I Contain Multitudes. Call Me “They.”

Hi, Jeff.

First, I have to say that I’ve always admired your weirdness. Yes, you’re an odd one. To wit: dyeing your hair orange before going to a gathering with 30,000 teenagers. I could never pull off colored hair, but friends just looked at you and said, “Oh, yeah, that’s Pastor Jeff.” And at 6’4” you would have been visible in a crowd to all your church kids—clever.

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Seymour

Now, on to that last text message about your child: Seymour doesn’t identify as male or female and chooses to not be called daughter rather child and instead of her rather to be called they. I would love to see a blog post on non-gender word usage in a world that is stuck in binary. I struggle a bit but I am learning to honor Seymour’s name and using they as a way of referring to them not her.

I have a bunch of ideas, Jeff, but none of them are about gender-specific language. I hadn’t finished reading your text before a couple of lines from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass interrupted:

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

I confess I also had a sneak preview of your message. Folks in the congregation I’m serving reported about a year ago that their granddaughter altered her name and asked to be referred to as they. So, your child isn’t alone.

For the record, I say that Seymour and Whitman are right. When son Micah was a teenager, he railed against posers. Goth, emo, metal: apparently all groups had posers, kids who were wearing the clothes and moshing the mosh, but not bearing the genuine tribe brand on their souls. Every time we passed some lonely kid on a street corner and Micah gave his critique, I kept my eyes on the road and endured. How could I explain that only the rarest of human beings isn’t a poser? Don’t each of us contain multitudes—compelling personas asking to apply our makeup and fill out our wardrobe?

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Well done, Jeff, but I can still make out your whitewalls.

Gray-hairs like us say, “Oh, Seymour is just trying to find, uh, herself.” Just. As if their search isn’t epic, and as if ours is complete. Seymour is going through a phase, all right, and so are we, brother. It lasts from cradle to grave. You went with orange. My clerical shirts are migrating to the back of the rack—the collar doesn’t mean what it used to. You and I are actually playing it safe, keeping our spiritual boats close to shore.

But your child is—or are?—frying Jonah’s whale. When Seymour says, “Call me they,” they are fussing with not only personal identity, but also with what it means to be human. Your Child-Formerly-Known-as-Anna’s project is Applied Whitman. And picking your own name, that’s a move of biblical proportions. Parents name their children, but Yahweh gets the final say.

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The face of those who force God’s hand–whatever that means. Teach me new words. I’m listening.

So has Seymour forced God’s hand? I’m crazy enough to consider them faithful. As for you, wife Sue, son Isaac, and anybody who cares about Seymour, we ought to speak a brave language, adopt a compassionate grammar–and not complain. Love that won’t receive the beloveds’ new vocabulary and speak awkward sentences as if they’re really songs isn’t love at all.

Just to check, I sent you this text message: “So Seymour is good with my posting this?” You answered, “They are indeed.” I love you for your answer, Jeff. You tell me you’re “learning to honor Seymour’s name.” Let’s all keep learning. What we say will sound like poetry.

Your brother,

John

Blogger’s Note: for photo credits, contact me at my email address, JohnColemanObl@gmail.com.

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Diddy Wa Diddie and a Lovely Daughter: A Summer Rerun

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The key in question–honest!

(Note: the following post originally appeared in slightly different form on May 17, 2013, back when A Napper’s Companion had a dozen readers–give or take six. If you’ve already read this, forgive the clutter. If not, enjoy. Peace, John)

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

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

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Photo Credit: waferboard

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

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

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

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Elena with Her Handmade Cupcake Piñata

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

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

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

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

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Jack Nicholson (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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

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

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

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

Thanks, my dear, for inspiring Thursday, May 16, 2013, to be full of gentle, mindful sanity!

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By the driveway

A Poem: My Daughter Waiting

My Daughter Waiting

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Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes at dusk she takes

me outside, down by the railroad

tracks, where she has found

something which has somersaulted

on the wind from a field nearby:

a white, greasy bag; a pizza

box; pieces of newspaper with each

story missing its ending. We

wait in the gray cold, blinders

of pine trees flanking our acre.

We just stand there, her

cheek against my hip of corduroy.

A train might go by, clacking

our chests and shimmering our feet,

or one might not. She’s happy.

She’s got a fat hand around hers,

the evening is lapping everything black,

and nothing can even get near her.

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Each story missing its ending. (Credit: sandya / Wikimedia Commons)

Note: This poem was first published in slightly different form in a 1988 edition of Mudfish that also included poems by Barry Spacks, Jill Hoffman, and John Ashbury. The speaker here isn’t me, but some guy I thought up.

Another note: I have a guest post today at www.kerryswindingroad.com. I invite you to check out Kerry’s great blog as well as my essay about watching your children walk away from you. Enjoy.

A House with Shaman Doorknobs

For over thirteen years the Coleman family has lived in a white house in Erie, Pennsylvania. If ever there were a house with soul, it’s 322 Shenley Drive. In its rooms wife Kathy, daughter Elena (twenty-five, now a married mother ten minute’s away), son Micah (twenty-two, working full-time and living at home), and I have known joy that wouldn’t let us stop laughing and sadness that had me, at least, looking at the bedroom ceiling at bedtime and praying: “I’d never take the life you gave me, God, but if you’re merciful, I’d be okay with not waking up in the morning.”

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A house with soul

This is a vulnerable admission, but as a pastor I’ve talked to so many people who have thought the same thing that I’m prepared to cut the crap. Some stretches in life are wretched enough to make you hope for a personal appointment with the One who promises to wipe away all tears. You can quote me on that.

But lately days are many stories above despair. (Did you just hear a rapping sound? That’s me knocking on every wooden surface within reach, including my own head.) As the blessing of being a rookie grandfather keeps pulling my lips into a smile, I’m finding it possible to glance backward without feeling a leaden weight in my chest or anticipating an ambush.

This morning–I’ve no clue why–I thought about doorknobs and what a rickety, inadequate collection we have in the Coleman house. I’m betting that among you indulgent folks reading this, nobody has such a crummy home full of doorknobs. What an impotent group! But as I went through the house studying doorknobs, I found myself visiting the last dozen Coleman years–tough years, but not without gladness. It was like looking at the jewelry of a loved one long gone. There was a fullness in the moment. That’s what the doorknobs were for me.

Front Door

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I don’t remember when the actual knob fell off, but for reasons I’ll never understand, we’ve never actually corrected the deficiency. Sure, we could get a whole new knob assembly, but that would make too much sense. Fortunately, this stump does allow you to exit, but there’s a technique involved. Years ago, it occurred to me that getting out required the exact movement used in giving somebody a counterclockwise purple nurple. Once during a particularly sophomoric evening, a guest looked at the stump and wondered what to do. I said, “Look, you want to get out, you have to pinch the nipple.” I said this without guessing that in our inappropriate home, my instruction would become a mantra. 

I’ve stopped hoping for a fix. In the Coleman story, the front door reminds me that some problems never go away, some simple inconveniences become squatters. I can live with this.

Bathroom Door 

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Ah, yes, one of those good, old-fashioned glass doorknobs. Let me tell you, they’re hotdog water. I’ve lost count of how many replacements I’ve installed, only to have them go to pieces in a month. I don’t even know where the model shown here came from. It just appeared up one day, and so far it has held together. Long after the house is gone, this doorknob may still be intact. It’s so tight a few days ago I heard Kathy shout after a shower, “Help! I’m trapped!” She’d put on lotion and couldn’t get any traction.

At various times we’ve stuck a pair of scissors in the empty hole, a slick solution, but understandably pathetic to visitors. I looked at this knob this morning and thought, “Yeah, well, you do what you can and laugh along the way.”

Upstairs Closet Door 

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I love this one. It works perfectly–no shimmying. And it’s the doorknob equivalent to power steering. Mmm. It’s also attached to one of the least used doors in the house. I suppose that’s Murphy’s Law of Doorknobs.

One of our cats, Baby Crash, is fond of sneaking in this closet when the door’s left ajar and then gets marooned inside. The teaching: a tool can be fantastic, but if I don’t make use of it, what’s the point?

Dining Room Double Door 

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Natural wood. Man oh man, am I a natural wood guy. Varnish, stain, polyurethane, oil: do whatever you want, just don’t slap white paint on every wooden surface in the house like my dad did. The only drawback to this door is that it’s nearly impossible to keep it closed. You hear it click, think it’s good, but next time you check the door has yawned open by its own will. This door and its knob remind me of having an easy-on-the-eye chef who overcooks your salmon. We have a couple other doorknobs that don’t do their jobs either, without the merit of being pleasing to look at.

Too many times over the years I’ve been cowardly and said, “Just let it be. Maybe the problem will get up and leave on its own.” At least in the case of the dining room double doors, I’m right. The door won’t close because the floor has heaved slightly, and I’m not about to fuss with it. The solution: the door and knob are attractive, even if they don’t work. Guess I can love them the way they are.

My Study Door 

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I come from a family of door slammers. When I was ten years old, my mother got really pissed, walked over to the basement, opened the door, and slammed it shut. Then she walked a few steps away, turned around, stomped back, opened the door again, and slammed it shut again. When Micah’s bedroom was in my present study, he did something to piss me off, but I didn’t engage in slamming. I just rammed the door open with my forearm. Who knows what set me off? All I can say is my study door won’t close until I do surgery with wood putty.

When I take responsibility for the damage, I’m quietly grateful. Who am I to scold somebody for poor choices or a destructive temper? I’ve got no business looking down on anybody.

Micah’s Bedroom Door 

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When son Micah was hooked on heroin, I refused to condemn him. I stood at his bedroom door as he slept this morning and remembered that in the shitland of active addiction, he was still quick witted, hilarious, and decent. I still crack up when I walk by Wilfred Brimley, “official sponsor of diabetis.” In my worst moments I despaired of Micah’s healing, but I always knew that if he came around, an exceptional young man would rise from the ashes. His doorknob is altogether missing these days, but who cares?

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Micah closes his bedroom door with a rope tied to a twenty-pound dumbbell. He’s content with this arrangement, and in our present doorknob context, so am I.

Kathy and John’s Bedroom and Closet Door 

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Bedroom and closet doorknobs put to good use

Elena and son-in-law Matt have now given Kathy and me a grandson, Cole. Micah, still under our roof, has his own life. We rarely close our bedroom door, so we hang clothes on our doorknobs.

In the end, I don’t give a rat’s rump about doorknobs. I care that loved ones can open needful doors and aching stories can be told.

When a Soul’s Door Is Left Open

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Cole Martin Thompson. Go ahead, show me a nicer pair of nostrils.

As I mentioned in my last post, my first grandchild Cole was born on November 30th. Days one through seven were dicey, as he was in the NICU with schmutz in one of his lungs. His face—and let me emphasize, it’s so boo-boo-beautiful you want to order a few of them ala mode—was jaundiced because his system was trying to absorb a hematoma on the back of his head, which was smooshed up against my daughter Elena’s pelvic bone for a week or two. Enough of that. He’s safely home now.

Most fresh grandparents are like me, all burble and coo. At the very instant of Cole’s birth, as he was soaring from womb to bosom, he crop-dusted his mother with meconium. I wasn’t there to see it, yet as soon as I heard the details I said in the voice of an animated bulldog, “That’s my boy!” Not because his first act was pooping on Elena, but because I took it as an existential statement.

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Cole wiggled his nose. We saw him! (Credit: corbisimages.com)

As a newborn he’s swaddled most of the time, so his activity is at the low end of the spectrum. (Note on swaddling: Geez, Louise, they wrap infants up tightly these days. Cole looks like a white cotton bullet with a round, fleshy tip.) In other words, he’s often motionless. But when he does anything at all, makes kissy lips or even seems to be bearing down, you’d think Pavarotti just sang “Nessun Dorma’s” final vincero! The kid’s butt rumbles! The crowd goes wild!

These are the days that fracture men’s souls; at least that’s my experience. When my own Elena and Micah were born, I was too nerved up to take in the fullness of their beauty. I missed a lot—ah well, life is thus. At fifty-two, I’m still a goofed up customer, but together enough to be present to Cole. And his beauty has cracked me open. No kidding, the Swedish Bikini Team and the Victoria’s Secret Runway Squad could show up, and I’d rather look at the face of my grandson. I’m not going to lie: I’d glance up every few seconds, but Cole would get most of my attention.

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Cole while still in the NICU, hypnotizing his grandpa.

Not even his face. His lips are enough. Or his assertive little nostils. God help this bizarre grandpa, I’m getting verklempt thinking about my grandson’s nose. I’m honestly undone. I’ve had hundreds of days when concentrating was difficult because of troubles real or imagined, but I can’t remember ever struggling to stay on task because of consuming joy.

Sure, Cole’s a standard-issue, boiler-plate, pretty-darned-decent-looking infant, but resting my lips against his fuzzy head has pushed open the door to my soul. Not only can I receive that boy’s beauty, but the lessons and wonders that crowd around me constantly come in for a visit.

Some wonders are quirky. Son Micah wandered into the kitchen last evening smoking his e-cig and wearing something resembling onesie pajamas, tiger slippers, and a hoodie. “I don’t care what anyone says,” he reported. “This is some comfortable shit.” My twenty-one-year-old has developed a taste for the Casablanca Hookah Lounge on Erie’s West 5th Street, where he read old National Geographics, drank Near Eastern tea, and smoked before coming home and changing into something more comfortable.

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Uncle Micah relaxing, smoking his e-cig.

Until Cole was born, the plastic Halloween bobble kid Kathy glued to the truck dashboard annoyed me. The joy space he cleared changed my sneer into a laugh.

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Oh, okay, kind of funny.

A couple lessons in recent days belong in the Whoa, Kind of Deep catagory. The other day I gave extra time to reading the work of fellow bloggers and was rewarded with this affirming observation from James Hollis, posted on agentleinstigator.wordpress.com:

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Jean-Paul Sartre (Credit: Wikipedia)

“What constitutes personal authority? Stated most simply it means, to find what is true for oneself and to live it in the world. If it is not lived, it is not yet real for us, and we abide in what Sartre called ‘bad faith,’ the theologian calls ‘sin,’ the therapist calls ‘neurosis,’ and the existential philosopher calls ‘inauthentic being.’ Respectful of the rights and perspectives of others, personal authority is neither narcissistic nor imperialistic. It is a humble acknowledgement of what wishes to come to being through us.

In my usual state I would have paused and considered such powerful words, but with my soul’s door open, I was able to receive them. “To find what is true for oneself and live it in the world”—yes! That’s my purpose. And acknowledging “what wishes to come to being through” me—another yes! I have so many failings. Some days my life stretches out in front of me like a cobblestone road made of imperfection. But if “what wishes to come to being through” me is a compassionate gaze toward the world, I should also use those loving eyes to regard my own brokenness.

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The face that opened a soul’s door.

Cole, wonder that he is, even guided me to a new appreciation of Facebook. A Napper’s Companion prodded me to join Facebook, but the friends I’ve connected with there have reminded me of human goodness. My light bulb moment came when my nephew Ed called himself a nerd for liking big band music, which reminds him of riding in the car with his late grandfather. Friend Abby, who I’m pretty sure doesn’t know Ed, posted this message for him: “I don’t think you’re a nerd. I think it’s pretty rad you were able to conjure up a great memory.”

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Credit: Wikipedia

Ah ha. Ed in Utah receives affirmation from John’s friend Abby in Pennsylvania. Technology is used to bestow a blessing. Civilization takes an inconspicuous cleansing breath. My past disgruntlement with Facebook had to do with news stories of cyber-bullying and friends being jerks to each other in cyber-public. Only after Ed and Abby’s exchange did I consider that humans are always finding new ways to treat each other like hot dog water. Blaming Facebook for a small fraction of its users’ shabby behavior is like blaming ranch style homes because couples sometimes argue in them. Hey, it’s not the house’s fault. So I say to Facebook, “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

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My soul’s door was battered anyway. Cole has done me a favor by unhinging it. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Is Cole’s face responsible for a couple of random epiphanies and shocks of joy? Has his beauty loosened something in me, healed an old wound or two, soothed a deep spirit-cramp? Is he helping me to see graces I’ve overlooked? Or is he innocent? I guess the only judge who matters is writing these words, and I say the kid’s guilty. When I suspect for a second that his eyes are actually meeting mine, my soul’s door swings open. The blessed trouble is, I can’t get it closed again.

Some time today I’m going to stop at Cole’s house, hold him, and wonder if souls can get along fine without doors.

A Letter to My Late Mother

Dear Mom,

I woke up from my Sunday afternoon nap half an hour ago and now sit in the dining room a few feet away from your Christmas cactus. It’s been jostled and broken a few times in the fifteen years you’ve been gone, but Kathy has always used the remnants as starters, which she gives away once they take hold. Guests marvel and ask how old the plant is. I wish you were here to tell me.

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Beautiful, even as its flowers wilt.

I miss you, Mom. Driving around at night this time of year, I listen to the empty space you left behind. People are getting lights up on their houses, and I’d love to pick you up, go slowly through the neighborhoods, check out the colors shining in the darkness, and hear you mmm and ooo. I’d love to watch Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune with you after dinner, neither of us saying much. And I wish you’d have been with me during the last couple of days.

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I’d stop so you could have a long look, Mom. (Credit: Carson Ganci)

Yesterday, November 30, 2013, your fourth great-grandchild, Cole Martin Thompson, was born at 7:15 a.m. Elena did the hard part, and her husband Matt and Kathy were there to help. I know, women give birth every day, but Cole’s arrival is almost beyond belief for Kathy and me, so joyful that it seems surreal.

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Cole Martin Thompson holding his Uncle Micah’s finger

Elena and Micah have been through a lot since you died. Elena remembers you walking with her to get ice cream before your arthritis got bad. They both remember the dollar toys and candy bars you had waiting for them when we came to visit—Hot-Wheel cars, little rubber ladybugs, and 3 Musketeers. Kathy and I will never forget you peeling grapes for Elena when she spent the night at your place. Their memory of you is dim around the edges, but they still talk about you with great love. You were gentle and understanding with them, long before their troubles began.

Their teenage years were tough. Elena got into wearing all black and scratching and slicing her wrists bloody. She and friends gave each other tattoos and piercings. Worst of all, in high school she swallowed a handful of pills and wound up in the hospital. And Micah was hooked on heroin and smashed up his room in our basement during a few years of madness I still don’t understand. He’s a convicted felon, which will follow him the rest of his life. He and a friend cooked down fentanyl patches and injected the narcotic into her arm. She overdosed and nearly died, and Micah took the blame. The one good thing about your death is you didn’t have to walk the floor, as you used to say, worrying about your grandchildren.

While much of this madness was going on, Kathy was in nursing school. I can’t imagine how she was able to get mostly A’s, graduate, and start work as an oncology nurse while our kids were in various stages of meltdown. But she did, which shows what a strong spirit she has.

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Your amazing daughter-in-law with a swaddled Cole. In your absence, science has discovered that the best way to quiet infants is to wrap them close to the point of suffocation and make loud shhhhh sounds in their ears. Who knew?

I was a mess. Being a pastor was still new to me, so as I tried to take care of parishioners, I barely functioned myself. I can’t tell you how many times when Elena was missing in the middle of the night or when Micah was roaring and screaming, I wanted to show up at your apartment and lie down with my head in your lap. That’s some picture, huh—a forty-something man with his mommy rubbing his balding head. I had to settle for two-hour naps of escape by myself. I swear, Mom, there were times I wasn’t sure I’d survive. You gave birth to a man whose fragility didn’t make for a particularly disciplined, wise parent. I could have done a better job.

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What hair I’ve got left is going gray, Mom.

But this is why after fifteen years I want to write you. There’s a place in me that longs to tell you that after all Elena and Micah have been through, we—your son, his wife and kids and son-in-law—found ourselves together in a hospital room looking at a greater blessing than I’d considered possible.

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If you were here, I’m sure Elena would peel grapes for you.

It wasn’t just the birth of my first grandchild that moved me. It was that Elena has grown into a mighty—no pain medication during labor!—wise and lovely woman with a husband who’s in every way more than I have a right to expect.

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Your grand-daughter married a good man.

It was that Micah has been clean for over a year and has a full-time job as a painter. You know, he cried when he first saw his nephew and said that Saturday, November 30, 2013, was the best day of his life.

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Micah’s got a funny haircut, but he’s also got all your gentleness.

I let Micah hold Cole before I did. “Would my son live to see adulthood?” I wondered years ago, listening to furniture being demolished in the basement. Yesterday, I watched your grandson hold your great-grandson. I breathed in and out, Mom, and thought for the first time in my life that if I suddenly died in that moment, all would be well, that I would have known as much joy as any man deserved.

Life offers no guarantees, other than one day we’ll all join you. You’re ash underground. My ashes will be scattered somewhere. Cole, whose head is still bruised from pressing against Elena’s pelvis, will eventually follow us. I don’t know what eternity looks like, but my prayer is that somehow we can share the holiness of these days—you, your parents and grandparents, your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

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We figured you’d want something simple, like this.

And yes, Mom, I know it’s possible that I’ve written this letter only for myself—a hopeful, neurotic middle-aged man—and that you may be nothing more than the bone and cinder your children buried in June of 1998. But I can’t help believing that existence is as abiding as your Christmas cactus and as fair as your great-grandson Cole.

For as long as I have left, I’ll hold on to this belief and pray to see you again. Lifetimes from now, may we all embrace, tell stories, and watch colors shine in the darkness.

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What do you say, Mom? Let’s all go get ice cream.

Love,

John

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.