Oniontown Pastoral: Nothing Is Plumb, Level, or Square

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.

My Oniontown mantra: “There’s always something, isn’t there?”

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 Leaning Tower of Pisa (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Baby Crash

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.”

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Oniontown Pastoral: We Could Get Together for a While

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.

Sometimes the strong one, sometimes the one leaning. You, too?

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.

Grace–all golf aside

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.”

Perfect place to get together

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.

 

Johnny, We Don’t Say Things Like That

Johnny, We Don’t Say Things Like That

Over forty years ago the Erie Thunderbirds Drum and Bugle Corps was working on a routine when the music abruptly stopped. After a murmur from within the ranks, the drum major called out, “Would you kiss your mother with those lips?” Obviously somebody had fouled up and let slip some colorful language. Marchers and spectators alike laughed long and loud, and I tucked that jocular question into my mental chest of superb comebacks.

As Mom has been on my mind lately—and Dad, too—the drum major’s words have emerged from mothballs and nagged me. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about manners. I don’t remember first learning them, but the four Coleman kids knew the drill. Some rules were about appearance, like not holding your spoon like a shovel, but most focused on how we treated other people. Only recently have I begun to appreciate “mind your manners” and what that expression implied at 2225 Wagner Avenue. People matter. Their feelings matter. Their well-being matters. Their time matters.

Nerdy Museum Cardigan (Credit: Wikipedia)

My mother was a curriculum of care and tenderness unto herself. I fell asleep with my head in her lap. She tucked my 1970s hair behind my ear, which annoyed me back then. I miss that now. My father was also loving, but with a no-nonsense edge. If you wanted to see him scowl, boo from the bleachers. Not even a lousy performance deserved that. At one Thunderbirds practice, the soloist who played “Brian’s Song” was absent, so another horn stumbled through the piece. As Dad and I walked to the car afterwards, I said too loudly for his taste, “Boy, they sound like crap without Ronnie.” I can’t recall the verbiage, but his message was clear: My remark was not only impolite, but hurtful.

People matter. So when they ask how you’re doing, you ask about them, too. Please and thank you. Hold the door. Leave things better than you found them.

Awkward Museum Sneakers (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Name-calling was unacceptable. Once while shooting hoops in a neighbor’s driveway, my buddies and I spotted old Louie walking to the bus stop. He was grieving the passing of his partner of many years, but we hid in some bushes and roared a slur that begins with “f” and ends with “aggot.” Mr. Snell was out his back door before the echo died: “Johnny, we don’t say things like that.” In my fifty-seventh year, the shame still sits heavy in my throat.

Such schooling was bruising, but the diploma has been a blessing. When kindness reigns, peace like a river attendeth my way. It follows, then, that rancor and distain dam up my soul. This reality visited me a couple weeks ago as I watched “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” a profile of Mister Rogers on public television. He is my hero, which may suggest to you my definition of wisdom and bravery.

The man’s voice alone sent me into a crying jag. Wondering what Fred Rogers would say about how folks treat each other in 2018 got me teary. Picturing him bent low, comforting an immigrant child who had been separated from her family brought me to my knees. I was undone.

Images of terrified toddlers are more than sob-worthy, but my upset runs deeper still. With each passing day, with each cackling, growling news cycle, the land I love becomes more a hostile stranger and less a trusted friend.

What’s gotten into us? Have those of us fortunate enough to grow up in healthy homes forgotten where we came from? Is it acceptable to treat our fellow citizens with disdain and shout vulgarities at each other as I did at Louie, hiding like a punk behind shrubbery? What about the trash babbled within the cowardly foliage of social media? And is shabby behavior, no matter the provocation, respectable as long as our parents have gone on to glory or aren’t watching?

Extinct Bronze Hero? (Credit: Wikipedia)

Finally, should we feast on fearful and scurvy impulses just because our elected officials routinely do so, turning their backs on values they ought to champion? Of course not! It’s easy to dismiss the drum major’s question as silly, but half-truths are often spoken in jest. The point, after all, isn’t about kissing our parents, but conducting ourselves in ways that would break their hearts.

Or maybe our upbringing is best seen in a rearview mirror. Maybe dear Mister Rogers is not only dead, but extinct. Or maybe the manners we’ve left behind and the love once shown us are exactly what the world needs, as my father used to say, “immediately if not sooner.”

What the World Needs

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.

Oniontown Pastoral: Meanwhile, on a Perfect Day

Oniontown Pastoral: Meanwhile, on a Perfect Day*

For Birdy

Have you ever spent hours on roller skates, then put on your shoes and felt as though your feet belonged to somebody else?

Have you ever gone to a matinee and walked from the darkened theater out into a shock of summer day?

If so, you can imagine my reaction to a message I received last Thursday: “Jack just passed.”

He was thirty-five, and a ravenous cancer was the thief. He had little kids. Jack and my friend Birdy had been married a few short months—I never even had the chance to meet the man.

What knocked the wind out of me was this: Birdy’s father, Fran, succumbed to cancer on Monday. So the father of the bride and her groom passed away three days apart on the same hospice hallway.

I learned of Jack’s death after a lunch of beef noodle soup at Cathy and Ed’s house. I savored buttered croissants dipped in broth, cheesecake for dessert, and stories with twists and turns. The visit refreshed and blessed me.

An impossibly blue sky in Oniontown

Then came the matinee moment. As I walked outside, a stunning afternoon was waiting. The chilly morning air had warmed. The sky was cloudless and impossibly blue, a color created for welcoming souls.

I paused in the driveway, looked up and took in a draught of fine air. If Cathy and Ed were watching, they probably wondered what in the heck their pastor was doing.

Pastor John was thinking, “My God, what a perfect day” and at the same time, “Oh, Birdy.” Heading over Methodist and Mercer Roads to the church, I couldn’t get the beauty around me to harmonize with what my friend must have been feeling.

Under normal circumstances Birdy’s smile ought to be shipped in bubble wrap to sad folks everywhere. Her laugh is medicinal, but recent years have delivered more than her share of trouble. Thinking of her shining spirit, I’ve often said to myself, “All right, Life! Birdy has endured enough, okay?”

Last week wasn’t my first time traveling through light while contemplating darkness. Back in seminary I spent one summer as a hospital chaplain. Most days, the trip from the revolving doors to the parking lot after work was five weary minutes of humidity and dissonance.

As citizens zoomed around Columbus on their errands, scores with IVs in their veins either got well enough to go home or prepared for the move everyone is required to make eventually. The sidewalk outside belonged to a different universe from the one with tile floors and elevators.

Author’s confession: I was a mama’s boy.

On day one as a chaplain, I should add, my mother died of sepsis in Erie, Pennsylvania. That thirty-six-year-old future pastor who prayed with the ailing and comforted the fearful was grieving hard, falling apart himself.

In worse shape than me was Lou, whose best and only friend Sally—my chaplaincy patient—had fallen backward while carrying groceries up slippery steps. He had no family.

“Come on, Sal,” Lou said over and over, patting her clammy forearm. “Wake up. Don’t leave me all alone.”

“Did you see that?” he would say. “She moved! Did you see?” Each incidental twitch held the hope of Sally getting well so they could pass evenings watching Jeopardy and playing Gin Rummy.

Lou came up to my nose and wore a confused expression, eyes squinting, lips forming the tail end of “why.” The world was an inside joke he didn’t get.

A couple of weeks into Sally’s coma, the end was inevitable. Saying the Lord’s Prayer, we came to “thy will be done,” and Lou sagged in surrender. With his forehead resting on the bedrail, his shoulders rose and fell with hoarse sobs.

(For the record, I don’t believe Sally hit her head on concrete because God willed it, but we’ll save that distinction for sometime later.)

Nothing sadder than round bales on a summer day.

Lou told Sally goodbye in 1998. That July, with my mother’s passing still fresh and patients’ worries following me home, I understood why E. B. White once wrote, “I don’t know anything sadder than a summer’s day.”

“When you roll down the window,” you might say, “why not just enjoy the air rushing across your arm? Why not put Lou on God’s bus and rather than having him ride with you?”

Because I still care about Lou. And I love Birdy.

“Dude,” she said as we hugged at her father’s wake. That one word was plenty to say, “I’m in pieces” or “What am I supposed to do now?”

A blue worthy of singing

I’m not about to forget friends so my spirit can sing along with blue skies. Besides, I would rather trudge through sleet with them than lounge at sunset and lift a champagne toast without them.

There’s no such thing as a perfect day, I suppose. Give me a truthful day instead, with joy and sorrow rubbing elbows. Best of all, give me a glorious afternoon with Fran, Jack and Sally sitting in the back seat and Birdy and Lou up front with me. Let my car be a convertible with enough room for my mother to come along, too.

The wind will blow on our faces and dry our tears.

*Lou and Sally are not real names.

Oniontown Pastoral: Wondering Where All the Places Are

Report from Oniontown: Wondering Where All the Places Are

In The Prophet, Khalil Gibran writes of joy and sorrow: “Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.”

Gibran’s words visit me every time I’m wandering the valley between gladness and grief—which is to say, much of the time. I should probably give the late Lebanese poet his own loft in my soul.

Anybody who knows me can name my joys these days: wife Kathy and children and family and an embarrassment of friends; the village of Oniontown, Pennsylvania, and my sisters and brothers at St. John’s Lutheran Church; the silence of contemplative prayer; improvisation in the kitchen; and the cultivation of good words.

Killian and Cole (Credit: Elena Thompson)

Most of all, grandsons Cole and Killian bless me so often that I’ve become a bore. A pop who drones on about his boys “ad nauseam” has everybody in his sphere searching for escape routes. I get it.

But stay with me a moment. The eventide of kindness and cooperation everywhere is fast falling. When apocalyptic weather isn’t laying waste to the human enterprise, people compensate by wreaking havoc on each other. Sweetness and light are close to extinction, while civility is an endangered species.

Cole knows nothing of such gloom. The evening news hasn’t yet tripped up his giddy groove, and he comes out with thoughts that lift my fog of pessimism. It happened just the other day.

I wasn’t present for this gem. My daughter Elena found Cole in his room, lying on his bed with fingers laced behind his head and staring up at the world map tacked to his ceiling.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I’m just looking at all these places,” he said, “and wondering where they are.”

Elena couldn’t remember how she answered, but she’ll never forget the next line: “Where is the playground with the sand?”

Cole wanted his mother to point out, on a world map, the location of the jungle gym and swing set where his Grandma Kathy takes him to play.

Why does this little slip of dialogue leave me stunned with pleasure? After all, his statement is nonsensical, his question naïve.

I’ve spent hours rubbing my temples and concluded that there’s no logic in my response, only emotion. Cole’s thoughts about our big planet make me want to scoop up the little master and hang on tight.

Just imagining the embrace pierces me with joy, but sorrow, ever dutiful, also waits on my board and peers at me over its reading glasses: “Ahem. You realize, of course, that the future might scourge thoughtful souls. Even now, dreamers are having nightmares.”

Point taken. How will tomorrow greet gentle folks who ask where all the places are? And what will become of the pure in heart who need directions to the playground with sand?

Dear World, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, could you please take it easy on this dreamer. (Credit: Elena Thompson)

Even as I rejoice that one innocent child rests on his bed, looks toward the sky and speaks the language of wonder, I grieve that kindred spirits of his generation may one day hold their tongues, bullied exiles in their own land.

The arms I wrap around my grandsons long to protect as much as love. Unless humanity has a change of heart, the world they inherit will be selfish, ignorant and brutish.

“Will be?” some would say. “Aren’t we already there?”

Not so fast. As far as I know, Khalil Gibran didn’t account for hope. Joy is light enough to ride the mildest breeze. Sorrow surges and gusts. Hope, on the other hand, comes without watches or warnings. Its news comes from redheaded boys.

Most of all, hope is announced by children who have been tossed into the air, caught safely and drawn in close.

As long as my muscles hold out, I’ll pick up Cole and Killian and ask, “What are you doing? What’s on your mind, kid?” If my heart is without guile, their answers will heal and sustain me. I promise to keep you posted.

Joy and sorrow, meanwhile, will live as neighbors on a floodplain, the former assuring the latter that love always has the last word.

Vacation with My Father

Vacation with My Father

Everybody else on Victory Chimes is on deck savoring tame waves and the sun, calling out to seals who peek up, then disappear under the surface.

Victory Chimes

A bushy-bearded crew member just sent me below, not by command but by speculating that an island in the distance might be “Hell’s Half Acre,” which was one of my father’s favorite expressions. I sit outside the galley and stare at his life: a yellowing 8½” by 11” sheet of lined paper; Dad’s printing in pencil, his unmistakable all-capitals hand strangely shifting to lowercase for each h, d, and g.

Children. Grandchildren. Births and weights. Marriages and divorce. Graduations. Navy service. Jobs, first to last. Residence after residence.

Dad’s slender memoir is a stowaway in my leather man purse. Wife Kathy and I are sailing on Maine’s last surviving three-masted schooner from the great windjammer generation of the early 1900s. While she scans sea and sky for osprey and porpoises, I perch at the end of a long table in the salon and wonder why I decided to bring Denny Coleman along with me on vacation.

Dad has been gone for over five years, and his comings and goings, his beers and stories come to me through lines like “AMERICAN METER 3 SEPT. 46 – 15 NOV. 82.” He sat on the couch and cried for two days after new owners hauled him in and said he could run a drill press or retire. No, he couldn’t bump back to his job in the tool room, as he had been promised. Forget the years and handshakes.

How many times can one man’s length of days withstand being folded and unfolded? Dad’s record has diamond gaps down the middle, like the Shroud of Turin. It’s so vulnerable that somebody, maybe the author himself, put it in a plastic sleeve.

On what date did Dad sit down at the kitchen table, prop open his memory and make a list with no title, only an incomplete first line, “GRAd 28th MAY 1944”? He would never forget, I suppose, that he was a Wesleyville Bulldog.

I imagine him pulling the paper from his wallet and printing one last entry, my son’s birth in a disciplined strand of caps: MICAH WALTER COLEMAN – 1/18/92 – 8# 6OZ.

What am I supposed to do with my father’s fading table of contents? It doesn’t belong in the trash. Until I figure out why he kept such a determined record and why the names and dates put a lump in my throat, I’ll hold it gently, like an artifact that even loving care can’t keep from someday going to pieces.

Early this morning Kathy told me that we were anchored by Hell’s Half Acre and might be able to ride the yawl boat Enoch over for a visit.

Alas, we made for Stonington instead. It would have been nice to tell my siblings that I visited the locale Dad so often referenced, generally in annoyance. “Don’t take I-90 to Buffalo,” he might have said. “They’ve got road work all over Hell’s Half Acre.”

One of the things I loved most about my father was his use of language. Your nose was a snot locker, your hands meat hooks, your hind end a fan-danny. When he wanted you to calm down, he said, “Take it ease, disease.” Another father might have said “kiddo” or “pal,” but my dad preferred what I always heard as “Bubba Louie.” My older brother Ed tells me that Dad was saying, “Babalu Aye,” from a rambunctious Ricky Ricardo song?

When Dad wanted to let you know you were really on the wrong track, he puckered up and practically sang, “Oooh, nooo nooo hell nooo.”

Dad’s lingo, the way he leaned into his phrases, captured the man at his best: clowning around, amiable, a good sort. On board this schooner, he would be on deck cracking cans of Schlitz and “batting the breeze” with new friends. Closing my eyes, I call to mind his forearm tattoo, a fading heart with a gaudy MOTHER banner unfurled across it. I pass my hand over his wavy gray hair, as I did standing over the coffin.

Picturing my father is still easy. His voice, its rising and falling, is familiar, too, but exact words come back to me only unbidden, as if they have a will of their own.

I should have made a list like Dad did, but he hated forgetfulness more than I do. He kept everything—tools, utility bills, scrapbooks—in good order. “Coly,” as his work friends called him, didn’t misplace things.

Three years before his passing, Dad stood in the hallway of his Florida condominium, staring at framed photographs of his children and saying our names.

“I do this every day,” he confessed, aware his mind was giving out. “I don’t want to lose you.”

“Idiot light.” That was something else my father said. This gem came to me after Kathy and I left Victory Chimes and were making our way south through Maine. Only an idiot would need a dashboard light to tell him to check the oil.

That’s how on the ball Denny Coleman was, but dementia turned remembering anything into a shell game. He even forgot being a Bulldog. One bright afternoon I took him for a drive down Willow Street. “Hey, Dad,” I said, “that’s where you went to high school.”

He barely glanced up. “If you say so,” he mumbled, looking back down at his Velcro sneakers.

In his last year my father faught to retrieve himself. Each time he saw me coming his way at the nursing home, he reached out to me as if he were about to drown.

Only back home again can I name what was caught in my chest on Victory Chimes. Dad believed I could take him by the hand and lead him out of Hell’s Half Acre. The best I could do was remind him that his mother was long dead and his wife’s name was Mary.

“Yes, Mary,” he once said. “She’s my favorite.”

Now at my desk, I slide a biography free from its plastic sleeve and hold it close. One crease gives way. Another will, too, at the lightest touch.

No matter. Whether we like it or not, time will fold and unfold our pages of births, loves and labors until they go to pieces.

This truth ought to smother me, but it doesn’t. I feel a sure and certain hope: Eternal Love cradles all that we have ever been.

Nothing is lost, no happy home, no wandering, no fleeting peace, no devastation. I’m going to frame Dad’s shroud to help me remember.

Oniontown Pastoral: The Blessing of Okay

Oniontown Pastoral: The Blessing of Okay

“How’s it going?” If ever a question begged for a bland answer, this is it.

Occasionally a brave soul will come back, “Do you really want to know?” But we mostly say, “Oh, pretty good” or “not too bad,” then wander into other conversational pastures.

Years ago, maybe fifteen, I picked up a habit that persists to this day. When folks ask, “How are you today?” I pause. “Well,” my inner voices says, “how are you doing, John?”

After a couple seconds of taking stock, I usually give this honest reply: “I’m vertical. Nobody is busting my chops today, so I’m actually doing great.”

Elena and Micah as teenagers. Don’t they look sweet? Um, they about did me in.

Like most people, I’ve had stretches of years when life was decidedly not okay. Shortly before my daughter Elena was born, I developed panic disorder, an exquisitely shattering affliction. Both Elena and son Micah were high-spirited as teenagers, by which I mean, “Holy cow, those two just about killed me.” Along the way, a few professional challenges taught me that I can be embarrassingly fragile sometimes—not an easy confession for any man.

And, again, like most people, I’ve learned to appreciate life’s temperate seasons, especially following the brutal weather of loss, illness, disappointment, name your own stress or sorrow.

After getting knocked flat by a frigid gust of crisis, being able to say, “I’m vertical” seems miraculous.

And it is. “Count your many blessings,” an old hymn advises, “name them one by one.” Standing on my own two feet and walking to the kitchen to pour a glass of iced tea is an honest-to-goodness blessing, and you can call me trite for saying so.

Understand, I’m not suggesting that gratitude is a treatment for clinical depression or a remedy for terrible circumstances. (Take it from me, a panic attack licks its chops and guffaws at church hymns.)

All things being equal, though, I maintain that “okay” is really “amazing” speaking in a whisper.

Friends often remark that driving from Erie to St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown and back again must be a combination of bore and chore. Not so. A couple of times each week as I speed past the fields and their inhabitants, I find myself caught up in the splendor of nothing much being wrong.

Just as a frosty Coca-Cola pairs perfectly with Brooklyn style pizza or household chores can be joyful if tenor arias are playing in the background, listing what all is not wrong these days—in other words, what is just fine—takes on added sweetness when I’m looking out my car window at summer forests and fields.

“I have a decent place to live,” comes to mind first. Then “food on the table and clothes to wear.” (In fact, I have three wardrobes, not extensive, but adequate for different weight classes. Sadly, I’m in my top tier of trousers at the moment and will be forced into suspenders if I don’t start pushing away from the dinner table soon.)

“Bills are paid, cars are running.” Much “okayness” crosses my mind as I nod to cows and horses, dozens of them, grazing calmly as if they’ve never had a single worry about their mortality. Sun, rain or snow, they stand, blink and flip their tails. “I feel vertical lately,” I say, taking in a generous breath. “And nobody is ambushing me with drama.”

As I add up all the okays, a gentle descant sounds: “Amazing.”

Amazing Kathy on the patio/deck she made from the long ramp she removed from our backdoor.

When trees nearly form a cathedral over the road, I think of the best part: “I’m happy with my wife Kathy, my children and grandsons, too. And everyone is ambulatory and taking nourishment.”

In addition to my embarrassment of okayness, I can’t walk far in any direction without running into love—and that includes my faith in Mysterious Love, who holds this crazy world together and abides my frustrating soul.

Of course, unexpected complications constantly raise their voices, pretending to be tragedies. This afternoon I have to figure out what’s wrong with my car’s fickle battery, which warrants nothing more than, “Oh, bother.”

When I get a case of the blues, I try to remember that if my life were even a smidgen more okay, I’d be twins.

Oniontown Pastoral: Promise of the Onion

Oniontown Pastoral: Promise of the Onion

I wonder how many good onions rot in landfills because of flaws on their outermost layer. Fumbled by a customer or split open by a box cutter, they join the forlorn cast of undesirables, like Charlie-in-the-Box on the Island of Misfit Toys.

Of course, Charlie, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the caboose with square wheels and Dolly the rag doll, whose only flaw is sadness, don’t belong in exile. All they need is a loving child with imagination.

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From Burpee’s Farm Annual (1882). Credit: Wikimedia Commons

And everybody knows that all an imperfect onion needs is touch-up work. Just peel down to a good layer. From there on it’s fit to join its soulmate, garlic, as the two aromatics chefs can’t live without.

The onion, I can’t help noting, really is a wonder. It’s made out of rings for the sake of convenient battering and deep-frying. And have you ever noticed that onions participate in their own chopping? After a few knife strokes, they very considerately fall apart, thanks to those layers.

Yes, onions can make you cry, but I’ve never met a cook who counts that against them. Why? Because the onion is a poet among vegetables. We foodies understand this.

Okay, I think a lot about onions, but maybe you can forgive me. I not only work in the village of Oniontown, Pennsylvania, at St. John’s Lutheran Church, but also practically live in the kitchen. And if that weren’t enough, I’m a writer, a vocation that thrives on the inclination to think in layers.

“O Onion! My Onion!” The commonplace observation that it consists of layers has been therapeutic lately for my uneasy soul. The skin of our 2017 world—the societal, national and international epidermis—is a torn, mushy mess. The old saying “going to hell in a hand basket” comes to mind.

But the onion is my oracle. Its counsel shone upon me this past week when I dropped in on parishioners who have a decorative plate on their car:

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Seeing the village name, its proud letters larger than the others, felt like a grandfather’s encouraging pat on the back.

Bill answered the door and led me to the bedroom, where Connie lay on her side with a blanket drawn up to her eyes. Her ponytail reached the middle of the neighboring pillow. Ailment upon ailment has rained upon her in recent years, and now two misbehaving vertebral discs have added thunder.

Oh, dear! The onion is companion to garlic as back pain rivals the toothache for the most dreaded, non-life-threatening complaint. Connie was okay, provided she didn’t move. We talked for a few minutes, long enough for me to make her laugh. Nice going, Pastor. I said a prayer, soft but urgent. Relief can’t come soon enough. Options are running out.

Pausing on our way to the backdoor, Bill leaned against a kitchen chair. His posture matched his hushed words: “I don’t know what we’re going to do.” We shook hands goodbye.

“Onions.” Glancing back at that decorative plate, I held the word in my mouth. The blue marble speeding at 18.5 miles per second around the sun may not be watching, but in a warm house on Mercer Road, a man fusses over his wife, who endures with dignity. And people in warm houses in villages and cities everywhere quietly love and tend to each other.

IMG_4286The onion—cliché that it may be—teaches me never to neglect the many layers below the surface, where anonymous multitudes dwell, overjoyed or getting by or out of rope. Down here, bane is always neck-and-neck with blessing.

But hope lives down here, too, with Bill, Connie, Charlie-in-the-Box and all the rest of us who never make the evening news. There are even families waiting to cradle Dolly the rag doll and dry her tears.

Only down here can you believe the onion’s greatest truth. Even in sorry shape, its theme is still promise. What appears, after all, when the onion’s weepy skin is pealed away? New life, bright, smooth, vulnerable with possibility.

What Makes Most Sense

What Makes Most Sense

Seeing as how wife Kathy and I are in our mid-fifties, we should probably each have our own car. I would feel a little more grown up that way. Performing scheduling gymnastics to get us both from point J to point K reminds me of childhood, when transportation required negotiations and occasional groveling.

Autonomy also makes good sense for us. My pastor job takes me an hour from the east side of Erie, Pennsylvania, to the village of Oniontown, and, as Mapquest.com informs me, Kathy works 6.3 miles from home—an estimated $0.64 gulp of gasoline and 16 minutes on the road.

So, if I drive Kathy to and from work five days per week, let’s say fifty weeks per year, the ka-ching is 133.33 hours—that’s over three standard workweeks—and $320 per annum. If time is, indeed, money, then when I pick my weary beloved up at 4:30 today, we should head to the nearest used car lot and purchase at the very least a clunker. One call to our insurance agent requesting a collision policy, and hours of unfettered time would snap open before me like sails caught in a gust.

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1899 Horsey Horseless (Credit: http://www.allcarindex.com)

To tell the truth, even an 1899 Horsey Horseless, named by Time Magazine as one of the fifty worst cars ever manufactured, would hold a certain attraction. (In those days of horse and buggy, this design sported a clever hood ornament, a life-sized, wooden horse head, so that the real animals wouldn’t get spooked when a HH roared by. By the time a horse realized it had been fooled, it was some distance down the road. The moment of danger had passed.)

At the moment, Pastor and Mrs. Coleman share a 2006 Chevy HHR called Bubba. (Those initials stand for Heritage High Roof, which is bullpucky. The roof is actually stunted, and the claim of nostalgia is cover for an appearance that suggests it needs to push away from the dinner table and hit the gym.)

We don’t normally name our vehicles, but its bulbous shape and sick orange color deserved more than Chevy. Bubbles struck us as demeaning, so Bubba was a fitting, folksy compromise.

Kathy and Bubba have never been close. Her grievances against our car gather around a single complaint: Bubba annoys her, as would a scratchy collar or a companion applying a migraine-inducing amount of fragrance. The headrests make her neck ache. The windshield is crouched so that she has to do a forward limbo to see if the traffic light has changed. The list goes on.

Poor Bubba also suffers from guilt by association. Kathy understands that our marriage can stay peaceful if my untidy habits can be blamed on an object—say a littered car so pathetic that it’s no longer being manufactured. Although I’ve slowly mended my ways, Kathy still holds a grudge.

All factors indicate that my wife and I should be a his-and-hers couple. For mundane reasons, we had the chance to take a two-vehicle arrangement for a test drive this past week. She got to work in our son-in-law Matt’s truck, and I took Bubba.

The Born Free movie theme didn’t fill my spirit, as I had expected. Something close to the opposite happened, in fact. From behind my desk at the church, I watched Bubba nap alone in the parking lot and accepted the truth: I missed driving Kathy to work and picking her up for the sixteen-minute slog home afterward.

Spending thirty-plus minutes each day with somebody you love isn’t a burden, but a gift. How did I overlook this fact? Terminally sentimental guys like me are usually in tune with love’s minutia, but this half-hour of nonchalant blessing snuck past me.

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Bubba in the driveway of our old house. He didn’t ask to be painted burnt orange.

That said, we will buy a second car. Kathy’s relationship with Bubba has grown increasingly strained. He is no longer cluttered with my empty coffee cups, but his many shortcomings test her patience—nowhere to put anything, a couple of dumb blind spots. Still, as long as I’m behind the wheel, my wife and our car are civil, which is fortunate for me.

Transitioning to hers-and-his transportation doesn’t mean that I won’t get to drive Kathy to work anymore. After all, she enjoys the ride, too. She does something that lets me know.

Our route takes us along the Bayfront Parkway, which looks out on Lake Erie. Kathy loves the water, and as she stares out at it, I take her hand and kiss it. Apologies to those of you who squirm at such sharing of the Coleman’s darling little rituals, but the fact is, that kiss is one of the most joyful parts of my middle-aged day.

And Kathy likes it because when I forget, suddenly her hand appears before my face: “Ahem.” The smooch is well deserved. She works at The Regional Cancer Center, where folks have the troubling habit of dying. Over the years her touch has given comfort and hope that lives beyond the few calendar pages a patient may survive to turn.

Now rheumatoid arthritis is settling into my wife’s hands, which at the moment cut fabric for her mother’s new handbag. My kiss often lingers, so great is the kindness and generosity it has to honor.

At pick up time, Kathy and I have another ritual she knows nothing about. When she gets into the car, I can tell what kind of day it’s been: energizing, easy, stressful, disappointing. She looks at me with a smile or goes “whew” or makes one of another dozen faces. Her expression is rewarded by—you guessed it—a kiss.

Then she tells the story, complete with triumphs and embarrassments reserved for one who is steadfastly on your side, one who knows that your victories aren’t boastful and your defeats aren’t woe-is-me.

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A husband and wife for whom life has never made much sense.

We talk about dinner, children and grandsons, and anything else that floats by in the dazzling, silty river of a long marriage. Decades of grace and grief visit and depart.

When all Kathy has left is fatigue, we listen to the engine go from first to fourth or the windshield wipers glide rain away. “If you’re out of words,” my silence means, “I’m here anyway.” Occasionally, the best way to show love is to keep quiet.

When Bubba’s sibling vehicle comes along, it may not get a name. Nor will Kathy and I leave home separately each morning just because of the number of cars we own. The way a workday starts and ends matters. A kiss on the hand and another on the lips don’t stand up to good sense as do the price of gasoline and the cost of time, but that’s okay. My life has never made much sense.