Kilimanjaro Dancing on the Head of a Pin

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Elena a couple weeks ago

“Who would have ever thought we would get to this day and that it would be so joyful?” wife Kathy said from the kitchen doorway. Her question embraced me so completely that I didn’t even say goodbye. I just stood there in the quiet, mixing up Greek potato salad, my contribution to daughter Elena’s baby shower.

Well-meaning friends tell you that your teenage kids will outgrow their problems and turn out fine, but, of course, sometimes they don’t. Everybody knows this, but when you have good cause to wonder whether your daughter or son will live to see legal drinking age, folks who love you want to offer hope. I don’t blame them. When Elena was a Goth chick carving LOVE and HATE into her wrist, disappearing in the middle of winter nights, and gobbling a cocktail of pills, I knew enough to translate all words of comfort. “I love you,” was the real message. “I see what you’re going through. Don’t lose heart.” I never came close to giving up on Elena, but I never let myself wander far from the truth, either. When you attempt suicide as a way of calling out for help, you might die. Happens all the time. When you sneak out at 3:00 a.m. to trek across town through slush to a creepy boyfriend’s house, you might get hurt in ways you can’t yet imagine.

As Kathy stood in the doorway, I’m sure she was remembering those four or five years when worry about Elena constantly had us by the throat: “Who would have ever thought we would get to this day and that it would be so joyful?”

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Go ahead, tell me this old sanctuary doesn’t glow!

When the Greek potato salad was ready, I took it to the church fellowship hall, which Elena, Kathy, and a herd of helpers had decorated within an inch of its life. I’d led hundreds of worship services in that hall, formerly the Abiding Hope Lutheran Church sanctuary, but never have I seen that simple Cracker Jack box room glow more than it did when I put my bowl on the buffet table and stood still as if in a dream.

If all goes well Kathy and I will be grandparents toward the end of November. Holding my grandson for the first time, I may think, “Who would have ever thought . . . ?” After what the Coleman family went through when both Elena and son Micah were teenagers, I regard every joy as a miracle—Kilimanjaro balanced on the head of a pin. Witness the wonder through tears, but, baby, don’t forget it could tip over.

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Micah, making me proud every day from 8:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.

While Elena, her husband Matt, and our future grandson seem solidly on the path to okayness, Micah also has Kathy and me saying, “Who would have ever thought . . . ?”  When he was going through his wall-smashing, heroin-shooting days, Kathy and I questioned whether he or we would make it to joyful. Now, not only did he report this morning to his full-time painting job with snot-jammed sinuses, but he’s been going over to his grandmother’s house lately. He who once stuck with a job a couple months at best enjoys helping her with chores and hanging out with her, watching movies and kibitzing. He’s been clean well over a year and is about to turn in his 401(k) paperwork. Somebody pinch me!

An old volcano dances on a pin: that’s the Zen half-smile I took with me into the Pastor’s Study as the ladies ate, laughed, and whooped for a couple of hours in the glowing fellowship hall. I put my mats, blanket, and pillows on the floor and took a delicious, mediocre nap. A couple text messages joined with laughter forte to hold me on the edge of sleep. No matter. When I got up and checked on the party, nothing had tipped over.

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Dear Lord, Join me for a turtle brownie? Amen

For me, shamatha—calm abiding—in the presence of fragile joy is the best way I know to be grateful. I did thank God for Elena’s great day. I do thank God for Micah peeing clean and grappling with his grandmother’s weeds. But my thanksgiving is complicated: it’s about inviting God to celebrate with me; it’s not about thanking God for easing up on me and setting my kids straight. Maybe this is the way to say it: I don’t give thanks; I am thanks.

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Cover of Sanskrit translation of Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha.” (Credit: Wikipedia)

During Elena’s and Micah’s crazy days, I found comfort in Hermann Hesse’s novel Siddhartha when the ferryman smiles and comforts a suffering father, Siddhartha:

Ask the river about it, my friend! Listen to it, laugh about it! Do you then really think that you have committed your follies in order to spare your son them? Can you then protect your son from Samsara? How? Through instruction, through prayers, through exhortation? My dear friend, have you forgotten that instructive story about Siddhartha, the Brahmin’s son, which you once told me here? Who protected Siddhartha the Samana from Samsara, from sin, greed and folly? Could his father’s piety, his teacher’s exhortations, his own knowledge, his own seeking, protect him? Which father, which teacher, could prevent him from living his own life, from soiling himself with life, from loading himself with sin, from swallowing the bitter drink himself, from finding his own path? Do you think, my dear friend, that anybody is spared this path? Perhaps your little son, because you would like to see him spared sorrow and pain and disillusionment? But if you were to die ten times for him, you would not alter his destiny in the slightest.

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Kibo summit of Kilimanjaro (Credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, it’s not as though the path of samsara—the life journey of death, suffering, and rebirth—ends with a first child or a full-time job. Kilimanjaro is always losing its balance.

“Who would have ever thought we would see this day and that it would be so joyful?” How many nights did I stare into the darkness, wondering, trying to breathe? We all have to walk our own path, and for Elena and Micah, at the moment, the footing seems good. What I’m trying to say is, “I am thanks.”

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Elena ready to welcome our grandson to the world.

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Swimming Upstream on a Bad Hair Day

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An image for today: trying on one of our bathroom remodeling purchases. Does this seat make my face look fat?

Swimming upstream: that’s what I’m doing today. At home when I was a kid, we’d say, I’ve got the blues. Depressed is too strong a word. I’ve wrestled with depression before, so in my vocabulary that term is reserved for times when sleep is your lover, when you constantly feel the weight of tears behind your eyes. Tuesday, July 9, 2013 is actually in the okay category, but I can say so only by pushing myself and acknowledging an aggravating fact: nothing’s wrong! I should be following Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice and smiling at my non-toothache. In the words of Patrick, my ten-year-old neighbor with Down’s syndrome who drops his helping verbs, “It not working.” Patrick is the Sage of Shenley Drive. I not kidding.

An hour’s blessed oblivion at 2:00 p.m. didn’t work either. Usually the world shines when my alarm, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, goes off and I stand up and stretch. For a few minutes it seemed that I’d flown above the clouds, but soon, without my approval, my nose descended back into the inexplicable turbulence.

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I need your help, Barry Manilow! (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

To borrow a phrase from a mom who stopped by the church this morning, if I weren’t having a bad hair day—another way of describing the blues—I might look for an answer to a question in my head: “Is my swimming upstream the result of a mostly pampered life?” I suspect today is a bummer because current troubles, most of them imaginary, have eased up enough that nebulous old sorrows have space to stretch their legs and kick at my spirit. But with this gray Tuesday matching my interior, I’m not doing research. The best I can do is recommend a fitting song: Ray Stevens’ “I Need Your Help, Barry Manilow,” from which I quote:

I need your help, Barry Manilow,

I’m all alone and sitting on a shelf.

Sing me a song, sing it sad and low,

I feel like feeling sorry for myself.

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Probably a very introspective caveman (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Like the rest of the song, my case of the blues is self-indulgent, worth a laugh. Imagine a caveman sitting on a rock, rubbing his forehead and saying, “I just need a little space. I’m having a bad day. Okay?!” I doubt troglodytes had as much time as I do to nurse neuroses, because if they hadn’t gone out and speared a wooly mammoth, hungry cave-children would have gnawed on their hairy calf muscles in the middle of the night.

Or what soldier in a trench mopes if she or he doesn’t get a siesta? Troops might sneak in a nap when the action slows, but when a comrade says, “I’m storming that bunker. Cover me!” you can’t say, “Aw, can’t it wait? I’m about to take my siesta.”

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Did World War II’s Rosie the Riveter have time to nap? Doubtful. (“We Can Do It” by J. Howard Miller. Credit: Wikipedia)

The point I’m back-stroking toward is this: When I say I’m swimming upstream, sometimes I’m experiencing an honest-to-goodness visitation of toxic life junk that’s worth examining. Other times, I “feel like feeling sorry for myself”–just because. Often it’s hard to tell the two streams apart. Either way, I admit that today’s bad hair is Manilow-vian. The same goes for my siesta. Most people don’t have the luxuries of stopping to wonder why they’re iron gray inside and lying down at midday to take a break from struggling against the current. Remembering the billions for whom a ten-minute prayer or a thirty-minute nap is out of the question keeps me from being ridiculous and narcissistic.

I plead guilty to being silly and occasionally self-absorbed.

Second Report from the Ark: Talking Adultery, Contemplating Adrenal Fatigue

Day Three

Wednesday, June 19, 2013, 5:02 p.m., again at Lyndora, Pennsylvania’s Panera Bread. An extra shot of decaf espresso has my iced latte tasting almost like coffee. I wish caffeine didn’t make me jittery; a jolt would be great right now. After waking from an hour’s nap at 3:30, I felt refreshed at first, but now I’m either tired again or nervous. With my temperamental constitution, it’s tough to tell the two apart.

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“Noah’s Ark” (1846) by Edward Hicks. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Overall today has been peaceful. Forty-five minutes of prayer this morning followed by another thirty after lunch have helped. Still, I wonder if naturopathic physician (I never heard of it, either) Dr. Lauren Deville, NMD, might be describing me in her TucsonCitizen.com article “Adrenal Fatigue: The Epidemic of a Stressed Out Society.” If I’m tracking the author correctly, adrenal fatigue works like this:

  • Your adrenal glands, which sit atop your kidneys, pump out epinephrine (a.k.a. adrenaline) in response to stressful situations.
  • Dr. Deville writes, “One of three outer layers of the adrenal glands produces another hormone meant to offset the effects of adrenaline and ‘buffer’ the body against the effects of acute stress. This hormone is called cortisol.”
  • If you experience a normal amount of stress, the adrenal glands can produce enough cortisol to keep nerves and fatigue at bay. If your life is chronically stressful, the adrenal glands get whacked out. They keep epinephrine coming, but cortisol slows to a trickle.
  • The result: adrenal fatigue, and with it depression, PMS, insomnia, sugar cravings and hypoglycemia, low blood pressure upon standing, and recurrent infections.
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So those blobs of chicken fat on top of my kidneys might be making me siesta obsessed? (Credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve covered all these symptoms, including PMS, which in my case stands for panache-less male syndrome. It’s occurred to me in the past that maybe my adrenal glands were firing out large doses of epinephrine long after stressors had gone away. Turns out I may be cortisol deficient.

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Rembrandt’s Moses looking like he’s about to clobber the Israelites over their heads with the tablets. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Or hypochondria might be the problem. Whatever. Tired, nerved up, goofed up, or lacking cortisol, I’m grateful for this day. While my teaching partner Jeff was back home in Warren doing a funeral, I talked to eleven middle school students about the commandments against adultery or stealing. I decided not to pamper them, to just say what needed to be said. The essential message: don’t cheat (obviously!) and don’t get obsessed with sex, not because God gets especially enraged when people sleep around, but because the whole business will end up making you miserable. Lutherans don’t claim to know the mind of God, but we believe that God gives the Ten Commandments out of love, not in an attempt to be a divine buzz kill.

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“The Only Known Photograph of God” by Thomas Merton. (Credit: photobucket.com)

Funny thing, middle schoolers get awkward and squirmy listening to a balding, pale, fifty-one-year-old pastor talk about sex, mainly due to the yuck factor. We got through the lesson thanks to the little candy bars I gave them to redirect their discomfort. Teaching thou shalt not steal went quickly, and we closed out the afternoon session by thinking about not robbing ourselves. For prayer time, they drew chalk self-portraits and thought about how they can take loving care of the person God made them to be.

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Kind and healthy kid, fond of hair sprouts.

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Accurate: wonderful minimalist kid, brainy, chatty.

Back now to camp for free time. On Wednesdays at Lutherlyn, we don’t have evening classes. The kids head into the woods to play campy games, and we pastors lounge in the Ark, eat pizza, and toast the day.

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The Ark at Camp Lutherlyn, the site of porch sitting, daily postmortems, and many long siestas.

My job is to pick up the pizza. The fatigue-nerves-hypochondria-cortisol deficiency has eased up, who knows why. I should just learn to accept that I’m a strange man.

Why Not Be Kind to the Frazzled Barista?

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One View from My Prayer Chair

For me, a siesta is about much more than sleeping for an hour in the afternoon. A siesta is just one part of a way of life built on stopping, breathing, reflecting, praying, and waiting. Some people who are in constant motion are able to be healthy, balanced, thoughtful, and peaceful. Not me. If I go more than a day without prayerful meditation, mild anxiety sets in. In a few days my chest is full of static electricity. I’m a mess. So I have a choice: either cultivate peace in myself or be miserable and useless.

A couple years ago, while riding Amtrak from Pittsburgh to Orlando, I discovered vocabulary that describes the mind- and spirit-set that now keeps me something-like sane. It’s worth mentioning the purpose of my train ride wasn’t pleasant. My dad, who has since passed, and step-mother were in a synchronized nosedive of dementia, and my mission was to convince them to leave their beloved condo and move into an assisted living facility. They were dug in and defiant, chaining their door against the social workers my brother and I had commissioned to do something—anything!—to dislodge them. Just thinking about that whole time makes me feel cruddy. In the end, my trip was a failure. (Months passed before my dad and step-mother were in a safe place.)

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Thich Nhat Hanh (Photo Credit: Dang Ngo)

But the train ride itself was fine, accompanied as it was by Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life by Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Lillian Cheung. Not too many pages in, the famous Buddhist monk and the dietician were offering up words and images that had me pausing to digest with every paragraph. The audience for Savor is largely folks who want to lose weight, but the book’s application is universal.

The first word that hooked me sounds as though it could be a name for Siesta’s twin sister: “The Buddha teaches that change requires insight, and insight cannot begin until we stop and focus our attention on what is happening right in front of us. This stopping, or shamatha, allows us to rest the body and the mind. When we have calmed ourselves, we can then go on to look deeply into our current situation.”

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(Photo Credit: plentyofants)

Shamatha: from the moment I said it in my head on the Silver Meteor it’s been a mantra. Ironically, the practice of stopping hasn’t slowed down my gluttony much, but it’s helped me to be mindful in other ways. Walking from the car to the house, why not stop, look up at the stars, take in a draught of cool air? Sitting with wife Kathy at the end of a tiring day, why pass along the news story I read about an abused child left for dead or the absurdity du jour from Washington, D.C.? What good will it do her to know that mess? Why not be kind to the frazzled barista? Why drive 70 mph in a 55 mph-zone on I-79 as I think of a steaming, bitter, sweat Americano? Am I really in a hurry? Wouldn’t it be better to glance along the way at the pale gray trees not yet budding and give thanks? Shamatha.

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Shamatha to her twin sister Siesta: “You sleep, dear. I’ll watch for traffic.”

Right now I’m actually sipping one of those Starbucks coffees and getting ready to head to the church. Breathe in, breathe out. The sky’s cloudless. Ten years ago I wouldn’t have stopped to notice. Today Siesta and Shamatha are my wise twin sisters, taking my hand and teaching me to be gentle and patient.

Stay tuned for more good words from Savor.