My drink finished, I notice the cool air on my arms and the silence, which is congested with circumstance, with the way things are, with roundabouts, blossoms and souls getting by on what they’ve got. That’s what we all do, I suppose. Continue reading
Oniontown Pastoral: A Time in Germany
When wife Kathy and I traveled to Berlin in March, my old wristwatch went with us. This was risky, as the second hand had broken free from its post. My digital Timex Ironman would have been the logical choice, but there was something poetic about a second hand napping as if in a hammock slung between 5 and 7. Anyway, it served faithfully for decades and deserved one cushy foreign assignment before its retirement.
Kathy and I had been in the land of oompah bands and lederhosen—we encountered neither—for less than a week when I determined that Deutschland was more foreign to my watch than to me, the greatest distance between Germany and Pennsylvania being Central European Time’s five-hour lead on Eastern Standard Time. The human condition “auf Deutsch” and “in English” is about the same.
Of course, appearances insist otherwise. For example, scads of Berliners dress in solid black: fedoras, scarves, leather jackets, dungarees and boots, all black. A citizen strolling down Oniontown Road so attired would draw glances, while in the German capital you could go a whole afternoon without seeing America’s color “du jour,” pink.
And holy skinny cow! The percentage of Germans who look undernourished roughly corresponds to Americans like me who ought to give their forks a rest.
Other trifles jump out. Unsweetened iced tea, my go-to beverage, is practically anathema. Pharmacies sell medicine, never cosmetics and school supplies.
The most curious difference between the Federal Republic of Germany and the United States of America may be each country’s cemeteries. In 2010 Stars and Stripes reported what our friend and host Claudia explained to us: “Under German law families lease grave sites for a specific period of time, usually 15 to 30 years. And, if a family is unable or unavailable to renew the lease, the grave’s contents are removed and the grave site reverts to state ownership and may be reused.”
Tombstones over a century old are rare—which was disappointing news. Kathy and I wanted to visit the grave of Johann Specht, my great-great-great-great grandfather who was born in 1767, but contented ourselves with following narrow roads to Gross Köthel, the village where he abided his 66 years. We also checked out Schröedershof, birthplace of my great-great-great grandmother Magdalena Peters Specht in 1816. She immigrated to the U.S. and died in North East, Pennsylvania, about 15 minutes from my front stoop.
Soon I’ll look for Magdalena’s resting place, but I won’t be wearing my old watch. The minute hand has now fallen off, which doesn’t count for much when you’re musing about ancestors, but here in the present, a quarter of an hour either way matters.
I’ve decided to hang the languishing timepiece on the wall beside my desk as a reminder of Germany.
Standing in the places my great-greats called home and wondering at crumbling stone buildings that they might have known, I didn’t cry or even get choked up. Still, these villages felt vaguely familiar, as if presences who have always loved me patted my hand, like my mother did when I was worried.
There would be no passing my fingers over Johann’s name carved in stone, but I still hoped to touch the font in which my great-great-great grandfather, also Johann, was baptized in 1811. No such luck. The church was locked, and worship was being held down the cobblestone street in an auxiliary building. Peeking in the window, Claudia, Kathy and I saw the pastor in a black suit preaching to a handful of elderly congregants. (America isn’t the only country with empty pews.)
You might think our trip was a letdown, but Kathy and I loved Germany and most of all commiserating with Claudia. The thing is, joy and disappointment travel hand in hand.
We saw the villages, but not the graves. We saw the church, but not the font. We saw the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Martin and Katie Luther’s home and other sites, but dragged along with us tickling coughs that persist to this very moment.
The world is thus, here and abroad. I refuse to let perfect be the enemy of wonderful. Yesterday and today are at once poetic and broken, like my old watch, now able to remind me only that hours are passing away.
It’s still right twice a day, but the third hand must eventually lose its grip. When it does I’ll pray to visit Johann and Magdalena in glory and hope that great-great-great-great grandchildren searching for my grave will feel me pat them on the hand.
Gladness and the Irish Jackdaw
The last thing I expected to enjoy two years ago when I started serving as St. John’s Lutheran Church’s part-time pastor was my seventy-mile commute from Erie to Oniontown, Pennsylvania.
I was smitten immediately. The scenery calms me down, and the livestock munching their breakfast as I speed by now seem like distant relatives. One blonde horse on Route 19 is on my mind so often that I may request a meeting. I call him Onslow. What would the farmer say when I knock and ask, “Do you mind if I make your horse’s acquaintance”? Hopefully he suffers fools well.
I’m not altogether surprised to discover that my time behind the wheel is joyful. Experience has proven that gladness finds me and not the other way around. Beauty, wisdom and bliss don’t yield to force or expectation. They obey their own fancies.
I received such lessons anew in October when Kathy and I traveled to Ireland, a country aptly called the “Emerald Isle.” Everywhere you look, intoxicating greens and ancient grays cast a reverent spell.
Leave it to me, though, to be delighted most by chance human encounters. One beer into my first pub visit, a lean, leathery-faced old stranger took a look at my gut, leaned in close and asked, “When’s the last time you saw your own feet, mate?” Tipsy Irishmen say the darndest things.
Gladness also showed up in the commonplace, especially along the island’s narrow, harrowing roads. My brother Ed drove, his wife Debby navigated, and Kathy and I sat in the back seat and let our eyes wander.
I never tired of watching livestock grazing in fields framed by stone walls. It was as if a painter arranged the cows for the greatest artistic affect.
“Why,” I later asked St. John’s friend and cow-whisperer Dave, “do Irish cows stand together and strike the same gracious pose while ours are scattered hither and yon?”
“That’s because,” Dave shot back, “American cows are free spirits.” Well played!
Almost as numerous as cows, the sheep had an attitude, and with good reason. I would smirk, too, if somebody had branded my wool with fluorescent spray paint. One looked me right in the eyes. “Well,” his expression said, “are we going to stare at each other or go lift a Guinness?”
My keenest, most unlikely pleasure was granted by a crow, or so I assumed. Birder friend Mary saw a photograph I had posted on ANappersCompanion.com weeks later and informed me that my bird was a Jackdaw.
So it was “Jack”—or “Jackie,” I don’t know—who met me outside a pub in Blarney. As I sipped Cabernet Sauvignon, this corvid had me under surveillance. Townsfolk and tourists were seated all around, but Jack was most enamored of me.
The feeling was mutual. He landed one table over and hopped about. What was he up to?
Since my glass was empty, I got a refill for me and a scone for Jack. After kissing Blarney’s famous stone and wandering the castle’s gardens, I wasn’t hungry myself, but content to rest, gladden my heart and treat a fellow planetary citizen to lunch.
I set a few chunks of scone on Jack’s table and waited for him to return. He took my offerings one by one, flew away, then came back for more.
Hoping he would join me, I put pieces on my table. He came and went, several times staking me out from the roof of Blarney Woolen Mills. Alas, the closest he got was the chair opposite me.
When I returned from getting a last refill, Jack and his friends had cleaned up the portions I’d left behind. Before long I ripped up the sad remnants and headed back to the hotel for a siesta.
Walking along, I wondered why I had spent the better part of an afternoon in the company of an understandably skittish bird. (Lord knows why such conundrums interest me.)
My only intention was to call Jack “brother,” but how could he (or she) have known? Two creatures crossing paths, that’s what we were. Yes, I know Jack was all about the scone, but I’m eccentric enough to believe we connected in a mysterious, elemental way.
The possibility alone makes me glad. When humans, corvids, cows and sheep of good will trust each other, a silent language is spoken. Its name is Hope.
A Neighbor Shows Me How to Figure Out Ireland
The site was comical. On my way to St. John’s Lutheran Church recently, I drove past a neighbor who was poking leaves with a litter stick and sliding them into a big white bucket. The odd part was, there weren’t enough leaves to rake, maybe a hundred scattered over his yard.
“Why bother?” I thought. On the other hand, what a senior citizen does on a windy morning is none of my business.
We exchanged glances, me offering a smile, he raising his eyebrows and chomping on the last inch of a stogie.
I knew instantly that the man was trying to advise me. But about what? Cigar smoking wouldn’t suit my temperamental lungs, and gnawing on a cheroot would result in wife Kathy hesitating to kiss me.
No, the counsel had to do with leaves. A few days went by before I understood that my neighbor wanted to help me figure out Ireland.
Since Kathy and I returned from the Emerald Isle a couple weeks ago, my spirit has been overflowing. Kind brother Ed and his wife Debby drove us all over southern Ireland to sites both popular and inconspicuous. I gave the Blarney stone a peck, communed with two cows at the Cliffs of Moher, knelt in prayer at St. Colman’s Cathedral, and at St. Michan’s Church let my hands hover over the keyboard Handel used to compose his “Messiah.”
Then there was the countryside, where cattle and sheep grazed within stone walls, and church and castle ruins gave the land gray benedictions, as they have for centuries.
You can’t roam Ireland without feeling the inexorable passing of time. I’m home at the moment on an afternoon with intermittent drizzle—very Irish weather—but even now time’s gentle, but calloused, hands hold my face.
Part of me is in Erie, but part remains at Kilmainham Gaol, where architects of the 1916 Easter Rising awaited the firing squad. Joseph Plunkett, who married Grace Gifford in the prison chapel hours before his execution, was not yet thirty. After the ceremony in his cell, the bride and groom were permitted to spend ten awkward minutes together in the presence of guards. According to the tour guide, they sat quietly.
Another part of me reverences miles of stone walls. The only way to farm the island’s fields was to pry the limestone rocks out and pile them into long lines. During the Potato Famine (1845-1849), starving men were fed in exchange for clearing land and building walls that led nowhere. “Famine walls,” they were called. If grassy pastures were poetry, Ireland would be sonnets, beautiful but melancholy.
My great-great grandfather, Timothy Coleman, most likely sailed from County Cork to America before the historic blight that turned the country’s main food source to smelly mush. A million to starved to death and about as many emigrated elsewhere. Ireland’s population has never recovered the loss.
A dozen times each day, as I brushed ancient cathedrals with fingertips and tried to read eroded gravestones, Timothy’s absence haunted me. He was a farm laborer. I dreamt his face and imagined his voice.
Debby, who has dug into the Coleman family history, records the following about Timothy’s son, Edward: “[He] moved his family 31 times. . . .The family lived on mashed potatoes, gravy and hamburg.”
Part of me grieves for these ancestors I’ve never met and wonders with unfeigned love about their days and decades, their toils and joys.
Ireland rests in my spirit like the fallen leaves I’m studying, just a scattering this fall in Erie, Pennsylvania. I can only gather them one at a time, like my Oniontown neighbor did.
Timothy is but one leaf. Another is his wife Helen Salsman, who bore seven children. Someday Kathy and I will drive to Norwich, New York, and pay respects at her grave (1836-1918). We don’t know where Timothy is buried, which pains me a little.
Leaf by stunning leaf I’ll sort through Ireland, maybe figure out why I was so moved by the walls and ruins, cows and sheep, friendly folks and all those starving spirits who built walls that now look like random adornment, innocent alleluias stretching toward the horizon.
If you see me these days with my eyes closed, I’ll be imagining Timothy Coleman and remembering the island he left behind. And if you catch me chewing on a stogie, pray that Kathy will kiss me anyway.
Off and on over the years, I’ve thought travel writing would be a great gig: get expenses covered, see what’s on everybody’s bucket list, flirt with unfamiliar cuisine, generally live it up, and report on the whole experience.
As I sip an iced Americano at Starbucks, the truth is finally setting in that I wouldn’t make a good travel writer. First, I dislike flying. Xanax keeps my anxiety almost tolerable, but the only time I’m at ease on a plane is when I’m picking up my bags to disembark.
Second, adventure isn’t really my thing. Ah, to be a man’s man, to dig white-water rafting and wear t-shirts saying something like, “I kicked the OMG Rapids in the ass!” To own sinewy, tan, muscular arms sticking out from short sleeves, my whole image punctuated by a forearm tattoo that roars, “Testosterone!” Alas. Enjoying the burble of my immersion blender in an Alfredo sauce while kibitzing with friends, lifting a bit of wine, that’s my speed.
And third, the sites that stir this homebody’s heart don’t have much to do with popular vistas. For the most part, the views that make me say “ooh, ahh, wow” don’t depend on geography. The point: what follows is the least useful travel essay ever.
Wife Kathy and I are bunking at generous friends Karl and Jennifer’s place in Citrus Heights, a suburb of Sacramento. Their daughter Claire, coming up on three, is the blessed home’s center of gravity. After a couple of days at their place, we left for four days in San Francisco, a look at the ocean, a stroll through the redwoods, and now have returned to our friends’ base camp. Tomorrow we’ll fly home to Erie, Pennsylvania. This trip, funded mostly by a travel voucher we won at a fundraising Vegas night, has been more than worth our time and outlay of cash.
No, we didn’t ride a trolley car or catch the ferry to Alcatraz, but we took in our fill of destinations. I have to confess, though, that none of them grabbed me by the lapels as much as several inconspicuous moments did–nonchalant and passing as a breeze.
Moment: After a long last day in San Francisco, Kathy and I landed at a hotel in Santa Rosa. We had biked the Golden Gate Bridge and walked the city’s famous hills, so we were glad to flop for a while. As I dozed, Kathy talked to our son Micah, who was back home tending dog, cats, and a chrysalis nearly ready to unfold and make for Mexico. What Kathy said was obvious, but I could hear only Micah’s voice, not his words. But that was enough. Surrounded by West Coast walls, I took in a distinctive sound of home: my boy’s enthusiasm in telling a story, some humor or absurdity of his day. I wasn’t sad, but filled with gratitude that I look forward to being home, to seeing all of our beloved faces in one space.
Moment: Karl and Jennifer took us horseback riding near Lake Tahoe, followed by chili and a walk around town and down by the water. When we returned to Citrus Heights, I was fit for red Zinfandel, a couch, and nothing else. But young Claire was ten kinds of psyched to have us back–spinning, sprinting, squealing psyched. Through my fog of fatigue I heard Kathy say, “Do you want to read, Claire?” I couldn’t muster the energy to burp, but my wife was game. In the middle of one book, Claire looked at Kathy with a grateful smile, full of peace and wonder. The big bridge is cool, but that kid’s face, shining and sacred, is eternal.
Moment: Kathy made it clear weeks ago that come what may on this vacation, she was going to put her feet in the Pacific. We wove along Route 1, found steps to the beach, and headed for the water. Cold. She was excited and giggly. Our stop was no more than fifteen minutes. My blessing came when I was facing away from the ocean with my eyes closed–kiss of the long-married, ahh of the soul’s landscape.
Moment: Anybody who loves me knows that I’m often struggling, even when there’s no particular stressor at hand. Joyful as recent days have been, waves of worry and sadness have also rolled over me. Always something, I guess. In response to particularly rough water yesterday, I took in a long draught of prayer and meditation, which I finished off with a contemplative walk in Karl and Jennifer’s backyard. For twenty minutes I looked closely and stopped often: lemon trees, herb garden, ripening tomatoes, trumpet vine, flowers with names I don’t know. Breathing, breathing. The place in my chest that fills up when I kiss Kathy’s graying hair is also a bilge for angst.
But the walk was healing, the air, the sage and oregano scent on my fingers. As I stood still behind a circle of flowers, a hummingbird hovered at my feet, inches away. It sipped nectar, then flew off to a pine branch. “You can come back,” I said. Apparently, I’m not a bird whisperer, but one visit, so kind and close, was plenty.
A friendly hummingbird, a kiss, a sweet young face: not content that makes readers restless for new journeys. With middle-age stretching out in front of me, my modest travels aren’t about a blood rush or a stunning expanse. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been on the lookout for peace. Always peace. The peace that passes all understanding.
All other attractions are incidental. For good or ill, I’m always moving toward spiritual destinations.
I consider it an outrage that I woke yesterday morning with the well-intended but terrible song “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” playing in my head. Who sang that? Was it Placido Domingo and John Denver? No. That was another sweet one, “Perhaps Love,” or as Placido sang it, “Puh-da-hahps Love.” Was it Willie Nelson and Domingo? Close. Willie Nelson and Julio Iglesias!
I wish the tune would go away, but I’m grateful for the thought it coaxed out of me. In their hit, Willie and Julio take on the character of itinerant Don Juans, loving a girl at every stop on tour—oh, brother! Wherever they go, they love. I, on the other hand, am an itinerant contemplative, praying and napping (my two requirements for contemplation, anyway) wherever I go. All I need is a decent spot to sit or recline.
Years ago most midday rest came at home, but now the pastor’s study regularly hosts blessed oblivion, as does the car if I’m faced with a long wait. And, of course, travel has never prevented napping. I’ve taken siestas in cars and on buses, trains, and ships, but never on a plane–too nervous. I’ve probably napped in over half of the fifty states. In the next few years I hope to nap in Europe.
And prayer: I’m apt to pray wherever I can sit down.
A couple of places you’d think would be good for contemplation actually don’t work very well.
I don’t often need to nap in public, but I’m always praying out in the open. Some people get mad about their doctor being behind schedule, but unless I’ve got somewhere else to be, I close my eyes, sit still, and breathe. I’ve prayed in a probation office waiting room a few times and even managed it in the natter of the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. In a coffee shop? Yes. In a department store while wife Kathy tries on clothes? Sure. In a library? Absolutely. I used to feel self-conscious when folks passed by, but what for? I don’t mind being known as the pudgy guy with owl glasses who sits around with his eyes closed.
When this long, cold spring on the shore of Lake Erie breaks, I’ll take the show outside, too: the front porch, back patio, and Presque Isle State Park are all in the running. In fact, if I had more time today, I’d find some shade at Presque Isle and chase down an hour’s siesta with half-an-hour’s prayer. It’s sunny and 77 degrees. The rest of this week won’t be so nice, but before long I’ll have more places to nap and pray than I know what to do with. For now I’ll settle for an hour in my own bed–that is, if I can shut out these playboys singing “to all the girls [they] once caressed.” “And may [they] say [they’ve] held the best.” Ugh!
This past Thursday, the last full day of my retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, was extravagant and challenging. As usual, I wrote in the morning at the Java Joint in Bardstown, then returned to the abbey for lunch. I had it in mind to ask the guest master if I could enter the cloistered area of the monastery to look at the graves of those who died long ago, some of whom I feel like I knew: Dom Frederic Dunne, Merton’s first abbot, and his predecessor Edmond Obrecht, and the abbots before them. I’ve read so much about them it’s as if they’re friends.
At 1:00 I caught the guest master outside his office. “Do you have a minute?” I said. “I have a question?”
His body language said, “Oh, bother,” but he said, “Sure, come in.”
I said, “It’s a simple question, and I’ll understand if the answer is no.”
“That’s quite a forecast,” he said. “Okay, no.” He laughed. Before I could get my question out, he followed up: “Okay, maybe.” Big smile.
A little awkward. “Maybe’s a start,” I said. “I was wondering if I could look at the monks’ graves in the enclosure after Compline tonight?” The Great Silence begins after Compline, when the brothers go to bed. I figured there’d be no chance of disturbing anybody.
Before my words were out he was shaking his head: “No.”
“Okay,” I said, nodding and keeping my word that no was all right.
“Yeah, that was all,” I said.
“Oh,” he said. “That was easy.”
“Yeah. Thanks.” I walked down the hall and climbed the stairs to my room. Of course, I was crushed—temporarily at least.
When I reached my room, it was my normal prayer time, so I began to do what I always do, which was try to make myself peaceful before I’m finished being hurt and pissed. So I let myself have some time to be put out. Eventually, as so often happens with shamatha—calm abiding—in the Sacred Presence, truth arrived. My reaction wasn’t about the kind, but honest, guest master, but about me.
No doesn’t work for me on any level. I’m terrible about saying no to myself (this is partially why I’m a diabetic), and I agonize about saying no to others. When somebody says no to me, suddenly I’m an adolescent with a quivering lip. Why? Long story, birth family, blah, blah, blah.
Anyway, during those forty-five minutes I sat in silent prayer after what felt like a rebuke, I understood that the guest master had actually given me a gift.
Often in this life, the answer is no. No, no, no! There’s no dressing it up, no making it palatable or painless. It doesn’t matter that the question is reasonable. And this isn’t about the old saying that “God answers all prayer, but sometimes the answer is no.” None of that business of cleaning no up and making it a buddy.
Central to being mature and healthy for me is the ability to say and hear the fullness of no. I’m not there yet, not even close. No kidding, I’m glad now that I heard no unvarnished. Later at Vespers I saw the guest master and thought to myself, “I wish I were more like him.” Thank you, brother!
After forty-five minutes of prayer, my gut relaxed, and I felt in my body what I knew in my head: I’d received a severe blessing. That’s how growth happens.
The extravagance I mentioned came in the presence of Brother John, who shared pizza and Chimay Trappist Ale with me in the Norton Speaking Room. Thursday was the Ascension of Our Lord, an observance for Christians and an occasion for monastic partying. On festival days, the brothers crack excellent beer and eat something unusually delicious for dinner. For Brother John, the celebration consisted of two beers and two pieces of pizza. I consumed the same, but under normal circumstances, I’d consider such a meal dainty. John has his hungry ghosts (stay tuned for a future post on these ravenous spirits) under control; me, not so much.
My Gethsemani retreat was crowded with blessings. I enjoyed free-range siestas, long hours of prayer, plenty of reading and writing at the desk by the window, and especially those talking dinners with Brother John. I even appreciated remembering my father’s death and hearing the guest master’s no.
I wish my most important lessons didn’t feel like a punch to the sternum at first, but that’s how learning seems to happen for me. Some foolishness needs to get expelled so there’s room for health and insight.
It’s Sunday afternoon now, back home in Erie, Pennsylvania. For Mother’s Day the Coleman family will go out for all-you-can-eat shrimp, but first I feel a nap coming on. Being away is great, but getting back home is better still.