Oniontown Pastoral: My Wife’s Secret

Oniontown Pastoral: My Wife’s Secret

“Hey, you know what?” I say to wife Kathy.

“You love me?” she answers.

“Well, yes,” I go on, “but . . . .”

“You’re proud of me?” Her Cheshire cat grin sparkles.

This is one of our routines, which concludes with my telling her that I ran into a friend or heard a good joke or whatever. The fact is, I’m endlessly in love with and proud of my wife.

Kathy used to faint at the sight of blood, but went to school and became an oncology nurse. As a mother and grandmother, she is more fun than a sack of spider monkeys. As a wife, she has not only stuck with impossible me for thirty-five years, but she has also replaced our roof, remodeled the bathroom, and built a deck out of planks repurposed from a wheelchair ramp. Her focus these days is coaxing edibles from a modest plot behind our garage. Most dinners include something she has grown, often garlic, which brings me to my point.

My conscience has been twitching lately like a nerved up eyelid. I value honesty, but for years now I’ve been keeping a secret: Although my wife is a marvel, she possesses a quirky mind. And by “quirky” I mean, “Holy cow!” While she is ever eager to recount the thoughts leading up to her whimsical choices, the plots are so circuitous that listening makes drool trail down my chin. Her most recent and finest decision involved elephant garlic, but please enjoy an appetizer before the entrée.

More fun than a sack of spider monkeys

You probably know somebody who “thinks out loud.” Well, Kathy “looks out loud.” While tracking down anything (i.e. smartphone, comb, tax bill, lasagna), she recites all relevant itineraries, identifies last known locations, holds her hands out as if checking for rain and mumbles, “What’s wrong with me?”

Our garage door opener, for example, went missing for several months. Then one afternoon, a yelp of laughter came from the basement. The opener was hibernating in the toe of one of Kathy’s rubber yard-work boots. Okey doke.

Some husbands might get frustrated, but I look forward to whatever oddity hides around the next bend. Take the aforementioned entrée I now put before you. Kathy has been mildly stressed about her overwhelming harvest of garlic. Multiple braids hang from the garage rafters. A four-quart basket-full is parked by the back door. She and I have settled on peeling and freezing, thereby easing her mind. Fortunately, the elephant garlic yield was light, enough to fill a three-pound mesh onion bag, which is where the impressive heads went. From there, I lost track of them.

Last week, in a rare attempt at tidiness, I took a suit jacket I’d thrown over a dining room chair to the basement to hang up in my humble wardrobe area. Making room amidst my jackets, I discovered, slung over a hanger between two of my old favorites, a mesh bag full of elephant garlic, which is rightly known in culinary circles as an “aromatic.”

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Slack-jawed, I imagined slipping on my navy blue number and heading out into the world smelling like a really aggressive basket of butter and garlic wings or an overly ambitious angel hair Alfredo.

The responsible party was not in question. But why? Why would one human being nestle a bag of garlic, which has a well-earned reputation for shedding its skin and bleeding essential oils, between two garments belonging to another human being?

Dangling the bag from my index finger, I climbed the steps and started the interrogation with, “What could have possessed you to . . . ?”

Kathy blinked bashfully and pursed her lips as if to say, “Oh, was that wrong of me?”

Garlic, she eventually explained, will keep in a cool, dark place. A basement is normally ideal, but ours is too light. Ah, but there my suit jackets were, the crevasses between them so chilly, so pitch black.

Thankfully, St. John’s Lutheran is planted in a village named “Oniontown,” which wouldn’t look askance at a minister who occasionally smells like a good sauce. It’s all good.

Best of all, I can take a pinch of pride in practicing what I preach. During marriage preparation, I ask each fiancé what’s most maddening about the other. Then I say, “So if things never change, not one bit, can you still say, ‘I do’?”

How blessed am I, having always known the answer to my own question and remembering that I was never mad to start with.

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Open Letter to a Muslim Woman

Open Letter to a Muslim Woman

Dear Dr. Quraishi-Landes:

My hometown newspaper, the Erie Times-News, trumpets harsh headlines today: Muslims face threats: U.S. WOMEN WARNED TO STOP WEARING SCARVES, VEILS. “On the night of the California shootings,” the Associated Press article begins, “Asiha Quraishi-Landes sat on her couch, her face in her hands, and thought about what was ahead for her and other Muslim women who wear a scarf or veil in public.”

Although I read on, the image of you in your home, troubled at the prospect of you and your Muslim sisters being harassed or worse will be plenty to think about for one day.

I know what it’s like to sit with my face in my hands, but not out of fear for my safety. As a white man in the United States, I’m mostly to blame for my own bouts of suffering—poor decisions, personal weakness. I didn’t think twice about heading out the front door this morning and relaxing here at Starbucks with a tall Americano. Nobody cares what is on my head.

But you do have to consider scarfs and veils. “To all my Muslim sisters who wear hijab,” you wrote on Facebook, “If you feel your life or safety is threatened in any way because of your dress, you have an Islamic allowance (darura/necessity) to adjust your clothing accordingly. Your life is more important than your dress.”

The compassion of that last sentence is the fragrance of my Christian-Lutheran faith. In the end, I have to look up from my sacred pages and into the eyes of fellow pilgrims, whose lives call me to study with my heart. As a parish pastor I’ve taught for years that I can’t obey God with rancor strangling my mind and fear torching my soul. The letter of any law is brittle without mercy.

Do we speak these same thoughts in our own ways? I’m guessing we do. And we’ve felt the rancor, fear, and merciless convictions of our most troubled brothers and sisters take our breath away. These are jolting times. Like you, I hold my face and read sadness behind closed eyes.

But you looked up and wrote mindful words to an anxious world. Thank you. I look up with you and remember what the Gospel of John says about losing hope: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

A few weeks ago at another Starbucks I caught some light, and it had to do with hijab. A young woman was waiting for her companion to doctor his coffee. Holding her scarf in place was a pin, a striking burst of gold. I thought at once of a monstrance, which holds the host in Roman Catholic practice.

I walked over to her and said, “I’m not a creep, I promise. I just wanted to say I love that pin you’re wearing.”

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I can’t tell you how much the woman’s pin resembled this monstrance. (Credit: Wikipedia)

She responded with an oh, thank you and a smile. I probably could have skipped the creep preface, since I was sitting with my wife. Anyway, I returned to my table, where I looked up after a few seconds. She was still offering me her smile. I gave her another one of mine for the road. In our small pocket of the United States, two believers exchanged mercy.

This is my reason for writing, actually: I wanted to return to you a mercy. You told your sisters, “Your life is more important than your dress.” I say to you, “Your life is important to me, yours and those in your Muslim family, no matter what you wear. If we should happen to meet, I’ll recognize in your eyes my own spirit, longing for a world of welcoming arms and kind voices.”

Your brother,

John Coleman

I Contain Multitudes. Call Me “They.”

Hi, Jeff.

First, I have to say that I’ve always admired your weirdness. Yes, you’re an odd one. To wit: dyeing your hair orange before going to a gathering with 30,000 teenagers. I could never pull off colored hair, but friends just looked at you and said, “Oh, yeah, that’s Pastor Jeff.” And at 6’4” you would have been visible in a crowd to all your church kids—clever.

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Seymour

Now, on to that last text message about your child: Seymour doesn’t identify as male or female and chooses to not be called daughter rather child and instead of her rather to be called they. I would love to see a blog post on non-gender word usage in a world that is stuck in binary. I struggle a bit but I am learning to honor Seymour’s name and using they as a way of referring to them not her.

I have a bunch of ideas, Jeff, but none of them are about gender-specific language. I hadn’t finished reading your text before a couple of lines from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass interrupted:

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

I confess I also had a sneak preview of your message. Folks in the congregation I’m serving reported about a year ago that their granddaughter altered her name and asked to be referred to as they. So, your child isn’t alone.

For the record, I say that Seymour and Whitman are right. When son Micah was a teenager, he railed against posers. Goth, emo, metal: apparently all groups had posers, kids who were wearing the clothes and moshing the mosh, but not bearing the genuine tribe brand on their souls. Every time we passed some lonely kid on a street corner and Micah gave his critique, I kept my eyes on the road and endured. How could I explain that only the rarest of human beings isn’t a poser? Don’t each of us contain multitudes—compelling personas asking to apply our makeup and fill out our wardrobe?

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Well done, Jeff, but I can still make out your whitewalls.

Gray-hairs like us say, “Oh, Seymour is just trying to find, uh, herself.” Just. As if their search isn’t epic, and as if ours is complete. Seymour is going through a phase, all right, and so are we, brother. It lasts from cradle to grave. You went with orange. My clerical shirts are migrating to the back of the rack—the collar doesn’t mean what it used to. You and I are actually playing it safe, keeping our spiritual boats close to shore.

But your child is—or are?—frying Jonah’s whale. When Seymour says, “Call me they,” they are fussing with not only personal identity, but also with what it means to be human. Your Child-Formerly-Known-as-Anna’s project is Applied Whitman. And picking your own name, that’s a move of biblical proportions. Parents name their children, but Yahweh gets the final say.

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The face of those who force God’s hand–whatever that means. Teach me new words. I’m listening.

So has Seymour forced God’s hand? I’m crazy enough to consider them faithful. As for you, wife Sue, son Isaac, and anybody who cares about Seymour, we ought to speak a brave language, adopt a compassionate grammar–and not complain. Love that won’t receive the beloveds’ new vocabulary and speak awkward sentences as if they’re really songs isn’t love at all.

Just to check, I sent you this text message: “So Seymour is good with my posting this?” You answered, “They are indeed.” I love you for your answer, Jeff. You tell me you’re “learning to honor Seymour’s name.” Let’s all keep learning. What we say will sound like poetry.

Your brother,

John

Blogger’s Note: for photo credits, contact me at my email address, JohnColemanObl@gmail.com.

An Overcast Sky Sings My Revelation

Note: All photographs in this post appear courtesy of Giuseppe Colarusso. Mr. Colarusso, I’m in your debt. Thank you.

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Have you ever had a morning when the environment collaborated with your spirit to yield a revelation?

A gentle rain persists out Starbucks’ window—looks like all-day. The Neil Young songs playing are mostly unfamiliar, but his voice, mournful and easy, soothes me. Milan, the manager of a tuxedo store in the Millcreek Mall, just showed me some absurd photographs by Giuseppe Colarusso, and laughs poured out of my tears reservoir. Damn, it felt good! (I’m convinced, by the way, that sorrow and joy swim in the same waters.)

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Inside my fifty-two-year-old soul, rain also falls, a voice that sounds a bit like crying sings, and here and there, cleansing laughter comes out, inappropriately loud, and turns heads toward me. I’m having a revelation, at once comforting, sad, and playful.

There’s a popular saying these days: It is what it is. Like all maxims it will fall out of favor soon enough, but I plan to appreciate It is what it is (IIWII: pronounced eye-why) while it’s around. IIWII says, “Okay, everybody, the time for acceptance has arrived. We can talk lots more about the situation at hand, complain, dissect, laugh, kvetch, wrestle, curse, and so on. But we should understand that, despite our best efforts, some things aren’t going to change. So let’s just deal. Let’s move on.”

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In this same spirit, a voice like Neil Young’s sings loving words into the ear of my heart. They sound like this overcast sky looks—pale gray pillows: “John, you are who you are.”

Has your life run like mine? Do you struggle to change characteristics that seem, as the years unfold, like matters of wiring? Do you promise yourself that the next time such and so happens, you’ll do better? You’ll be stronger, calmer, smarter, more centered, less sensitive, or whatever more or less you need to be? If your life hasn’t gone this way, you may want to escape and read something more in line with your reality. But if my questions resonate with you, I have one more for the list: At what point in the progression of decades is it best to say, “I am who I am. It’s time to make decisions based on the person I am, not on the person I would like to be”?

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In March of 2006, I wrote in my book Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs to my future children’s—Elena’s and Micah’s—children about identity:

Be warned: the blood in your veins will predispose you to Coleman attributes, some of which you’ll like, and some you won’t. I would like to pick which of my qualities you’ll inherit and which ones will pass you by, but we both know fate doesn’t work that way.

Elena and Micah got your grandmother’s strong, crooked teeth rather than my straight, weak ones, which is to their advantage. Braces can align smiles, but the only cure for rotten teeth is pliers. Micah, who at fourteen brushes his teeth only when I remind him, had zero cavities at his checkup a couple weeks ago. Elena, who at seventeen brushes like a grown up, had two puny cavities. By the time I was their age, I had a couple dozen fillings. If your teeth fall apart, blame me.

Elena inherited my hips, which were wide even when I was running forty miles a week, but Micah got a skinny frame. If you carry extra pounds from the waist down and end up with pants tight at the hips but baggy at the waist, blame me.

When you glance at your reflection in a storefront window and wonder how you got to be who you are, you’ll have plenty to blame me for.

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Mark Twain was supposed to have said, “I’ve had lots of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” If you squander days fretting about problems that never materialize, blame me. If you have bottomless patience, too much patience, occasionally stupid patience, blame me. If you’re smart enough to spot brilliance in others, but aren’t brilliant yourself, blame me. If you endure inexplicable anxiety and depression, blame me. If arguments leave you weary and shaken, blame me. If anything gorgeous makes your spirit ache, blame me. Blame me and forgive me.

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In the eight years that have passed, little has changed. If anything, I may have lost ground where inner-strength and tranquility are concerned, and I’m just as vulnerable in relationships as ever. I am what I am. So, in this moment, Neil Young sings me a question: “Is it time shape your circumstances around the person you are rather than force the person you are to strain and stretch around your circumstances?”

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Does that make any sense? Does there come a point in the maturation process at which you decide to stop trying to muscle your way again and again through situations you weren’t designed to endure? Can there come a revelation when you see clearly that loving and embracing the person you know yourself to be requires that you say goodbye to the person you would prefer to be?

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Such a moment descended on me with this morning’s precipitation. For most of my adult life, I’ve been trying to transcend troubles like a levitating bodhisattva or Jesus asleep in the stern during the storm. Turns out I’m as loving and compassionate as they come, but I’m in equal measure fragile and nervous. I’m not enlightened. And a mustard seed is a boulder next to my faith—if, indeed, faith means an abiding sense of peaceful trust.

I’m a guy sitting in a coffee shop full of pilgrims on a gray day—a guy with more years behind than ahead who has finally, mercifully, gently realized that I am who I am needs to prune IIWII, plant fresh manure around its roots, and dance prayers for rain and sunlight.

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This damp Monday is nurse-wife Kathy’s day off from trying to kick cancer’s butt. Obituaries of her patients say day-by-day, “IIWII.” She loves me in spite of my snoring, recognizes that IIWII is spanking me good, and agrees that it’s time to dance and pray. We’ve made an offer on a fixer-upper, 854 square feet, on the other side of town. Maybe we’ll hear something this week. Boy oh boy, will we have to trim away at what our present 2,100-square-foot house holds—if our bid tops the flipper we’re up against.

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No matter. Who cares if the clouds sprinkle me on the way to the truck? I’ll head for church work, knowing that IIWII often has the last word, but not today. (Does IIWII have you by the throat? I’m thinking strength your way!) Lovely Kathy and I may move into a puny house–or not. Either way, I will toast the bodhisattva Jesus I would prefer to be, give him a kiss, and tell him it’s time to move along.

P.S. The flipper won this round.

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Giuseppe Colarusso

Looking at the Back of the Lord

Then the Lord said [to Moses], “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”

(Genesis 33:21-23)

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Moses and the Burning Bush (Credit: Eugene Plushart. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve spent my adult life trying to be at peace with this arrangement: Sacred Glory may pass by, but, like Moses, I’m permitted only a glimpse of it. Were I to take in the face of Eternal Love, I would probably die from beauty—or to borrow from the poet James Wright, “My bones [would] turn to dark emeralds.”

Acceptance is coming slowly. I can spend my days frustrated and anxious about the earthly deal—I don’t get answers until I’m dead, and maybe not even then—or I can keep watch for the back of Yahweh. I’m going with the latter. Standing in the cleft of the rock, I want to let this world be this world and receive whatever it offers. Lately, my trifocal eyes are catching sacred glimpses that bring my fragile soul to tears, and I’m grateful. God’s glory passes by as if on a loop. My calling is to breathe, keep vigil, and give thanks.

Julie was frustrated because her six-year-old daughter Cora was doodling during a baptism, but because her hands were full with little peanut Lena, she let it go. On the way out of church, Cora crumpled up the doodle and tossed it in the trash. Julie fished it out and stuffed it in her purse. The next day she smoothed out the little ball of paper and read this:

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Author of the baptismal account below (left) comforting Great-Grandma with the help of her little sister.

A little kid and a toddler got baptized. The little kid was four I think and the baby is two maybe. The kid weared a tie and the tie was tucked in his shirt. His pants had red scribbles and the rest was black. The little toddler dipped his hand in the little bowl full of water after he got baptized. Everyone laughed hysterically. Then it was time for them to sit back and while they were getting baptized we had to say a prayer.

“Do you sing in honor and caring to your family and pray?” Asked Pastor John.

“I do” answered the boy.

“Are you care and love about your friendships love?”

“I do”

“Do you love have sins of you?”

“I do” the prayer was.

“I thought that the boy was proud of himself and happy and free. Now what could be happier than love?”

Julie ended: “I have so much to learn from her.” I say: Cora’s words doodled here and there, but she understood the moment. A boy proud of himself, happy and free. What could be happier than love? And would that we all sing in honor and caring to our family.

Glory: a sweet, sensitive girl and a scrap of paper.

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Cora’s doodle

Next-door neighbor Patrick abides in a relentless now. The twelve-year-old sage of Shenley Drive, he happens to have Down’s syndrome. No kidding, the boy is my teacher. I watch him navigate the world and learn to get outside my own squirrelly head and—for the love of God—live! When Patrick is playing, he’s playing. When he’s eating, he’s eating. And, as was the case last week, when he’s sad, he’s sad. He’ll go to a new school next year, and when it came time to say goodbye to the teachers and friends he loves, he did so with all of himself.

Glory: a boy cries holy tears.

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Time for Patrick to say goodbye. Not all glory is glad.

A few days ago I received a text message from son Micah. “Can u email mom for me?

“Sure,” I said. “Message?”

“Ask if she wud help me make another sock puppet tnight?”

This hardly seems like a glimpse of Yahweh, unless you know that Micah, who’s twenty-two, has quite a history: heroin addiction, felony conviction, teenage years filled with rage. But he’s been clean for almost two years and gainfully employed for about one. And he loves being Uncle Micah to six-month-old Cole. This is where the sock puppet comes in. One day he got the idea of making one for his nephew. When he showed me what he came up with, I saw it from the cleft of Moses’ rock.

Glory: when goodness crawls out from a rancid cave and “stand[s] upright in the wind,” the universe blinks back tears.

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Micah’s sock puppet. I suggested the name “Mr. Miggles.” Notice the necktie.

Last week I drove south on I-79 in Pennsylvania, windows down and the Beatles up loud. A couple lines into “I Want to Hold Your Hand” the road got blurry. I thought of wife Kathy, of course, and how as years pass, nonsense and clutter wear away to reveal the deep emerald green of joy—in this case, the simple joy of holding Kathy’s hand. When we both land at home in the early evening, we walk gimpy dog Watson and hold hands off and on. Driving wherever, I take her hand and kiss it.

Glory: there’s room for two in the cleft of Moses’ rock, especially when they stand close together and watch for the back of God . . .

which sometimes looks like a girl’s crumpled up doodle, a boy’s goodbye tears, a healing uncle’s puppet, and a middle-aged woman and man who still hold hands.

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Kathy with Watson. I still want to hold her hand.