Belated Happy National Napping Day!

Belated Happy National Napping Day!

Blogger’s Note: I had this post almost ready to go yesterday. Events conspired against me, though. Since A Napper’s Companion is thus far a gratis gig, the scrumptious words that follow had to wait until this morning. Enjoy a day late. Peace, John

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Grandson Cole practicing sanity and wisdom . . . before his red hair came in

Thirty-five years ago at Behrend College in Erie, Pennsylvania, Mr. Michael Tkach did me a life-changing service. His persuasive writing class convinced me to become an English major. I was a milquetoast Business Management student, but once Tkach—pronounced tack—made me wrestle with fallacies, my major took a hairpin left–English it would be.

My former professor is now a friend, and today I owe him a second, albeit more quiet, thank you. The following Facebook message from Mike just landed in my box: “National Napping Day! I didn’t know about this, but I thought you might.”

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“Joven Dormida” (Sleeping Girl) by Antonio Cortina Farinos on Wikimedia Commons

I do, in fact, know about today’s sane and gentle observance, always the day after our clocks spring forward an hour, but without fail I forget. According to wowktv.com, “William Anthony, Ph.D., a Boston University Professor and his wife, Camille Anthony, created National Napping Day in 1999 as an effort to spotlight the health benefits to catching up on quality sleep. ‘We chose this particular Monday because Americans are more ‘nap-ready’ than usual after losing an hour of sleep to daylight saving time,’” said Dr. Anthony, also known as the Napmaster General, in a BU press release.

The host of a blog called A Napper’s Companion should have this date circled in red on the calendar. I have one defense: for me, every day is National Napping Day. Thanks, Mike, not only for giving me a great steer decades ago, but also for sounding the alarm about this holiday.

“National Napping Day is probably for amateurs anyway,” Mike concluded. “You’re a pro.” I wish, old friend. Dedicated volunteer is more like.

When I started www.ANappersCompanion.com almost three years ago, I shared piles of information to defend and encourage napping. If you’re intolerably bored, you can dial back many months and find more benefits of the blessed oblivion of midday than any reader could wish for.

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Jesus pleads. His disciples nap. “Christus am Olberge” (Christ on the Mount of Olives) by Andrea Mantegna (Wikimedia Commons)

But I don’t write much about napping anymore. First, the practice no longer needs any defense. Research rendered in snappy graphics are all over the Internet. Facebook crackles with exhortations and celebrations. Big business has slowly caught on to the wisdom of not only allowing naps but also dedicating space to them. Bill and Camille Anthony have served us well.

To date I’ve posted 179 essays on A Napper’s Companion, and one entitled “Napping Pods for $12,985: A Commentary” has been visited more than any other. By far! And much to my chagrin. I wish a couple of my other posts had attracted such numbers. WordPress sent me an alert yesterday that my stats were soaring. Cool beans, but nearly all the interest was in napping pods.

I’ve never even seen a pod in person, by the way. I remain a garden-variety napper who finds that a couch or bed works fine. A floor is okay, too, as long as I have a fluffy pillow. My siesta strategies haven’t changed over the years.

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“The Nap” by Guillaume Van Strydonck. Time was I could relate, sister. (Wikimedia Commons)

But circumstances have eased. Pitiful as it sounds, napping used to be serious. The last fifteen years or so have included intense, excruciating stretches, some of which regular visitors to this blog know about. During the worst times, knocking off for an hour in the middle of the day was essential. I either stepped off the planet into oblivion or imploded. Heck, I almost broke down anyway.

It would be nice to say that I’ve grown or gotten stronger, but I’m as vulnerable as ever, unequal to many gauntlets humans must run. But for whatever reason, swords and clubs are fewer these days, challenges that slash at my spirit mostly disarmed.

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Van Gogh’s “Mittagsrast (nach Millet)” (Wikimedia Commons)

I’m still devoted to naps not because I’ll fall apart without them but because they’re good for me. Some folks do well sleeping in one long session over twenty-four hours. I’m happy for them—really. Others’ schedules don’t allow a siesta, which is a shame if they’re tired.

National Napping Day has plenty of scientific support. I’m buoyed by the fact that my daily rest is blessed by research, but I’ll close my eyes in an hour mostly for subjective reasons. Napping is my way of kissing myself on the forehead and saying, “You’re trying to be a good man, John. Lie down and breathe.”

Happy National Napping Day and love to you all.

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A Tri-Phasic Man at 4:30 A.M.

A couple years ago I read somewhere that human beings are wired to be bi-phasic sleepers. Our bodies want to have one long stretch of sleep at night and a nap in the afternoon. In recent months I’ve morphed into a tri-phasic creature with the following pattern: 1.) 11:00 p.m. to 4:30 a.m., solid sleep; 2.) 4:30 to 5:30 a.m., resting wakefulness and occasionally prayer; 3.) 5:30 to 6:30 a.m., first nap; 4.) starting between 1:00 and 4:00 p.m. depending on commitments, second nap.

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My napping buddy is getting old.

My early morning wakefulness has taken on a routine of its own. Kathy is on one side, curled on her side and facing away from me, and Watson is on the other, facing away. My choice, then: spoon with wife or spoon with dog. Resting on my back isn’t an option because they leave me with about eight inches of mattress. I could shove Watson to the floor, but I have a weird impression that sharing my pillow is “I love you” in dog language.

So I sling my arm across Kathy’s waist, rest my face close to her hair, and wait for my left arm to go numb. Then I pry myself loose, hold myself aloft with one arm, flip my girth to the other arm, and with boxers and t-shirt a twisted mess, lower myself as if with a hydraulic jack. “Hi, Watson,” I whisper, kissing his soft ear. “I sure do love you, old buddy.” He responds with a long snort. Eventually I can’t get my right arm comfortable and reverse the process. Adding panache to this deal is cat Baby Crash, who’s generally curled up on the bed’s southern hemisphere.

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Baby Crash napping on my legs.

And so it goes until my first nap arrives at 5:30 a.m. The temptation is to get frustrated, but that only insures that sleep will never return. My hour awake, then, has evolved into a session of drowsy mindfulness. Just seven hours ago I gave thanks for Kathy, how loving and skillful she is with her cancer patients, how she’s content to put a roof on our house or remodel the bathroom while I cook, how she loves me even though I can be a bummer to live with. I gave thanks for Watson, too, my faithful napping partner.

This morning was routine, with two exceptions. As usual I woke up wedged in at 4:17, but for the first time in weeks I didn’t feel the weary anxiety behind my sternum that’s been plaguing me. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh teaches his students to smile at their non-toothaches. (Translation: You don’t appreciate being pain-free until your molar’s screaming. So why wait? Enjoy your non-toothache now.) So I smiled at my calm, for however long it’s going to last.

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Take this scene, multiply by three thousand, put in an echo chamber, and you’ve got my dog snoring. (Credit: Kevin Shafer / Corbis)

And I was entertained by a snoring concert in surround sound. Kathy and Watson were both in fine form. For minutes at a time, they snored in call and response. Each brought her/his own talents to the pillows. Watson has a lot more nostril to work with than Kathy, an advantage he uses to full effect. When he inhales, a rattle starts at his cold nose, reverberates up his boney snout, and echoes in his throat and sinuses. The result: you’d think a couple thousand lions are gnawing warthog carcasses in the Fort Pitt Tunnel. Kathy has lip dexterity on her side. This morning—and I swear I’m not making this up—she had one exhale that went wee-wee-wee-wee-wee. “How the hell did she do that?” I wondered from my wee portion of the bed. Another exhale was so surprising she heard it herself and woke up briefly. If you were to have a snoring competition, Kathy would have won first place in the Dainty Division. The very tips of her lips fluttered together, making polite raspberries—like a little bitty car with a rusty muffler.

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Hey, bub, get a new muffler on that thing. It sounds like my wife snoring. (Credit: Peter M. Fisher / Corbis)

I couldn’t help laughing. “Are you kidding?” I said.

Her groggy response: “Yeah, it had to happen.”

Umm. Okay. Go back to sleep, dear.

Eventually Kathy and Watson settled into the sighs of deep sleep, and I floated toward a last hour of oblivion before my iPhone’s Goldberg Variations alarm started the day. The last thought I remember was of grandson Cole, my present blue ribbon of gratitude. He reminds me that no matter how often I stub my emotional toes on standard upsets, I’ve no excuse to complain. I’ve lived long enough to be a grandparent, had the chance to rest my lips on that baby’s head and breathe in his pure, fragile life. That’s grace enough for one lifetime.

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Cole: Grace enough for a lifetime.

I’m not sure how long my eccentric body and neurotic mind will go with this tri-phasic sleep plan, but as long as it lasts, I intend to receive it as a visitation. Before dawn I smile at what peace I have, breathe in more blessings than I deserve, and wait for my own snoring to return.

Micro-Post: The Gentle Death of Anton Chekhov

(Note: This is the first in an ongoing series of short pieces–micro-posts–on stories/information of interest to nappers. I hope to offer a quick, entertaining read.)

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Anton Chekhov (Credit: Wikipedia)

Listening to Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac this morning, I learned a few things about playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov. If I’d have paid better attention in college, I’d have already known that . . .

  • Chekhov was a doctor, treating patients and writing on the side for eight years until he bought an estate forty miles outside of Moscow. There he wrote full-time while also giving free medical care to peasants in the area.
  • Chekhov wrote his most famous play, The Cherry Orchard, as a comedy, but Stanislavski intended to present it as a tragedy, with the actors “sobbing openly and dramatically.” “Chekhov was livid, and although he was seriously ill with tuberculosis by this time, he took an active part in the production to try to salvage the play. He traveled to Moscow against his doctor’s orders and worked furiously to revise and edit the play and supervise rehearsals.” The Cherry Orchard was a hit and placed Chekhov on the same pedestal with Tolstoy.
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Chekhov and Tolstoy at Yalta in 1900 (Credit: Wikipedia)

I suppose it’s hard to argue with success—to be celebrated for a work that you didn’t mean . . . that way . . . exactly. Shortly after the play’s premier in January of 1904 Chekhov listened to his doctor and went to a spa in Germany. I’ll let Garrison Keillor deliver the punchline:

“While in Badenweiler, [Chekhov] suffered a series of heart attacks. The doctor offered him sips of champagne, which was supposed to be beneficial to people with heart conditions. Chekhov remarked that he hadn’t had champagne for ages. He then turned on his side, closed his eyes as if to take a nap, and died.”

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In Your mercy, give us safe lodging, a holy rest and champagne at the last. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

Anton Chekhov was only forty-four, but what a way to go: champagne on his tongue, a nap in his heart, and a gentle exit.

P.S. My book, Oh! Be Joyful: Notes to My Future Grandchildren, is nearly ready for release. Stay tuned in the weeks ahead for details.

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. 

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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 .

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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)

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.

Kilimanjaro Dancing on the Head of a Pin

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Elena a couple weeks ago

“Who would have ever thought we would get to this day and that it would be so joyful?” wife Kathy said from the kitchen doorway. Her question embraced me so completely that I didn’t even say goodbye. I just stood there in the quiet, mixing up Greek potato salad, my contribution to daughter Elena’s baby shower.

Well-meaning friends tell you that your teenage kids will outgrow their problems and turn out fine, but, of course, sometimes they don’t. Everybody knows this, but when you have good cause to wonder whether your daughter or son will live to see legal drinking age, folks who love you want to offer hope. I don’t blame them. When Elena was a Goth chick carving LOVE and HATE into her wrist, disappearing in the middle of winter nights, and gobbling a cocktail of pills, I knew enough to translate all words of comfort. “I love you,” was the real message. “I see what you’re going through. Don’t lose heart.” I never came close to giving up on Elena, but I never let myself wander far from the truth, either. When you attempt suicide as a way of calling out for help, you might die. Happens all the time. When you sneak out at 3:00 a.m. to trek across town through slush to a creepy boyfriend’s house, you might get hurt in ways you can’t yet imagine.

As Kathy stood in the doorway, I’m sure she was remembering those four or five years when worry about Elena constantly had us by the throat: “Who would have ever thought we would get to this day and that it would be so joyful?”

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Go ahead, tell me this old sanctuary doesn’t glow!

When the Greek potato salad was ready, I took it to the church fellowship hall, which Elena, Kathy, and a herd of helpers had decorated within an inch of its life. I’d led hundreds of worship services in that hall, formerly the Abiding Hope Lutheran Church sanctuary, but never have I seen that simple Cracker Jack box room glow more than it did when I put my bowl on the buffet table and stood still as if in a dream.

If all goes well Kathy and I will be grandparents toward the end of November. Holding my grandson for the first time, I may think, “Who would have ever thought . . . ?” After what the Coleman family went through when both Elena and son Micah were teenagers, I regard every joy as a miracle—Kilimanjaro balanced on the head of a pin. Witness the wonder through tears, but, baby, don’t forget it could tip over.

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Micah, making me proud every day from 8:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.

While Elena, her husband Matt, and our future grandson seem solidly on the path to okayness, Micah also has Kathy and me saying, “Who would have ever thought . . . ?”  When he was going through his wall-smashing, heroin-shooting days, Kathy and I questioned whether he or we would make it to joyful. Now, not only did he report this morning to his full-time painting job with snot-jammed sinuses, but he’s been going over to his grandmother’s house lately. He who once stuck with a job a couple months at best enjoys helping her with chores and hanging out with her, watching movies and kibitzing. He’s been clean well over a year and is about to turn in his 401(k) paperwork. Somebody pinch me!

An old volcano dances on a pin: that’s the Zen half-smile I took with me into the Pastor’s Study as the ladies ate, laughed, and whooped for a couple of hours in the glowing fellowship hall. I put my mats, blanket, and pillows on the floor and took a delicious, mediocre nap. A couple text messages joined with laughter forte to hold me on the edge of sleep. No matter. When I got up and checked on the party, nothing had tipped over.

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Dear Lord, Join me for a turtle brownie? Amen

For me, shamatha—calm abiding—in the presence of fragile joy is the best way I know to be grateful. I did thank God for Elena’s great day. I do thank God for Micah peeing clean and grappling with his grandmother’s weeds. But my thanksgiving is complicated: it’s about inviting God to celebrate with me; it’s not about thanking God for easing up on me and setting my kids straight. Maybe this is the way to say it: I don’t give thanks; I am thanks.

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Cover of Sanskrit translation of Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha.” (Credit: Wikipedia)

During Elena’s and Micah’s crazy days, I found comfort in Hermann Hesse’s novel Siddhartha when the ferryman smiles and comforts a suffering father, Siddhartha:

Ask the river about it, my friend! Listen to it, laugh about it! Do you then really think that you have committed your follies in order to spare your son them? Can you then protect your son from Samsara? How? Through instruction, through prayers, through exhortation? My dear friend, have you forgotten that instructive story about Siddhartha, the Brahmin’s son, which you once told me here? Who protected Siddhartha the Samana from Samsara, from sin, greed and folly? Could his father’s piety, his teacher’s exhortations, his own knowledge, his own seeking, protect him? Which father, which teacher, could prevent him from living his own life, from soiling himself with life, from loading himself with sin, from swallowing the bitter drink himself, from finding his own path? Do you think, my dear friend, that anybody is spared this path? Perhaps your little son, because you would like to see him spared sorrow and pain and disillusionment? But if you were to die ten times for him, you would not alter his destiny in the slightest.

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Kibo summit of Kilimanjaro (Credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, it’s not as though the path of samsara—the life journey of death, suffering, and rebirth—ends with a first child or a full-time job. Kilimanjaro is always losing its balance.

“Who would have ever thought we would see this day and that it would be so joyful?” How many nights did I stare into the darkness, wondering, trying to breathe? We all have to walk our own path, and for Elena and Micah, at the moment, the footing seems good. What I’m trying to say is, “I am thanks.”

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Elena ready to welcome our grandson to the world.

The General Dance

When we are alone on a starlit night; when by chance we see the migrating birds of autumn descending on a grove of junipers to rest and eat; when we see children in a moment when they are really children; when we know love in our own heart; or when, like the Japanese poet Basho we hear an old frog land in a quiet pond with a solitary splash—at such times the awakening, the turning inside out of all values, the “newness,” the emptiness and the purity of vision that make themselves evident, provide a glimpse of the cosmic dance.

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Credit: Gyro Photography

For the world and time are the dance of the Lord in emptiness. The silence of the spheres is the music of a wedding feast. The more we persist in misunderstanding the phenomena of life, the more we analyze them out into strange finalities and complex purposes of our own, the more we involve ourselves in sadness, absurdity and despair. But it does not matter much, because no despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not. 

Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance. (Thomas Merton, The New Seeds of Contemplation)

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Credit: Bill Byrne

My wife Kathy is not a napper. I’ve sung her praises in at least one previous blog post, but she and I differ on the matter of midday oblivion. It occurs to me that she and I also approach shamatha differently. My calm abiding tends to be self-referential (i.e. naval gazing), while Kathy mostly looks outward at the world and others to find meaning. This is not to say that she lacks self-awareness and I am captive to my own reflection; rather, we have different spiritual styles.

It helps to acknowledge this. For a couple weeks my karma’s been cramped and bitter, and it may be because I’m stuck in my own awful solemnity, analyzing the phenomenon of my life into strange finalities. In other words, I need to get out of my naval and out into the general dance, which has been going on around me all these days of my funkification.

In fact, the cosmic or general dance—whatever you want to call it—has been getting a bit out of hand, especially in Kathy’s land of shamatha, the Coleman backyard. Check out this short gallery I took a couple weeks ago of God and Kathy dancing.

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Evidence of this being the Coleman’s driveway? A garage at the end; that’s about it.

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A clematis vine taking over the hedge and gardening tool shelf.

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Behind the foliage is a grill. When I cook, I look like Arte Johnson on “Laugh In.”

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Getting in the backdoor requires dancing with greenery.

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The dance isn’t restricted to the backyard. It plays inside, too, on the kitchen windowsill. You have to move plants to open the window.

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An orange tree took over the breakfast table until friend Claudia adopted it last week.

As plant life took over our property inside and out, pineapple-sized grandson-to-be has been shaking his groove thing under the firmament of daughter Elena’s belly.

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Elena with dancing future grandson.

No matter how much I try to turn the joy beating in my very blood to hot dog water, frogs keep inviting me to splash into ponds with them. Mint leaves wait for me to pick them and lift them to my nose. The clematis overtaking the hedge hopes I’ll stand still and receive its gladness. My future grandson is generally dancing and wants his gramps to join him. Kathy says, “You need to go outside and look!”

Forget yourself, Coleman. Go outside. Breathe. Know shamatha. Cast yourself dancing to the winds.

Watching the Clock Rock Evenly

At my back I always hear time’s winged chariot hurrying near.

“To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell

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Most of the news is still fresh to me. I’ll read it. I promise.

If you know me personally, prepare to wet yourself with laughter: there’s hardly a moment when I’m not aware of the clock. I was reminded of this a few days ago while deciding whether to buy a copy of the Erie Times-News.

“Come on,” I thought. “When are you going to have time to read the paper today?” And that’s when I caught myself: “Really? You don’t have time for the news? What the hell’s wrong with you?” That was my non-Zen way of saying, “Hmm. You’re a little out of balance these days, old boy.” So to make a point to myself, I bought the paper and snapped a picture of one just like it, one that I haven’t read yet.

“Seriously,” you might be thinking, “you have time to nap, pray, jog, cook, sip wine, not to mention do pastor work and write, but you can’t squeeze in the obituaries and funnies? Have you considered therapy?” Yes, actually. But I do have an explanation. All of the activities I get to have a clear purpose.

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This photograph is proof enough for me of napping’s clear purpose: Thomas Edison asleep in the afternoon. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

  • Nap: I sleep one hour less at night and reserve an hour in the afternoon. My experience and the science are conclusive: I work and function much better in the late afternoon and early evening with a siesta under my belt.
  • Pray: One hour a day for prayer is medicinal, like insulin and Zoloft.
  • Jog: If I run four days a week and am still Mr. Chunky Trunks, imagine me without exercise. I’d need to get a second job just to afford enough talcum powder to keep my thighs from chaffing.
  • Cook: Hey, the family has to eat.
  • Sip wine: You raise your eyebrows: what’s the clear purpose here? Well, that shows how little you know. Red wine has many health benefits, as does dark chocolate. Honest. Look it up.
  • Pastor work: No joking around. I can’t imagine a better bunch of people to work with and serve. I’m constantly grateful that they trust me with a flexible schedule; therefore, I watch the clock and give them a full week’s work for a week’s pay.
  • Write: Out of all the activities on this list, the world would probably take the least notice if I didn’t find time to write. Regardless of my abilities, life without writing would amount to that feeling you get in your throat before you cry.
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No, this isn’t me, but a fellow Mr. Chunky Trunks. (Credit: Ian Hooton)

But reading the paper, that has always fallen into a forgiving category of time use—until now. As I get to know some friends who write for the Erie Times-News, what was once a guiltless omission is now selfishness. Not only do my friends’ livelihoods depend on the 285k-plus residents of our region buying and reading the paper, but as a blogger I’m becoming an auxiliary member of the local writing fraternity/sorority. Just as I take seriously keeping up with the work of my fellow WordPress bloggers, I’m now settling into reading the daily paper as a pleasant obligation.

Sadly, my personality defect remains, which you have probably figured out by now: I struggle to relax and have fun. As I mentioned, I understand the need for rest and get it, but I’m way too constipated about the whole business. I’d be much better off learning how to sit on the couch in my boxers, munch Cheetos, and curse as the Cleveland Browns give the game away after cruising for three quarters. Probably won’t happen.

I remember during my seminary studies a professor said that once you hit forty, you aren’t likely to improve more than 10% in any specific area of life. Are you generally nerved up? Don’t count on mellowing out more than 10%. I don’t necessarily believe this number, but I keep it in mind as a reality check, along with the lyrics from Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer”:

Now the years are rolling by me

They are rockin’ evenly

I am older than I once was

And younger than I’ll be and that’s not unusual.

No it isn’t strange

After changes upon changes

We are more or less the same

After changes we are more or less the same.

That same morning I bought the Erie Times-News and wondered about my life balance, I ran across a cluster of yard sales after picking up flea medicine at the veterinarian’s office. I breathed and walked from house to house, picking up a couple treasures and reminding myself that I’ll always be more or less the same, but once in a while I can step outside of my normal and do something for no good reason. The purchases pictured below should prove that I had a little fun.

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I bought three books for a quarter each. I’m all about simplicity but laid down these two bits to say, “I call BS.” No, you can’t be happy no matter what. If you can’t say something wise to people sitting around a deathbed, then stifle yourself.

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This Dr. Ornish cover is guilty of a typo. It should read, “Eat More Lettuce, Weight Less”

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Note the artistic reflection of my dumb hand and iPhone taking a photo of this book. One of the many unsavory questions from the authors: “If you could be one article of clothing, what would you be, and who would you want to belong to?” I’m leaning toward Charles Kuralt’s suspenders. I want to see America, baby!

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If I could pick the Coleman household’s china, I’d get all different plates, bowls, etc. Kathy prefers a pattern. Okay, but I still bring home refugees. At this sale an old guy tried to sell me Ike and Mamie and LBJ plates–out of his trunk! No, thanks.

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A twenty-cent purchase for one reason and one reason only: Marvin Gaye: “The Christmas Song”!

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My favorite, $5.00. A coconut pirate whose skull cap lifts up so you can put in a beverage, stick a straw through a hole, and sip away. Bulky, but festive. He may be Wilson’s cousin.

A closing reality check: I did visit a few yard sales, but was thinking of “A Napper’s Companion” the whole time. So I had some task-oriented fun. Let’s call this progress.

Smoke in the Shape of Open Arms

Thursday, August 1st, 4:43 – 5:13 a.m.:  prayer propped up in bed next to sleeping Kathy. While I did my usual Zen-Christian thing—trying to let the thought-monkeys swing around my mind-tree without paying attention to them—rain breathed against the boulevard leaves as thunder made its ironically comforting groan somewhere miles away. Ah, the wind through the open windows on my chest and knees. George Harrison sat on a branch and sang “My Sweet Lord” until I surrendered and let his mantra take over. “Really want to know you, Lord. Really want to see you.”

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Okay, not technically a monkey, but a mandril. This is what my mind monkeys look like–striking, sometimes menacing. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Don’t go online and read what people say about this trippy oldie. Such moronic fuss! I’m fine with the blending of hallelujah and Hare Krishna and accept Harrison’s explanation that the two mean “quite the same thing.” For that matter, people should wear ponytails and dance if that’s what centers them. Who am I to criticize? Anyway, by the time Harrison goes off on his Gurur Brahmā, gurur Viṣṇur deal, I’m on my own, wanting to know my sweet Lord. Eventually, words are immaterial.

After a couple decades of practicing silence, I’ve arrived at a liberating heresy, at least where Christianity is concerned: I don’t care what others believe. I’ll rephrase that: I couldn’t care less what others believe. As a spiritual person, I’m more than I can manage. I’m in no position to insist that you come at the Great Mystery the same way I do. Two caveats: I vote against worshipping evil whatever and carving insignias on human flesh and get keyed up when folks who call themselves Christian pretend it’s okay to smack children around, belittle their spouses, or let poor innocents go hungry in this country of unconscionable plenty. Beyond such glaring sludge, I’m flexible.

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This work for you? I say, “Have a go.” (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Some would say too flexible—but I’m not finished yet. I’ve listened to plenty of atheists who embrace George Harrison’s mantra in their own way. Most of them reject any God language or imagery and say, “I don’t believe in anything. No creator. No conscious force. Nothing!” As they’ve spoken, I’ve tried to be completely present to them, letting go of any personal agenda. And you know what? Most atheists I know are beautiful, authentic and brave in their search for what’s real. They wouldn’t sing, “Really want to know you, Lord,” but they might sing, “Really want to know what’s real” or “My sweet truth, hmm my truth.” I know, these don’t have the same lilt; they’re genuine anyway.

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No, this isn’t Jesus. (Credit: Wikipedia)

My point: as long as “really want to know you, (state your name)” is the prayer or song or mantra, I embrace it as sacred. Well, a caveat again: I’m not down with the name being Beelzebub or Nosferatu.

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Max Schreck as Nosferatu. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Why am I dangerously loosey-goosey? A couple of reasons:

  • My son Micah is an atheist. At least I think he is. Today. He’s my only begotten son, and he’s put himself through a lot in twenty-one years. For the first time in his life I can say, “He’s doing well.” He is beloved of all that is, worthy of grace and mercy. If I’m wrong, if the punishment paradigm reigns, then I pick the eternal snuff-me-out option. (No, of course I’m not referring to suicide.)
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Micah, my favorite heathen.

  • My beliefs and behaviors slam into each other so often that I’ve no worthy, autonomous ground to stand on. All I have is the conviction that my God understands that this life is damned difficult—my twist on M. Scott Peck’s simple observation—and that reckless love is the cosmic modus operandi. And, no, I can’t defend this belief . . . at all . . . and certainly not scripturally.
  • I recently held the hand of a person who had to decide whether to die sooner rather than later, never mind the details. When to jump? This person looked straight ahead as if trying to see open arms on the horizon. If the arms of eternity won’t welcome us or at least let us sleep in peace, then I simply can’t reconcile myself to this life. This is a selfish, fearful belief, but it’s honest.
  • I’m going to be bummed if Stephen Crane is right. He wrote a poem called “A Man Said to the Universe,” which I take to be his existential confession. I’m not in favor of the following: “A man said to the universe, / ‘Sir, I exist!’ / ‘However,’ the universe replied, / ‘The fact has not created in me / A sense of obligation.'”
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Stephen Crane, author of The Red Badge of Courage–the face of man who believed the universe is a Gloomy Gus. (Credit: Wikipedia)

  • Often when I pray, I’m given laughter. There’s no other way to say it. I’ll be praying my own business, sitting still and breathing, and a laugh rises from inside. The skin beside my eyes wrinkles. When I’m in public, I have to shush myself or be identified as the weirdo I really am. I receive these prayer-laughs as communion with God, as God-Buddha belly-joy laughs at the Great Mystery’s outrageous love for everything from people to Irish wolfhounds (I want one someday) to the Coleman family’s compost pile. (Yes, I realize this phenomenon might be physiological, like a twitch in my bowels. I’m hopeful, not stupid.)
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My Buddha belly too if the present trend continues. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

If you crushed everything I’ve said here into incense, it would burn with longing—my sweet Lord! It would smell like the 4:43-in-the-morning breeze that touches my chest. It would sound like a gentle old song, accompanied by rain against leaves. And the smoke would rise and take the shape of open arms.

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Report from Wonder Woman’s Paradise

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My Wonder Woman in her driveway garden.

Fortunately for the world, not everybody functions like I do. Some people aren’t constantly gazing into their spiritual navels, slowed to ennui by every fluff of emotional lint. Some look outside themselves and thrive on creation rather than contemplation and midday oblivion. Just as I have a longing that can only be quieted by a siesta, some have visions that relentlessly draw them forward into action. My wife is a vision sort.

“Hey, Kath,” I’ll say, “want to take a nap with me?”

“No thanks,” she’ll answer. “I have things I want to do.”

Thank God for Kathy and people like her. I embrace my way of being, but recognize that while I soothe my twitchy spirit with rest, others tend their restless souls with motion. And their way is as legitimate as mine. Siestas are good for those who need them, but the goal in living is to figure out what works for you in the shot glass of time you’ve got on this planet and bloody well do that. What my wife needs to do is create, and as a result, I’m one lucky napper. While I rest and write and cook, she makes paradise. I’m not exaggerating.

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Kathy’s roof, seven years old and still keeping the family dry.

Kathy and I moved to Shenley Drive in 2001. Within five years, we needed a new roof. In a normal-ish family, either a paid roofer or the husband would have been up on the roof. The Colemans aren’t normal. The woman of the house asked around about hiring a contractor, frowned at what she heard, and said, “I’ll do this myself.” And she did—sort of. A handful of family helped out, but Kathy did most of the work and most importantly, made it happen.

Roofing a house is my wife’s most ambitious project, but she constantly has friends and neighbors shaking their heads. “Huh?” they say. “You made this? You did this?”

“Yes she did,” I jump in to say. I not only saw her make-paint-hammer-sew-whatever dozens of marvels, but I took pictures. In no particular order, here’s photographic evidence of my Wonder Woman’s paradise. (Some of these shots appeared in previous posts.)

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The tile work of a rookie. Looks perfect to me.

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Wonder Woman at work making pillow covers for what she calls her “lounge.” She made window shades with the same paisley print. It works!

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When son Micah began recovery from his heroin addiction, Kathy remodeled his former basement bedroom and named it her “beach house.” Here’s a little school above the bed. She didn’t actually make this one.

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What Kathy calls her backyard “puddle.”

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Kathy’s tomato plants got so tall this summer she had to build a whatever-the-heck this is for them to lean against.

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One of my work stations, lovingly created by Wonder Woman. She re-upholstered all the cushions when they became sun worn.

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A Kathy Coleman patio: she dug all the bricks out of a half-assed gazebo in the middle of the backyard, designed a groovy-shaped patio, and laid the bricks down. I hauled a little gravel on this project.

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A view from my patio work station. Garage roof by Wonder Woman.

A lot of Kathy’s projects are practical, but plenty are just plain fun. She likes nothing better than to share surprise paradise with loved ones.

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A play tent for next-door neighbor Caroline.

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Handmade handbag for a friend.

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Another handmade handbag for a friend. You could sell this baby at J. C. Penney.

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One Christmas Kathy made wine-cork boards for the wine drinkers on Shenley Drive.

Each Halloween, Kathy’s paradise spills out into the front yard in the form of decorations.

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A Halloween shark leftover from a recent celebration bites the love seat in Kathy’s beach house.

All of my wife’s creations are actually child’s play compared to her day job. She’s a chemo nurse, loving and caring for cancer patients. “He was one of ours,” she says, scanning the obituaries. “So was she.”

I love the woman, and I love her vision. While I nap, she creates life. And while I work, she works, too, passing along life to those even Wonder Woman can’t save. Of course, that doesn’t stop her from trying.