Love Poem on a Peninsula

Love Poem on a Peninsula

for Kathy, as always

 

On the way to a run

I pulled over to watch goslings,

around a dozen,

bent to tender grass.

 

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The adults let me get close,

maybe because I wanted

some pictures to show

Kathy when she got out of work.

 

“Oh, John,” she would have said,

my name at the top of her throat,

held for a full pleading measure

so the geese would take my soul.

 

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“Oh, Kathy,” I answered as light

off the lake blinded my first steps,

“these colors are for your eyes,

this perfect air is your blessing.”

 

And she would have told me

to receive every curiosity and dazzle,

sometimes stammering with joy,

our path a riot of hosannas.

 

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She was desk-bound during my run,

but still announced the toad—

or frog or whatever—I nearly crushed

and the bird dragging dead grass home.

 

It’s not as though I have a choice.

Kathy insists that I learn: Beauty is urgent.

“Hey, look.” She hopes to save me.

“Look,” she says. “Oh, John, look!”

Oniontown Pastoral #2: Visitation

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I don’t know anything sadder than a summer’s day.

(“The Geese” by E. B. White)

Who doesn’t love summer? Millions of northerners flock south each year in hopes of denying winter its due.

I accept the migration’s logic, but my attraction to summer or any mild weather is complicated. If the sky is flawless blue, I remember that for some folks, clouds block the light.

E. B. White’s summer sadness descended as he watched an old gander on his farm defeated by a young male. The Charlotte’s Web author, in his early seventies, sympathized with the displaced bird.

My ambivalence toward nice weather has its own causes. When I was a teenager my grandparents tried to outrun Gram’s arthritis by moving to Sun City, Arizona. While the dry climate was physically medicinal, the miles from children and grandchildren punished her heart.

My mother died in June of 1998 while I was doing chaplaincy training. At the end of each day of caring for others, I floated a city block to my car through a hot haze of grief.

So memories and disposition keep the unbridled joy of a beautiful day in check. I wouldn’t call my mood sad, though. Mindful is more accurate. I pray for people for whom getting from stoop to car is herculean or impossible. I dream them with me into the light.

Last week I visited homebound parishioners. Ah, the weather! Driving was a pleasure, windows down a couple of inches. Walking across parking lots was all Julie Andrews spinning and singing from the lively hills.

But it never takes long to recall that beauty depends on your perch. If walls and a non-compliant body keep you from taking in deep draughts of outside air and picking tomatoes with your own two hands, then whatever breeze sneaks in through the screen might bring out a sigh of resignation rather than delight.

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Bulletin board in an old folks’ home near Oniontown

This evening while enduring the television news, I’ll have a splash of pinot noir—just to gladden my human heart. What does a long-stem wine glass look like to an elderly child of God who shakes unpredictably? Or a chalice full of Sacred Presence? Spills waiting to happen?

Such questions should depress me, but they don’t. Seeing through homebound eyes is a lighter prayer than you might think. Anyway, I won’t dishonor them with sorrow. Maybe God can use my gratitude—for the filling of lungs, lifting a spoonful of broth, finding the Big Dipper—to bless my friends, to grant them an hour’s gladness.

My own joy is tender to the touch—only selfish joy isn’t bruised. I miss Mom now more than eighteen years ago when summer hung on me like wool.

But this March day is stunning, brilliant, 60 degrees. Chores are next on the list, then a walk. I’ll bring Mom and gather everyone I can remember as I go.

Dear God, please take the saints I forget by the hand and lead the way.

Fats Waller and the Frosted Trees

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Fats Waller (Credit: Alan Fisher on Wikimedia Commons)

Fats Waller and the Frosted Trees

Jelly Roll Morton, Scott Joplin, and Fats Waller make me grateful. As Steve Martin said decades ago, “You just can’t sing a depressing song when you’re playing the banjo.” Same with driving in the country and listening to piano rolls, rags, and strides.

This past week Fats, the color white, and gratitude owned my commute from Erie to St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown, Pennsylvania. The hour south on I-79, Route 19, and District Road was a hot damn of thanksgiving–“Handful of Keys,” “Lulu’s Back in Town,” “When Someone Thinks You’re Wonderful.”

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Grandson Cole, wonderful kid with a new lid

Why did pianos and frosted branches make me take inventory? I don’t understand myself all that well, so who knows? My list wrote itself slowly and silently.

  • I have a surplus of love. One step in any direction, there it is. Wife, grown kids, one grandson and another on the way, more family and a ton of friends. An absolute wonder of wonderful souls.
  • Those closest to me are holding together okay. No crises going down or chops busting in process.
  • I have a home, warm or cool as desired, so much food that possibilities have to be eliminated, and a king’s ransom of clean water.
  • My closet holds wardrobes for varying weight classes with acquisitions I’ve forgotten.
  • Bill collectors are not breaking down the door.
  • I dig the bookends of my commute—solace to the north and good purpose to the south.

As the miles clicked away, as Fats sparkled, as the snowy trees formed cathedrals surreal with beauty, Gershwin lyrics came to me: “Got my gal, got my Lawd, got my song.”

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Beloved Watson with the mother of fatty tumors

“No use complaining,” Porgy says as an aside, though he didn’t know about the Coleman family’s dog Watson, weary, arthritic, laden with tumors. He is our hobbling source of agape—unconditional love. A month ago, a lump appeared in the middle of his forehead. Its rapid growth foreshadows his absence, even as he manages a fetch or two. He snorts constantly, trying to clear a mass that won’t budge.

Nearing the end of my commute, I allowed that happiness isn’t a prerequisite for gratitude. Twelve years of Watson’s mild presence has been extravagant by any measure.

IMG_4150I would say that my inventory was a prayer, but Fats alone was that, as were the frosted trees and a line from a musical. I received the wide mercy—alpha to omega—of giving thanks for miles with my eyes, ears, and lungs and not once calling God by name.

 

Diddy Wa Diddie and a Lovely Daughter: A Summer Rerun

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The key in question–honest!

(Note: the following post originally appeared in slightly different form on May 17, 2013, back when A Napper’s Companion had a dozen readers–give or take six. If you’ve already read this, forgive the clutter. If not, enjoy. Peace, John)

Yesterday. Weird. Wonderful. I had just finished praying, propped up in bed, when daughter Elena’s dog ringtone barked. 8:01 a.m. I had intended to set my Zen bell app for another fifteen minutes, but duty called. Elena (almost twenty-five) locked her keys in her house. Could I zip up and let her in with my key? Of course. I would be there in ten minutes.

“Don’t rush, Daddy,” she said. “My boss knows I’ll be a little late. I’ll be at [mother-in-law] Janine’s,” which is two-minute walk up the street. (As it happened, Janine couldn’t find Elena’s key either.)

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Photo Credit: waferboard

So I dressed, fed the animals and, well, rushed, but it still took me twenty minutes to get there. I figured Elena would be on the porch pacing and drumming her fingers on the railing. Nope. She was inside sipping coffee, talking with Janine and cute-as-an-acre-of-daisies niece Shaylee, and so disgustingly not in a hurry that she immediately brought me to myself.

Shamatha—calm abiding. Habit energy’s anxious gravity eased up. I breathed in, breathed out.

“I walked up here, Daddy,” Elena said when we got into the car, “and said, ‘I’m going to have myself a cup of coffee.’”

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Elena with Her Handmade Cupcake Piñata

I waited in the car as she let herself into the house, brought back the key, and headed to her car. In the three seconds it took her to get from my jalopy to her (and princely son-in-law Matt’s) Subaru wagon, joy settled inside me. Her ponytail bobbed and bounced; her flowing dress swayed. What a lovely daughter! She seemed in that instant like a five-year-old again—sweetness and light, giddy in the sunshine and wind.

I drove back home to pick up son Micah (twenty-one) and get him to a couple hour’s of community service yanking weeds and slinging peat moss. Along the way I pulled over on South Shore Drive to witness the sun coming through the spring trees on the boulevard.

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Micah’s body clock has goofed itself into third-shift mode, so I woke him three hours after he’d gone to bed. In year’s past when he was in the midst of mighty struggles, he would have been a winey little witch, but he got up, ate a bowl of Raisin Bran, hopped in the car, lit a cigarette, and joked with me till I dropped him off. “Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles!” Boy is becoming a man.

Before driving off, I texted chemo-nurse-wife Kathy, who had told me she expected a crazy day at work. Every now and then I send her what we call a Pocket Note, a taste of gladness she can read over lunch. “Kathy Coleman gets tired and is very busy,” I wrote, “but she genuinely cares about her patients. And that’s wonderful.” As I hit send, I heard the voice of Jack Nicholson in my head: “Well, aren’t you the little ray of sunshine.”

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Jack Nicholson (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

On my way to the church, I plugged my snotty iPhone into the car speakers and listened to Leon Redbone’s rousing version of “Diddy Wa Diddie” on You Tube. (Yes, I know about the song’s double entendre, but don’t care. Want a song that’ll make you want to laugh and dance? Have a go.) It was so good I listened to it twice.

And the day went on like this, blessings lining up on the road before me. Micah’s last-minute therapy appointment forced me to abbreviate my siesta, but even this alteration to my plans didn’t take the shine off the afternoon.

While my son unpacked the meaning of life, I perched two minutes east on West 26th Street on Brick House Coffee Bar’s porch, nursed an iced latte, and did some church work—what a gift to have a flexible schedule and technology that lets me get work done literally anywhere!

I could go on, but you get the idea. “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” That’s how John Lennon would have described yesterday. If Elena hadn’t locked herself out, the day might not have glowed as it did.

Thanks, my dear, for inspiring Thursday, May 16, 2013, to be full of gentle, mindful sanity!

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By the driveway

Profile of a Great Soul: Joseph Merrick (The Elephant Man)

This afternoon as I waited for my computer to download security updates, my bored eyes fixed on The True History of the Elephant Man by Michael Howell and Peter Ford in the bookcase, and I decided then and there to tell you about Joseph Carey Merrick.***

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Joseph Merrick in 1888. (Credit: Wikipedia)

As you would suspect, Merrick was called the Elephant Man for a reason. He was as ugly a man as ever lived. Born in England in 1862, Merrick showed signs of what is now believed to be Proteus syndrome when he was two years old and his lower lip began swelling. Within a few months, a tumor developed on his cheek and upper lip. Soon another appeared on his forehead, and his skin became rough and hung loosely from his body. By the time Merrick was four or five, his feet and right arm grew disproportionately large. A fall damaged his left hip, which left him with a permanent limp.

Howell and Ford’s book includes “The Autobiography of Joseph Carey Merrick.” I’ll let Merrick himself describe what came next in his life:

I went to school like other children until I was about 11 or 12 years of age, when the greatest misfortune of my life occurred, namely—the death of my mother, peace to her, she was a good mother to me; after she died my father broke up his home and went to lodgings; unfortunately for me he married his landlady; henceforth I never had one moment’s comfort, she having children of her own, and I not being so handsome as they, together with my deformity, she was the means of making my life a perfect misery; lame and deformed as I was, I ran, or rather walked away from home two or three times . . . .

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The hood Joseph Merrick wore in public. (Credit: Wikipedia)

At thirteen Merrick got a job rolling cigars by hand, but his right hand grew too clumsy even for that. His stepmother’s cruelty made him prefer hunger and the streets rather than home, but his increasingly disturbing appearance prevented him from begging and drew curious crowds. As a teenager he lived in an infirmary, where he had surgery to remove the tumor from his upper lip, which hung down over his mouth like an elephant’s trunk.

In his early twenties, Merrick took to the road, displaying himself in freak shows. He saved fifty British pounds (a lot of money in those days), which were stolen by his manager, who left him stranded in Belgium. Broke, hungry, and demoralized, Merrick somehow managed to buy passage on a boat to England, where he landed in London, smelling foul and speaking unintelligibly through his twisted lips. When the police discovered him collapsed in a heap in a corner of a railway station and besieged by folks gawking at the freak, he handed them a business card he had wisely preserved during his journeys. On it was the name of a London physician, Frederick Treves, who had once examined Merrick.

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Joseph Merrick in 1889. (Credit: Wikipedia)

The police found Treves, and together they hoisted the Elephant Man into a horse-drawn cab and took him to the London Hospital, where his fortunes changed. As the public heard the story of Merrick’s horrible experiences, citizens donated funds to provide for his care. Frederick Treves became his doctor and friend. After years of cruelty and humiliation, he found a home at the London Hospital. There, in two basement rooms, he received medical attention, welcomed visitors from the elite of London society (including the Princess of Wales), and lived simply for the rest of his days.

To me Merrick’s deformities and sufferings aren’t the most remarkable aspects of his story. What makes him heroic is the absence of rancor in his heart. In his article “The Elephant Man,” Frederick Treves wrote that Merrick “was not the least spoiled; not the least puffed up; he never asked for anything; was always humbly and profoundly grateful” and “one of the most contented creatures I have chanced to meet.”

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Sir Frederick Treves (Credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, Merrick’s abuse and abandonment left wounds. He could never quite believe that his rooms at London Hospital were permanent and occasionally asked Treves where and when he would be moved next. Would it be possible, Merrick wondered, to live at a blind asylum or a remote lighthouse, where he wouldn’t be a spectacle? At times unknown forces plunged him into hours of despair, when he would rock and beat on the arm of his chair with his massive right hand.

“As a specimen of humanity,” Treves wrote, “Merrick was ignoble and repulsive; but the spirit of Merrick, if it could be seen in the form of the living, would assume the figure of an upstanding and heroic man, smooth browed and clean of limb, and with eyes that flashed undaunted courage.”

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Joseph Merrick in 1889. (Credit: Wikipedia)

As Merrick’s disease progressed, his body became not only increasingly repulsive to others, but also exhausting and awkward for him to control. In his essay “The Elephant Man,” Frederick Treves describes one of Merrick’s problems that led to his death:

So large and so heavy was his head that he could not sleep lying down. When he assumed the recumbent position the massive skull was inclined to drop backwards, with the result that he experienced no little distress. The attitude he was compelled to assume when he slept was very strange. He sat up in bed with his back supported by pillows, his knees were drawn up, and his arms were clasped around his legs, while his head rested on the points of his bent knees.

He often said to me that he wished he could lie down to sleep ‘like other people’. I think . . . he must, with some determination, have made the experiment. The pillow was soft, and the head, when placed on it, must have fallen backwards and caused a dislocation of the neck. Thus it came about that his death was due to the desire that had dominated his life—the pathetic but hopeless desire to be ‘like other people’.

Merrick’s body may have been pathetic, but I consider him a great soul. Instead of raging at the universe, Merrick created cardboard cathedrals to give away and wrote numerous letters, which he sometimes concluded with an adaptation of two stanzas of “False Greatness” by Isaac Watts:

            ‘Tis true my form is something odd,

            But blaming me is blaming God;

            Could I create myself anew

            I would not fail in pleasing you.

            If I could reach from pole to pole

            Or grasp the ocean with a span

            I would be measured by the soul;

            The mind’s the standard of the man.

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Merrick’s skeleton, not on public display, not owned by Michael Jackson’s estate, but kept in the pathology collection of the Royal London Hospital. (Credit: Wikipedia)

***Dear Blogging Friends / Readers:

This post is an excerpt from a book I’ll have coming out–God willing!–in late June. It’s a collection of notes to my grandchildren called Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs . . . and Other Wonders Before Your Time. As I write in the opening, I’ll hand the book to them when I think they’re ready and say, “Start reading this collection on a gray day.” This indie publishing jazz takes a lot of time and energy. Whew! For the next week or two my blog reading and posting will be a little compromised as I wrap this baby up. I hope you’ll still love me when I come back with full force. Oh yeah, and for the love of God, please buy Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs when it comes out. I’m trying to keep it cheap: $9.99 in paperback first, with the Kindle edition coming out a week later for a trifling 99 cents–I think. Pretty sure.

Note: in the book I can only include one photograph, that of Merrick in his suit. The rest I include here as a mixed blessing, I guess. Fortunately, great souls don’t require great bodies.

Peace and love,

John