hanabuchi / Corbis)

H: the Harvard comma and Phil Harris

I: India pale ale and irregardless (which isn’t actually a word; it’s just regardless)

J: Jesus, Joe’s Cheese House (Marinette, Wisconsin; cheddar aged 16.5 years; eat or use to remove warts), and jogging (ten years ago I’d have said “running”; oh well)

K: Kathy (wifely; good Lord, how has she tolerated me for 33 years?), (“I’ve Got a Gal from) Kalamazoo, and Graham Kerr

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Kathy, who could make any letter illustrious, with Watson.

L: lime, Louis CK (one is bright and refreshing, the other vulgar and hilarious), lasagna, Lutheranism, and love

M: Micah and Matt (son and son-in-law; proud as hell), meditation, monasteries, and music

N: nasty (a word I use for fart, as in “Oh, my dear chap, did you just emit a nasty?”; the actual item I can live without—really), “Nessun Dorma” (see T.), and napping

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Swedish tenor Jussi Bjorling. Sang a mean “Nessun Dorma.” Died of drink too young. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

O: oregano, olive oil, the Oxford comma, and Mary Oliver

P: pesto, pinot noir, pizza, the Palmer (walk and wiggle your hips like one of those girls in Robert Palmer music videos), Louis Prima, Jacques Pepin, poetry, prayer, and peace

Q: query (wrote a ton of those dang letters)

R: Ricardo’s Restaurant (best filet mignon in Erie, Pennsylvania), roasted red peppers, Leon Redbone, and Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto

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Leon Redbone (Credit: Wikipedia)

S: Siestas, sleep, shalom, shamatha, cat Shadow, Starbucks, Star Trek (original television show), Star Wars, sour cream, salmon, the serial comma, Paul Simon, and Steely Dan

T: operatic tenors (opera not so much, just take me to the mountain top) and tomatoes

U: uvula (just a fun word for the phlegmy stalactite hanging from the back of your throat)

V: Victory Chimes (a schooner in Maine) and singing along with Viagra commercials (“Viva, viva, Viagraaaaa!)

W: dog Watson, white pepper, E. B. White, weenus (slang term for your loose elbow skin), wine, The Writer’s Almanac,  and writing

X: X-rays (thank God; they eliminate exploratory drilling)

Y: yield signs (permission for rolling stop granted)

and

Z: Zen, Zoloft, and Brother John Zuber and his fellow monks at Gethsemani.

Okay, that was genuinely fun, but it’s time to move on. (I just know I’m leaving something really important out.)

I’m also supposed to nominate other bloggers for the “Quintet of Radiance Award.” I follow lots of blogs and am nominating only those I think might welcome such a nod. If I’m wrong, please forgive. Here goes, friends:

a little elbow room

always backroads

deep in the heart of textiles

Rosemary’s blog

Rob Fysh’s blog

nap a day

wading blue heron

coffee talk with Erin

Rosie smrtie pants

one thousand two

plan B-each

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Even if you don’t accept nominations, I raise my red blend to you.