Micro-Post: 7:00 a.m. A Renegade Smile at My Non-Toothache

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A photograph of something not wrong. I smile at the avocado. (Credit: Pulp Photography / Corbis)

When we have a toothache, we know that not having a toothache is a wonderful thing. “Breathing in, I am aware of my non-toothache. Breathing out, I smile at my non-toothache.” We can touch our non-toothache with our mindfulness, and even with our hands. When we have asthma and can hardly breathe, we realize that breathing freely is a wonderful thing. Even when we have just a stuffed nose, we know that breathing freely is a wonderful thing (From Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Life Is a Miracle” in Essential Writings, Orbis Books, 2001).

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Nice lotus position! Yeah, this is not me because: I weighed more than this guy when I was born; I avoid neckties; what he’s doing with his legs would put me in the hospital with a fractured pelvis and a concussion from falling off that filing cabinet. (Credit: Plush Studios / Blended Images / Corbis)

I sit up straight against my husband (that would be a sit-up-in-bed pillow), put the soles of my feet together, and draw both heels in—a pudgy guy’s lotus position. A couple minutes ago, Kathy pulled back the covers: “I really have to get up. Got to shower.” She loves me, understands I’m trying to bounce back from a tough emotional stretch. But it’s one thing to love someone, another to grant marital patience to a neurotic spouse since 1983.

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A husband pillow–mine, in fact.

That’s where today’s renegade prayer begins. The idea is to breathe and abide in Divine Love, not to glom onto thoughts, but gratefulness takes over. I smile at my wife.

My right knee rests against nap and prayer partner Watson’s back. I smile at my dog.

Micah’s turbo alarm goes off. Soon I’ll drive him to work. I smile at my son, at his sobriety, at his zealous work ethic. I knew it! I knew he had it in him! Proud.

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You show that wall who’s boss, son! I smile at you.

Yesterday daughter Elena, son-in-law Matt, and grandson Cole came over for Matt’s birthday: California melts and chicken noodle soup. I smile at food, shelter, and love that pours out more than my cup can hold.

The church I serve is full of compassion. I smile at my sisters and brothers, all of us trying to love our way through this crazy world.

And my teeth are okay these days. No throbbing, no cracked incisors. I smile at my non-toothache.

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The kindest depiction of my teeth ever, courtesy of Meghan, hangs on my office door.

A few years ago: I had bronchitis and cracked a rib coughing; my dad was sobbing and howling his way through dementia; my naps were delicious only because they were an escape. I smile at my clear lungs. I smile at you, Dad, resting in the lap of mercy. I smile at 3:00 p.m., the gentle rest that’s no longer about survival.

And I have you, sisters and brothers visiting A Napper’s Companion. I smile at you, and in this final moment before Amen pray you are whole and at peace.

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Wholeness and peace. A view from the deck of Scholastica, a hermitage on stilts at Mount Saint Benedict Monastery, Erie, Pennsylvania.

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A Tri-Phasic Man at 4:30 A.M.

A couple years ago I read somewhere that human beings are wired to be bi-phasic sleepers. Our bodies want to have one long stretch of sleep at night and a nap in the afternoon. In recent months I’ve morphed into a tri-phasic creature with the following pattern: 1.) 11:00 p.m. to 4:30 a.m., solid sleep; 2.) 4:30 to 5:30 a.m., resting wakefulness and occasionally prayer; 3.) 5:30 to 6:30 a.m., first nap; 4.) starting between 1:00 and 4:00 p.m. depending on commitments, second nap.

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My napping buddy is getting old.

My early morning wakefulness has taken on a routine of its own. Kathy is on one side, curled on her side and facing away from me, and Watson is on the other, facing away. My choice, then: spoon with wife or spoon with dog. Resting on my back isn’t an option because they leave me with about eight inches of mattress. I could shove Watson to the floor, but I have a weird impression that sharing my pillow is “I love you” in dog language.

So I sling my arm across Kathy’s waist, rest my face close to her hair, and wait for my left arm to go numb. Then I pry myself loose, hold myself aloft with one arm, flip my girth to the other arm, and with boxers and t-shirt a twisted mess, lower myself as if with a hydraulic jack. “Hi, Watson,” I whisper, kissing his soft ear. “I sure do love you, old buddy.” He responds with a long snort. Eventually I can’t get my right arm comfortable and reverse the process. Adding panache to this deal is cat Baby Crash, who’s generally curled up on the bed’s southern hemisphere.

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Baby Crash napping on my legs.

And so it goes until my first nap arrives at 5:30 a.m. The temptation is to get frustrated, but that only insures that sleep will never return. My hour awake, then, has evolved into a session of drowsy mindfulness. Just seven hours ago I gave thanks for Kathy, how loving and skillful she is with her cancer patients, how she’s content to put a roof on our house or remodel the bathroom while I cook, how she loves me even though I can be a bummer to live with. I gave thanks for Watson, too, my faithful napping partner.

This morning was routine, with two exceptions. As usual I woke up wedged in at 4:17, but for the first time in weeks I didn’t feel the weary anxiety behind my sternum that’s been plaguing me. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh teaches his students to smile at their non-toothaches. (Translation: You don’t appreciate being pain-free until your molar’s screaming. So why wait? Enjoy your non-toothache now.) So I smiled at my calm, for however long it’s going to last.

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Take this scene, multiply by three thousand, put in an echo chamber, and you’ve got my dog snoring. (Credit: Kevin Shafer / Corbis)

And I was entertained by a snoring concert in surround sound. Kathy and Watson were both in fine form. For minutes at a time, they snored in call and response. Each brought her/his own talents to the pillows. Watson has a lot more nostril to work with than Kathy, an advantage he uses to full effect. When he inhales, a rattle starts at his cold nose, reverberates up his boney snout, and echoes in his throat and sinuses. The result: you’d think a couple thousand lions are gnawing warthog carcasses in the Fort Pitt Tunnel. Kathy has lip dexterity on her side. This morning—and I swear I’m not making this up—she had one exhale that went wee-wee-wee-wee-wee. “How the hell did she do that?” I wondered from my wee portion of the bed. Another exhale was so surprising she heard it herself and woke up briefly. If you were to have a snoring competition, Kathy would have won first place in the Dainty Division. The very tips of her lips fluttered together, making polite raspberries—like a little bitty car with a rusty muffler.

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Hey, bub, get a new muffler on that thing. It sounds like my wife snoring. (Credit: Peter M. Fisher / Corbis)

I couldn’t help laughing. “Are you kidding?” I said.

Her groggy response: “Yeah, it had to happen.”

Umm. Okay. Go back to sleep, dear.

Eventually Kathy and Watson settled into the sighs of deep sleep, and I floated toward a last hour of oblivion before my iPhone’s Goldberg Variations alarm started the day. The last thought I remember was of grandson Cole, my present blue ribbon of gratitude. He reminds me that no matter how often I stub my emotional toes on standard upsets, I’ve no excuse to complain. I’ve lived long enough to be a grandparent, had the chance to rest my lips on that baby’s head and breathe in his pure, fragile life. That’s grace enough for one lifetime.

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Cole: Grace enough for a lifetime.

I’m not sure how long my eccentric body and neurotic mind will go with this tri-phasic sleep plan, but as long as it lasts, I intend to receive it as a visitation. Before dawn I smile at what peace I have, breathe in more blessings than I deserve, and wait for my own snoring to return.

The Sacrament of Trying on Boots

Yes, yes, I know: Mother Teresa was accused of financial impropriety and of accepting contributions for her ministry to the poor from questionable sources. Her defense was that the poor were more important than the motives or morals of benefactors.

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Mother Teresa of Calcutta (Credit: Wikipedia)

Say what you will, I love Mother Teresa. She was a saint—or will be soon enough. Two of her quotations guide my thinking. Friend Michelle had the first printed and framed for me as a gift: “I would rather make mistakes in kindness and compassion than work miracles in unkindness and hardness.” I keep these words on the wall in front of my desk. The second quote is just as powerful: “There should be less talk; a preaching point is not a meeting point. What do you do then? Take a broom and clean someone’s house. That says enough.”

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Amen

Underneath all of Pastor John’s patience and compassion is selfishness. I don’t like to sweep floors, not even my own, and I covet time. Andrew Marvell’s lines often haunt me: “But at my back I always hear, / Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.”

For reasons I don’t understand, Mother Teresa’s words have visited me lately to remind me that her broom is a metaphor and many days my most useful, loving action is invisible, inconspicuous, known only to a person or two and a gray sky or a lonely afternoon.

A couple days ago a friend—let’s call him Gene—asked if I’d take him to buy a new pair of winter boots. He laughed as he told me about one sole of his old pair flopping around like a drunk’s tongue as he walked home. Finally he gave up, took off the wounded boot, and hobbled up his gravel driveway, one socked foot wet and tender.

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Some glue might have fixed Gene’s boot, but oh well.

So I picked Gene up, and within fifteen minutes he was trying on boots. One problem: health issues render him listless sometimes; tying his shoes or buckling a seatbelt can be exhausting. Though it was a bad day, Gene, as always, was aware of my time. He tried to hurry, but our footwear errand had him sagging to the Walmart floor. Every movement was a labor: tugging the wad of tissue paper from the toe of the boot; unraveling the laces and flipping down the tongue; and—my Lord—pulling on the boot.

After watching for a minute, I said, “I got you, Gene.” So I helped him find the right size, get the boots out of the box and onto his feet, each time pulling up his weary white socks, and watched silently as he did test runs. He tried on four pairs, finally settling on ones without laces, like cowboy boots with chunky treads and generous toes.

The second pair into this process it occurred to me—breathing, shamatha—that helping Gene in, ugh, Walmart, was sacred. He droops from the effort of taking money out of his wallet, and all he needs to make his life significantly easier is somebody to take forty-five minutes and spot him as he buys boots that won’t rub a sore on his ankle.

I also knew that Gene needed more than new boots. He needed to know that I wasn’t impatient or annoyed. So I put my hand his arm and said, “How about I help you get that on?” And, “Don’t worry, Gene. I’m not in a hurry.” And, in the case of a pair with a dozen eyelets, “Hmm. You’ll be an hour getting into these. By the time you get them tied, you’ll be too tired to go anywhere.” Like I said, Gene and I are friends. We had a good laugh.

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Prescription for joy. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

A couple minutes after I dropped him back off at home, my cell phone’s Sherwood Forest ringtone sounded. It was Gene, but since I was driving, his call went to voicemail. The message: “I just wanted to say thanks again for helping me, John. See you.”

Mother Teresa also said, “We cannot do great things on this earth, only small things with great love.” I’m not sharing Gene’s and my excursion because I’m a great guy. I’m a normal guy with the usual human portion of self-absorption, a guy with an aversion to brooms, but I got lucky. In a moment of potential frustration I was blessed with a visitation of the Spirit.

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You’re holding gladness in your hands, little sister. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

A friend’s boots broke down. We got him a new pair. We did it together with love. I close my eyes, breathe, and days later the sacrament of trying on boots still cradles my soul. This is gladness.