Oniontown Pastoral: The Plain Old Here and Now

Oniontown Pastoral: The Plain Old Here and Now

“How do you perform an intervention for an entire society?”Author and film critic Marshall Fine asks this astute question in his essay “Fighting Our Addiction to Empty Stimulation.” He refers mostly to the way electronic devices compromise users’ ability to focus and concentrate, and “addiction” is the perfect descriptor. We’re hooked. Technology developed to simplify and enrich life dims our wits like an opiate.

Of course, some folks are clean. Many of my Oniontown parishioners couldn’t send a text message even if it meant saving the Titanic. In their landline-blessed homes, conversations complete with uninterrupted eye contact occur every day. Amazing!

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A field in Oniontown, right behind St. John’s Lutheran Church, that deserves undivided attention

Personally, I’m not guiltless. My addiction is mild, yet active enough that judgment from me would be hypocritical. Any societal invention getting my vote would have to show understanding and compassion and resist browbeating.

Why? Because addictions won’t be shamed away and don’t surrender to good sense. Smokers with pneumonia still light up. Slack-jawed drivers gaze at screens the size of playing cards while zigzagging through traffic. That’s being hooked—repeatedly engaging in a practice you pretend can’t get you killed.

Distraction isn’t as lethal as some drugs, but the contest is just getting started.

  • The National Institute on Drug Abuse puts cocaine’s death count for 2014 at around 5,500, but distracted driving wants to catch up. According to the CDC, approximately 3000 Americans, many of them teenagers, die each year as a result of drivers texting, grooming, or eating hoagies. 423,765 get injured—a trifle which I say gives distraction the edge.
  • “At any given daylight moment across America, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cell phones or manipulating electronic devices while driving, a number that has held steady since 2010” (Distraction.gov).
  • “75% of college students who walked across a campus square while talking on their cell phones did not notice a clown riding a unicycle nearby. The researchers call this ‘inattentional blindness,’ saying that even though the cell-phone talkers were technically looking at their surroundings, none of it was actually registering in their brains” (health.com).

This last figure sounds benign, but it provides the central insight about our societal addiction: You really cannot do two things at the same time.

Okay, chewing gum while walking is possible, but trying to watch the news and listen to your wife talk about her day insures you’ll do both tasks poorly. Read a text message as well, and you’ve hit a trifecta: flummoxed mind, angry spouse, and bad manners.

The trouble is, technology, especially the mighty capabilities of smart phones, has conned us into acting like just about anything is more needful than chatting with the friends across the table from us or noticing how a field of oats and the clear sky can put a gorgeous frame around the road.

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Framing the road to Oniontown

Our adrenal glands go wild over everything but the plain old here and now, where loved ones need to bend an ear and clowns on unicycles offer us a laugh.

Joan Chittister writes in Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life about a disciple who asks an elder, “Where shall I look for enlightenment?”

The elder explains that the disciple needs simply to look.

“But what do I need to look for?” he asks.

“Nothing,” the elders says, “just look.”

Finally the elder shares the reality that escapes not only the exasperated disciple but also many of us over-stimulated pilgrims these days: “To look you must be here. You are mostly somewhere else.”

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April Fools’ Day, 2016: A Stimulation Junkie Waits for a Second Grandson

April Fools’ Day, 2016: A Stimulation Junkie Waits for a Second Grandson

The impulse to check my iPhone has been wicked lately. Of course, today I have good cause.

This very instant (10:42 a.m.) a text message from wife Kathy landed: “Contractions are picking up.” Daughter Elena is the contractor, and grandson Killian Davis Thompson is the contractee. I suppose that would be the arrangement.

The previous update rolled in at 9:22: “They just broke her water. All is well.”

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First grandson Cole listens for his little brother, Killian

Present circumstances are compelling, but I’m checking my iPhone now only a little more often than usual, which is idiotically, pathetically, embarrassingly often. It’s as if the 4.7-inch screen—yes, I looked up the dimensions on the devise itself—will give me what I’m after, which is . . . what?

I could say that I want to calm spiritual restlessness or escape mortal ennui, but the truth is mundane and unflattering and, I believe, pandemic. I’m so confident of the affliction that I won’t bother confirming the commonality of what follows with even a whiff of evidence.

I’m a stimulation junkie. And I don’t like it one bit. Seriously, I’ve got some work to do. How can a middle-aged man who has practiced prayer-meditation for over twenty-five years be so easily and frequently uncentered?

For the last few days, Kathy and I have dog-sat Layla, Elena and son-in-law Matt’s yellow Lab, who is affectionate, but as tranquil as a panicked doe. On our afternoon walks, Layla zigzags as though she is fleeing gunfire. The point: sometimes my soul looks like my grand-dog, aquiver with indecision about where to sprinkle her next droplets of pee. I’m looking wildly about for nothing in particular, or so it feels.

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Layla attempting the old K-9 mind trick: “Pop, you don’t want the rest of your sandwich.”

11:39, and I just checked for updates, even though my iPhone plays a come-hither, noir saxophone wah waaaah when Kathy sends a text. But, hey, I might not have heard.

In fairness, updates are always tapping me on the shoulder or landing like mosquitoes on my ankles. Heaven forbid I should miss something.

I have 568 Facebook friends, which means at any moment a photograph of food porn or an unsexy kissy-lips selfie might show up. Fortunately I have enough self-control to shut off the bee boop alert for each new post.

I don’t do Twitter because the whole hashtag lingo is lost on me. Thank God for small blessings.

But, really, these early years of the 21st century conspire to distract, rush and over-stimulate all of us who let technology and the media govern our habits. Consider:

  • Not only is patience often unnecessary, it’s downright discouraged. Used to be you had to endure a week of suspense and torment between episodes of your favorite television show. Now with enough Doritos and moxie, you can cram a whole season’s twists and turns into one calendar day.
  • I admit it, I’m a Pandora fan. Sadly, my tolerance for a song that gets off to an unappealing start is low. If it’s bland, I hit the skip button. During my teenage years, we Erie kids had WJET 1400 am or K104 fm. If both were playing clunkers, we had to wait it out, commercials, news, and all.
  • Credit cards: the black holes of impatience and impulse. Why plan and save?
  • Back to my iPhone: last night at the Coleman house we wondered if Steve Buscemi was, indeed, the voice of Templeton the rat in a film version of Charlotte’s Web. Shazam. We knew in seconds.
  • My MacBook Air, at my spoiled fingertips right now, dumps most of the information I need in my lap, without a drive to the library and an interrogation of the card catalog.

And so on. It’s hard to imagine what harm there might be in getting what I want when I want it, but I think the pace is injecting my disposition full of adrenaline. When nothing is going, when my head is left hanging with “shave and a hair cut . . . ,” I bob my leg.

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Leg bobbing in coffee shop

This is not good—not for me, not for us. Get ready to roll your eyes, but I suspect that our collective stimulation addiction has fueled the rise of at least one presidential contender, Donald Trump. I keep asking myself why his frightening behavior isn’t blasting him out of contention for the highest office in the land.

Why? Because every day he stimulates us out of our wits. What will the twit Tweet next? Stay tuned. As long as he accumulates delegates, there’s no way we can get bored.

But enough of this sad digression. It’s 12:32, and I’m jonesing for Kathy’s alluring sax and a second grandson.

My Killian is about to arrive! Now that’s a great reason to stare at an iPhone screen. But a goof gnawing on a ghost pepper? Or television news bloopers from 2014? Or worse? Why do I cram my head full of such diversional potato chips?

Later on, when I kiss my grandson’s head and smell the perfume all newborns wear, maybe he’ll birth a new grandfather—a man who enjoys deep breaths and looks at the sky.

Come on, kiddo. You’ll still have the wise before-world on your skin when I hold you. Share a little with your Pop.

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Pop receives before-world wisdom

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Killian suits her. I can’t remember when I’ve seen Kathy quite this beautiful.

 

My Problem as a Parent

A couple of weeks ago daughter Elena and I lunched on Reubens while grandson Cole chipmunked curly fries.

“Cole,” she said, “swallow your food before you take another bite.”

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Sorry, buddy, but the answer is still “no.”

“My biggest problem as a parent,” I said, “was that I couldn’t watch you suffer.” I had complimented Elena a moment earlier on her heart of flint when Cole pitches fits over major and minor upsets. A distinctive strength is needed to stand clear and let a child, or any loved one for that matter, endure inevitable pain. Elena has got the moxie and nodded in agreement that I don’t.

I never have. There are good reasons, family dysfunction, blah blah blah. But as I stare down the barrel of fifty-four—one highlight of my birthday will be the delivery of new blades for my Panasonic wet/dry electric razor—rummaging through the dynamics of home over two score years ago isn’t on my agenda.

Still, I’ve been doing naval gazing in excess lately, mainly because I’m pulling up vocational roots, leaving the church family I’ve served for fourteen years, and assuming a part-time call starting November 1st. You name the emotion, I’ve got it going. My late father’s favorite song, “Feelings” by Morris Albert, plays in my head. “Feelings, whoa whoa whoa feelings.” Rats!

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Oh, Abiding Hope, I’ll miss you.

Sadness has the upper hand at the moment. During prayer this morning, a sob seemed to be building. When that baby cuts loose, all the handkerchiefs in my drawer won’t handle the tears and snot. Fatigue also has me by the collar. Having a projectile crying jag stuck in your throat is draining.

The point is, I’m raw, looking inward, giving thanks for peeks of goodness, lamenting valleys of deficit—which brings me back to watching loved ones suffer. My favorite quote from Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha touches my feelings:

Do you think, my dear friend, that anybody is spared [the path of suffering]? Perhaps your little son, because you would like to see him spared sorrow and pain and disillusionment? But if you were to die ten times for him, you would not alter his destiny in the slightest.

Same goes for daughters, wives, friends, et. al. While swimming in the river of ambiguity is comfortable, agony plunges me under. I haven’t given up hope of knowing peace in currents of distress, but each passing birthday ups the odds against me.

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Joy visits in the form of lipstick flowers at the house wife Kathy and I are getting ready to sell.

In case you think I’m beating myself up, don’t worry. I just want to be truthful and authentic. No posturing, no rationalization. If I’m full of crap about myself, it won’t be intentional.

And in case you think John’s October days are nothing but whoa whoa whoa, don’t worry. Joy visits frequently, reminding me that my gifts keep pace with shortcomings.

Case study: It’s 7:54 p.m. in the Coleman house, and son Micah (23) and I have been talking about, well, feelings. The conversation consumed forty-five minutes, half of which consisted of his account of anger behind the wheel.

My boy was following a fogey from Wyoming, probably a poor soul for whom Erie may as well have been the D.C. beltway. Micah was pissed. Trying to get from one worksite to another, he could see only his nemesis’ gray hair.

“Breathe in anger,” Micah said. “Breathe out compassion.”

I was quiet. Where the hell did he get this?

He went on: “I was thinking that when you’re old, you’re probably not in a hurry. Maybe you’re alone and don’t really want to get home.”

I closed my eyes.

“You know, like, if I’ve been home all day and I think of getting a Gatorade, I’ll just say, ‘I’m going to go get a Gatorade.’ So I go, and I don’t give a shit about getting back.”

“Yes,” I thought, “this is what I’ve been trying to teaching you.” But I kept my mouth shut.

Turns out my son has been taking in some Thich Nhat Hanh talks on YouTube. Days ago he mentioned the name to one of his doctors, who replied, “How long have you been seeing him?”

Micah joked that the famous Buddhist monk isn’t covered by our insurance and is out of his price range anyway. He was trying to sit with his emotions, he explained, not run away from them, not deny them.

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You’ve learned. Micah. Now teach your father.

All these years! All the rages during which I despaired at my son’s future. Addiction. Arrest. Felony. Moving on. And somewhere in the crevasse, at the bottom of the bottomless ice that froze away twilight after twilight of my peace, he heard a word or two. Now he is looking down his fragile old man’s path. Maybe sanity will be there, maybe truth.

I’ll take every lump my weaknesses have earned, but a gentle soul is also due its compensation. Micah got the Zen business from me. My foolish enabling put Kathy, Elena, and Micah through hell, but my refusal to close compassion’s door made this evening possible.

The jerks who get in my boy’s way have their own stories, just like he does. He swears at them one day and expects that the next day somebody else will curse him. But before his sputters swell into rants, he breathes in and out. Compassion floats in his messy car along with the coconut vapor from his electronic cigarette. Maybe the driver in front of him is choking on grief or so lonely that any errand beats an apartment’s dim silence. At last he understands.

Birthday presents this year will be incidental blessings. I’ve already received extravagant gifts. My daughter is a stronger, wiser parent than her father. My son is falling in love with the world.

A Declaration of Light

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

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The light: often nothing but a ribbon on the horizon. It is enough. (Credit: Niels Busch / Corbis)

Thursday at work, son Micah helped patch up the ceiling in an apartment occupied by a pregnant–any day now!–Chinese woman conversant in English and her father, who relied entirely on her as translator. Sensitive to her condition, Micah took extra care plastering and sanding, going so far as to bundle the messy tarps up, load them in his trunk, and take them to the company dumpster for shaking out. He didn’t want any dust in the mother’s and baby’s lungs.

The woman’s father noticed Micah’s consideration and repeated three times: “Xeixei.” Thank you.

Knowing what the father was saying, Micah nodded, smiling politely, kind of bowing.

I learned all this when I got home at 9:00 that night. Micah had spent a couple of hours researching and practicing. He would finish the patching job Friday, and he wanted to give the Chinese man a proper reply.

As I sipped a red blend and warmed up leftover pizza, Micah told me the story and practiced: “Bu yong xei.” Over and over. We even said it together. “I don’t want to sound like an asshole, Dad,” he said. “Does this sound right to you?”

The syllables passed for “don’t mention it” or “you’re welcome.” “I don’t know,” I said. “But I think all you have to do is mean it and you’ll be fine.”

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Hanging in my study. Micah’s elementary school handiwork.

All day I wondered how he made out. Actually, my son had already made me proud. It’s the thought that counts and all that. When he got home, though, I was waiting. “So how’d it go?”

The man’s pregnant daughter was present when Micah finished the job.

“Thank you,” she said.

He had cribbed the words on his wrist: “Bu yong xei.”

“Oh!” she said, “Your Chinese is very good.”

Micah headed out the door, but before he got to his car, the father leaned out and called to him: “Xeixei.”

My son’s spirit blossomed in the gray afternoon: “Bu yong xei,” he said, without reading this time.

The Chinese father’s smile dispersed the clouds. He bowed and made prayer hands.

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Light has its way with darkness on Presque Isle.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Five years ago I would have agreed, but the words would have caught like a lump of doubt in my throat. Micah was covered over in what is now his rich compost of consequences. But on Friday, “Bu yong xei.” A stargazer lily grows out of the rot. A shaft of sun persists in a thunder storm.

I bet my life on light. Its promise to confuse and overcome darkness fills my chest and speaks a truth I share with another Father: “This is my son, my beloved. With him I am well pleased.”

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Some blossoms take years. That’s all right.

 

Confessional Prayer of a Napping Pastor

Dear God:

Naps lately haven’t been as long and lovely as in the past, which is a good thing, I suppose. For years one worry after another choked my spirit, but now I’ve caught my breath. Kathy is in a good space, even though I constantly test her patience. Our children seem to have outgrown their respective insanities. Former Goth girl Elena married wise, gentle Matt, and they’ve come up with our grandson Cole. And Micah hasn’t shot up for over eighteen months. When I lie down these days, siestas aren’t for escape, but refreshment.

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6:00 p.m. Fewer pancakes, same amount of syrup. Forgive me, Lord. (Credit: Dieter  Heinemann / Westend61 / Corbis)

Tonight all of us will meet at the church for Shrove Tuesday pancakes and sausage. I’m having real syrup, but promise to take extra insulin. The food will be delicious, but all of us together fussing over Cole will be the main course. Then, back at home, I’ll enjoy the fruit of the vine—for medicinal purposes.

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Just a splash, Lord. (Credit: Walter Zerla / Blend Images / Corbis)

At the moment I’m sipping strong, sweet coffee at Starbucks with the regulars. Alan showed up a few minutes ago. As always, my hands said namaste, and he bowed. Breathing in. Breathing out. I’m not suffering.

God, you probably already know what’s on my mind, but just in case, I have a confession:

I’m grateful for this day: for the stubborn solo digit Fahrenheit air, for my 6:45 silence with you, for this coffee, for hours ahead that don’t threaten me, for more love and mercy than I deserve. But I still look over my shoulder, still twitch when the undergrowth rustles with one more emotional ambush. A Paul Simon song states the truth:

When something goes right

Well it’s likely to lose me

It’s apt to confuse me

It’s such an unusual sight

Oh, I swear, I can’t get used to something so right

Something so right.

The deal is, Lord, I’m trying to get used to not constantly feeling anxious and shitty. When we sit together, I think you whisper into the ear of my heart: “Relax, John, and live. Relax and live.”

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I hear your Saint Benedict’s instruction, Lord: “Listen with the ear of your heart.” (Credit: icon by Clarisse Jaegar; photograph by Eugenio Hansen, OFS; on Wikimedia Commons)

If I started saying thank you right now and gave the rest of my days to repeating it, I couldn’t pile up enough thank you’s to cover my present gratitude. At the same time, I have to pray the truth. I don’t believe you dispense today’s blessings any more than you orchestrated yesterday’s despair. I might be wrong on this, but these assumptions aren’t behind my thank you’s.

Some of my brothers and sisters talk about having a personal relationship with you, but I can’t make us work that way. You know! I don’t ask for favors. I roll around in you. Your wind-song moves over my skin. You don’t “maketh me to lie down in green pastures” and “leadeth me beside the still waters.” You are my green pastures and still waters. I breathe you in. I breathe you out. And when I do pray that you grant me something concrete, it’s a desperate beggar talking. Oh, Lord, you know.

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Hi, Lord. (Credit: Yi  Lu / Viewstock / Corbis)

Why am I telling you all this? I don’t understand myself. Maybe a crevasse in my soul finds warmth in being honest with you. When Micah was a junkie, I never blamed you. I did wonder—within the cosmic economy—why such a demanding son ended up with such a fragile father, but not once did I say, “God, why did you do this to me?” And as I sit here today, my gratitude for how well that man-boy is doing doesn’t mean that I think you said, “Okay, John’s suffered enough. I’ll make his son clean.”

I say thank you not because you guide me to lost keys and make my diabetes go away, though I’m fine with any help in such arenas. I say thank you because I feel you near. When I close my eyes, as I do now, and calm myself, a wordless voice speaks–yours, I suspect: “John, John. I’m here. Don’t look up. My hands hold the stone of grief in your chest. My lips kiss your face, creased with joy.”

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Is that you, God, breathing? (Credit: Gary Weathers / Tetra Images / Corbis)

Another truth: moments pass now and then when I’m afraid I’ve made you up, and the Milky Way’s swirl is nothing but dust and light. So I’ve got no choice, God, but to give myself and all I love to you, even my belief. I’m your grateful, confused son, liking this coffee, planning on a light nap at 2:00, looking forward to cradling our grandson over pancakes tonight, and doing my best to let you be my close Mystery, my green pasture in tears and gladness.

Amen

A House with Shaman Doorknobs

For over thirteen years the Coleman family has lived in a white house in Erie, Pennsylvania. If ever there were a house with soul, it’s 322 Shenley Drive. In its rooms wife Kathy, daughter Elena (twenty-five, now a married mother ten minute’s away), son Micah (twenty-two, working full-time and living at home), and I have known joy that wouldn’t let us stop laughing and sadness that had me, at least, looking at the bedroom ceiling at bedtime and praying: “I’d never take the life you gave me, God, but if you’re merciful, I’d be okay with not waking up in the morning.”

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A house with soul

This is a vulnerable admission, but as a pastor I’ve talked to so many people who have thought the same thing that I’m prepared to cut the crap. Some stretches in life are wretched enough to make you hope for a personal appointment with the One who promises to wipe away all tears. You can quote me on that.

But lately days are many stories above despair. (Did you just hear a rapping sound? That’s me knocking on every wooden surface within reach, including my own head.) As the blessing of being a rookie grandfather keeps pulling my lips into a smile, I’m finding it possible to glance backward without feeling a leaden weight in my chest or anticipating an ambush.

This morning–I’ve no clue why–I thought about doorknobs and what a rickety, inadequate collection we have in the Coleman house. I’m betting that among you indulgent folks reading this, nobody has such a crummy home full of doorknobs. What an impotent group! But as I went through the house studying doorknobs, I found myself visiting the last dozen Coleman years–tough years, but not without gladness. It was like looking at the jewelry of a loved one long gone. There was a fullness in the moment. That’s what the doorknobs were for me.

Front Door

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I don’t remember when the actual knob fell off, but for reasons I’ll never understand, we’ve never actually corrected the deficiency. Sure, we could get a whole new knob assembly, but that would make too much sense. Fortunately, this stump does allow you to exit, but there’s a technique involved. Years ago, it occurred to me that getting out required the exact movement used in giving somebody a counterclockwise purple nurple. Once during a particularly sophomoric evening, a guest looked at the stump and wondered what to do. I said, “Look, you want to get out, you have to pinch the nipple.” I said this without guessing that in our inappropriate home, my instruction would become a mantra. 

I’ve stopped hoping for a fix. In the Coleman story, the front door reminds me that some problems never go away, some simple inconveniences become squatters. I can live with this.

Bathroom Door 

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Ah, yes, one of those good, old-fashioned glass doorknobs. Let me tell you, they’re hotdog water. I’ve lost count of how many replacements I’ve installed, only to have them go to pieces in a month. I don’t even know where the model shown here came from. It just appeared up one day, and so far it has held together. Long after the house is gone, this doorknob may still be intact. It’s so tight a few days ago I heard Kathy shout after a shower, “Help! I’m trapped!” She’d put on lotion and couldn’t get any traction.

At various times we’ve stuck a pair of scissors in the empty hole, a slick solution, but understandably pathetic to visitors. I looked at this knob this morning and thought, “Yeah, well, you do what you can and laugh along the way.”

Upstairs Closet Door 

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I love this one. It works perfectly–no shimmying. And it’s the doorknob equivalent to power steering. Mmm. It’s also attached to one of the least used doors in the house. I suppose that’s Murphy’s Law of Doorknobs.

One of our cats, Baby Crash, is fond of sneaking in this closet when the door’s left ajar and then gets marooned inside. The teaching: a tool can be fantastic, but if I don’t make use of it, what’s the point?

Dining Room Double Door 

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Natural wood. Man oh man, am I a natural wood guy. Varnish, stain, polyurethane, oil: do whatever you want, just don’t slap white paint on every wooden surface in the house like my dad did. The only drawback to this door is that it’s nearly impossible to keep it closed. You hear it click, think it’s good, but next time you check the door has yawned open by its own will. This door and its knob remind me of having an easy-on-the-eye chef who overcooks your salmon. We have a couple other doorknobs that don’t do their jobs either, without the merit of being pleasing to look at.

Too many times over the years I’ve been cowardly and said, “Just let it be. Maybe the problem will get up and leave on its own.” At least in the case of the dining room double doors, I’m right. The door won’t close because the floor has heaved slightly, and I’m not about to fuss with it. The solution: the door and knob are attractive, even if they don’t work. Guess I can love them the way they are.

My Study Door 

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I come from a family of door slammers. When I was ten years old, my mother got really pissed, walked over to the basement, opened the door, and slammed it shut. Then she walked a few steps away, turned around, stomped back, opened the door again, and slammed it shut again. When Micah’s bedroom was in my present study, he did something to piss me off, but I didn’t engage in slamming. I just rammed the door open with my forearm. Who knows what set me off? All I can say is my study door won’t close until I do surgery with wood putty.

When I take responsibility for the damage, I’m quietly grateful. Who am I to scold somebody for poor choices or a destructive temper? I’ve got no business looking down on anybody.

Micah’s Bedroom Door 

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When son Micah was hooked on heroin, I refused to condemn him. I stood at his bedroom door as he slept this morning and remembered that in the shitland of active addiction, he was still quick witted, hilarious, and decent. I still crack up when I walk by Wilfred Brimley, “official sponsor of diabetis.” In my worst moments I despaired of Micah’s healing, but I always knew that if he came around, an exceptional young man would rise from the ashes. His doorknob is altogether missing these days, but who cares?

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Micah closes his bedroom door with a rope tied to a twenty-pound dumbbell. He’s content with this arrangement, and in our present doorknob context, so am I.

Kathy and John’s Bedroom and Closet Door 

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Bedroom and closet doorknobs put to good use

Elena and son-in-law Matt have now given Kathy and me a grandson, Cole. Micah, still under our roof, has his own life. We rarely close our bedroom door, so we hang clothes on our doorknobs.

In the end, I don’t give a rat’s rump about doorknobs. I care that loved ones can open needful doors and aching stories can be told.