Micro-Post: 7:00 a.m. A Renegade Smile at My Non-Toothache

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A photograph of something not wrong. I smile at the avocado. (Credit: Pulp Photography / Corbis)

When we have a toothache, we know that not having a toothache is a wonderful thing. “Breathing in, I am aware of my non-toothache. Breathing out, I smile at my non-toothache.” We can touch our non-toothache with our mindfulness, and even with our hands. When we have asthma and can hardly breathe, we realize that breathing freely is a wonderful thing. Even when we have just a stuffed nose, we know that breathing freely is a wonderful thing (From Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Life Is a Miracle” in Essential Writings, Orbis Books, 2001).

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Nice lotus position! Yeah, this is not me because: I weighed more than this guy when I was born; I avoid neckties; what he’s doing with his legs would put me in the hospital with a fractured pelvis and a concussion from falling off that filing cabinet. (Credit: Plush Studios / Blended Images / Corbis)

I sit up straight against my husband (that would be a sit-up-in-bed pillow), put the soles of my feet together, and draw both heels in—a pudgy guy’s lotus position. A couple minutes ago, Kathy pulled back the covers: “I really have to get up. Got to shower.” She loves me, understands I’m trying to bounce back from a tough emotional stretch. But it’s one thing to love someone, another to grant marital patience to a neurotic spouse since 1983.

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A husband pillow–mine, in fact.

That’s where today’s renegade prayer begins. The idea is to breathe and abide in Divine Love, not to glom onto thoughts, but gratefulness takes over. I smile at my wife.

My right knee rests against nap and prayer partner Watson’s back. I smile at my dog.

Micah’s turbo alarm goes off. Soon I’ll drive him to work. I smile at my son, at his sobriety, at his zealous work ethic. I knew it! I knew he had it in him! Proud.

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You show that wall who’s boss, son! I smile at you.

Yesterday daughter Elena, son-in-law Matt, and grandson Cole came over for Matt’s birthday: California melts and chicken noodle soup. I smile at food, shelter, and love that pours out more than my cup can hold.

The church I serve is full of compassion. I smile at my sisters and brothers, all of us trying to love our way through this crazy world.

And my teeth are okay these days. No throbbing, no cracked incisors. I smile at my non-toothache.

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The kindest depiction of my teeth ever, courtesy of Meghan, hangs on my office door.

A few years ago: I had bronchitis and cracked a rib coughing; my dad was sobbing and howling his way through dementia; my naps were delicious only because they were an escape. I smile at my clear lungs. I smile at you, Dad, resting in the lap of mercy. I smile at 3:00 p.m., the gentle rest that’s no longer about survival.

And I have you, sisters and brothers visiting A Napper’s Companion. I smile at you, and in this final moment before Amen pray you are whole and at peace.

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Wholeness and peace. A view from the deck of Scholastica, a hermitage on stilts at Mount Saint Benedict Monastery, Erie, Pennsylvania.

Micro-Post: The Hug

6:35 p.m.: Kathy and I are in the kitchen, listening to Scott Pelley tell us that terrorists may smuggle ingredients for explosives onto planes in toothpaste tubes. If airlines forbid passengers from bringing toiletries to the Sochi Olympic Games, lots of athletes and fans are going to get funky. But maybe they won’t get blown up. Who knows?

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Ultra-Bright gives your mouth . . . KA BOOM! (Credit: Scott Ehardt)

Kathy nursed ten patients today. Tired, boss. Dog tired. While I stare at the anchor’s face, she has the obituaries spread out on the counter. “Oh,” she says. Silence, then again, “Oh.” She’s cared for them, heard their stories. Compassion and science haven’t yet eliminated cancer’s mad attrition rate. Damn it!

What to do? Mercy’s gravity draws Kathy and me into a hug, a long one. We sway, almost dance. Breathe in, breathe out. I rest my lips on her hair, receive thirty-three years of home.

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On the kitchen sill, light draws life into an embrace.

That’s what this hug is: home. Shenley Drive and Erie are great, but they’re not my earthly residence. I’m at rest here, in Kathy’s arms, her graying hair against my cheek. Explosions and funeral arrangements are white noise. Where two or three are gathered . . . yes, the Holy Mystery shares our breathing. Hosanna! Save us! Shamatha. Abide in calm.

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Probably what Kathy and I look like: a couple of Japanese macaques hanging on to each other. Home sweet home! (Credit: DLILLC / Corbis.)

A minute isn’t enough, but it’ll do. “You should go sit in bed,” I say. “Rest. I’ll get dinner.”

So Kathy goes upstairs, and I make meatloaf and sweet potato fries and listen to Leon Redbone: “Ain’t Misbehavin’”; “Mr. Jelly Roll Baker”; “My Melancholy Baby.” Come to me, my melancholy baby. Cuddle up and don’t be blue.

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Kathy with the best medicine for melancholy: grandson Cole! She loves me but doesn’t giggle like this when we hug.

We eat in bed and fall asleep early, blessed to have house and home. We wish the gorgeous, dynamite world around us grace and peace.

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Gorgeous: winter trees on Shenley Drive

Epiphany on a Planet of Cautionary Dreams

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Mary and Joseph still adoring Jesus on January 10th at Mount Saint Benedict Monastery in Erie, Pennsylvania.

It’s January 23rd: the magi have come from the East; knelt before the Christ child; offered their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh; and were granted their epiphany. Then, “having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” By January 6th, the Epiphany of Our Lord, I imagine most crèches had already been wrapped in old newspaper and set in a dark place for eleven and a half months of hibernation.

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Baby Crash enjoying the extended Epiphany.

The Coleman household has the strange habit of allowing the Christmas/Epiphany celebration to linger. It was only a week ago that Kathy put the ornaments, decorations, and snowmen in Totes, which now wait for me to lug them upstairs to storage. We’ve stretched the season into early February, but don’t have a set date for pulling the plug. When an afternoon or evening opens up in mid- to late-January, Kathy intuitively knows it’s time to go back home to our normal country.

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Stop and breathe, John.

I know Christmas/Epiphany has to move on, but I miss the spell our living room casts on me in December and January. Give me reds and greens. Give me lights that hold me back like a mother putting out her hand to keep her child safe when she brakes hard. Give me “good tidings of great joy,” even if the tidings are inconspicuous: You have a warm, dry, lovely house on a planet of cautionary dreams. Stop and breathe. Pay homage.

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Peter Paul Rubens’ “Massacre of the Innocents,” 1636-1638 (Credit: Wikipedia)

There is one jab to the solar plexus between Christmas and Epiphany. On December 28th, many Christian churches commemorate the Massacre of the Holy Innocents. The Gospel of Matthew recounts Herod’s indiscriminate attempt to kill Jesus, the promised King: “[Herod] sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.” No historical evidence of this slaughter exists, but current events keep proving that Matthew’s account may not be factual, but it’s true.

Unicef reported last December that the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution regarding the Central African Republic: “Action must be impartial and swift to stop the targeting of children, to protect schools, health facilities and transit centres, and to provide care and support to victims—with no impunity for the perpetrators of these outrages against children.” So suits pass edicts, and mothers weep for their children and refuse “to be consoled, because they are no more”—in Newtown, Damascus, and Bethlehem.

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Homage at Abiding Hope on January 23rd. The magi have come so far, and I’m putting off asking them to leave.

The whole Christmas/Epiphany story, with the shepherds “sore afraid” and the star “at its rising” and Mary wrapping her son “in swaddling clothes,” conflates with Rachel’s “wailing and loud lamentation” and leads me to shamatha in Erie, Pennsylvania. Cultures and centuries away from a child lying in a manger in the city of David, I keep epiphanies coming with calm abiding and leave a tree and crèche standing in my soul.

This practice is more about disposition than decoration. If only I could receive the simple, moving, miraculous story of Jesus’ birth without qualifications: Mary and Joseph had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem for a stupid census; Jesus was born alongside manure and slept in a feedbox; an angel warned Joseph in a dream to flee with wife and son to Egypt to escape Herod’s threat; and—like I said, more truth than fact—a king slaughters pretty ones to fulfill a prophesy.

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Come, dry bones of Rwanda, rise and dance in my soul. (Credit: Sascha Grabow)

The problem is, I can’t tolerate sanitized stories. Edit out or ignore the darkness and danger, and Matthew’s and Luke’s narratives are insulting, and the Coleman family’s celebration is ignorant and selfish. What does it say when I tear open presents on Christmas morning while at least one arm of my spirit isn’t cradling Rwanda and Littleton? How comforting is the artificial tree beside the fireplace if it withholds its glow from distended bellies and limbs abbreviated by machetes?

The point: I’m in no hurry to get the living room back to its usual arrangement. If nothing else, a nap on the couch with a fire going and the tree lit is a rare blessing. Sleep isn’t required. It’s enough to doze, let the colors blur through half-opened eyes, and listen to the wood’s snap and crackle.

I’m a challenging person to live with. The Christmas/Epiphany living room needs no excuses; it’s beautiful and that’s enough. There’s no particular reason that it couldn’t be an embracing escape from planetary absurdity and rage, from each day’s disappointments and injuries–this and no more. So why do I insist on complicating a peaceful sanctum? Because my Epiphany shamatha whispers, “Invite everybody in. Let them have a safe place, even if that place is your soul.”

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A lone snowman remains on the mantle: “Welcome. Come in from the cold.”

This morning in the car, Micah and I learned on National Public Radio of an innocent who will visit my spirit tonight as I sit by the fire. Reuters reports that “a 20-year-old woman in eastern India was gang-raped by 13 men on the orders of a village court as punishment for having a relationship with a man from a different community, a senior police officer said on Thursday . . . . Police said that her male companion was tied up in the village square, while the assault on the woman happened in a mud house.”As we rode in silence, I looked over at my son. He was shaking his head, eyes closed—momentary curtains drawn against evil.

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It’s warm here, distant daughter. I’ll put a blanket down for you. Rest. You’ll be safe.

The father in me speaks words that will never reach the young survivor in her hospital bed: “Holy Child, come sit on the hearth. Bring your forbidden lover. I’ll put lights back on the tree. Cry and scream if you want. I’ll keep the fire going, bring tea for your aching throat, warm bread to feed your broken body.”

My Indian daughter will be staying indefinitely. In my spirit inn that sings and sighs, where the tree and crèche live a seamless Epiphany, joy is sacred only if there’s room for every traveler’s wounds and tears.

The Song of a Frozen Thrush

I was getting cherry tomatoes from the basement freezer to make marinara sauce when I remembered a karmic coincidence. It happened a few years ago and was so unlikely and sacred that I took the bizarre step of freezing the evidence—a dead Swainson’s (or olive-backed) thrush.

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Swainson’s thrush (Credit: Wikipedia)

I first wrote about this handful-of-a bird a couple years ago while on a train to Florida to visit my dad and step-mother, both of whom were in an Edvard-Munch-spiral of dementia:

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Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” 1893. Can a serious painting be a cliche for despair? Maybe, but it fits. (Credit: Wikipedia)

“The lights have gone off and engine and ventilation moans have stopped. As the Silver Meteor sleeps for what we’re told will be fifteen minutes, I remember Swainson’s thrush. Named after 19th century ornithologist William Swainson, the thrush takes numerous micro-naps during the day, each of just a few seconds, according to hras.org—like naps on the train. Passengers nod off for a minute, until the car jerks or somebody walks by and brushes against them or a grizzly old guy hacks cave breath from one seat back to their nose—my present situation. Then they strain their eyes open a slice, shift position, and nap again. 

© Copyright 2011 CorbisCorporation

Please! Nobody, woman or man, looked this together on the train from Pittsburgh to Orlando. We were all visual renderings of halitosis. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

“Sometimes I myself check things out with one eye because the annoyance isn’t worth the effort of pulling both open. In this I imitate Swainson’s thrush. Saul Scheinbach describes the nifty mental trick this bird and others use to sleep and prevent getting eaten at the same time:

“’Scientists found that when the birds were in a migratory state, they reversed their activity cycle, resting during the day and becoming active at night. As a result daytime ‘drowsiness’ (eyes partially closed) increased, but total sleep time dropped by 67% as compared to birds in the non-migratory state. To partially compensate for this sleep loss migratory birds took daytime micro-naps with one or both eyes closed. These episodes occurred during periods of drowsiness and lasted about eight seconds each. The team suspected that unilateral eye closure (UEC) during the micro-naps allowed one brain hemisphere to sleep while the other stayed awake to avoid predation.’

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Little thrush, you are getting sleepy, very sleepy. (Credit: Herbert Spichtinger)

“Scheinbach goes on to report that the research team referred to here went on to prove their suspicions true and adds tongue-in-cheek speculation: ‘UEC has also been observed in ducks, whales and dolphins, indicating it may be more widespread across the animal kingdom. Perhaps humans exhibit some form of UEC too. I recommend testing college students during exam time and security guards at night.’” Har har.

The mission to Florida, via Amtrak for fear of flying, failed. My father and step-mother refused to move into assisted living. To their neighbors’ dismay, they hunkered down in their Bastille of anguish and confusion for several more months. The trip’s only grace was long stretches of writing on the train and dozens of naps taken like a migratory animal.

Back in Erie, bummed about such a dreary use of vacation time, I showed up at the church and found what looked like a Swainson’s thrush lying dead on the sidewalk. I imagined it flew into the glass door and fell into my path. It was perfect, as if it had taken a macro-nap until I arrived. What were the odds? A sage bird I read and wrote about but never met lay before me in repose. I’m not much for signs, but I know a wonder—albeit a dark one—when I see it.

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I think you’re a Swainson’s thrush–anyway, sing. I’m listening.

So I picked the thrush up, wrapped it in napkins until I got home, and froze it in two sandwich bags. True, keeping a tiny cadaver in your freezer is morbid, gross, weird, whatever, but I wanted to hang onto Swainson’s thrush. We had a conversation pending, but after watching my dad flail about in dementia’s white caps and refusing rescue, I had no shamatha left to imagine what a dead bird might say to me.

My shamatha may not be functioning any better than when I stepped off the Silver Meteor all those months ago, but lately gifts have landed in my path, both quick and dead, and I suspect they’re in formation with Swainson’s thrush. Just now I reached into the basement freezer and returned to the dining room table. Again I laid napkins down and took hold of the body, this time expecting freezer burn. But no. Its wings have darkened, but otherwise it looks the same as the morning I found it.

Had the thrush offered itself to me? Ah, a trite thought, spiritual kitsch. But regardless of her intent, she’s been teaching me. If you can’t nap for an hour, take thirty minutes. Too busy for twenty minutes of prayer? Do ten? Savor three bites rather than swallow ten whole. A truckload isn’t preferable to a teaspoon.

In fact, as one who takes in everything from memoirs to avocados to Starbucks coffee way too fast and in embarrassing quantities, I believe Swainson’s thrush may be trying to lengthen my days. Receive staples, luxuries, and blessings in small portions, you middle-aged glutton!

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Micro-blessing Cole sleeps on macro-blessed John.

I’m breathing, listening for this frozen bird’s song. (Lord, help me.) Micro-graces have been appearing, and fortunately I’ve had one eye opened to notice them. They’re all singing to me mercy within mercy within mercy.

Neighbor Patrick, Shenley Drive’s Down’s-syndrome sage, just turned twelve, but his boy-wisdom isn’t getting all mature, fussy, and sophisticated. He lives in a relentless now; I wonder if what the world regards as a deficiency is really an absence of intellectual clutter and absurdity. He does his best to teach the neighborhood. Sometimes we pay attention.

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Patrick: Let’s play! I’ll be Superman.

Friend Mary posted the following on her Facebook page: Foster & Help Needed! “Noel–The Christmas Kitten”: This little kitty was found tonight after she crawled up through a heating vent into a house in Millcreek. We assume she went in to try to keep warm. She is very sweet, and just wants to be held and cuddled. As you can see, she is emaciated and obviously has been on her own for some time. Orphan Angels Cat Sanctuary and Adoption Center will be overseeing her care, and a vet appointment has been made for her first thing in the morning. She needs a good foster home until she can get strong enough to be ready for adoption. Orphan Angels could also use donations for this little one. This case was unexpected, but they want to make sure she gets the help and care she needs. Anyone interested in fostering, please call Eileen at 814-504-3246 to be screened. Donations can be made via paypal on the OA website: http://orphanangels.weebly.com/.

Mary and husband Mike agreed to take Noel in, knowing she’d need a couple months of care before a permanent adoption would be possible. Noel didn’t survive, though. Mary writes, “I am at least grateful she had warmth, food and love in her last days.” And I’m grateful for friends’ yes to one of my frozen thrush’s forgotten sisters. Mary and Mike quietly hugged the world.

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Noel, Swainson’s thrush’s little sister. Her eyes teach me.

This Christmas week my brother Ed asked if I had our Grandma Miller’s molasses cookie recipe. He made some on his own and said they were hockey pucks. We looked in a family cookbook without luck. In passing he also mentioned that Gram made a batch of those cookies once a week because Earl (Gramp) loved them. This hardly seems worth sharing, but the idea has stayed with me, especially since Gram’s body was gnarled with arthritis. Her cherubic face was always pursed with pain. “So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow,” William Carlos Williams wrote. Correct. A red wheelbarrow and a molasses cookie.

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Dora Miller’s molasses cookies weren’t so puffy. I never knew I’d want a picture of Earl’s favorite someday. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

Also this week, parishioner Bob and his grandson Gabe stopped by the church to do some cleaning. When they came into my office, I crouched down and said to Gabe, “Hey, you got a hug for Pastor John?” He smiled and let me have it. For him it must have been like hugging a sequoia. For me it was one regulation clergy hug—until I tried to pull away. Gabe hadn’t gotten the memo that this was to be a micro-embrace. A Swainson’s thrush-preschooler passed his goofball minister a universe of grace without realizing it.

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A standard hug micro-heals me for days. (Credit: corbisimages)

When an olive-backed bird is your mentor, even a fart can be a blessing. Yes, you heard me: a fart. (Roll the r. It’s more fun that way.) Friend Abby recently shared this laugh on Facebook:

Conversations with my 4 year old. Take two.

Keenan: FLURRRP!

Me: Hah! That was quite a toot!

Keenan: (Very serious) that wasn’t a toot momma.

Me: It wasn’t? Sure sounded like one to me! What was it then? A fluff? A fart? Did you shoot a bunny?

Keenan: No momma. None of those. My butt blew you a kiss.

I accept Abby’s word (If I’m lyin, I’m dyin!) that Keenan came up with his own version of the scene in Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale in which Nicholaus “anon let flee a fart.” In the heart a four-year-old boy, such a kiss is precious, not to be wasted. The point: I need Swainson’s thrush’s strangest song to make me laugh and drag me out of the terrible squirrel cage of self .

© Copyright 2013 CorbisCorporation

Sniff. Oh, that was supposed to be a kiss. Why, thank you. (Credit: Lars-Olof Johansson)

Because my olive-drab bodhisattva hasn’t finished saving me yet, I’ve returned her to the morgue. Such power! Even frozen she sings to me: “Creation screams and groans, but shh. Do you hear the descants of grace and mercy?” 

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A bodhisattva with many wings. (Credit: Nat Krause)

Light and Life Versus the Execution of a Shadow

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Santa Claus on Black Friday (Credit: Jason Stang)

Crying sits in my chest and leans on my throat. Zoloft be damned, I’ll be wiping away tears before this Black Friday of 2013 is over—tears and snot.

(Blogger’s Note: I apologize in advance for some of what follows. This post should be an outburst of  joy, but if you’ve been sticking with me any length of time, you know I try hard to be emotionally honest. So I’m going to tell the truth.)

I’d planned on being a curmudgeon today about Black Friday’s syphilitic insanity infecting Thanksgiving. I have lots to say about that but will hold off for a while. Instead, I’ll share the e-mail and Erie Times-News story that are making this 8:50 a.m. at Starbucks complicated. Bad news first.

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Alois Alzheimer, official sponsor of Alzheimer’s disease (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Headline on page 2-A of the Erie Times-News on November 29, 2013, right under a lovely piece by Kevin Cuneo about the luscious scents of Thanksgiving cooking overcoming his dog’s skunking of the family home: “Man fatally shoots roving Alzheimer’s patient.” Here’s the story (skipping paragraph breaks):

CHICKAMAUGA, Ga. – Authorities in northwest Georgia said a man shot and killed a 72-year-old he thought might be an intruder but turned out to be a wandering Alzheimer’s patient. Walker County police told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that Ronald Westbrook had walked about 3 miles in the sub-freezing temperatures before knocking on Joe Hendrix’s door just before 4 a.m. Wednesday. Hendrix’s fiancée didn’t answer, instead calling the police. Sheriff Steve Wilson said before deputies arrived, Hendrix went into the backyard with his handgun, where he saw Westbrook in silhouette. Wilson said the 34-year-old Hendrix recalled giving Westbrook several verbal commands, but the advanced Alzheimer’s patient didn’t respond. Hendrix then fired four shots. Wilson said charges could be filed but that Hendrix didn’t violate any laws by walking out into his own yard.

© Copyright 2010 CorbisCorporation

Robber! Rapist! Murderer! Oops, sorry. Just an old guy. (Credit: Jesse Reardon / Twila Reardon)

I don’t think walking out into his yard was the objectionable part! Some months ago I shared a post entitled Viewing Dad’s Death Loop at Gethsemani in which I described my father’s dementia. I’m the proud owner of a I Survived My Parent Going Bat Crap t-shirt. For me, it wasn’t Ronald Westbrook knocking at Joe Hendrix’s door. The man’s name was Denny Coleman, he was eighty-five, and he was so far gone that while staying at my house, he wandered into the wrong room in the middle of the night and pissed in my clothes basket. It was my confused, tormented dad who, lost and freezing, knocked on a door. When nobody answered, Dad walked into the backyard and stood in the corner, in the dark. Some guy started screaming at him, but since he couldn’t even remember whether his son was his son or uncle or brother or father, he stood there silently. Then Hendrix shot my dad’s silhouette four times. Then Dad wasn’t flummoxed or agonized anymore.

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That should about cover it.

That’s how I processed the article. Conveniently, as I sat breathing, “White Christmas” played in the background, with Bing Crosby whistling like my dad used to. Of course, I also immediately thought of the woman in suburban Detroit who knocked on a door in the middle of the night because her car broke down and ate lead for the effrontery. God didn’t make enough tears and the devil didn’t make enough expletives to communicate my sadness and rage. If Hendrix had actually shot my dad, the upset would rise to another terrible height, but I’m just saying that 133-word story out of Chickamauga has sucker punched a once-in-a-lifetime morning. No worries. I’ll work the ache out of my jaw, pop four ibuprofen, and move on to today’s best news story, which showed up via e-mail:

Hi John Coleman,

Did Elena call you? She is in early labor, dilated three, probably gonna have the little guy today. If you feel the love, would you bring me a Starbucks after you leave? How am I gonna concentrate today?????????????????????????????????

Love you, soon to be grandpa

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Yes, soon-to-be grandma, I’m feeling the love.

(Yes, my wife calls me John Coleman.) If question marks are any indication, Kathy is giggling and jitterbugging at work, The Regional Cancer Center. As soon as I read her note, that cry I mentioned rose in my chest. It will come out in its own time.

Like Dr. John Watson, I’m guilty of telling this story wrong-end foremost. As it happened, I read Kathy’s sweetness-and-light message, imagined holding my grandson and kissing him on the head, then opened the newspaper, where a befuddled old man’s killing had me staring at my father, scared in the darkness.

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Elena on Thanksgiving. I think my turkey gravy induced labor.

So what wins? The execution of a shadow? Or light and life? It seems like the former is always throwing a haymaker at the latter, meaning to knock it out of the ring.

My money’s on light and life. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. That’s what the Gospel of John claims, and even if I weren’t a Christian, I’d still believe it. Sorry for being a fool, but the alternative is too much to bear.

With luck, light will shine this Black Friday. My grandson may enter a bright land he couldn’t have imagined and be embraced immediately by dazzling love. Let that also be so for Ronald Westbrook, Denny Coleman, and one day, you and me.

The Sacrament of Trying on Boots

Yes, yes, I know: Mother Teresa was accused of financial impropriety and of accepting contributions for her ministry to the poor from questionable sources. Her defense was that the poor were more important than the motives or morals of benefactors.

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Mother Teresa of Calcutta (Credit: Wikipedia)

Say what you will, I love Mother Teresa. She was a saint—or will be soon enough. Two of her quotations guide my thinking. Friend Michelle had the first printed and framed for me as a gift: “I would rather make mistakes in kindness and compassion than work miracles in unkindness and hardness.” I keep these words on the wall in front of my desk. The second quote is just as powerful: “There should be less talk; a preaching point is not a meeting point. What do you do then? Take a broom and clean someone’s house. That says enough.”

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Amen

Underneath all of Pastor John’s patience and compassion is selfishness. I don’t like to sweep floors, not even my own, and I covet time. Andrew Marvell’s lines often haunt me: “But at my back I always hear, / Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.”

For reasons I don’t understand, Mother Teresa’s words have visited me lately to remind me that her broom is a metaphor and many days my most useful, loving action is invisible, inconspicuous, known only to a person or two and a gray sky or a lonely afternoon.

A couple days ago a friend—let’s call him Gene—asked if I’d take him to buy a new pair of winter boots. He laughed as he told me about one sole of his old pair flopping around like a drunk’s tongue as he walked home. Finally he gave up, took off the wounded boot, and hobbled up his gravel driveway, one socked foot wet and tender.

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Some glue might have fixed Gene’s boot, but oh well.

So I picked Gene up, and within fifteen minutes he was trying on boots. One problem: health issues render him listless sometimes; tying his shoes or buckling a seatbelt can be exhausting. Though it was a bad day, Gene, as always, was aware of my time. He tried to hurry, but our footwear errand had him sagging to the Walmart floor. Every movement was a labor: tugging the wad of tissue paper from the toe of the boot; unraveling the laces and flipping down the tongue; and—my Lord—pulling on the boot.

After watching for a minute, I said, “I got you, Gene.” So I helped him find the right size, get the boots out of the box and onto his feet, each time pulling up his weary white socks, and watched silently as he did test runs. He tried on four pairs, finally settling on ones without laces, like cowboy boots with chunky treads and generous toes.

The second pair into this process it occurred to me—breathing, shamatha—that helping Gene in, ugh, Walmart, was sacred. He droops from the effort of taking money out of his wallet, and all he needs to make his life significantly easier is somebody to take forty-five minutes and spot him as he buys boots that won’t rub a sore on his ankle.

I also knew that Gene needed more than new boots. He needed to know that I wasn’t impatient or annoyed. So I put my hand his arm and said, “How about I help you get that on?” And, “Don’t worry, Gene. I’m not in a hurry.” And, in the case of a pair with a dozen eyelets, “Hmm. You’ll be an hour getting into these. By the time you get them tied, you’ll be too tired to go anywhere.” Like I said, Gene and I are friends. We had a good laugh.

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Prescription for joy. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

A couple minutes after I dropped him back off at home, my cell phone’s Sherwood Forest ringtone sounded. It was Gene, but since I was driving, his call went to voicemail. The message: “I just wanted to say thanks again for helping me, John. See you.”

Mother Teresa also said, “We cannot do great things on this earth, only small things with great love.” I’m not sharing Gene’s and my excursion because I’m a great guy. I’m a normal guy with the usual human portion of self-absorption, a guy with an aversion to brooms, but I got lucky. In a moment of potential frustration I was blessed with a visitation of the Spirit.

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You’re holding gladness in your hands, little sister. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

A friend’s boots broke down. We got him a new pair. We did it together with love. I close my eyes, breathe, and days later the sacrament of trying on boots still cradles my soul. This is gladness.

The Healing Properties of Sleep and “Tuxedo Junction”

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A crested duck, which I first encountered in Camden, Maine, where a flock of these darlings outside our hotel room kept wife Kathy and me up at night with their gossiping. (Credit: Anna Barberis)

Yesterday I felt like I was—as wise colleague Roy once put it—being pecked to death by ducks. The roads were populated by drivers who had cold lard for blood and cud for brains. Or they were staring at cell phones with that dazed, dunderheaded expression people wear when texting. Or they were fussing with the bag of frozen haddock or whatever in their backseat and assuming that the 153 cars behind them would gladly wait until all was situated.

I have a patience surplus everywhere except in the car, where I growl, grunt, sigh, squeal, sputter, and in moments of high upset, speak in Technicolor. You don’t have to count five 1000’s before reacting to the turning arrow. The %$&!# accelerator’s on the right! If you press your foot against it, your delightful Nissan Cube will get out of my crappy 1998 Mazda 626’s way. You’ll reach your destination. My sophomoric, un-centered spirit will unclench. It’s a win-win. Please. (Philosophical question: If you curse in your car and nobody hears, does it count against you?)

I’m ashamed of my traffic-temper, but take comfort that my ranting occurs in a contained space. And I don’t give people the finger or the skunk eye, either. But, boy, auto-John doesn’t gaze at humanity with compassionate eyes.

Of course, I can’t control the ducks behind other cars’ wheels, but I can silence the quacking from my radio—and did so this morning for sanity’s sake. On November 6th, as usual, Micah and I listened to National Public Radio for the ten minutes it took to get him to the day’s painting job, and the half-hour home, including a stop or two. The stories were newsworthy, but they struck me as crazy layered on crazy.

Story One

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So tired! (Credit: corbisimages.com)

“During the last few decades the average American has lost an hour and a half of sleep per night,” Marketplace’s Ashley Milne Tyte reports. “Sleep researchers at Harvard say the workplace is suffering to the tune of $63 billion a year as a result of insomnia, and all the health and productivity problems that go with it.” Gail DeBoer, a credit union president in Omaha, has felt the pain. “Her restless nights began when she got her first smartphone a few years ago. She’d look at email just before she went to bed. But it didn’t end there. ‘I’d wake up at two or three in the morning thinking about work situations,’ says DeBoer. ‘I’d start sending emails because it was on my mind.’ After that, she never really got back to sleep. She began having regular headaches. Still, she told herself she was fine on about five hours a night.” Eventually, she wised up, quit checking e-mail before bed, got eight hours of sleep, and—go figure—the headaches stopped.

We are such suckers! Notice I say we, as in me, too. Where did we ambitious Americans get the idea that we ought to be checking in with the office at 11:00 p.m.? And what denial are we in that e-mailing or texting at 2:00 a.m. on a regular basis seems healthy? Most of all, what makes us think our minds and bodies are going to comply with a 20% reduction in sleep? Huh?

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Napping in Costa Rica. (Credit: Wikipedia)

The news crackles lately with revelations not only of sleep’s necessity, but also its healing, restorative power. When I hear such reports, plump with research, I think to myself, “Yeah, no kidding.” It’s like hearing scientific evidence that your head’s going to hurt if you smack it against a cinder block. I’m glad that sleeping—and, therefore, napping—is slowly becoming smart and hip, but is our task-oriented tunnel vision so severe that we need to be convinced to get some sleep? I guess so.

Story Two

Investigating payday lenders, who do $49,000,000,000 in business each year, Planet Money’s Pam Fessler decided she’d go online, type in mostly fake personal information, and ask for $500. She didn’t really want a loan, only to see what the application process was like. Within a minute of clicking send, she got an offer of a loan up to $750. She’d have to pay it back within a week and the charge would be $224. That would be an annual rate of 1300%. No thanks. She logged off, but was hounded with phone calls from various lenders for months.

Fessler notes that if you take out such a loan, lenders require your bank account number, and whether you like it or not, you’re paying on time. They simply suck the dollars right out of your checkbook, ahead of your rent if necessary. They don’t care.

One comment/question: A 1300% yearly interest rate! Why is this practice legal?

Story Three

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From the Coleman family pantry. Don’t remember when we got them, but I guarantee they’re crispy.

According to Audie Cornish of All Things Considered, the Food and Drug Administration proposes that we do away with trans fats, also known as partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. The reason: people’s hearts are going bad. Adding “hydrogen atoms to a molecule of oil” keeps food from spoiling, but what’s more important, a box of Ritz Crackers that stays fresh for a decade or the cardiac health of the American public? The FDA says the latter.

I’m on the FDA’s side, but can’t help thinking that if we’re worried about the condition of people’s internal organs, we should take advantage of a two-for-one special and protect thousands of hearts and lungs by getting rid of cigarettes, which also harm bystanders. No innocent ever got heart disease from the second-hand partially hydrogenated vegetable oil of a Chips Ahoy.

Story Four

Another NPR report, which I’m not going to look up: an undocumented farm worker described through a translator how her boss made her go with him to an isolated field to get her paycheck. Before handing it over, he demanded her panties and oral sex. Such workers are reluctant to go to the police for fear of being deported or blackballed. What the hell?

Story Five

“Washington State Says ‘No’ to GMO Labels.” This report on whether we should be informed if our food has been genetically modified upsets me not because I care a great deal about the issue, but because of who’s in the fight. “Out of state companies such as Monsanto, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestle poured millions of dollars into the campaign against labeling, which argued that adding GMO designations would make food more expensive and confuse customers.” Ah yes, consumers need to be protected against their own stupidity. “In ads, they said that the labels would increase the price of food for a three-person household by $350 to $400 per year.”

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Soybeans: Bet you cash dollars they’re Monsanto’s. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

I first heard of Monsanto in the 2008 documentary Food, Inc., which you should watch only if you never want to look at your dinner plate the same way again. I seldom subscribe to guilt by association, but if Monsanto is on one side, I’m probably on the other. This agricultural giant was in the news recently because, according to techdirt.com, the Supreme Court decided in its favor that farmers “planting their own legally purchased and harvested seeds can be infringing” on Monsanto’s patent. Don’t believe me? Check it out. I honestly believe the company is evil.

There were other stories, but you get the point. I’ve mentioned in at least one previous post that I’ve cut back some on news consumption. What’s different about this particular day of underwear as ransom for a paycheck and our poor, sleep-deprived country was the physical effects listening had on me. My neck was tight, my throat made guttural comments, and the spot beneath my sternum that wants to push out a holler when I get mad was about to let loose.

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The single-engine plane Glenn Miller was flying in was lost over the English Channel in 1944. (Credit: Wikipedia)

I want to be an informed, responsible citizen, but Thich Nhat Hanh is right in observing that the media we ingest have as much of an impact on us as the food we eat. So I’m counting news calories today. The definition of the term is arbitrarily slanted toward the negative, as if it’s more urgent for us to know what’s tortured in the world than what’s redeeming. Until the pendulum swings the other way, I’m planning to preserve my mind and body and listen to the Glenn Miller station on Pandora.

After my nap, which is just ahead, I have to go pick up Micah. “Tuxedo Junction” will wake me up without bringing me down.

An Embarrassing Measure of Blessing

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Baby Crash, who must be fed.

A Saturday morning routine has taken hold by surprise. As Kathy and I wake up at leisure—the one day that doesn’t begin with the aria of Bach’s Goldberg Variations set as the alarm on my snotty iPhone—we stay in bed, talking, breathing, warming to the hours ahead. “What do you have up for today?” We have friendly negotiations, then when she heads downstairs to feed dog Watson and cats Baby Crash and Shadow, I pray/meditate for half an hour. After paying bills, we run on separate rails until suppertime. It’s a calm, sane arrangement.

Yesterday I had a shamatha moment—calm abiding, clear awareness—before Kathy got out of bed. As she lay against me, her hair was all over my face. I breathed in its scent—a glad habit—and looked out through its wild lattice at the turning trees on the Shenley Drive boulevard. Sun and fall leaves behind my wife’s brown hair—a double blessing.

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When I woke up, the storm had passed, leaving the Coleman family with firewood.

Another day last week as I settled into my nap, I watched those same beloved trees get thrashed by wind and rain. Though the temperature was in the forties, I opened one window about a foot so the hiss and deep ah of the weather could sing me to my rest beneath a feather quilt. Before sleep came, inhaling and exhaling the joyous riot outside, I remembered the fortunate position I’m in.

Each day I can take the Siesta Exit off of Interstate Absurdity and rest for an hour. Even during hectic stretches, I can usually pull to the berm for a twenty-minute power nap. The world is catching on to the restorative benefits of midday oblivion, but most people I know don’t have the liberty to do what has become central to my spiritual practice—stop, halt, cease and desist, for just a little while. The twenty to sixty minutes of repose isn’t counted as company time—as my brilliant grad school professor John Barth was fond of saying. When I add up work hours to make sure I’m earning my pay, nap isn’t part of the tally. Folding sleep minutes into compensated minutes would be sane, but at this point in our assumed societal covenant, it would be unethical. (Google and the Huffington Post provide napping pods, but I don’t know if they actually pay employees to nap. After a cluster of near misses, baggy-eyed air traffic controllers are cleared to close their eyes as long as the friendly skies are adequately monitored.)

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Even Thomas Edison napped in his midday valley.

No, my blessing is a flexible schedule. I regularly work from 4:00 to 5:00 a.m. shaping programming for the church, then go back to sleep. Or I catch up on e-mails between 9:00 – 10:00 p.m. In a certain respect I’m always working, praying/meditating without ceasing, dreaming about what’s possible, opening myself to the Spirit’s leading. So at 2:30 p.m., when my forehead gets heavy, I surrender.

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The Shenley Drive maples that bless my siestas.

If I’m at church, the siesta kit finds its place on the floor of the pastor’s study, and I set my alarm for an hour ahead. At home, I lie on my left side in bed, look out the window at the Shenley Drive maples, and remember Kathy, who nurses cancer patients all day long and can’t stop to rest, son-in-law Matt, who nurses machines and has to slog through his midday valley, or son Micah, who paints with minimal breaks and comes home sweaty. I watch the maples from the barren branches of February to the swollen greens of July to the fiery leaves of October and reverence people who have no beloved brown hair to kiss or no bed at all. Then, especially when the weather plays against the trees, I nod off, embraced by an embarrassing measure of blessing.

A Guitar in the Sky Brings Me Back to Myself

I’m not sure how to describe the last month. An awakening? A healing? Whatever. All I know is my spirit feels like my eyes do in the morning, after I rub them and the world comes into focus. What little truth I know has been closer to me than it has in years. The clarity hasn’t given itself all at once, but in instants of inconspicuous awareness.

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Amiable English professor Kirk and his pup Ryan.

One month ago today—September 19, 2013—while perched at Starbucks, I read a short piece in the Erie Times-News: “Coffee? Leave your gun at home.” “Starbucks,” the report begins, “says guns are no longer welcome in its cafes, though it is stopping short of an outright ban on firearms.” Whew. Glad I hadn’t brought my glock with me. My immediate thought: What’s the big deal? I understand the need for Starbucks to issue a press release to announce this—what?—friendly request, but what have we come to when a coffee shop has to ask patrons not to show up packing? A confederacy of dunces? I tore the article out and slipped it into my bag. A truth was being lifted up to me, something obvious when seen under a certain light. (Note: I happen to be writing this at Starbucks, where Kirk Nesset happily works away with Pomeranian pup Ryan on his lap. I suggest Starbucks put out word that well-behaved dogs are welcome.)

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“Iron Mike” Webster, who died at 50. His autopsy revealed chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Some doctors estimate that his brain had suffered the equivalent of 25,000 car crashes. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Then I watched “A League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” on PBS’s Frontline, my jaw growing more slack by the moment. Everybody’s affronted by clear evidence that the National Football League has been playing dumb for years and covering up what it knew about how unhealthy it can be for a man to have his clock cleaned every Sunday. Seriously? The NFL deserves to get its knuckles cracked—more than 765,000,000 times—for letting its lucrative human demolition derby go on and on, but we’re not dealing with a league of denial here. We live on a planet of denial. What sane player or fan would suppose that you could repeatedly slam your head against other heads, bodies, and the ground and not spend your retirement dazed or worse? And don’t say, “Oh, but they wear helmets.” Um, okay, but no protection is going to prevent your brain from smashing about your skull if your head smacks into a hard surface. My point: this Frontline program holds a truth, but it’s not about football. It’s about a society’s capacity for reason. I love to watch football, but how compassionate is it to watch men risk destroying themselves? Time to give it up.

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A Rolodex like Mom’s, except hers was an ugly orange. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Next: on October 10, 2013, the Erie Times-News carried a short article by Patrick May of the San Jose Mercury News: “Tech stress: With proliferation of digital devices, we’re freaking out.” (Side note: Nobody forwarded me the memorandum announcing the change in practice of capitalizing first letters of words in a title. I’m not against it, but it looks wrong.) Mike Kushner, co-owner of Palo Alto, California’s Bay Area Computer Solutions, describes the rabid stress techno-junkies live with: “We see people crying; we see people angry; we have people lash out at us because we can’t recover what they lost . . . . People are under incredible pressure these days because of how dependent everybody is on their computers and especially their smart phones.” Boy, I’ll tell you, all this iTechnology is, in the words of Rick Postma of Holland, Michigan, “slicker than a harpooned hippo in a banana tree.” My mother of blessed memory kept a $1.99 K-Mart Rolodex on her end table and never once cried or lashed out over lost contacts. Meanwhile, I and thousands of others suffer from, as May puts it, “’phantom vibration syndrome,’ that creepy sensation that your smart phone is buzzing in your purse or pocket when in fact it isn’t.” As an iPhone owner, I ask members of the tribe, “Have we lost all good sense?” Suspected truth: We have.

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“”The Good Samaritan” by Amie Morot.

Next: A few days ago fellow Starbucks barfly Alan stepped out outside on the porch where I was sitting, raised his closed eyes to the clouds, and took in a cosmic breath. “Yeah,” I said, “things could be a lot worse, huh?” Alan is Zen2 (tall, lanky, constant half-smile, slightly wild gray hair). He told me about a twenty-year-old guy he met at the Regional Cancer Center: “My throat cancer was nothing compared to what that guy had.” We breathed together a few times, then he bowed slightly and walked to his car, chewing his scone on the way. Truth: at every possible opportunity, close my eyes, breathe, and bow to my neighbor. (“And who is my neighbor?”)

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“I want a human being.” (Credit: Wisson/Jordan)

Next: I was standing in line at the bank. An old guy sat in an armchair and voiced a single desire into his cell phone:  “No, I want to talk to a human being. No, I want a human being. Any human being who’s there. No, I want a human being.” Of course, he was speaking to an automaton, but speaking a sane truth all the same. Is it too much to ask for a human being? On the phone? At the grocery store check out? On the front porch? I’d like to invent a social media just for this man. I wouldn’t (and couldn’t) name it Facebook. I’d just call it Face.

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A guitar in the sky brings me back to myself.

Finally: Micah needed a drum pad, so we stopped at Erie’s World of Music. As he walked to the door, I stayed in the car and reached for my iPhone—a habit, impulse. For no particular reason, as I thumbed my phone’s snotty leather cover, I looked out my window at the sky and saw a guitar. I used to park in that lot once a week for Micah’s drum lessons and never noticed that guitar next to the World of Music sign. A wordless question brought me to myself: John, aren’t there better things to look at than text messages, e-mails, and ABC’s news stories? Check out the guitar in the sky and while you’re at it, receive the sky.

I’ve don’t think objectivity exists, but I do believe in truths. Though I’m not smart enough to define them, I now have sightings. Truths rest at my feet or hover in the sky when I’m aware, when I breathe. I see them and give thanks. I feel like myself. I feel at home.

A Zen-Christian Night Teaching

Running into Thich Nhat Hanh is always cause for celebration. I’ve never visited Plum Village, his community in France, never heard him speak in person. Still, like millions of his mindful followers, I consider him family.

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Thich Nhat Hanh in Paris in 2006. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Last night he showed up in a short dream. Thay, as he’s known to his students, and I stood in the Coleman family kitchen. I can’t remember his exact words, but he said that in his family they drink tea from small cups. He smiled, gently rested his hand on my forearm, then placed a tea pot and a cup on the counter. He smiled again. That was it.

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Credit: Michele Constantini

In this moment, I breathe in and out and savor Thay’s night teaching. Most of my dreams are anxious, like I’m enrolled in a college calculus class and forget to attend all semester. But I receive Thay’s visitation as a blessing from my Judeo-Christian God. “Drink slowly from the little cup,” both say. “Why are you always rushing?” Thank you, Thay. Thank you, Lord. Your spiritual hybrid gratefully accepts the healing lesson.

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Stop to notice the spider plant blossoms reaching to the sink in the church bathroom.

A week ago Thich Nhat Hanh showed up in the form of words: “To be is to inter-be,” he writes. “We cannot just be by ourselves alone. We have to inter-be with every other thing.” For Thay, garbage and flowers inter-are. “The affluent society and the deprived society inter-are. The wealth of one society is made of the poverty of the other.” The same goes for people. Reflecting on the suffering of a young prostitute in Manila, Thay observes, “Looking deeply into ourselves, we see her, and we will share her pain and the pain of the whole world. Then we can begin to be of real help.”

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Neighborhood sage Patrick with well-loved Tin Man. This Down’s syndrome kid’s a master at inter-being.

Half an hour ago, sipping a Starbucks redeye, I was inter-are with a tall, skinny guy standing in the long line: shaved head, felt newsboy cap, great puff of a graying beard, black long-john shirt, corduroy pants. For all I know he may have been the most neurotic soul in the coffee shop, but he appeared so overwhelmingly corduroy that I thought to myself, “That dude. I want to be like that dude.” And now, darned if I’m not relaxed—chunky, tight-bearded, balding, but relaxed. I’ll take it, thankful that inter-being is concrete, tangible.

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A dog channels my corduroy brother. I want to be like this dog. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Five minutes more and I’m off to the church for office time. In prayer this morning, I leaned everything I had into the loving bosom of I Am. In the night, Thay touched my arm. I can still feel I Am and Thay. I’ll take them both with me, along with the corduroy man who blessed me with his peace.