Oniontown Pastoral: Bartleby, the Faded Black Horse

Oniontown Pastoral: Bartleby, the Faded Black Horse

The truth arrived at dawn as I enjoyed the calm before facing another day: I see myself in a horse on the way to Oniontown.

My usual commute includes Route 19 South through the borough of Sheakleyville, but occasionally convenience sends me down Route 18 South through Adamsville, which with a population of 70 is too small to be called a village. According to the website “PA Home Town Locator,” it’s classified as a “Census Designated Place” (CDP)—a sterile title not even Norman Rockwell could warm up.

Of course, neither Adamsville nor any other spot on 18 requires charm from a New England artist. Amish homesteads dignify the land, with their clean white paint and good order. And a Presbyterian church, tall and well kept, keeps vigil over the CDP’s humble population. Most important for this spiritual traveler, I’ve found a soul brother on 18: a horse that is visible for a slim second or two as I pass by.

I’ve mentioned before in “Oniontown Pastoral” the blonde horse Onslow who lives along Route 19. Every trip to the St. John’s I check on him and think about him often, especially in winter when he wears a dusting of snow on his back. He doesn’t need me to worry about him nor do any of the farm animals. Our creator is present to us all in needful ways. I take that on faith.

But on 18 this faded black horse I named Bartleby just this morning draws me powerfully toward him. See, Onslow generally stands still when I drive by, but he chooses a variety of places in his yard to do so. Bartleby, on the other hand, is parked in the same spot 9 times out of 10. And a boring spot it is, beside a weathered gray barn with his muzzle an inch from the door. He is an evocative portrait.

I don’t know what Bartleby is thinking and can’t tell whether he is bored or depressed or tired. What I can say for certain is this: I’m generally happy, but sometimes if you could see my soul, it would resemble Bartleby.

Ah, Oniontown! Your fields bring me the peace that surpasses all understanding.

Both of us are in a daze lately, or so it appears. The horse’s gaze is fixed on the barn door, while the man’s is purposely averted from goings on in all quarters. The other day at St. John’s Lutheran Church I sat behind my desk and surrendered to the spell of the pine trees, soybean field and bright red barn out my window. The confession of Stephen King’s character John Coffey came to me as a prayer: “I’m tired, Boss. I’m tired of people being ugly to each other. I’m tired of all the pain I feel and hear in the world every day. There’s too much of it.”

I monitor the television news, read newspapers and permit myself snatches of social media. Society at present is a slugfest in a bar smelling of spilled beer and overflowing ashtrays. It’s a playground where bullies dispirit classmates with relentless name-calling. Or to set metaphors aside, it seems like what small claim gentleness, patience, compassion and simple honesty ever had on human behavior is being slapped away with a laugh and a sneer.

I’m talking about more than the drunken brawl that is government and the jousting match of international relations. A couple weeks ago, a friend’s daughter was riding on the school bus when some kid tossed a racial slur at her, prefaced with a predictable adjective.

“Why didn’t you speak up at the time?” a law enforcement officer later asked.

“Because I was afraid it would make it worse,” she answered. “And I was ashamed because I was black.”

When her father told me this story, anger was white-hot in my chest. Today, I’m mostly tired, Boss. This young woman’s sweet face shines in my imagination, and her words are too much to bear.

Still on the refrigerator in the Coleman house

Don’t misunderstand, I kindle hope within myself that kindness and wisdom may someday overcome violence and ignorance. But for now I have to look away, take a deep breath, reclaim the peace that surpasses all understanding and cling to the love that has claimed my life.

Tomorrow I’ll take Route 18 to Oniontown. Ah, Bartleby! If only I could stop and join you by the barn door, slide my arm around your long head and rest my face against yours. Maybe being together would comfort us, as only communion can do in a season beset with fury and rot.

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Words from the Dead in a Frightening Season

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Our beautiful country . . . out my office window.

Voting seasons are generally a drag, but the 2016 presidential primaries in advance of this fall’s general election are scary. In response to a long, humorless essay on the subject I posted on A Napper’s Companion a few days ago, friend Mary wrote, “I am sick and frightened and don’t know where our beautiful country is going.”

To her excellent words, I would add powerless. Today is Super Tuesday, and millions of Americans are looking around wildly for a pause button that doesn’t exist. Will our next president’s greatest gift be barroom brawling? And will the spectacle that is United States government morph from paralysis to legislative deliberations dominated by bellowing, spittle, and locker room insults?

I’m not the only citizen asking these questions and fearing these fears. Friend Judie wrote to me, “I am so ashamed of what we have become in politics.” Mary and Judie speak for thoughtful Americans and, obviously, for me. I’m weary with sick and frightened and ashamed.

As the first votes are being cast, I’m taking this moment to up my personal ante: Shame for others’ conduct is bad, but shame for my own thoughts and actions is worse.

When hitting below the belt is the order of the day, the temptation to counterpunch in like fashion is acute. If you call me a loser, I can call you whatever I please—and think even worse. But this way is neither Christian nor mindful. It’s the way of the lowest common denominator and the reptile brain.

Frightening times can bring out the worst in us, myself included. We’ve been scared before, though. I’m too young to recall vividly 1968, another year that America felt itself cracking to pieces. Think the Vietnam War and Civil Rights movement, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.

In April of that year, monk Thomas Merton wrote in his journal while on the road: “So the murder of M. L. King—it lay on top of the traveling car like an animal, a beast of the apocalypse. And it finally confirmed all the apprehensions—the feeling that 1968 is a beast of a year. That the things are finally, inexorably, spelling themselves out. Why? Are things happening because people in desperation want them to happen? Or do they have to happen? Is the human race self-destructive? Is the Christian message of love a pitiful delusion? Or must one just “love” in an impossible situation?”

Anyone familiar with Merton’s life and work knows how he would have answered his own questions. One must love. In beastly times, love is the mindful person’s center of gravity. Such love is sometimes obliged to fight, but its arsenal is selective. Cruel or dehumanizing weapons, for example, are out. Such love is also sacrificial and can appear not only risky, but reckless.

How difficult to remember in an alarming season that assaulting my neighbor ends in wounding myself. In an informal address in Calcutta in October of 1968, Merton spoke indirectly of love: “And the deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.

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Flower Power, 1967 (Credit: Bernie Boston on Wikipedia)

Monks from various spiritual traditions, Western and Eastern, heard these words. In the context of what feels like a contemporary planetary crack up—campaign explosions, not to mention real bombs and climate change—Merton probably seems flighty, like a hippie sticking a flower in a rifle barrel. (And the monk himself added a tragic explanation point to 1968 on December 15th when he died of an accidental electrocution in Bangkok.)

If the human race is self-destructive, I want to be the weirdo holding out a daisy. If Christian love and human unity are pitiful delusions, nobody wake me up.

Wherever our beautiful country is going, history has taught us where hatred and fear lead. Call me a flake if I refuse to take the beastly path.