Oniontown Pastoral: Listen to Your Grandma

Oniontown Pastoral: Listen to Your Grandma

Dear Cole and Killian:

img_4987Last week your Grandma Kathy came in all sweated up from picking vegetables and said, “Oh, John, there’s one of those tomato hornworms in the garden with eggs on its back, probably wasp eggs.” Her bottom lip wasn’t quivering, but tears weren’t far off. Poor bug.

I don’t want to see any creature suffer, but I’ve never been a fan of hornworms. First, they’re gross; they look like a bald, glossy-green, plump, juicy caterpillar. Second, they never finish their meals. I would be glad to share if they didn’t go from tomato to tomato, munching a portion and ruining the rest. And third, they leave pellet droppings called frass. Most of it falls into the soil unseen, but a little plastic table Grandma Kathy situated near a tomato plant got covered with it. The guilty insect frassed so much I couldn’t help thinking it chuckled to itself, pellet by pellet.

Your grandmother, who is on strangely good terms with the wastrels, wanted to send me on a rescue mission, but not by plucking the larvae off the hornworm or ending its suffering.

“You write about these things,” she said. “Maybe you could write about it.”

Grandma Kathy was right, boys. For whatever reason, your pop thinks a lot about sadness, and some likeminded folks like to read what I come up with. She was right, too, that in hopeless cases, one sympathetic witness can be a saving grace.

The trouble is, I don’t have much to say about future wasps dining on a hornworm, other than to note, “That’s life for you.” One being’s grilled chicken is another’s raw caterpillar. The main difference is presentation.

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Listen to your grandma, boys.

On the other hand, I do have something to say about Grandma Kathy. You won’t read this letter for another ten years, but as you grow I’ll be steering you toward this advice: “Grandma Kathy has a big soul. She knows how to live. Listen to her.”

I’m only trying to save you time and trouble. If my math skills are still operational, your grandmother and I have spent 2/3 of our lives together. Only in the last three years have I figured out that most of the time she knows best. Since 1980, then, I’ve been letting her steer 1/10 of the time, which is silly.

And I’ll tell you why. Grandma Kathy was right about that hornworm from the beginning. It’s as much a resident of the earth as I am and worthy of consideration.

“Don’t you think we ought to kill it?” I asked. “The last thing we need is a wasp infestation.”

“No, we’re too quick to kill things,” she answered. “Besides, I think wasps might be beneficial.”

I swallowed my response, which would have been, “Hey, I’m not too quick to kill things.”

But she was half right. I checked an almanac and learned that you shouldn’t squash the hornworm and its passengers. Wasps are—and I quote—“beneficial” for a garden.

img_5008Only in the last few weeks have I decided that Grandma Kathy also knows best where the garden hose is concerned. All our marriage long she has left it snaking around the yard rather than coiling it up. I bring the matter up once every decade, though not anymore. When I walk out the back door, my glance goes immediately to the hose and my mind says, “Unkempt.” Your grandmother looks first to the sunflowers, and her mind says, “Ah, beautiful.”

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The better part

She has chosen the better part, and I won’t take it from her.

When Grandma Kathy plays with you, Cole, she lets you decide what to do and where to go. That’s because you know how to play better than anybody else. By watching her, I’m learning to be a good pop.

And Killian, you’re just a few months old, but it already seems that you’re going to be quieter and more reserved than your big brother. You watch, kiddo, Grandma Kathy will look into your brown eyes and see how to help you love yourself and feel so happy you’ll want to fly.

Someday you’ll be able to understand that big souls make big sacrifices. When you’re ready, I’ll explain that Pop owes his life to Grandma Kathy.

IMG_4286But I’ll wait for later to tell you just how. It’s enough for now to say that when I was weary and lost unto despair, your grandmother left a few of her dreams behind as if they were frass to help me find myself again.

Grandma Kathy knows how best to love you and me and the rest of creation. Please, save yourself trouble and spend more than a sliver of your years following her lead and trusting her example.

Care for the tomato hornworm. Look first to the sunflower. Give yourself away for the sake of love.

We’ll talk before you know it,

Pop

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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.

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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)

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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.

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

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

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

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Getting in the backdoor requires dancing with greenery.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Report from Wonder Woman’s Paradise

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My Wonder Woman in her driveway garden.

Fortunately for the world, not everybody functions like I do. Some people aren’t constantly gazing into their spiritual navels, slowed to ennui by every fluff of emotional lint. Some look outside themselves and thrive on creation rather than contemplation and midday oblivion. Just as I have a longing that can only be quieted by a siesta, some have visions that relentlessly draw them forward into action. My wife is a vision sort.

“Hey, Kath,” I’ll say, “want to take a nap with me?”

“No thanks,” she’ll answer. “I have things I want to do.”

Thank God for Kathy and people like her. I embrace my way of being, but recognize that while I soothe my twitchy spirit with rest, others tend their restless souls with motion. And their way is as legitimate as mine. Siestas are good for those who need them, but the goal in living is to figure out what works for you in the shot glass of time you’ve got on this planet and bloody well do that. What my wife needs to do is create, and as a result, I’m one lucky napper. While I rest and write and cook, she makes paradise. I’m not exaggerating.

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Kathy’s roof, seven years old and still keeping the family dry.

Kathy and I moved to Shenley Drive in 2001. Within five years, we needed a new roof. In a normal-ish family, either a paid roofer or the husband would have been up on the roof. The Colemans aren’t normal. The woman of the house asked around about hiring a contractor, frowned at what she heard, and said, “I’ll do this myself.” And she did—sort of. A handful of family helped out, but Kathy did most of the work and most importantly, made it happen.

Roofing a house is my wife’s most ambitious project, but she constantly has friends and neighbors shaking their heads. “Huh?” they say. “You made this? You did this?”

“Yes she did,” I jump in to say. I not only saw her make-paint-hammer-sew-whatever dozens of marvels, but I took pictures. In no particular order, here’s photographic evidence of my Wonder Woman’s paradise. (Some of these shots appeared in previous posts.)

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The tile work of a rookie. Looks perfect to me.

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Wonder Woman at work making pillow covers for what she calls her “lounge.” She made window shades with the same paisley print. It works!

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When son Micah began recovery from his heroin addiction, Kathy remodeled his former basement bedroom and named it her “beach house.” Here’s a little school above the bed. She didn’t actually make this one.

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What Kathy calls her backyard “puddle.”

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Kathy’s tomato plants got so tall this summer she had to build a whatever-the-heck this is for them to lean against.

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One of my work stations, lovingly created by Wonder Woman. She re-upholstered all the cushions when they became sun worn.

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A Kathy Coleman patio: she dug all the bricks out of a half-assed gazebo in the middle of the backyard, designed a groovy-shaped patio, and laid the bricks down. I hauled a little gravel on this project.

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A view from my patio work station. Garage roof by Wonder Woman.

A lot of Kathy’s projects are practical, but plenty are just plain fun. She likes nothing better than to share surprise paradise with loved ones.

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A play tent for next-door neighbor Caroline.

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Handmade handbag for a friend.

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Another handmade handbag for a friend. You could sell this baby at J. C. Penney.

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One Christmas Kathy made wine-cork boards for the wine drinkers on Shenley Drive.

Each Halloween, Kathy’s paradise spills out into the front yard in the form of decorations.

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A Halloween shark leftover from a recent celebration bites the love seat in Kathy’s beach house.

All of my wife’s creations are actually child’s play compared to her day job. She’s a chemo nurse, loving and caring for cancer patients. “He was one of ours,” she says, scanning the obituaries. “So was she.”

I love the woman, and I love her vision. While I nap, she creates life. And while I work, she works, too, passing along life to those even Wonder Woman can’t save. Of course, that doesn’t stop her from trying.