Oniontown Pastoral: Going Visiting My career in visitation began over 50 years ago with Mrs. Gillespie, who lived across the backyard. Johnny’s perch was a red metal step stool beside the kitchen counter. His usual was strawberry Nesquik. Who knows, … Continue reading
Oniontown Pastoral: A Season for Holding Hands
It’s been 21 years, and I miss you more than ever. Can you look over my shoulder and read my words from your place in glory? May it be so.
The urge to write you has been strong lately, and I know why. This is a season for holding hands. My St. John’s family has been saying goodbyes, glancing toward heaven and longing for miracles. When we’re not actually crying, tears still try to push out from behind our eyes.
My job, of course, is to show up at hospitals or nursing homes or, best of all, home-sweet-homes with a satchel full of hope. You know, Mom, the promises we foolish Christians bet our lives on, the prayers we remember even when our minds have left us stranded, psalms about “goodness and mercy,” the hills “from whence cometh our help” and the night that “shineth as the day.” And Holy Communion, for sure.
One zipper pouch is a crumbled mess of humor, like the loose Kleenex you stuffed into your purse. Life, I’ve learned, doesn’t stop being funny or absurd because time grows short. Anyway, laughter generally refuses to let weeping wander off alone. But you already knew that, didn’t you? How clear everything must be to you now.
What makes me think of you most is handholding. Again, I know why. As death draws near, prayers and Scripture want a special amen: one hand cradling another. No seminary education is required to do this part of my job. You taught me all I need to know, and for going on 20 years, I’ve been sharing your motherly touch with folks in my care. Gentle, light, quietly abiding, that’s how it is and has been.
Art. July of 2015. He decided to forgo dialysis and surrender. Settling back in the hospital bed, he said, “Now, help me through the door.” I held his hand, rough, smaller than mine, and cried without him noticing. He already had his eyes fixed on the Promise.
Quen. This October. Such big-boned hands, powerful in his prime. How many times did I hold them and say, “You’re a good man, Quen. You’ve been a good husband and father”?
“Well,” he said, his voice more faint and raspy by the month, “I sure have tried.”
He passed after his family and I joined hands around his bed and talked to God. Quen’s daughter drew on his forehead a cross with the perfumed oil of anointing, which marked him still when he breathed his last.
And Shirley. Last week. Her hands reminded me of you, Mom. Same soft, fragile skin, warm and giving as yours were. Shirley’s rested as if already in repose. I sheltered them under my own, leaned in close, whispered Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer and told her it was OK for her to go. About four hours later she did just that.
Your hand was pale purple, chilly and bloated the last time I held it. I spoke words of love and gratitude that will remain between us. A couple times you moved that clumsy, heavy hand, poked raw by needles and punished by arthritis. Were you trying to say that you could hear me?
When I left town, things could have gone either way. Maybe the sepsis would take you, but maybe not. I had to get back to seminary, back to Columbus. “What good can I do here?” I thought—a rationalization and a question.
Now I know. Honest to God, a couple days ago I almost had to pull off the road when the answer grabbed me by the throat: “Here’s what good you could have done, John. You could have held your mother’s hand until she died.”
Oh, Mom, you were so sick and senseless, fogged in by troubling dreams. Maybe you were out of touch, but that doesn’t matter. I should have stayed. I should have kept holding your hand.
You wouldn’t want me to punish myself over this. But please understand, every time I hold a hand, I also reach out to where you are. And when I drive to Oniontown homes to comfort pilgrims on their last journey, part of me is a much younger man turning his car around and heading north, back to your bedside to help you through the door of a house with many mansions.
Oniontown Pastoral: The Human Moment
I was peeved. Pittsburgh Avenue in Erie was bustling on Saturday afternoon, and Mr. Pokey Joe had no business jaywalking while cars, including mine, bore down on him.
Then I recognized his predicament. He had a bum leg and, like me, was past his prime. Each step made him wince. The trek to a legal crosswalk would have been an ordeal, especially with a jammed knapsack thudding against his back.
My peevishness slunk away, tail between its legs. Of course, I was relieved not to have run the fellow over, but grateful as well for a human moment. That is, a connection with another person’s reality, a chance to remember in the midst of a day’s jostle and distraction that the faces I encounter belong to pilgrims worthy of my consideration.
My life is mostly a pilgrimage from one human moment to the next. This past week, for example, I found myself at McCartney Feed and Hardware in Fredonia. I paid for 25 pounds of deluxe birdseed—call me extravagant—and took my receipt across the way to a huge barn.
As I waited, a machine reaching from floor to ceiling growled, rattled and rumbled. What was this behemoth all about? Thankfully, it hushed up as a young man arrived with my purchase.
I said thanks and turned to leave, but felt like I was ending a sentence with a preposition out of mere laziness.
“Hey, what does that thing do?” I asked.
“Oh, that’s a grinder,” he said.
Another member of the McCartney crew arrived and told me they would be putting oats in soon, but first they had to get residue out of the machine.
“Ah,” I said, “so you have to let the grinder clear its throat?”
They both nodded and laughed. I thanked them and drove off. That was about it.
I can’t swear to the specifics of what those McCartney’s guys explained to me, but here’s what I know. Carrying birdseed through the sunshine from barn to car, I was glad. All was well with my soul. The world seemed right, except for the odor of fresh manure, which my city nostrils haven’t yet learned to savor.
I had showed up with dollars, but the transaction was about people being together in harmony, however briefly.
“Oh, there you go again, John,” you’re thinking, “always with your head up in the clouds.”
Hardly! This is probably a good time to mention a caveat. If you want to collect human moments, prepare to be served joy and dismay in equal helpings.
Syrian boy Omran Daqneesh comes to mind. Pulled stunned and bloody from building rubble and set alone in an ambulance, he stares at me still, three years after a bombing raid ravaged his neighborhood. Maybe you saw his face on television.
Sad to say, for a sympathetic conscience, human moments arrive without permission. Go ahead, close your eyes. It won’t matter. Like light, love comprehendeth the darkness.
My wife Kathy is an oncology nurse, and she brings home impressions of folks passing through cancer’s lonesome shadows. Never names, ever, but plenty of heartache, including her own.
Sipping pinot noir as the evening news recounts inhumane moments, I embrace souls in Kathy’s care whose ends are near. One of them weighs next to nothing. Eternity is barreling toward her. She said through tears, “I don’t feel good.” The understatement catches in my throat.
I can see her. She wears a sleeveless summer dress like the ones my Aunt Mart loved, flowery prints. The poor lady’s hands, all scarlet bruises and torn skin, tremble in mine. She is weary, afraid, not ready to die.
Oh, yes, I can hear you thinking to yourself again. “John, stop dwelling on other people’s problems!”
No, I won’t. The fact is, you can’t have human moments all one way or all the other. If I didn’t appreciate a nameless patient’s suffering, then I wouldn’t have spotted bliss at a recent wedding. The couple made promises, and I pronounced them husband and wife. Minutes later the bride leaned into the groom, her smile as close to heaven as I expect to witness this side of glory.
That’s how human moments work. When I neglect any neighbor near or far, I turn my back on the Creator who made this Oniontown pastor a human being in the first place.
Oniontown Pastoral: Boy, Could That Kid Jump!
This was almost 50 years ago. We were playing baseball on Wagner Avenue, home plate and bases drawn onto the pavement with chalk.
“I’m Johnny Bench,” I hollered.
The other boys renamed themselves until Tommy was the only one left. He reached into his back pocket, thumbed through bubble gum cards and said, “I’m Tom Seaver.”
That’s how it was. My friends and I watched sports on television until we couldn’t contain ourselves, then ran outside to the stadium of our imaginations. We were both crowd and announcer. We cheered our home runs and cried out our alter egos after touchdowns. I can hear lanky Paul’s “Billy Joe DuPree” from the end zone, marked by a great maple in front of my house. He roared “Joe,” that one syllable so rambunctious and giddy that it still gives me a shot of adrenaline.
With a pause and deep breath I run the highlight reels from hundreds of pickup games with their line drives, swishes and spirals.
When nobody else could play, I shot hoops in a neighbor’s driveway. More often I grabbed a football and the cap to one of my mother’s hairspray cans to use for a tee and booted field goals over a telephone wire. For hours, as dusk eased toward darkness or sleet stung my cheeks, my name was Jan Stenerud, the Kansas City Chief who kicked soccer style before anyone else.
“Time let me hail and climb golden in the heydays of his eyes,” Dylan Thomas wrote of childhood in the poem “Fern Hill.” Wagner Avenue was the home field of my heydays, back when “I was green and carefree.”
I loved every win and loss, every bruise and dream. I loved Stenerud and Bench, “Sudden Sam” McDowell, Erie’s own Freddie Biletnikoff, LeRoy Kelly and “Pistol Pete” Maravich. And I especially loved John Havlicek.
I say “loved” advisedly. I never met these athletes, but they sprinted and shot through my seasons constantly. Their names alone revive my spirit.
So this morning when I read that John Havlicek died, “No!” came from down deep, involuntarily, not as lusty as lanky Paul’s “Joe” but plenty loud over a first cup of coffee.
I wasn’t yet four years old when Havlicek deflected a pass with five seconds left to preserve a Boston Celtics’ playoff victory. Even fans too young to remember the play have heard announcer Johnny Most’s legendary call. “Havlicek steals the ball!” he shouted. “Over to Sam Jones. Havlicek stole the ball! It’s all over! It’s all over! Johnny Havlicek is being mobbed by the fans!”
Through the miracle of the Internet you can binge watch the 36-second clip, which is what I’ve been doing for hours. My favorite part is when Most says, “Johnny Havlicek.” I’d heard “Hondo” before, but never “Johnny,” a nickname that’s sweet to my ears.
“I’m Johnny Bench,” I once claimed, and that was half true. To grown ups in the old neighborhood, I was “Johnny Coleman.” Time was easy then, with folks visiting on front porches, nobody glancing at a wristwatch or smartphone. “Johnny” could be the title for a blessed chapter in my life.
In 2019 I’m “Pastor John” at St. John’s in Oniontown and “Pop” to my grandsons in Erie, but I never gave up being Johnny. I can’t pass a football field without sizing up the goalposts and wondering if my leg is as good as I recall. And I can tell instantly whether a basketball hoop is regulation. In high school I could dunk with two hands, the generous thighs my mother passed down to me perfect for jumping if not for nice-fitting blue jeans.
Between these sentences, my chin is parked on my knuckles. Hondo is gone. His teammate Jo Jo White, whose jumper had a hiccup I copied, and Hal Greer, who served up the ball that Havlicek famously stole, both died in 2018.
My heydays’ players are migrating into eternity. With each obituary I settle into the truth. The maple marking our end zone has been cut down. The neighbor’s garage looks lonely without the half-moon backboard and hoop. The wire I used for goalposts is there, though Mom’s hairspray caps are nowhere to be found.
To borrow from the poet, time lets us “play and be golden,” but it never breaks stride. The good news is, visiting the old Wagner Avenue behind closed eyes is more filled with gratitude each time I do it. I was lucky.
Johnny Coleman had a great leg, after all. And, boy, could that kid jump.
Sowing What Our Children Will Reap
(8 minute read)
As I sit safely in my living room a couple of blocks from Lake Erie, Florida’s panhandle is still trying to get its bearings after Hurricane Michael. The death count now stands at thirty-five. An old high school classmate of mine had his cars crushed and home severely damaged. There’s no way to ignore such massive, breathtaking destruction.
But some destruction is stealthy, gaining ferocity while nobody is paying much attention and ravaging one life at a time. Public awareness is slow to account for souls who suffer mostly under the radar—the bullied youth, haunted survivor, beaten wife or displaced worker—not to mention the homeless, addicted or mentally ill.
In his October 12, 2018, New York Times editorial, David Brooks shares a statistic that should trouble sane Americans: “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 2006 and 2016 youth suicide rates rose 70 percent for white adolescents ages 10 through 17, and 77 percent for black ones.”
Meanwhile, The Washington Post gleaned additional bitter food for thought from the same CDC report: “Suicide rates [in America] rose in all but one state between 1999 and 2016, with increases seen across age, gender, race and ethnicity.”
Such statistics make an alarming statement: Americans of all stripes are lining up at the existential Customer Service Desk to return a gift—their life.
“Is there anything wrong with this item?” the clerk asks.
“This was supposed to be a gift,” the American says. “This is terrible. It hurts too much.”
Of course, most citizens are happy enough. Even folks down in the dumps generally plug along, playing the hands they’ve been dealt, praying for smoother roads and greener grass. Regarding suicides, experts rightly point out the usual suspects: poor economy, foreclosures, stressful jobs, broken relationships, etc.
But surely something else is bending backs and furrowing brows. The aforementioned CDC report indicates that around half of all suicides have no history of mental illness. It’s as if something snaps, the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Seriously, then, what’s going on?
I have no credentials to respect, but from my armchair the case is clear. Contemporary vernacular includes an adage that surfaced recently: “What goes around comes around!” Wisdom from the Bible teaches, “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Galatians 6:7b). Then we have the vignette, so intentionally poignant as to verge on annoying, of the Cherokee (or Navajo) man who tells his grandson about two wolves at war within himself. The wide-eyed boy asks which wolf will win. After a dramatic pause, the grandfather says, “The one which I feed.”
The moral is obvious: your violent behavior will recoil upon you; if you plant poison ivy, raspberries won’t grow; if you rejoice in evil, count on evil to win both battle and war.
I turned fifty-seven recently, so I’m not worried about societal recoil for myself or wife Kathy or even my adult children, Elena and Micah. We can respond mindfully to the ebb and flow of today’s absurdity, aggression and cruelty.
But what about my grandsons, Cole and Killian? And because every other child in the world is inescapably my very own, what about the innocent and vulnerable everywhere?
Alan Kurdi was my grandson. May God rest him.
Two young men, both named Jesse, both teenagers, both loved abundantly by families and friends, found this life too much to bear. Both were my sons. May God grant them endless comfort and joy.
The young woman I know who suffered a racial slur on a school bus recently is my daughter. May God strengthen her.
If by some miracle planet Earth has any sweetness and succor left for today’s children, I’m still left to wonder what seeds we grown ups are planting in humanity itself, the governments that will shape the lives of future adults, the communities that will cradle their days, the cultures that will make their spirits either sing or weep.
A recent USA Today article reveals that the rare instance of kids under eleven years old taking their own lives has doubled between 2008 and 2016. Life is exhausting and painful for millions, especially for children. From television screens to social media to classrooms to living rooms, hostility, deception and ignorance have been welcomed in and embraced as kin.
If you believe that kids are immune to what they see and hear day by day, please consider the bit of preaching I now do to a congregation of one, in the mirror. Am I speaking the truth?
- When I allow hatred and frustration to overwhelm me, children absorb the toxicity in my voice and manner.
- The greatest danger is the moment I feel justified in my rage and righteous in my anger. The problem with this situation is that a child observing me will experience the fury in my spirit without having the slightest idea what is animating me. My behavior, which may come from an upright impulse, nevertheless teaches the wrong lesson.
- Careless name-calling among adults poisons children, as does rejoicing in falsehoods, wrongdoing and the suffering of others. Adults unwittingly teach kids the delicious, addictive art of injury and ridicule. I don’t want them to learn anything of the sort from me.
- I can’t be perfect, but I can take into account the possibility that my words and actions are adding to the pollution of our American discourse and pressing thorns into our children’s tender spirits.
Most of all, I guess, I can hold fast to love for God, neighbor and self, even when doing so feels for all the world like defeat.
Oniontown Pastoral: We Could Get Together for a While
Of everyone on my Christmas gift list, my father was the toughest. If he wanted something, he went out and bought it—not that he spent much. He wore Velcro sneakers, Navy-issue boxer shorts, and store brand polo shirts. What treasure do you wrap up for a consumer who rarely ventured beyond Kmart and whose favorite song was Morris Albert’s “Feelings”?
In the early 1990s, I proposed that a couple times each month we go out for lunch. “That’s a perfect gift!” he said. Ironically, Dad picked up the tab, but food was incidental. What we both needed was time.
During my current season of life I’m taking many backward glances and discovering not only that time was the best gift I ever gave Dad, but it always has been the one possession most worthy of sharing with anybody.
Actually, “time” is the wrong word. Where relationships are concerned, minutes and hours are the accepted way we measure our presence to each other, numerical values we assign to shooting the breeze or holding hands. What counts, though, is offering my very self to you and you responding in kind.
We’ve developed strategies to make being together appear less schmaltzy. We “do lunch” or “have coffee.” We go to painting and wine parties. Decades ago my mother would announce, “I’m having ‘club’ here tonight.” Pinochle, that is. The ladies kibitzed hours after the cards were put away.
I’m a fan of every conceivable excuse to be where two or three are gathered, but I’m also partial to truth telling, at least where conversations of one are concerned. By the time I’m finally ready to lay my burdens down, the life that passes before my eyes ought to be an edifying story with themes that never die.
And so when my 5th grade teacher Mr. Grignol took me golfing one Saturday morning in 1973, the hours were sacred. He gave me two sleeves of balls because the three in my bag might not be enough. I asked if his Chevy Impala, a drab-green behemoth with four-on-the-floor, had power steering. “Yeah,” he grunted, “man power!”
I now think to myself, “He didn’t have to spend a morning with a student going through a rough patch of childhood.” Right now, I’m standing beside Mr. Grignol again, watching to see if the drive he has just crushed will clear a pond. “If that one doesn’t make it,” he says, the ball soaring away, “I can’t do it.” Few of the wonders I’ve witnessed top waiting shoulder to shoulder with my teacher for a splash or a safe landing, his presence alone a grace he could not have reckoned.
My professors at Behrend College in the early 1980s gave of themselves richly and definitely without material reward. Their tenure and promotion didn’t ride on having winding discussions with undergraduates at the beach or in a bar, but I profited as much from those classrooms as the ones on campus.
Is it too much to claim that most human activities are window dressing for the sacrament of rubbing elbows and wagging chins? The Saturday Star Trek nights my old neighbors and I used to observe were a front for socializing. Often an hour or more passed before we got around to picking an episode to watch.
Or take church meetings. I no longer wonder why they tend to go on longer than necessary. “We could go walking through a windy park,” England Dan and John Ford Coley used to sing, “or take a drive along the beach or stay home and watch TV, you see it really doesn’t matter much to me.”
Day by day, the world over, the best reason for celebration and often the only prescription for heartache is an invitation: “We could get together for a while.”
Example: Jessica showed up at St. John’s last week and sat down across the desk from me with a stunned expression. Hours before she had held the family cat Riley, who had to be put down unexpectedly. What was there to do other than let disbelief hang in the air between us and lighten the sadness by each of us taking half?
Words aren’t much good when your young cat winds up with a tumor in the belly or your golf ball plunks into the drink, as Mr. Grignol’s did. More often than not, I keep my mouth shut about tears and bogeys. Best to hush as you and I stare at the horizon together, never knowing what will happen next.
A Prayer for Ray and All the Rest of Us
I can’t remember where the question came from or how the conversation started. We were driving to Dollar General, where he was going to pick up five bags of starlight peppermints.
“When I was a teenager,” he said, “I would never have started with drugs or alcohol or cigarettes. I would have paid attention in school and graduated.”
I chipped in: “Oh, and you wouldn’t have gotten married that first time, right?”
“No, I would’ve run all the way to Oklahoma in the same pair of sneakers.”
Ray comes out with great lines like this, but his flat affect can make you forget his brain has zip. He is a trippy character. Years ago I mentioned that I would like to write about him.
“Write whatever you want,” he said. He hopes his story can speak to others, as it does to me.
Ray’s life is short on plot, but long on complication. Mental illness and heavy-duty meds blur his days. He could be content with a routine built on filterless roll-your-owns, plugs of wintergreen snuff and old Pink Floyd albums, but tobacco fills him with guilt. For decades he figured God would send him to hell, but not anymore. What remains is a soul scarred by damnation’s abuse.
Ray’s latest trouble is a persistent cough, so this morning after the peppermint run I took him to the doctor.
In the waiting room, as we engaged in our usual salty repartee, he sagged in his chair.
“Pastor,” he said out of the blue, “I wish somebody would tell me I’m going to die.”
No cause for alarm. Ray has been ready to die for years, but his belief that suicide is unforgivable keeps him alive.
“Really,” I said, inviting him into the valley we’ve walked before. “Why do you want to die?”
Ray knows my truth. I’ve never been suicidal, but a few times I’ve been miserable enough that if God had called me home, I would have gone without an argument.
My old friend confessed his truth: “I’m so tired of being tired and afraid.”
Ray’s medicine causes crushing fatigue, but it’s also supposed to keep him ahead of paranoia and panic. In fact, few days pass without him choking on their dust.
He calls constantly to ask for prayer. I take him to the doctor’s office, Smoker Friendly and the used record store. We get coffee. Wherever we are, he’s apt to say, “Lord, I’m so tired,” and he’s not talking to me.
I have no solutions, but figure that the only thing worse than suffering is suffering alone.
A few months ago Kathy and I traveled to Ireland and visited attractions both popular and inconspicuous. Of course, we toured Saint Colman’s Cathedral, whose spire keeps watch over the city of Cobh.
My last stop was quiet room off the narthex, which glowed with votive candles. Kneelers waited below a towering poster of Jesus for believers with intercessions. I slipped a few Euros into the offering box, knelt and prayed for family, friends and my folks at St. John’s Lutheran in Oniontown.
Ray got his own candle. I imagined him dozing in his recliner, obsessing about somebody breaking into his house and stealing his things.
“Peace,” was all I said, “give him some peace.” Then I snapped a photograph to show my friend where I remembered him to God.
This morning before taking Ray to the doctor, I finally got around to having the print framed. On the back I taped a prayer, the one that I offered in abbreviated form in Ireland: “Dear Lord, please fill Ray’s heart with peace about his salvation, compassion toward himself and love for you. Amen.”
The day is not yet over, and he has called me several times, twice to say how much he loves the picture. And moments ago, this update: “I just wanted to let you know I woke up from a nap and don’t feel sick.”
“So you’re not afraid?” I asked.
“No, Pastor, I feel normal,” he said with a chuckle.
A normal day—no panic, sorrow or tragedy—deserves a celebration, maybe a phone call to a friend. Now there’s a lesson I can stand to remember.
Folks assume I take of Ray, but I add this confession to my personal story: If I keep my heart open, sometimes Ray takes care of me.
Oniontown Pastoral #10: Mom, Please Tell Me About the Glammazombies
Halfway to church the other day, a tongue-in-cheek remark returned to me: “Your kids grow up and move out just as they start to get interesting.” I forget where I heard this and, in fact, disagree, but the ideas started moving.
I was remembering my mother and listening to Glenn Miller. No sniffles or tight throat, just a speculation: “By the time children want to listen to their parents, it’s too late. Mom and Dad are gone.”
“A String of Pearls” made me think of Mom’s 1944 high school yearbook, which notes that her favorite song was “Sunday, Monday, or Always.” Crosby and Sinatra covered it, but Mom liked a version by Gene Parlette, who worked the Erie region back then.
In my imagination, Mom went to a dance, before my dad came along. Who was her date? She wore the dress from her graduation photograph, dark with bone-white lace. “I want you near every day in the year.” Was that the line of lyrics that spoke to her, Parlette singing and conducting his band? Did she dance, a bit awkward?
Then, with “Moonlight Serenade,” wonders came along.
“What was it like at home when you were growing up? What kind of a mother was Gram? What about Gramp? Did you and Uncle Earl and Uncle Ed fight? What were your chores?”
“Tell me about your friends in high school? What did you do for fun? Did you date a lot?”
I wished Mom were in the passenger seat, filling in the picture I never troubled to ask about before she passed eighteen years ago. Comings and goings in this life aren’t cordial to the past and the hours it takes to welcome stories. Some miscellaneous task always seems pressing.
But as years gather round, so does longing. Here I am, then, fifty-five pretty soon, with my wonderment pressing like a deep hunger.
I can see Mom with three or four friends, sitting on a log, probably on a beach at Presque Isle. Maybe one of my sisters or brother still has the photograph in an old hat box. The girls, smiling and carefree, are dressed in white sweatshirts and khaki pants—slacks, Mom would have called them. On the back she wrote, “The Glammazombies.”
“Mom, please tell me about the Glammazombies. Where did you get that name?”
Why do my ears finally open up when the only response is a sweet, slow clarinet over a car’s speakers as it speeds by crops and cows?
The truth is, all my questions wander and graze. A few lucky ones rest in the sun, full and glad, but most remain hungry, needing more.
I take in longing when it visits, but sometimes lost conversations echo in my own breath. Sentences move silently past my lips into the empty space of the passenger seat.
“Mom, tell me what gave you joy. You loved being pregnant, I know that. But what were your dreams? Some of them came true, right? And you got hurt. What brought you to your knees?
“At least tell me about the Glammazombies. You looked so happy in that picture. Tell me about that day at the beach. And you couldn’t stand your own singing voice, but let me hear “Sunday, Monday, or Always.”
“One day long ago you sang to yourself, faintly. You had a lovely voice, Mom. I should have said so right away, but I was a kid and didn’t use words like lovely back then.”
Oniontown Pastoral #9: Kitchen Talk
Given the number of hours I spend at the stove, it’s inevitable that my best conversations with son Micah take place in the kitchen. Dad smashes garlic or micromanages an Alfredo sauce, and son shows up with revelations and mysteries.
He and I once rehearsed the Chinese words for you’re welcome so that he could answer an elderly immigrant’s thank you at work the next day.
One evening he sputtered a profanity-laced account of a cruelty he had witnessed in a grocery store parking lot. I realized at once that his words were intended as a lament, rough-hewn, but holy.
Micah’s latest beauty parked itself in the kitchen doorway, blocking my way: “Hey, Dad, have you ever felt like you needed a reason to cry?”
“No,” I almost said, “I keep plenty of reasons to cry on hand,” but decided to give my twenty-something some space.
His explanation turned toward the haunting Celtic music from a war film, Black Hawk Down. The Breton lyrics, which sound to English speakers like groans put to notes, choke him up. Is he drawn to listen because, who knows why, tears need to be released?
Since the one activity I spend more time on than cooking is navel-gazing, long, mind-numbing speculations about sadness are always in stock.
I kept my theorizing brief with Micah, and I’ll extend the same courtesy here.
We human beings never really get over anything. That’s the pith. Every death, breakup, failure and injury sleeps folded up in our cedar chest of memory. The teacher who said you would never amount to anything? The words are preserved as if on stationary and fade with the years, but no matter, you know them by heart. And the day you received the devastating phone call? That instant is a photograph waiting for the lid to open.
We live in layers. Today’s scorching goodbye invites every other parting to come along with it. And the current betrayal may sing a solo, but it’s backed up by a choir.
Every joy also has its lineage, but most of us are content to receive a moment’s gladness without interrogation. Who asks, “Why am I having such a great day?”
No. The question left standing belongs to my son. “Do you ever need a reason to cry?” Another way of posing it might be, “Why does each hurt in the chest beg to be aired now and then?”
I don’t know, but my days of stifling the truth are past, as is the impulse to name every lump in my throat.
A mandolin plays or an oboe or a gravelly voice. The land offers its countenance. I might stop at Camp Perry for some farmer’s cheese and let its salt and cream grace the drive.
Always the weight in my sternum and fullness behind my eyes arrive of their own accord—and not terribly often. A sniffle, a damp cheek. The road blurs a little.
Who am I missing? What passing wants attention? What shadow of rejection has returned to make me small? I don’t ask anymore.
“Come in, whoever you are,” I think, maybe at a crescendo. “Find the air you need.”
By the time I get home, a cleansing has usually occurred. I’m happy to start supper, ready for more kitchen talk with Micah. My lungs are filled sails.
If each soul does have a chest—cedar or hope—mine has no lock. The contents come out and go back in, awakened by music they must recognize. After fifty-four years, I suppose they’re family.
Oniontown Pastoral #8: When the Student Is Ready the Teacher Will Appear
My title here is widely attributed to the Buddha, but Bodhipaksa, host of the blog Fake Buddha Quotes, traces the idea to the 1886 book Light on the Path by Mabel Collins: “For when the disciple is ready the Master is ready also.”
Like any writer I want to be accurate, but in this case I’m busy learning and can’t afford to dwell on scholarship. In recent months, calmed and awakened by the pastures of Oniontown, I’ve found unexpected teachers, probably because I’m finally ready to receive their wisdom.
My teachers—the homebound, mostly—don’t recognize the lessons they’re lavishing upon me. I’m their pastor, after all, with a direct line to the Man Upstairs. When I pay them a visit, they expect to be on the receiving end of whatever insight and solace our time together yields. If only they could see how their fortitude blesses me.
Hopefully I have plenty of vitality ahead, but my teachers make me wonder if I will be strong in my final seasons, when the world grows painfully small. Afternoons bleed into evenings within the same four walls. Aches and frailties invite despair. Boredom and loneliness blanket even those blessed with visitors.
Wallowing would be understandable, but my teachers joke and ask after me and the St. John’s family. “It’s got to get discouraging,” I said to one man. “Well, sure,” he smiled, shifting in his recliner to ease a stab of hip pain, “but once you head down that road you’re done for.”
“What did you have for lunch today?” a parishioner with declining short-term memory often gets asked. “I don’t know,” he answers, “but it was good!”
Caregivers lift and wash and soothe hour after weary hour, unaware that they’re instructing my spirit in grace. How would I roll out of bed each morning with the knowledge that today will be just like yesterday? My teachers are heroic, their faces cleansing breaths of gentleness.
If my beloved Kathy no longer remembered our lives together, how would I cope? “You’re a hero,” I told a man who shows up at a nursing home every day to visit and eat dinner with his wife. “It’s what you sign up for,” he answered. For better or worse, indeed.
And could I endure infirmity, eyes dead to novels, ears deaf to sonatas, muscles slack, lungs spent?
Some of my teachers, their bodies like the elderly farm equipment castaways in the fields surrounding Oniontown, find ways to move forward without traveling anywhere at all.
One has model train tracks on a table in front of a window overlooking squirrels stealing from bird feeders. Imagine finding life in a locomotive with no destination!
Or how about turning old, brittle pedal sewing machines into shining end tables? One of my sweetest teachers did just this. On the morning his young daughter died recently, he and I sat at his kitchen table. Cancer and grief had knocked the wind out of him, but he mustered the stamina to look with me out a window.
“My God,” I said, “is that a Baltimore oriole?” I had never seen one up close before.
“They’re only here a couple weeks,” he explained, “and then they’re gone. They like jelly.”
Every time I drive to the church I see this man’s house. Less than a month after his daughter passed, he got his wish and followed her into the rest of everlasting peace.
Can I be like him and my other teachers? Can I witness beauty until my last breath? Can I endure and soothe, laugh and learn even when the future is four walls?
And when death is near, can I remember that someone may visit my small world—a student who is finally ready to receive the quiet treasure I have left to share?