What I do believe is an adage that has grown trite with wear: Everybody has a story. Manners were expected in my childhood, but not so much the patient peeling back of other people’s layers to understand behavior and find compassion. Continue reading
A Deep Breath and I’m Good Again
“It’s hell being nuts, Pastor,” Ray said over coffee. “I never know who I’m going to wake up to.”
My friend’s mental illness has been lifelong and ferocious. Hardly a day passes without one of his demons exacting misery. As I’ve mentioned in previous reports, we talk on the phone daily, usually more than once. Our conversations skip like records. He craves tobacco. He’s paranoid. He’s confused. Pray for him.
Occasionally he comes out with a revelation. “I never know who I’m going to wake up to.” If anybody else said this, you’d think he was joking about boozy one-night stands, but not Ray. Every day at 8:53 or shortly thereafter, my cell phone rings—or, I should say, quacks. I’ve recently given Ray his own ringtone so that I don’t rush to answer, not out of insensitivity, but realism. He’ll call back in 20 minutes.
Just as he has no idea what his alarm clock will bring, neither can I predict the stability of the voice on the other end of the line.
“I really want to smoke bad this morning, Pastor.” That’s a common complaint.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” I think, “smoke already!” No, I don’t advocate bad habits, but obsessing might be as carcinogenic as tar and as addictive as nicotine. My annoyance doesn’t linger like it used to, though. A deep breath and I’m good again.
Friendship with Ray is an exercise in forbearance, but it comes with rewards, chief among them is that loving him precisely as he is nudges me into loving others as they are and, no kidding, accepting life as it is.
The latest beneficiary of John’s love fest is the Coleman’s foxhound Sherlock Holmes. The facts are these. Sherlock, as I have noted in the past, is loud. If you could hear him carry on when I get home from work, your guts would quiver. Hollering won’t change this. Ignoring him won’t change this. Filet mignon won’t change this.
Now, I can boil over, or I can remember what Ray taught me: You can’t—or, I insist, shouldn’t—train people or dogs to be something that they’re not. That’s pointless and unfair. Either track down what’s lovable or start kicking friends and pets out of your pack.
Obviously I’m not talking about, say, a woman staying with an abusive man because, oh bother, he can’t change. There are limits.
But if your foxhound goes nuts on the way to the dog park, sounding off with his head hanging out the window, you have choices. That is to say, I have choices. 1.) Stop taking Sherlock to the dog park. 2.) Roar shut up until a sore throat sets in. 3.) Bark along with him. Only one of these makes since. Once the spirit takes over, the chats I have with my sleuthhound are almost as instructive as the ones I have with Ray.
Sherlock’s vocabulary is stunted, but adequate. He’s got ruff, whoop and whimper as well as several variations. Wimper is phonetically impaired, but you get the idea. We drive by pedestrians, who grin or go slack jawed. Some must wonder, “Was that driver barking like the dog?” Why, yes, he was. The performance also includes an intimate exchange. “Rah, rah, roo,” Sherlock often says, undoubtedly meaning, “I love you.” So I respond, “Rah, rah, roo, roo.” “I love you, too.”
After dashing, frolicking and indiscreet sniffing, he hops in the backseat for the five minutes home. Tired into silence, he who sheds fiercely puts his paws on the console, thrusts his head beside mine and slobbers.
Nobody has ever accused me of being tidy, so my gearshift panel is a commotion of dog hair, dust and coffee stains. Thanks to Sherlock, this dry slurry is now cemented in place by K-9 shellac. The dog has a surplus of spit, especially after playtime, and when he pants, that paddle-shaped tongue flings the slime everywhere.
I could get grouchy, but what’s the use? Scolding will never subdue saliva glands. Neither will admonition make a troubled soul wait until 9:00 a.m. to call.
I have some experience with neuroses, so I can confide in you this blasphemy. Prayer won’t still Sherlock’s thrill of the chase or cure Ray’s ceaseless mind. It’s more blessed, if you ask me, to bay with the dog or answer the phone saying, “So who did you wake up to today? If he’s giving you trouble, let’s talk a while. Then I’ll bend God’s ear for you both.”
Oniontown Pastoral: Afternoon of the Gladdened Heart
If my blessing had a face, it would belong to a three-year-old as yet unpunished by disappointment. Time ages us all, but it’s toil that paints pale bruises under our eyes and sculpts wrinkles and jowls. Anyway, the darling cheeks of my blessing would be smeared with grass and mud. A mother would lick her thumb and go after the mess, but the child would twist loose before the job was done.
This is for the best. What catches my aging breath isn’t in the child’s face alone, but in the anointing of sweat, dirt and spit. And especially in what once annoyed me, but now returns as longing: Being pulled close by my mother, looked at with what only ancient Greek fully captures, agape, and gently tended.
The blessing was simple: Kathy and John Coleman’s grandsons, six and four, played in our muddy backyard. They filled milk jugs from the hose and made a pond behind our garage. Given enough time, they would have built a moat. As Cole and Killian troweled new layers of crud on their skin and jeans, son-in-law Matt and son Micah sunk posts in for a fence, and pregnant daughter Elena and Kathy kept an eye on the boys and talked. I sat on the steps, mindful of the sun. The shepherd’s pie I had labored over bubbled in the oven.
My efforts, I confess, were fortified by a splash of Cabernet Sauvignon. Having skipped lunch, I wasn’t drunk, but my heart was gladdened. In this condition, I watched with outsized pleasure Cole and Killian, whom Kathy and I hadn’t seen much during the Coronavirus pandemic, lose themselves in the possibilities and wonder of their grandparents’ yard. For good or ill, we adults had decided to loosen the restrictions within our family.
Many grandparents live far away from their grandchildren, an arrangement that would dig a ditch down the middle of our lives. As the weeks wore on, we saw the boys from six feet away. We didn’t hold their hands or kiss them on top of the head or pick them up. Kathy got weepy when the subject of being separated from Cole and Killian came up and crossed her arms in a hug that came up empty.
If having grandchildren were worship, then those boys perching on my lap and leaning into my chest would be Holy Communion. I never take for granted being Pop next to my wife’s Grandma Daffy and the good fortune of our adult children choosing to reside nearby.
So the blessing was mostly this: Peace in the family, laughter in the yard, grandsons who come near again. Every once in a while a gathering of minutes is so right as to seem otherworldly. Friend Jodi told me about a day long ago when she and her brother were fishing on calm water. Leaning back in his seat and looking at the sky, he said, “I feel sorry for anybody that’s not us right now.”
That’s one way of putting it—grace tells the seconds to hush and mercy is perfect air passing over your arms and face.
Man, was I happy. Who knows why, then, my late father joined me on the steps? He would have rolled his eyes at my glass of red restorative. He was a Schlitz man, not an alcoholic, but in leisure hours he could dent a case.
50 years ago I sat with Dad on Grandma and Grandpa Miller’s porch steps. No talk. The beers had gone down quickly, and Mom was mad that he had gotten a fat tongue before family dinner. He stared somewhere far off, beyond Horton Avenue. Dad was in the dog house for good reason, but I’ll never forget how licked he was. My parents weren’t made for each other, that’s all. Sad time stretched out in front of him–and Mom, too, I know–long loveless summers of little but getting by.
It was strange, but lovely, to recall my father’s saddened heart while the great-grandsons he never met ran carefree “in the sun that is young once only.” My unmerited joy rested Dad’s defeat on its shoulder and was the sweeter for it. Maybe this is why I thought of him. That could easily have been me decades ago, slack jawed and dazed on the in-laws’ steps, a son keeping vigil. Lucky is what I am.
The face of gladness is young, fresh with promise, but it’s not real without the streaks of earth and blades of grass. That’s how I know it belongs to me.
Oniontown Pastoral: I Mean to be Like Bill
Have you ever moved out of a home you loved? Before closing the door, you walked through the empty rooms. Your footsteps echoed. You could hear yourself breathe. Floating from space to space, you knew that you would never leave. Part of you must abide under the ceiling you stared at before getting up each morning and beside the wall you slid down to sit on the floor, crying over terrible news.
You finally drove away, though the weeks were off kilter until new walls became home again.
I find myself on such a road right now. In fact, I’m not going anywhere. St. John’s in Oniontown will be my pastoral perch for years to come—God willing and the creek don’t rise. A small house in Erie will remain the Coleman’s nest.
No, I’m talking about change. Hemispheres of my world are like the hollow home I once stood in, letting all it held and witnessed work joy and sorrow in me by turns.
It’s impossible to explain why certain passings bring on tears while others drift by like wispy clouds. Maybe the best we can do is acknowledge this reality and listen to each other.
What I want to tell you first is trivial to the universe. The blonde horse I named Onslow is missing in action. For a few years he occupied a yard along Route 19 all by his lonesome. He shared space with a comrade named Sandy for a while, then suddenly was gone, along with eight or ten other horses in an adjoining pasture. Two horses still roam the field, but Onslow and the others belonged to a person who took them to another location.
The fenced-in half acre or so my friend haunted is forlorn, especially in March, when the landscape sleeps. I visited him once and couldn’t get him to come close. Will I ever run my hand between his eyes and down his nose? Probably not.
At the same time Onslow departed, a parishioner died, leaving a deserted room in many Oniontown hearts. His name was Bill, and he was my buddy. I’ve never met a man who had such a huge presence and yet expected so little attention or recognition. He liked my “Report from Oniontown” and even watched for Onslow when his travels took him down Route 19. He said Onslow out of the corner of his mouth, then busted out that great smile. His belly laugh, it was the best sauce ever.
But the last thing Bill would want me to do is pace the bare floors, my footfall a sad tick tock. He was about moving on in good time and taking hold of each day’s possibilities.
“Well, sure, Bill,” I said. The house was quiet.
Then one afternoon he showed up at church and told me that he had a lady friend. I was overjoyed. As anybody who has lost a beloved and found another knows, it wasn’t that Bill was forgetting about Connie. He just had more living to do.
“Her name is Tye,” he said, “and she’s a great lady.”
What a joy it was to watch St. John’s and Bill’s family welcome Tye into the fold.
Those two did everything together, but as I learned after Bill’s death, they were cleared eyed. He was 80 and had all kinds of systems breaking down.
“I was hoping for a year, but we got a year and a half,” Tye said with a smile. It wasn’t enough, though. It never is.
Early on, Bill told her, “I don’t know how long we have, but we’re gonna give ‘er hell.”
I trust God knew what he meant. What they got was 18 months of heaven.
When I go by Bill’s house on Mercer Road, I remember that he’ll never again show up at my office for some chin wagging.
He would tell me not to fuss, so I’ll move on. None of us knows what will happen tomorrow, especially given how the world is spinning today. Onslow sure didn’t receive notice of his relocation.
So I mean to be like Bill, to give ‘er hell until the last moment, to close the door of the empty house behind me and light out for a new one, my spirit of good cheer and heart ready for more portions of love.
Oniontown Pastoral: What Will Happen with Ray?
My phone will ring. It will ring now in the middle of a sentence or during my siesta or when wife Kathy is telling me about her day. The name Ray will roll across my screen, and my chest will tighten with annoyance. I’m ashamed to say so. The deal is, if I’m occupied—and what I’ve just mentioned counts—then I don’t answer. Otherwise, I pick up.
Used to be Ray would ask for a ride to get tobacco or to borrow money. He always paid me back, but the loans messed with my cashflow. Other than an occasional fiver, the Pastor John Bank is closed.
I still take him here and there. He gives me a few bucks for gas and thanks me over and over. Occasionally he can’t help himself and calls me an hour after I drop him back off at home: “Pastor, I just wanted tell you how much I appreciate everything you do for me.”
Ray’s mental illness is chronic. If there’s a psychiatric condition, it has paid him a visit. I don’t know all his medications, but the man sags, drags and droops—same with his jeans, suspenders not withstanding. But he still gets sick. That’s what he calls his collective turmoil, whether it’s fretting about somebody breaking in and stealing his debit card or being scared that God is punishing him for smoking or some other trifle.
“Hey, Raymond, how the heck are you?” is my usual salutation.
“I’m really sick today, Pastor,” he’ll say first thing. “Please pray for me.” We talk for a minute, maybe two.
Sometimes he responds, “You know, I’m doing pretty good today, buddy,” and I get another feeling in my chest, a lightness. We chat, enjoying the nonchalant fact that he’s OK.
And so Ray goes. Tolerable days string together, then the old anvil falls. He checks himself into the hospital, where a doctor tweaks his meds. After a week he gets released, does OK for a while, then, here we go again.
Ray doesn’t have many interests to leaven his lonely hours folded up in a broken recliner. He once collected beer steins, record albums and even cigar humidors, but every diversion has a way of turning into an obsession that crushes all good sense.
To his credit, Ray has gotten better at holding binge behavior at bay, except with Starlight peppermints that constantly clack against his dentures. When the smoking habit reigns, his fingertips go rusty blonde.
As long as he’s feeling alright, my buddy is content. He reads chapters of the Bible over the phone with friends and is satisfied with a diet of plain boloney sandwiches and Cornflakes.
At 62, though, Ray is never free of legitimate worry about his future.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen with me,” he said the other day from my passenger seat. “I’ll probably end up in Warren.”
Warren State Hospital, that is. When I was a kid in northwest Pennsylvania, “North Warren” meant “loony bin.” Sad, but that’s how it was.
But what I heard Ray saying was, “I expect to be forsaken.”
And I heard, “I’m going to completely lose my mind, and nobody will care one way or the other.”
A couple years ago, Ray almost made me lose my mind. His illness was particularly severe, and he would call me eight to ten times a day. When I brought the number to his attention, he had no idea.
“I’m sorry, Pastor,” he apologized. “I’m not playing with a full deck.”
“I know, Ray. I understand,” I assured him, swallowing frustration.
He is infinitely better now. So why is it that when Ray runs across my screen these days, I react inside like he had whacked my thumb with a hammer? Not every time, but often enough.
Other than a ride or a cup of Starbucks coffee, all Ray wants is a moment. He wants a friend to give him hope that once he runs out of cards entirely, his name will still mean something to somebody.
When Ray said, “I don’t know what’s going to happen with me,” it was as if God leaned in close and asked, “So, what will it be, John? Will my son be forsaken?”
If you ask me what faith is, I say it’s believing that when Ray falls asleep every night, God is nowhere more present than in his room. It’s dreaming that God looks at my friend’s face in the dark and sighs.
Faith is answering my phone.
Oniontown Pastoral: Lost a Hemisphere Away from Home
The scene played out in real time, but I watch it again in slow motion.
I started my Tuesday by voting at Edison Elementary School in Erie and afterwards in the parking lot happened upon a man my age—a campaign volunteer—saying to a boy, perhaps seven, “Didn’t you know there’s no school today?”
The boy’s face pinched and widened in the universal prelude to tears, which instantly washed down his cheeks. Looking up at the cinderblock sky, he cried, “I’m lost!”
The situation was obvious. He had been dropped off by a parent—his mother, I later learned—who didn’t know that school was closed on Election Day. When he found the doors locked, she had already driven away.
As I approached the boy, he said again, “I’m lost!”
His circumstance was not dire. The campaign guy and I realized this, but the little man understood only that he was adrift. He was skinny, cropped black hair fortified with gel and half-pint knapsack snug against his back. English wasn’t coming easy.
Surely somebody would be in the school office. The three of us headed toward the building—imposing brick, the kind that scrapes off skin when you brush up against it.
“You’re not alone,” I said, my hand on his shoulder. “We’re with you, and I’ll stay here all day if I have to, until your mom comes to pick you up.” I was telling the truth, certain that the St. John’s Lutheran family would excuse my tardiness.
Long story short, we tracked down the kid’s older brother, also a student. They were from Nepal, he explained, and lived in the Horan Apartments, rough projects a couple blocks away.
“Namaste,” the campaign guy said in a nod to their native country. Meaning: “I bow to the sacred within you.”
The boys returned the greeting and added the customary sign of hands pressed together before their chests. I joined in.
Just then, a woman supervising a youth program in the school passed by and recognized at once the quandary: neighborhood children who unexpectedly need minding. “Happens all the time,” she said, whisking the boys away with her. And that was that.
“All shall be well,” early Renaissance mystic Julian of Norwich said, “and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” This from a survivor of the Black Death! In fact, I agree with her, in the long run.
The trouble is, perspective comes with age. For a Nepalese kid dropped off in a parking lot a hemisphere away from home, there is only the short run. Even for adults, fear answers aphorisms by running its nails on a chalkboard.
In my early teens I got turned around briefly in the Pennsylvania woods on a mountain called Baldy, and the panic was exquisite. “All manner of thing shall be well,” indeed, but my chest still echoes with shouts for help into treetops.
So the Nepalese boy’s wet face stays with me along with his skyward glance and words: “I’m lost.”
Strange thing, I’m in no rush to get rid of him. As a matter of fact, his abiding presence is far more valuable to me than my assurance and assistance were to him.
Seriously, he got some comfort from this Oniontown pastor, but the campaign guy could have handled the trouble with ease. On the other hand, what I got from the boy has ended up being wisdom masquerading as bother. (Hanging around all day with a trembling kid would have gotten old in a hurry.)
Of course, not all truth goes down smooth. Sometimes edification burns like a shot of bourbon.
The Nepalese boy speaks for half the world, if you ask me. In my line of work, folks often say in a thousand different ways, “I’m lost.”
Somehow or other I let them know, “Me, too.”
Whether in Oniontown or Erie or across the Atlantic Ocean, I assume that everybody is lost or knows full well what it feels like. Who among us hasn’t been suddenly deserted outside our own rough brick school or atop a Baldy or, worst of all, in our hearts? Tears wait patiently, one memory below the surface.
For this reason, the finally-found boy is my companion, reminding me of how lost plenty of us are. Maybe I’m wrong, but there can be no harm in having three good words at the ready: “You’re not alone.”
I’m telling the truth.
Oniontown Pastoral: As If You Can Kill Time
If you saw me walking down the street, you wouldn’t say, “Now there’s a guy who values time and uses it wisely.” No, you’d say, “Gosh, he’s pudgy and rumpled. I’ll bet he’s lazy.”
A gumshoe hired to investigate me would report that I’m “bone idle” and “lackadaisical,” but he would be wrong.I prefer “unconventional.” One of my favorite lines of poetry comes from Andrew Marvel: “But at my back I always hear time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” And two expressions that annoy me are “killing time” and “wasting time.” Henry David Thoreau was right when he mused, “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.”
Frittered hours can never be recovered, but I must add that one highly organized, go-getter’s waste is this Lutheran pastor’s treasure.
Waiting in a grocery store line, for example, can be a respite if I keep my billfold full of compassion. The customer fiddling with change or rummaging for a coupon is stumbling through life just like I am. Giving the cashier the skunk eye and snorting loudly: now that’s wasting time.
Years ago I put checkout time to use by monitoring tabloids. Rather than glower at my provisions stranded on the conveyor belt, I got updates on Elizabeth Taylor’s marriage to a Martian and the cellulite epidemic among aging actors and actresses. These days I close my eyes, take in a deep breath and give thanks for food, clothing, shelter and love.
Any still, mindful moment is never an assault on time, nor for that matter is a nap. I could offer here a brigade of scientific support for what history’s most prolific napper, Winston Churchill, described as “the refreshment of blessed oblivion.”
The stigma associated with napping persists, but I remain defiant. In my experience, much of what gives each day its shine takes place in inconspicuous pockets of time. My thrice-weekly commute to and from Oniontown is a perfect example. Folks ask how I like the drive and are occasionally flummoxed to hear me rhapsodize about it.
You readers of A Napper’s Companion may suspect me of blowing sunshine, but I’m on the level. Last Thursday provides a good case study.
En route to St. John’s Lutheran Church I had just finished an audiobook biography of President Lyndon Johnson and was still recovering from the revelation that he fancied interrupting meetings with male staffers to go skinny-dipping in the White House pool—and cajoled them into joining him. No funny business, only matters of state being discussed by awkward faces bobbing up and down in the water. (I’m not making this up, and, sorry, there’s no way you can un-know this piece of historical trivia.)
As the scenery on I-79 slipped by, I took my mind off of unfortunate LBJ visuals by listening to a podcast (basically a radio program over the Internet) called Milk Street, which is about gourmet cooking.
Far from killing time, I rescued it by listening as legendary foodie Christopher Kimball preached the glory of pomegranate molasses drizzled over crispy baked chicken and the foresight of freezing pots of intensely darkened roux for convenient and flavorful sauce thickening.
“But, John,” you’re wondering, “do you really need to consume more crispy chicken and gravy?”
The same goes for wandering the expansive antique shop in Sheakleyville, where I stopped on my way to Oniontown not last Thursday but a couple of weeks ago. It feels like prayer to behold objects once commonplace but now replaced by the “new and improved”—alarm clocks that wind up, communicate with hands and measure time with ticks and tocks; blue and white Currier and Ives plates adorned with horse drawn wagons taking bundled up families home for Christmas.
Am I unconventional? So be it. The old suitcase I bought from the friendly proprietor and polished back to life has given me inexplicable pleasure. It was a treasure hiding in a pocket of time.
Whether at church in Oniontown or at home in Erie or shuttling in between, I try to honor each second by harvesting the wonder around me.
Do you understand? Zooming down Route 19 without saying hello to dirty blonde horse Onslow is an injury to eternity. Likewise, noticing son Micah bending down right now in the dining room to kiss our foxhound Sherlock Holmes right between the eyes is a prayer: “Thank you, God, for this present hour.”
Oniontown Pastoral: Story of a Hero in the Small Hours
“Elevander and Milkus,” grandson Cole said through tears from the foot of my bed. It must have been around 1:00 a.m.
Cole and his little brother Killian had landed at Grandma Kathy and Pop’s house at 6:00 p.m. for a sleepover, followed by our Sunday drive to Oniontown for church.
Half an hour later, Kathy and Cole were cuddling when she said he felt warm. I kissed our ginger’s forehead, the temperature-taking method my late mother used. The patient was not quite burning up.
Kathy encouraged grape ibuprofen, but was rebuffed. No surprise there. Our own daughter and son regarded any remedy for a fevered brow as outrageous, possibly unconstitutional.
By 7:30, Cole was ready for bed. A scant half of our enclosed front porch serves as a prayer corner for Pop, and the rest is “Cole’s Room,” dubbed by the lad himself with the same swagger Columbus displayed in claiming the West Indies for Ferdinand and Isabella. On sleepover nights, the sofa bed there gets pulled out, and Grandma and “those babies,” as she calls them, prop themselves up on an embarrassment of pillows, lean into each other and watch cartoons.
Kathy, it must be noted, is no grandson’s fool. She goes for a soft sell. “Hey, best buddies,” she says, “it’s time to get ready for bed.” Not time to sleep, mind you. These things must be done delicately. First, get pajamas on, then slide under Grandma’s feather comforter with nightcap in hand—juice box, tortilla chips, rack of lamb, whatever it takes. Eventually, glad bellies and slapstick animation lower the boys’ defenses and slumber descends.
The routine is glorious, every crumb and dribble of it. On the night in question, Killian was clinging to wakefulness when I retired to Pop’s Room. Cole was long gone.
Having a queen-sized bed to myself ought to be glorious, but I’d just as soon keep our quartet together the whole night through. With Grandma Kathy between them, though, Cole and Killian’s last waking moments on that lumpy sofa bed seem an adventure, as if she is keeping watch as they sail over dark waves toward dreamland.
Whenever the boys stay over, my sleep is light, ears keen, especially to a child’s cries. Kathy can normally rock and coo her shipmates back to sleep, but occasionally Pop is called upon to sing a shanty of sorts.
That’s what brought Cole to the foot of my bed. He needed a story—not from a book but one of his very own. The protagonists of choice are Elevander and Milkus, stuffed brother and sister rabbits whose names Cole inexplicably blurted out to his mother one day.
The plots of late are as unlikely as the characters’ names. A year ago a micro-tornado hit my daughter’s house, flinging the boys’ swing set over telephone wires a full block away.
In my yarns, Cole found Elevander and Milkus hiding behind the garage after the twister. He brought them into the house and cared for them until a climbing wall replaced the swings. Then he made them a home in its shelter. Hay from Grandma Kathy’s garden provided a sweet bed, and Cole asked Killian to get lettuce and carrots from Mama for his friends.
Telling Cole a new chapter, I knew Kathy and I wouldn’t be bringing those babies along to Oniontown in the morning. They would go home instead. Still, I was determined to remain at my post and finish my duty.
After surrendering to sips of grape medicine, my boy lay nose to nose with me as I recounted the arrival of two squirrels whose tree had blown down. They had heard rumors about the boy nearby who took in a couple of frightened rabbits.
Elevander and Milkus happily shared quarters with their bushy-tailed neighbors, and Killian ran to get them peanuts from the cupboard.
The next day, of all things, a lost pony showed up. Cole figured the rabbits and squirrels could spare some hay for their new guest until Grandma brought more. Everyone had plenty to eat, a place to sleep and love enough to believe that tornados are no match for kindness.
Part way through my tale, Cole made a bathroom run. Pausing at the foot of the bed, he put up his finger and said, “I’ll be right back, Pop.” As if I would go on without him!
Cole doesn’t realize yet that he is the hero of every Elevander and Milkus story. I want him to fall asleep knowing that real heroes are most of all kind.
Oniontown Pastoral: Nothing Is Plumb, Level, or Square
Wife Kathy is early girl this week at the Regional Cancer Center, so my kiss goodbye came this morning at 5:30 with this question: “Hey, did you clean the litter box last night?”
The trouble is, our cat, Baby Crash, is such a dainty soul that her ladies’ room doesn’t get nasty. The trouble also is, I always forget. If only I could remember on Tuesday evening before trash pick up, there would be no problem. I mean, yes, of course, an everyday scooping routine would be optimal, but a slight effort on my part would keep Kathy from saying, “I feel like a broken record.”
And another “if only.” If only the late Alan Dugan hadn’t hit the nail on the head in “Love Song: I and Thou.” “Nothing is plumb, level, or square,” he writes of a house he built for himself. The poem is angry and mournful, with the speaker clearly as flawed as his construction. Love enters the picture only at the end, when we learn that all along he has been addressing his wife.
Dugan’s vision is darker than my own, but that line has persisted with me since my college days. The prosaic translation I constantly offer my St. John’s brothers and sisters is, “There’s always something, isn’t there?”
We laugh and nod together. One tire is always low on air. Your neck has a crick in it from sleeping weird. Your parent / child / spouse / best friend / neighbor (circle one) has shingles / might be laid off / is being a monumental pain in the rumpus (circle one).
Or today everything is fine, but your insides wonder what is misplaced, unfinished or damaged. You can’t figure it out. “Tell me, John,” you say, “why am I looking over my shoulder, waiting for the other shoe to drop, and sensing that the phone is about to ring with terrible news or another fire to put out?”
I’ll tell you why. Because “nothing is plumb, level, or square.” If something isn’t crackers at present, experience has taught us that a sliver, sprained ankle or broken heart can’t be far off. When troubles arrive in rapid succession, rhetorical questions come to mind. What did I do to deserve this? Is God testing me or what?
The answer is generally clear, for me at least. When my thumb smarts, I know exactly who swung the hammer. And the only thing worse than swearing and hopping around on one foot is knowing I’ll repeat this performance in perpetuity. A dirty litter box is easily remedied, but the fact is, if I remember to clean it, I’m sure to forget something else. It’s not like patching one crack in the drywall makes a whole room smooth. The Tower of Pisa leans by name. Bowling lanes are defined by gutters. Pencils live under erasers.
People, on the other hand, are both upright and crooked, and the only way not to stay bent over is to speak. “I messed up.” “Please forgive me.” “I’ll try to do better.” Each of the three is an implied question. In the sanctuary, corporate confessions receive immediate absolution, but in most other buildings, silence and waiting are customary. When answers come, the language is commonplace. “No worries.” “We’re good.” “That’s OK.” The relief is a blessing.
So the human pendulum always swings between injury and pardon. You don’t have to be a churchgoer or even a believer to recognize yourself in St. Paul’s quandary: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). In case you didn’t catch that the first time, he writes two verses later, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” And to be positive, he serves up the next verse: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
Ten years ago I read this humbling Romans passage at a parishioner’s funeral. A grizzly soul who wrestled with himself constantly, John was comforted to know that St. Paul understood his predicament.
I lean on the apostle, too, but the poet’s raw testimony blesses me like scripture. “Nothing is plumb, level, or square”—not that anything is really wrong. At any given moment, if I’m not apologizing, circumstance is preparing an ambush.
In my fifty-seventh year, I’ve found an ideal name for this phenomenon: “Life.”
Oniontown Pastoral: We Could Get Together for a While
Of everyone on my Christmas gift list, my father was the toughest. If he wanted something, he went out and bought it—not that he spent much. He wore Velcro sneakers, Navy-issue boxer shorts, and store brand polo shirts. What treasure do you wrap up for a consumer who rarely ventured beyond Kmart and whose favorite song was Morris Albert’s “Feelings”?
In the early 1990s, I proposed that a couple times each month we go out for lunch. “That’s a perfect gift!” he said. Ironically, Dad picked up the tab, but food was incidental. What we both needed was time.
During my current season of life I’m taking many backward glances and discovering not only that time was the best gift I ever gave Dad, but it always has been the one possession most worthy of sharing with anybody.
Actually, “time” is the wrong word. Where relationships are concerned, minutes and hours are the accepted way we measure our presence to each other, numerical values we assign to shooting the breeze or holding hands. What counts, though, is offering my very self to you and you responding in kind.
We’ve developed strategies to make being together appear less schmaltzy. We “do lunch” or “have coffee.” We go to painting and wine parties. Decades ago my mother would announce, “I’m having ‘club’ here tonight.” Pinochle, that is. The ladies kibitzed hours after the cards were put away.
I’m a fan of every conceivable excuse to be where two or three are gathered, but I’m also partial to truth telling, at least where conversations of one are concerned. By the time I’m finally ready to lay my burdens down, the life that passes before my eyes ought to be an edifying story with themes that never die.
And so when my 5th grade teacher Mr. Grignol took me golfing one Saturday morning in 1973, the hours were sacred. He gave me two sleeves of balls because the three in my bag might not be enough. I asked if his Chevy Impala, a drab-green behemoth with four-on-the-floor, had power steering. “Yeah,” he grunted, “man power!”
I now think to myself, “He didn’t have to spend a morning with a student going through a rough patch of childhood.” Right now, I’m standing beside Mr. Grignol again, watching to see if the drive he has just crushed will clear a pond. “If that one doesn’t make it,” he says, the ball soaring away, “I can’t do it.” Few of the wonders I’ve witnessed top waiting shoulder to shoulder with my teacher for a splash or a safe landing, his presence alone a grace he could not have reckoned.
My professors at Behrend College in the early 1980s gave of themselves richly and definitely without material reward. Their tenure and promotion didn’t ride on having winding discussions with undergraduates at the beach or in a bar, but I profited as much from those classrooms as the ones on campus.
Is it too much to claim that most human activities are window dressing for the sacrament of rubbing elbows and wagging chins? The Saturday Star Trek nights my old neighbors and I used to observe were a front for socializing. Often an hour or more passed before we got around to picking an episode to watch.
Or take church meetings. I no longer wonder why they tend to go on longer than necessary. “We could go walking through a windy park,” England Dan and John Ford Coley used to sing, “or take a drive along the beach or stay home and watch TV, you see it really doesn’t matter much to me.”
Day by day, the world over, the best reason for celebration and often the only prescription for heartache is an invitation: “We could get together for a while.”
Example: Jessica showed up at St. John’s last week and sat down across the desk from me with a stunned expression. Hours before she had held the family cat Riley, who had to be put down unexpectedly. What was there to do other than let disbelief hang in the air between us and lighten the sadness by each of us taking half?
Words aren’t much good when your young cat winds up with a tumor in the belly or your golf ball plunks into the drink, as Mr. Grignol’s did. More often than not, I keep my mouth shut about tears and bogeys. Best to hush as you and I stare at the horizon together, never knowing what will happen next.