Oniontown Pastoral: One Morning Before Heading South

A guy who seems always to be at Country Fair didn’t look himself. He had lost a lot of weight and kept hiking up his drooping sweatpants. On this chilly morning, a red fleece blanket tied around his neck in cape fashion and a Pittsburgh Steelers stocking cap were his only warmth. Continue reading

The Question of Longing

I’m alone here, but seldom lonely. The space heater’s sigh, the weather’s endless improvisations and the train horn now groaning in the distance are felt presences, companions, especially when efforts—finding words in my head, searching for sentences from others to supply what I lack—fail and all that remains is the essential human enterprise: Being. Continue reading

Oniontown Pastoral: Sabbatical in the Writing Hut

Oniontown Pastoral: Sabbatical in the Writing Hut

On Friday, July 2, 1971, I was almost 10. Evonne Goolagong beat Margaret Court at Wimbledon, and Americans were humming Carole King’s “It’s Too Late,” baby. Richard Nixon and his associates were being tricky in all manner of things from D.C. to the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Inconspicuous 7-2-71 is neatly painted on the wall in front of me in a chalky white. A normal person would have sanded the board and hit it with polyurethane, but Mr. Tyler, the previous resident of the Coleman house in Erie, Pennsylvania, obviously had good reason for dating the wood rather than burning it. 

In any case, I’m far from normal. It’s not normal to make the walls and floor of your new writing hut out of hardwood scraps from an Amish lumberyard, leftover boards waiting above your garage rafters and tormented barn wood from Conneaut Lake, Pennsylvania. Ordinary isn’t turning a slab of Old Man Tyler’s wainscoting, roasted and frozen by turns over the decades, into a desk top.

Crazy is more like. What began as tame diversion has become zealous mission. Writing is mostly on hold. The summer and fall of 2020—this strangest of years—are a sabbatical during which my medium isn’t language, but boards that you might say are grimacing if they had faces.

The peak of my ceiling, made of boards shining through every grimace

Meanwhile, writing continues in my head. For one thing, I’ve been engaging in spiritual poetry, regarding my endeavor here as redemptive. This castoff lumber represents sisters and brothers who are rooted nowhere, who stick out like burls, whose misfortunes and trespasses are knots that make sawing iffy. 

In this shed of reject materials, there are no outcasts. In fact, when handled with care and beheld with generosity, the ash and cherry and maple and pine I bought for a song or employed in honor of thrift sing of hope. Resting my eyes on misfit and forgotten boards that have found welcome and good purpose makes me glad. 

The wall behind my desk

Another fortunate thing: As I’ve refrained from putting down words, the kinship between language and lumber has revealed itself to me. Just as Mr. Tyler couldn’t part with the odd cupboard door or 10’ planks of pine painted red, over the years I’ve been hoisting extraneous words and expressions to my lexicon’s rafters. 

Some words have simply fallen out of favor. Nobody spreads oleo on toast anymore, naps on a davenport or wears dungarees. School students don’t hang their wraps on a hook and leave their galoshes in the hallway. 

Other words are so seldom called for that they get musty. I’m a devoted gourmand, but rarely say dollop. An evening beverage is medicinal, but I never drink liqueur. Reading yesterday I tripped over payola, which has never crossed my lips, but it reminded me that my parents’ generation liked to say Shinola.

And again, plenty of words have received their melancholy gold watches. Today’s cars don’t have fender skirts like my folks’ 1967 Pontiac Grand Prix did, never mind rumble seats. Does anybody still pay the light bill, unlock a door with a skeleton key or keep a milk box by the front door? 

Tortured barn wood or heirlooms?

Ah, but who cares? Rummaging through heirlooms clacked out on a manual Smith Corona before computers existed is sweetness and light. My mom collected Green Stamps and sewed herself scooter skirts. My dad got his Schlitz from the icebox, called me Buster Brown and my nose a snot locker. My coaches grunted walk it off. No matter how busy my vocabulary becomes, I’ll never scrap such pieces, which form memory’s truss.

In a week or so, the carpenter’s obsession should be out of my system. The last task, a hardwood floor, is no gimme, though. The boards are as even as I can get them, a process that started in July’s steam and finished in October’s soaked chill.

The floor in waiting, in front of wife Kathy’s tomatoes and basil

I turned 59 on 10-9-2020, not too late, I hope, to enjoy some fruitful seasons of fulfilling this place’s mission. But about the floor: It will have to tolerate wet galoshes and spiritual poetry. Its boards can’t be like words brought out seldom, if ever. 

No, any visitors will stand with me on load bearers like love, compassion, tenderness, justice, honesty, fairness, forgiveness and truth. Kindness, grace and mercy, too. 

The Amish man’s scraps at pick up

If the friendly Amish man’s scraps fit together, the floor will join Julian of Norwich in assuring this writer, guests and the walls themselves, “In this hut at least, all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

Writing Days

Writing Days

The feeders during a lull in the snow, waiting to receive their fill

The house is calm. A wind chill of 13° has wispy snow swirling on Parkway Drive. The bird feeders look at me, wondering when they’ll get their fill. Soon, I promise.

Now the furnace kicks on, joining the weather and passing cars in a chorus of groans and sighs.

Now Baby Crash appears on the desk, offended that I’m not than cradling her, whispering sweet nothings—“Are you Pop’s good kitty cat?”— and feeding her treats. She licks my knuckle and considers taking a pinch of skin between her fangs. Her eyes are calculating.

But who can write while anticipating a nip from those needles a cat puts on display with each yawn? I set her on the floor and return to my dream.

Yes, my dream. Its elements are silence, bitter coffee, a view, a desk and something to say. For most of this March day, I’ll abstain from television and music and mute the smartphone (the mother of all misnomers).

No dashing around the house, yanking the silverware drawer open and shutting it with a thud and rattle. I once read that you can tell a lot about people by the way they close doors. The principle occurs to me often when, as May Sarton once said, “The house and I resume old conversations.” Let meditations be gentle. Hold the hours with a light grip. Listen to my own footfall on the wooden floor. Take it easy on the doors. Take it easy on my neighbor, as I should on myself.

A lot happens slowly on what I call “writing days”: prayer, chores, errands, coffee with friends, babysitting now and then.

Building permit for a den

And writing happens, especially writing. This is warp and woof of my dream: long draughts of time and space to play with words. Sometimes I write at Starbucks, but increasingly these days sentences get woven on this enclosed front porch, termed a “den” on a building permit from 9-7-65. While moving in, I found the form tacked to pegboard in the basement and framed it—something resonant about our home’s sanctum being four years my junior.

Wife Kathy and I have always called the room in our abodes set aside for contemplation and creation the “study.” Here on Parkway we feel obligated to use the space’s given name, though “den” fits a smartly dressed world beater who exudes confidence and authority—hardly yours truly.

“Study,” on the other hand, connotes humility, since one who labors there is a student at heart. That’s me, chronically rumpled and staring up slack jawed at some vertical learning curve.

First thing this morning I sat here in prayer, reckoning my good fortune. On Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, writing is limited primarily by stamina. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, the pen sleeps as I head for Oniontown. The hour commute during winter is rich with the pale gray of leafless trees, and my reward is arriving to work with the sweet brothers and sisters at St. John’s Lutheran Church.

“Living the dream,” some folks joke when asked how they’re doing. For me this is actually true, which is not to say that dreams come without complications.

Don’t be deceived. She bites.

Baby Crash’s teeth occasionally draw specks of blood.

Following an evening church meeting recently, I crawled through a freakish whiteout on Route 19 coming down the hill toward the Rainbow Valley Restaurant. The view cleared within a few miles, but the brief ordeal reminded me that troubles relish showing up unannounced.

My dream of writing days—the whole enterprise, I mean—has witnessed two squalls.

First, when dreams come even partially true, the spirit is tricked into believing that it has finally arrived in paradise. Nice try. Postponed grief and old upset hushed by stoicism never hesitate to drop in when I’m savoring solitude. In fact, gladness practically whispers to decades of unresolved life junk, “Hey, John’s defenses are down. Hurry, he’ll never see you coming.”

Second, a dream fulfilled does not—I repeat, does not—guarantee happiness, which is a stand-alone project. Am I alone in this experience? Circumstances are agreeable, better than could be expected, in fact, yet the throat is tight with sadness, the chest bruised with longing.

Joy

Writing days have highlighted the truth that happiness lives under no obligations. Now and then it appears unbidden and licks my hand. Mostly, though, my dream fulfilled leaves a spot open at the table, but joy doesn’t show up unless I send her an invitation.

This arrangement seems more than fair to me.

Oniontown Pastoral: Promise of the Onion

Oniontown Pastoral: Promise of the Onion

I wonder how many good onions rot in landfills because of flaws on their outermost layer. Fumbled by a customer or split open by a box cutter, they join the forlorn cast of undesirables, like Charlie-in-the-Box on the Island of Misfit Toys.

Of course, Charlie, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the caboose with square wheels and Dolly the rag doll, whose only flaw is sadness, don’t belong in exile. All they need is a loving child with imagination.

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From Burpee’s Farm Annual (1882). Credit: Wikimedia Commons

And everybody knows that all an imperfect onion needs is touch-up work. Just peel down to a good layer. From there on it’s fit to join its soulmate, garlic, as the two aromatics chefs can’t live without.

The onion, I can’t help noting, really is a wonder. It’s made out of rings for the sake of convenient battering and deep-frying. And have you ever noticed that onions participate in their own chopping? After a few knife strokes, they very considerately fall apart, thanks to those layers.

Yes, onions can make you cry, but I’ve never met a cook who counts that against them. Why? Because the onion is a poet among vegetables. We foodies understand this.

Okay, I think a lot about onions, but maybe you can forgive me. I not only work in the village of Oniontown, Pennsylvania, at St. John’s Lutheran Church, but also practically live in the kitchen. And if that weren’t enough, I’m a writer, a vocation that thrives on the inclination to think in layers.

“O Onion! My Onion!” The commonplace observation that it consists of layers has been therapeutic lately for my uneasy soul. The skin of our 2017 world—the societal, national and international epidermis—is a torn, mushy mess. The old saying “going to hell in a hand basket” comes to mind.

But the onion is my oracle. Its counsel shone upon me this past week when I dropped in on parishioners who have a decorative plate on their car:

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Seeing the village name, its proud letters larger than the others, felt like a grandfather’s encouraging pat on the back.

Bill answered the door and led me to the bedroom, where Connie lay on her side with a blanket drawn up to her eyes. Her ponytail reached the middle of the neighboring pillow. Ailment upon ailment has rained upon her in recent years, and now two misbehaving vertebral discs have added thunder.

Oh, dear! The onion is companion to garlic as back pain rivals the toothache for the most dreaded, non-life-threatening complaint. Connie was okay, provided she didn’t move. We talked for a few minutes, long enough for me to make her laugh. Nice going, Pastor. I said a prayer, soft but urgent. Relief can’t come soon enough. Options are running out.

Pausing on our way to the backdoor, Bill leaned against a kitchen chair. His posture matched his hushed words: “I don’t know what we’re going to do.” We shook hands goodbye.

“Onions.” Glancing back at that decorative plate, I held the word in my mouth. The blue marble speeding at 18.5 miles per second around the sun may not be watching, but in a warm house on Mercer Road, a man fusses over his wife, who endures with dignity. And people in warm houses in villages and cities everywhere quietly love and tend to each other.

IMG_4286The onion—cliché that it may be—teaches me never to neglect the many layers below the surface, where anonymous multitudes dwell, overjoyed or getting by or out of rope. Down here, bane is always neck-and-neck with blessing.

But hope lives down here, too, with Bill, Connie, Charlie-in-the-Box and all the rest of us who never make the evening news. There are even families waiting to cradle Dolly the rag doll and dry her tears.

Only down here can you believe the onion’s greatest truth. Even in sorry shape, its theme is still promise. What appears, after all, when the onion’s weepy skin is pealed away? New life, bright, smooth, vulnerable with possibility.

Oniontown Pastoral: Some Life

Oniontown Pastoral: Some Life

IMG_4286“What’s the story?” Whether driving the roads near Oniontown or enjoying a pricy coffee at Erie’s State Street Starbucks, I’m constantly asking that question.

For the year I’ve been serving St. John’s Lutheran Church, a row of fifteen or twenty round bales has sat rotting along District Road. Seems like a waste, but there must be a reason. What’s the story?

As I shoved quarters in the parking meter this morning, a decently dressed man crouched behind a bus stop, shielding himself from the chilly wind and drizzle. Nike running shoes look new. Parka with fur hood is unstained. But huddling on the sidewalk is, well, odd. What’s the story?

And there is always a story. It might be disappointing or anticlimactic, but when one human being listens to another for a few minutes, questions can get answered. Maybe a crisis in the farmer’s family put everything on hold, including hay. A plastic tote bag from a local hospital sat beside the crouching man. Was he released an hour ago, still sick or confused?

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The round bales a year ago. What’s their story?

I can only speculate. Answers would require conversations, and I’m not about to start one by knocking on a stranger’s door or tapping a shivering guy on the shoulder. I can live with mysteries.

In fact, I welcome them. Seldom understanding why the world chugs along in its haphazard fashion and why human beings behave inexplicably is a way of life, a spiritual posture.

“Shave and a haircut . . . .” I’m content with no ending.

My favorite mystery near Oniontown has to do with a dirty blonde horse I’ve named Onslow. I pass him on Route 19 and wonder why he has his own modest yard—room for a round-bale feeder, a couple of trailers, a shed and a short stroll. On the other side of the barn, a dozen or so other horses wander a generous pasture.

So why is Onslow in solitary? Does he have issues? Is he a grouch? A biter? I know nothing, not even if I should call him Hyacinth, but the way his forelock blows across his right eye makes him endearing. He’s probably a real pain in the neck, but I care about him.

Why? Because even beasts of the field have stories. I don’t stand in winter gusts and munch my breakfast for a good hunk of the year. Maybe being a horse is no picnic.

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Rain clouds over State Street Starbucks

“Boy, John,” you might say, “this is some life you’ve got going, praying in an urban coffee shop for a lonely horse.”

The truth is, I don’t have much choice. Some creatures have fangs made for tearing down, and others have eyes prone to tearing up. I belong to the latter species.

I’ve never cried for Onslow, but I’ve come close for patrons in the neighboring stalls here at Starbucks. Some stare into space as they sip and leave with weary faces, as if nothing much awaits their return. I’ve never met them, but imagine a great, invisible hand has rubbed their faces into the ground. Are they lost souls?

Behind me, a fixture I’ll call Clyde is giving his imaginary friend what for. They fight a lot. As far as I can tell this is his only companion, other than a five-foot duffle bag stuffed solid.

What would its contents say about Clyde? In lucid moments, what story might he piece together? Grinding mental illness, probably unmedicated, must drive the plot. Though he lives in solitary, one character visits him, if only as an antagonist.

“You apologize every month!” Clyde just grunted.

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God bless you, Onslow. May you find sure places to turn and loving destinations.

I’ll never know the trespass that has so infuriated him, but that’s okay. It’s enough for me to remember that he is tormented by red herrings and complications that never resolve. Anyway, something about the way his burden bends his back makes me love him.

Yes, I know, deep down Clyde is probably a bigger nuisance than Onslow. But they both have manes, one blonde, the other greasy gray.

And they both have unknown stories. We all do. The day I forget this is the day I will have lost myself. You’ll find me in solitary, singing, “Two bits. Two bits. Two bits.”

Announcing a New Blog: Matters of Conscience

Dear Friends:

I’ve been thinking for a while of starting a second blog in order to keep my buzzkill social and political posts from skunking up A Napper’s Companion. Today I finally took the leap and set up Matters of Conscience.

It’s a work in progress, so if you’re interested in reading, please be patient as I work out the kinks. If you’re not interested, then please know that I value your opinions and made this move especially for you.

You may notice that I removed a couple of posts from this blog and sent them to the new digs. If you’ve been meaning to check out a post and can’t find it here, please try Matters of Conscience.

Peace and love,

John

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The “cover” photograph for Matters of Conscience

Oniontown Pastoral: Listen to Your Grandma

Oniontown Pastoral: Listen to Your Grandma

Dear Cole and Killian:

img_4987Last week your Grandma Kathy came in all sweated up from picking vegetables and said, “Oh, John, there’s one of those tomato hornworms in the garden with eggs on its back, probably wasp eggs.” Her bottom lip wasn’t quivering, but tears weren’t far off. Poor bug.

I don’t want to see any creature suffer, but I’ve never been a fan of hornworms. First, they’re gross; they look like a bald, glossy-green, plump, juicy caterpillar. Second, they never finish their meals. I would be glad to share if they didn’t go from tomato to tomato, munching a portion and ruining the rest. And third, they leave pellet droppings called frass. Most of it falls into the soil unseen, but a little plastic table Grandma Kathy situated near a tomato plant got covered with it. The guilty insect frassed so much I couldn’t help thinking it chuckled to itself, pellet by pellet.

Your grandmother, who is on strangely good terms with the wastrels, wanted to send me on a rescue mission, but not by plucking the larvae off the hornworm or ending its suffering.

“You write about these things,” she said. “Maybe you could write about it.”

Grandma Kathy was right, boys. For whatever reason, your pop thinks a lot about sadness, and some likeminded folks like to read what I come up with. She was right, too, that in hopeless cases, one sympathetic witness can be a saving grace.

The trouble is, I don’t have much to say about future wasps dining on a hornworm, other than to note, “That’s life for you.” One being’s grilled chicken is another’s raw caterpillar. The main difference is presentation.

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Listen to your grandma, boys.

On the other hand, I do have something to say about Grandma Kathy. You won’t read this letter for another ten years, but as you grow I’ll be steering you toward this advice: “Grandma Kathy has a big soul. She knows how to live. Listen to her.”

I’m only trying to save you time and trouble. If my math skills are still operational, your grandmother and I have spent 2/3 of our lives together. Only in the last three years have I figured out that most of the time she knows best. Since 1980, then, I’ve been letting her steer 1/10 of the time, which is silly.

And I’ll tell you why. Grandma Kathy was right about that hornworm from the beginning. It’s as much a resident of the earth as I am and worthy of consideration.

“Don’t you think we ought to kill it?” I asked. “The last thing we need is a wasp infestation.”

“No, we’re too quick to kill things,” she answered. “Besides, I think wasps might be beneficial.”

I swallowed my response, which would have been, “Hey, I’m not too quick to kill things.”

But she was half right. I checked an almanac and learned that you shouldn’t squash the hornworm and its passengers. Wasps are—and I quote—“beneficial” for a garden.

img_5008Only in the last few weeks have I decided that Grandma Kathy also knows best where the garden hose is concerned. All our marriage long she has left it snaking around the yard rather than coiling it up. I bring the matter up once every decade, though not anymore. When I walk out the back door, my glance goes immediately to the hose and my mind says, “Unkempt.” Your grandmother looks first to the sunflowers, and her mind says, “Ah, beautiful.”

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The better part

She has chosen the better part, and I won’t take it from her.

When Grandma Kathy plays with you, Cole, she lets you decide what to do and where to go. That’s because you know how to play better than anybody else. By watching her, I’m learning to be a good pop.

And Killian, you’re just a few months old, but it already seems that you’re going to be quieter and more reserved than your big brother. You watch, kiddo, Grandma Kathy will look into your brown eyes and see how to help you love yourself and feel so happy you’ll want to fly.

Someday you’ll be able to understand that big souls make big sacrifices. When you’re ready, I’ll explain that Pop owes his life to Grandma Kathy.

IMG_4286But I’ll wait for later to tell you just how. It’s enough for now to say that when I was weary and lost unto despair, your grandmother left a few of her dreams behind as if they were frass to help me find myself again.

Grandma Kathy knows how best to love you and me and the rest of creation. Please, save yourself trouble and spend more than a sliver of your years following her lead and trusting her example.

Care for the tomato hornworm. Look first to the sunflower. Give yourself away for the sake of love.

We’ll talk before you know it,

Pop

“Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs” Release This Week

To My Dear Blogging Friends:

Well, it’s only taken eight years and countless drafts, but “Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs” will finally be available on Amazon sometime this week, followed by a Kindle version maybe a week later. I’m really in photographer and writer Mary Birdsong‘s debt for the nuanced cover shot of a butterfly and a couple of observations that helped focus my thoughts–and to wife Kathy for reading the manuscript probably thirty or forty times. A word about spending your hard-earned dollars: of course I want people to buy the book, but understand it won’t keep you on the edge of your seat. If you wouldn’t enjoy page after page of random thoughts a middle-aged man wants to share with his future grandchildren, then . . . well . . . buy “Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs” for somebody who would. (Insert smiley face here!) Peace and love, John

P.S. I admit the process of pushing this rock up the mountain has been consuming lately. It’s slowed down my blogging and reading/responding. Thanks for your patience. I look forward to being on the grid in the days ahead.

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