Oniontown Pastoral: Thoughts of a Horse in the Snow

Oniontown Pastoral: Thoughts of a Horse in the Snow

This past Sunday evening I sat with wife Kathy in the emergency room as the kind professionals there tested her blood and prescribed a legion of pills. “Viral bronchitis” was their diagnosis, but they clearly meant, “Yeah, you caught that nasty thing going around.”

I’m just now getting over the same scourge, which the family acquired from grandson Cole, who brought it home from pre-school.

But who really knows where it came from? A virus bloweth where it listeth, and thou heareth the cough and sniffle thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh or whither it goeth.

My mind has been swirling with questions lately, frivolous and profound. What gives a cough the nerve to linger for weeks? Why do some souls suffer more than others? And what do animals think about snow?

I asked retired cow veterinarian Dave that last question after worship recently: “So, Dave, when I see a horse with snow on its back, should I feel sorry for it?”

The gentle, loving laughter that came from those gathered round was fully expected. This city boy is a willing source of amusement at St. John’s Lutheran Church. (It took six months for “round bale” to sink in. I had to get “rolled bale” and “round hay” out of my system first.)

Dave explained that most cows and horses would choose to be outside, even if you offered them a heated barn.

Karen knows horses and added, “You know, horses can sleep standing up?”

“That’s what I thought,” I said, “but I see so many lying down. Why is that?”

“Because horses are all different,” she said. “Some like to lie down.”

Karen’s husband Ron’s eyes were tearing up, his face pink, which suited me fine, since I love to laugh at myself and watch others join in.

After the fun, though, the germ of my question remained. What started me thinking was a blonde horse I’ve named Onslow. He abides in a fenced-in yard, munching from his private round bale. Another dozen or so horses have run of the place. (I trust that the farmer has good reasons for this arrangement. People who live near Oniontown tend to have wise hearts.)

Onslow, whom I see but a few times per week on my commute, takes up a disproportionate amount of my spiritual space. He was the animal who had snow on his back.

Is it foolish to wonder what a horse is thinking? I can still see him standing there motionless, a white dusting settled where his saddle would be.

Days ago on the way to St. John’s I looked for Onslow in his usual digs. A tarp covered his hay. I felt a twinge of concern. Where was he?

The answer came immediately and, to these city eyes, joyfully. Grazing in the same field with the other horses was my old buddy.

The dear folks at Wagler’s figured I’d be stopping by for my farmers cheese, so they set aside a few slices. God bless them.

When I got to the church, I enjoyed farmers cheese from Wagler’s Camp Perry store and savored Onslow’s freedom.

Since the morning was quiet, I looked out at the pine trees and took stock of how little I know for sure. Maybe I caught my virus from a dirty doorknob. Maybe Onslow didn’t appreciate being moved from his solitude. Maybe napping on his feet as snow covers him is bliss.

Who knows? Certainly not me. But I bet my life that God is mindful of Onslow. Making that wager while chewing farmers cheese, I felt sweet hope settle upon me.

I received it for St. John’s, Oniontown and beyond—the way a child’s open hand welcomes falling snowflakes. The goodbyes we’ve said in the last year, many hard to bear, have left us raw. Hope is our salve.

A penny for your thoughts.

So I’ll keep asking questions, especially the one greeted only with silence this side of glory: “Why?” If I get exposed to a few answers, I might catch wisdom.

Last Sunday I told Dave, “We need to have lunch. You need to tell me more about cows.”

“Oh,” he laughed, “I can tell you all about cows.”

I’ll listen eagerly. Whatever is on their minds, I want to know they’re well. And I want Onslow to be glad.

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Oniontown Pastoral #6: Solace of the Red-Winged Blackbird

Oniontown Pastoral #6: Solace of the Red-Winged Blackbird

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The animals were out of sorts yesterday. I trust them to keep me company on Route 19 and District Road, the last third of my commute from Erie to Oniontown, but the cows and horses were standoffish—or maybe they didn’t want to be out and about.

The farmers may not have let them out of the barns. I don’t know. Having lived in cities all of my life, I’m still figuring out how things work in the country. The next time one of my farming parishioners is around, I’ll ask why no cows were eating breakfast at around 9:00 a.m. on Thursday, May 12, 2016—none. And why did I see only a few horses, and those a football field or more from District Road, which they normally hug?

I don’t know these animals personally, but they seem like neighbors. “Hey, there,” I sometimes say while speeding by. “Morning!”

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Lovely field . . . could use a few cows

With the windows rolled down and warm air rushing in, I couldn’t help wondering if my beloved companions weren’t shy, but bereaved. Did they somehow sense that my destination was the home of a woman who died much too young? Did they know that loved ones wheeled her to the porch the night before she died for ten last minutes of bird song? And did they see through some cosmic collective lens when her daughter held sweet lilacs up to her nose?

No, of course not. Such magical thinking is a little too flighty, even for me. Still, the congruence was irresistible. On a sad morning, the landscape itself seemed depressed.

And cows and horses weren’t the only ones behaving strangely. Other critters kept running across the road in front of my bulbous, orange Chevy. A brief inventory: a squirrel, rabbit, chipmunk, mole, scrawny white cat and a turtle as big around as a softball.

This last pilgrim was the only one I nearly hit. “No!” I hollered, realizing that turtles can’t hustle. Fortunately, a glance in the rearview mirror showed no turtle, squashed or sound—nothing but pavement.

Never have so many road kill candidates presented themselves to me in so short a span. My thought: “Has a portion of the small animal population gone bonkers?”

A metaphor shouted back at me: “Boy, if this isn’t life, I don’t know what is. Some ugly car is always barreling toward some man, woman or beast.” The roads around Oniontown prove that the vehicle often wins.”

Only one species on that choked up Thursday morning reached out to me: the red-winged blackbird, which is my favorite. Red can be sassy, a Joan Rivers in the family of colors, but this blackbird always makes me believe that the Great Mystery is singing hope.

This solace is only in my head, but I’m fine with that. A message doesn’t have to be factual to be true.

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Credit: USFWS Mountain-Prairie on Wikimedia Commons

Ten minutes before I reached my destination, four red-winged blackbirds passed just above my Chevy. I close my eyes now and see them again. Their red sashes at the shoulder are peace and gladness, maybe because their canvas is impossibly black. The yellow fringe is a smile and a wink.

How many of us gathered around the deathbed? Fifteen? And what exactly did we pray? I don’t remember. Words can do only so much when parents have to bury their child, short of fifty, and when a truck like cancer can be slowed down, but not stopped.

What do you say from a pitch-black heart-scape? The only prayer that makes sense is a promise. In the end, God will welcome us home.

This promise is a burst of color in the darkness, but that’s all it is, a promise. Why do we fold our hands for prayer? Because, let’s face it, what we have to hold onto sometimes feels slight—a hope that’s as humble as a kiss of red on a black bird. We weave our fingers together and hang on until our knuckles go white.

Or sometimes we join hands when we pray, borrowing bravery from each other.

On Thursday morning we neither folded nor clasped hands. Instead, we rested them on the body, touched the place every one of us has to go. The old promise was so vivid we cried.

Hope, thank God, doesn’t survive on facts. Seeing one red sash of it on a black wing brings on tears, an unlikely share of them joyful.

A Dream Yields, A Blessing Takes Hold

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Field near Prospect, Pennsylvania: a dream view

Solitude, unmasked stars and planets, the shocking cold before dawn, generous draughts of silence: decades ago I wanted this world. Someday, for sure, I would own a house in the sticks with some acres. But—one season following another—age can plow old dreams under, let longing lay fallow, and call a soul to entertain wishes again at the right time or to give them up all together.

The catch is, living more than a holler away from the nearest neighbor is perfect for me. I should want to wind up in the country. I’ve had plenty of great neighbors, some of them like family, but population-density can be a nuisance, right? One former neighbor always fired up her leaf blower whenever I lay down for a nap. It sounded like Carol Channing trying to clear her sinuses. Another neighbor enhanced home security with a nuclear front-yard lamp—impossibly bright. In a step of first-string, All American effrontery, he installed a black shield on the panel facing his house. Why sear every retina on the boulevard, after all? One guy tried to save us by covering the light with a sombrero, only to find it returned to his stoop the next morning.

But such annoyances never drove me from Erie, Pennsylvania, with its 99,542 residents. Columbus and Baltimore, two real cities I’ve called home, were fantastic. So why the persistent sense that I should hear a creek running outside my window? I’ve been thinking in recent years that my dream of rural living was not, in fact, stirred by desire, but by obligation. As a writer who prays a lot, I should want to live a couple hours to the east in Potter County, where deer outnumber humans. Why wouldn’t I want the Coleman home to breathe like the hermitages of my many spiritual retreats in the woods?

This question has occupied me ever since I accepted a call to serve a rural congregation a couple of months ago. The hour’s drive from Erie, where I continue to live, to St. John’s Lutheran Church outside Greenville, Pennsylvania, provides time to sort things out. I listen to tenor arias or fingerstyle guitar or nothing, watch the gray land roll toward the horizon, and let my mind do anything but worry—its default mode.

Wouldn’t the horses I pass on Route 19 be a better routine for my eyes than the strip mall before me at the moment? Shouldn’t I want to move close to the Amish, whose black buggies on District Road tell me to slow down?

I don’t know where “Don’t should on yourself” came from, but the earthy advice points my way. Maybe my closest neighbors should be black bears, but my fifty-four-year-old joys and aches rest easy in a neighborhood, within a stone’s throw of a lady who uses electricity to herd leaves and a better-safe-than-sorry man whose light insults the stars. Being a few minutes away from a ripe avocado, a bottle of cheap red wine, and coffee in a clean, well-lighted place fits me.

Truth: As the days flow by, my old dream yields to a small house in Erie, where I regularly smack my head on the basement ductwork. Less than half the size of the house Kathy and I raised Elena and Micah in, this blue-collar hermitage a mile from my high school feels just right. I don’t want to be anywhere else.

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Out the Pastor’s Study window at St. John’s

But the story doesn’t end here. Even as Parkway Drive becomes home, a blessing takes hold when I head south to St. John’s. It fills me as I wonder why some horses wear blankets and others don’t. It abides with me as I work in the pastor’s study, try to offer the folks a good word on Sunday morning, and eat chicken pie with the seniors at the Stone Arch Restaurant: The land and its stewards reach out and pull me in, as if to rest against the bosom of the Lord.

Winter is being coy with us in northwestern Pennsylvania, but my view of the blonde corn stubble out my study window calms my heart. And the parishioners I’ve gotten to know wear their goodness without pretense.

The other day Parish Secretary Jodi got a call reporting that we have roof leaks dripping into the church lounge. She hadn’t finished passing along the news when Anne and Dave’s car pulled up in the parking lot. They had also received word and were coming to check things out.

The problem and temporary fix were quickly settled, but in a fifteen-minute crevice of the morning, Dave and I talked. More importantly, I listened. Amazing what you can learn in a quarter of an hour.

Dave is a retired veterinarian who restricted his practice to cows. He still has twenty of them, three of which are calving. You can take the veterinarian out of the cattle, but apparently you can’t take the cattle out of the veterinarian. I mention this detail because Dave had been overseeing developments before showing up at church and had work clothes on: think dusty Carhartt-type coat and a long-punished hat with earflaps aspiring to be wings. Anne tried unsuccessfully to smooth those flaps, but Dave said, “I like it this way.”

Confession #1: I want to be like this guy. If his hat looks poised for flight, so what. It feels right on his head. And, really, isn’t that what counts when you’re making sure cows get off to a good start in life?

Confession #2: It took me a few seconds to open up my ears. How long have I known that wisdom isn’t restricted to the monk’s cell or the desert hermit’s cave or the scholar’s podium? Riches for mind and soul can also germinate under a quirky lid. Fortunately, I forget easily, but remember with light speed.

Confession #3: The instructions I gave myself wouldn’t suit a sermon, so I’ll give the G (all ages admitted) version: “Listen up, pal,” I thought, “this man has something to teach you.” I caught two lessons in five minutes, not a bad return on the time investment.

Lesson #1: Dave said, “Everything is born to die.” I recalled at once some years ago asking farmer and author Joel Salatin about vegetarianism, and his response was similar. Dave brought me back again to the possibility that death’s inevitability is less important than how it’s attended. He described slaughterhouses he had visited where the cows walked a curved chute toward a pitch-black elevator. Cows will hug an outside wall following a curve—natural to them, I guess. And when they emerge from the darkness, their end comes immediately. No fear or trauma, no months of anxiety about diagnoses and treatments and the dying of the light.

Everything is born to die: not a callous statement or lazy rationalization, but a confession. Salatin pointed out to me the arrogant assumption that the death of a pig is necessarily more noteworthy than the cooking of a carrot. Sounds silly until you understand that the observation lies far down the anthropocentric path. Salatin didn’t use that fancy word, but that’s what he meant. Parishioner Dave can speak for himself, but I bet he knows more about life and death than I do. His days involve walking land I only visit and touching animals I know from a distance. Best to learn from him with an open, humble spirit.

Lesson #2: Dave cares about those twenty cows. His words, voice and manner had a tenderness about them. An animal’s suffering or an injury to the land would pain him. He doesn’t emote as I do, but I know love when I see it—not the love shown in a photograph of an infant in a boot, but the love visible in a retired veterinarian keeping vigil to be sure a calf gets on its feet. The calf will grow and be sold someday, but it’s loved no less for that.

I gathered all this from a man wearing a hat with wings and speaking softly. Acreage in counties close to St. John’s wouldn’t suit me, but traveling there a few times a week is healing my spirit in ways I’m only beginning to understand. And I didn’t count on being edified by folks like Dave and Anne, who would read this and probably tell me to quit fussing.

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Rooftops and bare trees on Parkway Drive

But I’m going to fuss. Tonight I’ll fall asleep next to beloved Kathy in a blue-collar hermitage. And tomorrow morning I’ll drive an hour to tend my flock in a place where you can see the stars.

Right now, across Parkway Drive, a neighbor puts away fake garland. Kathy just lay down on the couch and mentioned that from her angle, all you can see is rooftops and bare trees.

I thought, “You could almost be in the country.”