Oniontown Pastoral: Wakefulness at Twilight At first the term “sleep hygiene” confused me. Who relates laying your head down at night and hauling it upright in the morning with cleanliness, after all? But when scientists delve into an issue, language … Continue reading
A Deep Breath and I’m Good Again
“It’s hell being nuts, Pastor,” Ray said over coffee. “I never know who I’m going to wake up to.”
My friend’s mental illness has been lifelong and ferocious. Hardly a day passes without one of his demons exacting misery. As I’ve mentioned in previous reports, we talk on the phone daily, usually more than once. Our conversations skip like records. He craves tobacco. He’s paranoid. He’s confused. Pray for him.
Occasionally he comes out with a revelation. “I never know who I’m going to wake up to.” If anybody else said this, you’d think he was joking about boozy one-night stands, but not Ray. Every day at 8:53 or shortly thereafter, my cell phone rings—or, I should say, quacks. I’ve recently given Ray his own ringtone so that I don’t rush to answer, not out of insensitivity, but realism. He’ll call back in 20 minutes.
Just as he has no idea what his alarm clock will bring, neither can I predict the stability of the voice on the other end of the line.
“I really want to smoke bad this morning, Pastor.” That’s a common complaint.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” I think, “smoke already!” No, I don’t advocate bad habits, but obsessing might be as carcinogenic as tar and as addictive as nicotine. My annoyance doesn’t linger like it used to, though. A deep breath and I’m good again.
Friendship with Ray is an exercise in forbearance, but it comes with rewards, chief among them is that loving him precisely as he is nudges me into loving others as they are and, no kidding, accepting life as it is.
The latest beneficiary of John’s love fest is the Coleman’s foxhound Sherlock Holmes. The facts are these. Sherlock, as I have noted in the past, is loud. If you could hear him carry on when I get home from work, your guts would quiver. Hollering won’t change this. Ignoring him won’t change this. Filet mignon won’t change this.
Now, I can boil over, or I can remember what Ray taught me: You can’t—or, I insist, shouldn’t—train people or dogs to be something that they’re not. That’s pointless and unfair. Either track down what’s lovable or start kicking friends and pets out of your pack.
Obviously I’m not talking about, say, a woman staying with an abusive man because, oh bother, he can’t change. There are limits.
But if your foxhound goes nuts on the way to the dog park, sounding off with his head hanging out the window, you have choices. That is to say, I have choices. 1.) Stop taking Sherlock to the dog park. 2.) Roar shut up until a sore throat sets in. 3.) Bark along with him. Only one of these makes since. Once the spirit takes over, the chats I have with my sleuthhound are almost as instructive as the ones I have with Ray.
Sherlock’s vocabulary is stunted, but adequate. He’s got ruff, whoop and whimper as well as several variations. Wimper is phonetically impaired, but you get the idea. We drive by pedestrians, who grin or go slack jawed. Some must wonder, “Was that driver barking like the dog?” Why, yes, he was. The performance also includes an intimate exchange. “Rah, rah, roo,” Sherlock often says, undoubtedly meaning, “I love you.” So I respond, “Rah, rah, roo, roo.” “I love you, too.”
After dashing, frolicking and indiscreet sniffing, he hops in the backseat for the five minutes home. Tired into silence, he who sheds fiercely puts his paws on the console, thrusts his head beside mine and slobbers.
Nobody has ever accused me of being tidy, so my gearshift panel is a commotion of dog hair, dust and coffee stains. Thanks to Sherlock, this dry slurry is now cemented in place by K-9 shellac. The dog has a surplus of spit, especially after playtime, and when he pants, that paddle-shaped tongue flings the slime everywhere.
I could get grouchy, but what’s the use? Scolding will never subdue saliva glands. Neither will admonition make a troubled soul wait until 9:00 a.m. to call.
I have some experience with neuroses, so I can confide in you this blasphemy. Prayer won’t still Sherlock’s thrill of the chase or cure Ray’s ceaseless mind. It’s more blessed, if you ask me, to bay with the dog or answer the phone saying, “So who did you wake up to today? If he’s giving you trouble, let’s talk a while. Then I’ll bend God’s ear for you both.”
Oniontown Pastoral: This Is Life
Driving with wife Kathy and grandsons Cole and Killian toward what we call “Grandma Kathy’s house,” I was both amused and horrified by the young man operating a battered economy four-door in the next lane. He was multi-tasking, and the other cars on the road were the least of his worries.
Now, who among us hasn’t seen a fellow driver texting while doing one of the following: lighting a cigarette, applying lipstick and making kissy faces in the rearview mirror, inhaling shoestring French fries, or pretending the steering wheel is a bongo drum?
But I’ll bet you’ve never witnessed somebody manipulating a smartphone with one hand, holding a little plastic cup in the other, and going at the guacamole therein like a dog lapping up ice cream. The guy’s texting hand also had driving duty, as the cup in the other hand had to be within range of his tongue. It was not pretty.
Of course, texting and eating Mexican is all fun and games until pedestrians get run over, which is almost what happened. A multi-generational family neglected physical wellbeing and migrated across four lanes of traffic right in front of Pastor Coleman’s and Prince Avocado’s cars. The whole lot wore dull expressions, as if they had just decimated an all-you-can-eat buffet. I can’t exaggerate the oblivion with which these eight bipeds flowed like molasses through traffic and the wonder of their survival.
Later that same evening, after the grandsons got picked up from their playtime with Grandma Kathy and Pop, the former sat on the couch and shook her head. “I can’t stop thinking about that family,” she said. “They could have been killed.” Such an outcome would also have gutted the future of one twenty-something multi-tasker.
Reasonable citizens would agree that everybody should quit messing around while driving. As for myself, I mean to push the point further and adopt one-thing-at-a-time as a standard practice.
My commute from home in Erie to work at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown has recently reminded me that managing several tasks simultaneously threatens life in more ways than one. A few weeks ago on I-79 South a woodchuck waddled across my path and, sad to say, he is burrowing into fields no more. Since that day, on various byways leading to Oniontown, a procession of turkeys, a family of geese with goslings and a graceful fox have played Hyundai roulette with me.
If I had been combing the few hairs I have left or fussing with the radio dial, there might well have been additional casualties. Thank goodness. I’m a guest on the animals’ land. They are not pests on mine. But my motivation for finishing one task before taking on another is about more than an aversion to squashing wildlife. I’m equally concerned about squandering blessings. The older I get, the more I realize that locations from Erie to Oniontown to Everest are waiting for me to accept their generosity.
One of my heroes, Dick Proenneke, gained notoriety through his determination to notice what planet Earth seemed eager to give him. In the summer of 1967 he chopped down trees in the Twin Lakes region of Alaska and let the stripped logs age. In 1968 he moved there for good to build a cabin with hand tools. Fifty-one at the time, Proenneke was extraordinarily energetic, strong, and resourceful. In ten days he had the walls of his 11’ x 14’ cabin ready for a roof, which he completed in short order. Come September, he added a fireplace and chimney made out of rocks he had gathered on his many hikes.
He wanted to be “alone in the wilderness,” as a documentary about him is entitled, after nearly losing his vision in an accident while employed as a truck mechanic. Proenneke decided that he would treat his eyes to as much beauty as they could handle, and Alaska was the place to do it. His journals, photographs and 16 mm films of thirty-five plus years spent in a lovely, though unforgiving, environment are instructive and inspiring.
No surprise to anyone who knows me, lighting out for the lonely territory is not on my bucket list. Some afternoons mowing the lawn feels like hiking the Appalachian Trail. Besides, surrounded as I am by loving family and friends, a little solitude goes a long way.
Fortunately, following Dick Proenneke’s example doesn’t demand residing anywhere other than 402 Parkway Drive or serving a church in a village more remote than Oniontown. What I need to do is pay attention—to the turkeys and geese, to the fox so light on its feet, to Grandma Kathy, to Cole and Killian.
If I don’t behold blessings one at a time, I appreciate none of them. Everyone and everything gets a turn. This is life.
Oniontown Pastoral: I Used to Know That
I am pleased to report that two horses have recently joined the faculty of animals in the fields surrounding Oniontown. They have signed on with those who endure the frustrating job of teaching the Reverend John Coleman a remedial course, Life 101.
I’m as eager a student as you’ll find in the great class of spiritual seekers in northwestern Pennsylvania and beyond, but one thorn sticks in my flesh: forgetfulness.
The same lessons present themselves to me “ad nauseam,” and each time a bashful idea arises: “Oh yeah, I used to know that.”
By way of set up for my latest epiphany, I should note that some little spitballs stick to my mental chalkboard. In 1956, before my time, E. B. White considered old versus new in his essay “Coon Tree”: “We have two stoves in our kitchen here in Maine–a big black iron stove that burns wood and a small white electric stove that draws its strength from the Bangor Hydro-Electric Company. We use both. One represents the past, the other represents the future. If we had to give up one in favor of the other and cook on just one, there isn’t the slightest question in anybody’s mind in my household which one we’d keep. It would be the big black Home Crawford 8-20, made by Walker & Pratt, with its woodbox that has to be filled with wood, its ashpan that has to be emptied of ashes, its flue pipe that has to be renewed when it gets rusty, its grates that need freeing when they get clogged, and all its other foibles and deficiencies.”
White’s dedication to the old and simple and tried and tested has made a lasting impression on me. His reservations about progress–everything from nuclear power to telephone systems unsupervised by operators–might seem curmudgeonly to contemporary eyes, but current research is rising up to prove how right he was in many of his disputations. (More on that another time.)
His words have never been wasted on me. I’ve been guided, for example, by his devotion to simplicity and common sense. Wife Kathy and I have lately cut our square footage in half and relieved ourselves of possessions by the hundreds. Thanks in part to the writer his friends knew as “Andy,” I’m not defeated by a big house to clean or smothered by what Kathy loves to call “items.”
And now, thanks to two lovely horses on District Road near St. John’s, a joyful thought has returned, something I used to know and hope never to forget again.
Those horses, then, were up to nothing whatsoever. As I drove past, they stood close together, noses almost touching as they bent to meager fare on the winter ground. An impression came to me immediately like a kiss on the cheek: “They look happy.”
If you know me personally or by words alone, you know that it doesn’t take much wind to set my soul sailing. As I imagined over and over that pair of professors grazing, a glad possibility stayed with me for the rest of that day and hasn’t disappeared yet.
In the midst of delightful travels on Route 19 and District Road, one cloud has darkened my sky. “What a boring life those animals must lead,” I’ve speculated. Through no neglect or fault of their owners, the hours and afternoons must stretch out in front of the cows and horses—cold, snowy, damp, muddy and endless.
Go ahead, have a good laugh at my foolishness, but I’m telling the truth. Pastor John has been nursing a genuine, though ignorant, pity for Oniontown’s teachers of Life 101.
It’s a relief to realize that animals don’t need entertainment or diversions. Neither do they speak in sentences or contemplate mortality. They’re fine—thank you very much—just being together, breathing, dining on corral salad and rubbing noses now and then.
They don’t obsess over ambitions and failures or fret about risky investments or an oncologist’s diagnosis. In the end, animals probably don’t require a neurotic fifty-something’s sympathy.
Funny thing, I have a ceramic plaque hanging under a cross at home in the den. The words from Abraham Joshua Heschel are three feet from my nose: “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”
In their own way, cows and horses understand the great rabbi’s philosophy. So did I, not too long ago. I’m indebted to them for the gentle reminder.
Oniontown Pastoral: What I’m Looking For
I say a lazy “yes, thanks” because an honest answer requires a treatise. Rarely, when nobody else is in line, the thesis comes out: “Well, I didn’t know what I was looking for, so I’m good.”
After a polite chuckle, the cashier carries on with no idea that a confessional transaction has also taken place.
I seldom know what I’m looking for. Call me slack, but purposeful searching generally yields frustration. The quotation residing warmly in memory is elusive, impossible to verify. And never go hunting for epiphanies. Those gems hide in desert caves until the seeker has forgotten that they exist.
But when I look for nothing, wonder ends up finding me. Of course, sometimes we’re all assigned a specific mission. There’s no avoiding, for example, the Thanksgiving curse of tracking down nomadic French fried onions in the grocery store for the sake of green bean casserole.
Obligations aside, though, I live like my late dog Watson, who was clueless as to what he was sniffing for, but overjoyed to discover it. What am I after? I’ll know when I find it.
Case study: Parishioner Barb invited me to her neighborhood. About twenty minutes from Oniontown, her neighbors are Amish. She introduced me to a couple of young guys working in their family’s lumber mill and walked me to points of interest, which on dirt roads can be beautiful, but nonchalant: houses with curtains pulled to one side, a sugar shack tucked back in the woods, a one-room school house, and one thing I wasn’t expecting.
A phone booth. The Amish, it turns out, have a nuanced relationship with telephones. They can use them, but they can’t own them. So in her front yard, Barb collaborates to provide them with phone service. The booth, built with their wood and running off of her lines, gets used six or eight times each day.
An obvious question occurred to me: “What sense does it make to use a phone, but be forbidden to own one?” But hush. My faith can’t stand up to logic, either.
When Barb and I returned from our walk, a horse and buggy was parked by the phone booth. The father indulged in technology while his kids waited. The horse worried its bit and nodded as we rubbed its long face.
Since the Amish don’t allow photographs, I snapped only a shot of the booth. It says something about caring for people you don’t quite understand and keeping a spare room open in your heart for guests.
This is why I love Oniontown so much: it always teaches me. A village an hour south of Erie has even helped me to look at home and everything nearby with fresh eyes.
Days ago at Starbucks, I chatted with a boy, maybe six or seven, and his mother. The kid was a whip, his mom cheerfully resigned to having a child able to talk the bark off a tree. His segue between topics was “by the way.”
Our conversation ballooned to ninety minutes and included his Gentleman Claptrap toy, requests for the family shopping list, and some kiddie movie. I was weary, but sensed the approach of wisdom.
As Mom loaded her purse, I said, “I’ve never heard of that movie before.”
He looked at me in disbelief and said, “You have a lot to learn.”
Mom gave him a tame rebuke, but I interrupted: “Well, actually, he’s right.”
And he was. As a lifelong novice, I learn best by opening my eyes and holding out my hands.
The foundation of happiness is mindfulness. The basic condition for being happy is our consciousness of being happy. If we are not aware that we are happy, we are not really happy. When we have a toothache, we know that not having a toothache is a wonderful thing. But when we do not have a toothache, we are still not happy. A non-toothache is very pleasant. There are so many things that are enjoyable, but when we don’t practice mindfulness, we don’t appreciate them. (From Peace Is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh)
Just now I closed my eyes and paid attention to my non-toothache. My mouth looks like a demolition derby in there, so I can vouch for the venerable Buddhist monk’s counsel. And sometimes I think my soul looks like my teeth—cracked, patched up, cavernous, important pieces missing.
Just now, with open eyes, I took in a full breath and enjoyed the air flowing back out past my throat and through my nose. My body, relaxed and light, isn’t cramped with any of the absurdities my mind habitually puts it through by narrating potholes into sinkholes and possibilities into finalities.
Happiness is fantastic, but okay will do. Hold the drama-trauma, blue cheese, and skydiving, and I’ll likely be fine. My job is to pray-meditate, walk mindfully, and swaddle Overthinking, kiss its spongy head, and shush it to sleep.
Even inclement days are sweet when my chops aren’t being busted and when I refuse to itch old scars open. Last Friday was one of those days. Weather has never bothered me, but Friday, November 13, 2015, was stern. Each chilly, gust-whipped raindrop was a slap on the cheek.
Poor daughter Elena couldn’t take Cole, now a Ninja of motion, to the playground, which is why I received a call at 10:11 a.m. Toddlers can turn homes into Thunderdomes.
“Hi, Daddy.” Was that a quiver of desperation in her soft greeting? “I was just wondering what your schedule was like today, if maybe you wanted to do lunch or something.”
Here’s a summary of our negotiations:
1.) Elena: Could we please not have lunch at my house? [X]
2.) Elena: There’s a play place at the [Millcreek] Mall. Maybe we could get a Starbucks and let Cole play there for a while. [X]
3.) Daddy: Then we could find somewhere to have lunch. [X]
4.) Elena: There is a God. [X]
We met at noon-ish, fed quarters to a fire truck and convertible, picked up coffee, and settled in at the official play place—and by settled in I mean kept Cole from making a break for the concourse, which he did four times, and from dispensing hand sanitizer until his fingers were raw.
After ten minutes of crawling through tunnels and nearly colliding with a dozen or so children of other desperate parents, he announced “Cole done” and copped a few sips of Pop’s decaf latte. Next he gnawed an eggroll and noodles while Elena and I had bourbon chicken.
Then it was time to go. An hour with a toddler doesn’t allow for segues: ride the choo choo train, slip and almost fall on the padded turtle, get hurt feelings because the thick-boned boy hopped on the tug boat ahead of you, sample coffee, squeeze duck sauce on your egg roll, and refuse to hold Pop’s hand when it’s time to go home.
So we ran together, my little buddy’s jelly bones all akimbo. Before we reached the door, Elena insisted: “Do you want to ride in the stroller or let Pop carry you?”
Bullets of rain got us right away. Cole’s face pinched in, and two steps later I felt his head settle on my shoulder.
“Aw, are you getting tired, buddy?” I said.
“No,” Elena said. “That’s what he does when it’s too windy.”
I must say, mindfulness is getting to be a habit for me, and it’s not for nothing. My bald spot and glasses were getting pelted, but so-the-hell what? A grandparent is made for the moment when the grandchild leans in. Love, fatigue, or safety could be the reason, but who cares? I still haven’t figured out exactly what a parent is made for, mainly because I was a trembling neurotic in that role. But Pop, I’m meant to be a shoulder for my grandson. The rest of me—I sometimes believe—is vestment.
“You okay, pal?” I said.
“Yeah.” One lilting syllable, almost a chirp.
Thich Nhat Hanh says that mindfulness can turn neutral into joyful. A non-toothache is hardly noteworthy. Neither is being able to breathe through your nose. Standard operations, that’s all. A two-year-old using his grandfather’s shoulder to hide from cold rain is about the same—thirty unremarkable seconds across the parking lot to the car.
Commonplace but for one truth: while my embrace kept Cole dry and warm, I found my own shelter from the elements.
I’ve never thought much about where my writing comes from, maybe because time for it is constrained. For over a dozen years, my habit has been to drop wife Kathy off at work or children Elena and Micah at school, then land at Starbucks or some other coffee house and peck away at a keyboard. Words have shown up faithfully, and the twenty to thirty to sixty minutes I manage most mornings are blissful, though my subjects sometimes involve torment.
Some people escape to their woodshop to make lamps shaped like whales, others prefer quilting, still others take photographs. To borrow from Stephen King, “I just flail away” at paragraphs—happily. In my experience, joy isn’t the best motivation for reflection. Why dig around my insides to figure out what makes me write? Does an old guy who has yards and yards of miniature train tracks set up in his basement sort out his aesthetic?
But now, after thirty years of fussing with books, poems, stories, and essays, I finally have good reason to ask myself, “Why do you write?”
Pema Chodron is to blame. Better put, I’m to blame for inviting this Tibetan-Buddhist monk into my soul. Pema, the first American woman to be fully ordained, directs Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia. She writes books with titles like The Places That Scare You and Smile at Fear. I’ve known about Ani (sister) Pema for a while now, but not being a big fan of fear, I’ve resisted getting close to her teachings.
I am interested in Buddhism, though, and Facebook obviously knows this. A video course called “The Freedom to Choose Something Different” kept popping up on my News Feed, accompanied by Pema’s face. I finally watched a sample and thought, “Oh, crud, this sounds like advice I need to hear”—needful enough that my credit card took a $67 hit.
The presentation was spartan. A nearly eighty-year-old nun in a maroon robe talked, answered questions, and sipped water. And it’s way too early to tell, but she may have significantly reduced my neurotic load.
I won’t presume to offer here a detailed summary of her seven hours of lectures, but the key concept is shenpa. The word is already dear to me. Pema describes the shenpa phenomenon as “getting hooked.” Minute by minute, day by day, people and events yank our chains, sucker punch us, break our hearts, or merely Taser us with annoyance. Mild: being cut off in traffic. Major: getting fired. Whatever the instigation, human nature is to think about the pain, explain it to ourselves, create stories about it, argue against it, and brainstorm the demise of those responsible.
We hope that letting our obsessing and verbalizing run their course will ease our suffering, but actually the opposite happens. As the storyline (Pema’s term) gains momentum and energy, we feed the fire of our anger, fear, jealousy, whatever.
Pema’s central teaching is that continuing to develop the storyline in hopes of feeling better is like trying to put out a fire with kerosene. The best action is to shush the shenpa-speak gently, without self-reproach, and focus on your in-breath and out-breath.
In case this all sounds like transcending suffering, well, sorry. No levitating in the lotus position. When the storyline is silenced, the physical sensations that accompany anger, sadness, and so on remain: the lead in the stomach, stiff neck, lump in the throat, fury rising in the chest. Pema’s counsel is to breathe with the feelings, to touch them instead of running away. Referring to her own panic attacks of the past, she said one of her teachers told her to lean into them.
Hush. Lean in. Yes, yes, I know, this is nothing new, especially the hush part. Don’t dwell on your problems. Do something to take your mind off things. Let it go. Lots of ways to say it.
But for whatever reason, Pema’s situating the practice of quieting shenpa within the context of meditation works for me. For years I’ve doused my inner coals with lighter fluid, thinking that they would eventually burn out. It’s sobering, though liberating, to learn that those emotional embers have the density of a black hole. Some of them might glow forever.
There’s just one complication with Pema’s sanity saving lesson: I’m in the storyline business. Words are allies, not enemies. For the first week I tried to be mindful of getting hooked and not starting up the potentially endless narration, I lost all desire to write. Nothing would come to me.
Oh, boy. “Is my writing essentially shenpa-speak?” I worried. For a couple of years, I’ve concentrated on A Napper’s Companion, and while gladness and wonder are frequent visitors, much—maybe most?—of the work begins with suffering. The death-resurrection pattern is well worn here.
The impulse to peck away returned quickly, but now I’m left with discernment. Writing and shenpa are unquestionably neighbors. The former has brought decades of gratification and comfort. Negotiating with the latter, away from the desk at least, has been a spiritual and physical sinkhole. Much anguish.
Most of the time I’m self-aware enough to know when my words are kerosene. But I’ve also teased, harassed, and howled on paper at my injuries, frustrations, and sadness.
Flailing away at paragraphs is a vocation, so I’ll have to lean into ambiguity: When does creation give healing and clarity? And when does creation pick at the scabs of suffering, keeping the mind’s wounds fresh, the body weary and shaken?
I imagine the answer to both questions will sometimes be, in the same breath, “Right now.”
I have to clean my room,
I’m saying, “Not fair!”
Even though I make the mess,
That’s neither here not there,
Because I’m talking about justice,
I’m going to make you aware,
When you’re five years old,
Well, it’s just not fair!
(“Not Fair” by Joe Scruggs from the CD Ants)
Wife Kathy’s been downsizing lately. Children’s books and CDs from when our own kids, Elena and Micah, were young are migrating toward grandson Cole, nine months old and already getting ears-full of songs and stories. He’s heard over and over “I Been Workin’ on the Railroad,” including the “Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dinah” part, “Nessun Dorma,” and another tenor aria I can never remember. Pavarotti calms him down in the car. Soon he’ll be ready for the lessons and play of Rafi and Joe Scruggs, whose music Micah was singing (poor “Joshua Giraffe,” “stuck in a zoo with buffalo poo”) on Saturday as he helped his mother put in a new basement window and I considered justice.
The Gospel yesterday from Matthew was Jesus’ “Parable of the Householder Who Hired the Laborers.” Summary: the householder pays those who worked only one hour the same as those who toiled in the sun all day. As the children’s song repeats, “Not fair, not fair, not fair.” If I had busted my hump all day, the householder’s lapels would have been wrinkled and torn. I would have yanked his beard right out of his loving, generous, foolish, unfair head.
In the parable, the householder obviously represents God, and the teaching is that God isn’t fair. God is loving. But I don’t intend to talk about God. The world is so full of beauty that I get verklempt occasionally, but its blood-ugliness has the same effect on me, too. God for me is above all Mystery. I have neither the nerve nor desire to explain or even speculate much about how God dwells in the here and now. God is first-string in my heart, but I’m letting God ride the bench for a thousand words or so today. All I want to do is think about justice (or as Joe Scruggs puts it, fairness).
I got in a fender-bender this morning. (Nobody hurt, both vehicles just fine. Thanks for asking.) I was merging into traffic, checked to be sure the coast was clear, and hit the accelerator. Sadly, the woman in front of me was carefully assessing the traffic—waiting for her embossed invitation to arrive—so I gave her a stout “good morning.” It took her a long time to pull to the berm, and when I looked in her window, she was crying, face in hands. She rolled down the back window, got her bearings, then rolled down the front. No, she didn’t hit her head. No, I hadn’t given her whiplash. She may change her mind about that tomorrow.
After we exchanged information, I numbly drove to Starbucks, where I’m licking this immediate wound, speculating on the rise in my premium, and tending a couple of other bumps and bruises. I really couldn’t see any damage to my truck, but her bumper, made of that wonderfully durable plastic that ripples if somebody in the backseat farts, sports a horizontal crack down the middle.
The morning’s gravity is pulling toward the blues. Poor John! Actually, poor driver in her seventies with an Eastern Bloc name sorely in need of a vowel or two and an unfair jolt of adrenaline to work off. I’ve got no worthy complaints against fairness. Although I’ve been something of a mess lately, that’s my own problem. I like to say that I’ve got a great life, but sometimes I suck at it.
Where fairness is concerned, I’m the defendant, not the plaintiff. The evidence against me is damning:
1.) I have four weeks of vacation each year, and I’m taking one day today. Two Xanax will soon have my jittery soul calmed down. I’m on my third free refill of deliciously bitter iced decaf. Nobody’s got a knife to my throat. I don’t live, in the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, “under the bomb.”
2.) When I head home, I’ll have to decide what not to have for lunch. The house is dry and warm or cool as necessary. Bills paid.
3.) The perils I face are mostly my own doing. Too much debt. Health risks to be brought under control. All this, so far as I know, is on me.
4.) My family has come through tough times I’ve already chronicled to death. Saying more about the past here would be tiresome, but last evening is worth a comment. Kathy, Micah, and I took family dinner to Elena and Matt’s: sauerkraut and pork and cream of cucumber and avocado soup with pearl onions. We sat in their postage stamp back yard and talked as Micah pushed grandson Cole around in his play car. The soup was savory, garnished with cherry tomatoes, raw cucumber, and avocado. Nobody but Matt had any, but down to my last culinary bone, I didn’t care. I tasted the hint of cheyenne and cilantro, sipped red wine, and received the cool air and love around me. When rain blew in, I didn’t give a thousandth of a solitary damn. I stood where it was sheltered and breathed, by now shoveling in kraut and mashed potatoes. Soon, Cole needed a bath, which he entered joyfully and immediately gave his business a tug. Atta boy, just don’t be too much of an overachiever here. Dinner, holding grandson, rain, peace, and laughter. Mercy within mercy within mercy.
5.) At 5:30 this morning, Kathy said, “You’re snoring.” I rolled this way and that for ten minutes, trying to comply, but finally was informed, “Your snoring is incessant!” It takes brains to say incessant before 6:00 a.m. What to do? I wanted to stay in bed with my wife and feel the healing breezes through the screens, but the rattling of my glottis was messing with her last hour of life. So I decided to remain and let myself get only to the edge of sleep. I don’t remember ever doing this before, but it’s what I wanted. This isn’t about me, but about Kathy. She deserves such love. Until just before 7:00, then, we lay together, me keeping vigil over myself and rising to consciousness at the first sound of sleep and wet head-flesh’s gargly duet. Just before she got up, I issued a last, faint caw. She touched my cheek and said, “I’ve got to get up.” She wasn’t mad. Where’s the justice?
6.) I emailed Kathy at work about my accident this morning. Her response landed an hour later: “Oh John Coleman, what am I gonna do with you? I might have to ground you from Starbucks. Glad you are ok. Bet little old lady gonna be sore tomorrow. Love you.” No annoyance, even though she has warned me about that stupid merge many times before. When the insurance premium goes up, Kathy will frown, shrug her shoulders, and kiss me.
There’s more, but the prosecution has gone on long enough. Fairness has a litany of complaints against me. My only statement is this: Justice or the world or the universe owes me nothing, so I’ll try to receive indulgent love and all family dinners in the rain with a humble and grateful heart.
So much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Literary critic John Hollander writes, “Williams ‘etymologizes’ his compounds into their prior phenomena, and his verbal act represents, and makes the reader carry out, a meditative one.”
In other words, meditative phenomena. Shamatha. Breathe. Receive.
Kathy, Elena, and Cole drive seven hours to Virginia for a baby shower. They also visit Polyface Farms, where Joel Salatin and family love creation, collaborate with it. Elena sits on a swing and nurses Cole. She’s not ashamed. Kathy brings home a pound of bacon from a pig joyful until its last moment. Salt and earth. We taste the earth.
For Sunday family dinner, we have purple potato salad and wraps: real, northwestern Pennsylvania tomatoes; avocado; feta; dill sauce; red bell pepper; chicken thighs sautéed in ground coriander seeds.
(I once saw coriander in Mary’s mortar. That’s why I thought to buy coriander, grind it, and put it with the chicken. My friend showed me.)
Before Sunday family dinner, Cole works in his playhouse in the backyard. He pounds with his hammer. He examines plastic nails and a sink and makes comments about them into the perfect air. Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom (James Wright).
Before Sunday family dinner, Elena says, “We were going to plant flowers beside the house, but Matt says he wants to keep that space open. Layla likes to run there.”
This morning, breezes lift the bedroom curtains. Kathy and I lay together, my arm around her shoulder, her head on my chest. We say nothing, listen to the trees, receive Earth’s cool hymnody on our faces and arms.
Finally: “I love you, Kathy Coleman.”
And: “I love you, too, John Coleman.”
Strange: we call each other by our full names.
A week ago wife Kathy and I returned home to Erie, Pennsylvania, after nine days in Maine. A few thunder storms in no way choked the cleansing breath of such a generous stretch of open time. We floated from attraction to junk shop. Sometimes we held hands, in what poet Galway Kinnell called the “familiar touch of the long married.” We celebrated our thirty-first wedding anniversary on board the Victory Chimes, a three-masted schooner sailing out of Rockland. And not once in well over thirty hours of driving did we turn on the radio or pop in a CD. We either talked or kept silent. Riding along with each other was music enough. I did snip at my wife over the Internet, know it all that I can be, but the moment passed like a few drops from the sky that never really turn to rain.
Vacation in beautiful Maine is an eye of the beholder situation. Did you ever ask a friend, “So how was your vacation?” And did you ever regret that question after sixty seconds? After five minutes, as your friend gushed about the charming print on the sheets at a bed and breakfast, did you ever watch her or his mouth, know sound was coming out but could no longer make out words, and think to yourself, “I’m turning to stone”? Me, too. But luckily, you can walk away now, before I get started. If you decide to stay, I’ll offer this concise observation about Maine: “Boy, I sure can be a bummer.” Do you suppose I could go on vacation and just experience the thrill of seeing whales? Or just sit on a ship deck in a quiet cove, watching the sunset with my arm around my wife? Or just take in the stunning Maine countryside from a slow chugging train?
In other words, could I just have uncomplicated, $#%&! fun? Ah . . . no! I have to notice that what disappears from the earth shines before it goes black and that death often makes me grateful—or at least gets my mind going. Still, sumus quod sumus. We are what we are. I am what I am. And I see what I see, think what I think. In Maine, a healing tension had me by the heart and head over and over. Of course, the worthy stock images—sun touching the waves, layer upon layer of hills and islands, an eagle perched hundreds of yards away on a dead tree—made the trip a bargain at any price, but what echoed in my chest’s sacred cavern and invited me to stop and breathe was the long goodbyes of beauty shining before it goes out.
Our first mission in Maine was a stop at L. L. Bean, where Kathy had already picked out binoculars from a catalog. As she waffled and kibitzed and tested at the counter with the clerk, I browsed. Anybody who has been to Freeport’s L. L. Bean knows how massive the store is; that is, stores. Lots of merchandise! We were in the hunting and fishing department. I was interested in none of it, though a slim old guy in a gabardine suit and fedora caught my attention as he studied a .20 gauge shotgun by waving its business end in every face around him. Obviously, he never took a hunter safety course as I did forty years ago: NEVER POINT A GUN, EVEN AN EMPTY GUN, AT A PERSON! Once the mindless gun handling subsided, my eyes wandered. And when I survey any setting, a bummer can’t be far away. At L. L. Bean, it was taxidermy—stuffed death. Kathy wasn’t about to drop $160.00 on binoculars without a leisurely test drive, so I took pictures.
Hunting isn’t for me, but I have nothing against it. Displaying dead game is okay, too. As I wandered among the trophies, though, I hoped that the tremendous moose and white tail buck had been granted the dignity of landing on a dinner plate before assuming their position and the tribe of raccoons was on display not simply because somebody thought shooting them would be fun.
On the long-married’s first full day in Maine, we rode the aforementioned train from Brunswick to Rockland and back, two hours each way. Yes, by the fourth hour I was bored, but for most of the trip I appreciated sitting next to Kathy, sharing a turkey sandwich with avocado, and watching small towns, swamps, inlets, and green hills go by. Lining the track for miles at a time were telegraph poles in various stages of decay. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. Some were in decent shape, others were listing badly, still others were in repose. All of them were pencils that outlived their language. “How long will it be,” I wondered, “before train tracks join telegraph poles?” We’re talking about patient transportation in an inpatient land. Amtrak is supposedly making a comeback, but I’ll wager by the time grandson Cole is my age, all people riding the rails will do so out of nostalgia.
My thoughts were sad, but wistful. It’s too bad that our current perception of time is pressurized, that unless movement from where we are to where we want to be involves g-forces, useable life is being wasted. Fortunately, despite my regrets about our cultural stampede, my spirit was light. I was, and am, glad that taking twenty-four hours to get from Pittsburgh to Orlando—as I did a couple of times on Amtrak’s Pennsylvanian and Silver Bullet—was once acceptable. And those wireless poles gave me hope that maybe one day the messages people take trouble to post won’t be insulting, combative, or bullying.
Far from dying out, bed and breakfasts in Maine are like corner bars in Erie. What’s curious is the idea behind a bed and breakfast: sleep the night in a beautiful old house and wake up for a meal prepared by one or two people in an actual kitchen; or let’s pretend it’s 1900—up to a point. Kathy’s favorite B&B was Auburn’s the Munroe Inn, where we stayed in the Noble Suite. “I could live in this house,” she kept saying. “I love this house.” Well, sure, you could be skanky after a day’s travel, have breath sour enough, as George Carlin once said, to “knock a buzzard off a shit-wagon,” but walk around the spacious living and dining rooms, and you feel stately and elegant. If you’ve been saying for years, “Oh, my life, I’ll tell you what, I could write a book,” the handsome roll-top desk in our suite would have given you the urge—by Jove!—to dip your pen in an inkwell and tell your story. Titles would run through your head: My Way (no wait, that’s been used); The Road Less Traveled (dang it, that’s taken, too; Frost, some guy named Peck; can’t remember). Your musings would be interrupted because you have to use the bathroom, where old-style faucets and goats-milk hand soap make what goes on in that euphemism of a room seem dignified.
In short, B&Bs are great because they offer something that doesn’t exist anymore. And if guests had to pump their own water and use chamber pots, I bet Super 8 and Motel 6 would smile broadly. Whatever. I loved the Munroe Inn and took more pictures there than at Sabbathday Lake, the Shaker village (stay tuned). It was a special treat to meet the owner, Olga, originally from Russia, who spent years in New York City before doing something her friends considered kooky: move to Maine and run a B&B. But she has got a fantastic gig going, made distinctive by eclectic choices in art.
Still savoring Olga’s inn, Kathy and I headed to Sabbathday Lake, 1800 acres of woods and rolling fields, free-ranging livestock, a dozen or so buildings, a faithful support crew of paid staff and devoted volunteers, a rich history in art and architecture, several reliable sources of income, and . . . three Shakers. A baseball enthusiast would immediately diagnose at least one reason for the shortage: no farm system for developing new talent. Shakers are celibate.
A month ago I met the last two monks at a Byzantine monastery near Butler, Pennsylvania. I thought of them, Fathers Michael and Leo, as Kathy and I walked around the Shaker village in the rain. There are still Byzantine Fathers in other monasteries, but the trinity at Sabbathday Lake is it. At best, all other Shaker communities are museums or libraries. At worst, they’re malls or tumbleweed. Sister Francis (the community’s mother), Sister June, and Brother Arnold are a religion of three, with a great cloud of witnesses. I may have glimpsed Arnold as Kathy and I were hopping on a wagon for a hayride. Wayne, a brother until 2006, left Sabbathday Lake after falling in love with a reporter who visited to write a story–with, in my opinion, a faithful and glad ending. I didn’t see Francis and June.
Short of a miracle, the Shakers will be no more during this century—that is unless Arnold, fifty-seven, breaks longevity records. Francis is eighty-seven, June seventy-six. The likelihood of their extinction made me feel blue, but also grateful. The Shaker practice isn’t for me, but I admire their devotion to a life centered in goodness. The article by the reporter Wayne eventually married noted that after the American Civil War the Shakers numbered about 5000. At Sabbathday Lake, where visitors are asked not to take photographs inside the buildings, I learned that Shaker communities were once de facto orphanages and foster homes. Poor folks turned their children over to the Shakers rather than let them starve. (Francis arrived at Sabbathday Lake at age ten.) In old portraits Shakers often wore severe expressions, but underneath their regimentation and austerity was a well of radical love.
As much as anything, I appreciate not only Shaker history, but also Francis, June, and Arnold for carrying on a practice that seems right to them and for making heroic sacrifices to be the last of a family that still has much to teach the world.
The official reason for our Maine trip was to sail on the Victory Chimes. If you’re not for sailing on mostly calm waters, taking naps whenever you please, going for walks on islands and in small coastal towns, and winding down by watching darkness descend on a horizon of pine trees, don’t board this vessel. And the food! Chef Pammy is phenomenal—a word I use sparingly—especially when you consider that she cooks on a propane stove that has two settings: simmer or hell. She makes the best chili and macaroni and cheese I’ve ever tasted, though these dishes don’t represent the menu. Think lobster with drawn butter, haddock in a dill sauce, curried greens soup, and smoked salmon with capers. Kathy and I were fortunate to sail this season with Pammy, since 2014 is her last. When we return, we’ll miss her presence even more than her spatula. She shares stories generously and listens without interrupting. I’ll consider myself blessed if we can catch up with her some day near her winter job at Sugarloaf Ski Resort.
There are a couple of minor drawbacks: the cabins are tight, and the heads are communal. I slept the hell out of my bunk and have no complaints. And about sharing three toilets amongst twenty or so passengers—some sprang for a cabin upgrade that includes a private privy—my attitude was, “Aw, look, get over it.” If there were a way of transporting the Victory Chimes routine to Erie, Pennsylvania, I’d vote for it. Breakfast at 8:00 a.m., lunch at 12:00 p.m., appetizers on deck at 5:00, and supper at 6:00. Between food, I wrote in the salon (mess hall), napped myself delirious, enjoyed deep draughts of prayer/meditation, and read. Nearly every day the boat anchored somewhere and conveyed passengers to shore for an hour or so. Of course, this is a vacation schedule, not to be expected when you’re back on company time.
Lots of travelers share Kathy’s and my love for a Victory Chimes cruise. Profitable as the enterprise is, Captains Kip and Paul have been hoping to sell the schooner for years. During sailing season, the work is consuming, and they purchased the vessel mainly to prevent it being sold to a Japanese interest that intended to transport it overseas and convert it into a restaurant. The last of her generation of Maine schooners, the Victory Chimes has the distinction of gracing the tails side of the Maine quarter.
The problem is, buyers aren’t coming forward. When Kip and Paul need to call it a career, I can only hope that somebody has the means and skill to take the helm. For now, the Victory Chimes is shining and delicious, and there’s no reason to assume that someone with a thick wallet and a spacious heart won’t make sure the Maine quarter doesn’t need to be revised. A final note on the boat: sailing with strangers for a few days has a way of inviting human authenticity. Kathy and I offered and received some personal stories that the waves and wind held in holiness, as if the water and air made themselves a cathedral. We told one couple a few years our senior about son Micah’s struggles with addiction and they responded with the wrenching account of their own daughter’s passing at twenty-six from the same lying thief. There was no judgment, no idiotic fixing. Just humans meeting each other in a nave and breathing in and out what is and what has been.
A walk with Kathy on North Haven included two surprises. First, I’m pretty sure we saw author Susan Minot—no biggie, but neat. Second, we passed Our Lady of Peace Roman Catholic Church, which is for sale, a sign that the pews are anything but full on Sunday at 10:00 a.m. I took pictures of the exterior and was joined by two other Victory Chimes passengers, all of us staring up at the rust and rot. On a whim, I tried the door. Surprise! Unlocked.
This may sound odd coming from a Lutheran pastor, but I don’t particularly care if individuals go to church. Non-churchgoers meet me, look at the ground, and get stumbly and awkward. My attitude: I’m in no position to judge your beliefs. I do admit to being concerned, though. If human beings lose the longing to know the Ultimate and the impulse to gather with other pilgrims for adoration—of anything!—our race has a collective case of spiritual anemia. Of all the lights shining before going out in Maine, the rusty lamp of Our Lady of Peace on North Haven left me with a simple prayer.
Some goodbyes, while serious, are also funny. On the way home, Kathy took a picture at a rest area on I-90 west in New York State, not far from home.
I’m confident the written word has a few more generations of vitality before it takes on the shine of a long goodbye. That possibility is so far off that I laughed in our tune-less truck at the drawing of an arm hanging out a car window, its hand letting go of litter. Even a bummer has to lighten up once in a while.