Writing Days

Writing Days

The feeders during a lull in the snow, waiting to receive their fill

The house is calm. A wind chill of 13° has wispy snow swirling on Parkway Drive. The bird feeders look at me, wondering when they’ll get their fill. Soon, I promise.

Now the furnace kicks on, joining the weather and passing cars in a chorus of groans and sighs.

Now Baby Crash appears on the desk, offended that I’m not than cradling her, whispering sweet nothings—“Are you Pop’s good kitty cat?”— and feeding her treats. She licks my knuckle and considers taking a pinch of skin between her fangs. Her eyes are calculating.

But who can write while anticipating a nip from those needles a cat puts on display with each yawn? I set her on the floor and return to my dream.

Yes, my dream. Its elements are silence, bitter coffee, a view, a desk and something to say. For most of this March day, I’ll abstain from television and music and mute the smartphone (the mother of all misnomers).

No dashing around the house, yanking the silverware drawer open and shutting it with a thud and rattle. I once read that you can tell a lot about people by the way they close doors. The principle occurs to me often when, as May Sarton once said, “The house and I resume old conversations.” Let meditations be gentle. Hold the hours with a light grip. Listen to my own footfall on the wooden floor. Take it easy on the doors. Take it easy on my neighbor, as I should on myself.

A lot happens slowly on what I call “writing days”: prayer, chores, errands, coffee with friends, babysitting now and then.

Building permit for a den

And writing happens, especially writing. This is warp and woof of my dream: long draughts of time and space to play with words. Sometimes I write at Starbucks, but increasingly these days sentences get woven on this enclosed front porch, termed a “den” on a building permit from 9-7-65. While moving in, I found the form tacked to pegboard in the basement and framed it—something resonant about our home’s sanctum being four years my junior.

Wife Kathy and I have always called the room in our abodes set aside for contemplation and creation the “study.” Here on Parkway we feel obligated to use the space’s given name, though “den” fits a smartly dressed world beater who exudes confidence and authority—hardly yours truly.

“Study,” on the other hand, connotes humility, since one who labors there is a student at heart. That’s me, chronically rumpled and staring up slack jawed at some vertical learning curve.

First thing this morning I sat here in prayer, reckoning my good fortune. On Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, writing is limited primarily by stamina. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, the pen sleeps as I head for Oniontown. The hour commute during winter is rich with the pale gray of leafless trees, and my reward is arriving to work with the sweet brothers and sisters at St. John’s Lutheran Church.

“Living the dream,” some folks joke when asked how they’re doing. For me this is actually true, which is not to say that dreams come without complications.

Don’t be deceived. She bites.

Baby Crash’s teeth occasionally draw specks of blood.

Following an evening church meeting recently, I crawled through a freakish whiteout on Route 19 coming down the hill toward the Rainbow Valley Restaurant. The view cleared within a few miles, but the brief ordeal reminded me that troubles relish showing up unannounced.

My dream of writing days—the whole enterprise, I mean—has witnessed two squalls.

First, when dreams come even partially true, the spirit is tricked into believing that it has finally arrived in paradise. Nice try. Postponed grief and old upset hushed by stoicism never hesitate to drop in when I’m savoring solitude. In fact, gladness practically whispers to decades of unresolved life junk, “Hey, John’s defenses are down. Hurry, he’ll never see you coming.”

Second, a dream fulfilled does not—I repeat, does not—guarantee happiness, which is a stand-alone project. Am I alone in this experience? Circumstances are agreeable, better than could be expected, in fact, yet the throat is tight with sadness, the chest bruised with longing.

Joy

Writing days have highlighted the truth that happiness lives under no obligations. Now and then it appears unbidden and licks my hand. Mostly, though, my dream fulfilled leaves a spot open at the table, but joy doesn’t show up unless I send her an invitation.

This arrangement seems more than fair to me.

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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 Napper’s Salad

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Bartender extraordinaire Abby pulled me a pint from this very tap a week ago! (Credit: http://www.foresquare.com)

A few weeks ago at the Six-Pack House of Beer West, I interrogated Jennie Geisler, Lifestyles Reporter for the Erie Times-News. Talking to people who actually write for a living gets me in a lather. I want details. No minutea is beneath my interest. In the course of putting together the Wednesday paper’s Food Section, Jennie experiments in the kitchen, writes recipes, tracks down other good ones, and invites contributions from locals who like to cook. She humored me for a good fifteen minutes, a little surprised that I was eager to hear the nuts and bolts of her work. Somewhere in our conversation I must have admitted to spending hours in the kitchen because half an hour after she said goodbye her colleague Gerry Weiss’s cell phone rang. (Gerry’s part of the Friday Six-Pack crowd as well as a neighbor, fine writer, and friend.) Was that Lutheran pastor still around? Could she talk to him? Sure.

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God’s game was on when God made the avocado–just don’t chop your hand getting the pit out! (Credit: Wendy Hope)

Turns out nearly all the locals who contribute recipes to Jennie’s Wednesday Food Section are women. A male contributor would be nice. Could I come up with something? I mentioned a dish that includes a couple of my favorite ingredients, and she gave me the go ahead.

A pocket of time opened up this week, so I paid attention to what I was doing at the counter and cutting board, wrote up the recipe, named it in honor of my avocation, and hit send. Jennie will need to edit the grin off my sophomoric presentation, but I thought my fellow nappers might enjoy seeing the fool I’d have made of myself without her editorial intervention. Here’s what I came up with:

A Napper’s Salad

I call this dish a napper’s salad because it’s a culinary Sunday afternoon nap—luxurious, delicious, and refreshing. Given the ingredients, I considered pretentious salad, but went with a positive spin instead.

Tips

1. Yes, I put tips before ingredients. With a napper’s salad, method is more important than measurement.

2. Pairing: a fruit-forward pinot noir or a hefeweizen both go great with this salad—while you’re making it! Iced tea with fresh mint wins, too. While you’re eating, anything rinses this down, though I’d advise against port, Jack Daniels, and Ovaltine.

3. Amounts and sizes don’t matter much. I cut ingredients up bite size, but whatever. And if I’m out of artichoke hearts or don’t have time to roast red peppers, oh well.

4. Lots of tomato in a napper’s salad, so much that it can get weepy. If you’re a tidy soul, go with grape or cherry tomatoes.

5. Keeps well for a few days, especially if you don’t mind a kind of soupy salad. Mix it up, continue eating.

6. Don’t look for instructions below. Just toss everything together.

Ingredients

2 red bell peppers (roasted and chopped)

4 or 5 large tomatoes (chopped)

3 avocados (chopped)

2 cups artichoke hearts (chopped; marinaded is fine, but best to drain)

2 cups pitted kalamata olives (chop 1 cup rough; leave 1 cup whole)

1 bunch asparagus (steamed and chopped; leave raw if you like; not limp)

6 oz. crumbled feta cheese (that’s all I had; 12 oz. even better)

1 bunch cilantro (chopped fine)

1 ½ – 2 limes (the juice)

olive oil (drizzle and mix; about 1/3 cup)

salt and pepper to taste

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Culinary inspiration

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For my next batch I’ll raid wife Kathy’s cherry tomato plants–just to try a napper’s salad, neat.

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Serves . . . heck, I don’t know.

That’s it. I told Jennie I’m Pastor of Abiding Hope Lutheran Church, a blogger, and author of a forthcoming book, Oh! Be Joyful: Notes to My Future Grandchildren. Space is tight, so I doubt much other than avocados and asparagus will fit in.

Give the recipe a try if you can afford it–not exactly a cheap date.

Letter to Myself After Morning Coffee at Starbucks

Dear John:

Stop, breathe, and pay attention to the man who’s cleaning up the parking lot. Receive into your spirit his stooped back, pinched shoulders, and twitching left hand. Take note lovingly, “This guy did not win the genetic sweepstakes!” He didn’t create his body small and flawed, like millions of his misshapen brothers and sisters who endure their days, trying to make something of a life that never forgets its vessel urges strangers to look away.

IMG_0727Remember, as you stand by your car in the holy space of shamatha (calm abiding) and watch this brother walk to his next scattering of crushed cups and cigarette butts stuck in sunbaked butter pecan ice cream, that he’s important, no less a child of creation than you because you have a title and he bends his face to our leavings for money. You’re an ass if you suppose, even fleetingly, that the trashy, puke smell he takes home in his nostrils makes him less beloved than you.

His life may be glad, happier than yours, in fact. Maybe he goes home to an embrace—maybe not. Whatever the case, stand a few extra seconds at your car, breathe again, wait until he’s a far-off dot in a fluorescent-orange vest, and imagine. His days are difficult. The brain under his bristle of red hair may stay wakeful at 2:00 a.m. and pray that a companion would hold his trembling hand and know that it would never fail or betray. The hands that pick up the occasional sopping diaper are probably as faithful as your hands, John, which lift the bread and cup and presume to bless.

Watch. Witness. This is the purpose of your siestas and prayers: not that you’ll be centered and refreshed for your own sake, but that you’ll honor—shamatha!—your stooped brother’s residency in this spiritual city. Honor him? Yes, because he’s blessed you. He’s helped you to understand yourself. You’re thirty pounds overweight? Poor boy!

Finally driving off, you see his brother one parking lot away, wearing Dickey work clothes and peddling a crappy ten-speed: a skinny scalped man with jaw thrust forward like Billy Bob’s Karl in Sling Blade. Around the next curve, another towering lumpy brother stabs litter. Don’t forget, these men’s homes may be content. Or they might stare at the ceiling in the longing twilight, clenched and miserable.

Let them all be beneficiaries of your silence, John, recipients of your long Sunday naps and hours of prayer. Don’t assume to know their suffering, but always make room for it as you sip your privileged pinot noir on the front porch. Take compassionate shamatha into lonely places. Acknowledge with tenderness the forsaken. Hold their troubled flesh in your awareness.

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Jowls Hidden by Beard, Baggy Eyes Behind Black Glasses

You can’t and shouldn’t get up in their business and suppose you can fix their lives. You don’t even handle your own life very well. Still, no matter whose face you look into, you can recall that God, too, beholds that face. You can say hi. Of course, you’ve now got bags under your eyes as well as the start of your grandfather’s jowls, but if you smile—not sanguine and flakey, but real—and pray, “Let my eyes say, ‘I wish you gladness,’” maybe the soul behind that face you pass by will wonder in the wordless way souls do, “Could I be loved? Might gentle grace mysteriously abide under all the sloshing garbage bags and behind the furrowed glances of indifference? So, maybe I’m not alone?”

Somehow or other, if your worn eyes can say any of this, especially to the unlovely, then celebrate. And if all you can do is notice a man with a twitching hand moving on to his next mess, then you’ve done one invisible piece of work in the stewardship of the universe.

Thanks for trying,

John

A Shark, a Pan Flute, and a Lemon-Sized Grandchild: It’s All Good!

Over the last ten years, I’ve learned how to answer the question, “How’s it going?”

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At Fourteen Weeks (Credit: http://www.pregnant.thebump.com)

Daughter Elena, twenty-four, is carrying wife Kathy’s and my lemon-sized grandchild and constantly breaking into uber-pearly smiles. Son-in-law Matt, who could probably build a harpsichord blindfolded and with half of his brain tied behind his back, installed a light-fixture today in our bathroom. Now, at 9:19 p.m., Kathy’s willing the new medicine cabinet into its designated spot. Micah’s watching a movie about Siamese warriors with mustaches and puffs of hair he finds annoying. He’s been pleasantly chatty over the past hour, quizzing me on quotes by William Cowper, Oscar Wilde, Aristotle, and Thomas Jefferson. Amazing what you can learn from packs of Mentos gum. I should have known the source of Micah’s favorite: “The whole is more than the sum of the parts.” His hint, “like some Greek guy,” helped.

Other details worth mentioning: at least one of the cats has been rogue pissing in the basement; money’s snug (what’s new); the house is messy in part because the bathroom project presents one complication after another; and a shark is sleeping in the Coleman family’s beach house.

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Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neumann (Credit: Wikipedia)

“So how’s it going?” Splendidly! I’m serious. When Elena was a teenager she went through a Goth period, though black clothes and eyeliner were pimples on the rump her high school years. In my last post I went into Micah’s thrashing about and legal trouble. Sure, cat pee is unpleasant, but in the “how’s it going?” department, Alfred E. Neumann speaks for me: “What, me worry?” My recovering druggy son is playing the pan flute as he watches that fighting movie, and by Thanksgiving I stand a good chance of being a grandfather. So . . . I’m fantastic!

In the midst of my current messes and blessings, I’ve discovered yet another napping venue, which adds to my light spirits. A couple years ago, Renaissance Kathy remodeled Micah’s old basement bedroom, which he called the Batcave—don’t think superhero, think squalor. The rehabilitated room would be called the Beach House, a guest room where Kathy’s friends could stay when they come to Erie to sail on the Brig Niagara.

Last week, when we had a couple of hot, close days, I decided to take siestas down in the Beach House. Great choice. Kathy and I differ in décor tastes, she preferring bright and whimsical and I favoring earthy and depressing, but falling asleep in a cool space that reminded me of my wife’s smile was joyful. I told her the other day I’d consider transferring all dog-days-of-summer sleeping to the Beach House rather than putting the window air conditioner in the upstairs bedroom. We’ll see.

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The Beach House Bed

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Above the Bed

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Starry, Sunny Plate by Elena Thompson

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Visual Wind Chimes (No Breeze in the Basement)

The room’s not perfect. An artificial Christmas tree and air mattress, both in their plastic cases, have moved in temporarily, and a papier-mache shark Kathy made a few Halloweens ago is biting down on a love seat at the foot of the bed. Far from bothering me, sharing the Beach House with Jaws reminds me, again, of my wife. As Micah’s fond of saying, “It’s all good.”

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No, I Did Not Move the Shark for This Photograph

So how’s it going? I’ve got a new place to nap, kids whose future looks decent at the moment, and a wife who got that medicine cabinet where it belongs. The present blessings are more than enough. I’m doing fine.

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Kathy 1, Medicine Cabinet 0

The Family Dog Channels Nigel Bruce

IMG_0017The Coleman family’s black lab, terrier mix is named after Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick, Dr. John Watson. In Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, Watson is intelligent, insightful, not like Nigel Bruce’s portrayal of a hapless, bumbling partner to Basil Rathbone’s smooth-operating Holmes. If you want to see a faithful adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, find the Granada Television’s series starring Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke (or David Burke). The Brits keep close to Conan Doyle, so when Watson seems inept, it’s only because he’s working beside Holmes, who can solve a crime by noticing how butter has melted or how a rope has been cut. Nobody can keep up with Holmes.

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Credit: Wikimedia Commons

When the name Watson came to me, I was thinking of Hardwicke or Burke, but the dog I fell in love with the moment neighbor Meg brought him as a stray to our door has proven to be more like Nigel Bruce’s Watson. He’s the friendliest dog you’ll ever meet, though you wouldn’t think so if you rang the doorbell. He barks so loudly and long that you’d think his eyeballs would fly out of his head. Then you come inside, he sniffs you, you pat his head, and he says in dog language, “Let’s play fetch.”

He’s amiable, but kind of sluggish. Toss him a piece of filet mignon, and it’ll hit him between the eyes and land on the floor. He’ll pause, sniff, gingerly take it between his front teeth, and let it roll back onto his tongue—as if it might be a little square of plastic explosives. Even as an old guy who’s seen as much as the next dog, he still hasn’t figured out the vacuum cleaner. He’s never been able to trust it.

I could name a dozen annoying habits Watson has (example: he fidgets and meanders constantly during his daily constitutional so that our backyard looks like its been aerated), but he’s such a faithful napping partner I hold nothing against him. When this dog dies, I’m going to be in trouble; that’s how close we are.

We have a routine. I say, “Okay, Watty, you want to go take a nap?”

I start up the stairs, and nine days of out ten, I hear Watson’s labored, clicking steps behind me. He’s nine and has torn both ACLs—we had one repaired, no cheap date.

I lie down on the bed, pat the other side, and say, “Come on, get your spot.”

He looks up at me as if to say, “You know I’m a gimp. Why do you do this to me?” But then he hops up, pirouettes, and plunks down.

From this point on, Watson has a menu of behaviors to choose from. If there are no disturbances, he’s asleep quickly.

As he settles in, he often devotes two or three minutes to making old mutt smacking noises with his fat wet mouth. It’s as if he’s tasting and re-tasting whatever he last ate. If he doesn’t let up, I say, “Watson, seriously!” and he stops, snorts, and puts his chin on his front paws.

A few days ago wife Kathy and daughter Elena took him for a walk on a warm afternoon, so it was a pooped Watson who joined me on the bed. He was panting so hard the bed rocked to his breathing’s fast, jerky rhythm. Eventually I opened my eyes. Not only was he being loud, but every ten seconds a drop of spit fell from his exercise-swollen tongue. I was okay with this. It’s hard to get mad at a senior citizen who’s just worked out.

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Note the Bead of Saliva About to Fall

On the other hand, it’s hard not to get annoyed when dog-walking traffic is brisk on Shenley Drive and Watson has to warn all passersby that he’s watching. He slides from the bed, sticks his snout against the screen, and hollers. All it takes to quiet him is a gentle “Watty, I don’t want to hear it,” but then he switches to short, throaty groans. He only relaxes again when everything’s clear.

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“Hey, That’s My Boulevard!”

Amazingly, most days I fall asleep. On wakeful afternoons, I remember how blessed it feels to rest next to a dog that channels Nigel Bruce.

Watson’s also my prayer partner, especially when I sit propped on the bed. Here we follow the siesta routine because to him sleep and prayer look a lot alike. I will admit that last week he came close to upsetting me. About fifteen minutes into a half-hour sit, my pal hopped up on the bed, looked at me with confused eyes, scratched the comforter to make a sweet spot, glanced at me again, then flopped.

Warning: if you have a twitchy gag reflex, you may want to pass on the rest of the story.

Thousand-one, thousand-two, thousand-three. Then the retching began.

(Coleman pets have had a long-standing policy of getting sick in aggravating places. First, never on tile; always on carpet. Second, if you value something, secure it. I once left a new Asus laptop open in my study, and a cat named Greasy Spot leapt onto my desk and had the mother of all appointments with loose bowels on the keyboard. The computer survived but was thereafter known as the craptop. And third, it is possible to hide hairballs. Years ago a cat left one in the toe of one of my moccasin slippers. Imagine how I discovered it.)

About that retching: “On the bed, Watson,” I said. “Really?”

Really. I won’t get detailed (you’re welcome), but it was a blonde, abundant, single unit.

I went downstairs to fetch wet rags and returned to find that—remember, you were warned—the puke was gone. I mean, gone. Watson was no longer confused; in fact, he seemed pleased.

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My Satiated Cud-master After Interrupting My Prayer

I went through the motions, scrubbing away at where the incident had occurred, but, wow, the dog doesn’t even clean his food bowl that well. Glad it hadn’t happened on my pillow; I’d never have known.

Confession: I finished praying before taking the comforter to the basement. And I wasn’t angry at my buddy. What’s a little barking and barfing between loved ones? This afternoon he’ll be joining me again for blessed oblivion.

My Hungry Ghost Will Have Eggs Benedict, Please.

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Credit: Mark Schumacher

I first met Hungry Ghosts a couple years ago while riding Amtrak’s Silver Meteor from Philadelphia to Orlando. I was reading Savor by Thich Nhat Hanh and R. Lilian Cheung, who write, “Buddhism describes creatures known as pretas, or Hungry Ghosts, who have insatiable appetites for food, drinks, or other cravings. They are desperate beings who are always hungry, with tiny mouths; long, narrow necks; and distended bellies. Though they are constantly ravenous, driven by the desire to eat, their tiny mouths and necks prevent them from swallowing the food they ingest.”

On the unhappy way to see my father and step-mother, both of whom were suffering from dementia, I immediately recognized myself as a member of the Preta family. The train rocked, jerked and clattered, but it may as well have been a monastery. Since everybody was a stranger, the journey was mostly conversation-optional, which was convenient. I wasn’t in a chatty mood. The condominium complex where my father and step-mother lived struck me as sterile and surreal, like something out of a Tim Burton movie—irk! And the two people I was traveling to visit were sure to repeat themselves constantly and bristle at my encouragement to move into an assisted living facility. Maybe because I was bracing myself for the forty-eight cruddy hours ahead, the insight that the Preta clan’s DNA twined in my soul wasn’t depressing. As long as I was in a dark space already, why not uncover a little brokenness? It was as if Savor were diagnosing me with a condition I knew afflicted me, but couldn’t name.

I don’t have a tiny mouth, narrow neck, and distended belly, but I am frequently ravenous and occasionally desperate. And, sadly, I can swallow lots of food and drink. My real relation to the Pretas, though, is the way I sometimes eat: quickly, mindlessly, excessively. It’s not pretty. I’m much better now than I used to be, but as the saying goes, “Two steps forward, one step back.”

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Triple the Hollandaise, Please! (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Today was one step back. Two dear friends and I shared breakfast at Perkins Family Restaurant, and I went at my order like a Hungry Ghost: eggs Benedict, home fries, and potato pancakes. Since I engaged in a modified fast yesterday (diabetes makes a strict fast difficult), I started dreaming of this meal over twelve hours in advance.

And, man, was it good. Perkins has fantastic hollandaise sauce, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I ordered extra on the side. The home fries were crisp, the potato pancakes with salt, butter, and sour cream were—I’m just going to say it—almost sexy. Were my eyelids fluttering as I ate? Were my eyeballs rolling back? Maybe.

When I finished the first half of the eggs Benedict and home fries, the mindful, buzz-kill side of me said, “Wow. That was great. And actually, you’re full. You could stop now, take the rest home.” Ha! By the time I had one pancake left I was uncomfortable. But the company was great, the conversation light, and ten minutes later I looked at that lonely pancake and thought what all we Pretas think: “Ah, what the hell.”

Hell is right. After exorcising myself from Perkins, I sat at church in the pastor’s study in a stupor, too full of fat, salt, starch, and chicken embryos to think. If it’s possible to be drunk on food, that’s what I was. The work got done, but I’m not sure how. The only thing that kept me from napping at 10:30 a.m. was that it really would have been an abuse of the company clock. My congregation is great to me, a gift not to be taken for granted.

But when normal siesta time came around, I was a bloated, white walrus in boxer shorts, slack-jawed on my bed at home. (For your own safety, don’t try to picture it.) Four hours after pushing the cleaned plates away, I still felt like I was with-child. Sometimes when you overeat, you can feel food sloshing around in your stomach, right? No sloshing here. There was no room for liquid or air. My whole torso was a sad, weary, dense wad of breakfast.

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Carl Brutannanadilewski of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, a Brother Preta (Credit: Wikipedia)

Here it’s important to pause and confess–the point of this post–that a siesta isn’t always a glowing expression of good health. Some afternoons, sleep is an expression of disappointment and self-loathing—that’s only a slight exaggeration. I napped lustily a few hours ago not only because the Preta in me was exhausted, but also because I was tired of myself. As everybody knows, the weaknesses that keep circling back to you again and again are a drag. Just when you think you’ve left a struggle behind, it shows up in dirty sweatpants and a wife beater and sprawls on your couch in all of its whiskery, flabby glory. Tiring, very tiring.

It’s nearly 7:00 p.m., but nothing for me anytime soon—still full. Maybe some soup later on. The nap did help, and I did get to start my day by laughing with friends, for whom I give thanks every day. I’m grateful that my Hungry Ghost isn’t a frequent visitor anymore, but when he arrives, the truth is, sometimes he gets the better of me.

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Credit: Mark Schumacher

So What If There’s a Toilet in My Breakfast Nook?

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Great Tile Work for a Rookie

For over two weeks now, the one-and-a-half-bath Coleman house has been down to one toilet and no shower. Kathy, who wears the family tool belt, decided to remodel the full bathroom. As the project got underway I was on retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, so the hygiene situation at home wasn’t an inconvenience. (Kathy got by showering at Best Fitness, where she works out; Micah’s tidiness-optional these days.)

Since landing back in Erie last Saturday, I’ve showered at a wellness center with a really long name where I work out. Neighbors Joy and Kevin are also great about our invading their shower. The point is, we’re all staying as clean as usual.

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In Kathy’s Lounge, a Cabinet with Deodorant, Tools, Hand Cream, Paint, and Brassiere

The house is suffering, though. Parts of the bathroom—impeccably clean toilet, sink, and cabinet—are camped in the breakfast nook during the delay. Various cosmetics and toiletries are cohabitating with tools and paint on a cabinet in the room off the bathroom Kathy has named her lounge. A few days ago Micah needed Neosporin for some chaffing somewhere—I didn’t want to know—and dug through a tote parked beside a table in the dining room; after several minutes he stood up with a sigh, waving the puny tube above his head.

Even the garage hasn’t escaped the mess. The bathroom door, hidden under decades of paint, rests like a pale cadaver across two sawhorses next to Kathy’s puffer, a kind of Yugo among sailboats. Micah’s spent hours sanding and burning away at that door and still has more work ahead.

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The Puffer’s Garage Mate

In short, our bathroom—6’ x 8’, tub included—is out of control, like a puppy not yet housebroken, leaving surprises everywhere. Kathy had hoped to have the shower working by the time I returned from Kentucky and arranged a few days off work to give herself a reasonable shot, but remodeling projects are always booby-trapped. Estimate your time and expense, then double both, and that’s where you’ll end up, if you’re lucky.

Once Kathy returned to work, progress slowed considerably. Messing with caulk and tile is tough after you’ve nursed chemotherapy patients for ten hours. As I write this post on Monday, Kathy plans to throw herself at finishing the shower on Wednesday, her day off.

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Lace Tablecloth with Neighboring Tote, Neosporin at the Bottom

You’d think having one toilet, no shower, and bathroom artifacts strewn about would be frustrating after going-on three weeks, but I can’t bring myself to care. (You might be thinking, “Well, maybe you could bring yourself to help out,” but that would be a mistake. I’m solid with avocados and cilantro, passable with a paintbrush, but an idgit with power tools. We’re all much better off if I make snacks for the skilled labor.)

Why don’t I care? No kidding, it’s the spirit of siesta, the impulse to stop, settle down, rest, and consider. First, I’ve got an incredible wife who actually enjoys swinging a hammer, cutting grass, and planting basil and tomatoes. On a pragmatic level, I’ve got it made. Kathy’s creative and anything but a slouch. So take six months on the bathroom if you need to, dahling! If necessary I’ll go out back, squirt myself with Palmolive, and turn on the hose.

IMG_0549So what about the mess? I’m not fastidious to start with, but in the unlikely event that having a commode in the breakfast nook bothers me, I know how to make it go away: just close my eyes. And Mennen Speed Stick smells the same whether I put it on in the bathroom or my lovely wife’s lounge.

I don’t say this out of any sense of pride or with any pretense: my life is more joyful than I have any right to expect, joyful largely because I pray (really a lot, I have to admit), nap, and breathe. When I stick to this program, most of the complications that would have upset me years ago fall into the it-just-doesn’t-matter category. (For a great expression of that huge category, check out this You Tube video.)

Yes, prayers, naps, and deep breathing! Having a splendid wife and children helps. Oh, and Zoloft doesn’t hurt either.

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The One Plant Whose Name Kathy Doesn’t Know Calmly Abides in the Breakfast Nook by the Toilet

Diddy Wa Diddie and a Lovely Daughter

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The Key in Question (Honest!)

Yesterday. Weird. Wonderful. I’d just finished praying, propped up in bed, when daughter Elena’s dog ringtone barked. 8:01 a.m. I’d intended to set my Zen bell app for another fifteen minutes, but duty called. Elena (almost twenty-five) locked her keys in her house. Could I zip up and let her in with my key? Of course. I’d be there in ten minutes.

“Don’t rush, Daddy,” she said. “My boss knows I’ll be a little late. I’ll be at [mother-in-law] Janine’s,” which is two-minute walk up the street. (As it happened, Janine couldn’t find Elena’s house key either.)

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Photo Credit: waferboard

So I dressed, fed the animals and, well, rushed, but it still took me twenty minutes to get there. I figured Elena would be on the porch pacing and drumming her fingers on the railing. Nope. She was inside sipping coffee, talking with Janine and cute-as-an-acre-of-daisies niece Shaylee, and so disgustingly not in a hurry that she immediately brought me to myself.

Shamatha—calm abiding. Habit energy’s anxious gravity eased up. I breathed in, breathed out.

“I walked up here, Daddy,” Elena said when we got into the car, “and said, ‘I’m going to have myself a cup of coffee.’”

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Elena with Her Handmade Cupcake Piñata

I waited in the car as she let herself into the house, brought back the key, and headed to her car. In the three seconds it took her to get from my jalopy to her (and princely son-in-law Matt’s) Subaru wagon, joy settled inside me. Her ponytail bobbed and bounced; her flowing dress swayed. What a lovely daughter! She seemed in that instant like a five-year-old again—sweetness and light, giddy in the sunshine and wind.

I drove back home to pick up son Micah (twenty-one) and get him to a couple hour’s of community service yanking weeds and slinging peat moss. Along the way I pulled over on South Shore Drive to witness the sun coming through the spring trees on the boulevard.

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Micah’s body clock has goofed itself into third-shift mode, so I woke him three hours after he’d gone to bed. In year’s past when he was in the midst of mighty struggles—more on those someday, with his permission—he’d have been a winey little witch, but he got up, ate a bowl of Raisin Bran, hopped in the car, lit a cigarette, and joked with me till I dropped him off. “Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles!” Boy is becoming a man.

Before driving off, I texted chemo-nurse-wife Kathy, who had told me she expected a crazy day at work. Every now and then I send her what we call a Pocket Note, a taste of gladness she can read over lunch. “Kathy Coleman gets tired and is very busy,” I wrote, “but she genuinely cares about her patients. And that’s wonderful.” As I hit send, I heard the voice of Jack Nicholson in my head: “Well, aren’t you the little ray of sunshine.”

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Jack Nicholson (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

On my way to the church, I plugged my snotty iPhone into the car speakers and listened to Leon Redbone’s rousing version of “Diddy Wa Diddie” on You Tube. (Yes, I know about the song’s double entendre, but don’t care. Want a song that’ll make you want to laugh and dance? Have a go.) It was so good I listened to it twice.

And the day went on like this, blessings lining up on the road before me. Micah’s last-minute therapy appointment forced me to abbreviate my siesta, but even this alteration to my plans didn’t take the shine off the afternoon.

While my son unpacked the meaning of life, I perched two minutes east on West 26th Street on Brick House Coffee Bar’s porch, nursed an iced latte, and did some church work—what a gift to have a flexible schedule and technology that lets me get work done literally anywhere!

I could go on, but you get the idea. “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” That’s how John Lennon would have described yesterday. If Elena hadn’t locked herself out, the day might not have glowed as it did.

Thanks, my dear, for inspiring Thursday, May 16th to be full of gentle, mindful sanity!

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By the Driveway

Confessions of an Itinerant Contemplative

I consider it an outrage that I woke yesterday morning with the well-intended but terrible song “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” playing in my head. Who sang that? Was it Placido Domingo and John Denver? No. That was another sweet one, “Perhaps Love,” or as Placido sang it, “Puh-da-hahps Love.” Was it Willie Nelson and Domingo? Close. Willie Nelson and Julio Iglesias!

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Okay, Boys, Show Us Those Irresistible Smiles (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

I wish the tune would go away, but I’m grateful for the thought it coaxed out of me. In their hit, Willie and Julio take on the character of itinerant Don Juans, loving a girl at every stop on tour—oh, brother! Wherever they go, they love. I, on the other hand, am an itinerant contemplative, praying and napping (my two requirements for contemplation, anyway) wherever I go. All I need is a decent spot to sit or recline.

Years ago most midday rest came at home, but now the pastor’s study regularly hosts blessed oblivion, as does the car if I’m faced with a long wait. And, of course, travel has never prevented napping. I’ve taken siestas in cars and on buses, trains, and ships, but never on a plane–too nervous. I’ve probably napped in over half of the fifty states. In the next few years I hope to nap in Europe.

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An Office Napping Spot, Set Up in Thirty Seconds

And prayer: I’m apt to pray wherever I can sit down.

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Beloved Home Prayer Chair

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Pillow That Turns Bed into Prayer Chair

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A Quiet Nook at the Wellness Center

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Prayer Chair in the Messy Pastor’s Study

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View from the Prayer Chair in a 1999 Mazda 626

A couple of places you’d think would be good for contemplation actually don’t work very well.

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Lovely Church Sanctuary, Many Seats, But Every Noise in the Building Echoes Here

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Beautiful Zen Garden at the Wellness Center, But Hard Benches and High Thermostat

I don’t often need to nap in public, but I’m always praying out in the open. Some people get mad about their doctor being behind schedule, but unless I’ve got somewhere else to be, I close my eyes, sit still, and breathe. I’ve prayed in a probation office waiting room a few times and even managed it in the natter of the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. In a coffee shop? Yes. In a department store while wife Kathy tries on clothes? Sure. In a library? Absolutely. I used to feel self-conscious when folks passed by, but what for? I don’t mind being known as the pudgy guy with owl glasses who sits around with his eyes closed.

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The Library of Congress; I’d Pray This Reading Room (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

When this long, cold spring on the shore of Lake Erie breaks, I’ll take the show outside, too: the front porch, back patio, and Presque Isle State Park are all in the running. In fact, if I had more time today, I’d find some shade at Presque Isle and chase down an hour’s siesta with half-an-hour’s prayer. It’s sunny and 77 degrees. The rest of this week won’t be so nice, but before long I’ll have more places to nap and pray than I know what to do with. For now I’ll settle for an hour in my own bed–that is, if I can shut out these playboys singing “to all the girls [they] once caressed.” “And may [they] say [they’ve] held the best.” Ugh!