Oniontown Pastoral: The Trouble with Talking Eggs

Oniontown Pastoral: The Trouble with Talking Eggs

Announcement: I’ve drawn my line in the sand. I’m on one side, and technology is on the other.

For the record, I have an iPhone 6, a Samsung Galaxy tablet and a MacBook Air laptop computer. I send text messages and “chat” with tech support to shoot all kinds of troubles. After years of resistance, the Colemans now have cable television. So nobody can say that I’m sour on gadgets or progress.

What tastes foul, though, is technology designed to boss me around. One exception is the navigational feature (“GPS”—Global Positioning System) on my iPhone. A woman’s cheerful voice tells me where and when to turn, thus keeping my eyes on the road and not on scribbled directions. She repeats herself incessantly, but wins points for not being as snarky with me as I am with her.

Driving around Oniontown the other day, I heard on the radio about Google’s plans to extend the GPS from my car all the way to my living room. My inner curmudgeon grimaced.

Welcome to “ambient computing” and the surprisingly affordable “Google Home” computer. This “personal assistant” can recognize all voices in your household and do each individual’s bidding. “Call Joe,” you can say, and your buddy Joe will answer—as opposed to your sister’s boyfriend of the same name. Google Home has no keyboard and resembles an egg. At 5.62” tall, it’s almost cute.

But give it access to your contacts, calendar, favorite websites, etc., and the trouble begins. National Public Radio’s Aarti Shahani described what sounds like a nasally relative moving in and interfering. In “virtual” fashion, Google Home will “follow you and study you and tell you what you need before you even ask.” Shahani promised that my assistant will be “all around [me] all the time.”

In a word, “Whoa!” I treasure my wife Kathy, but don’t want to be around even her “all the time.” After thirty-three years of marriage, my relationship advice is, “Learn how to be silent together and give each other space.”

The smart variety of eggs (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Granted, my message is beige compared to Google Home’s. It can warn you that your flight is late. It can define mysterious terms like “covfefe.” It can bark out the Browns versus Steelers score.

But what could possibly be wrong with getting instant answers? Who would object to eliminating inconvenience? Why not let technology “tell me what I need before I even ask”?

I guess there’s no harm in confirming right away that Cleveland is careening toward another loss, but inconvenience is a great teacher. Human experience would be impoverished without it.

The other day, for example, unbeknownst to my iPhone, Kidds Mill Road was closed. When I took Methodist Road instead, my navigational lady went berserk. To save my sanity and hers, I pulled the plug.

In the end her ignorance proved my blessing. I passed the Jughandle and made a mental note to stop soon for pizza and a beer. Further down Route 18 stood a family of three silver silos. Daddy was a massive wonder of the farming world, dizzying to behold. As usual, amazement appeared on a detour.

And the inconvenient detour’s fraternal twin, chance, is generous beyond measure. Most of what shines in my life has come to pass not by design, but luck. Kathy and I are married due to an impulsive high school classmate’s matchmaking improvisation. Thanks, Denise! Thanks, God!

No, Google Home isn’t for me, nor is Google Lens, available soon. Just point my Samsung Galaxy at flowers and Google Lens will speak their names. Or point it at a restaurant and get reviews.

Software already exists that will translate spoken German into English, thereby saving me the trouble of digging out my college flash cards and exercising my brain.

A route to bother and amazement (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

These marvels aren’t all bad, but as a collection they make me uneasy. If we don’t learn to wait for answers, smile through detours and make up our own minds, where will patience, endurance and wisdom come from in matters of life and death?

Most important, can ambient computing “tell us what we need before we even ask”? Please. What I need makes so little sense that I trust one voice above all others to guide me, and it doesn’t come from an egg.

Advertisements

Oniontown Pastoral: Thoughts of a Horse in the Snow

Oniontown Pastoral: Thoughts of a Horse in the Snow

This past Sunday evening I sat with wife Kathy in the emergency room as the kind professionals there tested her blood and prescribed a legion of pills. “Viral bronchitis” was their diagnosis, but they clearly meant, “Yeah, you caught that nasty thing going around.”

I’m just now getting over the same scourge, which the family acquired from grandson Cole, who brought it home from pre-school.

But who really knows where it came from? A virus bloweth where it listeth, and thou heareth the cough and sniffle thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh or whither it goeth.

My mind has been swirling with questions lately, frivolous and profound. What gives a cough the nerve to linger for weeks? Why do some souls suffer more than others? And what do animals think about snow?

I asked retired cow veterinarian Dave that last question after worship recently: “So, Dave, when I see a horse with snow on its back, should I feel sorry for it?”

The gentle, loving laughter that came from those gathered round was fully expected. This city boy is a willing source of amusement at St. John’s Lutheran Church. (It took six months for “round bale” to sink in. I had to get “rolled bale” and “round hay” out of my system first.)

Dave explained that most cows and horses would choose to be outside, even if you offered them a heated barn.

Karen knows horses and added, “You know, horses can sleep standing up?”

“That’s what I thought,” I said, “but I see so many lying down. Why is that?”

“Because horses are all different,” she said. “Some like to lie down.”

Karen’s husband Ron’s eyes were tearing up, his face pink, which suited me fine, since I love to laugh at myself and watch others join in.

After the fun, though, the germ of my question remained. What started me thinking was a blonde horse I’ve named Onslow. He abides in a fenced-in yard, munching from his private round bale. Another dozen or so horses have run of the place. (I trust that the farmer has good reasons for this arrangement. People who live near Oniontown tend to have wise hearts.)

Onslow, whom I see but a few times per week on my commute, takes up a disproportionate amount of my spiritual space. He was the animal who had snow on his back.

Is it foolish to wonder what a horse is thinking? I can still see him standing there motionless, a white dusting settled where his saddle would be.

Days ago on the way to St. John’s I looked for Onslow in his usual digs. A tarp covered his hay. I felt a twinge of concern. Where was he?

The answer came immediately and, to these city eyes, joyfully. Grazing in the same field with the other horses was my old buddy.

The dear folks at Wagler’s figured I’d be stopping by for my farmers cheese, so they set aside a few slices. God bless them.

When I got to the church, I enjoyed farmers cheese from Wagler’s Camp Perry store and savored Onslow’s freedom.

Since the morning was quiet, I looked out at the pine trees and took stock of how little I know for sure. Maybe I caught my virus from a dirty doorknob. Maybe Onslow didn’t appreciate being moved from his solitude. Maybe napping on his feet as snow covers him is bliss.

Who knows? Certainly not me. But I bet my life that God is mindful of Onslow. Making that wager while chewing farmers cheese, I felt sweet hope settle upon me.

I received it for St. John’s, Oniontown and beyond—the way a child’s open hand welcomes falling snowflakes. The goodbyes we’ve said in the last year, many hard to bear, have left us raw. Hope is our salve.

A penny for your thoughts.

So I’ll keep asking questions, especially the one greeted only with silence this side of glory: “Why?” If I get exposed to a few answers, I might catch wisdom.

Last Sunday I told Dave, “We need to have lunch. You need to tell me more about cows.”

“Oh,” he laughed, “I can tell you all about cows.”

I’ll listen eagerly. Whatever is on their minds, I want to know they’re well. And I want Onslow to be glad.

Napping at Church Camp

Napping at Church Camp

Dear Friends:

The shelter for my naps this week has been the Ark, though nap is too humble a word for what I’ve been up to. Occasionally what Winston Churchill called the blessed oblivion of midday is luxurious. Your body lets you know that something sacred is happening. Muscles are slack, breaths are leisurely and full, the mind is gloriously untroubled.

IMG_0800

Naps of biblical proportions rarely unfurl before me at home. Most often I’m on retreat at a monastery or, as is the case now, at summer church camp with teenagers. My cabin is named after Noah’s eccentric craft, and I lucked into a room by myself.

“You don’t need to get up,” I’ve thought four out of the past five days. “You’ve no place to be. Rest. Just rest.” So I have. Waking slowly after two hours, my soul feels like it has received a massage.

My fellow pastors and I have chatted here and there about naps. Some of us indulge only with guilt. My own second thoughts are years in the rearview mirror, but I understand the reservations. Time is costly, lists are long. Besides, we’ll all get plenty of sleep post-mortem.

Pastor Erik has a Jewish friend who once gave him two syllables of wise instruction on taking a siesta: mitzvah, which is, in the generic words of Google, “a good deed done from religious duty.” Millions the world over can’t take naps, their burdens being onerous, or bombs and bullets firing adrenaline through their veins. Receiving a taste of Shabbat each day does less fortunate brothers and sisters an honor. So nap gratefully. Take the oppressed and weary with you in spirit.

For a decade or so I napped not out of devotion, but necessity. Unable to cope with troubles keenly targeted at my neuroses and vulnerabilities, I slid under the covers each afternoon and disappeared for as long as possible. Siestas were my salvation.

IMG_0822

Path to the Ark

Thank God, the rest awaiting me soon won’t be urgent. The Ark may be silent, or clergy friends might be on the porch, their tales and repartee floating through my open window. I might nod off or not–whatever.

Actually, a couple of times during oblivion, my consciousness has risen to the surface for prayer. Love may be the reason.

Not every kid who attends church camp frolics in the woods, eagerly sings around the fire, and flops into a squeaky bunk and immediately gathers REMs. Each summer a few troubled hearts sulk on the periphery, their eyes tired, far away. I have fifteen summers of them gathered up in my memory.

When the Fourth Commandment comes along, at least one kid’s eyes water up—never fails. “Will God forgive me if I can’t honor my father and mother?” A few years ago I took the liberty of giving a silly-hearted girl a new commandment: “Kiddo, I bet God would be happy if you just loved yourself. How about if you honor yourself for now?” Then I said I would take her as my daughter any day.

Outside the window by my cafeteria table, campers line up to get their medications. Seems like our world practically insists that all of us, young and old, fret and obsess ad infinitum. One chunky boy from a dozen years ago comes to mind. His days were fine, with counselors keeping the teens in constant motion, but dusk thundered with the approach of homesickness and insomnia.

And camp week never passes without some half-pints walking alone, sitting alone, directing praise and blame to the empty space around them.

But I listen—to the lovely runts of our church camp litter, to those who think of nothing but home, especially to those who lug heartbreaking secrets in their knapsacks.

I love all the kids, but the ones whose tears are always close to the surface look at me as I pray, and I look back.

Not so long ago each mid-day I slept in a nave built for one, but this week guests have arrived. Their presence has been a duty-free mitzvah.

IMG_3604

For some of us runts, life can include lots of swimming upstream. (Credit: Kathleen Coleman)

Thirty years ago panic attacks brought me to my knees. And I still remember the day in fifth grade when my mother met me at the door after school to say that my father was at the courthouse applying for a divorce. As a teenager, surrounded by love, I fell asleep aching with confusion. In other words, I’ve been a runt myself off and on from the beginning. I relate.

So this summer’s campers are welcome to join those from years past and visit my spirit at nap time. My sanctuary has room for them now. I ask God to dry their tears, make them feel at home, and say into the ear of their hearts, “You are loved. Don’t forget.”

Love . . . to you, friends, and to my whole litter of kids,

John (a.k.a. Pastor John, PJ, or Johnny-Boy)

Oniontown Pastoral #7: You Learn to Like It

Oniontown Pastoral #7: You Learn to Like It

“You learn to like it.” Grandma Coleman leaned hard into learn. She was talking about an instant mocha coffee powder, which she used at half strength. To me it tasted like stale water, but Gram, with her cherubic face, furrowed her brow and insisted. Raising children during the Great Depression taught her that she could decide what she wanted and needed. One teaspoon-full can taste better than two—but you have to work at it.

IMG_4552

Corn field: a great teacher if you work at listening

Gram’s wisdom echoes more with each passing year, mainly because what I want is often the opposite of what I need.

My latest lesson is, to tell the truth, plain silly. After fourteen years of ministry in Erie, I’ve settled nicely into the pulpit at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown. As I’ve said to parishioners and friends, “I’m having the time of my life. What a great place to be.” Since I showed up about six months ago, I’ve come to love the folks and the land—so much beauty.

But what’s embarrassing is this: although the scenery is soothing, I’m an impatient driver. The accelerator has a gravitational pull that I can’t resist. Come on, let’s go! On Route 19, District Road, and just about everywhere else, my brakes are getting a workout.

IMG_4358

No clue what purpose this old machine served, but its repose in a field is soothing to me

I’ve lived most of my life in medium to large cities where drivers don’t dillydally on turns. In these parts, abundant caution, reconnaissance and perhaps a little prayer precede pulling into each driveway or parking lot.

The other day at the Stone Arch, the St. John’s Seniors and I had a good laugh over the matter. “It’s as if,” I explained, “drivers are afraid a Tyrannosaurus rex is around each corner, waiting to chomp into the roof their car.”

“But there might be!” several said at once. “Or a cow or a dog or a . . . senior citizen!”

Thank God for their good humor. They already understand what I’m still trying to learn: slow down, what’s the rush?

I didn’t bother mentioning that on my way to the restaurant, a navy blue sedan in front of me inched fearfully into a lot that was so clear a Concorde could have come in for a hot landing. No tumbleweed, no crickets, just acres of glorious, barren blacktop.

“Why?” I cried out behind my closed windows. “What are you waiting for?”

Of course, I’m not proud of my frustration, but it does hold a truth: taking my time doesn’t come naturally. I’ve got to lean into liking second gear as much as fourth. My father would add his words to Gram’s: “Take it ease, disease,” he used to say, and “simmer down, bub.”

I have been making incremental progress. Last week an Amish guy sat stock still in his buggy in the middle of District Road as his horse swung his head this way and that, like a city dweller searching for a taxi. As I crawled past, my neighbor looked at me with a whimsical expression and waved, as if to say, “Thanks for not crashing into me.”

The exchange was pleasant. So, too, was my encounter with a wide piece of farm equipment—many circular blades—on my way to visit Ellen the other day. Both the farmer and I hugged our thin berms, and as we passed his eyes told me, “Yeah, we’re good. We’ve got this.”

I’ll simmer down eventually. My folks and the rolling fields are great teachers. Now I need to be patient with myself.

IMG_4284

Message for a New Grandson

Message for a New Grandson

Friend Jan assures me that those in extremis can hear and understand. Son Micah told me once that when death is close, euphoric chemicals show up with kind words, beloved faces, and bright lights.

IMG_3600

Lake Erie light

I’m all for our glands throwing us a going-away party, but what Jan says feels right. Besides, she is wise and knows about deathbeds.

But I have my own reasons for hoping that words of love and care somehow get through. During parishioner Annie’s last minutes, I leaned in close and whispered Psalm 23. Thou art with me. Goodness and mercy. Forever. A single tear ran down her crow’s foot to the pillow. I saw it.

And I saw my mother’s hand lift and fall as I said goodbye to her eighteen years ago. Mom’s purposeful movement said, “I’d answer if I could, John.”

Since then, I’ve spoken freely to the almost-gone. In fact, I’ll speak to everybody and nobody. Words are good, so I say what should be said in hopes that if nothing else, the universe might hear.

Years ago wife Kathy raised monarch butterflies on our front porch. Occasionally, one would be hopelessly deformed, and before resting it underneath a stargazer lily and giving it a quick end, I said, “I’m sorry this life didn’t work out, but it will be over soon. Everything will be okay. You’ll see.”

When geese fly over, in a pair or by the dozens, I say, “Thank you.” Am I addressing the birds or God? Both, I guess.

My most recent monologue came out on—appropriately enough—April Fools’ Day. Killian Davis Thompson, grandson number two, arrived at 2:01 p.m., and within a few hours I got to see him.

IMG_4401

Kathy and Killian

Kathy helped with the birth, so she had already held him. I let Micah go first. After Kathy had seconds, it was my turn.

Time passes dreamlike when you’re looking at a baby you’ve been imagining month after month. I heard giddy voices—daughter Elena, son-in-law Matt, Kathy and Micah—but, I swear, no words.

Killian and I were in a bubble. Even now, I remember only a couple of details, which I report without exaggeration: I disappeared into his face; before I knew what was happening, I found myself whispering to him; and, on one lucid front, I hoped my breath wasn’t nasty. (The little nugget was defenseless, after all.)

IMG_4403

Killian and Pop in a bubble

I can’t bring back exactly what I said, but what I meant is still fresh. As much as I wanted Mom to hear my goodbye, I longed for some quiet room in Killian’s soul to hold in safe keeping his foolish Pop’s welcome. I meant . . .

You were so safe and warm. Now here you are. It’s so cold and bright. Don’t wake up. You must be exhausted. Being born is hard, isn’t it?

But, listen, don’t be afraid. You’re so lucky! We’ve all been waiting for you, wanting to meet you, wanting to see your face.

Don’t be afraid. You have a whole bunch of people who will take care of you. Your mom and dad are beautiful. You have a nice little home. It’s warm and dry. And you have a big brother.

IMG_4444

Lucky baby, lucky family

I named everybody in the family and told him about his tribe. Then Elena’s voice penetrated the bubble: “Are you talking to him?” “Yeah.”

This world is pretty good, but it might not be as great as where you came from. I don’t know. But I’m here, don’t forget. Whatever you need, I’m here. I’ll try to stay close.

Yes, I know, newborns don’t remember anything. And a dying woman doesn’t take green pastures and still waters with her into forever.

But maybe. I’m allowed to hope. All I know is, loving words are good, and if only the universe hears, I’ll keep trying to say them.

Belated Happy National Napping Day!

Belated Happy National Napping Day!

Blogger’s Note: I had this post almost ready to go yesterday. Events conspired against me, though. Since A Napper’s Companion is thus far a gratis gig, the scrumptious words that follow had to wait until this morning. Enjoy a day late. Peace, John

IMG_3021

Grandson Cole practicing sanity and wisdom . . . before his red hair came in

Thirty-five years ago at Behrend College in Erie, Pennsylvania, Mr. Michael Tkach did me a life-changing service. His persuasive writing class convinced me to become an English major. I was a milquetoast Business Management student, but once Tkach—pronounced tack—made me wrestle with fallacies, my major took a hairpin left–English it would be.

My former professor is now a friend, and today I owe him a second, albeit more quiet, thank you. The following Facebook message from Mike just landed in my box: “National Napping Day! I didn’t know about this, but I thought you might.”

A.Cortina_El_sueño

“Joven Dormida” (Sleeping Girl) by Antonio Cortina Farinos on Wikimedia Commons

I do, in fact, know about today’s sane and gentle observance, always the day after our clocks spring forward an hour, but without fail I forget. According to wowktv.com, “William Anthony, Ph.D., a Boston University Professor and his wife, Camille Anthony, created National Napping Day in 1999 as an effort to spotlight the health benefits to catching up on quality sleep. ‘We chose this particular Monday because Americans are more ‘nap-ready’ than usual after losing an hour of sleep to daylight saving time,’” said Dr. Anthony, also known as the Napmaster General, in a BU press release.

The host of a blog called A Napper’s Companion should have this date circled in red on the calendar. I have one defense: for me, every day is National Napping Day. Thanks, Mike, not only for giving me a great steer decades ago, but also for sounding the alarm about this holiday.

“National Napping Day is probably for amateurs anyway,” Mike concluded. “You’re a pro.” I wish, old friend. Dedicated volunteer is more like.

When I started www.ANappersCompanion.com almost three years ago, I shared piles of information to defend and encourage napping. If you’re intolerably bored, you can dial back many months and find more benefits of the blessed oblivion of midday than any reader could wish for.

800px-Andrea_Mantegna_022

Jesus pleads. His disciples nap. “Christus am Olberge” (Christ on the Mount of Olives) by Andrea Mantegna (Wikimedia Commons)

But I don’t write much about napping anymore. First, the practice no longer needs any defense. Research rendered in snappy graphics are all over the Internet. Facebook crackles with exhortations and celebrations. Big business has slowly caught on to the wisdom of not only allowing naps but also dedicating space to them. Bill and Camille Anthony have served us well.

To date I’ve posted 179 essays on A Napper’s Companion, and one entitled “Napping Pods for $12,985: A Commentary” has been visited more than any other. By far! And much to my chagrin. I wish a couple of my other posts had attracted such numbers. WordPress sent me an alert yesterday that my stats were soaring. Cool beans, but nearly all the interest was in napping pods.

I’ve never even seen a pod in person, by the way. I remain a garden-variety napper who finds that a couch or bed works fine. A floor is okay, too, as long as I have a fluffy pillow. My siesta strategies haven’t changed over the years.

Nap-Strydonck

“The Nap” by Guillaume Van Strydonck. Time was I could relate, sister. (Wikimedia Commons)

But circumstances have eased. Pitiful as it sounds, napping used to be serious. The last fifteen years or so have included intense, excruciating stretches, some of which regular visitors to this blog know about. During the worst times, knocking off for an hour in the middle of the day was essential. I either stepped off the planet into oblivion or imploded. Heck, I almost broke down anyway.

It would be nice to say that I’ve grown or gotten stronger, but I’m as vulnerable as ever, unequal to many gauntlets humans must run. But for whatever reason, swords and clubs are fewer these days, challenges that slash at my spirit mostly disarmed.

the-siesta_med

Van Gogh’s “Mittagsrast (nach Millet)” (Wikimedia Commons)

I’m still devoted to naps not because I’ll fall apart without them but because they’re good for me. Some folks do well sleeping in one long session over twenty-four hours. I’m happy for them—really. Others’ schedules don’t allow a siesta, which is a shame if they’re tired.

National Napping Day has plenty of scientific support. I’m buoyed by the fact that my daily rest is blessed by research, but I’ll close my eyes in an hour mostly for subjective reasons. Napping is my way of kissing myself on the forehead and saying, “You’re trying to be a good man, John. Lie down and breathe.”

Happy National Napping Day and love to you all.

On My Mother’s 90th Birthday

On My Mother’s 90th Birthday

img_2795

Dolores Coleman, younger than my daughter and son are now

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.

465px-Cissy_king_bobby_burgess_welk_show_1969

Lawrence with ah Bobby and ah Cissy, 1969 (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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.

lossy-page1-800px-Nixon_meeting_with_Karen_and_Richard_Carpenter_-_NARA_-_194770.tif

Karen and Richard Carpenter with President Nixon (Credit: Robert L. Knudsen on Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Good night!

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.

Letter to a Man on a Motorized Bicycle

Dear John:

I don’t know your name, so we may as well both use mine.

The first time I saw you, my wife Kathy was with me, and I confess, you gave us a laugh. We didn’t object to your chosen transportation, but you’re not a small man, and your bike is low slung. It reminded me of an old motorcycle with a sidecar. Bundled against November, you were out of proportion to your ride, like President Lincoln on the back of a Shetland pony.

I saw you again yesterday on the way home from picking up a bottle of Crane Lake Petite Sirah. The temperature was stuck in the thirties, cold weather for buzzing around Harborcreek, Pennsylvania, with your face uncovered. Still, maybe you like the wind against your skin. Maybe you’re wisdom in disguise, your one lonely horsepower a choice rather than a consequence. What the hell do I know?

1921_Quadrant_motorcycle_with_sidecar

Your bike reminds me of this old 4.5 horsepower, John. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Not much is the short answer. I’ve already laid out my total knowledge of you. Everything else is a guess. I guess you would prefer a car to bike powered by, what, a lawn mower engine? I guess you made mistakes or ran up against bad luck or both. You have what I’ll euphemistically call some issues? You’re on meds or not. And you’re mostly alone, right?

It seems like I’m trying to excuse you and your ride, but if we were shooting the breeze over coffee, I would tell you about myself. Then you would know that I’m in no position to defend, explain, condemn, or absolve anybody. I’m on meds. My years are punctuated by silly choices. And like lots of citizens we both pass on Buffalo Road, I’m not far from needing dirt-cheap wheels.

I would explain, too, that as you disappeared from my rear view mirror yesterday, I didn’t say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” The sentiment is humble, but I’m not sipping an overpriced Americano because God has been gracious to me. And it makes me nauseous to think that your knuckles get raw when you ride in the rain because God has denied you grace.

If we were together I would laugh and say, “Boy, John, shit happens, doesn’t it?” That’s as much explanation as I have.

There’s a lot I couldn’t share, at least not until cup three or four. I live on God’s grace, but that has nothing to do with my pudgy Chevy or your bike, my excess or your need. I bet neither one of us merits much in the way of blessing or curse. “It is what it is” would have to be enough from me for today.

2112b394-c7d2-4f0d-8857-6e34e1594191

Are my wheels better than yours? I’m not at all sure, John.

Down the line, if we got to be friends, I would ask if you’re okay. The truth is, you might be way more okay than I am. A man who doesn’t mind being seen traveling on a contraption when snow is forecast probably has a thing or two to teach me.

Better still, I would say that sharing my name with you would be a privilege. And maybe you would look into my eyes, past the dark circles, and understand I was guessing about you not because you need my approval, but because you already have all the grace that’s mine to give.

Peace,

John

If You Were My Daughter

By the time you took your first sip of coffee, a cop had already shown up, taken information from barista Tony, and loaded two pet carriers and bag of cat food into his cruiser. I didn’t see the woman pacing in the parking lot, trying to stay calm through a frantic phone call. I didn’t see her throw her arms up in the air, hop into her car, and speed off. Somebody else did, though, and got her license plate number. Now she is in trouble. You don’t leave a cat, dog, and Meow Mix in Starbucks’ parking lot and hope for the best.

If you were my daughter, I would have told you the whole story as soon as you sat down, ending with how sorry I felt not only for the pets, but also the woman. As if thinking out loud, I would ask what crisis led her to that moment and say as an aside, “Ah, hell, I guess we all do things we can’t take back.”

If you were my daughter, you would already know that I always want love and understanding to have the last word, which often makes my heart like a mutt the neighbors let bark outside hour after hour, the temperature sinking on a December night.

But you’re not my daughter. You spoke on your phone so quietly I could tell only that the language wasn’t English. The likelihood of my offspring randomly sitting down next to me and having a conversation in, say, French, is remote. And, of course, I wouldn’t have been stopped short at first by your beauty. I would know your birthday, where you are in your twenties.

You didn’t stay long, ten minutes and out the door. I watched and wondered. What car is yours? Where are you off to? But you walked so aimlessly, taking pictures of God-knows-what, I figured maybe you weren’t headed anywhere. Not to the bulky old Buick or maroon minivan, not to the Fox and Hound English Pub and Grille or Shoe Carnival or Ollie’s Bargain Outlet.

I stood to see you off. Your leather knapsack—almost empty?—was finally a black dot against your jean jacket. Then you were gone, and I couldn’t decide whether to be happy or worry. Going no place in particular can feel like grace if you know how to be alone and you’re not shouldering much weight.

If you were my daughter, I would be glad we didn’t talk about what you missed: the woman now rushing from suffering to punishment; the long-haired cat with eyes wide and still, waiting to slip from a carrier to the warm, bright sleeping spot on the back of the couch; the cop transporting animals, both trying not to be thrown by sharp turns, both able to remember and love.

If you were my daughter, you would probably say, “Damn, Daddy, lighten up.”

“Yeah,” I would say, “you’re right.”

But I might not be clueless about your next stop. Hopeful? Desolate? Either way, we could meet for lunch, and I would say, as if thinking out loud, “When a father loves his daughter, she always has at least one good place to be.”

I’ll Find You, Art, in the Sunset Dance

Art and I had a routine. He poked his head into my office doorway, checking to see if the coast was clear—a few times a week since Doris passed nine years ago.

“Thought I’d come in and bug you for a few minutes,” he said, then had a seat.

Image-20079_20150727

Friend Art

Half-hour by half-hour we picked through his life and pulled out stories as if from attic boxes: Korea, close enough to the action to hear the shells whistle; a garage-building crew in the old neighborhood and the keg they were bound to finish and the world spinning; Doris dying alone in the afternoon while he ran errands—he never quite forgave himself.

“Well,” Art said, standing up, “I’ll let you get back to work.”

“But, Art,” I always answered, “I have been working.”

He had to stop on the way home for something, maybe boloney. Samwiches every day for lunch get boring. After a while you forget to eat.

Art got to church first on Sunday mornings, unlocked the doors and set the bulletins out. But arthritis clamped down on his shoulders so badly that he gave in and got a crew cut. Combs and spoons weren’t his friends anymore. If I had a nickel for every time I fixed his collar or untwisted his suspenders . . . . Getting to worship became a project, weary and burdensome.

This past winter Erie, Pennsylvania, was cruel. Art’s car and many others at Niagara Village were snowbound, but the wind chills would have kept him inside anyway. He had time to dwell on the indignities of age: obstinate hearts, lungs, and bowels. And loneliness. He looked at Doris’ picture on the wall and told her, “Send me my ticket. I’m ready.” He lay in bed before dawn, anxious and hazy, and wondered if what he was feeling was death.

Kidney failure pushed him over the edge. I was there when a kind doctor leaned in close and with his manner as much as his words let Art know that forgoing dialysis was just fine. We prayed.

Oh, his poor arms, torn and purple.

Loved ones and nurses took in what was happening. Muffled tears. Compression devices off of his calves, the Velcro cackling. A tube or two removed. I don’t remember, exactly.

Art’s faithful son Mark went to make calls. Suddenly, Art and I were alone.

“What do you think Doris will say when you get there?” I said.

“Probably ‘What took you so long?’”

“Can I tell the [church] people what’s going on with you?”

“Yep, tell them I’m going home.”

I held his hand as he looked far off. Death wouldn’t arrive for a week or so, but he seemed to be peeking into another doorway, one where the coast is always clear—so I believe.

“Are you okay with this, Art?” I said. “Are you at peace?”

He was already on his way: “Yep, just help me through the door.”

Still holding his hand, I cried without him seeing.

IMG_0718

Church was home for Art. He always kept a prayer candle lit for Doris.

The sanctuary filled up for Art. We gave him a good send off—big choir, his boys sharp in uniform, loving words and a salute from his eldest, “How Great Thou Art” sung by one of his beloved church-grandchildren. We ended with our beautiful old prayer poem: “Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant, Art. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.”

The next morning I gathered with family at the cemetery. We said more words—“earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”—and slid Art’s urn in next to Doris’. Some hugs later, I drove away through the deep, winding green of summer. I can’t recall what I did the rest of that day.

I sit now with coffee, keeping company with a few more tears that are still floating in my reservoir.

And I sit with an understanding: nothing can rush sadness through the door after a friend dies, especially one you’ve said to many times, “Here, let me fix your suspenders.” It was my privilege.

IMG_3583Last evening, knowing the best I can do is keep my own door open wide enough for grief to go in and out freely, I drove with wife Kathy to Presque Isle, to beaches that feel like home.

The Lake Erie sunset was on. Yes, a sunset, stunning cliché of the western sky, light everybody sails into eventually. Wind kept the landscape in motion, waves and light playing in the last few minutes of day.

Kathy and I stood at the water’s edge and held each other. The air moved over us—I want to say blew through us. As I breathed in and out, we seemed to be welcomed in by the sinking sun, the clouds mysteriously still, restless Lake Erie, and all the quick and the dead. We embraced each other, and creation embraced us.

It would be satisfying to say that I sensed Art’s presence, but that would be a slanted truth. Rather, resting my cheek against Kathy’s hair, receiving her cheek against my chest, my soul knew the hope of a gathering, a cosmic dance of sun, water, wind, sand, grass, and hearts. The song is of mercy.

IMG_3602

A pale vault opening

Just after the sun set, a pale vault opened in its place, glowing in the memory of the great light. I felt as though I was looking into the dance, moving with it as much as anyone can without joining it entirely.

What does death feel like? Art wondered, and so do I. Now he knows. I pray that it’s like losing yourself in a dance, completely embraced, yet free, too amazed by color, light, and love to straighten your collar or imagine that anybody has ever died alone.