Oniontown Pastoral: Not One Sparrow Shall Fall to the Ground

Nobody would call house sparrows conspicuous. They wear shades of dormancy, sandy brown and gray like the leafless hedges and trees in my view, charcoal like the sunflowers wife Kathy left in repose by the garage. Continue reading

In Gratitude for Annoyance

There’s no denying, over the last two years I’ve been out of sorts. A Napper’s Companion has often been a long-suffering sounding board as I’ve droned, waxed, and howled. Sure, joy has visited for long spells, but if life were a bar graph measuring months, more than a few of them would dip below emotional zero.

When feeling sorry for yourself becomes a habit, it’s actually refreshing to find yourself merely annoyed rather than crestfallen. Narcissus stared into a pool of water and beheld his beauty. I’ve only recently pulled my gaze away from my navel, which is a deepening pool of the unspeakable—I speak literally here. Weight loss is in my future. Anyway, events that would have reduced me to curses and sighs a few months ago now hardly register on my graph. In fact, I’ve been laughing.


Narcissus by Caravaggio (Credit: Wikipedia)

“Laughing? The hell you say, John!” Yes, from the belly right into the crevasses of existential paper cuts. Feels good.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that wife Kathy and I bought a 1000 square foot house. Downsize and all that. Kathy loves me, but doesn’t fully trust me to do grown-up quality work on the new place. So far I’ve been cleared to wipe down shelves and cabinets with Murphy’s Oil Soap, prime old thirsty walls and our bedroom closet, and scrub and sweep the basement. Fans of physical comedy would pay up if I could produce a video of my efforts.

Painting a closet is like doing calisthenics in a phone booth. I got flat white prints everywhere on my person, not from my brush, but from bumping into what I just painted. The language was mild but repetitive, damn it after damn it plunking as if from a leaky faucet. The worst part was tapping all quarters of my head against wet shelves. (Former owners, Mr. and Mrs. Tyler, God rest them, were a shelf- and hook-happy Depression-era couple. Random hooks and shelves stick out from walls, woodwork, and crannies like Betty White flipping me the bird. How many items can you actually hang up? Used and washed Saran Wrap to dry? Lonely socks?)

When the job was finished, I expected to see in the mirror a balding man with ridiculous blotches of paint all over his head. The sad fact was, aside from an Ash Wednesday-level smudge on my forehead, nothing much had changed. Turns out flat-white primer is a good match for my hair. I can apply Just for Men Touch of Gray, paint another closet, or go natural? It’s good to have options. My policy is to refrain from laughing at my reflection, but in this case I gave in.

Video of basement duty would appeal to folks comfortable laughing at actual pain. The space is clean, dry, and stand-up-friendly, mostly. A couple of fixtures make this six-foot man dip, and one run of ductwork can be cleared only by a hobbit. Of course, units of especially dusty shelves ran parallel to the damn it ductwork. During the three hours I spent bobbing, weaving, push-brooming, scrubbing, and absorbing the perfume of Murphy’s Oil Soap, I forgot to limbo ten times. Ten matches of fathead versus galvanized steel. Two knocks resulted in language. A few got harrumphs, and the rest snorts. A week later, my head still looks like a wounded cantaloupe.


Yes, this is my scalp. God help me. And, heck, why not an age spot or two?

Fortunately, I don’t have any goose eggs as big as our black Lab-terrier mix Watson’s. The fatty tumor on his left flank is so ridiculous we finally took him thirty minutes from Erie to a veterinarian who specializes in animal homeopathy and chiropractic. As I wrote recently, the old mutt is gimpy, and the present steroids and NSAIDs don’t seem to be helping much.

When the veterinarian entered the examination room, I liked him before he said a word—a skinny old guy wearing jeans, a craze of wiry gray hair, and a bushy mustache. He could have been Clem Kadiddlehopper’s brother. (I mean that as a compliment.)


Red Skelton (center) as Clem Kadiddlehopper. (Credit: NBC TV on Wikimedia Commons)

He talked rapidly and passionately, flitted in and out of the room to mix potions, and finally poured out on the counter bottles, an envelope, and a medicine dropper. With no other social segue than “okay, bye” he was back into his homeopathic sanctum. We paid, hoisted Watson into the truck, and headed for home.

On the way down, in the vet’s office, and on the way back to Erie, Watson was calm. As soon as we were in the door, Kathy administered the first dropper full of homeopathic pain relief. Did the new experience send a ripple along Watson’s bowel? Make him feel momentarily tipsy? I’m not sure what he felt, but I know squirtle when I smell it. That’s what we call doggy fear fluid in the Coleman household. I’m used to dogs squirtling in the car or at the vet’s office, but safe at home, the ordeal passed?

He lay beside me at the dining room table, dazed and wretched. His eyes said, “Yeah, yeah, I know. Sorry.”

Dear blogging friend naptimethoughts explained to me in a generous comment the anatomical cause for squirtle and described how the sacs in question sometimes have to be manually expressed. My grand-dog Layla occasionally gets plugged up, and her vet offered to show daughter Elena how to glove up and give relief right at home for free. “Ah, no.”

Last evening Kathy and I made a run to the new house and took Watson along. Was it that my lift into the truck squeezed his belly? Or has he acquired a hair trigger? Whatever the case, the cab hazed over with Eau de Sacs. Today in frigid Erie, Pennsylvania, the sun warmed the truck seats, normally a bonus. Obviously, nature toasted the spots where my old pal pressed his rumpus against the fabric, freeing up the squirtle for continued enjoyment.

Ah, if the day’s worst ambush is a dropper-full of Watson’s anxiety juice, I’m golden. Is it possible to find an elderly dog’s harmless infirmity endearing? I think so.

It’s at least as possible as enjoying the supreme annoyance that is football’s Super Bowl. The family was over, and we took in the Seattle Seahawks’ last offensive play, when team strategists squirtled away the game by passing from the one yard line rather than handing the ball to Media Day wag Marshawn Lynch.

The highlight of the game for me was halftime. Katy Perry rode a twinkling gold behemoth and ascended into artificial fog, but grandson Cole stole the show. Sitting in Kathy’s lap, he made the best possible use of the spectacle: his fine eyelids slipped, slipped, slipped.

As I watched Cole’s commentary, I thought something that might seem dark at first: if somehow we humans aren’t suited for eternity, if an arbitrary sac of years in the here and now is all we get, then I might be okay with that. I hope for forever, but I got to watch this boy in his grandmother’s lap, as treasured and lovely as can be. Katy Perry fell quiet, or may as well have, and I figured that witnessing such love was more than enough justification for a lifetime.


My grandson in his wagon: take that, Katy Perry! (Credit: Elena Thompson)

In the annoyance and blessing of recent days, I’m starting to feel whole again. I guess that’s what I’ve been trying to say. I could learn to like this.

Breathing the Moments of Buoyant Flowers

The late May Sarton loved flowers and kept vases of them all over her house. On page one of Journal of a Solitude she explains why:

When I am alone the flowers are really seen; I can pay attention to them. They are felt presences. Without them I would die. Why do I say that? Partly because they change before my eyes. They live and die in a few days; they keep me closely in touch with process, with growth, and also with dying. I am floated on their moments.


Kathy’s trumpet vine, last year’s edition

These days wife Kathy’s stargazer lilies, clematis, and plenty of others make the yard a happy riot, and a couple times a day, I stop, look for a few seconds at some bright spot, and float. The trouble is, my favorite activity in life is floating: find beauty, breathe it in and out, and float. Maybe this is because, like Sarton, “I feel too much, sense too much, am exhausted by the reverberations after even the simplest conversation. But the deep collision is and has been with my unregenerate, tormenting, and tormented self.”


May Sarton

Well, that’s a little overstated for me–I’m not unregenerate–but Sarton captures the main idea: I often feel as though I’m swimming upstream. I need beauty to help me float, even if the buoyancy takes me back downstream.

A few days ago I had an evening to think back over some of the flowers that have lined my path lately. The free time, I should point out, surfaced because while schlepping around the grocery store in my old Birkenstocks, I caught my piggy toe on one of the cart’s wheels. It’s curious how several ideas can come to mind in an instant:

  • Heavens to Murgatroyd, I just broke my toe!
  • Don’t pass out.
  • Wait, it’s sticking out at a 45° angle. Is it possible to jerk a toe out of joint?
  • Jiminy Cricket!
  • They don’t do anything for a broken toe anyway. 

“What have I got to lose?” I thought, then bent over, made a mental note to lose weight, and pressed piggy back toward its siblings: click! I didn’t hear it, but felt it. Had I just lucked out? We would have to see.

Trying not to limp too tragically up and down the aisles, I covered the rest of the list. The sweat that comes with a freak injury flowed, and occasionally I sounded like Yosemite Sam walking on hot coals. But I made it through the checkout, to the truck, and once home told Kathy and son Micah my tale.

I wouldn’t be preparing salmon and a Boston lettuce and avocado salad for supper. With foot elevated, I took four ibuprofen with two glasses of water, then sipped some Primal Roots red blend. As Kathy and I sat together, I looked out at the sun making the boulevard maples glow. Every few minutes my toe felt like it was inhabited by a tiny troll who, furious at being held captive, was using a pick ax to escape. Then, out of nowhere, a certainty settled on me.

“My God,” I said to myself and Kathy, “we’re so lucky.” I thought out loud our litany of blessings: home, food, clothing, loved ones, and more. Once in a while you remember that, although some sad spot inside sounds its chronic ache, you generally abide in Eden—a lush garden of breathing and floating. So on the porch my flummoxed toe and I floated. Breathing in, breathing out, I gave thanks for flowers that have lined my path lately.


Conventional and cat flowers in the Coleman kitchen

Confession: until grandson Cole was born on November 30, 2013, I wasn’t a baby guy. Sure, little ones struck me as cute and good-smelling mostly, but I was never one to squeal and beg to hold them. But now my fifty-two-year-old heart has been cracked open.


One of Starbucks’ baristas brought in her newborn. I was having a rough morning, then I found myself floating. Thanks, kiddo!


Mary Anne holds great-granddaughter Alexis in my office at church. When mom Vanessa handed me her daughter, I told the little one she was lucky. Her mom and dad had waited a long time for her to arrive–much spoiling lies ahead.

Last week, twice in one day, I had occasion to visit Cole: first to drop off a key to my 1999 Mazda 626 so son-in-law Renaissance man Matt could fix the power-steering, which had crapped the bed, and second, to drop off a little treat for Elena.


Joy at 9:30 a.m.


Joy on a summer evening: daughter Elena holding Cole, rocking a new fedora.

For a while now I’ve been negotiating with myself, trying to overcome private struggles. Every few years Thich Nhat Hanh comes along with a dandelion of hope and encouragement. The opening of his Peace Is Every Step reminds me that today doesn’t have to be yesterday: “Every morning, when we wake up, we have twenty-four brand-new hours to live. What a precious gift! We have the capacity to live in a way that these twenty-four hours will bring peace, joy, and happiness to ourselves and others.” I have to keep in mind that change is possible.


Thank you, Thich Nhat Hanh. (Credit: Paul Davidson from Prince George, Canada. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In the midst of struggles and weakness, I have the mindfulness to invite the smallest of flowers to set me afloat. At Starbucks baristas come around with samples, and the taste of a croissant—two bites—brought me to the present moment, to the gifts of tasting and breathing.


Food flower

Stories sometimes come to me as flowers and help me to float. A dear friend recently sent me a message that evoked equal parts joy and sadness. I’ve made a couple of changes for the sake of privacy.

After a long nap this afternoon on my own bed . . . ahhh . . . I took my bride out to supper. It was very fancy. Hoagies and a clam strip basket at the ice cream place. I said, do you want to take a ride, and we did. We went out around the lake.

On the way out, we went past the county home. In the drive way was an old woman standing with a mug of coffee. As we approached in the truck, she began to dance around like a little girl. My wife said, “She lives in the home, but waits every day for her husband to come. He’s dead. But she stands outside every day waiting with a cup of coffee for him.”

I was really struck by the sight of an old lady with beautiful long silver hair dancing as if she was ten. Maybe one day she’ll be able to give him that cup of joe.


My prayer: in eternity, may our beloved arrive as expected, may we dance until we’re dizzy with laughter, and may we give each other strong cups of gladness. (Credit: Tim Boyd from Brooklyn. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

I guess even a sad story can be beautiful as long as it tells some kind of truth. When it comes to floating, I’m not fussy. Anything buoyant will do: a baby, a few words to correct my course, a piece of bread, the image of a woman waiting for her dead husband–and a sore toe. After all, if I didn’t have to sit with my leg raised, I wouldn’t have noticed Shenley Drive’s shimmering trees or let go as the current took me downstream.

P.S. The day after my toe lost to the shopping cart, I was black and blue, but without pain. The next day, even the bruise was gone. I just checked with the Toe Doctor, and you can dislocate your toe. Well turn me over your knee and spank me with a wet fish!

The General Dance

When we are alone on a starlit night; when by chance we see the migrating birds of autumn descending on a grove of junipers to rest and eat; when we see children in a moment when they are really children; when we know love in our own heart; or when, like the Japanese poet Basho we hear an old frog land in a quiet pond with a solitary splash—at such times the awakening, the turning inside out of all values, the “newness,” the emptiness and the purity of vision that make themselves evident, provide a glimpse of the cosmic dance.


Credit: Gyro Photography

For the world and time are the dance of the Lord in emptiness. The silence of the spheres is the music of a wedding feast. The more we persist in misunderstanding the phenomena of life, the more we analyze them out into strange finalities and complex purposes of our own, the more we involve ourselves in sadness, absurdity and despair. But it does not matter much, because no despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not. 

Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance. (Thomas Merton, The New Seeds of Contemplation)


Credit: Bill Byrne

My wife Kathy is not a napper. I’ve sung her praises in at least one previous blog post, but she and I differ on the matter of midday oblivion. It occurs to me that she and I also approach shamatha differently. My calm abiding tends to be self-referential (i.e. naval gazing), while Kathy mostly looks outward at the world and others to find meaning. This is not to say that she lacks self-awareness and I am captive to my own reflection; rather, we have different spiritual styles.

It helps to acknowledge this. For a couple weeks my karma’s been cramped and bitter, and it may be because I’m stuck in my own awful solemnity, analyzing the phenomenon of my life into strange finalities. In other words, I need to get out of my naval and out into the general dance, which has been going on around me all these days of my funkification.

In fact, the cosmic or general dance—whatever you want to call it—has been getting a bit out of hand, especially in Kathy’s land of shamatha, the Coleman backyard. Check out this short gallery I took a couple weeks ago of God and Kathy dancing.


Evidence of this being the Coleman’s driveway? A garage at the end; that’s about it.


A clematis vine taking over the hedge and gardening tool shelf.


Behind the foliage is a grill. When I cook, I look like Arte Johnson on “Laugh In.”


Getting in the backdoor requires dancing with greenery.


The dance isn’t restricted to the backyard. It plays inside, too, on the kitchen windowsill. You have to move plants to open the window.


An orange tree took over the breakfast table until friend Claudia adopted it last week.

As plant life took over our property inside and out, pineapple-sized grandson-to-be has been shaking his groove thing under the firmament of daughter Elena’s belly.


Elena with dancing future grandson.

No matter how much I try to turn the joy beating in my very blood to hot dog water, frogs keep inviting me to splash into ponds with them. Mint leaves wait for me to pick them and lift them to my nose. The clematis overtaking the hedge hopes I’ll stand still and receive its gladness. My future grandson is generally dancing and wants his gramps to join him. Kathy says, “You need to go outside and look!”

Forget yourself, Coleman. Go outside. Breathe. Know shamatha. Cast yourself dancing to the winds.