What Makes Most Sense

What Makes Most Sense

Seeing as how wife Kathy and I are in our mid-fifties, we should probably each have our own car. I would feel a little more grown up that way. Performing scheduling gymnastics to get us both from point J to point K reminds me of childhood, when transportation required negotiations and occasional groveling.

Autonomy also makes good sense for us. My pastor job takes me an hour from the east side of Erie, Pennsylvania, to the village of Oniontown, and, as Mapquest.com informs me, Kathy works 6.3 miles from home—an estimated $0.64 gulp of gasoline and 16 minutes on the road.

So, if I drive Kathy to and from work five days per week, let’s say fifty weeks per year, the ka-ching is 133.33 hours—that’s over three standard workweeks—and $320 per annum. If time is, indeed, money, then when I pick my weary beloved up at 4:30 today, we should head to the nearest used car lot and purchase at the very least a clunker. One call to our insurance agent requesting a collision policy, and hours of unfettered time would snap open before me like sails caught in a gust.

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1899 Horsey Horseless (Credit: http://www.allcarindex.com)

To tell the truth, even an 1899 Horsey Horseless, named by Time Magazine as one of the fifty worst cars ever manufactured, would hold a certain attraction. (In those days of horse and buggy, this design sported a clever hood ornament, a life-sized, wooden horse head, so that the real animals wouldn’t get spooked when a HH roared by. By the time a horse realized it had been fooled, it was some distance down the road. The moment of danger had passed.)

At the moment, Pastor and Mrs. Coleman share a 2006 Chevy HHR called Bubba. (Those initials stand for Heritage High Roof, which is bullpucky. The roof is actually stunted, and the claim of nostalgia is cover for an appearance that suggests it needs to push away from the dinner table and hit the gym.)

We don’t normally name our vehicles, but its bulbous shape and sick orange color deserved more than Chevy. Bubbles struck us as demeaning, so Bubba was a fitting, folksy compromise.

Kathy and Bubba have never been close. Her grievances against our car gather around a single complaint: Bubba annoys her, as would a scratchy collar or a companion applying a migraine-inducing amount of fragrance. The headrests make her neck ache. The windshield is crouched so that she has to do a forward limbo to see if the traffic light has changed. The list goes on.

Poor Bubba also suffers from guilt by association. Kathy understands that our marriage can stay peaceful if my untidy habits can be blamed on an object—say a littered car so pathetic that it’s no longer being manufactured. Although I’ve slowly mended my ways, Kathy still holds a grudge.

All factors indicate that my wife and I should be a his-and-hers couple. For mundane reasons, we had the chance to take a two-vehicle arrangement for a test drive this past week. She got to work in our son-in-law Matt’s truck, and I took Bubba.

The Born Free movie theme didn’t fill my spirit, as I had expected. Something close to the opposite happened, in fact. From behind my desk at the church, I watched Bubba nap alone in the parking lot and accepted the truth: I missed driving Kathy to work and picking her up for the sixteen-minute slog home afterward.

Spending thirty-plus minutes each day with somebody you love isn’t a burden, but a gift. How did I overlook this fact? Terminally sentimental guys like me are usually in tune with love’s minutia, but this half-hour of nonchalant blessing snuck past me.

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Bubba in the driveway of our old house. He didn’t ask to be painted burnt orange.

That said, we will buy a second car. Kathy’s relationship with Bubba has grown increasingly strained. He is no longer cluttered with my empty coffee cups, but his many shortcomings test her patience—nowhere to put anything, a couple of dumb blind spots. Still, as long as I’m behind the wheel, my wife and our car are civil, which is fortunate for me.

Transitioning to hers-and-his transportation doesn’t mean that I won’t get to drive Kathy to work anymore. After all, she enjoys the ride, too. She does something that lets me know.

Our route takes us along the Bayfront Parkway, which looks out on Lake Erie. Kathy loves the water, and as she stares out at it, I take her hand and kiss it. Apologies to those of you who squirm at such sharing of the Coleman’s darling little rituals, but the fact is, that kiss is one of the most joyful parts of my middle-aged day.

And Kathy likes it because when I forget, suddenly her hand appears before my face: “Ahem.” The smooch is well deserved. She works at The Regional Cancer Center, where folks have the troubling habit of dying. Over the years her touch has given comfort and hope that lives beyond the few calendar pages a patient may survive to turn.

Now rheumatoid arthritis is settling into my wife’s hands, which at the moment cut fabric for her mother’s new handbag. My kiss often lingers, so great is the kindness and generosity it has to honor.

At pick up time, Kathy and I have another ritual she knows nothing about. When she gets into the car, I can tell what kind of day it’s been: energizing, easy, stressful, disappointing. She looks at me with a smile or goes “whew” or makes one of another dozen faces. Her expression is rewarded by—you guessed it—a kiss.

Then she tells the story, complete with triumphs and embarrassments reserved for one who is steadfastly on your side, one who knows that your victories aren’t boastful and your defeats aren’t woe-is-me.

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A husband and wife for whom life has never made much sense.

We talk about dinner, children and grandsons, and anything else that floats by in the dazzling, silty river of a long marriage. Decades of grace and grief visit and depart.

When all Kathy has left is fatigue, we listen to the engine go from first to fourth or the windshield wipers glide rain away. “If you’re out of words,” my silence means, “I’m here anyway.” Occasionally, the best way to show love is to keep quiet.

When Bubba’s sibling vehicle comes along, it may not get a name. Nor will Kathy and I leave home separately each morning just because of the number of cars we own. The way a workday starts and ends matters. A kiss on the hand and another on the lips don’t stand up to good sense as do the price of gasoline and the cost of time, but that’s okay. My life has never made much sense.

Oniontown Pastoral: What I’m Looking For

Oniontown Pastoral: What I’m Looking For

IMG_4286Cashiers at Wine and Spirits Stores always ask the same question before scanning my bottle: “Did you find everything you were looking for?”

I say a lazy “yes, thanks” because an honest answer requires a treatise. Rarely, when nobody else is in line, the thesis comes out: “Well, I didn’t know what I was looking for, so I’m good.”

After a polite chuckle, the cashier carries on with no idea that a confessional transaction has also taken place.

I seldom know what I’m looking for. Call me slack, but purposeful searching generally yields frustration. The quotation residing warmly in memory is elusive, impossible to verify. And never go hunting for epiphanies. Those gems hide in desert caves until the seeker has forgotten that they exist.

But when I look for nothing, wonder ends up finding me. Of course, sometimes we’re all assigned a specific mission. There’s no avoiding, for example, the Thanksgiving curse of tracking down nomadic French fried onions in the grocery store for the sake of green bean casserole.

Obligations aside, though, I live like my late dog Watson, who was clueless as to what he was sniffing for, but overjoyed to discover it. What am I after? I’ll know when I find it.

Case study: Parishioner Barb invited me to her neighborhood. About twenty minutes from Oniontown, her neighbors are Amish. She introduced me to a couple of young guys working in their family’s lumber mill and walked me to points of interest, which on dirt roads can be beautiful, but nonchalant: houses with curtains pulled to one side, a sugar shack tucked back in the woods, a one-room school house, and one thing I wasn’t expecting.

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Amish phone booth

A phone booth. The Amish, it turns out, have a nuanced relationship with telephones. They can use them, but they can’t own them. So in her front yard, Barb collaborates to provide them with phone service. The booth, built with their wood and running off of her lines, gets used six or eight times each day.

An obvious question occurred to me: “What sense does it make to use a phone, but be forbidden to own one?” But hush. My faith can’t stand up to logic, either.

When Barb and I returned from our walk, a horse and buggy was parked by the phone booth. The father indulged in technology while his kids waited. The horse worried its bit and nodded as we rubbed its long face.

Since the Amish don’t allow photographs, I snapped only a shot of the booth. It says something about caring for people you don’t quite understand and keeping a spare room open in your heart for guests.

This is why I love Oniontown so much: it always teaches me. A village an hour south of Erie has even helped me to look at home and everything nearby with fresh eyes.

Days ago at Starbucks, I chatted with a boy, maybe six or seven, and his mother. The kid was a whip, his mom cheerfully resigned to having a child able to talk the bark off a tree. His segue between topics was “by the way.”

Our conversation ballooned to ninety minutes and included his Gentleman Claptrap toy, requests for the family shopping list, and some kiddie movie. I was weary, but sensed the approach of wisdom.

As Mom loaded her purse, I said, “I’ve never heard of that movie before.”

He looked at me in disbelief and said, “You have a lot to learn.”

Mom gave him a tame rebuke, but I interrupted: “Well, actually, he’s right.”

And he was. As a lifelong novice, I learn best by opening my eyes and holding out my hands.

Oniontown Pastoral #10: Mom, Please Tell Me About the Glammazombies

Oniontown Pastoral #10: Mom, Please Tell Me About the Glammazombies

IMG_4284My drive from Erie to St. John’s in Oniontown is never wasted. If nothing else, thoughts wander, graze and lie around with other sympathetic thoughts.

Halfway to church the other day, a tongue-in-cheek remark returned to me: “Your kids grow up and move out just as they start to get interesting.” I forget where I heard this and, in fact, disagree, but the ideas started moving.

I was remembering my mother and listening to Glenn Miller. No sniffles or tight throat, just a speculation: “By the time children want to listen to their parents, it’s too late. Mom and Dad are gone.”

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Dolores Miller

“A String of Pearls” made me think of Mom’s 1944 high school yearbook, which notes that her favorite song was “Sunday, Monday, or Always.” Crosby and Sinatra covered it, but Mom liked a version by Gene Parlette, who worked the Erie region back then.

In my imagination, Mom went to a dance, before my dad came along. Who was her date? She wore the dress from her graduation photograph, dark with bone-white lace. “I want you near every day in the year.” Was that the line of lyrics that spoke to her, Parlette singing and conducting his band? Did she dance, a bit awkward?

Then, with “Moonlight Serenade,” wonders came along.

“What was it like at home when you were growing up? What kind of a mother was Gram? What about Gramp? Did you and Uncle Earl and Uncle Ed fight? What were your chores?”

“Tell me about your friends in high school? What did you do for fun? Did you date a lot?”

I wished Mom were in the passenger seat, filling in the picture I never troubled to ask about before she passed eighteen years ago. Comings and goings in this life aren’t cordial to the past and the hours it takes to welcome stories. Some miscellaneous task always seems pressing.

But as years gather round, so does longing. Here I am, then, fifty-five pretty soon, with my wonderment pressing like a deep hunger.

I can see Mom with three or four friends, sitting on a log, probably on a beach at Presque Isle. Maybe one of my sisters or brother still has the photograph in an old hat box. The girls, smiling and carefree, are dressed in white sweatshirts and khaki pants—slacks, Mom would have called them. On the back she wrote, “The Glammazombies.”

“Mom, please tell me about the Glammazombies. Where did you get that name?”

Why do my ears finally open up when the only response is a sweet, slow clarinet over a car’s speakers as it speeds by crops and cows?

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Good questions

The truth is, all my questions wander and graze. A few lucky ones rest in the sun, full and glad, but most remain hungry, needing more.

I take in longing when it visits, but sometimes lost conversations echo in my own breath. Sentences move silently past my lips into the empty space of the passenger seat.

“Mom, tell me what gave you joy. You loved being pregnant, I know that. But what were your dreams? Some of them came true, right? And you got hurt. What brought you to your knees?

“At least tell me about the Glammazombies. You looked so happy in that picture. Tell me about that day at the beach. And you couldn’t stand your own singing voice, but let me hear “Sunday, Monday, or Always.”

“One day long ago you sang to yourself, faintly. You had a lovely voice, Mom. I should have said so right away, but I was a kid and didn’t use words like lovely back then.”

Oniontown Pastoral #4: The Late Imposition of Ashes

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Part 1: Holy Saturday Evening

Chopped pears bubbled with white raisins and honey—an improvisation to anoint vanilla ice cream for Easter dessert.

Morning would come early. Before wife Kathy and I headed out for the hour drive from Erie to St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown, Pennsylvania, bacon and congealed fat, soaking potatoes and sliced onions had to get from refrigerator to crock pot, along with whatever else Grandma Coleman included in her German potato salad recipe.

While I cooked, Kathy went to the Vigil of Easter at Abiding Hope, the congregation I served for fourteen years and said Godspeed to five months ago. The gracious interim pastor invited me to come, too, but it was too soon to go back.

Ash Wednesday arrived at an awkward time for this pastor’s heart. The last fifteen years have been disproportionately penitential, my topography rich with Gethsemanes. These forty days being mostly unburdened, I haven’t felt like sweating in the garden or walking the lonesome valley.

My ingredients for happiness aren’t exotic. A couple of untroubled hours at home suffice. With clove and cinnamon taking over the smell of bacon and guitar solos leaning into the dark, I pulled up the footrest and closed my eyes. Breathe in, breathe out. Then, without warning, a suggestion of Lent rose into my throat.

How many times over the decades have I refused to cry? I’m not sure why deferred tears surface on warm spring days, when each breeze is the Sacred One cupping my face. Or on quiet evenings, when the moon passes through living room windows, when failure and regret are subjects of past calendars and my lungs fill with the air of glad memory.

Part 2: Easter Sunday

7:00 a.m.: Why the mess? Everything everywhere, owner’s manual and insurance card on the floor, napkins and dry pens by the gas pedal.

Some little expletive had rifled through our unlocked car overnight. Since nothing was missing, Kathy and I agreed drug money was the goal. But lesson learned.

Dinner on low, we left for Oniontown: breakfast at 9:00, worship at 10:00. All was in readiness. The tomb was empty; “the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head . . . [was] rolled up in a place by itself.”

As Kathy sipped coffee, I thought through the sermon story. Notes wouldn’t be necessary. I can never get far from my dad’s last trip to see wife Mary in her nursing home.

They kissed. He rested his lips on her hand. “Come on,” he finally said. “Let’s get out of here.”

In spite of shared dementia, they both realized the impossibility. Mary’s legs were dead. The only place Dad was going was back to assisted living.

“Well, maybe we can get together . . . .” Dad searched his evaporating vocabulary. “Maybe we can get together at the other post.”

“Wouldn’t it be nice to step out on a cloud?” Mary said. “But that can’t be.”

Dad’s eyebrows gathered down—his standard incredulous look. “Why not?”

Dad, who didn’t have one church-going hair in his wavy gray compliment, was proposing heaven: the other post.

My sermon, falling on the ears of many parishioners who had endured loss after loss, wouldn’t be buoyant with resurrection, but hushed with hope. The other post: oh, that we could all gather there, offenses forgiven, injuries healed, fears rocked to sleep like colicky babies.

We were making good time, and my sermon was rehearsed. I can’t remember a more fair Easter morning. The sun was waking up the pale land, telling it to live.

Then, suddenly, I remembered something that placed the fullness of Lent on my lap. Half an hour away from church, the betrayal and nails and the sponge soaked in sour wine lifted on a hyssop branch all caught up with me. If I had consented to tears at that point I might not have been able to recover in time for a triumphant Easter shout.

What I remembered was four years ago. My own beloved expletive—son Micah—was hooked on heroin and owed a dealer $200. Desperate, expecting to be flogged, he rifled through a couple of cars for stuff to sell and scored a laptop and something else that escapes me.

He got arrested, spent a couple hours in jail, then went out and injected melted down fentanyl patches with a friend, who overdosed and nearly died. Micah earned a felony for his trouble.

My son got clean shortly after his one-day crime spree and is now a joy. Anyone who dismisses the earthly poetry of death and resurrection can talk to me.

My teenage junkie once knelt in the middle of West 8th Street, waiting for a minivan to run him over. I have seen with my own eyes the junkie stand and reach honorable adulthood. On the way to Oniontown, though, a wadded Kleenex still next to the clutch, I imagined the punk who chanced upon the car in the Coleman driveway and made a frenzied search.

My boy came to such a place, and it occurred to me that Easter morning’s little expletive was probably loved by somebody. Maybe he or she was a boilerplate creep, but did a parent pray—with face buried in hands, as I did—for a miraculous healing, a decent path, anything?

Familiar landmarks on District Road were a private blur. I couldn’t afford to have Lent—creation aching with needles, wounds, and rancor, lost pilgrims wandering the lonesome valley—crack me open a couple miles away from St. John’s.

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District Road landmarks were a blur.

Breakfast was five-diamond Lutheran. We shouted and sang. When I talked about the other post, my tears behaved, but some of the folks cried on my behalf. I appreciated their help and knew unfinished ashes would rise in my throat again on a still evening of their own choosing.

Oniontown Pastoral #1: My Wife Sleeping

Oniontown Pastoral #1: My Wife Sleeping

IMG_4284I’ve been going to bed by 9:00 p.m. lately and waking up several times during the night–changes in established rhythms. Wife Kathy and I have pruned home to 1000 square feet. My pastor work has slimmed to part-time to make room for writing. And Kathy cries out whenever she rolls over.

As our friends know, Kathy climbed to unfurl the royals on Brig Niagara. She put a new roof on our old house, remodeled the bathroom, fashioned a patio out of salvaged brick, and planted flowers I could never name.

When we bought our little house, which I call the hermitage, Kathy willed the dingy place into fresh order with elbow grease and doggedness. She has big plans: a vegetable and herb garden with raised beds; a deck cobbled together with wood from a backdoor ramp she will saw into pieces; and, of course, flowers.

Kathy has plans, but as we found out a few weeks ago, she also has rheumatoid arthritis. Questions still outnumber answers. Will medication help? Diet? Exercise? Can the condition be coaxed into remission?

She has swollen joints, particularly at the fingers and wrists, and pain all around. A steroid helps for now, but it’s not a long-term solution. Her spirit still sings. Just now she sent me this message: “I hope you are enjoying your morning writing time. You should try to get out for a walk today. What a lovely day. Love you.”

Lovely day, indeed. Lovely human being!

This morning at 1:48 I woke up, sipped some water, and watched Kathy sleep. She should win awards for the dexterity and variety of her snoring. A couple of exhales in a row, her throat sounded like a playing card being flip-flip-flipped by bicycle spokes.

When I smoothed hair away from her forehead, she started. “Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. For the first time in my life, I heard a complete, discernible sentence uttered in mmms. Cadence alone provided the words: “Oh, that’s okay. You can put your hand on my head.”

So I held her hair between the fingers of one hand, rested the other on her puffed out knuckles, and prayed—sort of. If wanting to draw pain out of my wife by touch, to take it upon myself, counts as prayer, then I prayed.

And if “Oh, my dear” counts, then I prayed without ceasing. How many times did moving a little bring rapid breaths and four or five ows out of her sleep?

“Your hands?” I asked.

“My leg,” she answered.

“Oh, my dear.”

She returned to snoring. I looked at her face and longed for a miracle, but I’m eccentric, a pastoral black sheep. You would expect articulate petitions from a trained theologian, but I pray best by breathing.

Each time Kathy resumed snoring, I drew close again and kept vigil. In our shadowy bedroom, we lay bathed in holy light.

One belief granted me sleep: every cry ripples in the waters of Eternal Love.

P. S. Please stay tuned for further Oniontown Pastoral posts and other explanations and solutions.

Thus Spake the Rabbi

My stride has been ragged lately, my groove flummoxed. As the poet said, “Nothing is plumb, level, or square.” Or the politician: “What a terrible thing it is to lose one’s mind. Or not to have a mind at all. How true that is.”

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Old buddy Watson, twelve years of family joy

Joy is largely to blame. Wife Kathy and I had friends over the other night to catch up. When eyes turned toward me, I said, “I’m happy,” which took some explaining. During the last couple of years, though surrounded by more love and support than anyone deserves, I have been tired and stressed. Maybe burnout is the word. Against all worldly good sense, Kathy and I raided my retirement funds and bought a hermit-sized home. (“You might come to regret that,” an old colleague said, and I couldn’t disagree.) I left a fourteen-year, full-time pastorate and accepted a part-time call seventy miles south of Erie, right through the region’s snow belt. Oh, and we haven’t sold our big house yet.

We Colemans have either lost our minds or found them. It could be that you have to lose one mind to find another. Since gladness and good sense seldom form right angles, I’m not surprised that my stride and groove—constructs of a neurotic brain—are stepping lightly these days.

I didn’t use these words exactly to unpack “I’m happy” for my friends, but they understood. Forced to choose between weary, anxious circumstances standing in crisp formation or calm ambiguity weaving like a drunkard, I’ll take the latter.

That is to say, I have taken the latter and am learning to embrace uncertainty and surprises. Lately sleep has been whimsical. A new work schedule has taken issue with my long-standing afternoon habit of napping. Like an AARP veteran, I’m reading in bed at 8:30 p.m. and surrendering by 9:00 or 9:30. The result: I wake up at 2:00 a.m., float to the bathroom, return to bed, and abide in a space that is to sleep what free association is to therapy.

Neither refreshed enough to get up nor drowsy enough to disappear, I breathe. Deep breaths, yes, but not those of my past, taken to lift a burden just enough to endure another hour or hush a remark that can’t be retrieved. If insomnia is an enemy, my peculiar wakefulness is a bearer of gifts.

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A bulge on the forehead: “soon and very soon,” Watson

Darkness is upsetting if you’re trying to find something, but it’s a gentle companion if you’re waiting to be found. A few nights ago snoring found me, not my own, but wife’s and dog’s. The sounds, joining for a moment then going their own ways, were blessings. Kathy has been swollen, weak, and achy for the last couple of months, and neither we nor the doctors know why. No matter what noise it makes, her sleep is medicinal. I welcome it. And Watson has weeks rather than months to live. The fatty tumor on his flank is getting hard. The growth on his forehead pains him more by the day. I now hope to come home and find that he has slipped away while dreaming that he and I are going for a run like we did years ago. His snore means that we don’t have to say goodbye quite yet. God bless his kind soul, even our walls and floors will miss him. I think now of his eyes, alive and expectant when Kathy and I left him this morning, and am close to undone.

The first decoration I nailed up in the Coleman’s new home is wisdom from a rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel.

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Thus spake the rabbi

“Just to be” in a warm bed next to Kathy; “just to live” one more day with Watson: these are the teachings of wakefulness. My chest rises and falls, each in-breath a blessing, each out-breath sacred.

But my darkness isn’t deceptive. It would never say to a lost soul, “Just to be is a blessing.”

Instead I hear, “One corner of your joy will always be uneven, cracked with grief. Whatever mind you possess, it will never be satisfied.”

In this moment, I close my eyes to learn, invite the 2:00 a.m. wakefulness, and hear the rabbi more clearly. Breathing is grace. I survive on love. And I pray: “When my dog dies, Holy One, please help him not to be afraid.”

Fats Waller and the Frosted Trees

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Fats Waller (Credit: Alan Fisher on Wikimedia Commons)

Fats Waller and the Frosted Trees

Jelly Roll Morton, Scott Joplin, and Fats Waller make me grateful. As Steve Martin said decades ago, “You just can’t sing a depressing song when you’re playing the banjo.” Same with driving in the country and listening to piano rolls, rags, and strides.

This past week Fats, the color white, and gratitude owned my commute from Erie to St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown, Pennsylvania. The hour south on I-79, Route 19, and District Road was a hot damn of thanksgiving–“Handful of Keys,” “Lulu’s Back in Town,” “When Someone Thinks You’re Wonderful.”

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Grandson Cole, wonderful kid with a new lid

Why did pianos and frosted branches make me take inventory? I don’t understand myself all that well, so who knows? My list wrote itself slowly and silently.

  • I have a surplus of love. One step in any direction, there it is. Wife, grown kids, one grandson and another on the way, more family and a ton of friends. An absolute wonder of wonderful souls.
  • Those closest to me are holding together okay. No crises going down or chops busting in process.
  • I have a home, warm or cool as desired, so much food that possibilities have to be eliminated, and a king’s ransom of clean water.
  • My closet holds wardrobes for varying weight classes with acquisitions I’ve forgotten.
  • Bill collectors are not breaking down the door.
  • I dig the bookends of my commute—solace to the north and good purpose to the south.

As the miles clicked away, as Fats sparkled, as the snowy trees formed cathedrals surreal with beauty, Gershwin lyrics came to me: “Got my gal, got my Lawd, got my song.”

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Beloved Watson with the mother of fatty tumors

“No use complaining,” Porgy says as an aside, though he didn’t know about the Coleman family’s dog Watson, weary, arthritic, laden with tumors. He is our hobbling source of agape—unconditional love. A month ago, a lump appeared in the middle of his forehead. Its rapid growth foreshadows his absence, even as he manages a fetch or two. He snorts constantly, trying to clear a mass that won’t budge.

Nearing the end of my commute, I allowed that happiness isn’t a prerequisite for gratitude. Twelve years of Watson’s mild presence has been extravagant by any measure.

IMG_4150I would say that my inventory was a prayer, but Fats alone was that, as were the frosted trees and a line from a musical. I received the wide mercy—alpha to omega—of giving thanks for miles with my eyes, ears, and lungs and not once calling God by name.

 

Christmas Time Is (Still) Here

Christmas Time Is (Still) Here

Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” playing in my ear buds is barely overcoming the percussive assault on Starbucks’ speakers—over which my beloved baristas have no control. The Mother Ship picks, I guess.

Our Advent binge on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Blue Christmas” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Christmas Time Is Here” and “The Christmas Song” and “Please Come Home for Christmas” and “What Christmas Means to Me” and “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)” has lots of folks hung over as of December 26th.

Not me. Music of the Nativity will decorate the Coleman house until the Epiphany, our idea being that it’s impolite to close down the celebration before the magi have arrived with their gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The tree is lovely. Leave it up. The songs are soothing. Keep listening.

Honestly, though, my reason for lingering in the yuletide has more to do with what has filled my soul’s stocking lately than with the Christian calendar. Over my fifty-four gift-giving seasons (good grief!), my thoughts have turned from what I hope to receive to what I’m fortunate to have. Much as I loved the packages I opened on Christmas day, never have I cared less about what would be in them.

A man would be greedy to expect more from his portion of years than I have right now. This understanding settled upon me as I lay in bed some nights ago while wife Kathy made doll clothes at the dining room table. Her sewing machine hums and whirs regularly in our Parkway Drive home, but hearing it embraced by the warm promise of sleep returned me to Wagner Avenue, where I grew up.

A sewing machine’s singing, like other music, is sweetened by rests. The gift being stitched together breathes, as does the whole dwelling.

My mother made her own skirts and alterations to our family’s clothes. It never occurred to me before that the sound of a sewing machine holds for me what was loving and healthy on Wagner Avenue.

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My mother’s Christmas cactus, once on Wagner Avenue, now on Parkway Drive

As I opened my eyes a crack to taste the hallway’s dim light and groaned at a throb of bursitis in my shoulder, the joy and affection that fed me long ago kept company with current blessings.

The Colemans are housed, fed, clothed, adequately employed, and reasonably healthy. In other words, we’re all okay at the moment.

Most of our life-stealing troubles have passed away or at least gone on hiatus.

Like many Americans, I wouldn’t protest if somebody threw unexpected fists-full of cash at me, but, thank goodness, money and possessions aren’t obsessions.

I’ve known the gladness of being a husband, father, grandfather, friend, and pastor. The people closest to me tolerate my shortcomings.

After thirty-two years, I love my wife more than ever.

I believe in a God of grace and mercy.

In the quiet between Kathy’s stitches, such unmerited gifts hemmed me in, behind and before. “Enough,” I thought, “much more than enough. More than plenty.”

But there was still more. There was Christmas day. Daughter Elena and son-in-law Matt donated immunizations and medicine in my name for Third World children. They thought about who I am and came up with that idea.

Son Micah made us close our eyes. After a minute, he told us to look. On our laps rested stockings. With 2015 being tight, we told the kids we would be skipping this tradition temporarily. “It’s not much,” Micah said, “but we’ve got to have stockings on Christmas.” Mary Janes never tasted so good.

Grandson Cole handed each of us a homemade ornament made out of some baked flour concoction. Like the others, mine bore a few smears of watercolor. “Cole paint that,” he said. Three words and earthly elements: a sacrament stirred in my chest.

When everybody headed home, Kathy said over and over again, “I had so much fun. That was the best Christmas.”

Just one more: Cole and I sat on the couch and shared peach pie a la mode. I got to watch him open his mouth for every bite as the Grinch and his rein-dog trumpeted their way back into Whoville to pass out gifts and share roast beast.

I’ve memorized all the kids’ Christmas shows. These days I would rather stay with my grandson’s eyes—merry and bright!—until I know them both by heart.

If You Were My Daughter

By the time you took your first sip of coffee, a cop had already shown up, taken information from barista Tony, and loaded two pet carriers and bag of cat food into his cruiser. I didn’t see the woman pacing in the parking lot, trying to stay calm through a frantic phone call. I didn’t see her throw her arms up in the air, hop into her car, and speed off. Somebody else did, though, and got her license plate number. Now she is in trouble. You don’t leave a cat, dog, and Meow Mix in Starbucks’ parking lot and hope for the best.

If you were my daughter, I would have told you the whole story as soon as you sat down, ending with how sorry I felt not only for the pets, but also the woman. As if thinking out loud, I would ask what crisis led her to that moment and say as an aside, “Ah, hell, I guess we all do things we can’t take back.”

If you were my daughter, you would already know that I always want love and understanding to have the last word, which often makes my heart like a mutt the neighbors let bark outside hour after hour, the temperature sinking on a December night.

But you’re not my daughter. You spoke on your phone so quietly I could tell only that the language wasn’t English. The likelihood of my offspring randomly sitting down next to me and having a conversation in, say, French, is remote. And, of course, I wouldn’t have been stopped short at first by your beauty. I would know your birthday, where you are in your twenties.

You didn’t stay long, ten minutes and out the door. I watched and wondered. What car is yours? Where are you off to? But you walked so aimlessly, taking pictures of God-knows-what, I figured maybe you weren’t headed anywhere. Not to the bulky old Buick or maroon minivan, not to the Fox and Hound English Pub and Grille or Shoe Carnival or Ollie’s Bargain Outlet.

I stood to see you off. Your leather knapsack—almost empty?—was finally a black dot against your jean jacket. Then you were gone, and I couldn’t decide whether to be happy or worry. Going no place in particular can feel like grace if you know how to be alone and you’re not shouldering much weight.

If you were my daughter, I would be glad we didn’t talk about what you missed: the woman now rushing from suffering to punishment; the long-haired cat with eyes wide and still, waiting to slip from a carrier to the warm, bright sleeping spot on the back of the couch; the cop transporting animals, both trying not to be thrown by sharp turns, both able to remember and love.

If you were my daughter, you would probably say, “Damn, Daddy, lighten up.”

“Yeah,” I would say, “you’re right.”

But I might not be clueless about your next stop. Hopeful? Desolate? Either way, we could meet for lunch, and I would say, as if thinking out loud, “When a father loves his daughter, she always has at least one good place to be.”

A Letter to Parents from a Middle-Aged Pop

A Letter to Parents from a Middle-Aged Pop

Dear Parents (Especially New Ones):

I’m a Christian-Buddhist-pastor mutt in my mid-fifties, married to Kathy for thirty-two years. Daughter Elena and son Micah are grown, the former and her husband Matt having given us grandson Cole and promising us another grand-someone in the spring.

Yesterday Elena, Cole, and I (Pop) went to a nature center for a toddle in the woods. Nearly two, the boy is steady, but the path was strewn with branches and limbs from a recent windstorm. I kept close, spotting his steps, saying in my head, “Don’t fall! Don’t fall! Don’t fall!” My mother did this with me, too, so the anxious parent-grandparent impulse has genetic force behind it.

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Watch out! Don’t get poked in the eye.

Or is the force my childhood home, which was loving and attentive but nerved up? I’m certainly not the first to observe that children take family vibes along when they grow up and move out. I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to love in healthy ways and navigate through anxiety. In my late twenties it was full-blown panic attacks. In middle-age, it’s mostly trying to distinguish love from appeasement and not to turn every emotional speck of stardust into a blackhole. I pray-meditate a lot.

Lately my spiritual practice has drawn me to Tibetan-Buddhist Pema Chodron, whose teachings are weaving themselves into my thoughts and actions. In a recent post, Writing and the Narrative of Suffering, I offer a brief summary of my novice understanding of some key concepts Ani Pema works with. If what follows is interesting, I invite you to have a look.

I was watching one of Pema’s videos this morning when I was grabbed by her flawless diagnosis of my parenting experience:

Trungpa Rimpoche coined the phrase idiot compassion, or you could say idiot loving-kindness. Some of you may have tried raising your children this way and you’re wishing you hadn’t. You can’t bear to see them in any kind of pain, so you give them whatever they want. [Doing this] is like trying to assuage someone’s thirst by giving them saltwater.

I’m overjoyed to report that Elena (27) and Micah (23) are doing well these days, but my unintended lesson about suffering sometimes made their journey a walk on glowing coals. By regularly showing them idiot compassion, I taught them that pain can be eliminated.

Let’s be clear about my motivation. I could claim that I wanted to spare them disappointment, sadness, frustration, whatever, but that was only 25% true. More pressing, say 75% true, was my need to overcome a father’s discomfort. This is idiot compassion, idiot loving-kindness. It could also be called selfish compassion or artificial loving-kindness. I try to make myself better by denying my child the reality every human being has to confront sooner or later: Life is sweet, but it also slaps your heart and punches your spirit.

Years ago in seminary, my Enneagram results indicated that conflict in close proximity could be crippling. Conflict, pissing and moaning kids, discipline and tough calls: It was all crippling, so much so that to find relief I undercut wife Kathy’s strength, wisdom, and wishes.

So Elena wore black makeup, dated guys I should have shown the door, and watched and listened to what she damn-well pleased. And Micah bought weed with money I gave him, dropped out of high school, and put less effort into my feeble attempt at home schooling than I did.

There’s more, some of it worse, but you get the idea. All my reasoning sounded convincing at the time, but now I look back at myself. That younger man was doubled over, rendered frantic and sick by the need to steady the ship, to calm the waters. If you think I was stupid, you’re right.

Given this scathing review of my parenting skills, you might imagine me constantly ripping myself a new one. Other than sighing, I don’t do much self-reproach. What compassion I possess also extends to myself. I mistook indulgence for insight. The glasses I saw through were, in fact, blinders.

So I put down these ideas. I’m not telling you what to do, but mistakes are great teachers. What I believe now is this: Allowing children to experience necessary suffering may well be the highest form of love.

And I’m glad that it’s not too late for me to learn. Cole fell three times on one patch of slick leaves–two near-splits and one averted face plant. I stayed back. He was fine, of course. Someday he’ll get a fat lip or a bruised soul. When he does, I’ll pick him up and tell him the truth: “I know you’re hurt. Sorry I couldn’t stop it. The best Pop can do is stay close and hurt with you.”

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Elena and Cole–three spills later and belly laughing

Peace and love,

John Coleman