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.

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.

 

Letter to a Man on a Motorized Bicycle

Dear John:

I don’t know your name, so we may as well both use mine.

The first time I saw you, my wife Kathy was with me, and I confess, you gave us a laugh. We didn’t object to your chosen transportation, but you’re not a small man, and your bike is low slung. It reminded me of an old motorcycle with a sidecar. Bundled against November, you were out of proportion to your ride, like President Lincoln on the back of a Shetland pony.

I saw you again yesterday on the way home from picking up a bottle of Crane Lake Petite Sirah. The temperature was stuck in the thirties, cold weather for buzzing around Harborcreek, Pennsylvania, with your face uncovered. Still, maybe you like the wind against your skin. Maybe you’re wisdom in disguise, your one lonely horsepower a choice rather than a consequence. What the hell do I know?

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Your bike reminds me of this old 4.5 horsepower, John. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Not much is the short answer. I’ve already laid out my total knowledge of you. Everything else is a guess. I guess you would prefer a car to bike powered by, what, a lawn mower engine? I guess you made mistakes or ran up against bad luck or both. You have what I’ll euphemistically call some issues? You’re on meds or not. And you’re mostly alone, right?

It seems like I’m trying to excuse you and your ride, but if we were shooting the breeze over coffee, I would tell you about myself. Then you would know that I’m in no position to defend, explain, condemn, or absolve anybody. I’m on meds. My years are punctuated by silly choices. And like lots of citizens we both pass on Buffalo Road, I’m not far from needing dirt-cheap wheels.

I would explain, too, that as you disappeared from my rear view mirror yesterday, I didn’t say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” The sentiment is humble, but I’m not sipping an overpriced Americano because God has been gracious to me. And it makes me nauseous to think that your knuckles get raw when you ride in the rain because God has denied you grace.

If we were together I would laugh and say, “Boy, John, shit happens, doesn’t it?” That’s as much explanation as I have.

There’s a lot I couldn’t share, at least not until cup three or four. I live on God’s grace, but that has nothing to do with my pudgy Chevy or your bike, my excess or your need. I bet neither one of us merits much in the way of blessing or curse. “It is what it is” would have to be enough from me for today.

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Are my wheels better than yours? I’m not at all sure, John.

Down the line, if we got to be friends, I would ask if you’re okay. The truth is, you might be way more okay than I am. A man who doesn’t mind being seen traveling on a contraption when snow is forecast probably has a thing or two to teach me.

Better still, I would say that sharing my name with you would be a privilege. And maybe you would look into my eyes, past the dark circles, and understand I was guessing about you not because you need my approval, but because you already have all the grace that’s mine to give.

Peace,

John

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

A Letter to My Elderly Dog

Hi, Watson,

Of course you can’t read, but I’m writing this letter for myself. So please sit still and pretend to listen.

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Time to get up. Ugh! I’ll cover your eyes, pal. We’ll rest for another minute.

When you stood at my side of the bed this morning and sighed, I knew what you were saying: “It hurts for me to hop up on the bed.” That’s why I hold open the blankets and wait. When you’re ready to try, it means curling up beside me is worth the extra ache in those bum legs of yours. And I know, even if you don’t, that you won’t be able to jump much longer. I thought about getting a futon but figured the longer you have to work, the longer you’ll be around.

I sure do love you, old buddy. I love that every time I climb the steps and lie down for a nap, you hobble up with me. Your nails clicking as you scrape them across each step reminds me that eventually you won’t be able to make it to the second floor. Your mother doesn’t know this yet, but when you’re grounded, I’ll lobby for moving our room to the first floor and getting a bed that’s Watson friendly. You’ve had a place in our sleep for around ten years; I won’t abandon you to the cold floor as you near the end.

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You were even cuter than this pup when you landed on our stoop. We thought maybe you were pure black lab until the scruff sprouted on your chin. (Credit: Michael Kloth / Corbis)

Actually, you’ve had a place in our sleep from your first night in the Coleman house. Downstairs in the puppy crate, you yipped and howled, so I did something ridiculous. Knowing you weren’t house broken, I still picked you up, brought you upstairs, and settled you in bed between your mother and me. Guess what? It was as if the winter world you were rescued from had disappeared, and you were at peace. I kept expecting to wake up soaked in pee, but all night you slept between us, a black fur ball of relief. Dry. Safe. Home. Love.

You’ve been a gift to me, Watson. Sure, you have some annoying habits. If a squirrel squeaks on the boulevard, your alarm bark is like a funhouse scare–way out of proportion to the threat! For reasons I’ve never figured out, you take five seconds to decide if you want a treat from the table. I hold out a chunk of steak gristle, and you sniff and stare with suspicion. This is in violation of the Code of Dog Behavior, but you are gentle, which is good. You are the only dog I’ve ever seen who wanders when he craps. Cleaning up the backyard means sleuthing down a couple dozen micro-turds rather than spotting five or six robust piles from yards away. (Since your mom covers scooping detail, catching sight of you doing a pooping pirouette is more funny than upsetting.)

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Always a place for you on the bed, old friend. I promise.

Finally, and increasingly, when we’re napping you point your bum toward my face and crack nasties. You know, the barber no longer needs to trim my eyebrows. They’re all gone. Damn, Watty. But you’re around eighty, so I can make allowances. Besides, farts in the animal kingdom aren’t frowned upon. Neither is indiscriminate humping, though you are rarely so inclined. Thanks, pal.

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Breakfast soon, Watty. Thanks for waiting.

You probably have a couple years left, but who knows? I suspect you understand in your wordless spirit how grateful I am for you: how you lick my hand and face in the morning; how you wait for me to finish praying before going down for breakfast; how you used to love running with me so much you’d press on even when your nails bled from dragging across the pavement; how you lay down beside me when I’m writing at the dining room table–just to be close, I guess.

Silly people argue about whether dogs have souls. Walt Whitman once wrote about your kind:

I think I could turn and live with the animals, they are so placid and self contained;

I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition;

They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins;

They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God;

Not one is dissatisfied-not one is demented with the mania of owning things;

Not one kneels to another, nor his kind that lived thousands of years ago;

Not one is responsible or industrious over the whole earth.

As far as I know, Watson, you don’t commit my sins: take too much to heart, nurse grudges, insult others, and fall short of love in a thousand other ways. You, on the other hand, seem motivated entirely by love–when you’re not scheming to get extra Milk Bones. But I’m in no position to call you a glutton.

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I love you, Watson.

Between the two of us, my old napping partner, I bet you have the bigger soul. None of us knows what eternity looks like, and as I said, you probably have some good time left. But hear this in your dog heart: I pray that we both have a place at the Final Table, that we can look into the face of Perfect Love and eat our share, and when the meal is over, we can climb stairs to the bedroom on strong legs. I pray there’s space in Forever for me to rest my face against your gentle head, put a hand on your paw, and nap away an endless afternoon.

Love,

Papa

The Sacrament of Trying on Boots

Yes, yes, I know: Mother Teresa was accused of financial impropriety and of accepting contributions for her ministry to the poor from questionable sources. Her defense was that the poor were more important than the motives or morals of benefactors.

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Mother Teresa of Calcutta (Credit: Wikipedia)

Say what you will, I love Mother Teresa. She was a saint—or will be soon enough. Two of her quotations guide my thinking. Friend Michelle had the first printed and framed for me as a gift: “I would rather make mistakes in kindness and compassion than work miracles in unkindness and hardness.” I keep these words on the wall in front of my desk. The second quote is just as powerful: “There should be less talk; a preaching point is not a meeting point. What do you do then? Take a broom and clean someone’s house. That says enough.”

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Amen

Underneath all of Pastor John’s patience and compassion is selfishness. I don’t like to sweep floors, not even my own, and I covet time. Andrew Marvell’s lines often haunt me: “But at my back I always hear, / Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.”

For reasons I don’t understand, Mother Teresa’s words have visited me lately to remind me that her broom is a metaphor and many days my most useful, loving action is invisible, inconspicuous, known only to a person or two and a gray sky or a lonely afternoon.

A couple days ago a friend—let’s call him Gene—asked if I’d take him to buy a new pair of winter boots. He laughed as he told me about one sole of his old pair flopping around like a drunk’s tongue as he walked home. Finally he gave up, took off the wounded boot, and hobbled up his gravel driveway, one socked foot wet and tender.

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Some glue might have fixed Gene’s boot, but oh well.

So I picked Gene up, and within fifteen minutes he was trying on boots. One problem: health issues render him listless sometimes; tying his shoes or buckling a seatbelt can be exhausting. Though it was a bad day, Gene, as always, was aware of my time. He tried to hurry, but our footwear errand had him sagging to the Walmart floor. Every movement was a labor: tugging the wad of tissue paper from the toe of the boot; unraveling the laces and flipping down the tongue; and—my Lord—pulling on the boot.

After watching for a minute, I said, “I got you, Gene.” So I helped him find the right size, get the boots out of the box and onto his feet, each time pulling up his weary white socks, and watched silently as he did test runs. He tried on four pairs, finally settling on ones without laces, like cowboy boots with chunky treads and generous toes.

The second pair into this process it occurred to me—breathing, shamatha—that helping Gene in, ugh, Walmart, was sacred. He droops from the effort of taking money out of his wallet, and all he needs to make his life significantly easier is somebody to take forty-five minutes and spot him as he buys boots that won’t rub a sore on his ankle.

I also knew that Gene needed more than new boots. He needed to know that I wasn’t impatient or annoyed. So I put my hand his arm and said, “How about I help you get that on?” And, “Don’t worry, Gene. I’m not in a hurry.” And, in the case of a pair with a dozen eyelets, “Hmm. You’ll be an hour getting into these. By the time you get them tied, you’ll be too tired to go anywhere.” Like I said, Gene and I are friends. We had a good laugh.

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Prescription for joy. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

A couple minutes after I dropped him back off at home, my cell phone’s Sherwood Forest ringtone sounded. It was Gene, but since I was driving, his call went to voicemail. The message: “I just wanted to say thanks again for helping me, John. See you.”

Mother Teresa also said, “We cannot do great things on this earth, only small things with great love.” I’m not sharing Gene’s and my excursion because I’m a great guy. I’m a normal guy with the usual human portion of self-absorption, a guy with an aversion to brooms, but I got lucky. In a moment of potential frustration I was blessed with a visitation of the Spirit.

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You’re holding gladness in your hands, little sister. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

A friend’s boots broke down. We got him a new pair. We did it together with love. I close my eyes, breathe, and days later the sacrament of trying on boots still cradles my soul. This is gladness.

An Embarrassing Measure of Blessing

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Baby Crash, who must be fed.

A Saturday morning routine has taken hold by surprise. As Kathy and I wake up at leisure—the one day that doesn’t begin with the aria of Bach’s Goldberg Variations set as the alarm on my snotty iPhone—we stay in bed, talking, breathing, warming to the hours ahead. “What do you have up for today?” We have friendly negotiations, then when she heads downstairs to feed dog Watson and cats Baby Crash and Shadow, I pray/meditate for half an hour. After paying bills, we run on separate rails until suppertime. It’s a calm, sane arrangement.

Yesterday I had a shamatha moment—calm abiding, clear awareness—before Kathy got out of bed. As she lay against me, her hair was all over my face. I breathed in its scent—a glad habit—and looked out through its wild lattice at the turning trees on the Shenley Drive boulevard. Sun and fall leaves behind my wife’s brown hair—a double blessing.

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When I woke up, the storm had passed, leaving the Coleman family with firewood.

Another day last week as I settled into my nap, I watched those same beloved trees get thrashed by wind and rain. Though the temperature was in the forties, I opened one window about a foot so the hiss and deep ah of the weather could sing me to my rest beneath a feather quilt. Before sleep came, inhaling and exhaling the joyous riot outside, I remembered the fortunate position I’m in.

Each day I can take the Siesta Exit off of Interstate Absurdity and rest for an hour. Even during hectic stretches, I can usually pull to the berm for a twenty-minute power nap. The world is catching on to the restorative benefits of midday oblivion, but most people I know don’t have the liberty to do what has become central to my spiritual practice—stop, halt, cease and desist, for just a little while. The twenty to sixty minutes of repose isn’t counted as company time—as my brilliant grad school professor John Barth was fond of saying. When I add up work hours to make sure I’m earning my pay, nap isn’t part of the tally. Folding sleep minutes into compensated minutes would be sane, but at this point in our assumed societal covenant, it would be unethical. (Google and the Huffington Post provide napping pods, but I don’t know if they actually pay employees to nap. After a cluster of near misses, baggy-eyed air traffic controllers are cleared to close their eyes as long as the friendly skies are adequately monitored.)

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Even Thomas Edison napped in his midday valley.

No, my blessing is a flexible schedule. I regularly work from 4:00 to 5:00 a.m. shaping programming for the church, then go back to sleep. Or I catch up on e-mails between 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. In a certain respect I’m always working, praying/meditating without ceasing, dreaming about what’s possible, opening myself to the Spirit’s leading. So at 2:30 p.m., when my forehead gets heavy, I surrender.

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The Shenley Drive maples that bless my siestas.

If I’m at church, the siesta kit finds its place on the floor of the pastor’s study, and I set my alarm for an hour ahead. At home, I lie on my left side in bed, look out the window at the Shenley Drive maples, and remember Kathy, who nurses cancer patients all day long and can’t stop to rest, son-in-law Matt, who nurses machines and has to slog through his midday valley, or son Micah, who paints with minimal breaks and comes home sweaty. I watch the maples from the barren branches of February to the swollen greens of July to the fiery leaves of October and reverence people who have no beloved brown hair to kiss or no bed at all. Then, especially when the weather plays against the trees, I nod off, embraced by an embarrassing measure of blessing.

Mean: the New Normal

Begin with this: I’m no better than anyone else. Pick whomever you like: the haggard, rotten-toothed crack head; the Ripley’s-Believe-It-or-Not 1000-pounder who eats four rotisserie chickens for lunch; parents who treat their kids like dog crap. One environmental variable; one chromosomal kink; one impulsive, destructive choice: slip one of these into my row of biographical Dominos, and I’m not a marginally respectful fifty-one-year-old blogger and Lutheran pastor. I’m a vagrant, letch, junkie, inmate, whatever. Because of this truth, what follows is a peek at a sad sore on my spirit. Don’t picture my hands as fists.

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One mishap here, and I could be living under a bridge. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Sometimes midday oblivion is joyful. Imagine finishing a swim in warm water. Your blanket and towel are in the shade. When you lie down, the sand cradles your body. The breeze is so perfect it seems like part of your skin. Sliding into sleep, you think for a moment your head is resting against the chest of Merciful Eternity. Yeah.

Other times, midday oblivion is the bird—not a bird, but the bird. It’s weary, though reptilian, repartee with the world. It’s a mumbled f-bomb. It’s a wet Bronx cheer. It’s what you say as you shoot the moon. It’s your way of grunting, “Go pound sand.” Or it’s a sighed, “Enough already. You win. I’m taking a nap.”

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Credit: openclipart.org

Today’s oblivion won’t be the beach kind, and before a glorious siesta, I’m wagging my flaccid bird at meanness, which is epidemic. Unless I go to a monastery, I can’t seem to escape it—probably because my eye is now hypersensitive. Mean is everywhere.

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Even canned coffee is mean these days.

The other day my son Micah asked me to run him to the Exchange, a great used media store with friendly, helpful clerks. As he looked around, an ad for some World Wrestling Federation video played over and over on a flat screen in a corner near the ceiling. I stared up, slack-jawed. So many means to celebrate: sweaty, snarling, barking, slamming, glistening, hollering. And that’s just the gladiators. The crowd is in a constant, lathery rage.

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Amasis the Wrestler–grrrrr. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

When an aching neck forced me to look down, I noticed that at eye level and below, no square inch of the Exchange goes unexploited. There’s junk for sale everywhere. Check out the gallery of confrontational action figures and other curiosities.

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Ew.

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Not one of Al Pacino’s finer moments, if you ask me.

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Sorry for the glare. What will scare a monster? Tell him Chuck Norris is hiding under his bed!

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Grrrr. Hulk pants too tight!

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At least the Joker laughs as he blows a puff of poison gas in your face.

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Bobble-heady Freddy. Needs dental work.

In fairness to the Exchange (did I mention the help is genuinely nice there?), not all items are angry.

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Most colorful of the Rolling Stones coaster set.

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$9.00? Seriously?

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Love M&M’s. Need ear buds. Not tempted.

The common denominator here? If an item isn’t quirky, it must be baring its teeth. Who would buy somebody under eighteen a psychopathic action figure? Only Chuck Norris isn’t a physiological aberration or demented killer. And what adult would collect such diabolical kitsch? The absurdity and ugliness are draining.

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Ah, that would be a “no” vote from Simon. (Credit: newsbiscuit.com)

Of course, the face of mean isn’t always ugly. Often it’s stylish and witty. Back when “American Idol” was hot I didn’t watch it. Not only was it excruciating to witness performances by kids whose parents had lied to them about their talent, but I also couldn’t hack Simon Cowell’s delight in explicating their failure. I don’t blame Simon—he’s probably a great guy—but he has certainly contributed to the evolution of a television menu that’s riddled with mean. If you want to watch a cooking program, one of your options provides chefs with bizarre ingredients—pork tenderloin, Oreos, arugula, merlot-infused goat cheese, and honeydew melon—then puts their concoctions before restaurateurs, one of whom cowells them over the head for creating gunk. Throw a cluster of narcissistic brats on an island or into a mansion and you’ve got reality television: look how rotten these characters can be to each other, how many ways they can lie to and betray each other. And now home improvement and remodeling shows are caught in mean’s gravitational pull. What’s-their-names, those handsome twin brothers, are now leading teams of competing remodelers, and the underachievers are going to be thrown onto the scrap heap. I can’t tell you the names of these shows, since I watch for a minute, then catch another wave. (By the way, is “Survivor” on anymore? I honestly don’t know.)

I wonder what lesson all this mean entertainment teaches us—and don’t even get me started on “Grand Theft Auto” and “The Human Centipede,” diversions that are beyond mean. If nothing else, I’d argue that the stimulation I’ve mentioned contributes to the normalization of mean.

After watching a movie in which humans are sewn together in the most unsavory way possible, what’s the big deal about posting an embarrassing picture of a friend on Facebook? When housemates shout bleeps and stab fingers in each other’s faces during primetime, a nasty text message seems benign, arriving as it does without eye contact.

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I imagine she’s actually very nice. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

But what’s got me looking napward at the moment is more basic than cinema, games, Facebook, and cell phones. I’m tired out by good, old fashioned, face-to-face mean, mean tendered for no good reason, mean delivered because—ah, what the hell!—mean is normal, even hip. (I’ve no empirical evidence to support any of this preachiness—sorry.) My impression is this: contemporary snarl and snark, far from being frowned upon, is now a compelling fashion statement. Wrestling gladiators and movie action figures, with their teeth bared, are only the new normal reduced to caricature.

In this regrettable landscape, simple unfriendliness doesn’t register on the interpersonal Richter scale. Even those who claim to be religious can treat fellow human beings shabbily without any fallout of conscience. Lately a dear friend has shared news that those around her are repeatedly breaking author Anne Lamott’s Rule #2, which I paraphrase here: “Don’t be a [schmutz].” My friend’s been hurt, worn down by cold shoulders and passive aggression.

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Come here, kid. You’ve got schmutz on your face. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

Truth be told, it’s actually my friend’s pain that’s tiring me out—a cordial, hard worker being pummeled by schmutzes. There’s no remedy for what’s certainly longstanding bad behavior that I’m stung by now only because I’m thin-skinned. All I can do is follow Voltaire’s advice that I cultivate my own flawed garden. And I can give loving, juicy raspberries to a world that seems extra mean today, then lie down. My hope: in sleep the only teeth I dream will be framed by smiles.

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Make a bobble-head Thich Nhat Hanh smiling at me, and I’ll buy one. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

Report from Wonder Woman’s Paradise

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My Wonder Woman in her driveway garden.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What Kathy calls her backyard “puddle.”

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

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

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

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

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

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A play tent for next-door neighbor Caroline.

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Handmade handbag for a friend.

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

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

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

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

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

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