Reconsidering 2014

“You humans. When’re you gonna learn that size doesn’t matter? Just ’cause something’s important, doesn’t mean it’s not very, very small” (Frank the Pug in the movie Men in Black).

Merry Christmas, 2014! Happy New Year, 2015! For months I’ve been stuck in sleep. The last time I felt this way was Christmas of 1998, six months after my mother died. I had no idea that my soul had been smothering until my lungs snapped full in late December, and I thought, “Oh, so that’s what grief is.” Mom had passed, but she would have asked me to keep living. And now, I’m granted an epiphany, something probably obvious to everybody else, but hidden from me.

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Grandson Cole: my expression for way too much of 2014. (Credit: Elena Thompson)

After a tough year, the Christmas story has awakened me, but not because it can be historically proven. Haggling over facts makes me want to take a nap. It’s the truth of a story that has roused me from sleep. If you’re not a Christian, please listen anyway. Play along. The Creator of All visits humanity as an infant, absolutely defenseless, not as a warrior and not majestic. “And so it was, that, while [Mary and Joseph] were [in Bethlehem], the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” These familiar details from the Gospel of Luke are small, so very, very small that they’re heartbreaking–a baby wrapped in rags and laid in a feed box. No room for him, except with the animals.

But Frank the Pug’s gravelly voice grabs the scruff of my neck and carries me away from sadness. “When’re you humans going to learn that size doesn’t matter?” (Yes, yes, go ahead and chuckle.) Size not only doesn’t matter, but it can be deceiving. Example: ants weigh as much as humans do. I can’t recall when I first learned this, but son Micah verified it for me: “When combined, all ants in the world taken together weigh about as much as all human beings.” And so, wake up, John! Sure, lousy, big, heavy stories have lots of us making Cole’s crying face, but when you place all the flecks of grace and good spirits on the scales, the world doesn’t look so bad. In fact, it shines.

Thank you, Infant Lowly, for restoring my hope, putting a little steam back in my stride, and updating the prescription for my spiritual glasses. Rubbing the bad news out of my waking eyes, I see beauty and fun clearly now.

Dear loved ones, please accept these holy, lowly flecks from my 2014. May they help you and me receive 2015’s ants of grace and good spirits.

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Wife Kathy and neighbor Patrick–a wise, Down’s boy who said, without even lifting his head, “I love you, Kathy Coleman.”

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My late mother’s Christmas cactus now blooms in early November, so I figured it would be bare come December 25th. Not so. A couple of flowers opened late, but they’re no less lovely for that.

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This one is probably an over-share: Over twenty years ago dentist friend Tom built a tooth for me out of filling material. Money was scarce at the time, so Tom worked his magic, which lasted until Advent of 2014. When I was in seminary, a dentist in Columbus said, “This one was made by a master.” Thanks for two decades of good service.

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In downtown Erie, an old gas street lamp still burns in front of Gannon University’s Gitnik Manse on West 6th Street. I have no idea why this gave me a sip of joy, but it did.

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My book came out in 2014 as an indie publication. People seem to find out about it a person at a time–kind of like A Napper’s Companion. No thousands of readers, but a kindred spirit here and there.

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Oddball that I am, I sent a copy of “Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs” to the President and First Lady. What the hell? They sent a thank you note, though I’m sure the book itself was ground into a fine powder to be sure it wasn’t laced with anthrax.

I call myself a writer, yet my vocabulary is embarrassingly slim. When I encounter an unfamiliar word, I look it up. In 2014, I read carbuncle, which I knew is a precious stone from reading Sherlock Holmes stories, but the context told me there must be another meaning. A carbuncle, it turns out, “is [also] a red, swollen, and painful cluster of boils that are connected to each other under the skin.” Why, thank you for that update. I also stumbled on sycophant, who is a “servile self-seeking flatterer.” The synonyms tickle my teenage sense of humor: “apple-polisher, bootlicker, brownnoser, fawner, flunky, lickspittle, suckup, toady.” Lickspittle! I can’t wait to toss that one out in a conversation. I love words and consider them a blessing, though I don’t retain them very well.

I also love quotations, in part because I compiled 365 of them for a collection of daily meditations, Questions from Your Cosmic Dance, which came out in 1997. I jotted down one of my favorites from the past year on a scrap of paper and still have it. It voices wisdom I need to hear and follow.

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This quote comes courtesy of Belief.net’s “Jewish Wisdom,” which lands in my email-box each day. The older I get, the more I choose not to say. Thank you, Solomon Ibn Gabirol.

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Words are flecks of goodness, as are quotations. Laughter also places weight on the scale to counter despair. Daughter Elena and son-in-law Matt gave me a Jesus Pan for Christmas. Little do they know they’ll be eating Jesus French toast someday soon.

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No other small gift from 2014 comes close to my grandson Cole, shown here in his Wagnerian knit cap. He helps me to understand the Christmas story. Why would the Great Mystery visit humanity as a child? Behold! (Credit: Elena Thompson)

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What does 2015 hold for you, me, and planet Earth? Cole looks at the horizon with wonder as do we all. (Credit: Elena Thompson)

One thing I know about the months ahead: unless I get lost completely, don’t expect me to repeat the tired grief of 2014. Sure, I’ll get sad and discouraged, but nothing can change the fact that ants weigh as much as humans. You have to look closely for very, very small flecks of grace and good spirits, but once your eyes learn to spot them, the size of the bad news doesn’t matter so much anymore.

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May this fortune be so for you in 2015, my loved ones.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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World News: A Napper’s Companion Christmas Letter

Dear Loved Ones:

Here’s a bulletin! Over the last few years I’ve been discouraged about the state of the world. World: language doesn’t get much bigger. Solar system, galaxy, universe, and eternity all out rank world. In addition to a couple of newspapers and websites, my source for Earth’s latest information is ABC’s World News with David Muir. On the surface, this makes sense. If I want the most important updates available, why not depend on one of the big three television networks still broadcasting free of charge?

On the other hand, what makes the American Broadcast Company so wise? A few days ago after prayer-meditation, I beat Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the magi to the stable in Bethlehem and had an epiphany, joyous and liberating. The various media have much to report, but they can’t cover everything. This one man’s Teletype constantly receives breaking news deserving of airtime and headlines. World News isn’t only the latest financial collapse, governmental absurdity, or breathtaking slaughter. It’s also unseen sacrifice, modest dreams fulfilled, or simple tenderness.

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I beat the rush ahead of the Magi and received my Epiphany. (Credit: Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy; on Wikimedia Commons)

As sickly as things seem these days, grace is everywhere, and probably more abundant than evil. But because I consume so much distressing information, I’m conned into believing that humanity is circling the drain. How foolish! My personal sources have told glad tidings of great joy lately. With love and hope, then, I offer A Napper’s Companion Christmas Letter made up of stories not covered by the mainstream media.

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My buddy Ray put up a Christmas tree for his eighty-six-year-old mother, who stopped decorating after her husband died around twenty years ago. No media outlet picked up this story.

For Coleman family dinner, I was working so hard to perfect a chicken in a spirited mustard sauce that I neglected the corn chowder. I said to daughter Elena, “Hey, Len, would you mind trying to fix the chowder?” She hit it with nutmeg, salt, white pepper, a splash of hot sauce, and coriander ground with a new mortar and pestle from friend Mary. I contributed a stick of butter, and together we reached savory. Best of all, before we sat down to eat I hugged Elena and kissed her on top of the head. She said, “I love you, Daddy.”

In millions of kitchens, we help each other out with joy and speak of love. Snark and bicker visit, but I’ll wager overall we’re more kind than cranky.

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Elena, one of my favorite chefs, with her baby bump. Families everywhere embrace, coddle kiddos, and create masterpieces together. I now consider this reality “world news.”

At a party last week, I sipped wine in the kitchen with friends Karri and Joe and kibitzed. Two of their daughters sat off to the side talking. Lauren is about to graduate from college, and Emily is in high school. Rarely would I tell anybody to freeze for a picture, but I figured this one might win a Pulitzer. Yes, Virginia, siblings can get along and do better than that: they can take care of each other.

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Lauren and Emily . . . unposed. (My Pulitzer, please!)

I recently visited a severely ill man and his family. He sat on the couch with feet up on an ottoman. His wife patted his leg, spoke words of comfort, and kept his morphine ahead of pain and distress. The man’s brother wrote a prayer, which he asked me to read—no way he could get the words out. It was simple, humble, fervent. We sat in silence afterwards, passing around Kleenex.

“You’re a good man,” I said. “You know that right?”

A slight tear ran from the corner of his eye. “I’ve tried.”

We all put a hand on the man and entrusted him to God’s care. When I stood to leave, his wife said, “John, wait. He wants to give you a hug.”

For over thirteen years I’ve watched death. Driving away from this visit, I took an unexpected gift with me. What a loving, attentive end, as gentle as any I’ve been blessed to witness.

And I know that this day, in lands everywhere and all fifty states, the living hold the hands of the dying and whisper, “You can let go. We love you. We’ll be okay.”

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Let go. (Credit: Simon Eugster on Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve received a couple of gifts lately that are particularly moving. Both made and bought, they remind me that people who celebrate Christmas are thinking of each other, finding a present that will be received like a kiss on the cheek and a moment’s cheer to the heart.

No doubt, Christmas is awfully commercial, but we’re trying, aren’t we? Most of us? We do want to bring joy. On the news you see Black Friday stampedes, but not the man standing alone in the store aisle, praying to find his beloved something pleasing.

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A handmade ornament–thanks, Barb!

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Bread and butter pickles and a mortar and pestle–thanks, Mary!

A young guy with low-slung jeans was waiting to cross the street as I drove up to the intersection. He started out, saw me, then held up. I motioned him on. At the curb he glanced back, smiled, and waved. I smiled back and shot him the peace sign.

Human by human, peace is sent out, received, and returned. I see it all around me.

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Iraqi boys giving the peace sign. Most of us human beings want peace, don’t we? (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I know an astute, witty, practical nine-year-old who still believes in Santa Claus. She leaves him a letter each Christmas Eve by the candy jar.

“What do you write him?” I asked.

“Things like ‘I hope you like bringing everybody presents.’”

Her father says, “She still believes in magic.”

I’m sure she is not alone.

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I believe in Santa, too, especially if he looks a little like Robin Williams. (Credit:Jacob Windham on Wikimedia Commons)

Starbucks friend John and I talk about our dogs. In decent weather he brings his boxer Harley and has coffee outside. John and I both aspire to live like a dog—in the moment, not self-absorbed, often overjoyed.

John loves Harley and shows it. Every once in a while I see a news story about horses starving in barns, but, you know, I bet most pet owners are like John. Most of us are this way, right? We make sure our dogs and cats have enough to eat and drink, gush over their eccentricities, and treat them like our children?

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Starbucks friend John and his guru Harley

I know I love my dog. This morning old gimpy Watson hopped up on the bed with me as I was getting propped up for prayer-meditation. I’m not sure how much longer he’ll be with us. Like our two cats, Watson came to us as a stray. A clumsy soul, he tore both ACLs years ago. We fixed one, but couldn’t afford surgery for the other. He has fatty tumors on his flank, one the size of a tennis ball. We chase pills down his throat with treats. (I bet lots of you have stories just like this one.)

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Not my dog or John’s. A random pooch with an endearing fang I photographed at Presque Isle in Pennsylvania. Certainly the apple of some dog owner’s eye.

I set my Zen bell for twenty minutes, unpropped myself, lay down, and rested my face on Watson’s side. “I love you, buddy,” I said. He huffed and made the old mutt smacking sounds with his mouth I’ve come to love. “I’m glad you stopped by.” I rubbed his soft ear between my fingers. “You’re a good old pal.”

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My favorite picture of my old buddy, Watson. Do you have a buddy, too?

The world news tells us our home is in peril, with all of its explosions and arguments. This Christmas, sisters and brothers, I claim for us another world, one I recognize every way I turn. Join me. Everywhere I see souls unable to contain their love and sacred wishes.

Love,

John

Epiphany on a Planet of Cautionary Dreams

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Mary and Joseph still adoring Jesus on January 10th at Mount Saint Benedict Monastery in Erie, Pennsylvania.

It’s January 23rd: the magi have come from the East; knelt before the Christ child; offered their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh; and were granted their epiphany. Then, “having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” By January 6th, the Epiphany of Our Lord, I imagine most crèches had already been wrapped in old newspaper and set in a dark place for eleven and a half months of hibernation.

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Baby Crash enjoying the extended Epiphany.

The Coleman household has the strange habit of allowing the Christmas/Epiphany celebration to linger. It was only a week ago that Kathy put the ornaments, decorations, and snowmen in Totes, which now wait for me to lug them upstairs to storage. We’ve stretched the season into early February, but don’t have a set date for pulling the plug. When an afternoon or evening opens up in mid- to late-January, Kathy intuitively knows it’s time to go back home to our normal country.

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Stop and breathe, John.

I know Christmas/Epiphany has to move on, but I miss the spell our living room casts on me in December and January. Give me reds and greens. Give me lights that hold me back like a mother putting out her hand to keep her child safe when she brakes hard. Give me “good tidings of great joy,” even if the tidings are inconspicuous: You have a warm, dry, lovely house on a planet of cautionary dreams. Stop and breathe. Pay homage.

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Peter Paul Rubens’ “Massacre of the Innocents,” 1636-1638 (Credit: Wikipedia)

There is one jab to the solar plexus between Christmas and Epiphany. On December 28th, many Christian churches commemorate the Massacre of the Holy Innocents. The Gospel of Matthew recounts Herod’s indiscriminate attempt to kill Jesus, the promised King: “[Herod] sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.” No historical evidence of this slaughter exists, but current events keep proving that Matthew’s account may not be factual, but it’s true.

Unicef reported last December that the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution regarding the Central African Republic: “Action must be impartial and swift to stop the targeting of children, to protect schools, health facilities and transit centres, and to provide care and support to victims—with no impunity for the perpetrators of these outrages against children.” So suits pass edicts, and mothers weep for their children and refuse “to be consoled, because they are no more”—in Newtown, Damascus, and Bethlehem.

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Homage at Abiding Hope on January 23rd. The magi have come so far, and I’m putting off asking them to leave.

The whole Christmas/Epiphany story, with the shepherds “sore afraid” and the star “at its rising” and Mary wrapping her son “in swaddling clothes,” conflates with Rachel’s “wailing and loud lamentation” and leads me to shamatha in Erie, Pennsylvania. Cultures and centuries away from a child lying in a manger in the city of David, I keep epiphanies coming with calm abiding and leave a tree and crèche standing in my soul.

This practice is more about disposition than decoration. If only I could receive the simple, moving, miraculous story of Jesus’ birth without qualifications: Mary and Joseph had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem for a stupid census; Jesus was born alongside manure and slept in a feedbox; an angel warned Joseph in a dream to flee with wife and son to Egypt to escape Herod’s threat; and—like I said, more truth than fact—a king slaughters pretty ones to fulfill a prophesy.

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Come, dry bones of Rwanda, rise and dance in my soul. (Credit: Sascha Grabow)

The problem is, I can’t tolerate sanitized stories. Edit out or ignore the darkness and danger, and Matthew’s and Luke’s narratives are insulting, and the Coleman family’s celebration is ignorant and selfish. What does it say when I tear open presents on Christmas morning while at least one arm of my spirit isn’t cradling Rwanda and Littleton? How comforting is the artificial tree beside the fireplace if it withholds its glow from distended bellies and limbs abbreviated by machetes?

The point: I’m in no hurry to get the living room back to its usual arrangement. If nothing else, a nap on the couch with a fire going and the tree lit is a rare blessing. Sleep isn’t required. It’s enough to doze, let the colors blur through half-opened eyes, and listen to the wood’s snap and crackle.

I’m a challenging person to live with. The Christmas/Epiphany living room needs no excuses; it’s beautiful and that’s enough. There’s no particular reason that it couldn’t be an embracing escape from planetary absurdity and rage, from each day’s disappointments and injuries–this and no more. So why do I insist on complicating a peaceful sanctum? Because my Epiphany shamatha whispers, “Invite everybody in. Let them have a safe place, even if that place is your soul.”

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A lone snowman remains on the mantle: “Welcome. Come in from the cold.”

This morning in the car, Micah and I learned on National Public Radio of an innocent who will visit my spirit tonight as I sit by the fire. Reuters reports that “a 20-year-old woman in eastern India was gang-raped by 13 men on the orders of a village court as punishment for having a relationship with a man from a different community, a senior police officer said on Thursday . . . . Police said that her male companion was tied up in the village square, while the assault on the woman happened in a mud house.”As we rode in silence, I looked over at my son. He was shaking his head, eyes closed—momentary curtains drawn against evil.

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It’s warm here, distant daughter. I’ll put a blanket down for you. Rest. You’ll be safe.

The father in me speaks words that will never reach the young survivor in her hospital bed: “Holy Child, come sit on the hearth. Bring your forbidden lover. I’ll put lights back on the tree. Cry and scream if you want. I’ll keep the fire going, bring tea for your aching throat, warm bread to feed your broken body.”

My Indian daughter will be staying indefinitely. In my spirit inn that sings and sighs, where the tree and crèche live a seamless Epiphany, joy is sacred only if there’s room for every traveler’s wounds and tears.

Apothic Red, Java, and the Weeping Birds of Gethsemani

I used to make retreats hard work. Stick with the program! Pray, read, worship, rest, walk (or run), and write—this last one has always struck me as okay because writing for me is a way of meditating. This Gethsemani retreat has been different. I haven’t turned my short stay into an exercise in competitive contemplation. Relax, Coleman.

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Small Prayer Sculpture in Meditation Room, Gethsemani

I’ve enjoyed a splash of wine in the evening, sitting at my desk, writing, and giving thanks for the cool breeze on my arms and face.

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For Medicinal Purposes

I’ve spent a couple of hours each morning in Bardstown, about fifteen minutes from the monastery, at The Java Joint. It’s unique in my experience: trippy, artsy to the eye, but Rush Limbaugh blusters on the radio—thank God for ear buds and Pandora—and, pleasant as the employees are, the coffee’s, well, ugh. Still, it’s been an amiable second home this week. Oh, yes, and free Wi-Fi.

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A Writer’s Java Joint Perch

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A Bust Vase in the Java Joint Japanese Garden (Suggesting What Many Women Claim, That Breasts Are Like Snowflakes

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Painting in the Men’s Room by Cantrell, 2008 (What Are They Putting in My Coffee?)

I’ve also permitted myself a touch of interior grumbling, which is way out of line, considering what a gift this week has been. Yesterday morning I visited graves not within the monastic enclosure. Mainly I wanted to see the resting places of Fathers Louis (Thomas) Merton, Matthew Kelty, and Roman Ginn. Merton’s marker was so slathered with sacred litter that I had to nudge the leavings aside to photograph his name. Kelty’s and Ginn’s bore pilgrims’ droppings as well. I felt mildly cheated, wanting to pay homage to these monks I regard as spiritual masters, not look at what amounts to big fat red lipstick kiss marks all over the crosses bearing their names. But, thankfully, these harrumphs were fleeting, quietly scolded into silence by a few good laughs at my own fussiness.

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Father Louis (Thomas) Merton’s Grave Marker

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Father Matthew Kelty’s Grave Marker

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Father Roman Ginn’s Grave Marker

I’ve even enjoyed some healthy irreverence. I have to think that Father Louis Merton is buried next to Abbot James Fox for cosmic reasons. According to Merton’s journals, he considered his abbot something of a megalomaniac, and they drove each other nuts for many years. Yet their bodies rest together, Dom James and Father Louis, hopefully having come to terms.

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Contrary Neighbors, Dom James Fox (Left) and Father Louis (Thomas) Merton

My last couple of posts have mentioned the birds of Gethsemani, the singingest flock I’ve ever heard. In all irreverence, I have to say they’re prolific in another common means of expression as well. One photo below shows a chair that obviously serves as a bird latrine. The other photo shows part of a statue called The Epiphany. Lovely work, and at first glance you might think the young Jesus is miraculously crying for our troubled world. Quick, call the Vatican! Ah, well. Turns out that the boy’s forehead is a favorite perch, and the tears are wept by birds lightening their burdens before take off. (How one enterprising sparrow or robin managed to weep into poor Jesus’ eye socket is a mystery.) Everything is sacred, and nothing is sacred.

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The Birds’ Loo (I’ll Take a Pass on This Prayer Chair)

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An Ambivalent Expression (For Good Reason)

I even used to feel guilty on retreats if I napped for too long. It didn’t stop me, but the voice of fervor and time’s winged chariot hurrying near were always on my mind. Not so now. Yesterday’s siesta, so needful, lasted two hours—two hours of snoring and drooling with abandon, followed by fifteen minutes of staring in a stupor at the ceiling. Lovely! In a couple hours, I’ll rest again, for as long as I please.

This is my last full day on retreat. Tomorrow I’ll head to Columbus, rattle around there for an afternoon, sleep one night in a hotel, then get home Saturday. In spite of the rugged stretch in prayer yesterday morning, this week has been joyful, freeing. Some would say I’ve been a retreat cheat, slinking off to a coffee shop in the morning and sipping wine in the evening. But this has been my retreat.

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North American Robin (Just Like One That Wouldn’t Keep Still for a Portrait This Morning, Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Gethsemani’s birds speak for me, in their singing and in their weeping.