Oniontown Pastoral: We Could Get Together for a While

Oniontown Pastoral: We Could Get Together for a While

Of everyone on my Christmas gift list, my father was the toughest. If he wanted something, he went out and bought it—not that he spent much. He wore Velcro sneakers, Navy-issue boxer shorts, and store brand polo shirts. What treasure do you wrap up for a consumer who rarely ventured beyond Kmart and whose favorite song was Morris Albert’s “Feelings”?

In the early 1990s, I proposed that a couple times each month we go out for lunch. “That’s a perfect gift!” he said. Ironically, Dad picked up the tab, but food was incidental. What we both needed was time.

During my current season of life I’m taking many backward glances and discovering not only that time was the best gift I ever gave Dad, but it always has been the one possession most worthy of sharing with anybody.

Actually, “time” is the wrong word. Where relationships are concerned, minutes and hours are the accepted way we measure our presence to each other, numerical values we assign to shooting the breeze or holding hands. What counts, though, is offering my very self to you and you responding in kind.

Sometimes the strong one, sometimes the one leaning. You, too?

We’ve developed strategies to make being together appear less schmaltzy. We “do lunch” or “have coffee.” We go to painting and wine parties. Decades ago my mother would announce, “I’m having ‘club’ here tonight.” Pinochle, that is. The ladies kibitzed hours after the cards were put away.

I’m a fan of every conceivable excuse to be where two or three are gathered, but I’m also partial to truth telling, at least where conversations of one are concerned. By the time I’m finally ready to lay my burdens down, the life that passes before my eyes ought to be an edifying story with themes that never die.

And so when my 5th grade teacher Mr. Grignol took me golfing one Saturday morning in 1973, the hours were sacred. He gave me two sleeves of balls because the three in my bag might not be enough. I asked if his Chevy Impala, a drab-green behemoth with four-on-the-floor, had power steering. “Yeah,” he grunted, “man power!”

I now think to myself, “He didn’t have to spend a morning with a student going through a rough patch of childhood.” Right now, I’m standing beside Mr. Grignol again, watching to see if the drive he has just crushed will clear a pond. “If that one doesn’t make it,” he says, the ball soaring away, “I can’t do it.” Few of the wonders I’ve witnessed top waiting shoulder to shoulder with my teacher for a splash or a safe landing, his presence alone a grace he could not have reckoned.

Grace–all golf aside

My professors at Behrend College in the early 1980s gave of themselves richly and definitely without material reward. Their tenure and promotion didn’t ride on having winding discussions with undergraduates at the beach or in a bar, but I profited as much from those classrooms as the ones on campus.

Is it too much to claim that most human activities are window dressing for the sacrament of rubbing elbows and wagging chins? The Saturday Star Trek nights my old neighbors and I used to observe were a front for socializing. Often an hour or more passed before we got around to picking an episode to watch.

Or take church meetings. I no longer wonder why they tend to go on longer than necessary. “We could go walking through a windy park,” England Dan and John Ford Coley used to sing, “or take a drive along the beach or stay home and watch TV, you see it really doesn’t matter much to me.”

Day by day, the world over, the best reason for celebration and often the only prescription for heartache is an invitation: “We could get together for a while.”

Perfect place to get together

Example: Jessica showed up at St. John’s last week and sat down across the desk from me with a stunned expression. Hours before she had held the family cat Riley, who had to be put down unexpectedly. What was there to do other than let disbelief hang in the air between us and lighten the sadness by each of us taking half?

Words aren’t much good when your young cat winds up with a tumor in the belly or your golf ball plunks into the drink, as Mr. Grignol’s did. More often than not, I keep my mouth shut about tears and bogeys. Best to hush as you and I stare at the horizon together, never knowing what will happen next.

 

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Oniontown Pastoral: My Wife’s Secret

Oniontown Pastoral: My Wife’s Secret

“Hey, you know what?” I say to wife Kathy.

“You love me?” she answers.

“Well, yes,” I go on, “but . . . .”

“You’re proud of me?” Her Cheshire cat grin sparkles.

This is one of our routines, which concludes with my telling her that I ran into a friend or heard a good joke or whatever. The fact is, I’m endlessly in love with and proud of my wife.

Kathy used to faint at the sight of blood, but went to school and became an oncology nurse. As a mother and grandmother, she is more fun than a sack of spider monkeys. As a wife, she has not only stuck with impossible me for thirty-five years, but she has also replaced our roof, remodeled the bathroom, and built a deck out of planks repurposed from a wheelchair ramp. Her focus these days is coaxing edibles from a modest plot behind our garage. Most dinners include something she has grown, often garlic, which brings me to my point.

My conscience has been twitching lately like a nerved up eyelid. I value honesty, but for years now I’ve been keeping a secret: Although my wife is a marvel, she possesses a quirky mind. And by “quirky” I mean, “Holy cow!” While she is ever eager to recount the thoughts leading up to her whimsical choices, the plots are so circuitous that listening makes drool trail down my chin. Her most recent and finest decision involved elephant garlic, but please enjoy an appetizer before the entrée.

More fun than a sack of spider monkeys

You probably know somebody who “thinks out loud.” Well, Kathy “looks out loud.” While tracking down anything (i.e. smartphone, comb, tax bill, lasagna), she recites all relevant itineraries, identifies last known locations, holds her hands out as if checking for rain and mumbles, “What’s wrong with me?”

Our garage door opener, for example, went missing for several months. Then one afternoon, a yelp of laughter came from the basement. The opener was hibernating in the toe of one of Kathy’s rubber yard-work boots. Okey doke.

Some husbands might get frustrated, but I look forward to whatever oddity hides around the next bend. Take the aforementioned entrée I now put before you. Kathy has been mildly stressed about her overwhelming harvest of garlic. Multiple braids hang from the garage rafters. A four-quart basket-full is parked by the back door. She and I have settled on peeling and freezing, thereby easing her mind. Fortunately, the elephant garlic yield was light, enough to fill a three-pound mesh onion bag, which is where the impressive heads went. From there, I lost track of them.

Last week, in a rare attempt at tidiness, I took a suit jacket I’d thrown over a dining room chair to the basement to hang up in my humble wardrobe area. Making room amidst my jackets, I discovered, slung over a hanger between two of my old favorites, a mesh bag full of elephant garlic, which is rightly known in culinary circles as an “aromatic.”

Proof

Slack-jawed, I imagined slipping on my navy blue number and heading out into the world smelling like a really aggressive basket of butter and garlic wings or an overly ambitious angel hair Alfredo.

The responsible party was not in question. But why? Why would one human being nestle a bag of garlic, which has a well-earned reputation for shedding its skin and bleeding essential oils, between two garments belonging to another human being?

Dangling the bag from my index finger, I climbed the steps and started the interrogation with, “What could have possessed you to . . . ?”

Kathy blinked bashfully and pursed her lips as if to say, “Oh, was that wrong of me?”

Garlic, she eventually explained, will keep in a cool, dark place. A basement is normally ideal, but ours is too light. Ah, but there my suit jackets were, the crevasses between them so chilly, so pitch black.

Thankfully, St. John’s Lutheran is planted in a village named “Oniontown,” which wouldn’t look askance at a minister who occasionally smells like a good sauce. It’s all good.

Best of all, I can take a pinch of pride in practicing what I preach. During marriage preparation, I ask each fiancé what’s most maddening about the other. Then I say, “So if things never change, not one bit, can you still say, ‘I do’?”

How blessed am I, having always known the answer to my own question and remembering that I was never mad to start with.

I Found the Holy Ghost in Asheville

Were I to subscribe to omens, the family drive from Erie, Pennsylvania, to Candler, North Carolina, last week would have put me in a black mood. I’m not sure what formula Google Maps uses to estimate travel time, but I doubt it includes weather, bodily functions, and babies, all of which can add decades. My spunky iPhone 6 (not Plus!) predicted 9 hours and 49 minutes, or some such crap. When wife Kathy, daughter Elena, son-in-law Matt, grandson Cole, and I rolled up my sister Cindy’s long driveway, our constitutions were too battered for math. We squinted at each other and said, “Huh? Yeah, maybe like 17 hours?” Blowing snow, freezing rain, and West Virginia mountains occasionally had us down to 30 mph. Good thing I sit still and pray-meditate a lot. When I was younger, such a drive would have set my bowels into angry, claustrophobic spasms. Are we there yet?

The presumed reason for renting a Town and Country van and heading south was my sister-in-law Betsy Ann’s 80th birthday party. I should have known better. The actual purpose of travel, across town or to another hemisphere, doesn’t reveal itself unless I leave my soul’s door ajar and pay attention. Somewhere in the midst of eating spaghetti or getting lost in a Louis Armstrong song or walking into a coffee shop, I think, “Ah, so this is why I came here.” Tears are often involved.

As soon as Kathy and I put our bags in Cindy and her spouse Linda’s guest room, I began to suspect the days ahead would be about love or life or wonder–something wide-eyed. On the dresser was a photograph of Kathy and me from close to thirty years ago in a frame that said, “Welcome, Kathy and John.”

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A pathetic attempt at a photograph of a photograph. Ah well. Blurriness and flecks don’t diminish my young Kathy’s beauty one bit, nor do they provide cover for those ridiculously large glasses of the mid 1980s.

Thoughtful, this gesture. Along with the photograph went a bag of on-the-road stuff, like toothpaste, shampoo, and travel guides. That’s Cindy for you. Goodness pours out of the woman. She made our mother’s spaghetti sauce for dinner the first evening because she knows it was one of my favorites. But that’s a small detail. Cindy and Linda’s whole household hums with joyful, affectionate chaos. Pets are always making a ruckus, and their grandson Liam’s toys constantly chirp out music.

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Destined to be paesanos from the start: Cole and Liam, the latter the son of Tina and Rebecca.

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Friendly old Harriet, named after my spirited grandmother. Notice the bent left foreleg? When she was a pup, Harriet’s, owner smacked her with a two-by-four, resulting in a permanent . . . well . . . dogleg. She was supposed to be beyond hope, but not so with Cindy and Linda, who took the girl in and loved her into gentleness.

As if the blessings I’ve mentioned weren’t enough, we energetic travelers got to sample Asheville. A couple of moments there tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Soul, awake!” Asheville! Man, what a town! What I saw moved me, softened me up, cleared my vision. Behold Asheville:

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“Can I take your picture?” I said. He smiled and raised his left thumb to the sky. The Holy Ghost is all about conserving energy.

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Pippa and Brody greeting admirers. I chatted with owner Mary Ann as if we were old buddies.

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The Flat Pennies busking. Old Appalachian music. Great stuff.

Ah, to wander from beauty to beauty as a fiddle and banjo converse. The buoyant music made me buzz with gladness, and I wasn’t alone. Was I seeing the Holy Ghost in eyes of strangers, somehow no longer strangers? That’s how I felt.

But the moment, my harmonic convergence, arrived at Betsy Ann’s party. Taking advantage of free flowing pinot noir, I watched a photographic loop of the birthday girl’s life. One shot was an epiphany. I don’t consult omens, but do welcome a wave of inspiration, the sight, sound, or word that bestows an ah of recognition, a truth received.

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My sister Cathy with her arm around Betsy Ann. Two pilgrims in love, come to a place of grace and peace.

As you can tell, both of my sisters are lesbians joined in marriage. For decades I’ve been fine with homosexuality–as if what I think matters anyway. But when I saw this photograph, all I knew was joy. Oh that everyone who wants to join hands and hearts with another could do so. The human race is doubled over by body blows. Venom is the new norm. And don’t even mention manners.

But look! An 80-year-old woman puts her head on my sister’s 66-year-old shoulder–my sister Cathy, one of the most kind and decent souls in circulation. Don’t most of us want to rest in the arms of a beloved? To lean into another, share the view of a bright land, and think, “I’m home, yes. My home is here, yes. With this one person, yes“?

I’m all about love: guilty as charged. Sentimental, too, I guess. We all have to be about something. I pick this: it’s a wish. If only we could all find love in the measure we need and have the inner freedom to make our way there without fear or shame, however we find ourselves bidden. For some folks, days are weary, desperate, lonely. Love can turn the walk into a jig. If only we could all reach old age and sing to our beloved, as Betsy Ann did.

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“I said to myself, ‘What a wonderful world.'” Betsy Ann looked at Cathy. I wiped away tears and hid my sniffles by sipping wine. And I knew why I had made the trip to North Carolina.

Turns out the Holy Ghost wasn’t only in Asheville. She was also in Candler, at a birthday party, and in every other place of tenderness and care. What is the Holy Ghost, after all, if not love?

 

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.

Micro-Post: The Hug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gorgeous: winter trees on Shenley Drive