A Prayer for Philip Seymour Hoffman, Justin Bieber, and a Child in a Fire

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Philip Seymour Hoffman (Credit: Wikipedia)

I was settling in for my Sunday afternoon ministerial nap with a little channel surfing, and there it was on CNN: Philip Seymour Hoffman found dead in his bathroom; heroin in apartment; needle in his arm. I hollered downstairs for son Micah, a former addict. He sat on the bed at my feet, said, “Oh, no!” and put his face in his hands.

I let a minute pass. “Would he have known what was happening to him?”

“No,” Micah said. “He would’ve passed out right away. He died in a couple minutes.” Clean for over eighteen months, Micah would know.

Heroin has been in the news in Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio lately—maybe beyond, I don’t know. Some sinister entrepreneurs came up with the idea of mixing fentanyl with heroin. The problem: fentanyl is 10 to 100 times stronger than heroin. One recent batch from Allegheny County in southwest Pennsylvania contained 50% fentanyl. Good night!

People are dying, and Hoffman himself appears to have overdosed on that sketchy brew. Maybe because Micah’s a fan, this average-looking-at-best actor is taking up spiritual room in me today. He was at the top of his game, most likely in great shape financially, but there was an ache in him somewhere. At least I imagine this was so. I bet most of us have pain burrowed down so far inside that nothing much can reach it.

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Justin Bieber (Credit: Wikipedia)

Without knowing it, Hoffman foreshadowed the difficulties of another troubled celebrity in a 2006 60 Minutes interview. He may as well have been talking about Justin Bieber, who at that time was probably up close to the mirror, searching for his first whisker. Hoffman said,

I always think, God, I have so much empathy for these young actors that are 19 and all of a sudden they’re beautiful and famous and rich — I’m like, ‘My God, I’d be dead’ — 19, beautiful, famous and rich, that would be it, you know … I think back at that time and think if I had the money, that kind of money.

Ironic, of course: Hoffman’s dead anyway. During Micah’s first months of sobriety, he mentioned that eventually shooting up wasn’t any fun. Life was just about getting ahold of drugs so he wouldn’t feel like crap. I wonder if that’s how it was with Philip Seymour Hoffman.

And what’s Justin Bieber thinking? Beautiful and famous and rich, he’s apparently shaking his groove thing at the edge of the abyss; that is if the news is accurate. Fast cars, booze, some weed. Who knows? Is Bieber going through too much, too fast, too young? Nineteen year olds can be explosive to start with. Whatever his deal, I’d say from my spectator’s distance that inner-peace isn’t part of the package.

What must it be like to have over 200,000 citizens sign a petition calling for you to be deported? My friend Mark posted an insightful defense of the Canadian heartthrob on Facebook a couple days ago:

I’m about tired of people crushing Justin Beiber. Get all your jokes out now. Ha ha ha. No, I don’t have a thing for teenage boys. Are you done? Good. I may be over sensitive to the abuse put on the kid because one of my girls loves him. She is crestfallen every time she hears bad press and even more devastated with the ensuing public dismantling. I love her. So when she hurts, I hurt. I don’t like his music and he’s made some absolutely stupid decisions. HE’S 19! Who among us didn’t do stupid stuff at 19? Okay, take 19 year old you and add, say, 10 million dollars. Holy Crap! Now factor in that everybody with a camera wants to take a picture of you. If you’re doing something wrong, even better. Multiply that by the fact that nobody ever told the kid “no”. He was their meal ticket. They had to keep him happy, no supervision makes a happy teen. All this, and he has screaming hoards of women of all ages wanting to, um, get with him. It’s just math people. He’s going to be a little screwed up.

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Daughter Elena holding grandson Cole. Proposal: What if I try to hold the world and everybody in it with this tenderness and joy? I want to try.

I don’t know if Bieber was never told “no,” but Mark’s got it right. If anything, the kid deserves our understanding. It’s easy to condemn Philip Seymour Hoffman’s junkie death and Justin Bieber’s dumb-ass choices, but only if addiction’s never had you by the throat or your post-pubescent brain has never told you the evil-twin lies: “You’re always right, and you’re invincible.”

© Copyright 2010 CorbisCorporation

Credit: corbisimages.com

The last thing Hoffman and Bieber need is my judgment. What they need is all the compassion I can muster. (And it ain’t easy with the latter’s chronically raised eyebrows and extravagant fitteds.) In fact, that’s what every corner of creation needs: my compassion.

Each week I spend hours in contemplative prayer, and you’d think heroin addicts and crazy kids would barge in on my silence and demand my attention. Sometimes this happens, but Hoffman, Bieber, and company are more likely to visit me at an inconvenient moment. On Sunday mornings, just before the congregation receives Holy Communion, we sing the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God. The last words are “grant us peace.” We sing it three sweet times: “Grant us peace. Grant us peace. Grant us peace.”

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Grant us peace! (Credit: Lew Robertson / Corbis)

I stand still and pray quietly: “Grant us peace!” I have just a few seconds; if I don’t start distributing the bread, people will think I’ve fallen asleep on my feet. Ah well. Philip Seymour Hoffman will arrive next Sunday, and I’ll sing, “Grant him peace.” Justin Bieber, too: “Grant him peace.” The four-year-old Erie girl who died in a house fire yesterday will appear: “Grant her peace.” And the firefighters who tried to save her: “Grant them peace.”

“Grant us peace.” Part of me wants to stand still in my alb and stole long after the congregation has gone home and sing: “Peace!” Peace for the wealthy and poor with needles stuck in their veins. Peace for the invincible. Peace for saints and sinners everywhere. Peace and healing to that hidden place in all of us, that dark corner where tears reside.

All are welcome in this prayer. Are you suffering? Are you alone to blame? Are you dead, gone into Mystery? Can you hear me? Show up in my spirit. I’ll sing your lovely name to God.

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A Letter to My Late Mother

Dear Mom,

I woke up from my Sunday afternoon nap half an hour ago and now sit in the dining room a few feet away from your Christmas cactus. It’s been jostled and broken a few times in the fifteen years you’ve been gone, but Kathy has always used the remnants as starters, which she gives away once they take hold. Guests marvel and ask how old the plant is. I wish you were here to tell me.

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Beautiful, even as its flowers wilt.

I miss you, Mom. Driving around at night this time of year, I listen to the empty space you left behind. People are getting lights up on their houses, and I’d love to pick you up, go slowly through the neighborhoods, check out the colors shining in the darkness, and hear you mmm and ooo. I’d love to watch Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune with you after dinner, neither of us saying much. And I wish you’d have been with me during the last couple of days.

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I’d stop so you could have a long look, Mom. (Credit: Carson Ganci)

Yesterday, November 30, 2013, your fourth great-grandchild, Cole Martin Thompson, was born at 7:15 a.m. Elena did the hard part, and her husband Matt and Kathy were there to help. I know, women give birth every day, but Cole’s arrival is almost beyond belief for Kathy and me, so joyful that it seems surreal.

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Cole Martin Thompson holding his Uncle Micah’s finger

Elena and Micah have been through a lot since you died. Elena remembers you walking with her to get ice cream before your arthritis got bad. They both remember the dollar toys and candy bars you had waiting for them when we came to visit—Hot-Wheel cars, little rubber ladybugs, and 3 Musketeers. Kathy and I will never forget you peeling grapes for Elena when she spent the night at your place. Their memory of you is dim around the edges, but they still talk about you with great love. You were gentle and understanding with them, long before their troubles began.

Their teenage years were tough. Elena got into wearing all black and scratching and slicing her wrists bloody. She and friends gave each other tattoos and piercings. Worst of all, in high school she swallowed a handful of pills and wound up in the hospital. And Micah was hooked on heroin and smashed up his room in our basement during a few years of madness I still don’t understand. He’s a convicted felon, which will follow him the rest of his life. He and a friend cooked down fentanyl patches and injected the narcotic into her arm. She overdosed and nearly died, and Micah took the blame. The one good thing about your death is you didn’t have to walk the floor, as you used to say, worrying about your grandchildren.

While much of this madness was going on, Kathy was in nursing school. I can’t imagine how she was able to get mostly A’s, graduate, and start work as an oncology nurse while our kids were in various stages of meltdown. But she did, which shows what a strong spirit she has.

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Your amazing daughter-in-law with a swaddled Cole. In your absence, science has discovered that the best way to quiet infants is to wrap them close to the point of suffocation and make loud shhhhh sounds in their ears. Who knew?

I was a mess. Being a pastor was still new to me, so as I tried to take care of parishioners, I barely functioned myself. I can’t tell you how many times when Elena was missing in the middle of the night or when Micah was roaring and screaming, I wanted to show up at your apartment and lie down with my head in your lap. That’s some picture, huh—a forty-something man with his mommy rubbing his balding head. I had to settle for two-hour naps of escape by myself. I swear, Mom, there were times I wasn’t sure I’d survive. You gave birth to a man whose fragility didn’t make for a particularly disciplined, wise parent. I could have done a better job.

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What hair I’ve got left is going gray, Mom.

But this is why after fifteen years I want to write you. There’s a place in me that longs to tell you that after all Elena and Micah have been through, we—your son, his wife and kids and son-in-law—found ourselves together in a hospital room looking at a greater blessing than I’d considered possible.

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If you were here, I’m sure Elena would peel grapes for you.

It wasn’t just the birth of my first grandchild that moved me. It was that Elena has grown into a mighty—no pain medication during labor!—wise and lovely woman with a husband who’s in every way more than I have a right to expect.

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Your grand-daughter married a good man.

It was that Micah has been clean for over a year and has a full-time job as a painter. You know, he cried when he first saw his nephew and said that Saturday, November 30, 2013, was the best day of his life.

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Micah’s got a funny haircut, but he’s also got all your gentleness.

I let Micah hold Cole before I did. “Would my son live to see adulthood?” I wondered years ago, listening to furniture being demolished in the basement. Yesterday, I watched your grandson hold your great-grandson. I breathed in and out, Mom, and thought for the first time in my life that if I suddenly died in that moment, all would be well, that I would have known as much joy as any man deserved.

Life offers no guarantees, other than one day we’ll all join you. You’re ash underground. My ashes will be scattered somewhere. Cole, whose head is still bruised from pressing against Elena’s pelvis, will eventually follow us. I don’t know what eternity looks like, but my prayer is that somehow we can share the holiness of these days—you, your parents and grandparents, your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

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We figured you’d want something simple, like this.

And yes, Mom, I know it’s possible that I’ve written this letter only for myself—a hopeful, neurotic middle-aged man—and that you may be nothing more than the bone and cinder your children buried in June of 1998. But I can’t help believing that existence is as abiding as your Christmas cactus and as fair as your great-grandson Cole.

For as long as I have left, I’ll hold on to this belief and pray to see you again. Lifetimes from now, may we all embrace, tell stories, and watch colors shine in the darkness.

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What do you say, Mom? Let’s all go get ice cream.

Love,

John

A Study in Complicated Joy

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Paul Simon (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I’m fussing with a tension lately proposed by Paul Simon. In the liner notes for his 2011 album “So Beautiful or So What?” Simon writes, “The trick is, as I know it, is to care like hell 
and not give a damn at the same time.”
 He puts the challenge in harsher terms than I do. I would say, “How can I offer the world mindful appreciation, love and compassion and remain joyful?” As I try to be a responsible, engaged planetary citizen, Rhymin Simon’s question and mine are far more concrete than they first appear.

I’ll let today, Friday, July 19, 2013—my day off–be a case study. Other than skanky hot weather and a mild crick in my neck, I’m great. I indulged in a wee bit more Apostic Red than was prudent last night, but have escaped a hangover. I gave wife Kathy a kiss goodbye as she headed off to chemo nursing work this morning, and her loving smile was medicinal. Then I dropped son Micah off at work. He and I had the following exchange a couple days ago when I picked him up after eight sweaty hours of painting:

Me: You know, Micah, I’m really proud of how hard you’re working.

Micah: Yeah, I’m actually kind of proud of myself. It’s a nice change from hating myself.

A lot of gorgeous living is possible when you kick heroin. My son’s been clean over a year now, a reality that feels like an anvil has been lifted from my spirit.

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Anvil: what landed on Wile E. Coyote’s head. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Daughter Elena is scheduled to provide Kathy and me with a grandson in November. We viewed his in-progress pictures this week, which is at once teary and bizarre. In some shots you can make out a sweet-faced baby and in others his head resembles lumpy clay. He’s apparently healthy and, if present proportions hold until adulthood, his self-esteem in at least one department is going to be positive, indeed.

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Cute future grandson–still a little lumpy.

As usual, I’ve got my self-indulgent carcass parked at Starbucks, where I’m sipping my fourth iced decaf refill and breathing in and out the present moment’s causes for celebration. Can circumstances take a lousy turn and grind a Nazi heel into today’s happy face? Sure. But for right now, as Simon says, “So beautiful.”

I’ve no desire to stay in any way detached from my fragile joy. No “so what” for me. The tension to be kept productive has to do with silent partners on this Friday walk. How do I care like hell about them without losing my joy? If I’m not mindful of those who’ve been trampled, then my glad day off is selfish and anemic. But if I sacrifice my heart on the altar of everybody else’s suffering, where’s life’s savor?

Two fliers are pinned to the bulletin board behind me.

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“16 year old missing from local Residential Treatment Facility since July 14th at 9:30 p.m.”

I’m guessing people who love Bob Fuller and the unnamed teenage girl aren’t whistling and skipping right now. If Elena were missing, I’d be frantic and paralyzed at the same time.

A couple of folks in my congregation are getting schmutzed over by cancer, and one of them is about to enter hospice care. How many are looking mortality in its black maw as I try to decide whether to get yet another refill?

Yesterday I drove about an hour to visit a friend in prison, only to be told that the place was on lockdown. Sorry, no visit. I think of what it must be like to always talk to loved ones separated by thick plexiglass over a telephone—and to look forward to half-an-hour with a friend, only to have it postponed for a week or two.

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“The warm rush.” Heroin addict shooting up (Credit: Barry Lewis / In Pictures / Corbis)

I read this morning in The New York Times of increasing heroin overdoses in New England these days. Cheap opiate + unpredictable purity + desperate addicts selling themselves for the next fix = auf wiedersehen. “Theresa Dumond, 23,” the article states, “who lives on the streets of Portland, said she sells her body three times a day to support her heroin habit. She lost custody of her two young children about a year ago (‘I can’t keep track’), and their father died.” Shooting up, she says, “It’s the best feeling ever. It’s the warm rush.”

Okay, so there’s a world of hurt—heroin in Maine, cancer in Pennsylvania, vulnerable teenagers missing, God knows where. “So what?” On the whole I bet Paul Simon and I are on the same page, but my trick—to use the songwriter’s term—isn’t detachment, but embrace. It’s making room within my joy for suffering. It’s inviting the junkie and the hospice patient and the lost girl into the day’s mindfulness, the morning and evening prayer, the afternoon siesta.

This way of dealing with the joy-despair tension isn’t pious. Trust me, I’m as screwed up as the next pilgrim, but I refuse to feast on gladness and pretend that others aren’t retching in the dust. So in my spirit I set out napping mats for Bob, Theresa, and all the others and keep them close by as we rest. And in prayer I welcome them to breathe with me.

I like the way this kind of joy works. When I watch hummingbirds drink from the trumpet vine, the wind always carries a hint of manure. Even on dazzling, cloudless days, there’s thunder in the distance. Yes. This gladness seems right.

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(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Socks, Pasta, a Memory of Heroin

IMG_0539This Memorial Day weekend I spent an hour sorting socks. The only detail that makes this chore noteworthy is how long I put it off. Eighteen months? Two years? I don’t remember. Why so long? The short answer is, “My son was hooked on heroin, got arrested, and spent ninety days under house arrest.” Micah was a free man as of January 28, 2013, but when you’re a felon, freedom is relative—no driver’s license, no job, hours in group therapy. You’re free, but your penance is lengthy and leaden.

The clean Micah (for almost a year now) is fantastic. With the drug and its relentless, frantic acquisition gone, he’s growing into the twenty-one-year-old man I figured might be under all the junk. He’s not a roaring maw of rage and narcissism. His wardrobe is now polychromatic. He’s patient, generous, quick-witted, and curious. He’s still a slob, but his Titanic is restored, afloat; I’m not about to rearrange his deck chairs. The future is hopeful.

1848 Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe at 39, a...

1848 Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe at 39, a year before his death (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But as anybody who witnesses a loved one’s addiction knows, life consists of one emotional butt whipping after another. I pulled the afghan tight under my chin every afternoon and received what Edgar Allan Poe called “sleep, those little slices of death.” He loathed them. I loved napping as a protest against reality.

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Shredded Basement Paneling, a Scar of Micah’s Worst Months

Days and siestas are much improved as of May 29, 2013; still, mixed in with the relief and stability of Micah’s recovery is residual pain from the past. In the way a marathoner’s body needs time to heal after 26.2 miles, my mind and spirit continue to ache now and then from those times Micah smashed objects in his basement bedroom or paced around the house with clenched jaw and trembling fists. I’ve done some reading on PTSD and wonder about myself. (The particulars of Micah’s, wife Kathy’s, and daughter Elena’s experiences are theirs to tell, so I’m not going into them.)

One sign that I’m healing has to do with socks. An hour seems like nothing, but for however-long-it-was I couldn’t gather up sixty scrawny minute’s worth of energy to pair them. Some people get rid of stress by cleaning. Not me! For whatever reason, then, a couple days ago I dumped that basket on the bed and sorted. Since Micah was in the habit of wandering around in stocking feet, most of the pairs were the sickly gray of dirt that doesn’t yield to bleach. Some were salvageable. Nearly all of them needed to be washed again after multiple seasons in the basement—they smelled like a bunk at summer camp. Random artifacts hid between the folds and in the toes.

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The Throw-Aways

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A Few of My Pairs, Emancipated

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Random Items: BBs, a Bracket, Wood, and What-the-Heck?

Part of me wants to be ashamed of putting off such a simple chore, but as today’s slogan goes, “It is what it is.”

As socks piled up during Micah’s fury, non-perishables also accumulated in the Coleman household’s black-hole-of-a pantry. A couple months ago I reached in and discovered that every time I went to the grocery store a pound of pasta rappelled into my shopping cart. I’d basically been shopping unconscious. “In case we’re out,” I must have thought. We’ll be in good shape with angel hair, linguine, egg noodles, and shells for a while.

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Got Starch?

I asked Micah to read this post before publishing it, and he approves. (He did suggest one change. I’d described above the bunk at summer camp as dank, but he reminded me that word doesn’t just describe moldy caves.) Last night he was catching a smoke on the front porch when I told him through the screen door that I was proud of him, of how well he’s doing. “You know, Micah,” I said, “a lot of what I’m writing about now is what’s going on with me.”

He answered with selfless insight: “You had to live through my addition. You ought to be able to write about it.”

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Micah in December of 2012: Six Months Clean and Experiencing House Arrest’s Cabin Fever

Like I said, the future is hopeful. Micah’s earning back his freedom and learning patience and persistence. I’m healing slowly, waking up to all the socks and pasta that have been keeping vigil as I lurch toward normal.