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: Morning with the Colemans
So, what sounds like a Lilliputian giving the raspberries to Gulliver mixed up with a playing card flapping against bicycle spokes? Give up? It’s my wife Kathy’s electric toothbrush at 6:30 a.m. She adds virtuosity to her performances by opening and closing her mouth, as we are all wont to do when brushing our teeth. Imagine, then, the melody I’ve described modulated by “wow ooh wow ooh wow.”
Welcome to my morning routine, which may be of interest because life with the Colemans consists of the unremarkable interrupted by outbursts of the curious. See, the man who descends upon Oniontown thrice weekly packs in a full day of observation and contemplation before he is fully conscious. If you happen upon St. John’s Lutheran Church—and by all means, please do—the pastor occasionally rubbing his temples may appear amiable, but a little odd. If you squander five minutes reading what follows, you’ll understand why.
Kathy’s Crest-with-flouride recital comes after her alarm goes off. The enthusiastic beeps don’t bother me. What does give me pause is my wife’s violent start every time the snooze expires. I’m not exaggerating. It’s like the darling beside me—both of us savoring the warm haze of waking—is being suddenly tased or jolted by a cattle prod. “But honey,” I don’t say, “you know those beeps are coming. What’s the deal?” I’ve resigned myself to this quirk, but one of these days I’m due for an elbow to the chops.
I’ve also gotten used to Kathy kibitzing with herself as she finishes getting ready for eight hours of oncology nurse work. Half the time I can only surmise the conversation from inflection. Example: “Where are my glasses?” “But you put them right here.” (This, by the way, is preposterous, as she never sets things down where she thinks. I know this from having chased many a wild goose from room to room, only to hear, “Oh, never mind, it’s right here in my purse,” followed by laughter. She can explain in epic length and exhaustive detail why her, say, nail clippers should have been on the arm of the couch. What can I say? “Hmm.”)
It’s also obvious when she is kissing foxhound Sherlock Holmes on the snout and whispering sweet nothings. “How’s my boy? Is he my good little boy?”
Adult son Micah stirs at about the same time as his mother. Here you might picture a sloth creeping across a tree branch, except without that dopey grin. His fifteen minutes from feet on the floor to banging the backdoor shut wouldn’t be worth mentioning except for a recent addition to his musical repertoire, measures of which crawl under his door and reach my head, still on the pillow.
“Mongolian throat singing.” I’m not kidding. Briefly, then: a Mongolian guy runs a bow across the two strings of a rustic cello and, in the case of the recording Micah shared with me, croons a toe-tapping number called “Praise of Genghis Khan.” I’m sorry. I want to be and generally am artistically adventurous. My boy is besoothed by Batzorig Vaanchig’s mellifluence, but what I hear is a man trying to clear his respiratory system from sinus to glottis to lung. Think a human being waking up to discover himself turned into a didgeridoo.
One sunrise last week I heard the exotic singing and sent Micah this text message, and I quote: “Ommmm weee weeee ommmmm.”
His response: “Oooooooaaahhhhhaaawewoooyayaya.”
How could I not be moved?
Once Kathy and Micah are gone, I listen to the neighborhood out my window, opened a crack even in cold weather. My favorite sound is rainfall, best of all accompanied by God’s throat clearing thunder. At such moments gratitude visits. Life is not too shabby at present. I appreciate that.
One challenge awaits me before I head to my writing perch or to Oniontown. Sherlock Holmes must get out—absolutely must. He sleeps on the living room couch and looks in the dim light like bagpipes in disarray. Most dogs are eager to get outside and sniff for anything that has transpired overnight, but not our sleuth. He grumbles his own style of throat singing to register his displeasure.
If you see me massaging my temples, as I mentioned, it’s probably because the Coleman’s spindly-legged pal has been obstinate. Like lots of you, my days are wondrous and fascinating, right up until I get out of bed. Even then, more often than not, I find myself singing to God, over and over: “Wow ooh wow ooh wow.”
Oniontown Pastoral: The Human Moment
I was peeved. Pittsburgh Avenue in Erie was bustling on Saturday afternoon, and Mr. Pokey Joe had no business jaywalking while cars, including mine, bore down on him.
Then I recognized his predicament. He had a bum leg and, like me, was past his prime. Each step made him wince. The trek to a legal crosswalk would have been an ordeal, especially with a jammed knapsack thudding against his back.
My peevishness slunk away, tail between its legs. Of course, I was relieved not to have run the fellow over, but grateful as well for a human moment. That is, a connection with another person’s reality, a chance to remember in the midst of a day’s jostle and distraction that the faces I encounter belong to pilgrims worthy of my consideration.
My life is mostly a pilgrimage from one human moment to the next. This past week, for example, I found myself at McCartney Feed and Hardware in Fredonia. I paid for 25 pounds of deluxe birdseed—call me extravagant—and took my receipt across the way to a huge barn.
As I waited, a machine reaching from floor to ceiling growled, rattled and rumbled. What was this behemoth all about? Thankfully, it hushed up as a young man arrived with my purchase.
I said thanks and turned to leave, but felt like I was ending a sentence with a preposition out of mere laziness.
“Hey, what does that thing do?” I asked.
“Oh, that’s a grinder,” he said.
Another member of the McCartney crew arrived and told me they would be putting oats in soon, but first they had to get residue out of the machine.
“Ah,” I said, “so you have to let the grinder clear its throat?”
They both nodded and laughed. I thanked them and drove off. That was about it.
I can’t swear to the specifics of what those McCartney’s guys explained to me, but here’s what I know. Carrying birdseed through the sunshine from barn to car, I was glad. All was well with my soul. The world seemed right, except for the odor of fresh manure, which my city nostrils haven’t yet learned to savor.
I had showed up with dollars, but the transaction was about people being together in harmony, however briefly.
“Oh, there you go again, John,” you’re thinking, “always with your head up in the clouds.”
Hardly! This is probably a good time to mention a caveat. If you want to collect human moments, prepare to be served joy and dismay in equal helpings.
Syrian boy Omran Daqneesh comes to mind. Pulled stunned and bloody from building rubble and set alone in an ambulance, he stares at me still, three years after a bombing raid ravaged his neighborhood. Maybe you saw his face on television.
Sad to say, for a sympathetic conscience, human moments arrive without permission. Go ahead, close your eyes. It won’t matter. Like light, love comprehendeth the darkness.
My wife Kathy is an oncology nurse, and she brings home impressions of folks passing through cancer’s lonesome shadows. Never names, ever, but plenty of heartache, including her own.
Sipping pinot noir as the evening news recounts inhumane moments, I embrace souls in Kathy’s care whose ends are near. One of them weighs next to nothing. Eternity is barreling toward her. She said through tears, “I don’t feel good.” The understatement catches in my throat.
I can see her. She wears a sleeveless summer dress like the ones my Aunt Mart loved, flowery prints. The poor lady’s hands, all scarlet bruises and torn skin, tremble in mine. She is weary, afraid, not ready to die.
Oh, yes, I can hear you thinking to yourself again. “John, stop dwelling on other people’s problems!”
No, I won’t. The fact is, you can’t have human moments all one way or all the other. If I didn’t appreciate a nameless patient’s suffering, then I wouldn’t have spotted bliss at a recent wedding. The couple made promises, and I pronounced them husband and wife. Minutes later the bride leaned into the groom, her smile as close to heaven as I expect to witness this side of glory.
That’s how human moments work. When I neglect any neighbor near or far, I turn my back on the Creator who made this Oniontown pastor a human being in the first place.
Oniontown Pastoral: No Longer Young, I Collect Windows
Though not much of a collector myself, I admire those who are. Parishioner Bill has been a Cub Cadet enthusiast for years, at one point owning over a dozen of them. My barber hoards sneakers but plays coy about revealing numbers. Retired Limerick plumber Michael Kelly’s ever-expanding model aircraft collection finally had to find a home at Shannon Airport in County Clare, Ireland.
I used to collect baseball cards and comic books, but these were passing endeavors. Boxes jammed with Sudden Sam MacDowell and Johnny Bench cards and Jonah Hex and Iron Man comics have journeyed from attic to crawl space to closet, their whereabouts now known only to wife Kathy, the household storage maven.
Only recently have I tripped over a collection that has been quietly amassing not in cardboard boxes or curio cabinets, but between my ears. Turns out I’ve been accumulating windows.
When wife Kathy and I lived in South Haven, Michigan, only treetops were visible as we lay in bed and looked out our window. Why were we soothed by gusts making branches bend and sway? Was it that the leaves, waving and trembling, had no choice but to surrender to the weather? Our yearlong stay in that small town on Lake Michigan was blessed, but also challenging and unpredictable. Our heads on the pillows and hands clasped, we enjoyed the solace of treetops, straining like us not to snap when tempest tossed.
In 2001, following seminary studies, Kathy and I moved home to Erie, where Shenley Drive gave us a boulevard of maples. Once again, for over a decade, waking up in the morning and napping involved trees. As Robert Frost famously wrote, “Way leads on to way.” My forties led on to fifties. Seasons used high branches as an excuse to sing, and I could no longer pretend to be young. The trees helped me to whisper to myself: “If I die on this bed, hopefully ages and ages hence, that will be fine.” The message was freeing. Forever, it seemed, I longed to be in a place more cultured, more interesting and exciting. But truth had its say: “Move as much as you like, John, you’ll always have to accept four walls and the certainty of your own end.” At 322 Shenley I was finally home.
I had also developed the habit of finding joy buried under adversity and mortality. The first time I saw an oriole up close, parishioner Tom and I were standing at his kitchen window. His daughter Nadeana, only forty-seven, had died that very morning of cancer, which afflicted Tom as well. Shoulder to shoulder with a devastated father, I wondered what nerve lovely wings had visiting on such a wretched day. There they were though, reminding us both that even on Golgotha, life has the last word.
Another of my windows is beside Fred and Marilyn’s backdoor. When I visit, we chat and keep track of birds that share seeds and nuts with the squirrels. Last week while saying, “Do this in remembrance of me,” I noticed the yard was deserted. Then, when I said, “Shed for you,” a red-bellied woodpecker, titmice, and squirrels had returned, as if to attend our meal. Fred’s condition makes holding a cup difficult, but as he persevered, a conviction alighted on me: While we birds, beasts and siblings struggle wing-to-hoof-to-elbow, God is mindful of us all.
The pastor’s study window at St. John’s holds an honored place in my collection. Just as the Shenley Drive maples calmed a restless middle-aged man, a line of pines, a field in which corn and soybeans take turns, and one grand red barn compose a landscape that means: “You love St. John’s. They put up with you. You’re fortunate, you small church pastor, you.”
And now, to my delight, Grandson Cole shows signs of inheriting his Pop’s unusual tastes. Some weeks ago on the way to Oniontown, Cole gazed out his car window and said to Grandma Kathy, “Do you know what kind of woods those are?”
“No, best buddy,” she said, “what kind are they?”
“They’re ‘Ice Cream Woods,’” he said.
“Ice Cream Woods? Why?”
“Because you could go in there and eat ice cream.”
“Oh,” Kathy played along, “so could you sit under a tree and eat ice cream?”
“No, Grandma, ants would get on you,” he explained. “You’d have to stand.”
Okay, I’m not sure what Pop has passed down to Cole, an interest in windows or a fanciful way of seeing the world. Either way, I’m glad to have his company.
Oniontown Pastoral: This Is Life
Driving with wife Kathy and grandsons Cole and Killian toward what we call “Grandma Kathy’s house,” I was both amused and horrified by the young man operating a battered economy four-door in the next lane. He was multi-tasking, and the other cars on the road were the least of his worries.
Now, who among us hasn’t seen a fellow driver texting while doing one of the following: lighting a cigarette, applying lipstick and making kissy faces in the rearview mirror, inhaling shoestring French fries, or pretending the steering wheel is a bongo drum?
But I’ll bet you’ve never witnessed somebody manipulating a smartphone with one hand, holding a little plastic cup in the other, and going at the guacamole therein like a dog lapping up ice cream. The guy’s texting hand also had driving duty, as the cup in the other hand had to be within range of his tongue. It was not pretty.
Of course, texting and eating Mexican is all fun and games until pedestrians get run over, which is almost what happened. A multi-generational family neglected physical wellbeing and migrated across four lanes of traffic right in front of Pastor Coleman’s and Prince Avocado’s cars. The whole lot wore dull expressions, as if they had just decimated an all-you-can-eat buffet. I can’t exaggerate the oblivion with which these eight bipeds flowed like molasses through traffic and the wonder of their survival.
Later that same evening, after the grandsons got picked up from their playtime with Grandma Kathy and Pop, the former sat on the couch and shook her head. “I can’t stop thinking about that family,” she said. “They could have been killed.” Such an outcome would also have gutted the future of one twenty-something multi-tasker.
Reasonable citizens would agree that everybody should quit messing around while driving. As for myself, I mean to push the point further and adopt one-thing-at-a-time as a standard practice.
My commute from home in Erie to work at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown has recently reminded me that managing several tasks simultaneously threatens life in more ways than one. A few weeks ago on I-79 South a woodchuck waddled across my path and, sad to say, he is burrowing into fields no more. Since that day, on various byways leading to Oniontown, a procession of turkeys, a family of geese with goslings and a graceful fox have played Hyundai roulette with me.
If I had been combing the few hairs I have left or fussing with the radio dial, there might well have been additional casualties. Thank goodness. I’m a guest on the animals’ land. They are not pests on mine. But my motivation for finishing one task before taking on another is about more than an aversion to squashing wildlife. I’m equally concerned about squandering blessings. The older I get, the more I realize that locations from Erie to Oniontown to Everest are waiting for me to accept their generosity.
One of my heroes, Dick Proenneke, gained notoriety through his determination to notice what planet Earth seemed eager to give him. In the summer of 1967 he chopped down trees in the Twin Lakes region of Alaska and let the stripped logs age. In 1968 he moved there for good to build a cabin with hand tools. Fifty-one at the time, Proenneke was extraordinarily energetic, strong, and resourceful. In ten days he had the walls of his 11’ x 14’ cabin ready for a roof, which he completed in short order. Come September, he added a fireplace and chimney made out of rocks he had gathered on his many hikes.
He wanted to be “alone in the wilderness,” as a documentary about him is entitled, after nearly losing his vision in an accident while employed as a truck mechanic. Proenneke decided that he would treat his eyes to as much beauty as they could handle, and Alaska was the place to do it. His journals, photographs and 16 mm films of thirty-five plus years spent in a lovely, though unforgiving, environment are instructive and inspiring.
No surprise to anyone who knows me, lighting out for the lonely territory is not on my bucket list. Some afternoons mowing the lawn feels like hiking the Appalachian Trail. Besides, surrounded as I am by loving family and friends, a little solitude goes a long way.
Fortunately, following Dick Proenneke’s example doesn’t demand residing anywhere other than 402 Parkway Drive or serving a church in a village more remote than Oniontown. What I need to do is pay attention—to the turkeys and geese, to the fox so light on its feet, to Grandma Kathy, to Cole and Killian.
If I don’t behold blessings one at a time, I appreciate none of them. Everyone and everything gets a turn. This is life.
My Favorite Color Revisited
Blogger’s Note: Here’s another post with an excess of marital and family love. Please take a pass if you’ve had your fill of my gush. Peace, John
Just so you’ll give me a little leeway in the matter of color preferences, please bear in mind that my father was a Navy man with simple tastes.
“What’s your favorite color, Dad?” I asked him going on fifty years ago.
“Oh, battleship gray, I guess.”
Not merely gray, which I like, but a shade that can lead over time to melancholy. Get up close to a battleship some time and stare at it. “Why am I so sad?” you’ll wonder eventually. That’s battleship gray for you.
In fairness, Dad may have been telling me that he didn’t have a favorite color. Some people don’t care, can’t decide or refuse to commit. I once told inquiring grandson Cole that his red hair was my pick. Of course, I wouldn’t paint my house or buy a suit that color, which suggests that ginger’s appeal has everything to do with it curling around on my buddy’s head.
In case you’re wondering, I don’t normally fritter away a morning musing about why Dad decided my childhood home should be battleship gray. No, on this overcast, drizzly day in Erie, Pennsylvania, I’m contemplating marriage, especially ones that have lasted a while.
Here’s the situation. Other than Cole-orange, my favorite color is negotiable within the palate of muted earth tones. I want to look upon whatever gives my heart peace. None of you, I’ll wager, has ever worn a fluorescent beige jacket. Why? Because God decided—on what day of creation I don’t know—that some colors shouldn’t make human beings squint. Soothing, that’s what I like, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.
Wife Kathy, on the other hand, goes in the direction my late mother would have called “loud.” Here’s an example. In 2015 Kathy and I moved out of a big house with a “loud” kitchen: fluorescent orange, lime green and a sassy yellow with mustard tendencies. It was not possible to cook in that room without the awareness of radioactive levels of brightness.
But seriously, the paint job was an expression of Kathy’s exuberant spirit, which made the blinding ambiance endearing to me. She wanted a fun space and didn’t ask me to pick up a brush or roller. The deal was more than fair.
The kitchen of our current small home is characterized by Pastor John’s restraint: light gray walls, cherry-stained cupboards and floor tiles blessed with an abstract smudging of earth tones. It is well with my soul.
So imagine my alarm last week when Kathy said we should paint the boring wooden bench in the mudroom, not eight feet away from the stove. “The space needs a little pop.”
I said nothing at first, but thought, “And so it begins.” The only Pop I want at 402 Parkway is yours truly.
“OK, what were you thinking?” I finally managed.
“Well, how about purple?” she said with a few blinks and a come-hither smile.
What I said in my head: “Oh dear.” What I said with my mouth, already surrendering with the talks barely underway: “Could we go with a pale purple, kind of flat, sort of like mauve?” My goal, in case you can’t tell, was to drag this purple as close to gray as I could get it.
My beloved is taken with spray-paint these days, so we looked at rows of cans and she granted me an honest vote. Now, what has turned out to be a lavender bench sits by the back door. It’s a tad pastel for me, but I can live with it. Before long, I’ll probably like it.
The same thing happened when the barn behind the cornfield bordering St. John’s Lutheran in Oniontown was covered with fire engine red siding. At first I missed gazing out my office window at the weathered white and gray, but over time the change has found favor in my eyes. When you look through love’s glasses, even battleship gray can grow on you.
This July will mark thirty-five years for us. Luck keeps us afloat, as does an understanding our marriage would die without. Kathy’s fluorescent soul pops as her creator intended, and my pale palate is right and salutary just the way it is.
I’m pointing toward love, of course. The Greek word for it is not “eros” or “philos,” but “agape.” You pick the paint, if it matters to you,” such unconditional love says. “Maybe next time I’ll choose.”
After “I do,” precious little really matters. In the end (and I’m not making this up), I have three favorite colors: Cole-orange, the gray of Kathy’s hair and the auburn of her eyes.
Oniontown Pastoral: Can I Tell You Something?
“Where’s that shaky guy?” grandson Cole asked.
The setting was the fellowship hall at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown, the guy in question was Bob and the shaking referred to takes place during our “greeting of peace.” Bob and Cole’s handshake is spirited and playful—“shaky,” as the latter puts it.
Our four-year-old ginger finally tracked down Bob and said, “You want to come sit with me?”
How could that shaky guy with grandchildren of his own turn down such an offer? So Cole led him to the far end of the hall, where Grandma Kathy joined them for cookies, orange drink and a visit.
“Can I tell you something?” Cole said.
“You can tell me anything, Cole,” Bob answered.
If only I had heard the exchange. As it happened, the account came to me secondhand.
I close my eyes and picture a boy and two grown ups putting their paper plates on a long table and having a seat. My grandson asks his grownup question, and Bob gives a loving answer.
I don’t know anything more about their conversation, but that doesn’t matter. It is as if my heart is gladdened by wine and strengthened by bread.
Sundays positively shine whenever Cole spends Saturday night at Grandma Kathy and Pop’s house and saddles up for the hour-long drive from Erie to Oniontown for church. His presence is a joyful tithe that doesn’t clink in the offering plate or show up in the weekly tally.
I wish every sister and brother in the St. John’s family could share my grandson’s start to the day. He and Grandma Kathy sleep on a sofa bed in “Cole’s Room,” and my job is to sneak in and cuddle with him as she wakes up and gets dressed.
If you’ve never held a child in footed jammies as he yawns and opens his eyes, I can attest to the moment’s medicinal properties. My favorite hymn includes this line: “Take the dimness of my soul away.” As my buddy stretches, transforming his lean frame into a two-by-four, the prayer of one lucky grandfather is more than answered. The shadows casting gloom over my spirit lift—trite, perhaps, but true.
The way to Oniontown isn’t too shabby, either. Pop serves as chauffeur while Grandma Kathy sits in the back with Cole. Toasted bagels, cream cheese and hot chocolate make for a lordly forty-five minutes as Pennsylvania’s I-79 takes us past Edinboro, Saegertown and Meadville.
A few miles past Wagler’s Camp Perry, we watch for a dirty blonde horse in his yard. I let up on the gas as we wave and shout, “Hi, Onslow.” (He is such an affectionate part of my commute that I had to give him a name.)
On District Road we speed over the railroad tracks near Kremis and sing “ahh” with a hammy vibrato. It’s an operatic couple of seconds.
Finally, we walk through St. John’s doors. Lutherans are not the most demonstrative sheep in the Christian fold, but a quiet joy reigns in the house. And when kids come to worship, this pastor for one senses an angel visitant and opening skies.
Cole isn’t the only child to put a shine on the hearts of the faithful. Plenty of us sport crow’s feet, but you should see our eyes widen with gladness when any little one brings a flower down the aisle at the beginning of worship or helps carry the processional cross to the back of the sanctuary at the end. Brave kids are even welcome to join in shouting, “Go in peace. Serve the Lord,” to which the congregation responds, “Thanks be to God.”
I would be remiss in not mentioning that Cole and his tribe do me the great service of enlivening boring sermons. There’s nothing like a game of peek-a-boo with pew mates to keep my long-suffering listeners pleasantly diverted.
Kids probably don’t understand the blessings they bestow upon St. John’s, but in years to come I hope they’ll remember the love shown them—the love of shaky handshakes, cookies and orange drink, and best of all, friends who mean it when they say, “You can tell me anything.”
In Praise of Napping
I should say in advance that if you turn your nose up at napping, you take issue with Eleanor Roosevelt, JFK and Jackie, and Ronald Reagan. You also question geniuses like Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein and Salvador Dali.
With such an illustrious list of practitioners, you’d think that what the Spanish call a “siesta” would be beyond reproach. Not so. Back in 2011, when fatigue in airport control towers caused a series of near misses, Federal Aviation Administration chief Ray LaHood said, “We’re not going to pay controllers to nap.” Even when presented with proof that sleep breaks would be beneficial, the chief remained humbug on the idea.
For LaHood and millions of Americans, the phrase “caught napping” conveys what we really think. The first word all but accuses the second of laziness, lack of ambition, even delinquency.
Home economics guru Martha Stewart damned naps with faint praise when she said, “I catnap now and then, but I think while I nap, so it’s not a waste of time.”
As an armchair expert and connoisseur, I can assure Stewart and all novices of the simple arithmetic. Reclining + Cogitating = Insomnia. And Insomnia ≠ Napping (feline or otherwise).
I have too much empirical evidence on my side to be swayed by detractors. Still, why does lying down on the couch in St. John’s pastor’s study for what Margaret Thatcher called a “zizz” embarrass me a little? The short blasts of rest that kept Thatcher sharp during the Falkland Islands War should embolden me.
As should her legendary predecessor, Winston Churchill, who actually put on pajamas and slid between the covers for at least an hour, usually longer. He claimed the rest helped him squeeze 1.5 workdays into 1.
His rationale was almost poetic: “Nature had not intended mankind to work from 8 in the morning until midnight without the refreshment of blessed oblivion which, even if it only lasts 20 minutes, is sufficient to renew all the vital forces.”
He was arguably the world leader most responsible for defeating Hitler. In retirement, between midday oblivion and glasses of Johnny Walker Red with a splash of water, Churchill wrote a 1,600,000-word history of World War II that earned him the 1953 Nobel Prize in Literature.
If you’ll admit that I’ve built a solid case thus far, I’ll return the favor with my own concession. Some recent studies have indicated a connection between long naps and premature death as well as the eventual onset of diabetes and heart disease. If you want to follow up on these leads, be my guest. I can’t help but wonder if some folks whose siestas drag on until dusk are dealing with major, health damaging stressors.
If you don’t think stress can plunge you into full-drooling REM sleep every afternoon, let me bend your ear. I first acquired my taste for naps thirty years ago when a series of challenges pointed out my limitations in every theater of life.
When some situations demanded emotional chops, I had a glass jaw. When others called for firmness and discernment, I employed what one Buddhist teacher calls “idiot compassion.” As a young father, for example, I mistook permissiveness for easy-going wisdom.
In short, for a good thirty years I lay my beleaguered self down, as did baseball great Yogi Berra, who took “a two hour nap from 1:00 to 4:00.”
Thankfully, realities that used to sap my spirit have mostly gone on hiatus, and looking a full day in the eye no longer requires hiding my head under the covers halfway through.
Rest at midday has become a sweet blessing. A few weeks back I had a late lunch at daughter Elena’s house. Grandsons Cole and Killian were deep in their usual dramas of make believe, so it was a surprise when the former said he would join me for a nap.
We sprawled on his single bed, my eyes closed and his fixed on a Magic School Bus cartoon. Occasionally I watched his features in profile, his delicate eyelashes and waves of red hair.
After fifteen minutes, he said, “I’m getting up, Pop,” and headed to the living room.
Ms. Frizzle and her students talked on the bus. My loved ones laughed and chattered down the hall. I wasn’t tired at all, but kept still in gratitude for an old habit begun out of desperation and aged into surprising joy.
And I saw that it was good.
Gladness and the Irish Jackdaw
The last thing I expected to enjoy two years ago when I started serving as St. John’s Lutheran Church’s part-time pastor was my seventy-mile commute from Erie to Oniontown, Pennsylvania.
I was smitten immediately. The scenery calms me down, and the livestock munching their breakfast as I speed by now seem like distant relatives. One blonde horse on Route 19 is on my mind so often that I may request a meeting. I call him Onslow. What would the farmer say when I knock and ask, “Do you mind if I make your horse’s acquaintance”? Hopefully he suffers fools well.
I’m not altogether surprised to discover that my time behind the wheel is joyful. Experience has proven that gladness finds me and not the other way around. Beauty, wisdom and bliss don’t yield to force or expectation. They obey their own fancies.
I received such lessons anew in October when Kathy and I traveled to Ireland, a country aptly called the “Emerald Isle.” Everywhere you look, intoxicating greens and ancient grays cast a reverent spell.
Leave it to me, though, to be delighted most by chance human encounters. One beer into my first pub visit, a lean, leathery-faced old stranger took a look at my gut, leaned in close and asked, “When’s the last time you saw your own feet, mate?” Tipsy Irishmen say the darndest things.
Gladness also showed up in the commonplace, especially along the island’s narrow, harrowing roads. My brother Ed drove, his wife Debby navigated, and Kathy and I sat in the back seat and let our eyes wander.
I never tired of watching livestock grazing in fields framed by stone walls. It was as if a painter arranged the cows for the greatest artistic affect.
“Why,” I later asked St. John’s friend and cow-whisperer Dave, “do Irish cows stand together and strike the same gracious pose while ours are scattered hither and yon?”
“That’s because,” Dave shot back, “American cows are free spirits.” Well played!
Almost as numerous as cows, the sheep had an attitude, and with good reason. I would smirk, too, if somebody had branded my wool with fluorescent spray paint. One looked me right in the eyes. “Well,” his expression said, “are we going to stare at each other or go lift a Guinness?”
My keenest, most unlikely pleasure was granted by a crow, or so I assumed. Birder friend Mary saw a photograph I had posted on ANappersCompanion.com weeks later and informed me that my bird was a Jackdaw.
So it was “Jack”—or “Jackie,” I don’t know—who met me outside a pub in Blarney. As I sipped Cabernet Sauvignon, this corvid had me under surveillance. Townsfolk and tourists were seated all around, but Jack was most enamored of me.
The feeling was mutual. He landed one table over and hopped about. What was he up to?
Since my glass was empty, I got a refill for me and a scone for Jack. After kissing Blarney’s famous stone and wandering the castle’s gardens, I wasn’t hungry myself, but content to rest, gladden my heart and treat a fellow planetary citizen to lunch.
I set a few chunks of scone on Jack’s table and waited for him to return. He took my offerings one by one, flew away, then came back for more.
Hoping he would join me, I put pieces on my table. He came and went, several times staking me out from the roof of Blarney Woolen Mills. Alas, the closest he got was the chair opposite me.
When I returned from getting a last refill, Jack and his friends had cleaned up the portions I’d left behind. Before long I ripped up the sad remnants and headed back to the hotel for a siesta.
Walking along, I wondered why I had spent the better part of an afternoon in the company of an understandably skittish bird. (Lord knows why such conundrums interest me.)
My only intention was to call Jack “brother,” but how could he (or she) have known? Two creatures crossing paths, that’s what we were. Yes, I know Jack was all about the scone, but I’m eccentric enough to believe we connected in a mysterious, elemental way.
The possibility alone makes me glad. When humans, corvids, cows and sheep of good will trust each other, a silent language is spoken. Its name is Hope.
A Neighbor Shows Me How to Figure Out Ireland
The site was comical. On my way to St. John’s Lutheran Church recently, I drove past a neighbor who was poking leaves with a litter stick and sliding them into a big white bucket. The odd part was, there weren’t enough leaves to rake, maybe a hundred scattered over his yard.
“Why bother?” I thought. On the other hand, what a senior citizen does on a windy morning is none of my business.
We exchanged glances, me offering a smile, he raising his eyebrows and chomping on the last inch of a stogie.
I knew instantly that the man was trying to advise me. But about what? Cigar smoking wouldn’t suit my temperamental lungs, and gnawing on a cheroot would result in wife Kathy hesitating to kiss me.
No, the counsel had to do with leaves. A few days went by before I understood that my neighbor wanted to help me figure out Ireland.
Since Kathy and I returned from the Emerald Isle a couple weeks ago, my spirit has been overflowing. Kind brother Ed and his wife Debby drove us all over southern Ireland to sites both popular and inconspicuous. I gave the Blarney stone a peck, communed with two cows at the Cliffs of Moher, knelt in prayer at St. Colman’s Cathedral, and at St. Michan’s Church let my hands hover over the keyboard Handel used to compose his “Messiah.”
Then there was the countryside, where cattle and sheep grazed within stone walls, and church and castle ruins gave the land gray benedictions, as they have for centuries.
You can’t roam Ireland without feeling the inexorable passing of time. I’m home at the moment on an afternoon with intermittent drizzle—very Irish weather—but even now time’s gentle, but calloused, hands hold my face.
Part of me is in Erie, but part remains at Kilmainham Gaol, where architects of the 1916 Easter Rising awaited the firing squad. Joseph Plunkett, who married Grace Gifford in the prison chapel hours before his execution, was not yet thirty. After the ceremony in his cell, the bride and groom were permitted to spend ten awkward minutes together in the presence of guards. According to the tour guide, they sat quietly.
Another part of me reverences miles of stone walls. The only way to farm the island’s fields was to pry the limestone rocks out and pile them into long lines. During the Potato Famine (1845-1849), starving men were fed in exchange for clearing land and building walls that led nowhere. “Famine walls,” they were called. If grassy pastures were poetry, Ireland would be sonnets, beautiful but melancholy.
My great-great grandfather, Timothy Coleman, most likely sailed from County Cork to America before the historic blight that turned the country’s main food source to smelly mush. A million to starved to death and about as many emigrated elsewhere. Ireland’s population has never recovered the loss.
A dozen times each day, as I brushed ancient cathedrals with fingertips and tried to read eroded gravestones, Timothy’s absence haunted me. He was a farm laborer. I dreamt his face and imagined his voice.
Debby, who has dug into the Coleman family history, records the following about Timothy’s son, Edward: “[He] moved his family 31 times. . . .The family lived on mashed potatoes, gravy and hamburg.”
Part of me grieves for these ancestors I’ve never met and wonders with unfeigned love about their days and decades, their toils and joys.
Ireland rests in my spirit like the fallen leaves I’m studying, just a scattering this fall in Erie, Pennsylvania. I can only gather them one at a time, like my Oniontown neighbor did.
Timothy is but one leaf. Another is his wife Helen Salsman, who bore seven children. Someday Kathy and I will drive to Norwich, New York, and pay respects at her grave (1836-1918). We don’t know where Timothy is buried, which pains me a little.
Leaf by stunning leaf I’ll sort through Ireland, maybe figure out why I was so moved by the walls and ruins, cows and sheep, friendly folks and all those starving spirits who built walls that now look like random adornment, innocent alleluias stretching toward the horizon.
If you see me these days with my eyes closed, I’ll be imagining Timothy Coleman and remembering the island he left behind. And if you catch me chewing on a stogie, pray that Kathy will kiss me anyway.