Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs-Review
Author introduces his yet-to-be-conceived grandchild to the world
(Blogger’s Note: Dear Friends, the review that follows appeared in my hometown newspaper yesterday. I appreciate not only Doug Rieder’s generosity, but also his sincere attempt to understand and communicate my book’s purpose and audience. I also thank Erie writer and photographer Mary Birdsong for her great cover photograph, thoughtful advice, and support.)
By DOUG RIEDER, Erie Times-News
“Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs, And Other Wonders Before Your Time”
By John Coleman
Shamatha House, 201 pages, $11 paperback
Over the course of his new book of essays, “Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs,” John Coleman often stops to smell the roses, and he’s got a pretty good nose for it.
You’d expect as much from Coleman, pastor of Erie’s Abiding Hope Lutheran Church. But this is no preacher consoling his flock, nor one communing with a higher power. The word “God,” in fact, is rarely used.
No, Coleman addresses each of these 11 short essays to someone who doesn’t exist yet — or at least didn’t at the time of his writing. That someone turns out to be his grandson, Cole, born to his daughter, Elena, and her husband, Matt, on Nov. 30, 2013.
Coleman explains all this on the back cover, but inside the book, Cole isn’t Cole yet, but a mysterious, magical being filled with promise and potential.
“I’m aware of the sun, the trees, the longing cardinal and the possibility of you,” Coleman writes from his stilt-cabin retreat in the woods at Mount Saint Benedict.
“While you’re still a dream, I feel like talking to you. … What I have to say will feel more like floating a canoe down a creek than running rapids.”
He suggests optimal times for his grandchild to read his jottings: On bad days, “read a few notes.” On good days, don’t bother. “And on your worst days, turn to these words: Before you were born, your grandfather sat up in the trees and loved you ahead of time.”
That’s typical of Coleman, a gentle soul guided by other gentle souls: Gandhi, Kahlil Gibran, Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh and Erie’s Sister Joan Chittister.
As he promises, Coleman writes of life’s everyday occurrences, his “floating canoes” –Harriet the squirrel, the dogs and cats of his Shenley Drive neighborhood, disturbing newspaper headlines, family history, mini-essays on the Elephant Man and the Gettysburg Address, the changing face of Erie and the coming — but mostly going — of favorite coffeehouses and writing haunts like Moonsense and Aromas.
His life is full to bursting. His wife, Kathy, really does raise monarch butterflies, but also assembles furniture out of town and crews aboard the U.S. Brig Niagara. In one essay, she departs on a three-week Niagara sail. Coleman bristles over her absence but notes that her time aboard ship has given her a “longer fuse.”
At the time of this writing, the Colemans are parents of teenagers — 15-year-old Micah and 17-year-old Elena. They bring joy into his life: “I miss giving you shoulder rides,” Coleman tells his son. “I miss that, too,” says Micah. “But I can’t do that anymore. I’d crush you.”
At times, he must hold his tongue with them.
“Many lessons people have to teach themselves,” he writes.
It took Coleman a year to write “Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs” and seven years of “intermittent slashing away,” as he wrote me in a letter. He did it in coffeehouses and in cabins on stilts, but he also did it within time zones that created themselves: waiting rooms, hospital rooms, the World of Music basement as Micah hammered away at his drum lessons.
Coleman’s main conceit is that he’s writing to a grandbaby that’s not even a glimmer yet, but of course, he’s not really — he’s writing to us. There’s a sweetness to these observations, mundane as they might be, and a comfort to turn back to them.
“I suppose this is why I’ve written to you so much about the commonplace,” Coleman writes near the end. “Leaves going red, a squirrel laughing at a dog, a dad playing catch with his son, a husband taking a walk with his wife: I’ve no right to ask for more.”
But where the book starts Thoreau-like at a cabin in the woods, it ends with the running of at least one set of dangerous rapids: troubling news about Elena.
“She has a story to tell you,” Coleman writes. “She’ll sit you down and fill you in when you’re ready; only she can decide on the right time.”
Developments like this help ground “Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs.” Coleman has a wide, gentle streak, yes, but he’s as fully immersed in life’s stickiness and unpleasantries as the rest of us.
Happily, the town’s got a lot more coffeehouses now — Hortons and the omnipresent Starbucks — for him to duck into and open his writing journal.
DOUG RIEDER is the former editor of the book page.