Farewell and Godspeed, Ray If I know what something means to me, if I have already come to the end of it as an experience, I can’t write it because it seems a twice-told tale. (Arthur Miller) You may already know … Continue reading
I Won’t Be Ashamed of Love
The 1993 movie Philadelphia teaches the powerful lesson that love is something to be proud of, even though folks may find certain expressions of it hard to honor at first. On the soundtrack, a Neil Young song, also named after the City of Brotherly Love, resonates with me, especially the line “I won’t be ashamed of love.” The protagonist is a gay lawyer dying of AIDS. My sister Cathy is married to Betsy Ann, and sister Cindy is married to Linda. Far from feeling shame, these kind and upright women ought to be proud.
But as moving as Neil Young’s words are in context, their message begs to be taken down from the screen and worn like a wedding ring. Love isn’t something you put on when it feels good and take off when it proves inconvenient.
Here in 2018 the temptation to compartmentalize love and all the rest of our emotions is great. Our tear ducts, for example, work overtime for YouTube videos of Christmas puppies and soldiers returning home to surprise loved ones, but an emotional voice in a political debate is often persona non grata. Two Facebook comments show what I’m getting at:
Awww did the bad man hurt ur feewings again
You need a safe pwace with a blanky
These responses landed in a sparring match over recent news developments, with one side expressing genuine concern and the other sticking with locker room towel snapping.
I don’t mention specifics here because I’m not looking for a fight. My point is directed to the whole sociopolitical spectrum. Not only won’t I be ashamed of love, I want to be its champion. Americans from many quarters insist that something essential to their identity is under attack, which may explain why we’re always putting up our dukes.
While my own rhetorical fists aren’t raised, my arms are crossed. I admit it, I need a safe pwace with a blanky. Some folks take pleasure in calling people like me a “snowflake.” Nothing new here. Those who drag kindness and compassion into the debate hall used be “pinkos” and “bleeding hearts.” Today, a merely descriptive term, “liberal,” is being wielded as a slur.
Such language is weaponry in what I believe is a war on love. Emotions, the reasoning goes, have no place in policy formation, and those who suggest otherwise deserve a good mansplaining.
I disagree, so with a blanky on my lap, I’ll speak only for myself. Tease the worried and teary-eyed if you like, but you’ll not shame this old softy for a few love-inspired convictions:
- Being proudly American doesn’t require that I think ill of other nations or view them as opponents. My faith calls me to welcome and assist foreigners and strangers, even when sacrifices are likely.
- Saying the Pledge of Allegiance and singing the National Anthem are two ways of demonstrating love for America, but they aren’t the only ways. When fully understood, peaceful protest can be a profound sign of patriotism. And insisting on a couple of core values amounts to taking up our country in a strong and lasting embrace: 1.) Misleading others is wrong, and “well, that’s politics for you,” is no defense. Cases can be made for lying in extreme circumstances, as when Oscar Schindler did so to save Jews during World War II, but when falsehoods are deployed to protect the powerful, line their pockets or advance their agendas, the results may be rightly called “evil.” 2.) Knowledge is good, so precious, in fact, that it is the duty of citizens to seek out reliable sources of information, not just ones that confirm previously held opinions. Loving America requires homework. Facts exist, and they do matter.
- The first priority of any government should be the wellbeing of children and those unable to care for themselves. Scripture could easily support this claim, but love alone is my defense—messy, counter-intuitive, vulnerable love. In the recent instance of immigrant families being separated at America’s southern border, simple human empathy makes an unapologetic case against such a practice. Might some undesirables slip into the country along with innocent children? Of course, but philos allows that the presence of bad actors among law abiding citizens may be collateral damage in the campaign to protect children—and not the other way around! Always err on the side of aiding the innocent rather than punishing the guilty. Might the guilty cause trouble? Absolutely, but love devoid of risk is just another four-letter word.
As you can imagine, my commitment to love reaches beyond the controversial issues of a given season. Love means putting my iPhone away when somebody is talking to me. It means thanking police officers and soldiers for their service. It means remembering that nothing makes me better than the guy at Erie’s State Street Starbucks who has loud arguments with himself. Nothing. I’m one chromosomal kink, chemical hiccup or bad decision from being in his shoes.
Come to think of it, he hasn’t been around in quite a while. I hope he is OK. He might not understand my concern for him, but I’m sure you can. I’m not ashamed to say that he is worthy of my love.
A Prayer for Ray and All the Rest of Us
I can’t remember where the question came from or how the conversation started. We were driving to Dollar General, where he was going to pick up five bags of starlight peppermints.
“When I was a teenager,” he said, “I would never have started with drugs or alcohol or cigarettes. I would have paid attention in school and graduated.”
I chipped in: “Oh, and you wouldn’t have gotten married that first time, right?”
“No, I would’ve run all the way to Oklahoma in the same pair of sneakers.”
Ray comes out with great lines like this, but his flat affect can make you forget his brain has zip. He is a trippy character. Years ago I mentioned that I would like to write about him.
“Write whatever you want,” he said. He hopes his story can speak to others, as it does to me.
Ray’s life is short on plot, but long on complication. Mental illness and heavy-duty meds blur his days. He could be content with a routine built on filterless roll-your-owns, plugs of wintergreen snuff and old Pink Floyd albums, but tobacco fills him with guilt. For decades he figured God would send him to hell, but not anymore. What remains is a soul scarred by damnation’s abuse.
Ray’s latest trouble is a persistent cough, so this morning after the peppermint run I took him to the doctor.
In the waiting room, as we engaged in our usual salty repartee, he sagged in his chair.
“Pastor,” he said out of the blue, “I wish somebody would tell me I’m going to die.”
No cause for alarm. Ray has been ready to die for years, but his belief that suicide is unforgivable keeps him alive.
“Really,” I said, inviting him into the valley we’ve walked before. “Why do you want to die?”
Ray knows my truth. I’ve never been suicidal, but a few times I’ve been miserable enough that if God had called me home, I would have gone without an argument.
My old friend confessed his truth: “I’m so tired of being tired and afraid.”
Ray’s medicine causes crushing fatigue, but it’s also supposed to keep him ahead of paranoia and panic. In fact, few days pass without him choking on their dust.
He calls constantly to ask for prayer. I take him to the doctor’s office, Smoker Friendly and the used record store. We get coffee. Wherever we are, he’s apt to say, “Lord, I’m so tired,” and he’s not talking to me.
I have no solutions, but figure that the only thing worse than suffering is suffering alone.
A few months ago Kathy and I traveled to Ireland and visited attractions both popular and inconspicuous. Of course, we toured Saint Colman’s Cathedral, whose spire keeps watch over the city of Cobh.
My last stop was quiet room off the narthex, which glowed with votive candles. Kneelers waited below a towering poster of Jesus for believers with intercessions. I slipped a few Euros into the offering box, knelt and prayed for family, friends and my folks at St. John’s Lutheran in Oniontown.
Ray got his own candle. I imagined him dozing in his recliner, obsessing about somebody breaking into his house and stealing his things.
“Peace,” was all I said, “give him some peace.” Then I snapped a photograph to show my friend where I remembered him to God.
This morning before taking Ray to the doctor, I finally got around to having the print framed. On the back I taped a prayer, the one that I offered in abbreviated form in Ireland: “Dear Lord, please fill Ray’s heart with peace about his salvation, compassion toward himself and love for you. Amen.”
The day is not yet over, and he has called me several times, twice to say how much he loves the picture. And moments ago, this update: “I just wanted to let you know I woke up from a nap and don’t feel sick.”
“So you’re not afraid?” I asked.
“No, Pastor, I feel normal,” he said with a chuckle.
A normal day—no panic, sorrow or tragedy—deserves a celebration, maybe a phone call to a friend. Now there’s a lesson I can stand to remember.
Folks assume I take of Ray, but I add this confession to my personal story: If I keep my heart open, sometimes Ray takes care of me.
Waking from a Dream of Separateness*
In the midst of shamatha—calm abiding—lately, I’ve been having Fourth-and-Walnut moments. Thomas Merton (1915-1968) enthusiasts know what I’m talking about. One of the famous monk’s most beloved writings comes from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, which Thomas Moore calls a “mind-bending collection of short pieces”:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness . . . .
As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
But even if it were possible to tell a friend or stranger, “You know, I see past your skin and know we’re family. Do you understand that you’re beautiful?” it wouldn’t be advisable. First, I would appear to be on an acid trip. And second, I would stomp all over the moment with my inadequate words.
It’s better to stay quiet, as I did last evening over a few Lucifer Belgian ales at the Tap House with old college teaching colleagues. One guy, who has been retired for over ten years but looks in better shape than I do, nursed his beer and held forth at length. But this wasn’t a self-indulgent, drunken monologue. Behind my friend’s animation I witnessed his soul’s lightening. He is engaged in a life-long lover’s quarrel with the world: what he loves, he loves recklessly; when he rails, he rails through clenched teeth. He has got the universe caught up in a fierce embrace.
Another shining spirit is a woman I saw at church this morning. I won’t name her because she would be embarrassed, but as she volunteers with more efforts than I probably realize, she gives off life. We had a belly laugh when she showed me a potless plant. Obviously somebody had broken the pot and put the dirt and root system back in the stand. There’s no way I can imagine being alien from this friend.
Yet another church friend hangs his paintings in the office. Parish Administrator Michelle and I love the work of this self-taught guy whose basement is full of decades of canvasses. He and his wife are getting on in years, but their gentleness glows. Being with them for ten minutes can bless a whole morning.
Of course, Thomas Merton was talking mostly about strangers in his Fourth-and-Walnut epiphany, and the more I’m able to give myself to the refreshment of siestas and the sanity of prayer, the more I notice great light all around me. Some time ago here at Starbucks, I saw barista Abbey knitting as a young friend made crowns. The kid was happy, proud of trying to fashion power and might out of construction paper. As I talked to them for a few seconds, we belonged to each other.
Unfortunately, sometimes shining people cause sunburn. A young woman here at Starbucks just had a lover’s quarrel of her own via cell phone. After a short, tearful fight, she retreated to the restroom, where I imagine she is crying some more. I’ve never seen her before, but have an empathetic pit in my stomach for her. And now she is gone, out into the 90-degree swelter with her puffy eyes, damp cheeks, and upset heart.
I’m still here in the air-conditioned shamatha of 4:02 p.m., glad that the sad girl was mine and I was hers (though she knew nothing about it). Most of all, I’m grateful not to suffer from the dream of separateness. I belong to everyone. Everyone belongs to me.
*This post first appeared in slightly different form on A Napper’s Companion in July of 2013.
A Letter to Parents from a Middle-Aged Pop
Dear Parents (Especially New Ones):
I’m a Christian-Buddhist-pastor mutt in my mid-fifties, married to Kathy for thirty-two years. Daughter Elena and son Micah are grown, the former and her husband Matt having given us grandson Cole and promising us another grand-someone in the spring.
Yesterday Elena, Cole, and I (Pop) went to a nature center for a toddle in the woods. Nearly two, the boy is steady, but the path was strewn with branches and limbs from a recent windstorm. I kept close, spotting his steps, saying in my head, “Don’t fall! Don’t fall! Don’t fall!” My mother did this with me, too, so the anxious parent-grandparent impulse has genetic force behind it.
Or is the force my childhood home, which was loving and attentive but nerved up? I’m certainly not the first to observe that children take family vibes along when they grow up and move out. I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to love in healthy ways and navigate through anxiety. In my late twenties it was full-blown panic attacks. In middle-age, it’s mostly trying to distinguish love from appeasement and not to turn every emotional speck of stardust into a blackhole. I pray-meditate a lot.
Lately my spiritual practice has drawn me to Tibetan-Buddhist Pema Chodron, whose teachings are weaving themselves into my thoughts and actions. In a recent post, Writing and the Narrative of Suffering, I offer a brief summary of my novice understanding of some key concepts Ani Pema works with. If what follows is interesting, I invite you to have a look.
I was watching one of Pema’s videos this morning when I was grabbed by her flawless diagnosis of my parenting experience:
Trungpa Rimpoche coined the phrase idiot compassion, or you could say idiot loving-kindness. Some of you may have tried raising your children this way and you’re wishing you hadn’t. You can’t bear to see them in any kind of pain, so you give them whatever they want. [Doing this] is like trying to assuage someone’s thirst by giving them saltwater.
I’m overjoyed to report that Elena (27) and Micah (23) are doing well these days, but my unintended lesson about suffering sometimes made their journey a walk on glowing coals. By regularly showing them idiot compassion, I taught them that pain can be eliminated.
Let’s be clear about my motivation. I could claim that I wanted to spare them disappointment, sadness, frustration, whatever, but that was only 25% true. More pressing, say 75% true, was my need to overcome a father’s discomfort. This is idiot compassion, idiot loving-kindness. It could also be called selfish compassion or artificial loving-kindness. I try to make myself better by denying my child the reality every human being has to confront sooner or later: Life is sweet, but it also slaps your heart and punches your spirit.
Years ago in seminary, my Enneagram results indicated that conflict in close proximity could be crippling. Conflict, pissing and moaning kids, discipline and tough calls: It was all crippling, so much so that to find relief I undercut wife Kathy’s strength, wisdom, and wishes.
So Elena wore black makeup, dated guys I should have shown the door, and watched and listened to what she damn-well pleased. And Micah bought weed with money I gave him, dropped out of high school, and put less effort into my feeble attempt at home schooling than I did.
There’s more, some of it worse, but you get the idea. All my reasoning sounded convincing at the time, but now I look back at myself. That younger man was doubled over, rendered frantic and sick by the need to steady the ship, to calm the waters. If you think I was stupid, you’re right.
Given this scathing review of my parenting skills, you might imagine me constantly ripping myself a new one. Other than sighing, I don’t do much self-reproach. What compassion I possess also extends to myself. I mistook indulgence for insight. The glasses I saw through were, in fact, blinders.
So I put down these ideas. I’m not telling you what to do, but mistakes are great teachers. What I believe now is this: Allowing children to experience necessary suffering may well be the highest form of love.
And I’m glad that it’s not too late for me to learn. Cole fell three times on one patch of slick leaves–two near-splits and one averted face plant. I stayed back. He was fine, of course. Someday he’ll get a fat lip or a bruised soul. When he does, I’ll pick him up and tell him the truth: “I know you’re hurt. Sorry I couldn’t stop it. The best Pop can do is stay close and hurt with you.”
Peace and love,
Dear Napper’s Companions,
Toward the end of May, kind and thoughtful Mary sent me an email that has stayed with me. I had posted a newspaper column I wrote over a decade ago about the prospect of the United States bombing Iraq. Here’s most of Mary’s response:
I came home from my job . . . here in Asheville where you and I briefly met and realized that I have not read A Napper’s Companion in a while. It was a treat to read your posts all at once in the silence of my living room while my husband flipped through The Mountain Express and my Pug snored contentedly.
I enjoyed all of them except the political one, but it got me thinking. I think the political system is broken, because we are. I think we should all step back and let go of our identifying with political parties so strongly and begin to really, actually listen to each other. Perhaps more healing could take place. Hmm. More for me to think about and try to do.
First, Mary’s setting for reading is enchanting. Would that we all could relax in living rooms with a spouse honoring the silence and a dog snoring to provide the necessary punctuation.
But “I enjoyed all of them except . . .” made me pull up short. A baseball player who bats .300 has reason to celebrate. Thin-skinned writers, on the other hand, get moody over a .900 average. A single clunker can make us sulk and whine, “Aw, to bloody hell with the whole writing thing!”
In fact, I don’t bruise so easily. My stay at the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars thirty years ago gave me callouses, as did the fat file of rejection letters I’ve received from hundreds of magazines and book publishers. Mary’s except stung for an instant—a flu shot, a plucked eyebrow. The pinch was immediately followed by gratitude.
I wrote back, “I couldn’t agree with you more. I’m really grateful for your note because you’ve taught me something important.” Her lesson takes some explaining.
A week ago I savored the free Wi-Fi at a Panera Bread in Lyndora, Pennsylvania, and started a report about my week with kids and pastors at church camp. (You’ll get to read that soon enough if you want to.) Unfortunately, the joys of hanging out with fresh-faced teenagers and clergy friends intersected with receiving news of the nine martyrs of Charleston, South Carolina.
As I sipped mango iced tea and sighed, my intended report buckled under Dylann Roof’s scowl. Rather than staying in the woods of Camp Lutherlyn, I followed the thruway to Emanuel A.M.E. Church. Soon I was dissecting the latest installment in our national shame, and the kiddos and Martin Luther’s Small Catechism were hundreds of miles behind me.
I had a morning after experience when reviewing what I had written: “What did I do?” Even as I was droning on about a racist, terrorist attack, Mary’s except cautioned me. I should have known. Sampling around 1500 words, I felt like a cook who had spent hours on a dish that turned out bland. Eh!
The fact is, writers need to be open to learning their gifts and limitations. At fifty-three I would have hoped to be confident in my wheelhouse, but since most days I squeeze in at most an hour at the writing table, awareness has been delayed.
Ah well, as Sherlock Holmes said, “It is better to learn wisdom late than never to learn it at all.” Did you know that both William Shatner and Sebastian Cabot covered Bob Dylan? “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It Ain’t Me, Babe” respectively, and others, too. The results, spoken rather than sung, were embarrassing and have been justly consigned to, well, camp. Captain Kirk seems to have embraced his inner pink flamingo. I don’t know about Mr. French.
There’s nothing much sadder than writers and artists who are under the impression that their stuff screams when, in fact, it’s eh or worse, ridiculous. (Lack of self-awareness is hardly sadness at all, of course, compared to getting murdered in a Bible study.)
I’ve written a fair amount about societal cancers and governmental rancor and absurdity because of the effort’s therapeutic purging. But in sharing such work, I may sound like a baritone trying to tackle “Nessun Dorma.” Some measures work, but the entirety doesn’t sing.
The point: Mary’s except, so gently rendered, invited me to recognize my voice, which has more to do with singing about my wife, children, grandson, and dog–close to the end, I’m afraid–than with spelling out what we humans can do to keep our species from imploding. More to do with celebration and lamentation than explanation. I enjoy having my say, but folks don’t stop by A Napper’s Companion to pick up ways to save the world.
I imagine if you’ve hung around here for long, you’re like Mary from Asheville, reclined in a quiet room with a sleeping Pug. You’re looking for a few minutes of hope, a port of joy or comfort in all kinds of weather, or a love letter.
Or maybe a song and a prayer, which are good places to end. As I hold our family members who welcomed in a young man concealing bullets and rage, I’ve got no answers, no fix. But I do have a song, not from church camp, but verses from an old hymn:
From ev’ry ailment flesh endures
our bodies clamor to be freed;
yet in our hearts we would confess
that wholeness is our deepest need.
In conflicts that destroy our health
we recognize the world’s disease;
our common life declares our ills.
Is there no cure, O Christ, for these?
And I have a prayer:
Let there be a cure, Eternal Love,
and lead us to it.
A song and a prayer aren’t much, I know, but they’re all I’ve got.
Peace and love,
I buried Aunt Sue yesterday morning. That’s what some pastors call funerals. We bury the dead, speaking the word with reverence.
It was ashes a dozen or so family and friends commended to the earth. Since Aunt Sue died in February, all had grieved for a couple of months, maybe spent their quota of tears.
I loved my aunt, but her passing hasn’t crushed me—the sad result of extended families drifting apart. I saw her once or twice a year. She was cheerful, loved china painting, made elegant sea-foam, and traveled a lot in her later years. A few loved ones shared such memories, and I tossed in a couple of my own: her twittering laugh and her faithful attention to my dad during his decline, punished by dementia. She never quite understood that a person whose brain has gone to pieces can’t read a book or assemble puzzles or in any other way snap out of it. But she was present to her brother in the best way she knew how, which is all any of us can do.
An hour before the graveside service, images of poor, confused Dad went through my head, and I remembered something he said a few months before his death in January of 2012. His words were confused, but poetic.
At that time Dad and his wife Mary were in different care facilities, both having lost not only each other, but themselves. I arranged to take Dad from Independence Court (great facility, absurdly named) to Mary at Pleasant Ridge (well, that’s half right), hoping that seeing each other might bring them joy. When I wheeled him into her room, they were joyful, indeed: a kiss, a hug; then he took her hand as if he had found a fragile treasure and held it to his lips. “Come on, let’s get out of here,” he said, the old Dad surfacing for an instant, eyes narrowing into his old enough-of-this-bullshit expression.
“Oh, Dad,” I thought. Mary was mostly bedridden, her legs dead weight. But, of course, who doesn’t want to close his length of days at home, with his beloved? Does the longing for the warmth of familiar skin ever die?
During one visit to Dad, he thought I was his brother—he didn’t have a brother. He confided that he planned to ask Mary to be his wife, but was worried she wouldn’t say yes. He couldn’t remember her name.
“Mary,” I said.
“Yes, Mary.” He wiped away tears. “She’s my favorite.” They had been married for over thirty-five years.
When dementia or Alzheimer’s had stolen everything else, it granted Dad the slight mercy of leaving Mary’s face. When he said “let’s get out of here,” I imagine he just wanted to be close to his favorite.
Mary was silent, lucid enough in the moment to know that they had no place to go, no muscles or wit to get them anywhere.
“Well, then, maybe we can get together . . . .” Dad paused, searching his atrophied vocabulary. “Maybe we can get together at the other post.”
“If only we could step out onto a cloud,” Mary said, still holding Dad’s hand. “But that can’t be.”
Dad’s enough-bullshit face returned. “Why not?”
I don’t remember anything else about the visit, but Dad’s suggestion has played again and again in my memory: “Maybe we can get together at the other post.”
So an hour before giving Aunt Sue a good send off, Dad gave me the right words. When the time came to speak them, the nightmare of his last days stopped me. I barely managed Dad’s longing, his wish: “Maybe we can get together at the other post.”
Sometimes tears make the most honest eulogy. I remember my Grandma Miller, her body stooped and gnarled with arthritis; my sedated mother on her death-bed with her left hand, scarlet and impossibly swollen, reaching for my hand as I thanked her for being a good mother; my father, howling and clawing through his final hours.
Oh, for the hope of another post—where minds are restored, where pain rises like fog at dawn and burns off, where wounds are healed, injuries forgiven.
Then I hear Mary: “But that can’t be.”
My lips purse, eyes narrow: “Why not?”
This morning I ached for the other post and knew that nothing but sitting still and silent with God would help, so I drove to Presque Isle and watched waves catch the sun. Honest-to-goodness shafts of heavenly light split iron-gray clouds and warmed Erie, Pennsylvania, across the bay. I had planned on burying my aunt yesterday. I hadn’t expected to bury my father again.
The weight of tears pressed from behind my eyes, but none came. Who knows why?
Eternal Love, prepare for us the other post. Gather us all there, our hurtful bullshit left behind. Our brains and bones wear out, so we return them to the earth. Give us what we need–only what we need–to know you at last.
I am crying now.
P. S. If you enjoyed this post, you might also like these (the first one is joyful, the other two not so much):
“A Letter to My Late Mother”:
“A Prayer for Philip Seymour Hoffman, Justin Bieber, and a Child in a Fire”:
“Viewing Dad’s Death Loop at Gethsemani”:
I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself . . . .
Me, neither, especially the last part. If you want to know the truth about me, best ask somebody else. But one thing I have learned over the years is that I’m an optimist, occasionally to the point of foolishness. How I know this doesn’t matter. I just know.
At 6:20 this morning I woke up ahead of the alarm. This was a good waking, not the wretched sort when you would pay a $100 or sell one of your nostrils for just one more hour of sleep before heading off to work or chores. I was fresh, mulling over the fine possibilities on the horizon.
Imagine you wake up
with a second chance
Heck, yeah! I believe in second chances, endless chances. (I would like to share the entire poem, but copyright blah blah blah.) The following made my soul’s lungs fill with new air:
The whole sky is yours
to write on, blown open
to a blank page. Come on,
shake a leg!
Preach it, Rita! Every once in a miraculous while, my spirit’s stirring converges with a friend’s innocent remark or an adagio or a poem. As soon as I finished pray-meditating, I actually wanted to “shake a leg,” and here a voice visited with encouragement: “Come on!”
The poet spoke about three hours ago, and I’m still rolling. Afternoon can be a slog because old wounds and griefs sometimes visit; breathing gets leaden. My past has strong hands, which it uses to grab my throat and back me up against a cinderblock wall. “Listen, little bitch,” the past says, “you’re not going anywhere.” It squeezes harder: “Just try to heal up and move on, punk!”
Sometimes, but not today. Sadly, I’m not a fighter, so I won’t be telling the old hurts to “go pound salt.” A story is told about Mahatma Gandhi being confronted by an angry man threatening violence against him. Gandhi embraced the man, who collapsed in tears. I’m no Gandhi, but this is my way. Today, if the past intrudes, I’ll kiss its lumpy head and say, “Not today. I’ll take care of you, but you’re not going to choke me.” In other words, I’ll breathe and keep shaking a leg.
Such mindfulness and discipline take a lot of energy. Still, the sun is bright, the sky is clear, and I have hope. Wednesday, February 25th is a second chance. Actually, I’ve lost count of what chance this day is. Above my desk at the church I have a drawing of a bald man sitting in meditation (in Desert Wisdom: Sayings from the Desert Fathers by Yushi Nomura). The caption in calligraphy goes,
Abba Poeman said about Abba Pior
that every single day he made a fresh beginning.
What luck! This morning must be my millionth chance, since I often start over a couple times during my waking hours. The present can be better than the past.
So, goodbye for now. I need to go write on the sky.
Dear Loved Ones:
Here’s a bulletin! Over the last few years I’ve been discouraged about the state of the world. World: language doesn’t get much bigger. Solar system, galaxy, universe, and eternity all out rank world. In addition to a couple of newspapers and websites, my source for Earth’s latest information is ABC’s World News with David Muir. On the surface, this makes sense. If I want the most important updates available, why not depend on one of the big three television networks still broadcasting free of charge?
On the other hand, what makes the American Broadcast Company so wise? A few days ago after prayer-meditation, I beat Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the magi to the stable in Bethlehem and had an epiphany, joyous and liberating. The various media have much to report, but they can’t cover everything. This one man’s Teletype constantly receives breaking news deserving of airtime and headlines. World News isn’t only the latest financial collapse, governmental absurdity, or breathtaking slaughter. It’s also unseen sacrifice, modest dreams fulfilled, or simple tenderness.
As sickly as things seem these days, grace is everywhere, and probably more abundant than evil. But because I consume so much distressing information, I’m conned into believing that humanity is circling the drain. How foolish! My personal sources have told glad tidings of great joy lately. With love and hope, then, I offer A Napper’s Companion Christmas Letter made up of stories not covered by the mainstream media.
For Coleman family dinner, I was working so hard to perfect a chicken in a spirited mustard sauce that I neglected the corn chowder. I said to daughter Elena, “Hey, Len, would you mind trying to fix the chowder?” She hit it with nutmeg, salt, white pepper, a splash of hot sauce, and coriander ground with a new mortar and pestle from friend Mary. I contributed a stick of butter, and together we reached savory. Best of all, before we sat down to eat I hugged Elena and kissed her on top of the head. She said, “I love you, Daddy.”
In millions of kitchens, we help each other out with joy and speak of love. Snark and bicker visit, but I’ll wager overall we’re more kind than cranky.
At a party last week, I sipped wine in the kitchen with friends Karri and Joe and kibitzed. Two of their daughters sat off to the side talking. Lauren is about to graduate from college, and Emily is in high school. Rarely would I tell anybody to freeze for a picture, but I figured this one might win a Pulitzer. Yes, Virginia, siblings can get along and do better than that: they can take care of each other.
I recently visited a severely ill man and his family. He sat on the couch with feet up on an ottoman. His wife patted his leg, spoke words of comfort, and kept his morphine ahead of pain and distress. The man’s brother wrote a prayer, which he asked me to read—no way he could get the words out. It was simple, humble, fervent. We sat in silence afterwards, passing around Kleenex.
“You’re a good man,” I said. “You know that right?”
A slight tear ran from the corner of his eye. “I’ve tried.”
We all put a hand on the man and entrusted him to God’s care. When I stood to leave, his wife said, “John, wait. He wants to give you a hug.”
For over thirteen years I’ve watched death. Driving away from this visit, I took an unexpected gift with me. What a loving, attentive end, as gentle as any I’ve been blessed to witness.
And I know that this day, in lands everywhere and all fifty states, the living hold the hands of the dying and whisper, “You can let go. We love you. We’ll be okay.”
I’ve received a couple of gifts lately that are particularly moving. Both made and bought, they remind me that people who celebrate Christmas are thinking of each other, finding a present that will be received like a kiss on the cheek and a moment’s cheer to the heart.
No doubt, Christmas is awfully commercial, but we’re trying, aren’t we? Most of us? We do want to bring joy. On the news you see Black Friday stampedes, but not the man standing alone in the store aisle, praying to find his beloved something pleasing.
A young guy with low-slung jeans was waiting to cross the street as I drove up to the intersection. He started out, saw me, then held up. I motioned him on. At the curb he glanced back, smiled, and waved. I smiled back and shot him the peace sign.
Human by human, peace is sent out, received, and returned. I see it all around me.
I know an astute, witty, practical nine-year-old who still believes in Santa Claus. She leaves him a letter each Christmas Eve by the candy jar.
“What do you write him?” I asked.
“Things like ‘I hope you like bringing everybody presents.’”
Her father says, “She still believes in magic.”
I’m sure she is not alone.
Starbucks friend John and I talk about our dogs. In decent weather he brings his boxer Harley and has coffee outside. John and I both aspire to live like a dog—in the moment, not self-absorbed, often overjoyed.
John loves Harley and shows it. Every once in a while I see a news story about horses starving in barns, but, you know, I bet most pet owners are like John. Most of us are this way, right? We make sure our dogs and cats have enough to eat and drink, gush over their eccentricities, and treat them like our children?
I know I love my dog. This morning old gimpy Watson hopped up on the bed with me as I was getting propped up for prayer-meditation. I’m not sure how much longer he’ll be with us. Like our two cats, Watson came to us as a stray. A clumsy soul, he tore both ACLs years ago. We fixed one, but couldn’t afford surgery for the other. He has fatty tumors on his flank, one the size of a tennis ball. We chase pills down his throat with treats. (I bet lots of you have stories just like this one.)
I set my Zen bell for twenty minutes, unpropped myself, lay down, and rested my face on Watson’s side. “I love you, buddy,” I said. He huffed and made the old mutt smacking sounds with his mouth I’ve come to love. “I’m glad you stopped by.” I rubbed his soft ear between my fingers. “You’re a good old pal.”
The world news tells us our home is in peril, with all of its explosions and arguments. This Christmas, sisters and brothers, I claim for us another world, one I recognize every way I turn. Join me. Everywhere I see souls unable to contain their love and sacred wishes.
Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. (The Gospel of Luke 15:11-24)
Most Christians I know read this Parable of the Prodigal Son from the perspective of the faithful son, whose verses I didn’t include. He worked hard for his father “all these years” and stomps off, resentful that his narcissistic punk brother is about to enjoy some “fatted calf.”
I understand the faithful son, but more often I feel sympathy for the Prodigal son. Now let’s be clear: for the first part of the parable, he is—to employ a theological term—an asshole. Imagine proposing to your folks that they hand over your inheritance before they die. It’s amazing that the father doesn’t simply have his son flogged or thrown off a cliff. But he doesn’t, and off the kid goes to get sozzled and satisfied.
Having missed any early-adult period of drunkenness, debauchery, and licentiousness, I don’t relate to that side of the Prodigal son. Instead, I find myself standing with the hungry kid and the pigs at that moment “when he came to himself.” What gorgeous phrasing! The New International Version of the Bible says, “when he came to his senses,” but “came to himself” more accurately describes a universal human experience. At least it resonates with me.
Here’s my prodigal process. In the parable, the son, wanting to party and get horizontal, leaves behind his best self, the self he comes to recognize only by getting his face rubbed in pig sludge. He also happens to travel to a different country. My story works differently, but ends the same. I stay right where I am and come to understanding not dallying with prostitutes—I do drink some wine—but frittering away my inheritance by succumbing to stressors that seem perfectly matched to my weaknesses.
I don’t know what the Prodigal’s household was like. (Yes, it’s a parable, so there’s no real background, but work with me here.) Maybe he was pampered. Maybe he got away with everything. His big brother probably hated him from the start. And since nothing was ever good enough for the Prodigal, the second he passed puberty a hedonistic frenzy was inevitable.
The Coleman household for me, the youngest of four children, was full of love, but like so many families of my generation, we panicked at any rocking of the boat. Many people my age know exactly what I’m talking about, and whole disciplines and vocabularies have evolved to explicate and heal family systems and all the frazzled, wounded boomers they’ve produced.
Don’t rock the boat: the colloquial mantra of 2225 Wagner Avenue. Of course, I didn’t have the maturity to realize it at the time, but being outwardly upset or angry was not acceptable. When it happened, everyone’s guts turned to water. A top priority, then, wasn’t to be happy and well-adjusted (who knew what that meant back then?). Just let the waters be calm! As long as we were acting okay, then everything was okay. Yeah, sure.
I can’t speak for my siblings, but this fallacy has followed me into adulthood and climbed the walls of my psyche like ivy. Over the last thirty years, this plant has been ferocious. Whereas the Prodigal got lost in harlots, booze, and hunger, I’ve found myself lost dozens of times over the years when people don’t act okay. Nothing different than back home. When someone isn’t being normal, then do something to get ‘em normal again! Don’t fix the problem, mind you, but get ‘em normal. (Let me state, again, my home when I was growing up had much to praise. Everyday wasn’t a dysentery epidemic. And on a different subject, I’ll also toss out, if you’re going to get lost in something bad, reckless sex and drunkenness might be more fun than crippling anxiety and paralysis, but I can only speculate here.)
So the Prodigal “comes to himself” standing in a field with pigs and staring longingly at what one blogger says are carob pods. Hunger has granted him an epiphany: “What in God’s name are you doing? Go back to yourself. Whatever is good and wise within you, return to that. Now!” I envision him taking those first steps back toward himself. The parable teaches that the young man is going back to his father (God), but I choose to hang onto those words, “when he came to himself,” and let God and the son marry. The long walk toward God is the walk toward himself.
A few twilights ago at 4:10 a.m., my walk began, not away from squandering inherited wealth, but from squandering myself. I awoke content. For the most part, this isn’t how things have been going over the last couple of years. I’ve been feeling the crack, sting, and ache of ivy digging into my brick and mortar. So what do you do when you’ve been hurting lately, and contentment shows up a couple hours before the alarm goes off?
Pee. That was my first decision. My second was to prop myself up in bed next to sleeping Kathy and pray. And breathe. And enjoy. Then, like the Prodigal, I came to myself. I have no clue why. All I know is that I somehow saw clearly the fallacy I’ve been living under for far too long. Weakened by the pull and weight of my personal ivy, I’ve gotten lost. Prayer, running, and dietary sanity—outward signs of the inner John—have shrunk or ceased altogether. I used to get up before dawn to pray and write, then jump into company time. Most days included four or five miles on the track. Meals weren’t perfect, but they were generally mindful.
Well, in recent months you can forget all that shit. So why, as I sat straight up with the cool, dark air touching my arms, did I come to myself? “What in God’s name are you doing? Go back to yourself. Whatever is good and wise within you, return to that. Now!”
I guess the timing of my Prodigal moment doesn’t matter. Nor do I need a reason that I felt welcomed and embraced, as if I had left myself for a distant country and returned. An embrace. My body received it, as when your chest meets another chest and you rest your cheek on a beloved shoulder and know you’re not lost anymore.
In the parable, the father sees his son in the distance and runs out to hug and kiss him. Then they finish the walk home. I got hugged and kissed, too. Maybe it didn’t come from God, but it sure seemed like a greater “Welcome home, son!” than I could have given myself.
This home isn’t on Wagner Avenue or Shenley Drive. It’s the home I believe we all have to find for ourselves over and over again. For me, it’s about “coming to myself”: held close by One who rejoices that I’m found, sitting next to my sleeping wife, putting my soul’s arms around all those I love, and believing that Mystery has ways of making weak brick and mortar strong again.