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.

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What I Do Is Redd Up

What I Do Is Redd Up

$%&#! Ouch!

I want to be home by 3:00 this afternoon. A cluttered living room waits for me, as does an unmade bed and a kitchen that needs to be, as my mother used to say, redd up. In other words, the house requires attention before wife Kathy shows up at 6:00 p.m. with grandsons Cole and Killian in tow. For a couple of hours, we’ll act as spotters to boys who are constantly, gleefully careening toward a concussion. By the time daughter Elena picks them up, dirty dishes will have returned, and planes, trains and pterodactyls will be scattered everywhere, waiting for me to step on them and shout bad words. Clean up, mess up, repeat.

The person in charge of squalor control and hygiene restoration used to be called a housewife, an impoverished term to my ears. A job that involves cleaning, cooking and often child rearing deserves a more worthy title. Nobody is married to a house, nor does one’s marital status constitute a vocation.

But homemaker is a good fit. Creation is involved, as is purpose. A house isn’t a home until people related by blood or blessed ties find nurturing shelter there. Such a place can be ramshackle or palatial as long as at least one heart beats affection into the cupboards and windowsills.

Plenty of homes thrive without full-time tending, of course. Whoever can keep a house presentable, prepare healthy meals, do laundry, give children the attention they need and put shoulder to the wheel forty hours every week for a paycheck deserves credit. Props, bows and curtsies to them all, especially to those who have no choice.

That emphatically said, I have a soft spot for careers given to home and family. My mother spent much of her life that way. Dolly Coleman worked part-time at what she called the budget bakery and at the Boston Store, for decades the crown jewel of downtown Erie, but her identity was grounded in motherhood.

On the back of a well-worn cookbook . . . a housewife, perhaps?

My only reservation about Mom’s vocational history is the possibility that, like countless sisters of her generation, she was disheartened by a society that patronized women and kicked their intelligence to the curb. Housewife bore an implied prefix: just a.

Kathy went back and forth with staying at home and taking jobs. Regardless, she gave Elena and our son Micah amazing childhoods. Some parents can’t keep up with their kids, but my beloved had the distinction of outpacing her offspring. Never much for napping, Kathy was mistress of over-the-top fun, constructing cornstalk mazes in the backyard, going to legendary pains with Halloween decorations and building snow forts ad infinitum. She pouted when the kids weren’t game for the expeditions she cooked up.

A fidget blanket made by Elena Thompson, to calm the restless hands of a dementia patient

As it happened, one of our little acorns didn’t fall far from the oak. Elena and husband Matt decided that their issue were to be raised by a mother who would fill their days with joy and adventure. Capable though she is of employment, our talented daughter has been building a cottage industry of weighted and fidget blankets. Her household speaks of shalom, and her handiwork gives sleep to restless children and calm to dementia patients. Call Elena what you will, but don’t dare start off with just a.

A couple of years ago when I accepted a part-time call to serve St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown, Pennsylvania, it was with the promise of writing time and the expectation that Pastor Coleman would lean into housework.

I know better than to call myself a homemaker. That profession—paid only with emotional currency—is broader in scope and deeper in sacrifice than I can manage. What I do is redd up. Ministry and writing are passions, but home duty now completes my vocational trinity.

Detail from Kathy’s throw on the couch

My job description has gradually written itself on my heart. 402 Parkway Drive should be presentable when Kathy gets home after eight hours of treating cancer patients. Why? Because she deserves a sanctuary: tidy counters, her throw—adorned with representations of sailing knots—draped neatly over the back of the couch, minutiae that threatens to take over the dining room table put away. Stepping across the threshold, she should drink from a cup running over with peace. She shouldn’t worry about dinner. She should leave the dishes to me.

The reason for my efforts, modest though they are, is love. Redding up is a gift. I’m no homemaker, but after thirty-five years with Kathy I’ve decided, against all logic, that being called her househusband would suit me just fine.

Oniontown Pastoral: Confessions of a Hopeless Relationship

Oniontown Pastoral: Confessions of a Hopeless Relationship

Micah, around the time he figured out his old man

When son Micah was a boy, he sized me up better than the therapists of my troubled twenties and forties ever did.

“Oh, Dad,” he said with a loving lilt, “you’re such a relationship.” I can’t remember the context or his exact age, but could never forget such a quirky turn of phrase.

I’ve kept his insight in my “Kids Say the Darndest Things” file until a recent development in my daily routine—more on that later—proved Micah prophetic.

Of course, I go by “John,” “Dad,” “Pop” and “Pastor.” You can call me a “writer” if you’re brave enough. On my best days I’ve been accused of being a decent “cook.” I used to consider myself a “runner,” though “jogger” is more accurate.

But as a man who has spent extravagant hours navel-gazing, I admit that “relationship” is closest to the truth. (Please imagine Barbra Streisand singing, “People, people who need people.”)

This pastor’s life is one great tome with many chapters of relationships. My daily planner is thicker with names than tasks, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

This Friday morning writer friends Mary and Jennie and I will get together for our monthly coffee, commiseration and guffaw session. When we get laughing other patrons turn toward us and stare.

About an hour ago I took friend Ray for a haircut and beard trim. I started out as his pastor, then became his chauffeur and finally decided to be his friend. He is on heavy psychotropic meds and goes in-patient every now and then to deal with paranoia. His flat affect makes our witty repartee all the more hilarious. I love the guy.

And I love people. The best part of serving as pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown, Pennsylvania, is when parishioners come to the church on an errand and stop for a chat.

Church secretary Jodi recently recounted to me her family’s efforts to rehabilitate an aptly named chicken. Somehow or other, Chicky Chick acquired a bum leg. The stakes were high, as a gimpy chicken stands a good chance of being pecked into pate by the other birds. That’s how they roll, Jodi explained, adding the tidbit that egg-laying hens are poor candidates for dinner, so the chopping block wasn’t the best answer.

More than anything else, she had a soft spot for the old thing, so St. John’s church secretary went into crisis mode and pieced together an isolation pen.

Once a day, Chicky Chick received therapy, which consisted of Jodi pulling and pushing on the compromised limb and her husband or son hanging onto the flummoxed patient. Thanks to the ministrations, the hen has moved back in with her peeps.

Can you imagine my good fortune of having a paying job that includes listening to amiable people tell stories that you just can’t make up?

In addition to great stories and fun nicknames, I have this view out my office window. Not a bad deal.

And the nicknames! Maybe it takes a relationship like me to adore the handles mentioned with a straight face in my Pastor’s Study. My three favorites are “Cucumber,” “Squeak” and “Fuzzy.” I’ve also picked up on an understated Oniontown way of communicating love for somebody without actually speaking the three words. Just attach an “e” sound to the end of the person’s name. Adjustments are often necessary. You’d never say “William-ee,” for example, but “Billy” gushes with affection.

Outside my office door, a weaving by wife Kathy. People can come in for peace (pax) and a couple of laughs. And I always try to take the peace of Oniontown home with me.

On days I’m not at St. Johnny’s, Pop tends to connections at home in Erie. Most mornings I sit silently with God, whom I pray to behold and hold according to a schedule beyond calendars. I trust that at the end of days, this mysterious relationship will take all others unto itself.

Most Sundays the Colemans have family dinner, a practice daughter Elena insisted on back when Micah was recovering from drug addiction. Our house is noisy and joyful with people who need each other and aren’t ashamed to admit it.

And now my wife and I have stumbled into the routine that has quickly become blessed. After both of us finish work, we face each other on an aptly named piece of furniture, a “loveseat,” and talk. No music or television.

We refer to this new habit as “our time.” Who but a hopeless relationship could savor two such commonplace words? Micah was wiser than his years.

My wife’s proper name, incidentally, is “Kathleen,” but “Kathy” works better. I also say “I love you” an awful lot to be sure she never forgets.

After “our time,” Kathy and I sometimes go for a walk in the neighborhood and check out beauty hiding in plain sight.

Oniontown Pastoral: Listen to Your Grandma

Oniontown Pastoral: Listen to Your Grandma

Dear Cole and Killian:

img_4987Last week your Grandma Kathy came in all sweated up from picking vegetables and said, “Oh, John, there’s one of those tomato hornworms in the garden with eggs on its back, probably wasp eggs.” Her bottom lip wasn’t quivering, but tears weren’t far off. Poor bug.

I don’t want to see any creature suffer, but I’ve never been a fan of hornworms. First, they’re gross; they look like a bald, glossy-green, plump, juicy caterpillar. Second, they never finish their meals. I would be glad to share if they didn’t go from tomato to tomato, munching a portion and ruining the rest. And third, they leave pellet droppings called frass. Most of it falls into the soil unseen, but a little plastic table Grandma Kathy situated near a tomato plant got covered with it. The guilty insect frassed so much I couldn’t help thinking it chuckled to itself, pellet by pellet.

Your grandmother, who is on strangely good terms with the wastrels, wanted to send me on a rescue mission, but not by plucking the larvae off the hornworm or ending its suffering.

“You write about these things,” she said. “Maybe you could write about it.”

Grandma Kathy was right, boys. For whatever reason, your pop thinks a lot about sadness, and some likeminded folks like to read what I come up with. She was right, too, that in hopeless cases, one sympathetic witness can be a saving grace.

The trouble is, I don’t have much to say about future wasps dining on a hornworm, other than to note, “That’s life for you.” One being’s grilled chicken is another’s raw caterpillar. The main difference is presentation.

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Listen to your grandma, boys.

On the other hand, I do have something to say about Grandma Kathy. You won’t read this letter for another ten years, but as you grow I’ll be steering you toward this advice: “Grandma Kathy has a big soul. She knows how to live. Listen to her.”

I’m only trying to save you time and trouble. If my math skills are still operational, your grandmother and I have spent 2/3 of our lives together. Only in the last three years have I figured out that most of the time she knows best. Since 1980, then, I’ve been letting her steer 1/10 of the time, which is silly.

And I’ll tell you why. Grandma Kathy was right about that hornworm from the beginning. It’s as much a resident of the earth as I am and worthy of consideration.

“Don’t you think we ought to kill it?” I asked. “The last thing we need is a wasp infestation.”

“No, we’re too quick to kill things,” she answered. “Besides, I think wasps might be beneficial.”

I swallowed my response, which would have been, “Hey, I’m not too quick to kill things.”

But she was half right. I checked an almanac and learned that you shouldn’t squash the hornworm and its passengers. Wasps are—and I quote—“beneficial” for a garden.

img_5008Only in the last few weeks have I decided that Grandma Kathy also knows best where the garden hose is concerned. All our marriage long she has left it snaking around the yard rather than coiling it up. I bring the matter up once every decade, though not anymore. When I walk out the back door, my glance goes immediately to the hose and my mind says, “Unkempt.” Your grandmother looks first to the sunflowers, and her mind says, “Ah, beautiful.”

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The better part

She has chosen the better part, and I won’t take it from her.

When Grandma Kathy plays with you, Cole, she lets you decide what to do and where to go. That’s because you know how to play better than anybody else. By watching her, I’m learning to be a good pop.

And Killian, you’re just a few months old, but it already seems that you’re going to be quieter and more reserved than your big brother. You watch, kiddo, Grandma Kathy will look into your brown eyes and see how to help you love yourself and feel so happy you’ll want to fly.

Someday you’ll be able to understand that big souls make big sacrifices. When you’re ready, I’ll explain that Pop owes his life to Grandma Kathy.

IMG_4286But I’ll wait for later to tell you just how. It’s enough for now to say that when I was weary and lost unto despair, your grandmother left a few of her dreams behind as if they were frass to help me find myself again.

Grandma Kathy knows how best to love you and me and the rest of creation. Please, save yourself trouble and spend more than a sliver of your years following her lead and trusting her example.

Care for the tomato hornworm. Look first to the sunflower. Give yourself away for the sake of love.

We’ll talk before you know it,

Pop

Love Poem on a Peninsula

Love Poem on a Peninsula

for Kathy, as always

 

On the way to a run

I pulled over to watch goslings,

around a dozen,

bent to tender grass.

 

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The adults let me get close,

maybe because I wanted

some pictures to show

Kathy when she got out of work.

 

“Oh, John,” she would have said,

my name at the top of her throat,

held for a full pleading measure

so the geese would take my soul.

 

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“Oh, Kathy,” I answered as light

off the lake blinded my first steps,

“these colors are for your eyes,

this perfect air is your blessing.”

 

And she would have told me

to receive every curiosity and dazzle,

sometimes stammering with joy,

our path a riot of hosannas.

 

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She was desk-bound during my run,

but still announced the toad—

or frog or whatever—I nearly crushed

and the bird dragging dead grass home.

 

It’s not as though I have a choice.

Kathy insists that I learn: Beauty is urgent.

“Hey, look.” She hopes to save me.

“Look,” she says. “Oh, John, look!”

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.

Marriage Along a Napper’s Way

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With Baby Crash, watching a gray day out the den window . . . small house.

Gray day. The air itself was wet.

One intersection from Starbucks and my appointment with the writing table, wife Kathy’s guitar ringtone strummed. “John Coleman, where is that Pampered Chef stuff?” She spoke of a baking sheet and hell-I-don’t-know-a spatula that her friend would be picking up soon. Due to a recent, understandable case of what we call ping brain, she forgets and occasionally slides off the rails. When you’re moving from big house to small, as we are now, the cranium can get crowded.

“Uh, here in the truck behind my seat.”

“Where are you?”

“Turning into Starbucks. But I can run it down to you.” (“And lose half my writing time,” I thought, but didn’t say.)

“Ooh, by Starbucks? Maybe you could bring me a venti chai tea latte?”

“Sure.” (“Make that 2/3 of my writing time.”)

“Okay, thank you, John Coleman!”

In I went, ordered the tea and talked to a couple of friends, then headed north on I-79 to the Regional Cancer Center.

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The Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt, 1632 (Credit: Wikipedia)

And that’s when my napper’s way took over. A nap or siesta generally involves down time in the afternoon–pretty simple. But the napper’s way is round-the-clock: in the midst of activity, obligation, and distraction, you stop. “Peace, be still.”

The Mazda 4X4 was exceeding the speed limit, but the driver’s spirit-mind pulled to the berm. A couple nights ago I scratched loose one of Kathy’s old scabs (most wives and husbands have them, I suppose), and she forgave far more quickly than I did myself.

Breathe. Nap while fully awake. Oh, bars of my soul, open, open. What’s worth upset? What deserves anything other than a smile and no worries? And for those in love, what response is better than a kiss?

Salting old wounds or inflicting new ones calls for a cold shoulder, maybe worse, but losing a hundred words for my wife’s sake is of no account. The inconvenience is a single hiccough. It’s a sweat bee brushed out the car window.

So I delivered the tea, baking sheet, and whatever-the hell. One of Kathy’s officemates laughed: “She just wanted you to bring her a Starbucks.”

On the way to the exit, Kathy said, “I’m sorry. I put the stuff on the seat so I wouldn’t forget.”

“Oh, you mean the seat you were sitting on?”

“Yeah, that one.”

We smiled–at her ping brain and my frailty and at love on a cloudy day–and leaned into each other. “Be in touch,” I said.

unnamedThen I landed here at Starbucks, where Kathy’s email chimed: “Thank you, my dear. Love you.”

No, my dear. Thank you.

 

Home Is When I Come to Rest

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The wall of my Shenley Drive study

A couple evenings ago, while walking our beloved gimp Watson to the end of Shenley Drive, wife Kathy and I counted the number of times I’ve moved since my sophomore year of college, when I rented my first apartment. I narrated, and she revised here and there.

In twenty-three years, I’ve moved twenty times, with Kathy along for most of them. We married young (I was twenty-one, she was twenty) and amazingly we’re still together. Three bouts with graduate school, daunting challenges with our now-adult daughter Elena and son Micah, my nervous breakdown and struggle to be a good household helpmate: such realities beat up a marriage. We’ll celebrate our thirty-second anniversary this July because Kathy is forgiving. I’m a nice guy and patient to a fault, but we’re embarking on yet another move as husband and wife because the latter gives the former endless second chances.

My twenty-first move, Kathy’s twentieth. This one is from Erie, Pennsylvania’s west to east side, fifteen minutes, five or six miles. 2200 square feet to 1000. Two stories to one. Upper middleclass to middleclass. Shenley Drive to Parkway Drive. 16505 to 16511.

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Micah cut his hair at the dirty bathroom sink and unintentionally gave the faucet a generous mustache. 322 Shenley is crowded with such incidental joy.

Of course, there’s the emotional part of the move. Kathy is beyond ready, having spent countless hours painting, plastering, and planning the new place. Micah has fourteen years of testosterone, fury, and healing invested in his home; he sulks and sighs. I don’t get attached to dwellings much, but leaving Shenley Drive has me negotiating with a funk. Having gone through several episodes of hell there, I find the hardwood floors and views out the windows have taken on sweetness in these better times. And I came to rest at 322 Shenley. Lying in bed with Kathy and looking out at the boulevard’s old maples in all seasons, I thought many times, “I don’t need to be anyplace else. When my hour comes, I could die here, this woman beside me, my eyes on the trees.”

It’s easy to move when you’re ready, another when your heart won’t quite let you say goodbye: to a yard crowded with flowers and herbs, to neighbors as close as family, to walls you’ve leaned against and cried.

Dear as Shenley is to the Colemans, I know from the scars of leave-taking that bulbs and seeds grow in other gardens, friends appear on every avenue, and new walls can become trusted shoulders.

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A new route to the bathroom

Anyway, Shenley isn’t my home, nor will Parkway be. I remembered this the first night Kathy and I spent in our new bedroom. Flummoxed Watson clicked on the hardwood from my side of the bed to Kathy’s, back and forth, ad infinitum. The route to the bathroom was odd, short and direct. But I wasn’t sad. For me, home is saying “Kiss goodnight?” to Kathy and resting my hand on her warm belly as we fall asleep. Home is her saying “I love you, John Coleman” after the alarm goes off. (Yes, Kathy calls me by my first and last name.)

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Home is kibitzing with my son. The functional kitchen is a bonus.

Home is also standing with Micah as he tells me about a wrinkle in his day or about the mantis scrimp, which punches its prey. Before he goes to off to watch television, I say, “Spare a hug for the old man?” He does and means it. That’s home.

Home is Elena calling me Daddy and rescuing my bland refried beans and son-in-law Matt explaining that a truck’s clutch requires oil and toddler grandson Cole nodding and saying “yeah” when I ask if he wants to chew my watch.

Home is singing with my church family on a Sunday morning:

I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies,

no sudden rending of the veil of clay,

no angel visitant, no opening skies;

but take the dimness of my soul away.

Home is when I close my eyes, sit still, and sense—no evidence other than longing—the presence of the Loving Mystery.

Home is when I come to rest, held close by infinite variations of mercy.

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As long as my grandson is nearby, I’m home. The Loving Mystery looks at me with Cole’s eyes. His smile is mercy.

 

I Found the Holy Ghost in Asheville

Were I to subscribe to omens, the family drive from Erie, Pennsylvania, to Candler, North Carolina, last week would have put me in a black mood. I’m not sure what formula Google Maps uses to estimate travel time, but I doubt it includes weather, bodily functions, and babies, all of which can add decades. My spunky iPhone 6 (not Plus!) predicted 9 hours and 49 minutes, or some such crap. When wife Kathy, daughter Elena, son-in-law Matt, grandson Cole, and I rolled up my sister Cindy’s long driveway, our constitutions were too battered for math. We squinted at each other and said, “Huh? Yeah, maybe like 17 hours?” Blowing snow, freezing rain, and West Virginia mountains occasionally had us down to 30 mph. Good thing I sit still and pray-meditate a lot. When I was younger, such a drive would have set my bowels into angry, claustrophobic spasms. Are we there yet?

The presumed reason for renting a Town and Country van and heading south was my sister-in-law Betsy Ann’s 80th birthday party. I should have known better. The actual purpose of travel, across town or to another hemisphere, doesn’t reveal itself unless I leave my soul’s door ajar and pay attention. Somewhere in the midst of eating spaghetti or getting lost in a Louis Armstrong song or walking into a coffee shop, I think, “Ah, so this is why I came here.” Tears are often involved.

As soon as Kathy and I put our bags in Cindy and her spouse Linda’s guest room, I began to suspect the days ahead would be about love or life or wonder–something wide-eyed. On the dresser was a photograph of Kathy and me from close to thirty years ago in a frame that said, “Welcome, Kathy and John.”

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A pathetic attempt at a photograph of a photograph. Ah well. Blurriness and flecks don’t diminish my young Kathy’s beauty one bit, nor do they provide cover for those ridiculously large glasses of the mid 1980s.

Thoughtful, this gesture. Along with the photograph went a bag of on-the-road stuff, like toothpaste, shampoo, and travel guides. That’s Cindy for you. Goodness pours out of the woman. She made our mother’s spaghetti sauce for dinner the first evening because she knows it was one of my favorites. But that’s a small detail. Cindy and Linda’s whole household hums with joyful, affectionate chaos. Pets are always making a ruckus, and their grandson Liam’s toys constantly chirp out music.

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Destined to be paesanos from the start: Cole and Liam, the latter the son of Tina and Rebecca.

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Friendly old Harriet, named after my spirited grandmother. Notice the bent left foreleg? When she was a pup, Harriet’s, owner smacked her with a two-by-four, resulting in a permanent . . . well . . . dogleg. She was supposed to be beyond hope, but not so with Cindy and Linda, who took the girl in and loved her into gentleness.

As if the blessings I’ve mentioned weren’t enough, we energetic travelers got to sample Asheville. A couple of moments there tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Soul, awake!” Asheville! Man, what a town! What I saw moved me, softened me up, cleared my vision. Behold Asheville:

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“Can I take your picture?” I said. He smiled and raised his left thumb to the sky. The Holy Ghost is all about conserving energy.

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Pippa and Brody greeting admirers. I chatted with owner Mary Ann as if we were old buddies.

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The Flat Pennies busking. Old Appalachian music. Great stuff.

Ah, to wander from beauty to beauty as a fiddle and banjo converse. The buoyant music made me buzz with gladness, and I wasn’t alone. Was I seeing the Holy Ghost in eyes of strangers, somehow no longer strangers? That’s how I felt.

But the moment, my harmonic convergence, arrived at Betsy Ann’s party. Taking advantage of free flowing pinot noir, I watched a photographic loop of the birthday girl’s life. One shot was an epiphany. I don’t consult omens, but do welcome a wave of inspiration, the sight, sound, or word that bestows an ah of recognition, a truth received.

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My sister Cathy with her arm around Betsy Ann. Two pilgrims in love, come to a place of grace and peace.

As you can tell, both of my sisters are lesbians joined in marriage. For decades I’ve been fine with homosexuality–as if what I think matters anyway. But when I saw this photograph, all I knew was joy. Oh that everyone who wants to join hands and hearts with another could do so. The human race is doubled over by body blows. Venom is the new norm. And don’t even mention manners.

But look! An 80-year-old woman puts her head on my sister’s 66-year-old shoulder–my sister Cathy, one of the most kind and decent souls in circulation. Don’t most of us want to rest in the arms of a beloved? To lean into another, share the view of a bright land, and think, “I’m home, yes. My home is here, yes. With this one person, yes“?

I’m all about love: guilty as charged. Sentimental, too, I guess. We all have to be about something. I pick this: it’s a wish. If only we could all find love in the measure we need and have the inner freedom to make our way there without fear or shame, however we find ourselves bidden. For some folks, days are weary, desperate, lonely. Love can turn the walk into a jig. If only we could all reach old age and sing to our beloved, as Betsy Ann did.

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“I said to myself, ‘What a wonderful world.'” Betsy Ann looked at Cathy. I wiped away tears and hid my sniffles by sipping wine. And I knew why I had made the trip to North Carolina.

Turns out the Holy Ghost wasn’t only in Asheville. She was also in Candler, at a birthday party, and in every other place of tenderness and care. What is the Holy Ghost, after all, if not love?

 

Joy Whispers to a Cracked Rib

Think the movie Home Alone. Think Joe Pesci’s character slipping on icy concrete, going airborne, and slamming down on his back.

That was me two Sundays ago, on my way to church, where I had to breathe and make sense. The difference was, Pesci’s stuntman actually took his fall. As a middle-class, middle-aged man, I personally came down on a step and cracked a rib. Before the echo of my shout died, I thought, “Wow, that was loud. Neighbors will come running.”

A couple of them did hear, I learned later, but thought nothing of it. I lay there, unaware that old #12, that southern most of ribs connected to the spine but not the cage, was compromised. “Did you puncture a lung, Mr. Wingtips?” I wondered. After thirty seconds, I said, “Well, I guess we’ll find out.” I rolled to my feet, staggered to my truck, and drove to clergy work, which included crouching to look toddlers in the eye and telling them that Jesus loves them just the way they are. Doesn’t matter if they’re autistic, hyper, or angelic. Whatever. Jesus loves them. (Don’t ask me how I know this. I just know!)

In the nearly two weeks since my slapstick, my cracked rib has led to a couple of insights.

1.) Yes, the stabbing pain is inconvenient, but I’ll take it over bronchitis, the flu, or even the common cold. Sitting still works wonders for rib pain but does nothing to stop coughing and sniffling.

2.) Cleansing breaths are a blessing. At no point did taking great lungs full of air hurt, so I figure I got off easy. Coughs, sneezes, laughs, yawns, and—of all things—burps were followed by yelps or arghs.

3.) Slow down and wise up! The icy step that got the better of me was clearly slippery. I could see as much and thought, “I’m going to text [wife] Kathy when I get to church and ask her to salt the steps.” I was in a hurry; even so, I put my left foot down with slow-motion, geriatric caution, like I was testing pool water with my toe. No matter: away I went. Starting with that moment I looked up at the leaden sky and wondered about the damage, I’ve been trying to pay attention. “Curl your fingers back when you chop celery, John.” “Take your time walking across that freshly mopped floor.” And even, “Slow down and taste your food.” If only I were half as much a gourmet as a gourmand!

4.) Losing a little weight would go a long way. I’m not sure whether my back fat cushioned my landing, but I know belly blubber makes me lumbering—not to mention I can hear carbon dioxide hissing from my lips when I tie my shoes.

Important as all these lessons are, I’m most grateful that my cracked rib continues to reinforce an observation I wrote about recently, one that has made me feel light and hopeful at least as often as bummed and brooding: Disaster and injury shout. Joy whispers. Crap shines a klieg light in your face. Blessing relies on stick matches.

On that Sunday of the fall, with my roar still sounding over Erie’s bayfront, the family (that would be Kathy, son Micah, daughter Elena, son-in-law Matt, and grandson Cole) had dinner at Cole’s house. When Kathy and I walked in the door, we found the little man asleep on the couch.

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This face wouldn’t be cherubic much longer.

Since it was around 5:30, Cole needed to get up so he would have some tired left for bedtime. Elena woke him up, which led to a case of the grumps and snivels. Grandma Kathy took a bullet for the unit and distracted Cole with her iPad—poor Kathy!

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I have no idea why Cole is naked. When I saw this, I thought, “So what if he goes.” That’s love, I guess.

When food time arrived, Micah took over, feeding Cole toddler friendly bits from his antipasto. They sat together for what seemed a long time to me, spaced out on the recliner as ibuprofen conversed with sassy #12. I remember thinking that at twenty-three, sharing my salad with a wee squirm-ster would have held zero interest. Micah gleefully babysits his nephew and plays with him until Cole squeals and Unka Mike is sagging.

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Cole, wearing the bathrobe Grandma Kathy made for him, poaching Uncle Micah’s salad.

Two days later, just as the ancillary sites I’d offended were registering their complaints, I received a short via text message from Julie, who recently moved with her husband and three daughters from Erie to Lexington, Kentucky. I had posted my antics on Facebook, and the girls had something to tell me.

It can be hard to hear the well wishes of children and a grandson who can now say please, baaaa, uh oh, bye, hi, and I you (I love you). Rage and rancor are such bigmouths. Blessing won’t bluster. I have to be mindful, listen, and refuse to let the world’s volume trick me. Peace and gladness thrive only if I take the trouble to look.

One more piece of evidence: late the other night as I was driving home after church work, the gravitational pull of 322 Shenley Drive made me want to lean on the gas pedal. I didn’t speed, but I wanted to. Why? My urgency was about going to bed. Kathy and I would get under the covers, maybe watch a little TV and talk for a while. Then we would sleep. Our skin would touch along our bodies. I would kiss her shoulder.

Now don’t start hearing “Brick House” in your head. No singing—and I quote—“Chicka bow chicka bow bow.” Think overweight, pasty man with cracked rib. Seriously, cut it out!

The tug I felt on I-79 was love. How quiet and blessed is this? I wanted to get home to be with my wife, fall asleep next to her, and draw her close. Creation’s groans never let up, but, I knew, grace would whisper us to sleep. I intended to listen.