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.”

Oniontown Pastoral: Pop’s Christmas Psalm

Oniontown Pastoral: Pop’s Christmas Psalm

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Cole fixing our toilet tank

Schmaltz Alert! If you’re tired of my posts about the grandsons, please take a pass. No hard feelings.

My grandson Cole loves all things mechanical. Put a toy hammer in his hand and he’ll go on a fixing spree. Wobbly bed posts will be pounded tight, rough edges in the home tapped smooth. Whining drills and purring engines command his rapt attention.

Come to think of it, Cole’s love isn’t restricted to tools and motors. He has an expansive spirit for a tenderfoot of three years. His interest reaches beyond fascination. When I recently took my thumb off for him–a corny trick I picked up years ago from Steve Martin on Saturday Night Live–he said, “I don’t like that.”

“Oh, buddy,” I said, “I didn’t really take off my thumb. That was make-believe.”

But he assumed that if my thumb came apart at the knuckle, I must have hurt myself. Honest to God, his frown and furrowed brow have medicine the human race needs to feel compassionate again. I promised not to do that trick anymore.

When Cole comes with my wife and me to St. John’s in Oniontown on Sunday morning, he often ends up weaving between the pine trees along the parking lot. Grandma Kathy follows behind, the two of them gathering a treasure of cones. The air itself–hot, cold, doesn’t matter–brings the kid joy as he runs his silly run through it. His trunk and limbs swing independent of each other so he looks like a marionette with a drunkard at the strings.

Cole’s run put to words would mean, “Look! This is gladness!”

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Pop and Cole just before his second birthday: the air alone makes his face shine. (Credit: Elena Thompson)

But he wouldn’t say anything like that. He is too giddy to make an observation. Anyway, his mouth has no way of keeping pace with his speedy mind. He deals with this inconvenience by simply repeating whatever word happens to be on his tongue until the logjam in his brain clears. Many of his sentences begin with “I, I, I, I, I.”

Fortunately, the boy makes listening worthwhile. My daughter Elena told me about watching with Cole from the family mini-van as a backhoe scooped away at a patch of ground next to a pine tree. The hole got deeper and deeper, but neither mother nor son knew why.

Then the backhoe did something surprising. The driver put the back of the bucket against the tree and pushed it over. Turns out the hole was dug to weaken the roots and fell the tree.

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Watching (Credit: Elena Thompson)

Elena didn’t need to describe Cole’s expression. I could imagine it. His face—those pink cheeks and fine eyelashes—bright with awe, darkened in an instant. And I’m sure what happened required a few seconds to take on words.

“The tree can’t be down like that,” he finally said. “It has to be up. So so so the squirrels can eat the pine.”

I can’t remember what Elena’s response was, but I’ll bet everything she kissed him and said he was right. My buddy didn’t get a great soul by accident. His parents are faithful stewards of their son’s divinations.

Sure, there was probably an excellent reason for the pine tree to fall, but that’s not the point.

And now you’ll assume I’m speaking poetically, but my purpose couldn’t be more prosaic. Please don’t try to domesticate my grandson’s wild kindness or the Christmas psalm I now write, grateful to be his Pop:

Listen, you nations of the world,

listen to my grandson

and make his loving gaze your own.

Children of God must never be uprooted,

offspring of the Creator never left without pine.

Legs must run a silly run for the Lord.

Arms must never be separated from their bodies,

lest infants who find no room in the inn

be denied the manger of human hearts.

Sing, all people to your God,

sing a song of mercy.

Pray to your Lord for spacious spirits,

where refugees find welcoming borders

and bread enough for multitudes.

Look, you nations, at children.

Your Lord sees you with their eyes.

 

Election Eve: Standing with My Gay Sisters

unnamedThis evening before the dreaded presidential election, wife Kathy and I are heading back to Pennsylvania after visiting my sisters in North Carolina. Our objective was simple: relax!

Yesterday we awoke in the joyful home of sister Cindy and her spouse Linda. We didn’t get out of bed right away, but breathed and gave thanks for the view out the guest room window: clear sky, hanging plants and American flag rising and falling with an occasional breeze.

We also gave thanks for other loved ones who stayed the night: eldest sister Cathy and her spouse Betsy Ann; and Linda’s daughter Tina, her spouse Rebecca, their toddler son Liam and infant daughter Renley. Four affectionate and slightly spastic dogs and a mellow cat named Hermione added diversity and commotion to the gathering.

As we talked off and on about what is consuming millions of Americans at the moment, I learned that one voter’s presidential election can be another’s painfully personal referendum.

Thus far my anxiety about our country’s future has been generalized. The women I listened to over breakfast yesterday share my concern about the economy, foreign relations, immigration and the planet, but they also fear the threat a Trump administration might pose to who they are as human beings.

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Cathy and Betsy Ann

With a Supreme Court fortified by judges favored by the Republican Party, will their marriages be under assault? Will the acceptance they’ve found recently as citizens be repealed? And what about the health insurance one married partner often provides for the other? Is there any way that same-sex couples could be denied that benefit all over again? After all, if Roe vs. Wade might be up for debate after forty-three years, why not the legality of gay marriage?

Kathy and I celebrated our thirty-third anniversary this year, and we’ve never had to contemplate our vows being cancelled by the Supreme Court.

My wife shares roughly the same profile as the Democratic Presidential nominee. If she wins, I imagine Kathy and other women will feel a burden lifted and an inexcusably overdue affirmation bestowed.

What will I feel? I’m a white, heterosexual male. My validation has been grandfathered in for centuries. I can’t remember ever being denied anything because of my packaging. Nobody has ever suggested that the person I understand myself to be is uniquely lacking, broken or abhorrent. Where social stability is concerned, I’m close to the top of the food chain.

But Cindy, Linda, Cathy, Betsy Ann, Tina and Rebecca face tomorrow with a fear I recognize but can never really know.

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A safe place

I can name beauty when I see it, though, and these women are among the kindest, smartest, most upright and beautiful people in my life. The warm North Carolina air was refreshing, but Kathy and I don’t drive ten hours for the southern climate. We take time to visit our unorthodox family because we find overflowing goodness and safety with them.

If you think that gay marriage is sinful and should be illegal, I wish you could meet my gay sisters and witness their tenderness and compassion. I wish you could hear how they struggled to find peace within themselves and how falling in love turned their landscapes into rich expanses of grace.

Their troubled sleep this night is difficult to bear for love’s sake. Of course, millions may lie awake in the small hours of this morning, wondering how many of the votes cast will say, “America is not your home. You have to leave. Your language is an annoyance. Your skin is ugly and so is your soul. You’re being checked out, and this we can tell you, we’re not impressed.”

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View from Guest Room Window . . . Gay Household.

When I vote tomorrow, I’ll be thinking of my family in North Carolina and every other sister and brother who want nothing more than to run into the open arms of a compassionate country.

Now, checked into a hotel in Summersville, West Virginia, I sip privileged wine. Kathy tells me the pizza just delivered is really good. And I make this promise: “Whatever happens tomorrow, the years ahead are sure to hurt, but you’re not alone. Plenty of Americans like me–especially those who don’t pretend to know what all you’ve gone through–love you and stand with you. When you were born, the cosmos rejoiced.”

American Pastoral

Dear Friend:

If you came here looking for “American Pastoral,” I’ve moved it to my new blog, Matters of Conscience. Please follow the link to get there.

Peace and best,

John

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My Father, My Son (or Why I Needed Chuck Blaze)

My Father, My Son (or Why I Needed Chuck Blaze)

Beyond boilerplate human regard, Chuck Blaze doesn’t matter to me. The only reason I began what I promised myself would be fifteen minutes of investigation was trivial. For the last few years, an old photograph has been wandering my desk’s geography, from drawer to sort pile to, lately, a space all its own near a corner.

A man in a suit sits holding a beer and a smoke. My father, younger than both of my children are now, stands beside him, caught just as beer crosses his lips. I have a name only because my father printed it on the flip side.

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A quarter of an hour turned into half a day of research and didn’t reveal what I imagined. Turns out Chuck Blaze was a stranger I had to befriend before understanding why his photograph hasn’t yet ended up in a box somewhere.

Chuck Blaze’s given name was probably Theodore Charles Blazowski, but confirming that would take more time than I have to give. By the time he graduated from high school he at least used the handle Blaze.

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“Not spectacular, but steady”: nothing like being damned by faint praise.

I made a trip to the library to find an obituary, which was similarly anticlimactic as well as incomplete. ‘Chuck’ served in WWII, worked thirty-five years at the American Sterilizer Company, and obviously relished fraternal organizations. But between November 22, 1910 and the same day in 1987, a couple facts are omitted. His first marriage to Aili Nokari Blaze—a war bride?—is missing, as are the names of his three brothers, all Blazowskis. By odd coincidence, the aforementioned birth and death date is not only of historical significance (in 1963), but also my parents’ wedding anniversary (in 1947).

I could be wrong here and there, but odds are nobody will object. The payoff is I tracked down the 1929 yearbook for Central High School, which gave me an idea: Could I find my father’s 1944 edition of The Bulldog from Wesleyville High School? No luck. But what about my mother’s Academy yearbook from the same year? Dolores Miller. Bingo.

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Just as I recently learned that forsythia was her favorite flowering bush and “In the Garden (He Walks with Me)” was her favorite hymn, I found out in that moment that she liked “Sunday, Monday, or Always.” Gene Paulette was a local bandleader, but I listened to Bing Crosby’s version. Truthfully, eh.

As I looked at Mom’s senior picture, a beautiful, but surreal, truth settled in: that carefree face belonged not to a mother, but a daughter.

I wished to meet this teenage Dolly, to hear her laughter before life had its way with her. She knew much joy, but if only I could prevent her portion of suffering. Her smile, so unburdened, belonged to my very own child, and the longing to preserve it caught in my throat.

An utterly new compassion took hold of me, and I’ve since wondered if such emotional revelations visit when you have lots more miles behind you than ahead. My mother, my daughter.

And, of course, my father, my son. In my dad’s last year, he couldn’t remember whether I was his brother or cousin or son. He asked whether his mother was still alive. Not for decades. He wondered what became of an old friend, Connie Diehl, and after some digging around I could give him an answer he would immediately forget.

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My father and Chuck Blaze

Dad never mentioned Chuck Blaze, whose photograph I now have in hand. What’s on the horizon he’s scanning? If I were behind him in that doorway, I’d sling an arm over his shoulder and we’d talk. He had great times, but maybe I could say something to help when life went wrong. The beer would be frosty and delicious.

My God, I could just cry.

A Dog Story, Nice Ending

A Dog Story, Nice Ending

Layla is a lunk—there’s no other way to put it. She is eighty akimbo pounds of yellow Lab who bounds onto your lap and noses her way past your face and into your soul. My grand-dog is frantic with affection.

Since April Fools’ Day, when our second grandson Killian was born, wife Kathy and I have been dog-sitting. Daughter Elena and son-in-law Matt are rightly afraid that Layla might lick the skin off our newborn’s hide, accidentally trample grandson one, toddler Cole, or bowl over Matt, who recently broke his leg. So with the exception of a couple of trips home for good behavior, Layla has lodged at the Coleman house.

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Layla and Cole when the latter was one year old

Last night she flopped beside me in front of the television, spent after a day of urgent missions only she understood. I ran my hand over her closed eyes and soft ears and said, “You’re Pop’s good pup, aren’t you? You’re a good girl.”

She was at ease, but nobody can bliss her out like Matt. And if any dog needs some bliss, it’s Layla. All it takes to reduce her to hours of trembling is a balloon. A couple weeks ago Kathy and Cole were in the basement popping leftover birthday balloons, probably a dozen of them. Later I found Layla in our mudroom, quivering and cowering.

Lots of dogs get panicky on July 4th, but why would loud pops unhinge a pup for a whole day? That’s how long it sometimes takes for Layla to stop shaking.

We’re pretty sure of the answer. On August 19, 2013, her owner, Dean Haggerty, was shot to death in his Summit Township mobile home. Dean’s daughter and son were there, as was Layla. Dean’s fiancé Kristina had pulled the trigger.

As one of Dean’s childhood friends, Matt gathered with the Haggerty family. The dust hadn’t even begun to settle. What exactly happened? Good Lord, the kids! And, oh yeah, what about the dog?

One room can contain only so much shock and uncertainty. Numb silence. Could anyone take in Layla? More silence.

Matt hadn’t seen much of Dean in the months before the shooting and had never laid eyes on Layla. But when he realized that his dead buddy’s dog might be homeless, Matt’s yes came out by its own volition. He hadn’t consulted Elena, who was seven months pregnant with Cole, or thought things through. In that moment, his love was like Layla’s, reckless and snout-first.

How old was Layla? Nobody knew, but she was clearly in the mad dash of puppyhood. That first night with Matt and Elena, she paced and whimpered. In the small hours of the morning, she finally fell asleep on the couch at Matt’s feet.

Over the last couple of years, Layla has become family. Early on, she ducked when I reached out to pet her. Was she fearful by nature or treated harshly? Again, nobody knew.

Today, Layla doesn’t look over her shoulder much. Family and friends have nosed into her vulnerable spirit and earned her trust. If the world would quit popping, her peace would be complete.

Layla must be at least four, but she hasn’t received the memo that she’s not a puppy anymore. The relentless K-9 energy sparking in Matt and Elena’s house can be overwhelming. When visitors get welcomed within an inch of their lives, Elena makes fists, squeezes her eyes shut, growls “Layla,” and then laughs and shakes her head. Charged with minding a toddler, an infant, a temporarily gimping husband, and a joyfully insane Lab, Elena deserves sainthood.

And Layla deserves her home and most of all Matt, a patient, insightful man. When she pins him down with kisses and army-crawls into his soul, he welcomes her in.

I never realized how much Layla loves Matt until recently. Pop will do in a pinch, but only one lap is home. Before family dinner one evening, Matt sat in my recliner, his cast resting on a pillow. Layla climbed aboard and settled in.

She hadn’t seen her master in two weeks and was finally home. No gunshots. Just a goofy dog and a man who said yes.

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Man and dog: home

I couldn’t help taking pictures. Such good feels. Honest stories have flawed endings. Friends die. Balloons explode. But once in a while a last page sings out the possibilities of reckless love. It convinced Layla that she’s a good girl, and maybe, one dog and human at a time, it can also heal the world.

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.

Lament for Aylan Kurdi

Sadness Alert! This post will be painful to read. 

He stood there biting his lower lip. “It is very difficult,” he said. “I cannot resign myself.”

He looked straight past me and out through the window. Then he began to cry. “I am utterly unable to resign myself.”

(from “In Another Country” by Ernest Hemingway)

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Citrus Photobomb of Pinot Noir

Close day in Erie, Pennsylvania, but central air pacifies me. So does a Smoking Loon pinot noir. A soprano (Callas, Sutherland, Caballe?) sings something from Madame Butterfly—I think. When hunger intrudes, I’ll walk a few feet to the kitchen, open the refrigerator, and decide what not to eat. That’s how stifling my life is. I have to eliminate meal options.

I’m inexcusably comfortable but for one trifle: Aylan Kurdi drowned. A photograph of a police officer carrying him from a Turkish beach appeared on the evening news. I recognized the boy immediately, his toddler legs. He was my grandson Cole. The tender calves, the tiny sneakers!

Two hours ago, he said, “Pop, come.” He had a tennis ball that he wanted me to toss high into the air. Into the humidity, above the young tree in his front yard, the yellow globe flew, then fell to the grass. Cole bounced. Or was it Aylan?

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Aylan Kurdi. Forgive me, friends, but can you make out your child here? Do you recognize the sneakers? (Credit: Reuters)

Now, as Jussi Bjorling kills some high notes from La Boheme, I comprehend: Aylan = Cole.

If my son-in-law fled bombs with my daughter and grandchildren and lost them to water, I would want nothing more than to join him, to sit beside their graves until merciful death arrived.

I cannot resign myself. I am utterly unable to resign myself.

Or as Aylan’s father Abdullah said, “I don’t want anything else from this world. Everything I was dreaming of is gone. I want to bury my children and sit beside them until I die.”

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Cole with Pop. Do you see Aylan’s hands? His little legs?

Hemingway’s Senior Maggiore grieved the unexpected death of his young wife from pneumonia after he had survived war, hand maimed but otherwise viable—the absurdity, the affront.

Syria is a hemisphere away, but geography is a rationalization. Aylan in the wet sand is Cole in the wet sand. To hell with similes. Any other conclusion is bullshit, for me and for the world. Our best hope is for Aylan to be my own grandson–and your very own, too. You feel this with me, don’t you?

I want to pick that boy up off the beach and love him back to life so badly my throat burns. You, too?

The Smoking Loon is gone, and I’m hungry.

Damn it!

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.

A Case for Human Beings

A couple weeks ago an email from Mount Saint Benedict Monastery landed in the morning:

Sister Phyllis Weaver went to her Eternal Reward last night (Monday) around 9:00PM following a very brief illness. She was surrounded by her family and a number of Community members. S. Phyllis touched the lives and hearts of many through her years of ministry in education and hospitality.

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Posted on the wall of my room in the monastery’s guest wing.

Until a few years ago, Phyllis was the sister I called to reserve a room or hermitage. When my daughter and son, now grown, were going through terrible times, I crawled to the Mount for sanity. The place was—and still is—life! Phyllis was at the center for me, greeting me when I arrived and checking on me unobtrusively when we saw each other after worship or lunch. Near the end of her call as Hospitality Coordinator, Phyllis’ shuffle gave way to an electric scooter—no padding left on the soles of her feet, she explained, just bone and skin.

In retirement, Phyllis’ prayed for retreatants. I needed her petitions for their intention if nothing else and appreciated them as I rested like a crimson bruise in the light of the chapel’s stained-glass windows.

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A lamp in the chapel at Mount Saint Benedict Monastery.

Kids often outgrow problems. Most bruises fade. But Phyllis’ and her sisters’ gift during some raw years has grown in me and taken on more color than I can say: “Let my life be about loving people, one brother or sister at a time, moment by moment.”

If only I could be my own answer to this prayer. The best I can do some days is draw a meager smile from the deep well of mercy I’ve been granted. Still, Phyllis extended to me love based on the conviction that the Creator’s Spirit dwells within all people and nothing in daily life is more sacred than that moment when a person needs love in one of its countless forms and another person provides love gladly. “Let me recognize the Ultimate in you,” I say, “and may you find love in my eyes.” My namaste is ragged. If it gives warmth, it comes from a cold and broken hallelujah.

I do trust the Divine Mystery to lead us to security eventually, but for now, I feel the cold of a world order in which being human doesn’t count for much. As massacres and fiascos make a disturbing media racket, people–individual dwellings for the Ultimate–lose life quietly, invisibly. Society’s eye evaluates humans, and, increasingly, we are expected to defend our personal cog on the rim of an imposing, impersonal wheel.

I’m talking about progress. E. B. White first drew my attention to the crooked assumption that the best way to improve life is to nudge human beings out of the picture. In a 1955 New Yorker essay, White grumbled that the telephone company “saddled us with dials and deprived us of our beloved operators, who used to know where everybody was and just what to do about everything.” Good thing he passed in 1985, before call waiting and voice mail joined our cultural lexicon.

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E. B. White holding his dachshund Minnie (Credit: Wikipedia).

I don’t think there was a religious bone in White’s body, but he and Sister Phyllis probably would have hit it off. She was all about taking care of pilgrims, and he wrote, “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” You can’t read one paragraph of E. B. White without recognizing that his world was human beings and animals. He was against whatever threatened either one.

In the last month I’ve heard stories that worry me. Andy, as White’s friends called him, would bristle. And I’m not sure, but Phyllis might have just shaken her head and returned to praying for retreatants.

–A December 14, 2014, New York Times article by Claire Cain Miller opens with a troubling trinity: “A machine that administers sedatives recently began treating patients at a Seattle hospital. At a Silicon Valley hotel, a bellhop robot delivers items to people’s rooms. Last spring, a software algorithm wrote a breaking news article about an earthquake that The Los Angeles Times published.” If somebody is going to sedate me, I want to look ‘em in the eye. And some of my friends are print journalists, a profession already in decline. I’m not sure what an algorithm is, but it’s a scab compared to Jennie, Gerry, and Erica.  

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A robot or young bellhop Vince Plover? I prefer the kid, even if I have to tip him. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

–Also from Miller’s article: “Ad sales agents and pilots are two jobs that the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects will decline in number over the next decade. Flying a plane is largely automated today and will become more so.” As a jittery flyer, I don’t want my plane piloted entirely by computers. They fail without warning, constantly leave the backdoor unlocked, and refuse to accept reason.

–NPR ran a story about computer chips being implanted in grape vines. This technology can take the guesswork—or artistry, depending on your point of view—out of watering and harvesting. When a commentator claimed that the chips’ grapes made better wine than the winemaker’s, I thought of poor Paul Bunyan being surpassed by a chainsaw.

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Cabernet Sauvignon at the Coleman dining room table: I would love to meet the winemaker.

–A couple of weeks ago NPR’s Marketplace reported on the sale of PetSmart to a private-equity firm. Amidst the chatter somebody commented that Walmart-type stores cut into PetSmart’s business by carrying lots of pet supplies. At once my White-ian fears took hold. How long will it be before you can accommodate all of life’s needs at a single destination? Get your Airedale bathed and groomed while your SUV gets snow tires put on. Pick up General Tso’s chicken for supper. Have cataracts removed and touch base with your life coach. Yes, I’m being silly, but a voice in the ear of my heart warns me that herding every specialty under one roof managed by one entity could make transactions more uniform and less personal.

Maybe I’m wrong, but for fun I just Googled “shoe repair erie pennsylvania” and discovered that in my hometown proper, one shoe repair shop survives. The idea to check came when I saw that Dom Bruno’s Shoe Repair in Little Italy had closed. Ten years ago I took a pair of black wingtips to Dom, who resoled them for $45. Sounds like a lot, but those refreshed throwbacks remain my only pair of black dress shoes.

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“Where have all Dom Brunos gone, long time passing?” The thin, corner shoe repair shop that healed my wingtips.

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The only grainy evidence that Dom Bruno ever had a shop on Brown Avenue–a cardboard poster.

According to Google, M. A. Krug and Son is now my only option, unless I want to drive fifteen miles west to Nick’s Shoe Repair in Girard. My wingtips need attention, and I wish for a redundancy of shoe repair shops in Erie, Pennsylvania–and at least one mom-and-pop corner store in every neighborhood.

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Good and faithful servants: seams splitting in a few places, soles wearing, gnarly inserts

On the way to Sister Phyllis’ viewing, I made a sad discovery. Unless somebody is tending shoes beneath an inconspicuous shingle, Erie, home of around 200,000 feet, is bereft of cobblers.

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Google is wrong. Mr. Krug no longer repairs shoes. Stereo equipment, old albums, and silly signs now fill his shop.

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Posted by the entrance: Mr. Krug had a gruff sense of humor?

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Across Peach Street from Krug’s place, another dead shoe repair shop. Seriously?

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How long had the business been closed? Long enough for ink to run.

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Matt’s machinery sleeps behind dusty windows. Goodbye to a vocation.

Actually, I’m not all that bugged about my wingtips being S.O.L. I’ll get a new pair. The trouble is, I’ve lost track of Dom Bruno, and it might have been nice to meet Mr. Krug and ask which kin started the shop in 1895. And anybody who makes a sign like Matt’s is bound to be good for a laugh or two.

Bottom line: the world’s best hope for health and gladness isn’t the robot, but the bellhop. There’s no way the former can look into a stranger’s eyes and recognize that a special word of kindness is needed. The latter not only carries luggage, but can also lighten a burden.

I might not be able to tell which wine was made by person or machine or which news story was written by an algorithm or a friend, but none of that matters. I want to be a Sister Phyllis receiving flawed, unpredictable, expensive human guests into the safety of my presence. I want to be an Andy White, betting my money and heart on women and men creating and mending the world over and over, messing up and starting again.

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Sanity: a nap in a monastery room as Sister Phyllis prays for you

When I reached the Mount and looked down at Phyllis, I was sobered. She didn’t look herself at all. Her face was oddly tanned, her hair flattened. But I’ve seen enough dear ones in coffins to give an interior shrug.

Before long Prioress Anne Wambach said hello and took my hand. At once I understood that my reason for paying respects to Phyllis wasn’t to honor the dead, but to receive life. Our conversation took less than a minute. I don’t remember what I said, but the idea was that Phyllis made me feel welcome. Clearly, Anne had heard this dozens of times already. She told me that Phyllis had done well until the end: a couple of falls, morphine, and confusion. Death came within a week.

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No Benedictine is forgotten. Every single sister matters.

Phyllis hadn’t suffered long; this gave me comfort. Anne took my hand and looked into my eyes; this gave me not only comfort, but a truth to live by. No software can estimate the value of a handshake or predict what healing and wisdom can result when two persons look into each others’ eyes.

Thanks, Anne. Thanks, Phyllis and Andy. I have my personal orders within the world order. I’m bound to mess it up, but I’ll try: take strangers by the hand, John, and see the Great Mystery in their eyes.