Oniontown Pastoral: Going Visiting My career in visitation began over 50 years ago with Mrs. Gillespie, who lived across the backyard. Johnny’s perch was a red metal step stool beside the kitchen counter. His usual was strawberry Nesquik. Who knows, … Continue reading
Oniontown Pastoral: As If You Can Kill Time
If you saw me walking down the street, you wouldn’t say, “Now there’s a guy who values time and uses it wisely.” No, you’d say, “Gosh, he’s pudgy and rumpled. I’ll bet he’s lazy.”
A gumshoe hired to investigate me would report that I’m “bone idle” and “lackadaisical,” but he would be wrong.I prefer “unconventional.” One of my favorite lines of poetry comes from Andrew Marvel: “But at my back I always hear time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” And two expressions that annoy me are “killing time” and “wasting time.” Henry David Thoreau was right when he mused, “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.”
Frittered hours can never be recovered, but I must add that one highly organized, go-getter’s waste is this Lutheran pastor’s treasure.
Waiting in a grocery store line, for example, can be a respite if I keep my billfold full of compassion. The customer fiddling with change or rummaging for a coupon is stumbling through life just like I am. Giving the cashier the skunk eye and snorting loudly: now that’s wasting time.
Years ago I put checkout time to use by monitoring tabloids. Rather than glower at my provisions stranded on the conveyor belt, I got updates on Elizabeth Taylor’s marriage to a Martian and the cellulite epidemic among aging actors and actresses. These days I close my eyes, take in a deep breath and give thanks for food, clothing, shelter and love.
Any still, mindful moment is never an assault on time, nor for that matter is a nap. I could offer here a brigade of scientific support for what history’s most prolific napper, Winston Churchill, described as “the refreshment of blessed oblivion.”
The stigma associated with napping persists, but I remain defiant. In my experience, much of what gives each day its shine takes place in inconspicuous pockets of time. My thrice-weekly commute to and from Oniontown is a perfect example. Folks ask how I like the drive and are occasionally flummoxed to hear me rhapsodize about it.
You readers of A Napper’s Companion may suspect me of blowing sunshine, but I’m on the level. Last Thursday provides a good case study.
En route to St. John’s Lutheran Church I had just finished an audiobook biography of President Lyndon Johnson and was still recovering from the revelation that he fancied interrupting meetings with male staffers to go skinny-dipping in the White House pool—and cajoled them into joining him. No funny business, only matters of state being discussed by awkward faces bobbing up and down in the water. (I’m not making this up, and, sorry, there’s no way you can un-know this piece of historical trivia.)
As the scenery on I-79 slipped by, I took my mind off of unfortunate LBJ visuals by listening to a podcast (basically a radio program over the Internet) called Milk Street, which is about gourmet cooking.
Far from killing time, I rescued it by listening as legendary foodie Christopher Kimball preached the glory of pomegranate molasses drizzled over crispy baked chicken and the foresight of freezing pots of intensely darkened roux for convenient and flavorful sauce thickening.
“But, John,” you’re wondering, “do you really need to consume more crispy chicken and gravy?”
The same goes for wandering the expansive antique shop in Sheakleyville, where I stopped on my way to Oniontown not last Thursday but a couple of weeks ago. It feels like prayer to behold objects once commonplace but now replaced by the “new and improved”—alarm clocks that wind up, communicate with hands and measure time with ticks and tocks; blue and white Currier and Ives plates adorned with horse drawn wagons taking bundled up families home for Christmas.
Am I unconventional? So be it. The old suitcase I bought from the friendly proprietor and polished back to life has given me inexplicable pleasure. It was a treasure hiding in a pocket of time.
Whether at church in Oniontown or at home in Erie or shuttling in between, I try to honor each second by harvesting the wonder around me.
Do you understand? Zooming down Route 19 without saying hello to dirty blonde horse Onslow is an injury to eternity. Likewise, noticing son Micah bending down right now in the dining room to kiss our foxhound Sherlock Holmes right between the eyes is a prayer: “Thank you, God, for this present hour.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Letter to a Kindred Spirit, Off to College
Sorry for starting this sendoff with a cliché, but “time is flying” lately. Same with life, especially when fifty sneaks up on sixty. That’s me. Every once in a while I want to grab a day by the scruff to keep it from running away. That’s right now.
In a few weeks you’ll be off to Pittsburgh’s Chatham University, two hours south on I-79 from home in Erie. You’ll take leave, knowing that your tribe can and will hop behind the wheel as soon as you call and show up before tears of homesickness have time to dry.
You and I both know you’ll do some crying, right? I’m not trying to be a rain cloud here. You have—in case you haven’t noticed—family and friends who swoon over you with love and support. We’ve watched you overcome serious illnesses, distinguish yourself academically, hang onto your sweet self and take a full step into adulthood. Along the way, disappointment and grief have gotten up in your face, but you’ve stood your ground. Yes, ma’am, you’ve made us proud.
And you, on your part, hold a love for us that’s overwhelming at times, isn’t it? You find comfort in having family and friends in your house, even if you’re not in the same room. If we leave without saying goodbye, you’re a bit hurt. When Kathy, Micah and I moved from the house next door, you got choked up talking about it for months.
Such wondrous love as yours comes with a price. This is actually my reason for writing to you, other than to say what you already know: “I love you and am sad that for most of the year, you won’t be across town.” If only time would cooperate when we try to hold it still. If only those dear to us never disappeared over the horizon. You and I know better, right?
We’ll see each other often enough, but the move to college can be decisive. On August 22, 2018, you’re off to the Steel City. Four years later, who knows where circumstance and intuition will call you? Will we be able to reach you in a day’s drive? I guess we’ll all find out together.
Anyway, you’re smarter than I am, and don’t bother arguing with me on this point. There’s hardly anything I can say that you haven’t learned or already suspect. Studying and self-discipline have been folded up in your suitcase for many grades now. Those lumps from childhood have taught you not to get knocked out by upsets that might have your classmates on the ropes. And romance? Sure, you might get stung, but brains aren’t your only gift. You’ve got a strong, insightful heart. You’ll outmaneuver each Don Juan.
You’ll also make friends and crush exams and write amazing papers, no doubt in my mind. But I do have a vision of a moment that might come out of nowhere and leave you shaken.
You’ve just walked into your dorm room. Outside it’s dusk, inside the light is thin. The heavy knapsack slips from your shoulder onto your study desk. Strange, nobody is around, not your roommate, not other girls coming and going. The air is heavy and quiet. You check your smartphone. No text messages, no missed calls. It’s been a crummy day. A good friend has been acting like a jerk, for no reason you can think of. Or a guy you kind of like clearly isn’t interested in you (the fool). Or maybe you’ve just been out of sorts.
Whatever the case, it’s only you, your room, Chatham University and Pittsburgh. That’s it. Not even a test to study for. Being alone is normally OK with you. But now, standing in the gray silence, you want to be in Erie, bellied up to the kitchen counter and snacking on leftover Alfredo I sent home with you and telling your brother or sister to cut it out and hearing your mother call you “Abber Dabbers.”
You would give anything, when darkness comes, to lie down in your attic bedroom and stare at the familiar moonlight and shadows on your walls. More affection than you could ever need would be one flight of stairs away.
But you’re alone at school, listening to yourself sigh.
Trust me, Abbey, I’m not out to depress you. This letter is actually a gift to slip into a moving box and read again when you forget that you’re not only mighty, but mindful—which is why I’ve dared to send you off to college with this sad portrait.
4:30 p.m. on a December day like the one I’ve described will probably visit you. We’re “kindred spirits”—another cliché, sorry. The mere nuance of life can make us tear up or shove our faces into the dirt. So I know that your solitary dorm room on an overcast afternoon might fill your chest with a longing more insistent than you had thought possible.
If so, you listen to your forever neighbor Flanders*. This may be the only advice I have to offer you.
When you feel so alone that you want to climb out of your skin, stand still and keep listening to yourself breathe. Don’t run. Don’t busy yourself. In fact, do more than stand still. Lean into the loneliness. Taste it. Hold it gently by the scruff so it won’t get away. If you cry, cry like a big baby. And know this: When you let loneliness have its way with you for a little while, it will pass eventually without much of a fight.
By the time you feel more yourself, you will have passed an exam beyond book learning. A college freshman doesn’t have to be lonely very much, but when you do, Abbey, you’ll be able to handle it. For sure, call somebody who loves you. Call me, but if there’s no answer, you know what to do.
Being mighty has a summit: Standing alone with yourself and not trying to escape. You’ve got this!
*Flanders is my nickname with Abbey’s family.
My Father, My Son (or Why I Needed Chuck Blaze)
Beyond boilerplate human regard, Chuck Blaze doesn’t matter to me. The only reason I began what I promised myself would be fifteen minutes of investigation was trivial. For the last few years, an old photograph has been wandering my desk’s geography, from drawer to sort pile to, lately, a space all its own near a corner.
A man in a suit sits holding a beer and a smoke. My father, younger than both of my children are now, stands beside him, caught just as beer crosses his lips. I have a name only because my father printed it on the flip side.
A quarter of an hour turned into half a day of research and didn’t reveal what I imagined. Turns out Chuck Blaze was a stranger I had to befriend before understanding why his photograph hasn’t yet ended up in a box somewhere.
Chuck Blaze’s given name was probably Theodore Charles Blazowski, but confirming that would take more time than I have to give. By the time he graduated from high school he at least used the handle Blaze.
“Not spectacular, but steady”: nothing like being damned by faint praise.
I made a trip to the library to find an obituary, which was similarly anticlimactic as well as incomplete. ‘Chuck’ served in WWII, worked thirty-five years at the American Sterilizer Company, and obviously relished fraternal organizations. But between November 22, 1910 and the same day in 1987, a couple facts are omitted. His first marriage to Aili Nokari Blaze—a war bride?—is missing, as are the names of his three brothers, all Blazowskis. By odd coincidence, the aforementioned birth and death date is not only of historical significance (in 1963), but also my parents’ wedding anniversary (in 1947).
I could be wrong here and there, but odds are nobody will object. The payoff is I tracked down the 1929 yearbook for Central High School, which gave me an idea: Could I find my father’s 1944 edition of The Bulldog from Wesleyville High School? No luck. But what about my mother’s Academy yearbook from the same year? Dolores Miller. Bingo.
Just as I recently learned that forsythia was her favorite flowering bush and “In the Garden (He Walks with Me)” was her favorite hymn, I found out in that moment that she liked “Sunday, Monday, or Always.” Gene Paulette was a local bandleader, but I listened to Bing Crosby’s version. Truthfully, eh.
As I looked at Mom’s senior picture, a beautiful, but surreal, truth settled in: that carefree face belonged not to a mother, but a daughter.
I wished to meet this teenage Dolly, to hear her laughter before life had its way with her. She knew much joy, but if only I could prevent her portion of suffering. Her smile, so unburdened, belonged to my very own child, and the longing to preserve it caught in my throat.
An utterly new compassion took hold of me, and I’ve since wondered if such emotional revelations visit when you have lots more miles behind you than ahead. My mother, my daughter.
And, of course, my father, my son. In my dad’s last year, he couldn’t remember whether I was his brother or cousin or son. He asked whether his mother was still alive. Not for decades. He wondered what became of an old friend, Connie Diehl, and after some digging around I could give him an answer he would immediately forget.
Dad never mentioned Chuck Blaze, whose photograph I now have in hand. What’s on the horizon he’s scanning? If I were behind him in that doorway, I’d sling an arm over his shoulder and we’d talk. He had great times, but maybe I could say something to help when life went wrong. The beer would be frosty and delicious.
My God, I could just cry.
On My Mother’s 90th Birthday
March 11, 2016: My mother would have turned ninety today. She died on June 8, 1998, of sepsis, the result of a reattached ileostomy. Our goodbye still feels like a door left ajar. She was unconscious by the time I reached her hospital room, so the best I could do was whisper and pat her bloated, purple hand.
She was gentle and loving. I thanked her for that. And I said she gave motherhood everything. She lost sleep and sweated small stuff. I didn’t use those exact words, but that was the gist.
The only sign that she could hear me was her fat hand lifted a little, then fell. Maybe she didn’t catch every detail, but I hoped that she sensed my attempt to surround her with kindness and affirmation.
The trouble was, Mom’s end was not certain at that point. I held out hope for a turnaround, so my deathbed blessing was a precaution.
But it would have to do. She passed within a couple of days, while I was at seminary in Columbus. By the time I got back to Erie, she was bone and ash in a beige plastic urn. No tender moment with Mom in repose, no soliloquy.
And no private crying. Those came at her funeral service, called forth by a hymn, probably my favorite: “Abide with Me, Fast Falls the Eventide.” I was loud and sloppy. It couldn’t be helped.
But this was almost eighteen years ago—my Lord! Grief has aged along with me, tears giving way to a longing that visits now and then. I don’t just miss Mom, but also myself as her kid, when life wasn’t perfect, but mostly good and glad.
Much as a hymn cracked me open when I was a younger man, music now makes me feel an emptiness in my chest that can only be filled by the past. Give me communion with those who would now be a hundred or more. Let me break bread with the living scattered by the centrifugal force of passing time.
Last week Lawrence Welk—of all musicians!—had me pining. At the family gatherings of my youth, elders wanted big band and bubbles on the television. Enduring Bobby and Cissy and token black tap dancer Arthur Duncan was a tariff imposed on us before we pre-pubescents could watch Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom with Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler and, of course, The Wonderful World of Disney.
My cousins and I regarded the burden as onerous, but now when “It’s The Lawrence Welk Show” belts out from the television and the accordion starts up, my mind and body want to be at Aunt Mart and Uncle Kenny’s house, in the always amiable commotion of generations.
The desire for this slice of the past is physical. I swear, when Welk goes “Ah one and ah two and ah,” my heart stirs. Even Joe Feeney’s nasally tenor makes my eyes smile.
Mom was in that joyful air, in the rise and fall of voices I can’t remember all that well anymore. I miss her. I miss bumping into those decent old souls and getting overheated running around with cousins.
The whole champagne rerun (Public Broadcasting Service) played out as I washed dishes and cooked and let a lovely ache move through me.
Not too many days later Karen and Richard Carpenter played the same trick on me—a PBS fundraiser retrospective. Admitting you like the Carpenters is for some people right up there with digging Barry Manilow. Confession: part of me loves them. Karen Carpenter’s voice puts me in another corner of my past’s attic. Family friends stayed late, played cards, gorged on long-gone Armand’s thin pizzas, and laughed until dizzy. I had just hit double digits, and the scene was so loosey-goosey that I scored a fair amount of beer out of the deal. All the grownups loved and played Carpenter’s albums and 8-track tapes.
Mom, who was built a little like Karen before the anorexia took over, was at the center of my memory’s comforting song. I can still see “We’ve Only Just Begun” in calligraphy at the bottom of our friends’ wedding photograph, their giddy features pinched against the flying rice. Who says “Goodbye to Love” and “Rainy Days and Mondays” aren’t happy songs? Those years weren’t too shabby, nestled in between my parents’ divorce and the ravages of Mom’s arthritis.
Part of my longing is to go back, before I knew how fragile and bruised elderly skin could be, how worry and disappointment can hunch your back, how some dreams end as wisps of smoke.
But that’s not all. I want to dunk my Grandma Coleman’s molasses cookies again, sit on the floor of a room packed with relatives as Tinkerbell blesses the Magic Kingdom with pixie dust and Fowler saves Perkins from a boa constrictor, and watch Mom tease her hair, then set it in curls with Dippity Do and bobby pins.
I wish for Karen Carpenter to sing again. I want to rewind Lawrence Welk’s sign-off and listen back when I couldn’t wait for it to finish.
Good night, good night, until we meet again,
Adios, au revoir, auf wiedersehn till then.
And though it’s always sweet sorrow to part,
You know you’ll always remain in my heart.
Good night, sleep tight, and pleasant dreams to you.
Here’s a wish and a prayer that ev’ry dream comes true.
And now till we meet again,
Adios, au revoir, auf wiedersehn.
I’m not wiping away tears. My hand is drawn to my chest, though, and I’m sighing. Sadness and gratitude sit together. This is the best happy birthday I can say to Mom right now.
Getting out of bed this morning was like lifting an anvil. Both wife Kathy and I lay slack-jawed through alarm after alarm. I’m not sure choosing Bach’s Goldberg Variations as my iPhone wake up call was a good idea. Such a gentle, thoughtful melody, but I now associate the first few measures with the shared human struggle of starting a day.
We tried to hold each other the way some wives and husbands do, with Kathy’s head on my chest and my arm around her. That worked for five seconds, thanks to bursitis in my left shoulder. So, we adapted. I put my arm down, she slung her arm across my belly, and we listened to the morning household. Son Micah’s obnoxious alarm nagged him—he was tired, too. Watson made old-dog dozing huffs and grumbles. Baby Crash, the most beautiful cat I’ve ever seen, played drumrolls by dashing around the hardwood floors.
“How old is Baby now,” I said out of nowhere, “four?”
“Six,” Kathy said.
“Six! How is she six?” I was only off by two years, but still, 1/3 of her life. The passing of time weighed in on my chest like a second anvil.
My God, where are the decades going? Next week I’ll turn fifty-four. How can that be, when I walk tentatively through the world, shaking just like I did trying to summon teenage bravery to ask a girl out on a date? Gray hair sticks out of my shirt collar. So why do I feel the same as I did when Kathy and I were dating, thirty-five years ago? Hot summer day. We were watching television, and I had one long, pathetic hair sprouting from my left nipple.
Innocently, Kathy spoke and acted in the same instant: 1.) “What’s that?” 2.) Reach toward hair. 3.) Grab ahold. 4.) Yank.
I screamed. Carbon dioxide hissed from the pinhole in my areola.
Kathy laughed, hard. “Oh, was that attached?”
I now have hundreds, maybe thousands of chest hairs, but I still remember that first, overachieving pilgrim, its lilt to the left, a jaunty kink 2/3 of the way to top, not a suggestion of gray. My Precious.
I’m still that kid. My God, where is life going?
Mountainous questions are on my mind lately because I’m leaving the folks I’ve served as pastor for the last fourteen years, moving on to a small congregation. There isn’t any dishonor in my departure, but it’s not quite the way I wanted to go. I expect my exit on October 25th will be loving, but probably not celebratory.
Yesterday afternoon I went to an art show in downtown Erie. A couple of friends have work displayed, and I figured abandoning myself in shape, color, texture, whatever would be therapeutic.
When I arrived at the old Boston Store, a spacious building that used to be home of one of Erie’s proudest establishments, my first priority was to find the men’s room. It’s tough to get lost in art when your Kegel is clenched. The show would wait a few minutes.
I walked mindfully past a cluster of radio stations that now squat where women’s shoes or sheets and comforters used to be displayed. When my eyes fixed on the great clock hanging at the center of the place, I remembered that my mother, dead seventeen years now, worked at the Boston Store.
After confirming my suspicion that in all the acreage of the grand department store there was no obvious place for a middle-aged man to pee, I returned to the clock. “I’ll meet you under the clock,” Erie-ites used to say. For a while, a restaurant used that name and location. Now, all that’s left is an expanse of tan tile floor.
I looked up, checked the time, and missed my mother. In my mind she walked under the clock, no hint of arthritis yet, tastefully dressed, mascara and lipstick perfect.
The silence was of a comforting dream. I’m not too proud to admit that when I’m going through changes, trying to keep my footing, I want to be with my mom, to connect with the love that held my head when I puked and endured my adolescent travail.
Could Mom still abide in a great cradle of Eternal Love—the Love I invite each day to take hold of me, still the crazy waters, lift my anvils, and use me for Love’s sake in this wonderful, stressed world? I couldn’t feel her presence, but as I breathed in and out under the clock and received the quiet of deserted space, she seemed to live.
My God, where are we all headed? And how much time is left? The great clock was no help—four clocks, actually, one on each side. Only one was correct. Two others agreed but were wrong, as was another that lagged two hours behind, or rushed ten hours ahead, depending on how you figure.
The art show, when I got there, was as good as any collection can be when a guy is pressed at his equator. My friends’ works were so compelling that I’m looking at them again now, behind closed eyes. (Thanks, Mary and Mike.)
In today’s sky, wisps up high seem fixed, while full white clouds just above me ease to the southwest. Over Lake Erie, a long gray assembly floats in the same direction.
Where has the time gone? I may as well ask, “Where are the clouds going?” Rhetorical questions, sighs of the soul.
I didn’t make it to the church this morning. There’s much to do before I leave, but this week of telling loved ones that I won’t be their pastor for much longer has me feeling like the tender, gentle, awful sentimental Tin Man after Dorothy kisses him goodbye: “Now I know I’ve got a heart ‘cause it’s breaking.”
Always breaking, always healing back up, I suppose. In the end, I’m content to ask questions without earthly answers, breathe them up to the sky and let the wind blow them from sight. I’ve built my life on the promise that clouds, souls, and mysteries find their way to a loving place.
Now, the promise tells me to go home, take a nap, do dishes, and pick up Kathy from work. In other words, the Promise says, “Go, now, and join the day you’re given.”
P. S. A note to blogging friends: For the last couple of months, I’ve been guilty of what I call selfish blogging; that is, posting without reading much. Please forgive me. I’ll try to catch up soon.
Last week while eating lunch at Coffee Culture courtesy of a parishioner’s gift card, I felt them: the twitches of meaningless impulse. Open up the MacBook. Check the iPhone. Write a few notes. Skim the newspaper. These twitches were both mental and physical: adrenaline-fueled, microbursts of habit energy. I saw Ronald Reagan smiling and delivering his famous 1980 debate line to me: “There you go again.”
This is Mindfulness 101! When you eat, eat. When you read, read. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Don’t just do something. Sit there.” I know all this stuff, but even with pray-meditating twenty minutes twice or thrice daily, I constantly forget. Early into my huge Caesar salad and spicy ambush chili, I remembered, “John, you’re allowed to just eat. You don’t have to be doing something else.” As I replay that moment, the image of my late dad pops up, his fussy dementia hands going: fidget, fix, reach, button, smooth, worry. Madness.
Don’t be afraid. This is not a rant, kvetch, or lament. Like everybody else, I’m responsible for the state of my own interior, which is getting some special attention these days. This morning I sip coffee and release my old inventory of anxiety, breath by breath. I’m good—well, getting better, let’s say. By 10:00 a.m. I’ll be at Mount Saint Benedict Monastery, trying to stay ahead of worries in progress.
In the words of the recently departed Joan Rivers, “Can we talk?” Is it just me, or is it quite a chore to remain centered as this new millennium clears its throat? Assemble the following ingredients: middle-class income, spiffy technology, and submission to contemporary attitudes toward time and labor; then, bam, like Emeril Lagasse, add pinches of garden-variety stress and a personal crisis or two. What do you get? You get a guy with an expanding torso, irritated tongue, jerking brain and muscles, and pleading spirit: For God’s sake, relax, will you.
The first thirty or so years of my life weren’t jerky. When I think about growing up and even college and graduate studies, 2014’s brisk march of time and frenzy of labor comes into clear view. For years I’ve had Han Solo’s bad feeling about this. Recently I happened upon an article by Dr. Peter Gray, who put some good words to my concerns. He graduated from high school in 1962, a year after I was born, but his description of childhood sounds a lot like mine:
In the 1950s, when I was a child, we had ample opportunity to play. We had school, but school was not the big deal that it is today. Some people might not remember, but the school year then was five weeks shorter than it is today. The school day was six hours long, but at least in elementary school, two of those hours were outdoors playing. We had half-hour recess in the morning, half-hour recess in the afternoon, a full hour lunch. We could go wherever we wanted during that period. We were never in the classroom more than an hour at a time or for four hours a day. It just wasn’t the big deal, and homework for elementary school children was essentially unheard of. There was some homework for high school students, but much, much less than today. Out of school, we had chores. Some of us had part-time jobs, but for the most part, we were free to play for hours a day after school, all day on weekends, all summer long.
I don’t know about the shorter school year, but Gray nails it for the 60s and 70s. I neither noticed nor appreciated the wide fields of time that opened up after school and in the summer. My single academic stress was trigonometry. Bless his heart, teacher Chet—an old anomaly who went by his first name—gave me a passing D one quarter to save my National Honor Society hide. Beyond that, my turmoil had to do with divorced parents and withering nerves with the ladies. But when my twenty-two-year-old Micah was in school, the whole family was constantly stressed. The homework was oppressive, especially for a kid who didn’t engage well with books and worksheets. I’m out of the loop now, but can’t imagine the expectations have eased much, if at all.
One of my favorite memories is of Micah’s fourth-grade teacher talking to wife Kathy and me about our son’s messy daily planner. “Daily planner?” I thought, “Micah’s follow through with toilet paper is sketchy, and you want him to keep a to do list? You’ve got to be &^%$# kidding me!” Of course, we nodded politely. Twenty-six-year-old daughter Elena faired much better academically, knocking off homework in study hall and devoting her teenage suffering to bi-polar disorder—at least we think that’s what it was. For me, 1988 through 2012 was a long stretch of parental confusion and convulsion peppered generously with joy.
It would be whiney of me to blame academics for Micah’s troubles growing up, but I saw in his school experience seeds that have grown into the view of life that had me jangled over my lunch last week. I should first say that my son had many wonderful, skillful, appropriately affectionate teachers. My only gripe is with a few along the way who seemed to dislike children.
I get the impression that lots of teachers are frustrated by the Weltanschauung that stresses kids out and has adults multi-tasking themselves into hemorrhages. (Check out the excellent reflections of my blogging friend Beachmum for some insights on how some teachers feel.) We’re caught in a powerful current, a way of being that constantly vexes gladness. This way, the delight of pharmaceuticals, is driven by hubris and faulty assumptions.
We humans are overconfident in our knowledge. It’s an attitude thing. How many of us got pudgy twenty years ago because we watched our fat intake and gorged at the carbohydrate trough? One at least. Today, we’re assured that the sophistication and competence of the United States health care system make an Ebola outbreak here highly unlikely. Forgive my dis-ease. This has nothing to do with researchers, doctors, and nurses, who no doubt take their work seriously and have good intentions. But what seem to me to be preliminary findings are regarded as conclusive.
I may be in the minority, but the precaution of requiring people who have worked closely with Ebola patients to lay low for three weeks seems reasonable to me. Zipping Kaci Hickox into a tent was perhaps unwarranted—even though the tent was inside a hospital building, not outside as I foolishly first thought—but asking her to avoid contact with folks for a while is prudent. Given the ferocity of Ebola, the fuss over a twenty-one-day quarantine is surprising. Is that really a burdensome sentence, even if all the evidence suggests that a health care professional isn’t contagious? I suppose if you’re absolutely positive that we know all there is to know about Ebola, then ¾ of a month feels like a year. (More on time later.)
Kaci Hickox could probably use a port-a-potty, not wash her hands, and stick her fingers in thousands of Maine residences’ mouths and not pass along a single case of Ebola. In fact, I’m not worried, but I do harrumph at the prevailing lack of humility, any sense that our knowledge might be incomplete, indignation toward those who maintain skepticism, and willingness to sling lawsuits so quickly. And Hickox’s comment that her treatment was “really inhumane” may be a stretch. Newark’s University Hospital didn’t shove her adrift on an ice flow; they put her in an indoor tent and brought her Kentucky Fried Chicken.
My point with the examples of carbohydrates and Ebola is that once we’ve decided we know something about science, we dig in our heels. According to Peter Gray, what we know about education and child psychology might also be mucking up future adults. In his aforementioned article, he identifies . . .
a “school-ish view of child development” – the view that children learn best everything from adults; that children’s own, self-directed activities with other children are wastes of time. We don’t often say it that way, but that’s the implicit understanding that underlies so much of our policy with regard to children, so childhood has turned from a time of freedom to a time of resume-building.
Gray presents convincing evidence that our adult impulse to micro-manage childhood learning and development (i.e. not letting kids play, make up their own rules, work out their own conflicts, and generally not getting the hell out of the way and leave them be) is burdening a generation. Depression, anxiety, and suicide have been on the rise in recent decades. (Here’s a link to his article, “Kids Today Are More Depressed Than They Were During the Great Depression. Here’s Why” if you want his numbers.) My concern: like Gray, I remember when my habit energy wasn’t jangled and so have a shot at making changes to restore my peace. But what if all you’ve ever known is a relentless impulse to accomplish something and a haunting sense that if you’re playing or resting, then you’re wasting time? Gray argues that there is a crucial, “evolutionary function of play.” Again, follow that link if you want to explore his reasoning.
Our experience of time is irrationally rushed and troubled. Isn’t this really the impulse that drives multi-tasking, texting while driving perhaps being the most hazardous example? On his television show Phil Donahue used to hold the microphone in audience members’ faces and say, “So little time.” Those words knuckle our heads and slap our asses. You need to perform several actions at once because you don’t feel like you have enough time.
I offer one flimsy piece of evidence, a phrase that is regularly spoken by my adult children: real quick. Catch the urgency? “Dad, can I see your laptop real quick?” “Dad, can you hold [grandson] Cole real quick?” My thought is generally, “No.” I want you to use my laptop for as long as you need it. And, damn it, you hand me that baby, it ain’t going to be real quick.
As proof that we can safely slow down, I present Milton Sontheimer of blessed memory. Toward the end of his life, which came about a month ago, congestive heart failure had reduced his pace to a crawl, but Milton always moved as if he had more time than he needed. The walls of his home with now-widowed Mary are crowded with his paintings. For years, he baked Communion bread for our church and wrapped it in foil, using and reusing the same piece until wrinkles rendered it flimsy. Wise Milton: no rush—and no waste.
We assume that because technology exists, we should make full use of it. Many thoughtful people are aware of this observation, but I want to credit the last two sages who have brought it to my attention: Beachmum, whom I’ve already referenced (I read back some ways, Mum, and couldn’t find the citation; I know you wrote it, though), and Dr. Brad Binau, a professor from my days at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, whom I mentioned in a recent post. Smart phones, tablets, notebooks, and laptops exercise centripetal force—literally, almost, considering how often my ear and nose are smashed up against my iPhone.
We peer over our reading glasses at people who are apparently lost, confused, or just making up their minds. I’ve learned to be watchful for what I call periods of discernment both in myself and others. In thirteen years as a parish pastor I’ve sat with scores of pilgrims on their way to new lands of the spirit. They wonder what to tell loved ones who want to know what’s up. I suggest, “Tell them you’re taking some time to figure things out.” These are stretches of months, even years, to honor, not stampede through. A couple days ago I heard the following what-I’m-saying story on The Writer’s Almanac about the poet C. K. Williams:
His two greatest passions in high school were girls and basketball. He was a good basketball player, 6 feet 5 inches, and he was recruited to play in college. But then he wrote a poem for a girl he was trying to impress, and she was actually impressed, and so he decided he should be a poet instead. He dropped out of college to move to Paris because that’s where he thought a poet ought to live. He didn’t write at all while he was there, but he did realize that he didn’t know anything and should probably go back to college. He said: “It was an incredibly important time. Not much happened and yet my life began then. I discovered the limits of loneliness.”
My point, I guess: if I’m not willing to be lost, I might not ever be found.
Endnote: I did make it to Mount Saint Benedict Monastery. (Obviously I wrote much of this post after my retreat.) I won’t bore you with the whole day, other than to pass along two details. 1.) I took a three-hour nap in the afternoon; the twitches of habit energy wear a guy out. And 2.) I noticed while reciting psalms with the sisters that they spoke more quickly than in the past. Their recitation is still spacious, but the gentle silence between verses is now thin. I don’t know why.
Lord, spare the sisters and us all from contemporary adrenaline and grant us mindful, humble impulses.
At my back I always hear time’s winged chariot hurrying near.
“To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell
If you know me personally, prepare to wet yourself with laughter: there’s hardly a moment when I’m not aware of the clock. I was reminded of this a few days ago while deciding whether to buy a copy of the Erie Times-News.
“Come on,” I thought. “When are you going to have time to read the paper today?” And that’s when I caught myself: “Really? You don’t have time for the news? What the hell’s wrong with you?” That was my non-Zen way of saying, “Hmm. You’re a little out of balance these days, old boy.” So to make a point to myself, I bought the paper and snapped a picture of one just like it, one that I haven’t read yet.
“Seriously,” you might be thinking, “you have time to nap, pray, jog, cook, sip wine, not to mention do pastor work and write, but you can’t squeeze in the obituaries and funnies? Have you considered therapy?” Yes, actually. But I do have an explanation. All of the activities I get to have a clear purpose.
- Nap: I sleep one hour less at night and reserve an hour in the afternoon. My experience and the science are conclusive: I work and function much better in the late afternoon and early evening with a siesta under my belt.
- Pray: One hour a day for prayer is medicinal, like insulin and Zoloft.
- Jog: If I run four days a week and am still Mr. Chunky Trunks, imagine me without exercise. I’d need to get a second job just to afford enough talcum powder to keep my thighs from chaffing.
- Cook: Hey, the family has to eat.
- Sip wine: You raise your eyebrows: what’s the clear purpose here? Well, that shows how little you know. Red wine has many health benefits, as does dark chocolate. Honest. Look it up.
- Pastor work: No joking around. I can’t imagine a better bunch of people to work with and serve. I’m constantly grateful that they trust me with a flexible schedule; therefore, I watch the clock and give them a full week’s work for a week’s pay.
- Write: Out of all the activities on this list, the world would probably take the least notice if I didn’t find time to write. Regardless of my abilities, life without writing would amount to that feeling you get in your throat before you cry.
But reading the paper, that has always fallen into a forgiving category of time use—until now. As I get to know some friends who write for the Erie Times-News, what was once a guiltless omission is now selfishness. Not only do my friends’ livelihoods depend on the 285k-plus residents of our region buying and reading the paper, but as a blogger I’m becoming an auxiliary member of the local writing fraternity/sorority. Just as I take seriously keeping up with the work of my fellow WordPress bloggers, I’m now settling into reading the daily paper as a pleasant obligation.
Sadly, my personality defect remains, which you have probably figured out by now: I struggle to relax and have fun. As I mentioned, I understand the need for rest and get it, but I’m way too constipated about the whole business. I’d be much better off learning how to sit on the couch in my boxers, munch Cheetos, and curse as the Cleveland Browns give the game away after cruising for three quarters. Probably won’t happen.
I remember during my seminary studies a professor said that once you hit forty, you aren’t likely to improve more than 10% in any specific area of life. Are you generally nerved up? Don’t count on mellowing out more than 10%. I don’t necessarily believe this number, but I keep it in mind as a reality check, along with the lyrics from Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer”:
Now the years are rolling by me
They are rockin’ evenly
I am older than I once was
And younger than I’ll be and that’s not unusual.
No it isn’t strange
After changes upon changes
We are more or less the same
After changes we are more or less the same.
That same morning I bought the Erie Times-News and wondered about my life balance, I ran across a cluster of yard sales after picking up flea medicine at the veterinarian’s office. I breathed and walked from house to house, picking up a couple treasures and reminding myself that I’ll always be more or less the same, but once in a while I can step outside of my normal and do something for no good reason. The purchases pictured below should prove that I had a little fun.
A closing reality check: I did visit a few yard sales, but was thinking of “A Napper’s Companion” the whole time. So I had some task-oriented fun. Let’s call this progress.