Oniontown Pastoral: The Human Moment

Oniontown Pastoral: The Human Moment

I was peeved. Pittsburgh Avenue in Erie was bustling on Saturday afternoon, and Mr. Pokey Joe had no business jaywalking while cars, including mine, bore down on him.

Then I recognized his predicament. He had a bum leg and, like me, was past his prime. Each step made him wince. The trek to a legal crosswalk would have been an ordeal, especially with a jammed knapsack thudding against his back.

My peevishness slunk away, tail between its legs. Of course, I was relieved not to have run the fellow over, but grateful as well for a human moment. That is, a connection with another person’s reality, a chance to remember in the midst of a day’s jostle and distraction that the faces I encounter belong to pilgrims worthy of my consideration.

Credit: Michael McCartney

My life is mostly a pilgrimage from one human moment to the next. This past week, for example, I found myself at McCartney Feed and Hardware in Fredonia. I paid for 25 pounds of deluxe birdseed—call me extravagant—and took my receipt across the way to a huge barn.

As I waited, a machine reaching from floor to ceiling growled, rattled and rumbled. What was this behemoth all about? Thankfully, it hushed up as a young man arrived with my purchase.

I said thanks and turned to leave, but felt like I was ending a sentence with a preposition out of mere laziness.

“Hey, what does that thing do?” I asked.

“Oh, that’s a grinder,” he said.

Another member of the McCartney crew arrived and told me they would be putting oats in soon, but first they had to get residue out of the machine.

“Ah,” I said, “so you have to let the grinder clear its throat?”

They both nodded and laughed. I thanked them and drove off. That was about it.

I can’t swear to the specifics of what those McCartney’s guys explained to me, but here’s what I know. Carrying birdseed through the sunshine from barn to car, I was glad. All was well with my soul. The world seemed right, except for the odor of fresh manure, which my city nostrils haven’t yet learned to savor.

I had showed up with dollars, but the transaction was about people being together in harmony, however briefly.

“Oh, there you go again, John,” you’re thinking, “always with your head up in the clouds.”

Hardly! This is probably a good time to mention a caveat. If you want to collect human moments, prepare to be served joy and dismay in equal helpings.

Syrian boy Omran Daqneesh comes to mind. Pulled stunned and bloody from building rubble and set alone in an ambulance, he stares at me still, three years after a bombing raid ravaged his neighborhood. Maybe you saw his face on television.

Sad to say, for a sympathetic conscience, human moments arrive without permission. Go ahead, close your eyes. It won’t matter. Like light, love comprehendeth the darkness.

Lovely valley, kind of lonesome (Credit: Dreamy Pixel on Wikimedia Commons)

My wife Kathy is an oncology nurse, and she brings home impressions of folks passing through cancer’s lonesome shadows. Never names, ever, but plenty of heartache, including her own.

Sipping pinot noir as the evening news recounts inhumane moments, I embrace souls in Kathy’s care whose ends are near. One of them weighs next to nothing. Eternity is barreling toward her. She said through tears, “I don’t feel good.” The understatement catches in my throat.

I can see her. She wears a sleeveless summer dress like the ones my Aunt Mart loved, flowery prints. The poor lady’s hands, all scarlet bruises and torn skin, tremble in mine. She is weary, afraid, not ready to die.

Oh, yes, I can hear you thinking to yourself again. “John, stop dwelling on other people’s problems!”

No, I won’t. The fact is, you can’t have human moments all one way or all the other. If I didn’t appreciate a nameless patient’s suffering, then I wouldn’t have spotted bliss at a recent wedding. The couple made promises, and I pronounced them husband and wife. Minutes later the bride leaned into the groom, her smile as close to heaven as I expect to witness this side of glory.

So I receive Omran and the bride as both package deal and personal obligation. The foreign boy and domestic woman and the McCartney guys and wincing stranger abide under my watch.

That’s how human moments work. When I neglect any neighbor near or far, I turn my back on the Creator who made this Oniontown pastor a human being in the first place.

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Love Begets Love

Love Begets Love

Dogs have occupied my thoughts lately, mostly because foxhound Sherlock Holmes, who moved in last December, finally reached a milestone that his predecessor Watson had licked from day one. Our lanky detective hopped up on our queen-sized bed, curled into a big boney oval at my feet and slept there all night long. His first night with us, black lab-terrier mix Watson yipped and yiped in his crate until Kathy and I relented and nestled him between us.

Oh, Watson, dear old buddy!

This was adorable, but risky. He wasn’t housebroken. Whether by miracle or fate, Watson leaked not a drop. I suppose he knew that he had found room in the safest of inns. There wasn’t more than a handful of nights from 2004 to 2016 that Watson didn’t snore in the crook of Kathy’s leg or under the shelter my arm, his head pressing my nose flat.

His stay with us was sickeningly affectionate from the start. Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand, has been sizing us up at his own cautious pace. I don’t blame him. He endured trauma of some sort during his three years before landing at the shelter where we found him.

The nerved up guy becomes a maelstrom of fang and claw whenever we try to administer medicine. No malice is intended. He’ll let me dig deep into his ears for some heavenly itching—my fingertips nearly meet at the center of his skull—but let me sneak a dab of ointment into the transaction, and he beats a retreat and says, “Et tu, Brute!

Our veterinarian prescribed a sedative should we need to bring our leggy pal in for treatment. Sherlock’s initial checkup was bananas. Imagine subduing a creature wildly swinging four fur-covered shillelaghs tipped with little spikes. Again, it’s nothing personal, only no injections or palpating permitted.

Grandson Cole with Sherlock Holmes. Those fur-covered shillelaghs are really something!

So the intimacy between dog and human that profoundly nourishes both has been slow to take hold. Son Micah smears peanut butter on his nose to invite a kiss. Meanwhile, Kathy and I have patted our mattress and pleaded ourselves hoarse: “Come on, buddy. Come up with us.”

As so often happens in my life, the milestone passed quietly and unbidden. The other day Sherlock was suddenly up on the bed, sleeping as if engaged in a routine. Same thing happened the following night, but since then he has occupied the couch.

We’re not complaining, though. When his doggy synapses so compel him, he’ll arrive to hog our legroom and give both of us a reassuring pat on the spirit. Meanwhile, the Colemans have decided to let Watson of blessed memory be Watson and let Holmes, here among the quick, be Holmes.

Not that there’s any alternative. What’s true of dogs is true of humans and anybody else with hearts and eyeballs. During a recent session of chin wagging, friend Judi put the matter perfectly. As we lamented folks with disputatious personalities, she tapped a verbal gavel: “Sometimes you have to accept people the way they are.”

The late Fred Rogers would agree, and so do I. Obviously the path of acceptance shouldn’t lead to staying in an abusive relationship, hobnobbing with a psychopath or spooning with a king cobra, whose venom the Encyclopaedia Britannica claims can “kill an elephant in just a few hours.”

In the car on the way to the vet’s office. An hour later, Watson was gone.

Old pal Watson’s worst offense was sudden crystal-shattering barks for no discernible reason. We learned to live with it. Sherlock’s baying is equally loud, but we know exactly what he’s fussing about.

When I get home in an hour, he’ll be jonesing to run. I mean, he sprints with such abandon that his back legs can’t keep up with his front. The result: those back legs dangle behind his body, momentarily swaying carefree until they touch down again.

Until I drive Sherlock to the dog park’s glorious acres, he’ll hoop and whine and wander about the house, clicking his nails on the hardwood floor. There’s no changing this foxhound’s stripes or taming what his Creator intended for him.

Sherlock Holmes this very day, tail a blur of waggery, his heart at home.

Funny thing is, I’ve come to love our goofy dog exactly as he is. With each passing day, his place in the family grows more sweet and easy. And this is the moral, if you ask me. Acceptance begets acceptance. Love begets love.

I can see this truth in Sherlock’s face—I swear. We let him be who he is, and he understands somehow or other, “These people love me. I think I’m going to like it here.”

Oniontown Pastoral: Riding a Pony on a Boat

Oniontown Pastoral: Riding a Pony on a Boat

(May 30, 2019)

And if I had a boat
I’d go out on the ocean
And if I had a pony
I’d ride him on my boat
And we could all together
Go out on the ocean
I said me upon my pony on my boat.

(Lyle Lovett)

Lyle Lovett, whose frizzy pompadour was once a natural wonder, wrote “If I Had a Boat” while skipping a college class. Unable to figure out what he wanted to be when he grew up, he said, “It’s a song about possibility . . . a song about being a cowboy out west and the captain of a great ship.”

Lyle Lovett, whose pompadour used to be twice this high. (Credit: Forest L. Smith, III, on Wikimedia Commons)

Well, it’s Lovett’s song to explain, but I hear in its whimsy an impulse to leave behind the stifling and disappointing. In one verse, the country crooner has Tonto, who does the Lone Ranger’s “dirty work for free,” saying, “Kemo Sabe, kiss my ass, I bought a boat, I’m going out to sea.” The delicious hutzpah elicits whoops and applause.

Lately the song has become a hymn to me, in part because of the legendary sidekick’s impertinence. From time to time—and I ask this in a sincere pastoral tone—don’t you want to bare your bum to civilization and “go out on the ocean”? To ride a pony toward a horizon of possibilities? I sure do, and saying so constitutes a confession that the good Lord would probably understand.

I’m not indulging in a rant or snivel here. The truth is, we’ve all had weeks that deserve to be hauled out into open air and shared, for the sake of commiseration if nothing else. The truth also is, a village preacher can either succumb to despair or maintain a cargo hold stocked with hope. The latter has stood me in good stead, and I’m not about to change course now.

So, about this past week.

For starters, I visited an old friend who has been in declining health. He couldn’t rouse himself from an awful dream, the highlights of which he narrated between groans and shouts. “I want to get the hell out of here.” “I need a place.” “There’s nothing I can do.” “Help me.” His manner was delirious, but, in fact, he captured the plot perfectly.

A woman in the next wheelchair patted my friend’s arm, mouthed a prayer, then pulled her fleece sweater up over her head in turtle fashion.

So I prayed them both a boat out on the ocean. This was their fervent wish. Why should they be moored for one minute longer in such troubled waters?

This painful visit was followed by news that hit like a rogue wave. Wife Kathy and I were settling into bed for a bout of reading when she learned that a dear friend’s ex-husband had died in a tragic accident.

I first heard Lyle Lovett’s playful song on a recording this friend had made for Kathy and me. I wish we lived on the same continent so that we could shoot misery the moon and sing a hymn about riding a pony on deck.

A sail boat just big enough for a pony ride. (Credit: Serge Melki on Wikimedia Commons)

I never met our friend’s ex, but did get to know recently one of their adult children. And, of course, a divorce doesn’t sever all ties of affection. There’s plenty of pain to go around. In this moment, the hope in my cargo hold looks meager next to unexpected death. I have little to offer. But what else is there besides hope that a capsized vessel–or a life overturned–will right itself and remain seaworthy?

In the week’s final glancing blow, The New York Times notes this morning the death of Leon Redbone at age 69. According to his death announcement, the quirky, secretive troubadour “crossed the delta for that beautiful shore at age 127.”

Leon Redbone in 2010. (Credit: Wikipedia)

“Oh behave yourselves,” he said in a prepared sign off. “Thank you . . . and good evening everybody.”

No doubt Redbone wanted fans like me to keep our chins up, which is wise counsel. (Of course, when death has stolen a loved one, your chin and all the rest of you can certainly droop for a while.)

I still haven’t grown up yet, but as my collection of bad weeks becomes a flotilla, singing helps me to gaze across the delta at that beautiful shore.

One day we will “all together go out on the ocean,” not to give Kemo Sabe what for, but to point our pony’s face into the spray and gallop for joy.

Hanging on and Letting Go

Hanging on and Letting Go

The photograph of Mom and Dad may as well have fluttered into my hands from a cloudless sky. They were a couple of kids, younger than my own Elena and Micah, now 30 and 27. There’s no “Dolly and Denny” followed by a date. My guess, late 1947, their first apartment, no children yet. Mom is seated, Dad standing over her shoulder, passing her hair through his fingertips. Their expressions are carefree, Mona Lisa smiles on them both. The moment is unutterably tender, the future still a blue heaven of hope.

Mom died in 1998, arthritis remedies having given more punishment than relief. The burden of divorce pained her sense of self in like fashion. I miss how she tucked my long hair behind my ear when I was a teenager.

When I had hair to tuck behind an ear.

Dad lived to be 85, but insisted in his last years that he was 88. “Is my mother still alive?” he asked now and then, anguished and embarrassed. “But she couldn’t be, could she? I just can’t remember.” He taught me to hold doors open and pay respects.

Dad’s possessions have slept in my basement since 2012–picture albums and a rattle of keepsakes. I could say that they’ve collected dust because I’m lazy or that I’ve been passive aggressive toward wife Kathy’s pleas to decide what to hang onto and what to let go of. The truth is, I didn’t want to stare into those boxes of memory and visit again with those whose absence still hurts my chest if I think of them for long.

But once the first lid was off, the choices were obvious. Dad was meticulous in documenting the mundane and daily: scores of various views of his living room and dining room and bedroom, populated only by furniture and lamps; multiples of the same snowbirds lounging beside the same Palm Bay swimming pool.

Sorting was easy. The keepers went beside me on the couch: a boyish Navy portrait: nameless relatives gone on to glory before my time; a former residence, front yard and stoop. There weren’t many of Mom, which shouldn’t be a surprise. After twenty-something years with her, Dad quickly remarried. In an instant, “Dolly and Denny” turned to “Denny and Mary.” I hold no grudge on this account. My parents simply weren’t suited to each other. Their pursed, tired expressions on and off camera often spoke to me of disappointment that wore a rut into their souls.

Gone on to glory. Nameless. Not pleased.

After separating in the mid-1970s, they both knew joy in life, but it’s hard to describe them as happy people. Their union yielded four fine children, but also a mournful descant that sounded beyond nuptial vows to the end of their days.

This, then, is how I remember my parents: two people with much to celebrate, but who often swam up upstream emotionally. For decades now I’ve thought of them with warmth, but more than a little sadness.

Such sentiments–not enough to bring tears, but plenty to clutch at the throat–stayed with me for the hours I sorted through what was dear to Dad–hanging on and letting go. Then, suddenly, that picture. 

Mom and Dad

One of my siblings told me that Mom and Dad were happy for their first eight years together. As the youngest of four, though, my memories are of a tense, distant relationship.

It’s naive to infer too much from one photograph, but I know my parents’ faces well enough to detect fakery. In this one moment, on this one day, my mother and father were glad to be together. Whatever went wrong was still some ways off.

Mom was fussy about her hair, but here it was loosely pulled back. Dad held the ponytail, gently, playfully. Beautiful. That’s the only word for it. They were both so beautiful, and to find them this way moves my soul the way an excellent port wine warms the throat.

Eventually I’ll stop carrying Dolly and Denny everywhere with me, setting them to my left while working, on this coffee shop table now and on my desk at St. John’s in Oniontown, where I stare at them, then out at the pine trees and corn stubble and red barn. After 57 years it is as if I’ve recovered a treasure I never knew was lost.

I want to take these two kids into my arms, watch them together, hear their voices again. They did once love each other, after all. I’ll hang on to this truth for the rest of my life, even as it hangs on to me.

Oniontown Pastoral: A Foxhound’s Grievances with the Polar Vortex

Oniontown Pastoral: A Foxhound’s Grievances with the Polar Vortex

The Coleman’s foxhound Sherlock Holmes didn’t care much for the polar vortex that punched millions of Americans in the throat recently. I’ll get to his complaints shortly, but first the national news, which was no laughing matter.

ABC’s David Muir put the weather’s death toll at 26. Among them was University of Iowa freshman Gerald Belz, who was found unconscious not far from his dormitory in the middle of the night and later passed in the hospital.

A simple walk to my car the other day now makes my heart break for the kid. I was underdressed, shame on me. Panic rushed through my chest when I thought for an instant that my keys were on the kitchen table in the locked house. Imagine Gerald’s fear.

Of course, America’s unwelcomed guest punished most folks less severely. Cameron, Wisconsin, Fire Department Chief Mitch Hansen’s face was all over the media, his beard sporting icicles from fighting a house fire in winds that felt like minus 50. God bless all professions that demand such grit as well as unfortunates who lack a permanent address.

Fire Chief Mitch Hansen (Credit: Bimbo Gifford on Facebook)

Before starting pastoral work in Oniontown three-plus years ago I wouldn’t have given much thought to how farmers fare in sub-zero temperatures. Now I have parishioners who have no choice but to bundle up and stride into the gale. Dave, for example, spends many hours out in the elements tending his cattle and got knocked flat during the cold spell by an overprotective cow for trying to put a coat on her newborn calf—some thanks! St. John’s members also include a dairy farmer and a handful of others whose horses and chickens don’t distinguish between shirtsleeve and Carhartt seasons.

My Oniontown license plate before the polar vortex tested its toughness

The animals themselves appear stoic enough as I drive past their fields, but not so my dog, whose temperature-related grievances are trifles compared to loss of life. Still, I’ve long believed that any undeserved pain merits loving regard. And Sherlock, after all, can’t be comforted by the knowledge that some humans and beasts have it worse than he does.

  • The Coleman foxhound’s overarching problem is his breeding. Functionally, Sherlock is a lean, 70-pound snout with heart and lungs. He is engineered to dash about maniacally, registering all comings and goings—especially the goings—of the local animal population.
  • Sadly, the polar vortex complicates giving his nature free reign. Turns out Sherlock’s paws are sensitive to the cold. Within a minute of stomping about in the snow, he is on eggshells, favoring first one paw, then another. He looks around, flummoxed and defeated. Sniffing expeditions and mad dashes at the two-acre dog park near our house are out of the question.
  • Even if Mr. Holmes’ podiatric constitution were rugged, his humans would be idiotic to go hypothermic just so he can receive communiqués from the neighborhood’s critters and run off surplus energy. In any case, he howls and flings himself about when wife Kathy tries to put numbing salve on his paws. His brilliance in olfactory matters is cancelled out by his anemic powers of deduction. “Mother loves me,” Sherlock doesn’t stop to think. “Mother is taking me outside. Mother wants to put goop on my paws. The goop will probably help. I should sit still.” Oh well.

Sherlock Holmes, waiting patiently for his breakfast

I’m giving my dog’s burdens light-hearted treatment here, but his breed combined with his weakness may have led to his arrival in the Coleman house.

He and I were out for a walk some weeks ago when a man in a pickup truck stopped and rolled down his window: “Is that a foxhound?”

“Yes,” I said, “he sure is.”

“He looks really good,” he said, “I have 25 of them. Where did you get him? A shelter?”

“Right. He was a stray, but somebody worked with him. He can sit, stay, all that.”

“You know,” the guy speculated, “he might not have been a good hunter. The owner might have just dumped him at the side of the road.”

I’ve returned to the stranger’s words again and again ever since, my heart breaking each time, even at the possibility.

My pal is a great hunter, he just can’t stand the cold: Bred for a great purpose, but foiled by one flaw. Throw in human cruelty, and you’ve got tragedy.

Yes, somebody is always lost in the cold. Some perish. The only remedy is to throw open our doors when we can for love’s sake and say, “Come on in. It’s warm in here. You can call this place ‘home.’”

Home. A place to sleep. A warm blanket.

Oniontown Pastoral: Introducing Foxhound Sherlock Holmes

Oniontown Pastoral: Introducing Foxhound Sherlock Holmes

Why do people welcome dogs into their homes? As you might imagine, I already have my answer to this question, but it’s worth asking out loud anyway.

God bless my St. John’s family in Oniontown for asking me to bring Sherlock for a visit–and bless friend Bill for the license plate.

In fact, I knew well in advance why the Coleman family adopted Sherlock Holmes, a three-year-old foxhound, on December 17, 2018. Not for an instant have wife Kathy and I regretted our decision, but as the honeymoon period of sharing 900 square feet with this hooping, nose-to-earth sleuth wanes, the consequences of rescuing a stray snap into focus.

Today’s tame reckoning takes me back to 1988, the year daughter Elena was born. “Everything is an ordeal,” I groaned. “We can’t even run to the store without holding a strategy session.” Pros and cons had to be listed. The toil of wrestling a surprisingly strong, howling infant into a car seat had to be weighed against other exertions scheduled for the day.

Daily life, though joyful, was also a snarling pack of unintended consequences. There was no end to what needed to be reconsidered in the light of parenting a fresh baby.

Dear old Watson–may God rest him–went on to glory before his partner Sherlock Holmes arrived.

Three decades later, adapting to Sherlock Holmes is child’s play by comparison. His food-in to food-out ratio is owner-friendly, thank goodness. I’ve lived with German shepherd Dutch and black-lab mix Watson before, so I know what it’s like to wander about with a shovel and hold my gag reflex at bay.

The bigger aesthetic issue is mud, which Mr. Holmes generates with a Midas touch. The chap is all leg and paw. At a sprint on level terrain, he appears to be careening down a steep hill. Bone, lean muscle and fur swing in all directions. Yard slurry flies like in a macho truck commercial.

No worries, though, as a rag by the backdoor and grass seed come spring will put matters right. Even Sherlock’s scavenging for treats can be managed with a toddler’s gate across the kitchen doorway, which has so far fooled him into doubting his steeplechase skills. Good thing, for no corner of the countertops is out of his reach. The other night Kathy spent three hours baking healthy treats for “Holmes”—her preferred handle—but left two cookie sheets of them unguarded. He consumed 2/3 of the batch, which means he’ll be lively and regular for days to come.

At the shelter our new family member was called Ollie, but the name didn’t stick.

Mr. Holmes’ need for stimulation and activity has certainly been an adjustment, but since this benefits our sedentary family, we can only thank him for three-mile walks and bracing excursions to the dog park.

In fact, our gratitude for this overgrown beagle has more to do with spiritual than physical wellbeing. I figured this would be the case.

No newsflash here. Dog owners share an understanding that living with animals taps into a deep reservoir of human emotion. If you own a computer, check out “puppy surprise” videos on YouTube. Just have Kleenex nearby. Thousands like me watch as a golden retriever or pug or dachshund gets handed to an unsuspecting person of any age or gender. First there’s a gasp, then a squeal, scream or “aw,” and, of course, tears.

Kisses on the snout follow, along with blissed out petting and hugging. Some folks go to pieces, rocking from side to side with their foreheads resting on the floor.

I myself have never cried over adopting a dog, but I’ve been undone by saying goodbye and know exactly why this Oniontown pastor bothered to take in a frightened, confused stray.

When I get home later, I’ll sit on the couch and pull his face toward mine, breathe in the earthy smell of dog and run my face over his head for as long as he’ll stay still.

If you’ve ever done something like this with your dog—or cat or whatever—you know that time stops as you take in draughts of blessing.

The end of the honeymoon–Sherlock had to be corrected for being a little too touchy about his food and intolerant of family cat, Baby Crash.

You’ll never hear me put “just” before “a dog.” The sweet nothings we whisper in our foundling’s ear can never compensate him enough for what he gives.

And what he gives is an invitation to love, especially when nothing else can draw us outside of our personal cages or stop us from chewing the cud of sad memories.

You and I were born to love. Every word or action suggesting otherwise is a bad translation of what we were created to be.

Dogs like Sherlock Holmes return us to our fundamental truth. His eyes tell me, “If you forget how to love, don’t worry. I’ll be here to remind you.”

The Trouble with Love

The Trouble with Love

Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.” (Thomas Merton in Disputed Questions).

Most often breathtaking is used figuratively, but in recent days I’ve said to myself, “John, you’re not breathing. Stop and breathe.” Mass murders, hatred, relentless falsehoods and absurdities arrive in torrents.

Saturday, October 27th: Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, eleven dead. Tuesday, November 6th: The scorched earth of midterm elections. Wednesday, November 7th: Thirteen dead—most of them younger than my own children—in Thousand Oaks, California. To these news items add that state’s wildfires, which according to latest reports are 35% contained.

Credit: skeeze on Pixabay

But let’s set aside Mother Nature for the moment. Disasters of human agency take everyone’s breath away, and many Americans are further deflated by the likelihood that governmental leaders won’t lift a finger to prevent further loss of life.

Political motivations are legion, the bottom-line being that innocents’ safety ranks far below constituents’ hobbies and proclivities. Transparent lies, lame as a crumb-dusted child denying raiding the cookie jar, are piled so high that responsible citizens grow disoriented and exhausted.

Any spare energy may well be absorbed by hatred, which is eager to throw off its gloves and start swinging. Present circumstances are practically designed to bring out the fighters in everybody. Some of us struggle to hold rage against the ropes while others gleefully talk trash and punch below the belt.

Sad to say, you can sometimes find me in the ring, too. In my mind I heap insults and ridicule on my fellow citizens’ heads before remembering Thomas Merton’s instruction: “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy.”

As I pause over these words, anger rises in my chest. The exhortation to love is Pollyannaish. The task is difficult. Who can accept it? There’s a physiological response when you look at folks you really want to punch in the face and remember you’re supposed to love them.

My mother, God rest her, took her upset out on doors. As a teenager I once made her so mad that she slammed the basement door, took two steps away, then returned for seconds.

Mom could have used this room when I was growing up. (Credit: Arek Socha–“qimono”–on Pixabay)

Even in the closest of relationships, love is trying. It can be like digging a pointless ditch with a swizzle stick when all you want to do is put said ditch to good purpose by shoving the person you can’t stand into it and shoveling in wet dirt?

Yet we know that this isn’t the Christian way. Actually, millions across the belief spectrum would say that they are called by conscience to love of neighbor and rejection of hatred. The problem is, anyone who has walked the path of understanding and compassion for long knows that confusion dominates comfort, deprivation overwhelms fulfillment. Being steadfast takes stamina.

This is why my gait appears drunken. Every fork tempts me toward a destination that rolls out the red carpet for my worst impulses: “Nobody deserves your consideration. They’re not really your neighbors. Put yourself first, others can pound salt. Let your tongue be barbed wire.”

All that keeps me from staggering hopelessly far in the wrong direction is one crucial insight and a whisper of grace. Love is a roomy term. Contrary to popular thought, “love” and “affectionate regard” aren’t attached at the hip. The latter simply can’t be commanded, which is convenient, since the love humanity now starves for has nothing to do with cuddling or playing footsie.

In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Merton has a revelation about his earthly brothers and sisters while visiting Louisville, Kentucky: “At the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.”

A plaque in Louisville to mark the spot of Merton’s revelation. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Merton recognized in the city’s shoppers “the secret beauty of their hearts.” He knew that they were children of the same Creator, beloved of the same God, and wanted to tell them that they were “all walking around shining like the sun.” They could also be monumental pains in the neck or far worse.

I occasionally want to give Thomas Merton’s hermitage door a few slams, but a quiet grace visits, filling me with belief: God calls me to love without reservation, especially when the effort seems foolish, even embarrassing—a little like supposing that some good might come from a man hanging on a cross.

Thomas Merton in his cinderblock hermitage. (Credit: Wikipedia)

 

Oniontown Pastoral: Bartleby, the Faded Black Horse

Oniontown Pastoral: Bartleby, the Faded Black Horse

The truth arrived at dawn as I enjoyed the calm before facing another day: I see myself in a horse on the way to Oniontown.

My usual commute includes Route 19 South through the borough of Sheakleyville, but occasionally convenience sends me down Route 18 South through Adamsville, which with a population of 70 is too small to be called a village. According to the website “PA Home Town Locator,” it’s classified as a “Census Designated Place” (CDP)—a sterile title not even Norman Rockwell could warm up.

Of course, neither Adamsville nor any other spot on 18 requires charm from a New England artist. Amish homesteads dignify the land, with their clean white paint and good order. And a Presbyterian church, tall and well kept, keeps vigil over the CDP’s humble population. Most important for this spiritual traveler, I’ve found a soul brother on 18: a horse that is visible for a slim second or two as I pass by.

I’ve mentioned before in “Oniontown Pastoral” the blonde horse Onslow who lives along Route 19. Every trip to the St. John’s I check on him and think about him often, especially in winter when he wears a dusting of snow on his back. He doesn’t need me to worry about him nor do any of the farm animals. Our creator is present to us all in needful ways. I take that on faith.

But on 18 this faded black horse I named Bartleby just this morning draws me powerfully toward him. See, Onslow generally stands still when I drive by, but he chooses a variety of places in his yard to do so. Bartleby, on the other hand, is parked in the same spot 9 times out of 10. And a boring spot it is, beside a weathered gray barn with his muzzle an inch from the door. He is an evocative portrait.

I don’t know what Bartleby is thinking and can’t tell whether he is bored or depressed or tired. What I can say for certain is this: I’m generally happy, but sometimes if you could see my soul, it would resemble Bartleby.

Ah, Oniontown! Your fields bring me the peace that surpasses all understanding.

Both of us are in a daze lately, or so it appears. The horse’s gaze is fixed on the barn door, while the man’s is purposely averted from goings on in all quarters. The other day at St. John’s Lutheran Church I sat behind my desk and surrendered to the spell of the pine trees, soybean field and bright red barn out my window. The confession of Stephen King’s character John Coffey came to me as a prayer: “I’m tired, Boss. I’m tired of people being ugly to each other. I’m tired of all the pain I feel and hear in the world every day. There’s too much of it.”

I monitor the television news, read newspapers and permit myself snatches of social media. Society at present is a slugfest in a bar smelling of spilled beer and overflowing ashtrays. It’s a playground where bullies dispirit classmates with relentless name-calling. Or to set metaphors aside, it seems like what small claim gentleness, patience, compassion and simple honesty ever had on human behavior is being slapped away with a laugh and a sneer.

I’m talking about more than the drunken brawl that is government and the jousting match of international relations. A couple weeks ago, a friend’s daughter was riding on the school bus when some kid tossed a racial slur at her, prefaced with a predictable adjective.

“Why didn’t you speak up at the time?” a law enforcement officer later asked.

“Because I was afraid it would make it worse,” she answered. “And I was ashamed because I was black.”

When her father told me this story, anger was white-hot in my chest. Today, I’m mostly tired, Boss. This young woman’s sweet face shines in my imagination, and her words are too much to bear.

Still on the refrigerator in the Coleman house

Don’t misunderstand, I kindle hope within myself that kindness and wisdom may someday overcome violence and ignorance. But for now I have to look away, take a deep breath, reclaim the peace that surpasses all understanding and cling to the love that has claimed my life.

Tomorrow I’ll take Route 18 to Oniontown. Ah, Bartleby! If only I could stop and join you by the barn door, slide my arm around your long head and rest my face against yours. Maybe being together would comfort us, as only communion can do in a season beset with fury and rot.

Oniontown Pastoral: My Wife’s Secret

Oniontown Pastoral: My Wife’s Secret

“Hey, you know what?” I say to wife Kathy.

“You love me?” she answers.

“Well, yes,” I go on, “but . . . .”

“You’re proud of me?” Her Cheshire cat grin sparkles.

This is one of our routines, which concludes with my telling her that I ran into a friend or heard a good joke or whatever. The fact is, I’m endlessly in love with and proud of my wife.

Kathy used to faint at the sight of blood, but went to school and became an oncology nurse. As a mother and grandmother, she is more fun than a sack of spider monkeys. As a wife, she has not only stuck with impossible me for thirty-five years, but she has also replaced our roof, remodeled the bathroom, and built a deck out of planks repurposed from a wheelchair ramp. Her focus these days is coaxing edibles from a modest plot behind our garage. Most dinners include something she has grown, often garlic, which brings me to my point.

My conscience has been twitching lately like a nerved up eyelid. I value honesty, but for years now I’ve been keeping a secret: Although my wife is a marvel, she possesses a quirky mind. And by “quirky” I mean, “Holy cow!” While she is ever eager to recount the thoughts leading up to her whimsical choices, the plots are so circuitous that listening makes drool trail down my chin. Her most recent and finest decision involved elephant garlic, but please enjoy an appetizer before the entrée.

More fun than a sack of spider monkeys

You probably know somebody who “thinks out loud.” Well, Kathy “looks out loud.” While tracking down anything (i.e. smartphone, comb, tax bill, lasagna), she recites all relevant itineraries, identifies last known locations, holds her hands out as if checking for rain and mumbles, “What’s wrong with me?”

Our garage door opener, for example, went missing for several months. Then one afternoon, a yelp of laughter came from the basement. The opener was hibernating in the toe of one of Kathy’s rubber yard-work boots. Okey doke.

Some husbands might get frustrated, but I look forward to whatever oddity hides around the next bend. Take the aforementioned entrée I now put before you. Kathy has been mildly stressed about her overwhelming harvest of garlic. Multiple braids hang from the garage rafters. A four-quart basket-full is parked by the back door. She and I have settled on peeling and freezing, thereby easing her mind. Fortunately, the elephant garlic yield was light, enough to fill a three-pound mesh onion bag, which is where the impressive heads went. From there, I lost track of them.

Last week, in a rare attempt at tidiness, I took a suit jacket I’d thrown over a dining room chair to the basement to hang up in my humble wardrobe area. Making room amidst my jackets, I discovered, slung over a hanger between two of my old favorites, a mesh bag full of elephant garlic, which is rightly known in culinary circles as an “aromatic.”

Proof

Slack-jawed, I imagined slipping on my navy blue number and heading out into the world smelling like a really aggressive basket of butter and garlic wings or an overly ambitious angel hair Alfredo.

The responsible party was not in question. But why? Why would one human being nestle a bag of garlic, which has a well-earned reputation for shedding its skin and bleeding essential oils, between two garments belonging to another human being?

Dangling the bag from my index finger, I climbed the steps and started the interrogation with, “What could have possessed you to . . . ?”

Kathy blinked bashfully and pursed her lips as if to say, “Oh, was that wrong of me?”

Garlic, she eventually explained, will keep in a cool, dark place. A basement is normally ideal, but ours is too light. Ah, but there my suit jackets were, the crevasses between them so chilly, so pitch black.

Thankfully, St. John’s Lutheran is planted in a village named “Oniontown,” which wouldn’t look askance at a minister who occasionally smells like a good sauce. It’s all good.

Best of all, I can take a pinch of pride in practicing what I preach. During marriage preparation, I ask each fiancé what’s most maddening about the other. Then I say, “So if things never change, not one bit, can you still say, ‘I do’?”

How blessed am I, having always known the answer to my own question and remembering that I was never mad to start with.

Letter to a Kindred Spirit, Off to College

Letter to a Kindred Spirit, Off to College

Dear Abbey,

Sorry for starting this sendoff with a cliché, but “time is flying” lately. Same with life, especially when fifty sneaks up on sixty. That’s me. Every once in a while I want to grab a day by the scruff to keep it from running away. That’s right now.

In a few weeks you’ll be off to Pittsburgh’s Chatham University, two hours south on I-79 from home in Erie. You’ll take leave, knowing that your tribe can and will hop behind the wheel as soon as you call and show up before tears of homesickness have time to dry.

One of Chatham’s stately buildings

You and I both know you’ll do some crying, right? I’m not trying to be a rain cloud here. You have—in case you haven’t noticed—family and friends who swoon over you with love and support. We’ve watched you overcome serious illnesses, distinguish yourself academically, hang onto your sweet self and take a full step into adulthood. Along the way, disappointment and grief have gotten up in your face, but you’ve stood your ground. Yes, ma’am, you’ve made us proud.

And you, on your part, hold a love for us that’s overwhelming at times, isn’t it? You find comfort in having family and friends in your house, even if you’re not in the same room. If we leave without saying goodbye, you’re a bit hurt. When Kathy, Micah and I moved from the house next door, you got choked up talking about it for months.

Such wondrous love as yours comes with a price. This is actually my reason for writing to you, other than to say what you already know: “I love you and am sad that for most of the year, you won’t be across town.” If only time would cooperate when we try to hold it still. If only those dear to us never disappeared over the horizon. You and I know better, right?

No way to slow it down, right, dear friend?

We’ll see each other often enough, but the move to college can be decisive. On August 22, 2018, you’re off to the Steel City. Four years later, who knows where circumstance and intuition will call you? Will we be able to reach you in a day’s drive? I guess we’ll all find out together.

Anyway, you’re smarter than I am, and don’t bother arguing with me on this point. There’s hardly anything I can say that you haven’t learned or already suspect. Studying and self-discipline have been folded up in your suitcase for many grades now. Those lumps from childhood have taught you not to get knocked out by upsets that might have your classmates on the ropes. And romance? Sure, you might get stung, but brains aren’t your only gift. You’ve got a strong, insightful heart. You’ll outmaneuver each Don Juan.

Your fortune

You’ll also make friends and crush exams and write amazing papers, no doubt in my mind. But I do have a vision of a moment that might come out of nowhere and leave you shaken.

You’ve just walked into your dorm room. Outside it’s dusk, inside the light is thin. The heavy knapsack slips from your shoulder onto your study desk. Strange, nobody is around, not your roommate, not other girls coming and going. The air is heavy and quiet. You check your smartphone. No text messages, no missed calls. It’s been a crummy day. A good friend has been acting like a jerk, for no reason you can think of. Or a guy you kind of like clearly isn’t interested in you (the fool). Or maybe you’ve just been out of sorts. 

Whatever the case, it’s only you, your room, Chatham University and Pittsburgh. That’s it. Not even a test to study for. Being alone is normally OK with you. But now, standing in the gray silence, you want to be in Erie, bellied up to the kitchen counter and snacking on leftover Alfredo I sent home with you and telling your brother or sister to cut it out and hearing your mother call you “Abber Dabbers.”

You would give anything, when darkness comes, to lie down in your attic bedroom and stare at the familiar moonlight and shadows on your walls. More affection than you could ever need would be one flight of stairs away.

But you’re alone at school, listening to yourself sigh.

Trust me, Abbey, I’m not out to depress you. This letter is actually a gift to slip into a moving box and read again when you forget that you’re not only mighty, but mindful—which is why I’ve dared to send you off to college with this sad portrait.

4:30 p.m. on a December day like the one I’ve described will probably visit you. We’re “kindred spirits”—another cliché, sorry. The mere nuance of life can make us tear up or shove our faces into the dirt. So I know that your solitary dorm room on an overcast afternoon might fill your chest with a longing more insistent than you had thought possible.

You can trust this face, right? No, not the moose, your beloved Flanders.

If so, you listen to your forever neighbor Flanders*. This may be the only advice I have to offer you.

When you feel so alone that you want to climb out of your skin, stand still and keep listening to yourself breathe. Don’t run. Don’t busy yourself. In fact, do more than stand still. Lean into the loneliness. Taste it. Hold it gently by the scruff so it won’t get away. If you cry, cry like a big baby. And know this: When you let loneliness have its way with you for a little while, it will pass eventually without much of a fight.

By the time you feel more yourself, you will have passed an exam beyond book learning. A college freshman doesn’t have to be lonely very much, but when you do, Abbey, you’ll be able to handle it. For sure, call somebody who loves you. Call me, but if there’s no answer, you know what to do.

Being mighty has a summit: Standing alone with yourself and not trying to escape. You’ve got this!

Love,

Flanders

*Flanders is my nickname with Abbey’s family.