So What If There’s a Toilet in My Breakfast Nook?


Great Tile Work for a Rookie

For over two weeks now, the one-and-a-half-bath Coleman house has been down to one toilet and no shower. Kathy, who wears the family tool belt, decided to remodel the full bathroom. As the project got underway I was on retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, so the hygiene situation at home wasn’t an inconvenience. (Kathy got by showering at Best Fitness, where she works out; Micah’s tidiness-optional these days.)

Since landing back in Erie last Saturday, I’ve showered at a wellness center with a really long name where I work out. Neighbors Joy and Kevin are also great about our invading their shower. The point is, we’re all staying as clean as usual.


In Kathy’s Lounge, a Cabinet with Deodorant, Tools, Hand Cream, Paint, and Brassiere

The house is suffering, though. Parts of the bathroom—impeccably clean toilet, sink, and cabinet—are camped in the breakfast nook during the delay. Various cosmetics and toiletries are cohabitating with tools and paint on a cabinet in the room off the bathroom Kathy has named her lounge. A few days ago Micah needed Neosporin for some chaffing somewhere—I didn’t want to know—and dug through a tote parked beside a table in the dining room; after several minutes he stood up with a sigh, waving the puny tube above his head.

Even the garage hasn’t escaped the mess. The bathroom door, hidden under decades of paint, rests like a pale cadaver across two sawhorses next to Kathy’s puffer, a kind of Yugo among sailboats. Micah’s spent hours sanding and burning away at that door and still has more work ahead.


The Puffer’s Garage Mate

In short, our bathroom—6’ x 8’, tub included—is out of control, like a puppy not yet housebroken, leaving surprises everywhere. Kathy had hoped to have the shower working by the time I returned from Kentucky and arranged a few days off work to give herself a reasonable shot, but remodeling projects are always booby-trapped. Estimate your time and expense, then double both, and that’s where you’ll end up, if you’re lucky.

Once Kathy returned to work, progress slowed considerably. Messing with caulk and tile is tough after you’ve nursed chemotherapy patients for ten hours. As I write this post on Monday, Kathy plans to throw herself at finishing the shower on Wednesday, her day off.


Lace Tablecloth with Neighboring Tote, Neosporin at the Bottom

You’d think having one toilet, no shower, and bathroom artifacts strewn about would be frustrating after going-on three weeks, but I can’t bring myself to care. (You might be thinking, “Well, maybe you could bring yourself to help out,” but that would be a mistake. I’m solid with avocados and cilantro, passable with a paintbrush, but an idgit with power tools. We’re all much better off if I make snacks for the skilled labor.)

Why don’t I care? No kidding, it’s the spirit of siesta, the impulse to stop, settle down, rest, and consider. First, I’ve got an incredible wife who actually enjoys swinging a hammer, cutting grass, and planting basil and tomatoes. On a pragmatic level, I’ve got it made. Kathy’s creative and anything but a slouch. So take six months on the bathroom if you need to, dahling! If necessary I’ll go out back, squirt myself with Palmolive, and turn on the hose.

IMG_0549So what about the mess? I’m not fastidious to start with, but in the unlikely event that having a commode in the breakfast nook bothers me, I know how to make it go away: just close my eyes. And Mennen Speed Stick smells the same whether I put it on in the bathroom or my lovely wife’s lounge.

I don’t say this out of any sense of pride or with any pretense: my life is more joyful than I have any right to expect, joyful largely because I pray (really a lot, I have to admit), nap, and breathe. When I stick to this program, most of the complications that would have upset me years ago fall into the it-just-doesn’t-matter category. (For a great expression of that huge category, check out this You Tube video.)

Yes, prayers, naps, and deep breathing! Having a splendid wife and children helps. Oh, and Zoloft doesn’t hurt either.


The One Plant Whose Name Kathy Doesn’t Know Calmly Abides in the Breakfast Nook by the Toilet

Viewing Dad’s Death Loop at Gethsemani

There’s an irony about the word retreat. By abandoning routine cares and responsibilities for a few days or a week, I can take long siestas, write, read, pray a lot, and finally re-enter the world refreshed. Of course, the daily slog serves a mental health purpose, though not necessarily a healthy one. Keeping busy helps me stay distracted, mostly unaware of the emotional sediment swirling around my soul.

So far this Gethsemani retreat has been joyful, restful, and undisciplined: no agenda, other than what I want to do in the present moment—within the confines of a monastery, of course. Fortunately, I’m a tame enough person that what suits me is being quiet and thoughtful. Call me a cheap date.


By Gethsemani Balcony Before Sunrise

This morning was tough, though. As I prayed out on the balcony, a memory I’d hoped to retreat from stopped for a visit. Surrounded by cool air and bird song, I remembered the last time I saw my father. He died in January of 2012 in a nursing home, oddly enough while I was on retreat in a hermitage at Mount Saint Benedict Monastery in Erie, Pennsylvania. The call from my brother Ed came around 1:00 a.m. when I was in bed, not sleeping.


View from Hermitage Porch, Mount Saint Benedict Monastery, Erie, Pennsylvania

He’d called me in the early afternoon the day before to say the end was near. I left the hermitage intending to stay with Dad until he passed, playing-by-ear what I’d to with the rest of my retreat. When I arrived, he was unconscious, but restless.

“I’m here, Dad.”

He responded by reaching up in the air as if he were trying to pull pillows to his chest and howling—that’s the only word for it. He sat up part way and let out a roar mixed up with a sob.

Not the comfort I was hoping to provide.

I took Dad’s hands, but he wouldn’t be consoled. He squeezed so hard I thought, “This man’s got way too much vinegar in him to die anytime soon.”

For the hour I was with him, he sat up part way at least a dozen times and howled. Not a single howl, but a few strung together. His hands crushed mine and reached for invisible pillows. Over and over. He was having a nightmare that he knew was a nightmare, but he couldn’t will himself awake. That’s what I imagine, anyway.

Sixty minutes of this was enough. I said goodbye as best I could and drove back to the hermitage. What did I do that evening in the quiet woods? No idea. I only remember thinking that I had to let my father die alone because if I weren’t there he might calm down.

Dad had the most tortured death of anybody I know. I’m not just talking about his deathbed, but his final months. Every time I visited him, he reached for me and cried, tortured by his dementia. The only thing he knew was that he’d lost his mind, and he couldn’t stop trying to get it back. He could never let go into oblivion. “If I had a gun,” he often said, putting two fingers to his temple in the universal suicide gesture.


Untitled, Mark Rothko, 1970, the year of his suicide (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

When I touched Dad’s forehead at the funeral home, it felt like cold, hard rubber. In eighty-five years he never lost one of his wavy gray hairs, but nothing was left underneath them.

So this memory compilation of my father ran in a loop during morning prayer. I guess it was my morning prayer. Restful as retreats can be, a visitor like this can be tiring. My siesta this afternoon will be sweet, delicious.


A Gethsemani Siesta

In this moment I’m not sad. I accept that Dad’s death loop has to run every once in a while until I’m finished grieving, which may be never. So be it.

For some reason I feel light, as if some emotional sediment floated downstream. It’s strange to think that part of the reason I retreated eight hours to Kentucky may be that I needed to see Dad die again as birds sang around me in the morning air.


Morning Mist over Monks’ Graves

A Siesta in the Brothers’ Peace

IMG_0367I’m looking out at spring from the third floor of the Retreat House at the Abbey of Gethsemani. Compline finished half an hour ago with the monks chanting in the dark sanctuary their love song to Mary, and now the birds outside my window are singing their own love song as the light grows thin; farther off, a mourning dove says something truthful. The only discordant sounds belong to a few of my fellow retreatants, who aren’t sure what all the “keep silence” signs are about. No matter. It’s Monday evening, and from now until Friday morning, I’m in a place founded on a Christian version shamatha—calm abiding. Shh. Keep quiet, inside and out. Listen.


Photo Credit: Stahrman

A retreat in the rolling hills of Kentucky–or anywhere, for that matter–isn’t for everybody. Slowing down, closing your mouth, and hearing what you’ve been trying for years to shut out can make you squirmy, claustrophobic. Your spirit can feel like your feet do after wearing roller skates for a few hours: numb, unreliable. What sane person would actually take vacation time for shamatha and the emotional reckoning it invites? And who would choose calm abiding as a career?!


Photo Credit: The Abbey of Gethsemani

If you’ve never visited a monastery and only read a description of the monastic routine, you might think cloistered monks are squandering their lives. Wouldn’t it be better for the three- or four-dozen men who live at Gethsemani to leave the enclosure and get their butts into the trenches and help the poor? Isn’t praying and remaining silent and making cheese, fudge, and fruitcake a waste of a human being’s seventy or eighty years on this planet? Some say so.

What many find hardest to understand about a monk’s vocation is this: monks believe that they stay in one spot and pray not only for themselves, but more importantly for my sorry carcass, your probably much more healthy and well-adjusted carcass, and our crazy world that keeps busy shooting and blowing up innocents. Daffy, but true. I once saw a video in which a brother from the Abbey of the Genesee said that the day he believes he lives as a monk only for himself will be the day he leaves the monastery.


Photo Credit: Stahrman

This belief that monks live for others is made concrete by their hospitality. I don’t know the exact number, but I’m guessing there are thirty to forty pilgrims with me in this Retreat House, which is attached to the monastery proper. We each have our own bedrooms and bathrooms, and there are also rooms available for men in the floors above where the monks themselves live. How much will this stay cost me? Depends on what I can afford. Money’s tight right now, so I’ll leave a check for $100 when I leave. The meals alone, simple but tasty and hearty, are worth more than $100. If I left nothing, I’d never hear a word about it. The next time I come here, I hope to give much more.

Of course, I didn’t take vacation time for a retreat at Gethsemani because of the bargain. I’ve come here to rest, to get centered, to tend my sanity.

The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani

Around 2:15 this afternoon I spotted the spire of the abbey church. I got out of the car, grabbed my bags, and walked toward the Retreat House. Within twenty seconds I’d entered the silence. When the lay receptionist saw that I was the Rev. John Coleman and handed me my key, he told me about how I could concelebrate the Eucharist—something a Roman Catholic priest might want to do. Sweet old guy, really.

“Well,” I said, “I’m a Lutheran pastor.”

He smiled. “Aren’t we silly? All these divisions.”

“Yep,” I said, “we sure are.”

“When you’re elected Pope of the Lutheran church,” he said, “you can change all this.”

We had a good laugh, and I took the elevator to my room.

After leaving my bags, I headed for the sanctuary balcony, where I sat down after the conclusion of the prayer period called None, which ended at 2:30. Five monks were still praying quietly in their seats. I prayed with them for a few minutes and wondered if I could live their silence, day after day, month after month, year after year. No.

And by prayed with them I mean sat long enough to honor what they were doing. I assume they were giving God—or whatever name you want to assign eternal grace and mercy—room to take up residence in their spirits.

Guest quarters

Guest quarters (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After watching over them on the balcony, I went back to my room and lay down on the twin bed. For much of the eight-hour drive from Erie to the-middle-of-nowhere Kentucky, I mentally reviewed all that I planned to sort out and accomplish at Gethsemani. The closer I got to the abbey, the more I was convinced that I needed to let go. For my days here, there should be no plan, no agenda. No shoulds!

The monks who spent so many hours in prayer, together and alone, knew they didn’t possess wisdom themselves. The best they could do was sit still and let wisdom come to them—or rise up within them. Whatever.

On the twin bed in my room, I closed my eyes at 3:00 p.m. And in this place of letting go created by hundreds of monks, I slept for an hour. Then, for another thirty minutes I lay there, breathing deeply, neither asleep nor awake. I got up grateful.

The brothers have prayed in this place for over 150 years. I took my siesta in the embrace of their peace.