Oniontown Pastoral: The Blessing of Okay

Oniontown Pastoral: The Blessing of Okay

“How’s it going?” If ever a question begged for a bland answer, this is it.

Occasionally a brave soul will come back, “Do you really want to know?” But we mostly say, “Oh, pretty good” or “not too bad,” then wander into other conversational pastures.

Years ago, maybe fifteen, I picked up a habit that persists to this day. When folks ask, “How are you today?” I pause. “Well,” my inner voices says, “how are you doing, John?”

After a couple seconds of taking stock, I usually give this honest reply: “I’m vertical. Nobody is busting my chops today, so I’m actually doing great.”

Elena and Micah as teenagers. Don’t they look sweet? Um, they about did me in.

Like most people, I’ve had stretches of years when life was decidedly not okay. Shortly before my daughter Elena was born, I developed panic disorder, an exquisitely shattering affliction. Both Elena and son Micah were high-spirited as teenagers, by which I mean, “Holy cow, those two just about killed me.” Along the way, a few professional challenges taught me that I can be embarrassingly fragile sometimes—not an easy confession for any man.

And, again, like most people, I’ve learned to appreciate life’s temperate seasons, especially following the brutal weather of loss, illness, disappointment, name your own stress or sorrow.

After getting knocked flat by a frigid gust of crisis, being able to say, “I’m vertical” seems miraculous.

And it is. “Count your many blessings,” an old hymn advises, “name them one by one.” Standing on my own two feet and walking to the kitchen to pour a glass of iced tea is an honest-to-goodness blessing, and you can call me trite for saying so.

Understand, I’m not suggesting that gratitude is a treatment for clinical depression or a remedy for terrible circumstances. (Take it from me, a panic attack licks its chops and guffaws at church hymns.)

All things being equal, though, I maintain that “okay” is really “amazing” speaking in a whisper.

Friends often remark that driving from Erie to St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown and back again must be a combination of bore and chore. Not so. A couple of times each week as I speed past the fields and their inhabitants, I find myself caught up in the splendor of nothing much being wrong.

Just as a frosty Coca-Cola pairs perfectly with Brooklyn style pizza or household chores can be joyful if tenor arias are playing in the background, listing what all is not wrong these days—in other words, what is just fine—takes on added sweetness when I’m looking out my car window at summer forests and fields.

“I have a decent place to live,” comes to mind first. Then “food on the table and clothes to wear.” (In fact, I have three wardrobes, not extensive, but adequate for different weight classes. Sadly, I’m in my top tier of trousers at the moment and will be forced into suspenders if I don’t start pushing away from the dinner table soon.)

“Bills are paid, cars are running.” Much “okayness” crosses my mind as I nod to cows and horses, dozens of them, grazing calmly as if they’ve never had a single worry about their mortality. Sun, rain or snow, they stand, blink and flip their tails. “I feel vertical lately,” I say, taking in a generous breath. “And nobody is ambushing me with drama.”

As I add up all the okays, a gentle descant sounds: “Amazing.”

Amazing Kathy on the patio/deck she made from the long ramp she removed from our backdoor.

When trees nearly form a cathedral over the road, I think of the best part: “I’m happy with my wife Kathy, my children and grandsons, too. And everyone is ambulatory and taking nourishment.”

In addition to my embarrassment of okayness, I can’t walk far in any direction without running into love—and that includes my faith in Mysterious Love, who holds this crazy world together and abides my frustrating soul.

Of course, unexpected complications constantly raise their voices, pretending to be tragedies. This afternoon I have to figure out what’s wrong with my car’s fickle battery, which warrants nothing more than, “Oh, bother.”

When I get a case of the blues, I try to remember that if my life were even a smidgen more okay, I’d be twins.

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Fats Waller and the Frosted Trees

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Fats Waller (Credit: Alan Fisher on Wikimedia Commons)

Fats Waller and the Frosted Trees

Jelly Roll Morton, Scott Joplin, and Fats Waller make me grateful. As Steve Martin said decades ago, “You just can’t sing a depressing song when you’re playing the banjo.” Same with driving in the country and listening to piano rolls, rags, and strides.

This past week Fats, the color white, and gratitude owned my commute from Erie to St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown, Pennsylvania. The hour south on I-79, Route 19, and District Road was a hot damn of thanksgiving–“Handful of Keys,” “Lulu’s Back in Town,” “When Someone Thinks You’re Wonderful.”

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Grandson Cole, wonderful kid with a new lid

Why did pianos and frosted branches make me take inventory? I don’t understand myself all that well, so who knows? My list wrote itself slowly and silently.

  • I have a surplus of love. One step in any direction, there it is. Wife, grown kids, one grandson and another on the way, more family and a ton of friends. An absolute wonder of wonderful souls.
  • Those closest to me are holding together okay. No crises going down or chops busting in process.
  • I have a home, warm or cool as desired, so much food that possibilities have to be eliminated, and a king’s ransom of clean water.
  • My closet holds wardrobes for varying weight classes with acquisitions I’ve forgotten.
  • Bill collectors are not breaking down the door.
  • I dig the bookends of my commute—solace to the north and good purpose to the south.

As the miles clicked away, as Fats sparkled, as the snowy trees formed cathedrals surreal with beauty, Gershwin lyrics came to me: “Got my gal, got my Lawd, got my song.”

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Beloved Watson with the mother of fatty tumors

“No use complaining,” Porgy says as an aside, though he didn’t know about the Coleman family’s dog Watson, weary, arthritic, laden with tumors. He is our hobbling source of agape—unconditional love. A month ago, a lump appeared in the middle of his forehead. Its rapid growth foreshadows his absence, even as he manages a fetch or two. He snorts constantly, trying to clear a mass that won’t budge.

Nearing the end of my commute, I allowed that happiness isn’t a prerequisite for gratitude. Twelve years of Watson’s mild presence has been extravagant by any measure.

IMG_4150I would say that my inventory was a prayer, but Fats alone was that, as were the frosted trees and a line from a musical. I received the wide mercy—alpha to omega—of giving thanks for miles with my eyes, ears, and lungs and not once calling God by name.

 

My Problem as a Parent

A couple of weeks ago daughter Elena and I lunched on Reubens while grandson Cole chipmunked curly fries.

“Cole,” she said, “swallow your food before you take another bite.”

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Sorry, buddy, but the answer is still “no.”

“My biggest problem as a parent,” I said, “was that I couldn’t watch you suffer.” I had complimented Elena a moment earlier on her heart of flint when Cole pitches fits over major and minor upsets. A distinctive strength is needed to stand clear and let a child, or any loved one for that matter, endure inevitable pain. Elena has got the moxie and nodded in agreement that I don’t.

I never have. There are good reasons, family dysfunction, blah blah blah. But as I stare down the barrel of fifty-four—one highlight of my birthday will be the delivery of new blades for my Panasonic wet/dry electric razor—rummaging through the dynamics of home over two score years ago isn’t on my agenda.

Still, I’ve been doing naval gazing in excess lately, mainly because I’m pulling up vocational roots, leaving the church family I’ve served for fourteen years, and assuming a part-time call starting November 1st. You name the emotion, I’ve got it going. My late father’s favorite song, “Feelings” by Morris Albert, plays in my head. “Feelings, whoa whoa whoa feelings.” Rats!

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Oh, Abiding Hope, I’ll miss you.

Sadness has the upper hand at the moment. During prayer this morning, a sob seemed to be building. When that baby cuts loose, all the handkerchiefs in my drawer won’t handle the tears and snot. Fatigue also has me by the collar. Having a projectile crying jag stuck in your throat is draining.

The point is, I’m raw, looking inward, giving thanks for peeks of goodness, lamenting valleys of deficit—which brings me back to watching loved ones suffer. My favorite quote from Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha touches my feelings:

Do you think, my dear friend, that anybody is spared [the path of suffering]? 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.

Same goes for daughters, wives, friends, et. al. While swimming in the river of ambiguity is comfortable, agony plunges me under. I haven’t given up hope of knowing peace in currents of distress, but each passing birthday ups the odds against me.

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Joy visits in the form of lipstick flowers at the house wife Kathy and I are getting ready to sell.

In case you think I’m beating myself up, don’t worry. I just want to be truthful and authentic. No posturing, no rationalization. If I’m full of crap about myself, it won’t be intentional.

And in case you think John’s October days are nothing but whoa whoa whoa, don’t worry. Joy visits frequently, reminding me that my gifts keep pace with shortcomings.

Case study: It’s 7:54 p.m. in the Coleman house, and son Micah (23) and I have been talking about, well, feelings. The conversation consumed forty-five minutes, half of which consisted of his account of anger behind the wheel.

My boy was following a fogey from Wyoming, probably a poor soul for whom Erie may as well have been the D.C. beltway. Micah was pissed. Trying to get from one worksite to another, he could see only his nemesis’ gray hair.

“Breathe in anger,” Micah said. “Breathe out compassion.”

I was quiet. Where the hell did he get this?

He went on: “I was thinking that when you’re old, you’re probably not in a hurry. Maybe you’re alone and don’t really want to get home.”

I closed my eyes.

“You know, like, if I’ve been home all day and I think of getting a Gatorade, I’ll just say, ‘I’m going to go get a Gatorade.’ So I go, and I don’t give a shit about getting back.”

“Yes,” I thought, “this is what I’ve been trying to teaching you.” But I kept my mouth shut.

Turns out my son has been taking in some Thich Nhat Hanh talks on YouTube. Days ago he mentioned the name to one of his doctors, who replied, “How long have you been seeing him?”

Micah joked that the famous Buddhist monk isn’t covered by our insurance and is out of his price range anyway. He was trying to sit with his emotions, he explained, not run away from them, not deny them.

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You’ve learned. Micah. Now teach your father.

All these years! All the rages during which I despaired at my son’s future. Addiction. Arrest. Felony. Moving on. And somewhere in the crevasse, at the bottom of the bottomless ice that froze away twilight after twilight of my peace, he heard a word or two. Now he is looking down his fragile old man’s path. Maybe sanity will be there, maybe truth.

I’ll take every lump my weaknesses have earned, but a gentle soul is also due its compensation. Micah got the Zen business from me. My foolish enabling put Kathy, Elena, and Micah through hell, but my refusal to close compassion’s door made this evening possible.

The jerks who get in my boy’s way have their own stories, just like he does. He swears at them one day and expects that the next day somebody else will curse him. But before his sputters swell into rants, he breathes in and out. Compassion floats in his messy car along with the coconut vapor from his electronic cigarette. Maybe the driver in front of him is choking on grief or so lonely that any errand beats an apartment’s dim silence. At last he understands.

Birthday presents this year will be incidental blessings. I’ve already received extravagant gifts. My daughter is a stronger, wiser parent than her father. My son is falling in love with the world.

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

Beholding Maine

A week ago wife Kathy and I returned home to Erie, Pennsylvania, after nine days in Maine. A few thunder storms in no way choked the cleansing breath of such a generous stretch of open time. We floated from attraction to junk shop. Sometimes we held hands, in what poet Galway Kinnell called the “familiar touch of the long married.” We celebrated our thirty-first wedding anniversary on board the Victory Chimes, a three-masted schooner sailing out of Rockland. And not once in well over thirty hours of driving did we turn on the radio or pop in a CD. We either talked or kept silent. Riding along with each other was music enough. I did snip at my wife over the Internet, know it all that I can be, but the moment passed like a few drops from the sky that never really turn to rain.

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The Victory Chimes at anchor, waiting for us to return from an island walk

Vacation in beautiful Maine is an eye of the beholder situation. Did you ever ask a friend, “So how was your vacation?” And did you ever regret that question after sixty seconds? After five minutes, as your friend gushed about the charming print on the sheets at a bed and breakfast, did you ever watch her or his mouth, know sound was coming out but could no longer make out words, and think to yourself, “I’m turning to stone”? Me, too. But luckily, you can walk away now, before I get started. If you decide to stay, I’ll offer this concise observation about Maine: “Boy, I sure can be a bummer.” Do you suppose I could go on vacation and just experience the thrill of seeing whales? Or just sit on a ship deck in a quiet cove, watching the sunset with my arm around my wife? Or just take in the stunning Maine countryside from a slow chugging train?

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Kathy, watching for whales, dolphins, and seals, hair at the mercy of ocean breezes

In other words, could I just have uncomplicated, $#%&! fun? Ah . . . no! I have to notice that what disappears from the earth shines before it goes black and that death often makes me grateful—or at least gets my mind going. Still, sumus quod sumus. We are what we are. I am what I am. And I see what I see, think what I think. In Maine, a healing tension had me by the heart and head over and over. Of course, the worthy stock images—sun touching the waves, layer upon layer of hills and islands, an eagle perched hundreds of yards away on a dead tree—made the trip a bargain at any price, but what echoed in my chest’s sacred cavern and invited me to stop and breathe was the long goodbyes of beauty shining before it goes out.

Our first mission in Maine was a stop at L. L. Bean, where Kathy had already picked out binoculars from a catalog. As she waffled and kibitzed and tested at the counter with the clerk, I browsed. Anybody who has been to Freeport’s L. L. Bean knows how massive the store is; that is, stores. Lots of merchandise! We were in the hunting and fishing department. I was interested in none of it, though a slim old guy in a gabardine suit and fedora caught my attention as he studied a .20 gauge shotgun by waving its business end in every face around him. Obviously, he never took a hunter safety course as I did forty years ago: NEVER POINT A GUN, EVEN AN EMPTY GUN, AT A PERSON! Once the mindless gun handling subsided, my eyes wandered. And when I survey any setting, a bummer can’t be far away. At L. L. Bean, it was taxidermy—stuffed death. Kathy wasn’t about to drop $160.00 on binoculars without a leisurely test drive, so I took pictures.

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Varnish on the bear’s nose?

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This javalina would have been fun to pal around with–an India pale ale, Calamata olives, summer sausage, and a few bawdy jokes!

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L. L. Bean’s instruction to taxidermist: “Playful! Playful! Give us frolicking raccoons!”

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A couple of old moose at L. L. Bean, one stuffed by the taxidermist, the other by himself.

Hunting isn’t for me, but I have nothing against it. Displaying dead game is okay, too. As I wandered among the trophies, though, I hoped that the tremendous moose and white tail buck had been granted the dignity of landing on a dinner plate before assuming their position and the tribe of raccoons was on display not simply because somebody thought shooting them would be fun.

On the long-married’s first full day in Maine, we rode the aforementioned train from Brunswick to Rockland and back, two hours each way. Yes, by the fourth hour I was bored, but for most of the trip I appreciated sitting next to Kathy, sharing a turkey sandwich with avocado, and watching small towns, swamps, inlets, and green hills go by. Lining the track for miles at a time were telegraph poles in various stages of decay. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. Some were in decent shape, others were listing badly, still others were in repose. All of them were pencils that outlived their language. “How long will it be,” I wondered, “before train tracks join telegraph poles?” We’re talking about patient transportation in an inpatient land. Amtrak is supposedly making a comeback, but I’ll wager by the time grandson Cole is my age, all people riding the rails will do so out of nostalgia.

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Telegraph pole: a pencil that outlived its language

My thoughts were sad, but wistful. It’s too bad that our current perception of time is pressurized, that unless movement from where we are to where we want to be involves g-forces, useable life is being wasted. Fortunately, despite my regrets about our cultural stampede, my spirit was light. I was, and am, glad that taking twenty-four hours to get from Pittsburgh to Orlando—as I did a couple of times on Amtrak’s Pennsylvanian and Silver Bullet—was once acceptable. And those wireless poles gave me hope that maybe one day the messages people take trouble to post won’t be insulting, combative, or bullying.

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Beloved Kathy and I shared lunch on a car bearing our hometown’s name as a younger couple a few rows up alternated between tonsil hockey and cuddling.

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Buddha at the Monroe Inn bed and breakfast.

Far from dying out, bed and breakfasts in Maine are like corner bars in Erie. What’s curious is the idea behind a bed and breakfast: sleep the night in a beautiful old house and wake up for a meal prepared by one or two people in an actual kitchen; or let’s pretend it’s 1900—up to a point. Kathy’s favorite B&B was Auburn’s the Munroe Inn, where we stayed in the Noble Suite. “I could live in this house,” she kept saying. “I love this house.” Well, sure, you could be skanky after a day’s travel, have breath sour enough, as George Carlin once said, to “knock a buzzard off a shit-wagon,” but walk around the spacious living and dining rooms, and you feel stately and elegant. If you’ve been saying for years, “Oh, my life, I’ll tell you what, I could write a book,” the handsome roll-top desk in our suite would have given you the urge—by Jove!—to dip your pen in an inkwell and tell your story. Titles would run through your head: My Way (no wait, that’s been used); The Road Less Traveled (dang it, that’s taken, too; Frost, some guy named Peck; can’t remember). Your musings would be interrupted because you have to use the bathroom, where old-style faucets and goats-milk hand soap make what goes on in that euphemism of a room seem dignified.

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The roll top desk was a great place to get a few words down, though not with a dip pen and inkwell. The framed print above is a Picasso.

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Stately mantle and hearth

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We slept deeply, as if embraced by a sane and gentle past.

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We awoke to sun translated by stained-glass windows.

In short, B&Bs are great because they offer something that doesn’t exist anymore. And if guests had to pump their own water and use chamber pots, I bet Super 8 and Motel 6 would smile broadly. Whatever. I loved the Munroe Inn and took more pictures there than at Sabbathday Lake, the Shaker village (stay tuned). It was a special treat to meet the owner, Olga, originally from Russia, who spent years in New York City before doing something her friends considered kooky: move to Maine and run a B&B. But she has got a fantastic gig going, made distinctive by eclectic choices in art.

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For some reason, old and dignified marry contemporary and playful with pleasing results at the Munroe Inn.

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This faces guests as they descend a spacious staircase. Where, I would like to know, did Olga find this recent photograph of me naked on a rock, throwing a discus?

       Still savoring Olga’s inn, Kathy and I headed to Sabbathday Lake, 1800 acres of woods and rolling fields, free-ranging livestock, a dozen or so buildings, a faithful support crew of paid staff and devoted volunteers, a rich history in art and architecture, several reliable sources of income, and . . . three Shakers. A baseball enthusiast would immediately diagnose at least one reason for the shortage: no farm system for developing new talent. Shakers are celibate.

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The Shaker herb garden, which provides income for the community, is managed by a paid staff member. I brought home for daughter Elena a dried flower sometimes called “poor man’s saffron.”

A month ago I met the last two monks at a Byzantine monastery near Butler, Pennsylvania. I thought of them, Fathers Michael and Leo, as Kathy and I walked around the Shaker village in the rain. There are still Byzantine Fathers in other monasteries, but the trinity at Sabbathday Lake is it. At best, all other Shaker communities are museums or libraries. At worst, they’re malls or tumbleweed. Sister Francis (the community’s mother), Sister June, and Brother Arnold are a religion of three, with a great cloud of witnesses. I may have glimpsed Arnold as Kathy and I were hopping on a wagon for a hayride. Wayne, a brother until 2006, left Sabbathday Lake after falling in love with a reporter who visited to write a story–with, in my opinion, a faithful and glad ending. I didn’t see Francis and June.

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“Tis a gift to be simple.” The Shaker Meeting House, where Francis, June, and Arnold worship, along with visitors. Women enter through one door, men through the other. I peeked in. The inside is as plain as the outside.

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The Meeting House’s wooden siding: how much longer will fresh paint make the sacred dwelling “come round right”?

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These rules were posted in a barn where Shaker-friendly items were being sold. An exacting way that embraces goodness may die, but let’s hope its fervor lives.

Short of a miracle, the Shakers will be no more during this century—that is unless Arnold, fifty-seven, breaks longevity records. Francis is eighty-seven, June seventy-six. The likelihood of their extinction made me feel blue, but also grateful. The Shaker practice isn’t for me, but I admire their devotion to a life centered in goodness. The article by the reporter Wayne eventually married noted that after the American Civil War the Shakers numbered about 5000. At Sabbathday Lake, where visitors are asked not to take photographs inside the buildings, I learned that Shaker communities were once de facto orphanages and foster homes. Poor folks turned their children over to the Shakers rather than let them starve. (Francis arrived at Sabbathday Lake at age ten.) In old portraits Shakers often wore severe expressions, but underneath their regimentation and austerity was a well of radical love.

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Over 150 graves, but only one marker. With Shakers, I read somewhere, there is no “mine” or “yours”; only “ours.”

As much as anything, I appreciate not only Shaker history, but also Francis, June, and Arnold for carrying on a practice that seems right to them and for making heroic sacrifices to be the last of a family that still has much to teach the world.

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The Victory Chimes (Credit: Wikipedia)

The official reason for our Maine trip was to sail on the Victory Chimes. If you’re not for sailing on mostly calm waters, taking naps whenever you please, going for walks on islands and in small coastal towns, and winding down by watching darkness descend on a horizon of pine trees, don’t board this vessel. And the food! Chef Pammy is phenomenal—a word I use sparingly—especially when you consider that she cooks on a propane stove that has two settings: simmer or hell. She makes the best chili and macaroni and cheese I’ve ever tasted, though these dishes don’t represent the menu. Think lobster with drawn butter, haddock in a dill sauce, curried greens soup, and smoked salmon with capers. Kathy and I were fortunate to sail this season with Pammy, since 2014 is her last. When we return, we’ll miss her presence even more than her spatula. She shares stories generously and listens without interrupting. I’ll consider myself blessed if we can catch up with her some day near her winter job at Sugarloaf Ski Resort.

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Relaxing after a day of sailing: Margaret, bridge expert from Ohio; chef Pammy; Kathy

There are a couple of minor drawbacks: the cabins are tight, and the heads are communal. I slept the hell out of my bunk and have no complaints. And about sharing three toilets amongst twenty or so passengers—some sprang for a cabin upgrade that includes a private privy—my attitude was, “Aw, look, get over it.” If there were a way of transporting the Victory Chimes routine to Erie, Pennsylvania, I’d vote for it. Breakfast at 8:00 a.m., lunch at 12:00 p.m., appetizers on deck at 5:00, and supper at 6:00. Between food, I wrote in the salon (mess hall), napped myself delirious, enjoyed deep draughts of prayer/meditation, and read. Nearly every day the boat anchored somewhere and conveyed passengers to shore for an hour or so. Of course, this is a vacation schedule, not to be expected when you’re back on company time.

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From the yawl boat Enoch, returning us to the ship after an hour on North Haven

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The Stonington Opera House. A little cultural venue on North Haven–who’d have thought?

Lots of travelers share Kathy’s and my love for a Victory Chimes cruise. Profitable as the enterprise is, Captains Kip and Paul have been hoping to sell the schooner for years. During sailing season, the work is consuming, and they purchased the vessel mainly to prevent it being sold to a Japanese interest that intended to transport it overseas and convert it into a restaurant. The last of her generation of Maine schooners, the Victory Chimes has the distinction of gracing the tails side of the Maine quarter.

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Congratulations, Victory Chimes! You know you’ve made it when you’re on currency. (Credit: Wikipedia)

The problem is, buyers aren’t coming forward. When Kip and Paul need to call it a career, I can only hope that somebody has the means and skill to take the helm. For now, the Victory Chimes is shining and delicious, and there’s no reason to assume that someone with a thick wallet and a spacious heart won’t make sure the Maine quarter doesn’t need to be revised. A final note on the boat: sailing with strangers for a few days has a way of inviting human authenticity. Kathy and I offered and received some personal stories that the waves and wind held in holiness, as if the water and air made themselves a cathedral. We told one couple a few years our senior about son Micah’s struggles with addiction and they responded with the wrenching account of their own daughter’s passing at twenty-six from the same lying thief. There was no judgment, no idiotic fixing. Just humans meeting each other in a nave and breathing in and out what is and what has been.

       A walk with Kathy on North Haven included two surprises. First, I’m pretty sure we saw author Susan Minot—no biggie, but neat. Second, we passed Our Lady of Peace Roman Catholic Church, which is for sale, a sign that the pews are anything but full on Sunday at 10:00 a.m. I took pictures of the exterior and was joined by two other Victory Chimes passengers, all of us staring up at the rust and rot. On a whim, I tried the door. Surprise! Unlocked.

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Our Lady of Peace

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I don’t imagine Our Lady of Peace will have a forwarding address.

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The nave from the balcony

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Organ in the balcony–an instrument deprived of its liturgy?

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One of the Stations of the Cross, hanging on an uninsulated wall.

This may sound odd coming from a Lutheran pastor, but I don’t particularly care if individuals go to church. Non-churchgoers meet me, look at the ground, and get stumbly and awkward. My attitude: I’m in no position to judge your beliefs. I do admit to being concerned, though. If human beings lose the longing to know the Ultimate and the impulse to gather with other pilgrims for adoration—of anything!—our race has a collective case of spiritual anemia. Of all the lights shining before going out in Maine, the rusty lamp of Our Lady of Peace on North Haven left me with a simple prayer.

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“Lamps will rust. Please don’t let the flame go out.”

       Some goodbyes, while serious, are also funny. On the way home, Kathy took a picture at a rest area on I-90 west in New York State, not far from home.

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Observation of an novice curmudgeon: Why not, “No littering”?

       I’m confident the written word has a few more generations of vitality before it takes on the shine of a long goodbye. That possibility is so far off that I laughed in our tune-less truck at the drawing of an arm hanging out a car window, its hand letting go of litter. Even a bummer has to lighten up once in a while.

The Dandelion Doesn’t Command the Sun

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God spoke through my daughter Elena in 2006, wearing monarchs about to take off for Mexico.

Over twenty years ago I attended a class taught by Sister Rita Pancera on centering prayer: silence, abide with the Loving Mystery. I told Sr. Rita that sometimes in prayer I feel like God is telling me something, but I hear the message in my own voice. The point of centering prayer isn’t to latch on to thoughts or images—anything—but who wants to turn down Divine Assistance? I asked her, “How can I be sure that the words come from God and not just from myself?” Her answer continues to shape my spirit: “What makes you think God wouldn’t use your own voice to tell you something?”

That was the wisdom of a woman who had spent years in prayer, and I’ve not only shared it with others, but also let myself be liberated and humbled by its implications. In every place and at all times, God might have something to say. And I’m in no position to put limits on how God speaks and through whom. (The dandelion doesn’t command the sun.)

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So . . . I suppose I shouldn’t insist that God speak to me in voices of my choosing. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I heard God on blogging friend Melanie Lynn Griffin’s post about her past career, in which she and a group of colleagues met with a Navajo group to teach them about persuasion. Turns out they have no such word in their language. The young listen to their elders and don’t argue with them. After a moment of beautiful laughter and understanding, one of the elders said, “This persuasion must be a job for our young people. It is new to learn and they must lead us.” God speaks through a Navajo man. (Thanks, Melanie.)

I heard God on Winding Road when blogging friend Kerry, whose family recently lost nearly everything in a flood, charted her grieving and recovering with a moving insight: “Reclaiming order sometimes means deconstructing first and one cannot build back up until walls have been torn down.” God speaks through a young mother who got knocked down and is trying to get back up. (Thanks, Kerry.)

I heard God yesterday while reading this: “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” God speaks through Mahatma Gandhi.

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Mahatma Gandhi in 1942. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

And during morning prayer, I heard God use my voice. It was a mind-whisper: Enjoy. It seems I’ve been turning damned near everything in my life into a program, something to be worked at, a goal to be pursued with one eye on the clock. I haven’t been enjoying my present embarrassment of blessings in my blood and in the cavern of my chest where anxiety has been an intractable squatter.

“Enjoy,” my spirit says. I’ve come to believe in a peculiar miracle: I don’t think God speaks to me directly, though that would be something. Rather, God helps me to hear myself—but only if I sit still. And what I heard in merciful silence was a cardinal calling out to his mate. “Listen,” I said. “Receive this song, this beauty.” In an instant I understood what God longed for me to hear.

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If you sing, I’ll try to enjoy.

The people I love and the gorgeous world exist for their own sake, but they also exist for me. “Enjoy,” God said in my throat. “All of this is for you.” And so, sitting propped up in bed before sunrise, my spirit flew open like a door caught by the wind. As if on cue, I began enjoying.

Micah’s alarm went off. Because I could sleep, I didn’t go through the routine: stopping at his door at about 7:15 and making sure he is awake. “You up, Scooter?” I sometimes say. Or “Cupcake.” Or “Your Royal Dudeness.” Or “Fart-breath.” I go with whatever pops into my head. He always answers, “Yup.” But praying, I listened to him clomp around downstairs like a camel in wooden shoes. I didn’t mind. He was off to work, being a man, propelling his own ass out of bed. My son is well.

Because Kathy didn’t have to be to work until 9:30, we went out for breakfast. She savored sleeping in, and I savored our kiss when I dropped her off.

I took lunch to daughter Elena and got to hang out with her and grandson Cole. “Enjoy,” echoed in my chest, and darned if I didn’t. Vegetarian hippie food. We talked. I got to hold Cole, place my lips on his bald head, breathe in the perfume that still lingers from when God kissed him in the womb. And I snuffled his neck like a dog, which made him laugh. The whole time, I watched my daughter be a stunningly good mother. I’m so proud my eyeballs want to go flying out of their baggy sockets.

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God never has to help me enjoy this guy.

The afternoon offered itself to me. I napped, prayed for forty minutes, cleaned up the kitchen, and made the dining room presentable.

Micah got home from work. My God! My son, just two years ago a heroin asshole, blesses me every day with his goodness. On Mother’s Day, he came home with a bright bouquet and card for Kathy. A quote: “To the Mom who invented fun, creativity, and a wonderful imagination in me. And taught me 50% of what I know about love and compassion.”

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Happy Mother’s Day from Micah

A couple weeks ago I raged at God about some grievous assaults on children. I didn’t enjoy my rant, but as I sit here now I give thanks for the sense that prayer is about offering to God whatever I am. So glad or furious or quietly depressed, I fall backward into God. It’s the trust game kids play: fall and I promise to catch you. My game is a little different, like letting go into forever. If God’s catch isn’t unconditional, my soul will shatter. I don’t have much choice here. I don’t know any other way to be with God, so I fall and try to trust. Enjoy isn’t a sacred enough word for the safe landing.

Of course, even if my soul doesn’t shatter, other things will: sickness, disappointment, floods. So for now, I receive the cardinal’s call, my wife’s kiss, the sweet breath of God on Cole’s head, and every other way God shines on this fifty-two-year-old flowering weed named John.

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Micah’s Mother’s Day bouquet still hanging in there with Baby Crash

Micro-Post: Inconspicuous Blessings

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Two hours ago I brought lunch to daughter Elena and grandson Cole. Teething is knocking steam out of the little man’s groove. Elena has him chewing white socks dipped in water and frozen stiff. Seems to work.

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I don’t know what you’re saying, Gramps, but I dig it!

As I ate a hippie pizza with feta and Greek olives, Elena had a vegan sandwich. Cole lay on his blanket, and I went on and on: “I’ll be bringing Grandma by when she gets out of work so you can see her. Actually, I’m bringing her here so she can see you.” “Do you have any idea how happy you make me?” “I’m leaving two pieces of pizza for your daddy so he’ll have a snack when he gets home.” Cole had no clue what I was saying, but he was smiling huge.

It occurred to me that this kid enjoys a continuous loop of kind, affirming, happy talk. I don’t think he’s ever in the presence of angry voices. No   tone or gesture communicates anything other than extravagant love. I don’t take any of this for granite, as one of my college English students once wrote. Nor do I take credit. This is good fortune, baby! For my part, I’ve done as much to mess up my loved ones’ lives as I’ve done to bless them.

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Cole with Grandma Kathy and Great-Grandma Edna–a smile fashioned by gentleness.

After kisses on the head and piggies, I took joy out into the rain, into my truck . . .

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. . . and into the grocery store, where I bought salmon, asparagus, and avocados for this evening’s supper. After Kathy (Grandma!) and I visit Cole–oh yeah and by the way Elena and son-in-law Matt–we’ll go to Starbucks and make plans for our vacation in Maine in late July. Then, home for some easy cooking. Home–shelter, warmth, love, forgiveness, understanding.

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Not home, but the house my home fills.

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In ten minutes I’ll pick up a bottle of chardonnay, then stop at home long enough for a siesta and a couple chores. I’ll give the pets treats, which they always expect when I walk through the door. When I go upstairs for a delicious hour of sleep, I’ll stop on the landing, where Kathy has a plant that is flowering, longing to reach through the window and touch pure light.

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Before my nap, stop for a couple of seconds. Look.

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When Kathy gets into the truck, I’ll kiss her, rest my cheek against her hair. She knows my weaknesses, but still loves me.

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Just this: I’m grateful for these inconspicuous blessings, arriving quietly, humming a song that sounds like grace and mercy.