I have shelter, clothing, more than enough food and drink–trust me, blossoms and birds to please my eyes, and most of all love. I look out from the hut, which itself would not exist but for the COVID pandemic, and think to myself, “John, you’re in paradise.” Continue reading
A Sable Cloud Turns Forth Her Silver Lining
U-turn and detour. Limbo and leap. Bob and weave. This is my life, and the seasons ahead may bring shrug and chuckle as well as shimmy and shuffle. The joyful dynamic I sway to is occasioned by two realities: family and writing. As a husband, father and grandfather, I embrace delays, entreaties and ambushes as opportunities to help, love and be a good sport. As a writer I know that most of my worthy subjects resemble stumbling blocks.
I say resemble because one man’s annoyance is another’s delight and stumbling blocks because my truth is partly physical. My wife of 39 years is a purveyor of beauty. It’s out my window overlooking the backyard: sunflowers, young spaghetti squash hanging from improvised latticework, wildflowers planted just for me, other splashes of color I can’t name. Eye pleasing, yes, but it’s also an obstacle course. I can’t walk in any direction on our humble estate without maneuvering around, over or under something.
Robust leaves shining with dew bow across the path between me and my writing hut. Frequently I belly up to the desk with my person and clothing damp.
On days I drive to Oniontown for church work, climbing into the car reminds me to lose weight. Coneflowers and daisies tap my hamstrings as I suck in my torso to skirt the side-view mirror.
Oh, but before reaching the car, I hum “Limbo Rock” and duck the clothesline. Then to open our underachieving gate, two carabiners must be released. The mechanism still works, but not well enough to keep foxhound Sherlock Holmes from escaping.
Which reminds me, the K-9 has taken to joining Kathy and me in bed after years of occupying the living room couch. Seldom does he curl into a ball, though. To find a comfortable position I have to accommodate his lanky legs—four furry baseball bats. He’s a nocturnal real estate hog.
In short, if you see me crossing the backyard or trying to sleep, I’ll be moving like Carmen Miranda, minus the fruit basket turban.
Meanwhile, I have myriad errands. About every other week, Kathy will call shortly after I’ve dropped her off at work. My beloved is a virtuoso of forgetting necessities: briefcase, purse, satchel, glasses, cell phone, approved nursing shoes, etc. I drive 15 minutes home, park, shimmy past flowers, disengage carabiners, low-bridge the clothesline, secure the vital item, then do the whole business in reverse. Not infrequently, what Kathy requires is not where she says it is. This is where “good sport” comes in. No God in heaven or on earth can divine the object’s hiding place. When we downsized residences eight years ago, the remote garage door opener at the new place promptly disappeared. Of course, there was only one. Eighteen months later, a bemused yelp from the basement heralded its return. Kathy had slipped the remote into one of her gardening boots, where the poor innocent endured exile.
When Kathy does remember her wares, daughter Elena may well have designs on my agenda—like this morning. Back in 1634 John Milton prophesied my 8:45 to 9:30 in his poem “Comus”: “Was I deceived? Or did a sable cloud turn forth her silver lining in the night?” Whether by genetics or conditioning, I fly directly through clouds to claim silver linings. Elena’s plea would not be ignored. Was I by chance in the car? Could I watch the boys (Cole, 8; Killian, 6; Gavin, 2) while she hurried to the store? If so, her errand would take 20 minutes. If not, an hour or so—sneakers, car seats, selective listening, attitudes, armed rebellion, etc.
Recognizing the blessed intersection of family and writing, I made a U-turn. “Be there in a few.” A moment’s backstory explains my motivation. When Cole and Killian were born, they came to my rescue. They brought me a love I didn’t know existed during a dark stretch of road. Kathy’s love for me abides, patient and kind, more generous than St. Paul would dare to describe. And now Gavin smiles and reaches out, rests his head against my gray chest. As Abraham said, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”
I’m not one for self-flagellation, but truth is truth. I never deserved two boys chattering and climbing into my lap. My gladness had runneth over before the third, Gavin, arrived, but now I see that goodness and mercy sometimes follow those who have no right to their ministrations.
And this is what I’ve been weaving toward. Elena thanked me for babysitting, but neither she nor the boys realized it was they who cared for me, they who made straight my path by asking me to swerve. Therefore, foliage standing in the way brings flowers close to my eyes. Changed itineraries take me to my boys and give me a chance to kiss Kathy goodbye again. And I write the whole business over and over, often forgetting that where I’m heading is almost never where I need most to go.
Oniontown Pastoral: Why I’ve Been Quiet Lately
It was tomatoes cooking, the kindly surprise of their smell, that brought me around, helped my spirit to its feet and pointed me in a good direction.
If you look forward to my column in Greenville, Pennsylvania’s daily, The Record Argus, or my posts at A Napper’s Companion, you may have noticed that I’ve been quiet lately. When world and native land are convulsing in myriad ways, of what account are tomato-perfumed wisps rising in a middle-class kitchen? When the television news serves up images of relentless rage and pandemic, mentioning the cleansing joy of wife Kathy’s sunflowers bending in the breeze feels intrusive. When we human beings are enduring the labor pains of birthing a new society—and meanwhile throwing tantrums over trivialities and wetting our pants—who wants to think about a couple dozen corn stalks rising from a raised bed, the soil a mix of household compost and manure from a dear friend’s cows?
Maybe you do. I now believe my silence in recent weeks has been misguided. “Don’t go all poetic on me, John,” I imagined you saying, “about standing at a stove or pulling blessings from a garden, about how basil makes a sauce sing, about how walking by a bush of spearmint touches a place inside you didn’t know was aching. No rhapsodizing at a time like this, when so many of us are at each others’ throats and hardly an hour passes without yielding fresh anxiety and confusion.”
Of course, you weren’t saying anything like this. The fact is, I had convinced myself that what normally moves me to make paragraphs wasn’t relevant anymore. We all have bigger fish to fry, as the cliché goes.
But then those tomatoes reminded me of last summer, before the complication and misery of 2020. Kathy’s crop necessitated daily decisions. Would I make spaghetti or chili for supper? Or would I core and simmer down yesterday’s basketful, let it cool and pour it into freezer bags? More often than not, when Kathy got home from a day of nursing cancer patients, she would pause just inside the backdoor, close her eyes and breathe in.
“Oh,” her mantra went, “I do love the smell of my tomatoes cooking.” And then we’d kiss.
Yes, Norman Rockwell might have painted me wearing an apron and holding a wooden spoon straight up while Kathy looks on with rosy cheeks and a slight smile, but not one detail of the scene is embellished, honest. This was the start of our evening together. This was home and family and marriage. This was life and love.
All of these thoughts came to me wordlessly when, the other day, the pageantry of preserving my wife’s bounty started up again with the lovely scent I’ve described. She has already pulled garlic and onions, which I regularly help to fulfill their aromatic vocation, and canned some dilly beans. Cherry tomatoes are piling up, and, yes, I cook them along with the Better Boys and Romas and freeze them flat. That glad task will wait until tomorrow.
At the moment Kathy is drizzling dish liquid into a slowly filling blowup pool. Grandsons Cole and Killian are staying over this Friday night. I’m watching them from my writing hut—more on this new outbuilding on the Coleman farmette soon. Killian is running the length of the yard and jumping into the shallow foot of water, emerging suds covered and delirious. The way Cole is waving the hose around to make water snakes in the air, the pool may never reach capacity. No matter.
Planet Earth may be going to Hades in a hand basket, but even the gates of hell shall not prevail against my grandsons’ wonders in this hour. Nor can powers and principalities stop Kathy’s sunflowers, soaring six feet above the corn, from waving at me.
Silence is a skillful teacher, but its students are lost unless they listen with the ear of their heart. That was my problem. I paid attention to the faculty members who scream and shout that their subjects, crucial though they may be—war, oppression and illness—are the only ones worth studying.
So I write to insist otherwise and resume interrupting our shared daily travail with promises. Tomatoes still ripen in August and will remind you of grace if you put them on to cook. And sunflowers will bow to you when the wind is right. Remember to breathe deeply and bow in return.
Oniontown Pastoral: Tomatoes and Corn
Late this August afternoon I have an appointment at the kitchen counter and stove with a basket of homegrown tomatoes. Preservation is my assignment. Wife Kathy’s crop is coming in hot and heavy, and we have an agreement. She sows, weeds, frets and reaps, and I cook up and put up. I get the better end of the deal. “Boy, there’s nothing as satisfying and medicinal as getting my hands in the soil,” is something I’ve never come close to thinking, let alone saying. But put a ripe northwestern Pennsylvania tomato in front of me, and nothing short of love rises in my chest.
The taste alone is swoon-worthy, but together with corn on the cob, tomatoes grown in local dirt feed this pastor’s soul more than his body. For the past few weeks, since Kathy walked through the back door with the first glossy red-orange jewel of the season nestled in the setting of her fingers, I’ve mulled over the meaning of tomatoes and corn.
That garden gem my wife held was petite, of the plum variety. We split four humble slices, and I honestly can’t remember what else we had for dinner that evening. The flavor made me feel as though I was enjoying once again the meals and picnics that now live only in family albums, the photographs black and white or the unearthly tones of Instamatics.
The tomatoes of my childhood were sliced and adorned with a dollop of Hellman’s mayonnaise. A frequent accompaniment included corn on the cob and boiled potatoes. The salt and butter we laid on would have present-day nutritionists staging interventions.
Mom cut her corn off the cob and ate it over smashed potatoes—polite and tidy. Dad contended with his right out of the pot, and decades later I can summon the spectacle, the wonder of the sight. He seemed annoyed with the corn, as though it had done something that rubbed him the wrong way, and he meant to show those kernels in no uncertain terms who was boss.
Manners were observed around the Coleman table and on relatives’ patios, so there were never smacking sounds or slack-mouthed chomping. Ah, but Dad’s singleness of purpose, eyebrows drawn down as if his whole face were lending force to the chewing, and the crimson glimmer of his lips from all that butter and salt fill me with a son’s quirky pride: “Look at my dad have a go at that cob of corn!” I want to say. “Isn’t that something to behold?”
Within a few weeks I’ll be cheering Kathy when her first ready corn comes marching through the back door. She planted a raised bed of it on a whim, and the growth has been steady. We’ll get at least a few meals out of the experiment.
My wife’s crop won’t taste like the stuff Dad attacked and Mom mixed with her potatoes. The family palate of my youth called for what I now realize were plump, starchy kernels that owed most of their savor to what got slathered and sprinkled on them. Over time Kathy has converted me to sweet corn, which doesn’t demand the full, heart-clogging, blood pressure raising treatment, though that doesn’t make me cut back. In my case, excess in its many expressions is hereditary.
Some things last forever, but I try to relax about what doesn’t. “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth.” I left tomato and mayonnaise on white bread behind at my childhood home on Wagner Avenue. Now whole grain and sharp cheddar cheese join what’s always been the same: fat slices of a Big Boy and Hellman’s and too much salt. And the ears I shuck for Sunday dinners aren’t deep yellow like they used to be.
But no worries. As long as tomatoes and corn are on the table, the past is preserved. I can stop and appreciate my dad’s enthusiasm. I can see—as in this moment—Mom in her sleeveless blouse, sitting beside me. She had a large vaccination scar on her shoulder. I had almost forgotten.
As far as I know, Mom never cooked down tomatoes and froze them in plastic bags, which is what I’ll be doing soon. She was a canner who considered stewed tomatoes vegetable enough for any meal.
Before leaving for work this morning, Kathy said that she expects to smell tomatoes bubbling away when she gets home. The steam, rich and sweet, will cloud my glasses and set me to dreaming of a table with a place for every family at a feast that has no end.
Oniontown Pastoral: Listen to Your Grandma
Dear Cole and Killian:
Last 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.
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.
Only 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.”
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.
But 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,
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
Each Halloween, Kathy’s paradise spills out into the front yard in the form of decorations.
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.