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.”

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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

A House with Shaman Doorknobs

For over thirteen years the Coleman family has lived in a white house in Erie, Pennsylvania. If ever there were a house with soul, it’s 322 Shenley Drive. In its rooms wife Kathy, daughter Elena (twenty-five, now a married mother ten minute’s away), son Micah (twenty-two, working full-time and living at home), and I have known joy that wouldn’t let us stop laughing and sadness that had me, at least, looking at the bedroom ceiling at bedtime and praying: “I’d never take the life you gave me, God, but if you’re merciful, I’d be okay with not waking up in the morning.”

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A house with soul

This is a vulnerable admission, but as a pastor I’ve talked to so many people who have thought the same thing that I’m prepared to cut the crap. Some stretches in life are wretched enough to make you hope for a personal appointment with the One who promises to wipe away all tears. You can quote me on that.

But lately days are many stories above despair. (Did you just hear a rapping sound? That’s me knocking on every wooden surface within reach, including my own head.) As the blessing of being a rookie grandfather keeps pulling my lips into a smile, I’m finding it possible to glance backward without feeling a leaden weight in my chest or anticipating an ambush.

This morning–I’ve no clue why–I thought about doorknobs and what a rickety, inadequate collection we have in the Coleman house. I’m betting that among you indulgent folks reading this, nobody has such a crummy home full of doorknobs. What an impotent group! But as I went through the house studying doorknobs, I found myself visiting the last dozen Coleman years–tough years, but not without gladness. It was like looking at the jewelry of a loved one long gone. There was a fullness in the moment. That’s what the doorknobs were for me.

Front Door

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I don’t remember when the actual knob fell off, but for reasons I’ll never understand, we’ve never actually corrected the deficiency. Sure, we could get a whole new knob assembly, but that would make too much sense. Fortunately, this stump does allow you to exit, but there’s a technique involved. Years ago, it occurred to me that getting out required the exact movement used in giving somebody a counterclockwise purple nurple. Once during a particularly sophomoric evening, a guest looked at the stump and wondered what to do. I said, “Look, you want to get out, you have to pinch the nipple.” I said this without guessing that in our inappropriate home, my instruction would become a mantra. 

I’ve stopped hoping for a fix. In the Coleman story, the front door reminds me that some problems never go away, some simple inconveniences become squatters. I can live with this.

Bathroom Door 

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Ah, yes, one of those good, old-fashioned glass doorknobs. Let me tell you, they’re hotdog water. I’ve lost count of how many replacements I’ve installed, only to have them go to pieces in a month. I don’t even know where the model shown here came from. It just appeared up one day, and so far it has held together. Long after the house is gone, this doorknob may still be intact. It’s so tight a few days ago I heard Kathy shout after a shower, “Help! I’m trapped!” She’d put on lotion and couldn’t get any traction.

At various times we’ve stuck a pair of scissors in the empty hole, a slick solution, but understandably pathetic to visitors. I looked at this knob this morning and thought, “Yeah, well, you do what you can and laugh along the way.”

Upstairs Closet Door 

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I love this one. It works perfectly–no shimmying. And it’s the doorknob equivalent to power steering. Mmm. It’s also attached to one of the least used doors in the house. I suppose that’s Murphy’s Law of Doorknobs.

One of our cats, Baby Crash, is fond of sneaking in this closet when the door’s left ajar and then gets marooned inside. The teaching: a tool can be fantastic, but if I don’t make use of it, what’s the point?

Dining Room Double Door 

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Natural wood. Man oh man, am I a natural wood guy. Varnish, stain, polyurethane, oil: do whatever you want, just don’t slap white paint on every wooden surface in the house like my dad did. The only drawback to this door is that it’s nearly impossible to keep it closed. You hear it click, think it’s good, but next time you check the door has yawned open by its own will. This door and its knob remind me of having an easy-on-the-eye chef who overcooks your salmon. We have a couple other doorknobs that don’t do their jobs either, without the merit of being pleasing to look at.

Too many times over the years I’ve been cowardly and said, “Just let it be. Maybe the problem will get up and leave on its own.” At least in the case of the dining room double doors, I’m right. The door won’t close because the floor has heaved slightly, and I’m not about to fuss with it. The solution: the door and knob are attractive, even if they don’t work. Guess I can love them the way they are.

My Study Door 

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I come from a family of door slammers. When I was ten years old, my mother got really pissed, walked over to the basement, opened the door, and slammed it shut. Then she walked a few steps away, turned around, stomped back, opened the door again, and slammed it shut again. When Micah’s bedroom was in my present study, he did something to piss me off, but I didn’t engage in slamming. I just rammed the door open with my forearm. Who knows what set me off? All I can say is my study door won’t close until I do surgery with wood putty.

When I take responsibility for the damage, I’m quietly grateful. Who am I to scold somebody for poor choices or a destructive temper? I’ve got no business looking down on anybody.

Micah’s Bedroom Door 

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When son Micah was hooked on heroin, I refused to condemn him. I stood at his bedroom door as he slept this morning and remembered that in the shitland of active addiction, he was still quick witted, hilarious, and decent. I still crack up when I walk by Wilfred Brimley, “official sponsor of diabetis.” In my worst moments I despaired of Micah’s healing, but I always knew that if he came around, an exceptional young man would rise from the ashes. His doorknob is altogether missing these days, but who cares?

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Micah closes his bedroom door with a rope tied to a twenty-pound dumbbell. He’s content with this arrangement, and in our present doorknob context, so am I.

Kathy and John’s Bedroom and Closet Door 

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Bedroom and closet doorknobs put to good use

Elena and son-in-law Matt have now given Kathy and me a grandson, Cole. Micah, still under our roof, has his own life. We rarely close our bedroom door, so we hang clothes on our doorknobs.

In the end, I don’t give a rat’s rump about doorknobs. I care that loved ones can open needful doors and aching stories can be told.