Nobody would call house sparrows conspicuous. They wear shades of dormancy, sandy brown and gray like the leafless hedges and trees in my view, charcoal like the sunflowers wife Kathy left in repose by the garage. Continue reading
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: Wakefulness at Twilight At first the term “sleep hygiene” confused me. Who relates laying your head down at night and hauling it upright in the morning with cleanliness, after all? But when scientists delve into an issue, language … Continue reading
A Letter to My Grandsons’ Mother
August 4, 2021
You probably don’t need me to tell you any of this. On the other hand, it could be helpful to read what your best and most centered self already knows. Daily life on our convulsing, nervous planet shouts down the best messages we can give ourselves. So I’m here to whisper back.
For the record, then, I’m glad you called. In 45 minutes, I’ll sit in your van with the boys in Dr. Weber’s parking lot. You’re right, getting your bones cracked while Cole, Killian and Gavin whirl like maelstroms around the waiting room is a disaster in the making. And like I told you, the doctor’s office is five minutes away—nothing.
But I have more to tell you this morning. What I’ll now say has been fermenting for weeks, but correspondence that isn’t urgent doesn’t always make it to paper. Though we don’t have an emergency, you and others who will read over your shoulder might find what follows medicinal, if slightly bitter.
In case you’re not aware, you and Matt are raising children under duress. This is no exaggeration. No, bombs aren’t reducing your house to splinters and dust, as in some cursed lands. No, your comings and goings aren’t under Big Brother’s surveillance. You can speak as you wish without fear of ending up in the Gulag.
Still, as comfortable and affluent as our material circumstances are at present, you face challenges that ought not be dismissed with a snort and “suck it up.”
When you and your brother were young, Mom and I had much less to fret over than you do. No pandemic was looming, with one wave crashing on the shore before another rolls back. We had few educational decisions to make. You and Micah went to public schools. Homeschooling and remote learning weren’t as common as they are now. And, by the way, the social and political climate in America is infinitely more venomous and vengeful than it was in the 1990s.
Begin again: I’m back from Dr. Weber’s parking lot. When Pop feeds Gavin bits of hash browns and gets used by Cole and Killian as a bongo drum in an air conditioned mini van for 20 minutes, I call that a blessing.
I can still recognize blessings, Elena. Out my hut window, your mother’s sunflowers sway in the breeze as if to a hymn, descants over scores of blossoms near the ground—flowers I can’t name. Simple joy is what I now behold.
But hardly anything is simple anymore. Children’s carseats now have expiration dates. Tiny screens are here to stay, but they anesthetize little brains? How long is too long? And, panning the camera for a global look, our climate is, like parents right now, under duress.
Ah, but millions of Americans believe that scientific findings are jokes being played on the gullible, which points to what may be the most disorienting fog you have to walk through. As a society, we no longer have a firm ground of accepted factual knowledge and agreed upon standards of personal conduct to stand upon.
Just now, a yellow finch flew across the backyard to a sunflower. You know, Mom pointed out to me yesterday that those bright birds have a flight path like a wave. It’s true.
The trouble is, as civilization stands, a neighbor could claim that the two finches at this moment making waves and pecking at seeds are not finches, but vultures. The hyperbole is only slight.
So, my wondrous daughter—of whom I’m more proud than you can imagine—this is what you and Matt are up against. The words humans use to communicate flop about like fish on the sand because they no longer mean anything. Folks decide definitions by agenda or whim, dictionaries be damned. And statements that in your childhood would have been self-evident are now ridiculed with impunity.
I did warn you that this medicine was bitter, but there are other truths I have to share that are sweet.
Hear this: Since you were a child, your heart has flown in graceful waves like the yellow finch. At the same time, your soul is earnest, built on a stony foundation of wisdom, sincerity, bravery and compassion. You must understand that what I describe as if in a poem is the real you, the you who is raising our boys.
Lately you and Matt—he is a pretty good sort in his own right—have been struggling to decide on Cole’s schooling arrangements for the fall. You want to get it right, don’t you?
Rest easy, Elena. What matters most in however many years we’re granted is that we try. As a mother you try so hard that some days you ache inside, don’t you? Everybody who loves you sees this.
Take it from your old man, even the flowers and winged waves I watch between sentences aren’t as lovely as you brushing the hair from my grandsons’ foreheads or pulling one of them aside to whisper rather than shout, to tend them day by day as they grow into the men you dream they might be.
Yes, you are a mother whose light yields to no worldly darkness. Believe me.
Letter to My Grandson, for the Future
July 7, 2021
My five-year-old pal, you are having one rough time. In 10 years or more, you might find some value in your Pop’s thoughts about what your heart, mind and body are going through these days. I’m asking your mom and dad to hold onto this letter until you’re confused, stuck, maybe miserable, trying to figure yourself out—why you feel like you feel and tick like you tick.
I’m almost 60 now, and for the whole stretch I’ve over-thought and over-felt nearly everything. I’m a genius at crippling myself with worry and concocting troubles that don’t exist. Just before your mother was born, I started to have panic attacks that raided my sense of self for a good five years. “Anxiety disorder,” that’s the box my therapist checked on my bill after each session.
Now at this point, listen closely. I’m not saying that someday you’ll go through what I went through. No, no, no. It’s just that the struggles you’re enduring tell me that you have a sensitive soul, like your Pop’s. If this is true, you’re in for a ride. Joy will take your breath away hour by hour. On the other hand, the wrongs you witness will bring on tears or—as my mother used to say—“make you so mad you could spit.”
The older you get, the less you’ll remember the preschool-aged Killian. I’m a reliable source, though, and you could do far worse than consider whether the boy you’ll now read about has turned out like his grandfather.
First, a caveat. Keep in mind that the last two years have been bat crazy. The Coronavirus, which has claimed over 600,000 lives in the United States alone, still has us frightened and confused. The social and political climate—to say nothing of our changing planetary climate—is brutish and wicked. In short, to be an American of any age in 2021 is to be hemmed in by exhausting absurdities.
Be assured, your mom and dad and both sets of grandparents are tender and mindful, doing everything possible to give you a safe, lively and fulfilling childhood. You and your brothers are lucky beyond measure. But I wonder if, despite much wise protection, you still manage to absorb how nasty and bonkers the world around you is without having the cognitive development to process it all.
Although your life with family and friends is charmed, you take deep breaths constantly. You’ve got a fiery, nameless burden in your chest that returns even as you blow it out through puffed lips.
For months now you’ve had a cranky stomach. You chew food, then chipmunk it in your cheeks, afraid to send it down for digestion.
Sometimes in the middle of the night you wake up with cramps in your foot. For a while your eyes were always itchy, and I thought you might rub them right off your fair face. Oh, and for another while you got sharp headaches while riding in the car. All of these concerns are improved, thanks to your mom and dad’s persistent efforts to find causes and treatments.
You’re now reading about your younger self and maybe saying, “Man, I was a mess.” Well, to tell the truth, kind of, yes. I would call you delicate. Your mom said, “Some kids are dandelions, some are orchids.”
So far, your older brother appears to be a dandelion, while it’s too early to predict what flower your younger brother will be. But you, sir, are a delicate orchid. Accept no blame on that account. Feel no shame. This is a comrade addressing you. If honorary doctorates were awarded for fragility, your Pop would have a wall full.
My list of your ailments isn’t offered to depress you, but to open you up to self-awareness and ultimately a growing sense of ease with the person you are. This moment’s cleansing breaths and bellyaches may well be outward signs of turmoil trapped inside you. Nobody knows for sure.
But since your folks have handed you this letter, what you went through so long ago is possibly paying you a return visit—in a new form, spurred by new circumstances, wearing a new mask. Then again, maybe nothing is wrong. Mysteriously you’re rubbing your eyes again for no good reason. Riding in the backseat hurts your head.
Mystery is the perfect word. Microscopes and test tubes teach us what truths they can divine, but human beings pretend to know more than we really do. In many ways, the person you are and the person I am are mysteries. We are tiny mysteries caught up in a loving, but ferocious, embrace of the Great Mystery.
Why is Killian Thompson the way he is? No matter how you answer that question, in dark valleys you might long to turn into a different person altogether—somebody stronger, braver than you are, some carefree guy whose troubles lift from his mind like morning mist.
If you are ever granted such a wish, you will find what’s left of me inconsolable in my writing hut. You will little remember how many times I sidled up to the troubled five-year-old you, pulled you toward me and kissed the sandy shock of hair behind your right ear. Nor will your hurting feet recall the heat your grandmother applied to them at 5:00 a.m. And how could you know that your mom and dad breathed in your every sigh to be sure you never worried alone?
I ask you now, Killian, to trust that your parents and grandparents have always had but one fervent intention: To help you give birth to yourself and to love you so fiercely and unconditionally that you will dare to love yourself—exactly as you are and much the same as you were in 2021, when you gave your Pop more gladness than you’ll ever know just by sitting in his lap.
With abiding love,
For starters, I expect snickers, snorts and eye rolls, and I’m prepared to be corrected, though I won’t concede without some back and forth. That said, I’ll present my case directly: The two most powerful agents in the world are … Continue reading
Thanksgiving for Eight Kisses In her journal The House by the Sea, May Sarton describes walking with her friend Judy and dog Tamas to the Maine shore in early December: “How glorious it was! Fifty-mile gusts of wind driving the waves … Continue reading
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: Afternoon of the Gladdened Heart
If my blessing had a face, it would belong to a three-year-old as yet unpunished by disappointment. Time ages us all, but it’s toil that paints pale bruises under our eyes and sculpts wrinkles and jowls. Anyway, the darling cheeks of my blessing would be smeared with grass and mud. A mother would lick her thumb and go after the mess, but the child would twist loose before the job was done.
This is for the best. What catches my aging breath isn’t in the child’s face alone, but in the anointing of sweat, dirt and spit. And especially in what once annoyed me, but now returns as longing: Being pulled close by my mother, looked at with what only ancient Greek fully captures, agape, and gently tended.
The blessing was simple: Kathy and John Coleman’s grandsons, six and four, played in our muddy backyard. They filled milk jugs from the hose and made a pond behind our garage. Given enough time, they would have built a moat. As Cole and Killian troweled new layers of crud on their skin and jeans, son-in-law Matt and son Micah sunk posts in for a fence, and pregnant daughter Elena and Kathy kept an eye on the boys and talked. I sat on the steps, mindful of the sun. The shepherd’s pie I had labored over bubbled in the oven.
My efforts, I confess, were fortified by a splash of Cabernet Sauvignon. Having skipped lunch, I wasn’t drunk, but my heart was gladdened. In this condition, I watched with outsized pleasure Cole and Killian, whom Kathy and I hadn’t seen much during the Coronavirus pandemic, lose themselves in the possibilities and wonder of their grandparents’ yard. For good or ill, we adults had decided to loosen the restrictions within our family.
Many grandparents live far away from their grandchildren, an arrangement that would dig a ditch down the middle of our lives. As the weeks wore on, we saw the boys from six feet away. We didn’t hold their hands or kiss them on top of the head or pick them up. Kathy got weepy when the subject of being separated from Cole and Killian came up and crossed her arms in a hug that came up empty.
If having grandchildren were worship, then those boys perching on my lap and leaning into my chest would be Holy Communion. I never take for granted being Pop next to my wife’s Grandma Daffy and the good fortune of our adult children choosing to reside nearby.
So the blessing was mostly this: Peace in the family, laughter in the yard, grandsons who come near again. Every once in a while a gathering of minutes is so right as to seem otherworldly. Friend Jodi told me about a day long ago when she and her brother were fishing on calm water. Leaning back in his seat and looking at the sky, he said, “I feel sorry for anybody that’s not us right now.”
That’s one way of putting it—grace tells the seconds to hush and mercy is perfect air passing over your arms and face.
Man, was I happy. Who knows why, then, my late father joined me on the steps? He would have rolled his eyes at my glass of red restorative. He was a Schlitz man, not an alcoholic, but in leisure hours he could dent a case.
50 years ago I sat with Dad on Grandma and Grandpa Miller’s porch steps. No talk. The beers had gone down quickly, and Mom was mad that he had gotten a fat tongue before family dinner. He stared somewhere far off, beyond Horton Avenue. Dad was in the dog house for good reason, but I’ll never forget how licked he was. My parents weren’t made for each other, that’s all. Sad time stretched out in front of him–and Mom, too, I know–long loveless summers of little but getting by.
It was strange, but lovely, to recall my father’s saddened heart while the great-grandsons he never met ran carefree “in the sun that is young once only.” My unmerited joy rested Dad’s defeat on its shoulder and was the sweeter for it. Maybe this is why I thought of him. That could easily have been me decades ago, slack jawed and dazed on the in-laws’ steps, a son keeping vigil. Lucky is what I am.
The face of gladness is young, fresh with promise, but it’s not real without the streaks of earth and blades of grass. That’s how I know it belongs to me.