Oniontown Pastoral: My Wife’s Secret

Oniontown Pastoral: My Wife’s Secret

“Hey, you know what?” I say to wife Kathy.

“You love me?” she answers.

“Well, yes,” I go on, “but . . . .”

“You’re proud of me?” Her Cheshire cat grin sparkles.

This is one of our routines, which concludes with my telling her that I ran into a friend or heard a good joke or whatever. The fact is, I’m endlessly in love with and proud of my wife.

Kathy used to faint at the sight of blood, but went to school and became an oncology nurse. As a mother and grandmother, she is more fun than a sack of spider monkeys. As a wife, she has not only stuck with impossible me for thirty-five years, but she has also replaced our roof, remodeled the bathroom, and built a deck out of planks repurposed from a wheelchair ramp. Her focus these days is coaxing edibles from a modest plot behind our garage. Most dinners include something she has grown, often garlic, which brings me to my point.

My conscience has been twitching lately like a nerved up eyelid. I value honesty, but for years now I’ve been keeping a secret: Although my wife is a marvel, she possesses a quirky mind. And by “quirky” I mean, “Holy cow!” While she is ever eager to recount the thoughts leading up to her whimsical choices, the plots are so circuitous that listening makes drool trail down my chin. Her most recent and finest decision involved elephant garlic, but please enjoy an appetizer before the entrée.

More fun than a sack of spider monkeys

You probably know somebody who “thinks out loud.” Well, Kathy “looks out loud.” While tracking down anything (i.e. smartphone, comb, tax bill, lasagna), she recites all relevant itineraries, identifies last known locations, holds her hands out as if checking for rain and mumbles, “What’s wrong with me?”

Our garage door opener, for example, went missing for several months. Then one afternoon, a yelp of laughter came from the basement. The opener was hibernating in the toe of one of Kathy’s rubber yard-work boots. Okey doke.

Some husbands might get frustrated, but I look forward to whatever oddity hides around the next bend. Take the aforementioned entrée I now put before you. Kathy has been mildly stressed about her overwhelming harvest of garlic. Multiple braids hang from the garage rafters. A four-quart basket-full is parked by the back door. She and I have settled on peeling and freezing, thereby easing her mind. Fortunately, the elephant garlic yield was light, enough to fill a three-pound mesh onion bag, which is where the impressive heads went. From there, I lost track of them.

Last week, in a rare attempt at tidiness, I took a suit jacket I’d thrown over a dining room chair to the basement to hang up in my humble wardrobe area. Making room amidst my jackets, I discovered, slung over a hanger between two of my old favorites, a mesh bag full of elephant garlic, which is rightly known in culinary circles as an “aromatic.”

Proof

Slack-jawed, I imagined slipping on my navy blue number and heading out into the world smelling like a really aggressive basket of butter and garlic wings or an overly ambitious angel hair Alfredo.

The responsible party was not in question. But why? Why would one human being nestle a bag of garlic, which has a well-earned reputation for shedding its skin and bleeding essential oils, between two garments belonging to another human being?

Dangling the bag from my index finger, I climbed the steps and started the interrogation with, “What could have possessed you to . . . ?”

Kathy blinked bashfully and pursed her lips as if to say, “Oh, was that wrong of me?”

Garlic, she eventually explained, will keep in a cool, dark place. A basement is normally ideal, but ours is too light. Ah, but there my suit jackets were, the crevasses between them so chilly, so pitch black.

Thankfully, St. John’s Lutheran is planted in a village named “Oniontown,” which wouldn’t look askance at a minister who occasionally smells like a good sauce. It’s all good.

Best of all, I can take a pinch of pride in practicing what I preach. During marriage preparation, I ask each fiancé what’s most maddening about the other. Then I say, “So if things never change, not one bit, can you still say, ‘I do’?”

How blessed am I, having always known the answer to my own question and remembering that I was never mad to start with.

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Letter to a Kindred Spirit, Off to College

Letter to a Kindred Spirit, Off to College

Dear Abbey,

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

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

One of Chatham’s stately buildings

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your fortune

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love,

Flanders

*Flanders is my nickname with Abbey’s family.

 

What I Do Is Redd Up

What I Do Is Redd Up

$%&#! Ouch!

I want to be home by 3:00 this afternoon. A cluttered living room waits for me, as does an unmade bed and a kitchen that needs to be, as my mother used to say, redd up. In other words, the house requires attention before wife Kathy shows up at 6:00 p.m. with grandsons Cole and Killian in tow. For a couple of hours, we’ll act as spotters to boys who are constantly, gleefully careening toward a concussion. By the time daughter Elena picks them up, dirty dishes will have returned, and planes, trains and pterodactyls will be scattered everywhere, waiting for me to step on them and shout bad words. Clean up, mess up, repeat.

The person in charge of squalor control and hygiene restoration used to be called a housewife, an impoverished term to my ears. A job that involves cleaning, cooking and often child rearing deserves a more worthy title. Nobody is married to a house, nor does one’s marital status constitute a vocation.

But homemaker is a good fit. Creation is involved, as is purpose. A house isn’t a home until people related by blood or blessed ties find nurturing shelter there. Such a place can be ramshackle or palatial as long as at least one heart beats affection into the cupboards and windowsills.

Plenty of homes thrive without full-time tending, of course. Whoever can keep a house presentable, prepare healthy meals, do laundry, give children the attention they need and put shoulder to the wheel forty hours every week for a paycheck deserves credit. Props, bows and curtsies to them all, especially to those who have no choice.

That emphatically said, I have a soft spot for careers given to home and family. My mother spent much of her life that way. Dolly Coleman worked part-time at what she called the budget bakery and at the Boston Store, for decades the crown jewel of downtown Erie, but her identity was grounded in motherhood.

On the back of a well-worn cookbook . . . a housewife, perhaps?

My only reservation about Mom’s vocational history is the possibility that, like countless sisters of her generation, she was disheartened by a society that patronized women and kicked their intelligence to the curb. Housewife bore an implied prefix: just a.

Kathy went back and forth with staying at home and taking jobs. Regardless, she gave Elena and our son Micah amazing childhoods. Some parents can’t keep up with their kids, but my beloved had the distinction of outpacing her offspring. Never much for napping, Kathy was mistress of over-the-top fun, constructing cornstalk mazes in the backyard, going to legendary pains with Halloween decorations and building snow forts ad infinitum. She pouted when the kids weren’t game for the expeditions she cooked up.

A fidget blanket made by Elena Thompson, to calm the restless hands of a dementia patient

As it happened, one of our little acorns didn’t fall far from the oak. Elena and husband Matt decided that their issue were to be raised by a mother who would fill their days with joy and adventure. Capable though she is of employment, our talented daughter has been building a cottage industry of weighted and fidget blankets. Her household speaks of shalom, and her handiwork gives sleep to restless children and calm to dementia patients. Call Elena what you will, but don’t dare start off with just a.

A couple of years ago when I accepted a part-time call to serve St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown, Pennsylvania, it was with the promise of writing time and the expectation that Pastor Coleman would lean into housework.

I know better than to call myself a homemaker. That profession—paid only with emotional currency—is broader in scope and deeper in sacrifice than I can manage. What I do is redd up. Ministry and writing are passions, but home duty now completes my vocational trinity.

Detail from Kathy’s throw on the couch

My job description has gradually written itself on my heart. 402 Parkway Drive should be presentable when Kathy gets home after eight hours of treating cancer patients. Why? Because she deserves a sanctuary: tidy counters, her throw—adorned with representations of sailing knots—draped neatly over the back of the couch, minutiae that threatens to take over the dining room table put away. Stepping across the threshold, she should drink from a cup running over with peace. She shouldn’t worry about dinner. She should leave the dishes to me.

The reason for my efforts, modest though they are, is love. Redding up is a gift. I’m no homemaker, but after thirty-five years with Kathy I’ve decided, against all logic, that being called her househusband would suit me just fine.

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.”

A Dog Story, Nice Ending

A Dog Story, Nice Ending

Layla is a lunk—there’s no other way to put it. She is eighty akimbo pounds of yellow Lab who bounds onto your lap and noses her way past your face and into your soul. My grand-dog is frantic with affection.

Since April Fools’ Day, when our second grandson Killian was born, wife Kathy and I have been dog-sitting. Daughter Elena and son-in-law Matt are rightly afraid that Layla might lick the skin off our newborn’s hide, accidentally trample grandson one, toddler Cole, or bowl over Matt, who recently broke his leg. So with the exception of a couple of trips home for good behavior, Layla has lodged at the Coleman house.

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Layla and Cole when the latter was one year old

Last night she flopped beside me in front of the television, spent after a day of urgent missions only she understood. I ran my hand over her closed eyes and soft ears and said, “You’re Pop’s good pup, aren’t you? You’re a good girl.”

She was at ease, but nobody can bliss her out like Matt. And if any dog needs some bliss, it’s Layla. All it takes to reduce her to hours of trembling is a balloon. A couple weeks ago Kathy and Cole were in the basement popping leftover birthday balloons, probably a dozen of them. Later I found Layla in our mudroom, quivering and cowering.

Lots of dogs get panicky on July 4th, but why would loud pops unhinge a pup for a whole day? That’s how long it sometimes takes for Layla to stop shaking.

We’re pretty sure of the answer. On August 19, 2013, her owner, Dean Haggerty, was shot to death in his Summit Township mobile home. Dean’s daughter and son were there, as was Layla. Dean’s fiancé Kristina had pulled the trigger.

As one of Dean’s childhood friends, Matt gathered with the Haggerty family. The dust hadn’t even begun to settle. What exactly happened? Good Lord, the kids! And, oh yeah, what about the dog?

One room can contain only so much shock and uncertainty. Numb silence. Could anyone take in Layla? More silence.

Matt hadn’t seen much of Dean in the months before the shooting and had never laid eyes on Layla. But when he realized that his dead buddy’s dog might be homeless, Matt’s yes came out by its own volition. He hadn’t consulted Elena, who was seven months pregnant with Cole, or thought things through. In that moment, his love was like Layla’s, reckless and snout-first.

How old was Layla? Nobody knew, but she was clearly in the mad dash of puppyhood. That first night with Matt and Elena, she paced and whimpered. In the small hours of the morning, she finally fell asleep on the couch at Matt’s feet.

Over the last couple of years, Layla has become family. Early on, she ducked when I reached out to pet her. Was she fearful by nature or treated harshly? Again, nobody knew.

Today, Layla doesn’t look over her shoulder much. Family and friends have nosed into her vulnerable spirit and earned her trust. If the world would quit popping, her peace would be complete.

Layla must be at least four, but she hasn’t received the memo that she’s not a puppy anymore. The relentless K-9 energy sparking in Matt and Elena’s house can be overwhelming. When visitors get welcomed within an inch of their lives, Elena makes fists, squeezes her eyes shut, growls “Layla,” and then laughs and shakes her head. Charged with minding a toddler, an infant, a temporarily gimping husband, and a joyfully insane Lab, Elena deserves sainthood.

And Layla deserves her home and most of all Matt, a patient, insightful man. When she pins him down with kisses and army-crawls into his soul, he welcomes her in.

I never realized how much Layla loves Matt until recently. Pop will do in a pinch, but only one lap is home. Before family dinner one evening, Matt sat in my recliner, his cast resting on a pillow. Layla climbed aboard and settled in.

She hadn’t seen her master in two weeks and was finally home. No gunshots. Just a goofy dog and a man who said yes.

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Man and dog: home

I couldn’t help taking pictures. Such good feels. Honest stories have flawed endings. Friends die. Balloons explode. But once in a while a last page sings out the possibilities of reckless love. It convinced Layla that she’s a good girl, and maybe, one dog and human at a time, it can also heal the world.

A Dream Yields, A Blessing Takes Hold

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Field near Prospect, Pennsylvania: a dream view

Solitude, unmasked stars and planets, the shocking cold before dawn, generous draughts of silence: decades ago I wanted this world. Someday, for sure, I would own a house in the sticks with some acres. But—one season following another—age can plow old dreams under, let longing lay fallow, and call a soul to entertain wishes again at the right time or to give them up all together.

The catch is, living more than a holler away from the nearest neighbor is perfect for me. I should want to wind up in the country. I’ve had plenty of great neighbors, some of them like family, but population-density can be a nuisance, right? One former neighbor always fired up her leaf blower whenever I lay down for a nap. It sounded like Carol Channing trying to clear her sinuses. Another neighbor enhanced home security with a nuclear front-yard lamp—impossibly bright. In a step of first-string, All American effrontery, he installed a black shield on the panel facing his house. Why sear every retina on the boulevard, after all? One guy tried to save us by covering the light with a sombrero, only to find it returned to his stoop the next morning.

But such annoyances never drove me from Erie, Pennsylvania, with its 99,542 residents. Columbus and Baltimore, two real cities I’ve called home, were fantastic. So why the persistent sense that I should hear a creek running outside my window? I’ve been thinking in recent years that my dream of rural living was not, in fact, stirred by desire, but by obligation. As a writer who prays a lot, I should want to live a couple hours to the east in Potter County, where deer outnumber humans. Why wouldn’t I want the Coleman home to breathe like the hermitages of my many spiritual retreats in the woods?

This question has occupied me ever since I accepted a call to serve a rural congregation a couple of months ago. The hour’s drive from Erie, where I continue to live, to St. John’s Lutheran Church outside Greenville, Pennsylvania, provides time to sort things out. I listen to tenor arias or fingerstyle guitar or nothing, watch the gray land roll toward the horizon, and let my mind do anything but worry—its default mode.

Wouldn’t the horses I pass on Route 19 be a better routine for my eyes than the strip mall before me at the moment? Shouldn’t I want to move close to the Amish, whose black buggies on District Road tell me to slow down?

I don’t know where “Don’t should on yourself” came from, but the earthy advice points my way. Maybe my closest neighbors should be black bears, but my fifty-four-year-old joys and aches rest easy in a neighborhood, within a stone’s throw of a lady who uses electricity to herd leaves and a better-safe-than-sorry man whose light insults the stars. Being a few minutes away from a ripe avocado, a bottle of cheap red wine, and coffee in a clean, well-lighted place fits me.

Truth: As the days flow by, my old dream yields to a small house in Erie, where I regularly smack my head on the basement ductwork. Less than half the size of the house Kathy and I raised Elena and Micah in, this blue-collar hermitage a mile from my high school feels just right. I don’t want to be anywhere else.

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Out the Pastor’s Study window at St. John’s

But the story doesn’t end here. Even as Parkway Drive becomes home, a blessing takes hold when I head south to St. John’s. It fills me as I wonder why some horses wear blankets and others don’t. It abides with me as I work in the pastor’s study, try to offer the folks a good word on Sunday morning, and eat chicken pie with the seniors at the Stone Arch Restaurant: The land and its stewards reach out and pull me in, as if to rest against the bosom of the Lord.

Winter is being coy with us in northwestern Pennsylvania, but my view of the blonde corn stubble out my study window calms my heart. And the parishioners I’ve gotten to know wear their goodness without pretense.

The other day Parish Secretary Jodi got a call reporting that we have roof leaks dripping into the church lounge. She hadn’t finished passing along the news when Anne and Dave’s car pulled up in the parking lot. They had also received word and were coming to check things out.

The problem and temporary fix were quickly settled, but in a fifteen-minute crevice of the morning, Dave and I talked. More importantly, I listened. Amazing what you can learn in a quarter of an hour.

Dave is a retired veterinarian who restricted his practice to cows. He still has twenty of them, three of which are calving. You can take the veterinarian out of the cattle, but apparently you can’t take the cattle out of the veterinarian. I mention this detail because Dave had been overseeing developments before showing up at church and had work clothes on: think dusty Carhartt-type coat and a long-punished hat with earflaps aspiring to be wings. Anne tried unsuccessfully to smooth those flaps, but Dave said, “I like it this way.”

Confession #1: I want to be like this guy. If his hat looks poised for flight, so what. It feels right on his head. And, really, isn’t that what counts when you’re making sure cows get off to a good start in life?

Confession #2: It took me a few seconds to open up my ears. How long have I known that wisdom isn’t restricted to the monk’s cell or the desert hermit’s cave or the scholar’s podium? Riches for mind and soul can also germinate under a quirky lid. Fortunately, I forget easily, but remember with light speed.

Confession #3: The instructions I gave myself wouldn’t suit a sermon, so I’ll give the G (all ages admitted) version: “Listen up, pal,” I thought, “this man has something to teach you.” I caught two lessons in five minutes, not a bad return on the time investment.

Lesson #1: Dave said, “Everything is born to die.” I recalled at once some years ago asking farmer and author Joel Salatin about vegetarianism, and his response was similar. Dave brought me back again to the possibility that death’s inevitability is less important than how it’s attended. He described slaughterhouses he had visited where the cows walked a curved chute toward a pitch-black elevator. Cows will hug an outside wall following a curve—natural to them, I guess. And when they emerge from the darkness, their end comes immediately. No fear or trauma, no months of anxiety about diagnoses and treatments and the dying of the light.

Everything is born to die: not a callous statement or lazy rationalization, but a confession. Salatin pointed out to me the arrogant assumption that the death of a pig is necessarily more noteworthy than the cooking of a carrot. Sounds silly until you understand that the observation lies far down the anthropocentric path. Salatin didn’t use that fancy word, but that’s what he meant. Parishioner Dave can speak for himself, but I bet he knows more about life and death than I do. His days involve walking land I only visit and touching animals I know from a distance. Best to learn from him with an open, humble spirit.

Lesson #2: Dave cares about those twenty cows. His words, voice and manner had a tenderness about them. An animal’s suffering or an injury to the land would pain him. He doesn’t emote as I do, but I know love when I see it—not the love shown in a photograph of an infant in a boot, but the love visible in a retired veterinarian keeping vigil to be sure a calf gets on its feet. The calf will grow and be sold someday, but it’s loved no less for that.

I gathered all this from a man wearing a hat with wings and speaking softly. Acreage in counties close to St. John’s wouldn’t suit me, but traveling there a few times a week is healing my spirit in ways I’m only beginning to understand. And I didn’t count on being edified by folks like Dave and Anne, who would read this and probably tell me to quit fussing.

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Rooftops and bare trees on Parkway Drive

But I’m going to fuss. Tonight I’ll fall asleep next to beloved Kathy in a blue-collar hermitage. And tomorrow morning I’ll drive an hour to tend my flock in a place where you can see the stars.

Right now, across Parkway Drive, a neighbor puts away fake garland. Kathy just lay down on the couch and mentioned that from her angle, all you can see is rooftops and bare trees.

I thought, “You could almost be in the country.”

Report from California

Off and on over the years, I’ve thought travel writing would be a great gig: get expenses covered, see what’s on everybody’s bucket list, flirt with unfamiliar cuisine, generally live it up, and report on the whole experience.

As I sip an iced Americano at Starbucks, the truth is finally setting in that I wouldn’t make a good travel writer. First, I dislike flying. Xanax keeps my anxiety almost tolerable, but the only time I’m at ease on a plane is when I’m picking up my bags to disembark.

Second, adventure isn’t really my thing. Ah, to be a man’s man, to dig white-water rafting and wear t-shirts saying something like, “I kicked the OMG Rapids in the ass!” To own sinewy, tan, muscular arms sticking out from short sleeves, my whole image punctuated by a forearm tattoo that roars, “Testosterone!” Alas. Enjoying the burble of my immersion blender in an Alfredo sauce while kibitzing with friends, lifting a bit of wine, that’s my speed.

And third, the sites that stir this homebody’s heart don’t have much to do with popular vistas. For the most part, the views that make me say “ooh, ahh, wow” don’t depend on geography. The point: what follows is the least useful travel essay ever.

Wife Kathy and I are bunking at generous friends Karl and Jennifer’s place in Citrus Heights, a suburb of Sacramento. Their daughter Claire, coming up on three, is the blessed home’s center of gravity. After a couple of days at their place, we left for four days in San Francisco, a look at the ocean, a stroll through the redwoods, and now have returned to our friends’ base camp. Tomorrow we’ll fly home to Erie, Pennsylvania. This trip, funded mostly by a travel voucher we won at a fundraising Vegas night, has been more than worth our time and outlay of cash.

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I asked this guy at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf if I could take his picture. He nodded at a sign to his right indicating he just got married and was charging $2. I felt both suckered and obliged.

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One of the senior sea lions at Fisherman’s Wharf. They fill the floating docks by the dozens, nap packed in cheek-to-jowl, crawl all over each other for no apparent reason, and constantly snort, bark, bare their teeth, and posture. Kathy stared at them for forty-five minutes. Five was enough for me.

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What’s a tour of San Francisco without paying homage to the Summer of Love? Strolling the streets, Kathy and I probably inhaled a joint just in second-hand smoke.

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Kathy ready to bike the Golden Gate Bridge.

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Redwoods at Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve.

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Kathy in the hollow of a redwood.

No, we didn’t ride a trolley car or catch the ferry to Alcatraz, but we took in our fill of destinations. I have to confess, though, that none of them grabbed me by the lapels as much as several inconspicuous moments did–nonchalant and passing as a breeze.

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Light art on the ceiling of our room at the La Rose Hotel in Santa Rosa.

Moment: After a long last day in San Francisco, Kathy and I landed at a hotel in Santa Rosa. We had biked the Golden Gate Bridge and walked the city’s famous hills, so we were glad to flop for a while. As I dozed, Kathy talked to our son Micah, who was back home tending dog, cats, and a chrysalis nearly ready to unfold and make for Mexico. What Kathy said was obvious, but I could hear only Micah’s voice, not his words. But that was enough. Surrounded by West Coast walls, I took in a distinctive sound of home: my boy’s enthusiasm in telling a story, some humor or absurdity of his day. I wasn’t sad, but filled with gratitude that I look forward to being home, to seeing all of our beloved faces in one space.

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Claire

Moment: Karl and Jennifer took us horseback riding near Lake Tahoe, followed by chili and a walk around town and down by the water. When we returned to Citrus Heights, I was fit for red Zinfandel, a couch, and nothing else. But young Claire was ten kinds of psyched to have us back–spinning, sprinting, squealing psyched. Through my fog of fatigue I heard Kathy say, “Do you want to read, Claire?” I couldn’t muster the energy to burp, but my wife was game. In the middle of one book, Claire looked at Kathy with a grateful smile, full of peace and wonder. The big bridge is cool, but that kid’s face, shining and sacred, is eternal.

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Far from home and yet, suddenly, right at home.

Moment: Kathy made it clear weeks ago that come what may on this vacation, she was going to put her feet in the Pacific. We wove along Route 1, found steps to the beach, and headed for the water. Cold. She was excited and giggly. Our stop was no more than fifteen minutes. My blessing came when I was facing away from the ocean with my eyes closed–kiss of the long-married, ahh of the soul’s landscape.

Moment: Anybody who loves me knows that I’m often struggling, even when there’s no particular stressor at hand. Joyful as recent days have been, waves of worry and sadness have also rolled over me. Always something, I guess. In response to particularly rough water yesterday, I took in a long draught of prayer and meditation, which I finished off with a contemplative walk in Karl and Jennifer’s backyard. For twenty minutes I looked closely and stopped often: lemon trees, herb garden, ripening tomatoes, trumpet vine, flowers with names I don’t know. Breathing, breathing. The place in my chest that fills up when I kiss Kathy’s graying hair is also a bilge for angst.

But the walk was healing, the air, the sage and oregano scent on my fingers. As I stood still behind a circle of flowers, a hummingbird hovered at my feet, inches away. It sipped nectar, then flew off to a pine branch. “You can come back,” I said. Apparently, I’m not a bird whisperer, but one visit, so kind and close, was plenty.

A friendly hummingbird, a kiss, a sweet young face: not content that makes readers restless for new journeys. With middle-age stretching out in front of me, my modest travels aren’t about a blood rush or a stunning expanse. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been on the lookout for peace. Always peace. The peace that passes all understanding.

All other attractions are incidental. For good or ill, I’m always moving toward spiritual destinations.

Home Is When I Come to Rest

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The wall of my Shenley Drive study

A couple evenings ago, while walking our beloved gimp Watson to the end of Shenley Drive, wife Kathy and I counted the number of times I’ve moved since my sophomore year of college, when I rented my first apartment. I narrated, and she revised here and there.

In twenty-three years, I’ve moved twenty times, with Kathy along for most of them. We married young (I was twenty-one, she was twenty) and amazingly we’re still together. Three bouts with graduate school, daunting challenges with our now-adult daughter Elena and son Micah, my nervous breakdown and struggle to be a good household helpmate: such realities beat up a marriage. We’ll celebrate our thirty-second anniversary this July because Kathy is forgiving. I’m a nice guy and patient to a fault, but we’re embarking on yet another move as husband and wife because the latter gives the former endless second chances.

My twenty-first move, Kathy’s twentieth. This one is from Erie, Pennsylvania’s west to east side, fifteen minutes, five or six miles. 2200 square feet to 1000. Two stories to one. Upper middleclass to middleclass. Shenley Drive to Parkway Drive. 16505 to 16511.

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Micah cut his hair at the dirty bathroom sink and unintentionally gave the faucet a generous mustache. 322 Shenley is crowded with such incidental joy.

Of course, there’s the emotional part of the move. Kathy is beyond ready, having spent countless hours painting, plastering, and planning the new place. Micah has fourteen years of testosterone, fury, and healing invested in his home; he sulks and sighs. I don’t get attached to dwellings much, but leaving Shenley Drive has me negotiating with a funk. Having gone through several episodes of hell there, I find the hardwood floors and views out the windows have taken on sweetness in these better times. And I came to rest at 322 Shenley. Lying in bed with Kathy and looking out at the boulevard’s old maples in all seasons, I thought many times, “I don’t need to be anyplace else. When my hour comes, I could die here, this woman beside me, my eyes on the trees.”

It’s easy to move when you’re ready, another when your heart won’t quite let you say goodbye: to a yard crowded with flowers and herbs, to neighbors as close as family, to walls you’ve leaned against and cried.

Dear as Shenley is to the Colemans, I know from the scars of leave-taking that bulbs and seeds grow in other gardens, friends appear on every avenue, and new walls can become trusted shoulders.

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A new route to the bathroom

Anyway, Shenley isn’t my home, nor will Parkway be. I remembered this the first night Kathy and I spent in our new bedroom. Flummoxed Watson clicked on the hardwood from my side of the bed to Kathy’s, back and forth, ad infinitum. The route to the bathroom was odd, short and direct. But I wasn’t sad. For me, home is saying “Kiss goodnight?” to Kathy and resting my hand on her warm belly as we fall asleep. Home is her saying “I love you, John Coleman” after the alarm goes off. (Yes, Kathy calls me by my first and last name.)

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Home is kibitzing with my son. The functional kitchen is a bonus.

Home is also standing with Micah as he tells me about a wrinkle in his day or about the mantis scrimp, which punches its prey. Before he goes to off to watch television, I say, “Spare a hug for the old man?” He does and means it. That’s home.

Home is Elena calling me Daddy and rescuing my bland refried beans and son-in-law Matt explaining that a truck’s clutch requires oil and toddler grandson Cole nodding and saying “yeah” when I ask if he wants to chew my watch.

Home is singing with my church family on a Sunday morning:

I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies,

no sudden rending of the veil of clay,

no angel visitant, no opening skies;

but take the dimness of my soul away.

Home is when I close my eyes, sit still, and sense—no evidence other than longing—the presence of the Loving Mystery.

Home is when I come to rest, held close by infinite variations of mercy.

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As long as my grandson is nearby, I’m home. The Loving Mystery looks at me with Cole’s eyes. His smile is mercy.

 

Dreaming My Way into an Old Lady House

In the early 1970s writer May Sarton moved from her beloved home in Nelson, New Hampshire, to The House by the Sea (her journal of those days). Like some lucky pilgrims, Sarton had ample time to make her move. “I had two years in which to dream myself into the change,” she writes, “sell Nelson, and pull up roots.”

Kathy and I are in the process of dreaming ourselves not into a spacious home on the coast of Maine, but into a 1,000 square foot house on Erie, Pennsylvania’s east side. Our zip code will go up six digits, but our space will shrink by over half. Downsizing, we’re calling it. We closed on the place a few days ago, but we’ve been picturing what will go where and what will disappear. Kathy is lobbying for an ambitious kitchen remodel; I’m smiling at the corner on the enclosed front porch where my desk and prayer/meditation chair will squat; both of us are imagining.

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A little light in the hallway–just enough

Last evening I said, “You know, we’re going to have to get used to the loss of space and no upstairs.” Kathy agreed, and as I’ve wandered about, distances seem abbreviated. I’m not concerned, though. The rooms are already endearing themselves to me, mainly because I see signs of the former owners everywhere. I’m guessing the husband and wife–the latter perhaps passing recently, the former having departed some years ago–were my parents age, born in the 1920s, shaped by the Great Depression and forged by World War II. Admittedly, all of this is guesswork.

I’ve been calling our new home, which the former owners purchased in 1949, an old lady house. She and her husband could easily have been curmudgeonly and strange, but signs of their thrift and good stewardship have me thinking they were upright folk. He–I’ll name him Ernest–nailed lids to the basement studs and kept screws and nuts in jars twisted secure. He also recycled cabinets, lining them up and keeping, what, half-used cans of paint and turpentine inside. One door near Ernest’s workbench was set up for a padlock, and a mirror strategically angled so he could see who was coming down the steps makes me wonder if he liked to keep a bottle of Gibson’s 8 handy for a secret pick-me-up on boring afternoons.

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Is this what Ernest kept locked up?

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Ernest didn’t have to venture more than five feet from his workbench if the “great whiskey” got to be too much for him.

She–Arlouine, let’s say–kept the well-worn carpets vacuumed. Grab bars in the bathroom suggest she tried to stay in her home as long as possible? But eventually raised toilet seats don’t help much. I imagine her, thin and brittle with iron gray hair, propped up in a nursing home bed, staring into the distance. Was she a fearful soul? I ask only because of something odd left behind in a hall closet.

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Sacred water in profane hands

So Arlouine was Roman Catholic. (We Lutherans don’t go in for Holy Water, our idea being that God has blessed that life source far above our poor power to add or detract.) For a couple days I laughed at the idea of Holy Water in a spray bottle, but Starbucks friend Sean, also a Catholic, gave me a compassionate nudge, probably without realizing it. I don’t remember his exact waords, but when I showed him the photograph he acknowledged the old practice of keeping Holy Water around the house. His take was kind, though, along the lines of “sometimes you’ll try anything that might help.” Point taken. Our fears hide in plain sight, like cobwebs near the ceiling or rust in the medicine cabinet; a spray of blessed water can do no harm.

Arlouine and Ernest’s bedrooms have tile that is so ugly it’s kind of charming.

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I’m not sure what all those tile plants are, but they look to be in pain.

Besides the Holy Water, the best find in the old lady house is the newspaper under the tile. I lifted up a corner to be sure the floors are hardwood–yes!–and found The Erie Daily Times (Night Final) dated November 8, 1949. My own parents’ firstborn, Cathy, was not yet a year old. Mom and Dad are both gone now, and my sister can retire any time she is ready.

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37-cent matinee

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Okay, so skinny depictions of women aren’t exactly new.

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Liquors, a Hammond, and Hazel Lowry’s smooth vocals: 1949 Erie, Pennsylvania, at its most refined

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Captain von Trapp’s first fiancé? I’m not going to lie: I’m frightened.

Oh, Arlouine and Ernest! You put that paper down sixty-five years ago, a prudent layer between the tile and wood. I’ll grant you, there’s no pressing need to update that flooring. Of course, Kathy and I will refinish the hardwood, probably put down a faux Persian rug, something tasteful. If I’m the one who slices your old drab leaves down to trash-bag size with a drywall blade, part of me won’t be happy.

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Possibly more thermometers than electrical outlets in our new home; maybe Kathy and I will keep this one to remind us of Arlouine, Ernest, and all those who have sailed on to glory.

I believe your way is for the best and will try to remember it as I dream my way into your home: Be sure to finish those leftovers. Put that old metal table in the basement and fold laundry on it. Don’t pull up perfectly good tile. And–I confess it makes sense–keep Holy Water in a spray bottle. A mist is more than enough.

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Tabernacle for the Holy Water; all woodwork in the house is like this

 

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