I’m alone here, but seldom lonely. The space heater’s sigh, the weather’s endless improvisations and the train horn now groaning in the distance are felt presences, companions, especially when efforts—finding words in my head, searching for sentences from others to supply what I lack—fail and all that remains is the essential human enterprise: Being. Continue reading
Letter to a Kindred Spirit, Off to College
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!
*Flanders is my nickname with Abbey’s family.
Oniontown Pastoral: Some Life
For the year I’ve been serving St. John’s Lutheran Church, a row of fifteen or twenty round bales has sat rotting along District Road. Seems like a waste, but there must be a reason. What’s the story?
As I shoved quarters in the parking meter this morning, a decently dressed man crouched behind a bus stop, shielding himself from the chilly wind and drizzle. Nike running shoes look new. Parka with fur hood is unstained. But huddling on the sidewalk is, well, odd. What’s the story?
And there is always a story. It might be disappointing or anticlimactic, but when one human being listens to another for a few minutes, questions can get answered. Maybe a crisis in the farmer’s family put everything on hold, including hay. A plastic tote bag from a local hospital sat beside the crouching man. Was he released an hour ago, still sick or confused?
I can only speculate. Answers would require conversations, and I’m not about to start one by knocking on a stranger’s door or tapping a shivering guy on the shoulder. I can live with mysteries.
In fact, I welcome them. Seldom understanding why the world chugs along in its haphazard fashion and why human beings behave inexplicably is a way of life, a spiritual posture.
“Shave and a haircut . . . .” I’m content with no ending.
My favorite mystery near Oniontown has to do with a dirty blonde horse I’ve named Onslow. I pass him on Route 19 and wonder why he has his own modest yard—room for a round-bale feeder, a couple of trailers, a shed and a short stroll. On the other side of the barn, a dozen or so other horses wander a generous pasture.
So why is Onslow in solitary? Does he have issues? Is he a grouch? A biter? I know nothing, not even if I should call him Hyacinth, but the way his forelock blows across his right eye makes him endearing. He’s probably a real pain in the neck, but I care about him.
Why? Because even beasts of the field have stories. I don’t stand in winter gusts and munch my breakfast for a good hunk of the year. Maybe being a horse is no picnic.
“Boy, John,” you might say, “this is some life you’ve got going, praying in an urban coffee shop for a lonely horse.”
The truth is, I don’t have much choice. Some creatures have fangs made for tearing down, and others have eyes prone to tearing up. I belong to the latter species.
I’ve never cried for Onslow, but I’ve come close for patrons in the neighboring stalls here at Starbucks. Some stare into space as they sip and leave with weary faces, as if nothing much awaits their return. I’ve never met them, but imagine a great, invisible hand has rubbed their faces into the ground. Are they lost souls?
Behind me, a fixture I’ll call Clyde is giving his imaginary friend what for. They fight a lot. As far as I can tell this is his only companion, other than a five-foot duffle bag stuffed solid.
What would its contents say about Clyde? In lucid moments, what story might he piece together? Grinding mental illness, probably unmedicated, must drive the plot. Though he lives in solitary, one character visits him, if only as an antagonist.
“You apologize every month!” Clyde just grunted.
I’ll never know the trespass that has so infuriated him, but that’s okay. It’s enough for me to remember that he is tormented by red herrings and complications that never resolve. Anyway, something about the way his burden bends his back makes me love him.
Yes, I know, deep down Clyde is probably a bigger nuisance than Onslow. But they both have manes, one blonde, the other greasy gray.
And they both have unknown stories. We all do. The day I forget this is the day I will have lost myself. You’ll find me in solitary, singing, “Two bits. Two bits. Two bits.”
The Myth of Embracing*
Even in this furious sunlight,
the pine’s long arms form the promises
of circles, incomplete and longing for the sky,
where a mourning dove leaves curve trails
as its wings suggest huggings of the world
that just keep coming up with air—travel
is incidental. Our bodies curve, too.
The longest laugh, like pain, eventually
bends chest to knees, everything surrounding the heart.
When my daughter was born, her shocked eyes,
smeared face, jerking arms wanted something,
one perfect thing to calm the frigid light.
She screamed, like pines and doves unable to hug
completely. Embracing is a myth:
our arms grow strong for all we cannot hold.
*Between 1986 and 1995 I published mostly poems. This one appeared in slightly different form in The Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review (Winter, 1991).