Oniontown Pastoral: Report on Erie’s Christmas Blizzard

Oniontown Pastoral: Report on Erie’s Christmas Blizzard

Bird feeders out my front window

As anybody with a television knows, Erie, Pennsylvania, has made the national news in recent days. Apparently, the sentimental souls who asked God for a winter wonderland on December 25th earned a pray-one, get-one-free coupon. The National Weather Service promises that Erie County can count on 12-18 inches of snow in addition to the 60+ we have already.

Of course, fans of Christmas flurries didn’t say to the Lord, “Thank you, sir, may we have another.” I bear no grudges.

Nor am I complaining. The YMCAs in Erie closed, so I was spared the effort of getting on the treadmill and starting to sweat off my holiday lard.

I’ve had the walk shoveled, but we still haven’t received mail in three days. As a result, we haven’t opened up a bill since December 23rd, which is a victory. The longer money stays in my wallet the better.

Portrait of an antenna. Is my 2006 Hyundai Elantra grinning?

The only part of my 2006 Hyundai Elantra visible now is the antenna, but wife Kathy’s new Kia Forte is getting us around great. In typical Coleman fashion, I had studded tires put on two days after the worst of the squalls, but we never did get stuck.

Actually, far from being put upon, me, mine and my hometown have cause to give thanks. Severe weather presents logistical hassles, but a festive spirit tags along with a blizzard’s wind chills.

We Americans are trapped in an age of cruel, shabby behavior that has put millions in a stupor. We’re tired of being aghast and offended at every turn. Our alarm and worry has morphed into a weary nausea. But relentless snow is a variation in the routine. Marching into blinding swirls and getting a thousand tiny, frigid slaps in the face reminds human beings that life has a diverse, engaging menu.

A blizzard is the meteorological equivalent of devouring an ox roast sandwich with a snappy horseradish mayo and a tidal wave of jus after living for a year on bargain baloney between stale white bread, no ketchup, no mustard, no milk.

Brief case study: I’m writing this report at Starbucks, where minutes ago a middle-aged husband and wife danced to the 1976 Abba hit, “Dancing Queen.” (Note: patrons don’t dance at Starbucks.) Their teenage daughter and son were mortified.

The woman had groovy moves. The guy, who had a shaved head and soul patch, was no slouch. Suddenly, by impulse alone, I joined them.

“You kids should get up and move,” I said. “When you get old you’ll wish you had.”

The boy pulled his stocking cap down over his nose and slumped in his chair. We three oldsters laughed from our bellies.

Now tell me, when but during a historic snow event would a rhythmically challenged clergyman find the mojo to dance in Starbucks? Something primal simply gets released in a fellow.

Erie-ites will be waxing about the Christmas Blizzard of 2017 for decades. Even now we’re basking in the sympathy of a nation.

I’m already having a grand time telling out-of-town friends about our poor streets. Unlucky drivers get stuck and spin like mad until they fishtail away, leaving behind ruts. Wherever you go, you’re in for a rough ride that feels like Charles Atlas has seized you by the lapels and shaken you wildly.

The day after Christmas took me to my beloved Oniontown, where the roads were clear and the driving non-violent. On the way, I stopped at the hospital in Greenville to see Rosellen, who was nearing the end, and her kind, gentle husband Dale. We prayed, and I got to say, “I’ll see you soon. Love you. I’m going to miss you.”

Rosellen could double me over by raising an eyebrow or shaking her fist at me. Never do the fields near St. John’s Lutheran Church look bleak, but they did on December 26th. A helping of Erie’s snow might have dressed them up. Or maybe I was sad about telling a friend goodbye.

The next morning, I learned that Rosellen passed. Am I askew in believing that her steps are now steady, her memory clear and sure? Am I strange to grieve her death and be excited for her in the same breath? And am I crazy to find joy in foul weather?

Yes. Crazy enough to dance—in celebration of a blizzard and in gratitude for Rosellen made whole again and embraced by Eternal Love.

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It Is a Wonderful Life

It Is a Wonderful Life

Clarance and George (Credit: Wikipedia)

Jimmy Stewart made his annual visit to the Coleman house this past week. “I’m maxed out on Christmas music,” wife Kathy said. “Let’s put on It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Funny thing, she intended to sew at the dining room table and wouldn’t actually be watching. No matter. Like millions of Americans, she has the movie memorized.

As my official evening hour of loafing had arrived, I hit the play button, planning to watch for a while then move on to another diversion.

Alas, the sewing machine added its voice to George Bailey’s dreams of adventure and achievement, and I fell under a joyful spell. Some might call the fullness in my chest “the Christmas spirit.”

Although George and Clarence’s story always brings tears, the sewing machine’s song, with its long hums and short rests, was mostly responsible for my heart finding its Advent sweet spot.

Kathy owns a twenty-year-old Necchi, which she refuses to part with because it’s made out of metal and, unlike the newer plastic models, doesn’t slide all over the dining room table when running. My late mother used a Singer that emerged from a wooden table with wings. My wife steps on a floor peddle, while Mom sent the needle into motion by leaning her knee against a bar that swung down.

What I wouldn’t give to have that old cherry-stained warhorse close by. (I refer to the Singer, of course, not Mom.)

How many nights have I fallen asleep to the low vibrato of Kathy making a baby blanket or Mom churning out one of her scooter skirts? Why do I find such comfort in the music of a sewing machine?

Kathy’s handiwork

Probably for the same reason that breathing in the scent of pizzelles polishes smooth a day’s rough edges. The same reason a square of Mom’s homemade cinnamon candy forty years ago could make me forget how awkward I was with girls. Or running my fingers over the Christmas pillows Kathy made for a coworker just last night reminded me that light shines in the darkness.

I still can’t hold a sheet of red or green construction paper without seeing “MERRY CHRISTMAS” cutout letters taped to the balusters at 2225 Wagner Avenue. Nor can I look at a decorated mantle without finding myself sitting beside sister Cindy on one of our beds in the small hours of Christmas morning and pulling balled-up socks and Tootsie Rolls out of our knit stockings.

The sound of a sewing machine on a December evening—the Frazier fir’s scent a blessing—retrieves from memory’s attic a box of scratched and smudged albums: Johnny Mathis, Barbra Streisand, Andy Williams and Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. Oh, and Ella Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby.

Christmases past and the timeless sewing machine, together with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed and the whole cast singing “Auld Lang Syne,” even brought a generous snow on Christmas Eve from the sky of my imagination.

I won’t lie, Bedford Falls showering George Bailey with affection and cash got me choked up—never fails.

“It is a wonderful life,” I thought, winking toward heaven with George to congratulate Clarence on his wings.

Plenty of light for a living room in the evening

From my chair in the living room, lit only by tree lights and movie credits, I watched my beautiful wife making presents out of fabric and thread and could honestly say that life is wonderful.

Still, 2017 marks my fifty-seventh winter, and I’ve heard over the decades a dark carol that I ought to sing right now. Wonderful doesn’t mean perfect. Wonderful has no choice but to harmonize with sorrowful.

I miss my folks more each year. My family is far flung. In my work, some loved one is always $8000 short or far worse. And much of what I hold most dear about humanity is up against a legion of Mr. Potters.

It is a wonderful life–not easy, though. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

But if you ask me, any Christmas Spirit worth listening for has a bass line heavy with hurt. Saying “it’s a wonderful life” without longing in your heart sounds thin and contrived.

This is why every “Merry Christmas” I say is both a greeting and a prayer. Merriment is scarce for some folks—maybe even for you this year.

If the season is a burden or your grief is raw, this “Merry Christmas” is for you: “God, please lay the Christ Child in a manger under my troubled friend’s tree.”

Christmas Time Is (Still) Here

Christmas Time Is (Still) Here

Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” playing in my ear buds is barely overcoming the percussive assault on Starbucks’ speakers—over which my beloved baristas have no control. The Mother Ship picks, I guess.

Our Advent binge on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Blue Christmas” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Christmas Time Is Here” and “The Christmas Song” and “Please Come Home for Christmas” and “What Christmas Means to Me” and “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)” has lots of folks hung over as of December 26th.

Not me. Music of the Nativity will decorate the Coleman house until the Epiphany, our idea being that it’s impolite to close down the celebration before the magi have arrived with their gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The tree is lovely. Leave it up. The songs are soothing. Keep listening.

Honestly, though, my reason for lingering in the yuletide has more to do with what has filled my soul’s stocking lately than with the Christian calendar. Over my fifty-four gift-giving seasons (good grief!), my thoughts have turned from what I hope to receive to what I’m fortunate to have. Much as I loved the packages I opened on Christmas day, never have I cared less about what would be in them.

A man would be greedy to expect more from his portion of years than I have right now. This understanding settled upon me as I lay in bed some nights ago while wife Kathy made doll clothes at the dining room table. Her sewing machine hums and whirs regularly in our Parkway Drive home, but hearing it embraced by the warm promise of sleep returned me to Wagner Avenue, where I grew up.

A sewing machine’s singing, like other music, is sweetened by rests. The gift being stitched together breathes, as does the whole dwelling.

My mother made her own skirts and alterations to our family’s clothes. It never occurred to me before that the sound of a sewing machine holds for me what was loving and healthy on Wagner Avenue.

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My mother’s Christmas cactus, once on Wagner Avenue, now on Parkway Drive

As I opened my eyes a crack to taste the hallway’s dim light and groaned at a throb of bursitis in my shoulder, the joy and affection that fed me long ago kept company with current blessings.

The Colemans are housed, fed, clothed, adequately employed, and reasonably healthy. In other words, we’re all okay at the moment.

Most of our life-stealing troubles have passed away or at least gone on hiatus.

Like many Americans, I wouldn’t protest if somebody threw unexpected fists-full of cash at me, but, thank goodness, money and possessions aren’t obsessions.

I’ve known the gladness of being a husband, father, grandfather, friend, and pastor. The people closest to me tolerate my shortcomings.

After thirty-two years, I love my wife more than ever.

I believe in a God of grace and mercy.

In the quiet between Kathy’s stitches, such unmerited gifts hemmed me in, behind and before. “Enough,” I thought, “much more than enough. More than plenty.”

But there was still more. There was Christmas day. Daughter Elena and son-in-law Matt donated immunizations and medicine in my name for Third World children. They thought about who I am and came up with that idea.

Son Micah made us close our eyes. After a minute, he told us to look. On our laps rested stockings. With 2015 being tight, we told the kids we would be skipping this tradition temporarily. “It’s not much,” Micah said, “but we’ve got to have stockings on Christmas.” Mary Janes never tasted so good.

Grandson Cole handed each of us a homemade ornament made out of some baked flour concoction. Like the others, mine bore a few smears of watercolor. “Cole paint that,” he said. Three words and earthly elements: a sacrament stirred in my chest.

When everybody headed home, Kathy said over and over again, “I had so much fun. That was the best Christmas.”

Just one more: Cole and I sat on the couch and shared peach pie a la mode. I got to watch him open his mouth for every bite as the Grinch and his rein-dog trumpeted their way back into Whoville to pass out gifts and share roast beast.

I’ve memorized all the kids’ Christmas shows. These days I would rather stay with my grandson’s eyes—merry and bright!—until I know them both by heart.

Reconsidering 2014

“You humans. When’re you gonna learn that size doesn’t matter? Just ’cause something’s important, doesn’t mean it’s not very, very small” (Frank the Pug in the movie Men in Black).

Merry Christmas, 2014! Happy New Year, 2015! For months I’ve been stuck in sleep. The last time I felt this way was Christmas of 1998, six months after my mother died. I had no idea that my soul had been smothering until my lungs snapped full in late December, and I thought, “Oh, so that’s what grief is.” Mom had passed, but she would have asked me to keep living. And now, I’m granted an epiphany, something probably obvious to everybody else, but hidden from me.

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Grandson Cole: my expression for way too much of 2014. (Credit: Elena Thompson)

After a tough year, the Christmas story has awakened me, but not because it can be historically proven. Haggling over facts makes me want to take a nap. It’s the truth of a story that has roused me from sleep. If you’re not a Christian, please listen anyway. Play along. The Creator of All visits humanity as an infant, absolutely defenseless, not as a warrior and not majestic. “And so it was, that, while [Mary and Joseph] were [in Bethlehem], the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” These familiar details from the Gospel of Luke are small, so very, very small that they’re heartbreaking–a baby wrapped in rags and laid in a feed box. No room for him, except with the animals.

But Frank the Pug’s gravelly voice grabs the scruff of my neck and carries me away from sadness. “When’re you humans going to learn that size doesn’t matter?” (Yes, yes, go ahead and chuckle.) Size not only doesn’t matter, but it can be deceiving. Example: ants weigh as much as humans do. I can’t recall when I first learned this, but son Micah verified it for me: “When combined, all ants in the world taken together weigh about as much as all human beings.” And so, wake up, John! Sure, lousy, big, heavy stories have lots of us making Cole’s crying face, but when you place all the flecks of grace and good spirits on the scales, the world doesn’t look so bad. In fact, it shines.

Thank you, Infant Lowly, for restoring my hope, putting a little steam back in my stride, and updating the prescription for my spiritual glasses. Rubbing the bad news out of my waking eyes, I see beauty and fun clearly now.

Dear loved ones, please accept these holy, lowly flecks from my 2014. May they help you and me receive 2015’s ants of grace and good spirits.

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Wife Kathy and neighbor Patrick–a wise, Down’s boy who said, without even lifting his head, “I love you, Kathy Coleman.”

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My late mother’s Christmas cactus now blooms in early November, so I figured it would be bare come December 25th. Not so. A couple of flowers opened late, but they’re no less lovely for that.

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This one is probably an over-share: Over twenty years ago dentist friend Tom built a tooth for me out of filling material. Money was scarce at the time, so Tom worked his magic, which lasted until Advent of 2014. When I was in seminary, a dentist in Columbus said, “This one was made by a master.” Thanks for two decades of good service.

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In downtown Erie, an old gas street lamp still burns in front of Gannon University’s Gitnik Manse on West 6th Street. I have no idea why this gave me a sip of joy, but it did.

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My book came out in 2014 as an indie publication. People seem to find out about it a person at a time–kind of like A Napper’s Companion. No thousands of readers, but a kindred spirit here and there.

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Oddball that I am, I sent a copy of “Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs” to the President and First Lady. What the hell? They sent a thank you note, though I’m sure the book itself was ground into a fine powder to be sure it wasn’t laced with anthrax.

I call myself a writer, yet my vocabulary is embarrassingly slim. When I encounter an unfamiliar word, I look it up. In 2014, I read carbuncle, which I knew is a precious stone from reading Sherlock Holmes stories, but the context told me there must be another meaning. A carbuncle, it turns out, “is [also] a red, swollen, and painful cluster of boils that are connected to each other under the skin.” Why, thank you for that update. I also stumbled on sycophant, who is a “servile self-seeking flatterer.” The synonyms tickle my teenage sense of humor: “apple-polisher, bootlicker, brownnoser, fawner, flunky, lickspittle, suckup, toady.” Lickspittle! I can’t wait to toss that one out in a conversation. I love words and consider them a blessing, though I don’t retain them very well.

I also love quotations, in part because I compiled 365 of them for a collection of daily meditations, Questions from Your Cosmic Dance, which came out in 1997. I jotted down one of my favorites from the past year on a scrap of paper and still have it. It voices wisdom I need to hear and follow.

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This quote comes courtesy of Belief.net’s “Jewish Wisdom,” which lands in my email-box each day. The older I get, the more I choose not to say. Thank you, Solomon Ibn Gabirol.

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Words are flecks of goodness, as are quotations. Laughter also places weight on the scale to counter despair. Daughter Elena and son-in-law Matt gave me a Jesus Pan for Christmas. Little do they know they’ll be eating Jesus French toast someday soon.

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No other small gift from 2014 comes close to my grandson Cole, shown here in his Wagnerian knit cap. He helps me to understand the Christmas story. Why would the Great Mystery visit humanity as a child? Behold! (Credit: Elena Thompson)

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What does 2015 hold for you, me, and planet Earth? Cole looks at the horizon with wonder as do we all. (Credit: Elena Thompson)

One thing I know about the months ahead: unless I get lost completely, don’t expect me to repeat the tired grief of 2014. Sure, I’ll get sad and discouraged, but nothing can change the fact that ants weigh as much as humans. You have to look closely for very, very small flecks of grace and good spirits, but once your eyes learn to spot them, the size of the bad news doesn’t matter so much anymore.

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May this fortune be so for you in 2015, my loved ones.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Advent Descant

Starbucks, 6:27 p.m.: Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” keeps playing in my brain. His whistling descant during the second chorus always makes me think of Dad, God rest him, an All-American whistler with a spry warble. The only song more blue is “Christmas Time Is Here.”

In the 1954 film White Christmas, Crosby sings to soldiers far from home, and by the time he gets to “may your days be merry and bright,” their heads are sagging. About twenty years later in A Charlie Brown Christmas, “snowflakes [are] in the air” and “carols [are] everywhere.” As kids skate on a frozen pond, Linus tells a depressed Charlie Brown, “Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you’re the Charlie Brown-iest.”

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Opinion: Charlie Brown understands Advent. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Both of these Christmas favorites sing about a complicated season. The lyrics are glad and wistful, but the music is melancholy, maybe for good reason. Does your Christmas spirit ever reach your mountaintop of expectation? As December 25th approaches, do you find yourself waiting for the doors of your soul to fly open and unfettered joy to blow in with snowflakes and sleigh bells? Never happens that way, right? (If your Christmas bliss is unbridled, I’m happy for you—honest.)

My Advent and Christmas moods follow the Buddy System. No emotion goes even to the lavatory alone. I’ve worn Khalil Gibran’s words from The Prophet thin because they fit:

Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.” But I say unto you, they are inseparable. Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed. 

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When sorrow sits alone with me at my dining room table, remembering that joy sleeps on my sofa saves me.

Last night at church, kids sang and made popsicle-stick Christmas trees. Cookies were everywhere. In my imagination Grandma Coleman’s molasses cookies joined the abundance. I could smell them. As children had fun, the beloved dead stirred in my soul.

Trees in the distance, snowless this December 5th, are bloodshot-gray veins against the Lake Erie sky—tender, lovely. A few hundred miles to my east, citizens under the Hudson River sky protest a guy choked to death for selling loose cigarettes. I receive the nonchalant blessing of an in-breath and an out-breath. Still, a cry echoes, “I can’t breathe!”

I’m stubborn enough to believe that joy will have the last cosmic word, but, man, is sorrow injecting anabolic steroids this Advent of 2014. (Blogger’s note: If you already know that creation is groaning in labor pains and don’t want details, skip to #4, which is a benign kvetch.) To wit . . .

1.) “Don’t shoot.” “I can’t breathe.” What will the next mantra be? How many wrongs can be packed into one historical narrative? Let’s see.

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Birmingham high school students being hosed while on a peaceful walk, 1963. (Credit: Charles Moore on Wikipedia)

a.) No argument: throughout American history, blacks have been shat upon. Until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, abuses were not only unapologetic, but lusty. Since then, slow progress has been lacerated in ways obvious to blacks and unconvincing to some whites. Most blacks, I gather, have misgivings about the police. They have either experienced unfair treatment (e.g. profiling) or know somebody who has. Or maybe they have been regarded by a cop with unwarranted suspicion. Or maybe they have been on the wrong end of a fire hose in Birmingham. Whatever the case, blacks of all levels of education and income aren’t feeling the love. Their convictions, of course, aren’t based solely on encounters with law enforcement. I bet every black citizen has absorbed the unprovoked disdain of a white stranger at least once. Such experiences must freezer-burn one’s DNA permanently.

b.) The news coverage of Ferguson, Staten Island, and Cleveland is muddy. The excerpt of George Stephanopoulos’ November 25, 2014, interview with Darren Wilson that ran on ABC Evening News was a slam-dunk for the Ferguson cop, at least to this viewer’s eyes. Some days later on PBS’s Democracy Now, which leans decidedly to the left, an interviewee noted that sixteen of eighteen eyewitnesses to Michael Brown’s shooting claimed the kid clearly had his hands up. In this case, a grand jury saw things Wilson’s way. But the treatment of Staten Island’s Eric Garner on July 17, 2014, is on YouTube for all to see, as is John Stewart’s rant about a grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer who administered what looks for all the world like a forbidden chokehold. (I’ll toss in that flattening Garner’s head into the sidewalk seems excessive, too.) So blacks who were pissed after Ferguson went berserk after Staten Island. Any white folks paying attention should start, well, paying attention.

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Police Officer Ray Albers, who was captured on video pointing his weapon at peaceful protestors and cursing. Before he was identified, he was known on social media as “Officer Go Fuck Yourself.” He resigned soon thereafter. (Credit: Wikipedia)

c.) Speaking of understandabilities, looting businesses and torching real estate are perhaps predictable mob responses to injustice, but thievery and flames are self-mutilation taken to a community level. Innocents on the home team have lost much in what television news calls “protests.”

d.) I won’t parse the shooting of Cleveland twelve-year-old Tamir Rice other than to point out something I’ve not heard mentioned in the conversation. Why is it okay for manufacturers to make toy guns that look unmistakably like the real thing? All you have to do is cut the impotent little orange tip off and you’ve got a weapon. In the dark a squirt gun could look convincing, I suppose, but are realistic airsoft guns necessary? Don’t bother citing the First or Second Amendments. I’m tired of clever folks lining their pockets by exploiting the noble intentions of the Constitution.

e.) A-whole-nother side of wrong is the untenable situation police officers face each day. Nothing less than perfection is tolerable in the new millennium. Never mind that human beings are increasingly expected to maintain sparkling performance with dwindling resources. Punishment is an imposing presence. A teacher makes a knee-jerk, cruel remark to a student. A nurse administers the wrong medication. And, yes, a cop who has dealt on his shift with three noncompliant citizens pops his cork in subduing the fourth. I don’t mean to excuse any behavior, but to acknowledge what I see as a reality. In all professions, the margin for error is literally razor thin, and forgiveness is in short supply.

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Bill Cosby in 1969. (Credit: Wikipedia)

2.) Oh, Bill Cosby! Oh, Dr. Huxtable, who wore Christmas sweaters so well! If he drugged and raped women, then, in the words of Queen, “Another one bites the dust.” If Cosby harmed any woman in one of the most profound ways possible, then who was he channeling when he complained about blacks “with pants down around the crack”? But if twenty-six women are out to lynch an entirely innocent Cosby–how likely is that?–then we have another lousy statement about the human condition. Whatever the case, there are no winners; only ugliness all around.

3.) Here’s an odd thought for the list. In an April 12, 2012 Washington Post editorial, Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein—left and right, respectively, and both well respected—claim that the current G.O.P. is “ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; [and] unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science.” More and more I get the feeling that Mann and Ornstein have their fingers on our collective pulse. I would love to be corrected on this, but it seems to me that lots of us have our rancorous heels dug in. We mistake our fancies and hunches for certainties. Actual facts are greased pigs, but if you manage to secure one, expect to be dismissed with a sniff and a Bronx cheer. The point: our foundation for societal negotiation is cracked, our collection of shared assumptions depleted.

4.) Finally, on an irrelevant, purely selfish front, I’m filing a complaint against restroom hand dryers. How can machine blow hot air at a velocity that makes your skin ripple and still not dry your hands? When deprived of the paper towel option, I always exit feeling unkempt. Yes, a few extra seconds of vigorous hand rubbing would finish the drying job, but I reserve the right to be petty in this small matter. The head gets enough of my time as it is.

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If this were a decent photograph of a hand dryer, you could see that the little arrow at the bottom says, “FEEL THE POWER.” I want to get a Dymowriter and cover “POWER” with “FRUSTRATION.” (Crappy Credit: John Coleman)

My last grievance notwithstanding, sorrow has one advantage over joy: sorrow tends to arrive like a freight train blasting its horn, whereas joy springs like a chocolate lab puppy from a Christmas box and quietly sniffs and licks your face. Sorrow carries a big stick; joy walks softly.

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Joy happens by like this guy named Brownie. Yes, I, John Coleman, am trite! (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Consider twelve-year-old Devonte Hart of Portland, Oregon. At a protest about the death of Ferguson’s Michael Brown, the boy held a sign that said, “Free hugs.” The photograph of Portland Police Sgt. Bret Barnum and Hart hugging went viral.

Of course, as many an Internet cynic has claimed, the hug may have been staged. (I fell for a YouTube video showing a bicyclist being chased by a bear, so I’m not the most astute viewer.) Even so, I object to Jonathan Jones, a Brit who, writing in The Guardian, takes Facebook subscribers to the woodshed for their over 400,000 shares of the hug photograph: “Each one of those shares is a choice of what to see and what not to see. In the context of the completely unresolved and immensely troubling situation, not just in Ferguson but across the United States, where Ferguson has opened wounds that go back centuries, this picture is a blatant lie.”

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Officer Bret Barnum and Devonte Hart in “the Hug” (Credit: Johnny Nguyen / AP Photograph in The Guardian)

One can’t help but envy Jones’ clairvoyance and nimble reasoning! As if he can see into my heart and mind and understand the meaning I assign to any photograph! As if sharing a photograph means that any Facebook viewer is in denial about what troubles America. As if—just one more—any roundhouse-throwing art critic gets to decide what muse speaks a helpful word to suffering citizens. I didn’t share the photograph on Facebook, but I’ll bet most of the 400,000 who did took the kid’s and the cop’s embrace not as a reflection of where American race relations now stand, but as a vision of where they ought to be. To me, the image doesn’t scream from atop a phony soapbox. It whispers hope into the patriotic dreamer’s ear. It’s the lab’s cold little nose brushed against America’s cheek. It’s a whistle over a familiar melody.

And consider Lori Burke. I mentioned a while back kids having cookies at church. The reason kids and adults showed up was to join in a sing-along led by Lori, which the latter enjoyed as much as the former. During snacks and crafts, she shared with me an idea in gestation. She already has a couple of CDs out as well as a popular parody of Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” on YouTube.

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Lori Burke . . . sing it, sister! (Credit: loriburke.com)

Now, Lori would love to start a movement of sorts. She has got a name—For the Love—and is now fussing with how best to communicate it. For the Love is Lori’s developing vision for helping us all to grow into the habit of showing kindness and generosity to strangers. She mentioned a couple of possible For the Love logos and at one point said “hashtag,” which means she has Twitter thoughts. I’ve never quite understood hashtags, but I’m rooting for this sacred sister.

This is how joy happens: two people kibitz and think out loud. “What can I do?” Lori wonders, then decides to trying something. Maybe. We’ll see. No matter what happens, the impulse to encourage sisters and brothers to love each other is just a crumb. A mustard seed. A widow’s mite. In other words, Lori’s impulse is everything—a fragile wish, a helpless mutt, the Indwelling hope of the world. Salvation depends on crumbs.

Endnote

In recent days “White Christmas” and “Christmas Time Is Here” have been replaced by Dean “Dino” Martin’s rendition of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” in which he calls the hero “Rudy.” In the last stanza, all the reindeer “shouted out with glee, Rudy the Red-Beaked Reindeer, you’ll go down in history.” Oh, Dino, you casual fellow! Your song goes into the complaint file with those hand dryers.

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Don’t even think of calling me Rudy. And I can’t breathe out of my beak. What the hey? (Credit: aussiegall on Wikimedia Commons)

 

Thanksgiving Letter to My Late Mother

Dear Mom:

November 8, 2014: your Christmas cactus is in full bloom. It may be my imagination, but every year the blossoms seem to show up a little earlier. We could now call your beloved old plant a Halloween cactus. How many holidays will pass before the pink flowers open up at Easter?

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Your matriarch of Christmas cacti

You know, Mom, you’ve been gone sixteen years, and I always figured that the older I got, the less I would miss you. Actually, the opposite seems to be true. The heaviness in my throat in this moment is greater than when I wrote you last year. The reason is your great-grandson Cole. I imagine the deep gladness you would know in holding him, talking to him as I do, sitting quietly as the minutes pass, watching him in ceaseless motion. You would say the same thing as we do: “He’s so busy.”

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Your busy great-grandson in his Halloween costume–grrrr!

Most Sundays we have family dinner, Mom. I’m not sure why as your son I didn’t insist on this practice years ago, but I didn’t. I’m sorry. People who say that they have no regrets in life probably aren’t looking closely enough. Anyway, after we finished eating, Cole got fussy. Had you been there and not been burdened with arthritis, you would have picked him up and walked around the house, talking to him. I can see you telling your great-grandson about this and that. The decades glow and soften in my mind: there you are, my late mother holding my beloved grandson. It’s nice to see you.

But since you aren’t here—not really—and weren’t there after dinner to occupy Cole, I did. Our first stop was your Christmas cactus. I told him a little about the plant, but before I knew it I was telling him about you. Of course, I said you would love him like crazy and other things you would expect. But as he looked on momentary peace at your plant, I told him that when his mother was a toddler, you peeled grapes for her. Peeling grapes: that’s love. “Your great-grandma would do the same for you,” I said, imagining you putting bits of the pulp into his mouth.

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Was Cole looking at that glow in the center, Mom, the light of forever?

Next stop: the photograph of you in your wedding dress. “My gosh, Cole,” I said, “look at how beautiful your Great-Grandma Coleman was.” I was focused on you and Cole, but was also aware of somebody looking over my shoulder and saying, “Oh, yeah! She was beautiful.”

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You are younger here, Mom, than both of my children are now. It’s hard to make the years stay in the right order.

Tours with tired babies last only so long, so that was about it. Elena, Matt, and Cole packed up and headed home. Tomorrow being Sunday, we’ll go through the same ritual, and most likely I’ll use the spatula from home. No kidding, Mom, every time I pick it up, I remember you. Maybe I’ll show Cole, tell him it was yours.

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Still my favorite spatula

I wish you could be with us. We would sit at the dining room table and look at pictures. This afternoon I was missing you, so I went upstairs and pulled out some albums. Time passed. Two photographs held me up a while: one of Elena and one of Micah. I could see Cole in both of them.

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That’s Elena, Mom. I caught her, promise. That’s also Cole’s face.

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Here’s Micah, Mom, foreshadowing his nephew’s two front teeth and swagger.

I said before you were beautiful, but I’ve become suspicious of time, reluctant to accept its authority over us, covetous of eternity. More must await us beyond this lovely, troubled land, where early we toddle on fair-skinned, sausage legs and late travel tentatively, afraid of the fall that might crack our aching bones. There must be more because you deserve to hold this child, to kiss his promise of red hair—however this can happen in the Eternal Calm and Splendor.

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Kathy used to raise monarchs, Mom, and Elena used to wear them. Wish you could have seen.

So, Mom, I’ll correct myself: you are beautiful. I don’t visit your grave often, with its pound or two of ash and bone the required number of feet below. Better: I exchange this earthly chronology for one I compose myself. I close my eyes. Now, you pass your hands over my children’s cheeks as you did decades ago and speak to them gently. Cole sits on your lap. You bounce him and lean forward to look at his round face. Like the rest of us, you get lost there.

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Cole on pumpkin carving day. We would have rinsed him off and handed him to you.

As you and I sit together, I hold your hand, still the softest I’ve ever known. Since this is my time, your knuckles and joints don’t blossom with arthritis—no pain. I’m looking at your skin and veins, Mom, and kissing your hand. Your eyes are closed. You hear me say, “You live.”

Love,

John