Reckoning a New Name

Reckoning a New Name

In Gramp’s senior years he acquired jowls. Earl Charles “Curly” Miller, my grandfather, was thin and remarkably bald. His stooped back and forward hips made his profile resemble a question mark. He wore a belt out of custom only, as his trousers rode high over the hillock of his belly.

Gramp before jowls and probably younger than I am now

For practical reasons, Gramp and I weren’t close. I was the youngest of his grandchildren, and the nine who preceded me knocked the play out of him. Also, he moved Gram from Pennsylvania to the dry heat of Arizona when I was under ten years old because of her severe arthritis.

Gramp passed in 1989, but he has been a frequent morning visitor lately. When the razor clears whiskers and foam from my cheeks, the past and future both look back at me: I’m getting jowls.

Did Gramp’s begin to show at fifty-five or am I outpacing him? This question, of course, has little to do with vanity and everything to do with aging. Season by season, I become more a grandfather and less John and Dad. The shift is glacial, but unmistakable. Even wife Kathy and grown children Elena and Micah join grandson Cole in calling me Pop. Killian is working on Mama and Dada, but he’ll chime in soon enough.

Last week, watching a squirrel nibble peanuts outside my den window, I remembered that changing names is a big deal. Abram and Sarai had to leave for the land that God would show them to become Abraham and Sarah. Jorge Mario Bergoglio had to pass through the Room of Tears before greeting the world as Pope Francis.

My new name has granted greater blessings than I had thought possible, but it has also brought on reckonings. Grandma Kathy and Pop are becoming family elders, the generation of jowls, crow’s feet and shuffles. Reflecting on this natural progression, I recognized an unflattering personal tendency: I’m kinder to the quick than to the dead.

A new friend?

Staring at the hungry squirrel’s pale auburn tail fluttering in the wind chill, I concluded that the living are works in progress, whereas the dead are finished. Stiff sentences roll off of my tongue easily when I don’t have to look the defendants in the eye.

Gramp, I must add, was a good sort. He took gentle care of Gram (let us name her, Dorothea Specht Miller) for decades, boiling syringes and giving shots. His achievement as a business executive was notable—paid cash for his fat Buicks. And as he sat outside his greenhouse, squirrels would take peanuts from his lips. I saw them nearly touch their noses to his neat mustache.

But he had flaws, no more or less than your standard, boilerplate soul. Still, without realizing it, I’ve been unduly hard on Gramp and other relatives gone on to glory.

As my own jowls grow, I name the transgressions of my parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, and am ashamed to say that my forgiveness has been lacking—as if it’s my place to forgive anybody for anything. This realization hasn’t kept me up at night, but I do repent (the Greek word is metanoia: to change one’s mind, to turn around).

Every family has trespasses that it keeps in one silent attic corner, covered in the dust of consequences and regret. One of my tasks in the years ahead will be to drag old sins out into the light and grant them my share of absolution.

Someday I’ll no longer be an elder, and this Pop’s length of days will await his children’s and grandchildren’s verdicts. I say these things now in part to ask them to be more sympathetic than I’ve been, to echo words my elders would probably like to pass along: “I made mistakes, but did my best. I still need your love.”

With luck I have plenty of years before me. By the time Cole and Killian are able to sit quietly, maybe I’ll have the neighborhood squirrels taking peanuts from my lips. That’s my goal, anyway.

“My Gramp fed squirrels the same way,” I’ll say. “He was a good man. I hope that’s how you’ll remember me.”

Killian and Pop: if my jowls become saddlebags, I have a way to hide them.

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Naps and Prayers in Ash

Church camp with forty-five teenagers and four fellow pastors is now a couple weeks in the rearview mirror. Every summer we spend six days together at Camp Lutherlyn (near Butler, Pennsylvania) covering Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. Pastor Jeff and I teach first year kids the Ten Commandments, which is an exercise I appreciate more as the summers pile up.

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I’ve come to know the Ten Commandments not as scolding stares (as from this owl in the Lutherlyn Environmental Education Center) but as ways to love neighbor and world.

Spending a couple of hours per day talking about taking the Lord’s name in vain and multiple shalt nots probably sounds depressing, but not with Martin Luther’s explanations of what the commandments mean. Take number seven: “You shall not steal.” As long as you don’t break into a car and run off with somebody’s purse, you’re good, right? Luther pushes the idea open: “We should fear and love God that we do not take our neighbor’s money or property or get it by dishonest dealing, but help him to improve and protect his property and means of income.” Carry this too far, and you’ll be labeled a pinko radical.

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Martin Luther’s parents, Hans and Margarethe: Severe looking folk! (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder)

With every prohibition Luther tacks on an exhortation. So not bearing false witness against your neighbor comes with the instruction to “defend him, speak well of him, and take his words and actions in the kindest possible way.” If you’ll forgive the gender specific language, Luther’s explanations blow the dust off of Moses’ tablets and shine justice’s light on them.

Peeling back the layers was joyful. It’s not enough to avoid strangling our neighbors; we are to “help and befriend” them. And not coveting your neighbor’s possessions includes actually helping her to keep them.

Beyond the classroom time, during which I gratefully hang on to master-teacher Jeff’s coattails, each installment of Camp Lutherlyn has its own personality and unveils its own lessons before this middle-aged novice.

June 14th through 19th had a trippy groove—trippy and drippy. This was certainly the rainiest week on record. My sneakers went into the trash as soon as I got home. But the weather was just a backdrop to the funkiness.

Photographs tell part of the story:

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Lutherlyn’s Environmental Education Center has plenty of curiosities and stuffed animals that appear bemused.

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You’re welcome to pet this porcupine, but, as the signage suggests, go “from the head toward the tail only.” Copy that!

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Pastor Jeff examines a boa skin. If I ever see one of these in the Pennsylvania woods, I’m going home.

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A kid standing beside me said, “Is that poop on a stick?” Not poop, but “galls.” Check out the next slide.

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Church camp’s Harmonic Convergence shone on the next-to-last evening during the annual Snake Pit, when kids get to ask pastors any questions they want. One young lady said, “If you could add another commandment to the ten, what would it be?” I knew my answer right away, but let the other pastors go first while mulling over the risk. “Oh, damn the torpedoes,” I thought, then spoke: “I’d add a commandment that Anne Lamott included in one of her books [Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith]. She said, “Rule 1: When all else fails, follow instructions. And Rule 2: Don’t be an asshole.” Gasp. Giggle. “I’d add that second rule.”

That was the message of camp writ coarsely: “For the love of God, be nice. Don’t be a jerk. Keep your promises. Share the buckets in the sandbox.” Or in Jesus’ words, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” I haven’t received any complaints yet, so maybe the colorful language was received as intended.

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The week’s oddest moment came on Wednesday evening, when the pastors usually go off campus for supper. This urinal was in an otherwise nice and tasteful brew pub. I’m still can’t figure out how this is supposed to be funny. “Thou shalt not piss on thy neighbors, regardless of their race, nation, creed, etc.”

Photographing a urinal with what looks like a 1970s funk band painted on the porcelain and saying asshole in front of a bunch of kids would have made any week at camp a stunner, but the way my spiritual doors got blown open by the slanting rain was a bigger surprise. Ten years ago Lutherlyn was all about running and writing. Between classes, while the kids were off mud whomping and zip-lining, I got in some great hill work and wrote a thousand words a day.

This time around I hadn’t planned on exercise, but did look forward to wide fields of writing. Last year yielded three blog posts, but from the moment I put my pillows and bags in Ash, the cabin I shared with the guys, naps and prayers were the rule. Sometimes the two wove themselves together, with quiet abiding trailing off into healing sleep. In the forty-five minutes between morning class and lunch, I returned to Ash and lay down for half an hour of breathing and letting go. Then when afternoon class wrapped up, I took a siesta with wise and loving arms—ninety minutes, two hours.

It didn’t take long to figure out the lesson church camp had in store for me: I was weary deep down in a place sleep only begins to refresh. In the past I would have denied myself the rest, the old mile- and word-counting impulses pressing harder than compassion for self. But for six days in June of 2015, I surrendered. Of course, the learning was about more than fatigue.

In May of 2013 I went on retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. The plan was to write, which is a pleasure, share a few meals with Brother John, and rest in the monks’ peace. Turned out I had more grieving to do over the ugliness of my father’s death. If I hadn’t known before I certainly discovered then that silence is an astute therapist. Wounded and injured parts of myself, often in hiding for months and years, visit and have their say.

Words are optional. In Kentucky I watched Dad obey Dylan Thomas’ villanelle. At Camp Lutherlyn my visitors didn’t need to speak. I know these injuries well and long ago accepted their teaching that forgiveness doesn’t cure everything. Absolution doesn’t get rid of a limp.

So I slept in Ash and took in long draughts of the Sacred Presence. And here what could have been nothing more than days overcast with ache was redeemed by hope. I’ve built my life on the probably foolish premise that interior silence is both invocation and petition. Come, Jesus. Welcome, Buddha. Heal and teach, Mysterious Love. There’s no proof that Holiness exists, let alone that it takes up residence in me when I put aside the smart phone, breathe, and wait. Still, I would hate to think of the person I would be today without the grace and mercy that have found me when I close my eyes and come to rest.

Though my visitors were tossing and turning on the next bunk, I understood that their paralyzing power was giving way to the creation of a new man—or the reclamation of an old one, I’m not sure which.

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Steeple of Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina. News of the murders there reached me toward the end of camp week–the saddest moment. The shooter, it turns out, is a Lutheran who went to church camp as a kid. (Credit: Spencer Means on Wikimedia Commons)

We’re always becoming, aren’t we? Every last one of us. Refurbished souls with sutured hearts, crooked legs, and bruised skin. (Maybe this explains my weight gain and stretch marks! I’m new wine in an old wineskin.)

I’m grateful for a peculiar week at church camp, a crude commandment added to the usual Ten, and holy naps and prayers in Ash. At 9:05 a.m. on July 6th I’m a fifty-three-year-old novice with an inexplicable smile.

Marriage Along a Napper’s Way

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With Baby Crash, watching a gray day out the den window . . . small house.

Gray day. The air itself was wet.

One intersection from Starbucks and my appointment with the writing table, wife Kathy’s guitar ringtone strummed. “John Coleman, where is that Pampered Chef stuff?” She spoke of a baking sheet and hell-I-don’t-know-a spatula that her friend would be picking up soon. Due to a recent, understandable case of what we call ping brain, she forgets and occasionally slides off the rails. When you’re moving from big house to small, as we are now, the cranium can get crowded.

“Uh, here in the truck behind my seat.”

“Where are you?”

“Turning into Starbucks. But I can run it down to you.” (“And lose half my writing time,” I thought, but didn’t say.)

“Ooh, by Starbucks? Maybe you could bring me a venti chai tea latte?”

“Sure.” (“Make that 2/3 of my writing time.”)

“Okay, thank you, John Coleman!”

In I went, ordered the tea and talked to a couple of friends, then headed north on I-79 to the Regional Cancer Center.

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The Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt, 1632 (Credit: Wikipedia)

And that’s when my napper’s way took over. A nap or siesta generally involves down time in the afternoon–pretty simple. But the napper’s way is round-the-clock: in the midst of activity, obligation, and distraction, you stop. “Peace, be still.”

The Mazda 4X4 was exceeding the speed limit, but the driver’s spirit-mind pulled to the berm. A couple nights ago I scratched loose one of Kathy’s old scabs (most wives and husbands have them, I suppose), and she forgave far more quickly than I did myself.

Breathe. Nap while fully awake. Oh, bars of my soul, open, open. What’s worth upset? What deserves anything other than a smile and no worries? And for those in love, what response is better than a kiss?

Salting old wounds or inflicting new ones calls for a cold shoulder, maybe worse, but losing a hundred words for my wife’s sake is of no account. The inconvenience is a single hiccough. It’s a sweat bee brushed out the car window.

So I delivered the tea, baking sheet, and whatever-the hell. One of Kathy’s officemates laughed: “She just wanted you to bring her a Starbucks.”

On the way to the exit, Kathy said, “I’m sorry. I put the stuff on the seat so I wouldn’t forget.”

“Oh, you mean the seat you were sitting on?”

“Yeah, that one.”

We smiled–at her ping brain and my frailty and at love on a cloudy day–and leaned into each other. “Be in touch,” I said.

unnamedThen I landed here at Starbucks, where Kathy’s email chimed: “Thank you, my dear. Love you.”

No, my dear. Thank you.

 

A House with Shaman Doorknobs

For over thirteen years the Coleman family has lived in a white house in Erie, Pennsylvania. If ever there were a house with soul, it’s 322 Shenley Drive. In its rooms wife Kathy, daughter Elena (twenty-five, now a married mother ten minute’s away), son Micah (twenty-two, working full-time and living at home), and I have known joy that wouldn’t let us stop laughing and sadness that had me, at least, looking at the bedroom ceiling at bedtime and praying: “I’d never take the life you gave me, God, but if you’re merciful, I’d be okay with not waking up in the morning.”

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A house with soul

This is a vulnerable admission, but as a pastor I’ve talked to so many people who have thought the same thing that I’m prepared to cut the crap. Some stretches in life are wretched enough to make you hope for a personal appointment with the One who promises to wipe away all tears. You can quote me on that.

But lately days are many stories above despair. (Did you just hear a rapping sound? That’s me knocking on every wooden surface within reach, including my own head.) As the blessing of being a rookie grandfather keeps pulling my lips into a smile, I’m finding it possible to glance backward without feeling a leaden weight in my chest or anticipating an ambush.

This morning–I’ve no clue why–I thought about doorknobs and what a rickety, inadequate collection we have in the Coleman house. I’m betting that among you indulgent folks reading this, nobody has such a crummy home full of doorknobs. What an impotent group! But as I went through the house studying doorknobs, I found myself visiting the last dozen Coleman years–tough years, but not without gladness. It was like looking at the jewelry of a loved one long gone. There was a fullness in the moment. That’s what the doorknobs were for me.

Front Door

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I don’t remember when the actual knob fell off, but for reasons I’ll never understand, we’ve never actually corrected the deficiency. Sure, we could get a whole new knob assembly, but that would make too much sense. Fortunately, this stump does allow you to exit, but there’s a technique involved. Years ago, it occurred to me that getting out required the exact movement used in giving somebody a counterclockwise purple nurple. Once during a particularly sophomoric evening, a guest looked at the stump and wondered what to do. I said, “Look, you want to get out, you have to pinch the nipple.” I said this without guessing that in our inappropriate home, my instruction would become a mantra. 

I’ve stopped hoping for a fix. In the Coleman story, the front door reminds me that some problems never go away, some simple inconveniences become squatters. I can live with this.

Bathroom Door 

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Ah, yes, one of those good, old-fashioned glass doorknobs. Let me tell you, they’re hotdog water. I’ve lost count of how many replacements I’ve installed, only to have them go to pieces in a month. I don’t even know where the model shown here came from. It just appeared up one day, and so far it has held together. Long after the house is gone, this doorknob may still be intact. It’s so tight a few days ago I heard Kathy shout after a shower, “Help! I’m trapped!” She’d put on lotion and couldn’t get any traction.

At various times we’ve stuck a pair of scissors in the empty hole, a slick solution, but understandably pathetic to visitors. I looked at this knob this morning and thought, “Yeah, well, you do what you can and laugh along the way.”

Upstairs Closet Door 

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I love this one. It works perfectly–no shimmying. And it’s the doorknob equivalent to power steering. Mmm. It’s also attached to one of the least used doors in the house. I suppose that’s Murphy’s Law of Doorknobs.

One of our cats, Baby Crash, is fond of sneaking in this closet when the door’s left ajar and then gets marooned inside. The teaching: a tool can be fantastic, but if I don’t make use of it, what’s the point?

Dining Room Double Door 

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Natural wood. Man oh man, am I a natural wood guy. Varnish, stain, polyurethane, oil: do whatever you want, just don’t slap white paint on every wooden surface in the house like my dad did. The only drawback to this door is that it’s nearly impossible to keep it closed. You hear it click, think it’s good, but next time you check the door has yawned open by its own will. This door and its knob remind me of having an easy-on-the-eye chef who overcooks your salmon. We have a couple other doorknobs that don’t do their jobs either, without the merit of being pleasing to look at.

Too many times over the years I’ve been cowardly and said, “Just let it be. Maybe the problem will get up and leave on its own.” At least in the case of the dining room double doors, I’m right. The door won’t close because the floor has heaved slightly, and I’m not about to fuss with it. The solution: the door and knob are attractive, even if they don’t work. Guess I can love them the way they are.

My Study Door 

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I come from a family of door slammers. When I was ten years old, my mother got really pissed, walked over to the basement, opened the door, and slammed it shut. Then she walked a few steps away, turned around, stomped back, opened the door again, and slammed it shut again. When Micah’s bedroom was in my present study, he did something to piss me off, but I didn’t engage in slamming. I just rammed the door open with my forearm. Who knows what set me off? All I can say is my study door won’t close until I do surgery with wood putty.

When I take responsibility for the damage, I’m quietly grateful. Who am I to scold somebody for poor choices or a destructive temper? I’ve got no business looking down on anybody.

Micah’s Bedroom Door 

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When son Micah was hooked on heroin, I refused to condemn him. I stood at his bedroom door as he slept this morning and remembered that in the shitland of active addiction, he was still quick witted, hilarious, and decent. I still crack up when I walk by Wilfred Brimley, “official sponsor of diabetis.” In my worst moments I despaired of Micah’s healing, but I always knew that if he came around, an exceptional young man would rise from the ashes. His doorknob is altogether missing these days, but who cares?

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Micah closes his bedroom door with a rope tied to a twenty-pound dumbbell. He’s content with this arrangement, and in our present doorknob context, so am I.

Kathy and John’s Bedroom and Closet Door 

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Bedroom and closet doorknobs put to good use

Elena and son-in-law Matt have now given Kathy and me a grandson, Cole. Micah, still under our roof, has his own life. We rarely close our bedroom door, so we hang clothes on our doorknobs.

In the end, I don’t give a rat’s rump about doorknobs. I care that loved ones can open needful doors and aching stories can be told.

Getting Past Reptilian, Waiting for Grateful

In a week or two I may be grateful for yesterday, but this morning I feel beaten up. Grateful: I reached a new level of understanding my personal call as a world citizen. Beaten up: several brushes with reptilian anger. That’s ungenerous, I guess. Reptiles are people, too.

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Keep your nasty tongue off my book. (Credit: http://www.corbisimages.com)

Brush #1 didn’t have much effect on me, other than starting the day on a rancorous note. I rarely read book reviews, mostly because mine have been crappy, but while sipping coffee and warming to my writing hour, I checked out Michiko Kakutani’s assessment of Norman Rush’s novel Subtle Bodies. Why would the New York Times publish such a slaughter? Kakutani went after Rush like Hannibal Lector sliced up that poor jail guard in Silence of the Lambs: the lovely aria of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” playing as a blood-smeared Anthony Hopkins basks in his kill. I’ve never read Norman Rush and never heard of Michiko Kakutani, but it’s hard to imagine a novel that deserves komodo dragon treatment like this:

  • “an eye-rollingly awful read”
  • “Readers given to writing comments in their books are likely to find themselves repeatedly scrawling words like ‘narcissistic,’ ‘ridiculous,’ ‘irritating’ and ‘pretentious’ in the margins.”
  • Adjectives employed: “cloying”; “claustrophobic”; “totally annoying”; “insufferable”; “flimsy”; “tiresome”; “solipsistic”
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I ate the author with fava beans and a nice Chianti. Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter (Credit: Wikipedia)

Geez! As you might expect, writers don’t cozy up to such savagery. Jonathan Franzen has called Kakutani “the stupidest person in New York” and “an international embarrassment.” Ha. Take that! A nasty book review is no skin off my nose, but when I left Starbucks and headed off to church work, I wasn’t thinking, “Ah, how sweet the morning air is.”

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And how may I assist you today? Statue of Cyclops at the Natural History Museum in London (Credit: Wikipedia)

Cut to late afternoon for brush #2: Micah called to report that at long last he received a response to repeated phone messages about fines associated with his drug-related felony conviction. In short, the kid’s been trying to set up a payment plan and eating weeks and week of courthouse static. Far from apologizing for failing to get back to Micah, the Cyclops who finally called ripped him a new one in loud, deep mumbles. I have only my son’s word to go on, but it sounded to me like a verbal Rodney King ass-whipping–this for someone who’s been clean for over a year, following all the rules with bowels aquiver, and holding down a full-time job.

$%&*@! I don’t remember the last time I’d been so enraged. The evening was a controlled train wreck as I strained through a meeting and a short worship service and washed the day down with a couple of splashes from an econo-box of burgundy. (By the way, for a fun piece on capitalizing wine names, check out this by William Safire.)

This morning, my prayer was like a car out of alignment. I’d written a letter to the local probation office—probably never to be sent—to drain off some of my anger yesterday afternoon, but my prayer a few hours ago kept pulling toward the conversation I’d like have with the Cyclops. I’ve named him this, by the way, because he didn’t have the courtesy to identify himself when he called.

Much as I’m uncomfortable with anger, it’s not all bad. The late Christopher Hitchens once said in an interview that he found hate to be a wonderfully motivating force for his writing. Upset people can accomplish a lot. But now for my gratefulness: anger is not my calling; it’s not what I have to contribute as a planetary resident; though fury is having its way with me now, I know what I ought to be about. In the flawed silence of prayer, the Spirit helped me learn a couple of things: 1.) I’m not going to deny the rage residing in my chest, which has me gulping in cleansing breaths. 2.) I consume my earthly share of oxygen, avocados, fossil fuel, and beverages for a single reason: to regard everybody and everything with loving eyes. That’s it. That’s the ball game.

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I’d like to place an order for twenty-seven Phyllis Dillers, please. (Credit: Allan Warren)

Of course, I specialize in messing up this calling. Naming my son’s caller the Cyclops is a failure, but I’m still operating out of my own reptilian brain. I want to let out a rant against the guy from probation like Chevy Chases’ tirade against his boss in “Christmas Vacation.” I want to give him a turbo purple nurple, a burlap wedgie, a swirly in a ballpark toilet after One Dollar Succotash and Sauerkraut Night. I want to fill his house with clones of Joan Rivers, Don Rickles, Carol Channing, Sam Kinison, Mr. T., Pee Wee Herman, Phyllis Diller, Gilbert Gottfried, Tiny Tim, Roseanne Roseannadanna, and the cast of “Gilligan’s Island.” You get the idea: my heart’s pumping crocodile blood at the moment.

Noodling around with creative revenge is fun, but it’s not what I’m about. I’ll get past this cruddy karma. What I won’t get past is love. Most of my wells are shallow or fetid, but for whatever reason, I have love to spare. So, thankfully, when shamatha gets my brain human again, I’ll get back to work. Eventually, in my imagination I’ll have a compassionate conversation with the Cyclops, taking into account the probability that he listens to a dozen people a day lying, playing stupid, or making excuses. His red voicemail light is hot to the touch.

I’m eye-rollingly awful at some jobs, but most days I can hold what’s before my eyes in a kind embrace. I’m grateful to have words to put to such a life purpose. Pray for me that I understand myself.

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Corny? Yes. I want to hug the world or at least rub noses. (Credit: FotoFeeling)