Oniontown Pastoral: I Used to Know That

Oniontown Pastoral: I Used to Know That

I am pleased to report that two horses have recently joined the faculty of animals in the fields surrounding Oniontown. They have signed on with those who endure the frustrating job of teaching the Reverend John Coleman a remedial course, Life 101.

I’m as eager a student as you’ll find in the great class of spiritual seekers in northwestern Pennsylvania and beyond, but one thorn sticks in my flesh: forgetfulness.

The same lessons present themselves to me “ad nauseam,” and each time a bashful idea arises: “Oh yeah, I used to know that.”

By way of set up for my latest epiphany, I should note that some little spitballs stick to my mental chalkboard. In 1956, before my time, E. B. White considered old versus new in his essay “Coon Tree”: “We have two stoves in our kitchen here in Maine–a big black iron stove that burns wood and a small white electric stove that draws its strength from the Bangor Hydro-Electric Company. We use both. One represents the past, the other represents the future. If we had to give up one in favor of the other and cook on just one, there isn’t the slightest question in anybody’s mind in my household which one we’d keep. It would be the big black Home Crawford 8-20, made by Walker & Pratt, with its woodbox that has to be filled with wood, its ashpan that has to be emptied of ashes, its flue pipe that has to be renewed when it gets rusty, its grates that need freeing when they get clogged, and all its other foibles and deficiencies.”

White’s dedication to the old and simple and tried and tested has made a lasting impression on me. His reservations about progress–everything from nuclear power to telephone systems unsupervised by operators–might seem curmudgeonly to contemporary eyes, but current research is rising up to prove how right he was in many of his disputations. (More on that another time.)

His words have never been wasted on me. I’ve been guided, for example, by his devotion to simplicity and common sense. Wife Kathy and I have lately cut our square footage in half and relieved ourselves of possessions by the hundreds. Thanks in part to the writer his friends knew as “Andy,” I’m not defeated by a big house to clean or smothered by what Kathy loves to call “items.”

And now, thanks to two lovely horses on District Road near St. John’s, a joyful thought has returned, something I used to know and hope never to forget again.

Round bales disappearing into a cold, damp field on District Road

Those horses, then, were up to nothing whatsoever. As I drove past, they stood close together, noses almost touching as they bent to meager fare on the winter ground. An impression came to me immediately like a kiss on the cheek: “They look happy.”

If you know me personally or by words alone, you know that it doesn’t take much wind to set my soul sailing. As I imagined over and over that pair of professors grazing, a glad possibility stayed with me for the rest of that day and hasn’t disappeared yet.

In the midst of delightful travels on Route 19 and District Road, one cloud has darkened my sky. “What a boring life those animals must lead,” I’ve speculated. Through no neglect or fault of their owners, the hours and afternoons must stretch out in front of the cows and horses—cold, snowy, damp, muddy and endless.

Go ahead, have a good laugh at my foolishness, but I’m telling the truth. Pastor John has been nursing a genuine, though ignorant, pity for Oniontown’s teachers of Life 101.

It’s a relief to realize that animals don’t need entertainment or diversions. Neither do they speak in sentences or contemplate mortality. They’re fine—thank you very much—just being together, breathing, dining on corral salad and rubbing noses now and then.

They don’t obsess over ambitions and failures or fret about risky investments or an oncologist’s diagnosis. In the end, animals probably don’t require a neurotic fifty-something’s sympathy.

Funny thing, I have a ceramic plaque hanging under a cross at home in the den. The words from Abraham Joshua Heschel are three feet from my nose: “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”

In their own way, cows and horses understand the great rabbi’s philosophy. So did I, not too long ago. I’m indebted to them for the gentle reminder.

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Oniontown Pastoral #9: Kitchen Talk

Oniontown Pastoral #9: Kitchen Talk

IMG_3909Given the number of hours I spend at the stove, it’s inevitable that my best conversations with son Micah take place in the kitchen. Dad smashes garlic or micromanages an Alfredo sauce, and son shows up with revelations and mysteries.

He and I once rehearsed the Chinese words for you’re welcome so that he could answer an elderly immigrant’s thank you at work the next day.

One evening he sputtered a profanity-laced account of a cruelty he had witnessed in a grocery store parking lot. I realized at once that his words were intended as a lament, rough-hewn, but holy.

Micah’s latest beauty parked itself in the kitchen doorway, blocking my way: “Hey, Dad, have you ever felt like you needed a reason to cry?”

“No,” I almost said, “I keep plenty of reasons to cry on hand,” but decided to give my twenty-something some space.

His explanation turned toward the haunting Celtic music from a war film, Black Hawk Down. The Breton lyrics, which sound to English speakers like groans put to notes, choke him up. Is he drawn to listen because, who knows why, tears need to be released?

Since the one activity I spend more time on than cooking is navel-gazing, long, mind-numbing speculations about sadness are always in stock.

I kept my theorizing brief with Micah, and I’ll extend the same courtesy here.

We human beings never really get over anything. That’s the pith. Every death, breakup, failure and injury sleeps folded up in our cedar chest of memory. The teacher who said you would never amount to anything? The words are preserved as if on stationary and fade with the years, but no matter, you know them by heart. And the day you received the devastating phone call? That instant is a photograph waiting for the lid to open.

We live in layers. Today’s scorching goodbye invites every other parting to come along with it. And the current betrayal may sing a solo, but it’s backed up by a choir.

Every joy also has its lineage, but most of us are content to receive a moment’s gladness without interrogation. Who asks, “Why am I having such a great day?”

No. The question left standing belongs to my son. “Do you ever need a reason to cry?” Another way of posing it might be, “Why does each hurt in the chest beg to be aired now and then?”

I don’t know, but my days of stifling the truth are past, as is the impulse to name every lump in my throat.

IMG_4284Fortunately, men’s tears aren’t frowned upon anymore, though most of mine visit privately during my hour to and from pastor work at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown, Pennsylvania.

A mandolin plays or an oboe or a gravelly voice. The land offers its countenance. I might stop at Camp Perry for some farmer’s cheese and let its salt and cream grace the drive.

Always the weight in my sternum and fullness behind my eyes arrive of their own accord—and not terribly often. A sniffle, a damp cheek. The road blurs a little.

Who am I missing? What passing wants attention? What shadow of rejection has returned to make me small? I don’t ask anymore.

“Come in, whoever you are,” I think, maybe at a crescendo. “Find the air you need.”

By the time I get home, a cleansing has usually occurred. I’m happy to start supper, ready for more kitchen talk with Micah. My lungs are filled sails.

If each soul does have a chest—cedar or hope—mine has no lock. The contents come out and go back in, awakened by music they must recognize. After fifty-four years, I suppose they’re family.

On My Mother’s 90th Birthday

On My Mother’s 90th Birthday

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Dolores Coleman, younger than my daughter and son are now

March 11, 2016: My mother would have turned ninety today. She died on June 8, 1998, of sepsis, the result of a reattached ileostomy. Our goodbye still feels like a door left ajar. She was unconscious by the time I reached her hospital room, so the best I could do was whisper and pat her bloated, purple hand.

She was gentle and loving. I thanked her for that. And I said she gave motherhood everything. She lost sleep and sweated small stuff. I didn’t use those exact words, but that was the gist.

The only sign that she could hear me was her fat hand lifted a little, then fell. Maybe she didn’t catch every detail, but I hoped that she sensed my attempt to surround her with kindness and affirmation.

The trouble was, Mom’s end was not certain at that point. I held out hope for a turnaround, so my deathbed blessing was a precaution.

But it would have to do. She passed within a couple of days, while I was at seminary in Columbus. By the time I got back to Erie, she was bone and ash in a beige plastic urn. No tender moment with Mom in repose, no soliloquy.

And no private crying. Those came at her funeral service, called forth by a hymn, probably my favorite: “Abide with Me, Fast Falls the Eventide.” I was loud and sloppy. It couldn’t be helped.

But this was almost eighteen years ago—my Lord! Grief has aged along with me, tears giving way to a longing that visits now and then. I don’t just miss Mom, but also myself as her kid, when life wasn’t perfect, but mostly good and glad.

Much as a hymn cracked me open when I was a younger man, music now makes me feel an emptiness in my chest that can only be filled by the past. Give me communion with those who would now be a hundred or more. Let me break bread with the living scattered by the centrifugal force of passing time.

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Lawrence with ah Bobby and ah Cissy, 1969 (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Last week Lawrence Welk—of all musicians!—had me pining. At the family gatherings of my youth, elders wanted big band and bubbles on the television. Enduring Bobby and Cissy and token black tap dancer Arthur Duncan was a tariff imposed on us before we pre-pubescents could watch Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom with Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler and, of course, The Wonderful World of Disney.

My cousins and I regarded the burden as onerous, but now when “It’s The Lawrence Welk Show” belts out from the television and the accordion starts up, my mind and body want to be at Aunt Mart and Uncle Kenny’s house, in the always amiable commotion of generations.

The desire for this slice of the past is physical. I swear, when Welk goes “Ah one and ah two and ah,” my heart stirs. Even Joe Feeney’s nasally tenor makes my eyes smile.

Mom was in that joyful air, in the rise and fall of voices I can’t remember all that well anymore. I miss her. I miss bumping into those decent old souls and getting overheated running around with cousins.

The whole champagne rerun (Public Broadcasting Service) played out as I washed dishes and cooked and let a lovely ache move through me.

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Karen and Richard Carpenter with President Nixon (Credit: Robert L. Knudsen on Wikimedia Commons)

Not too many days later Karen and Richard Carpenter played the same trick on me—a PBS fundraiser retrospective. Admitting you like the Carpenters is for some people right up there with digging Barry Manilow. Confession: part of me loves them. Karen Carpenter’s voice puts me in another corner of my past’s attic. Family friends stayed late, played cards, gorged on long-gone Armand’s thin pizzas, and laughed until dizzy. I had just hit double digits, and the scene was so loosey-goosey that I scored a fair amount of beer out of the deal. All the grownups loved and played Carpenter’s albums and 8-track tapes.

Mom, who was built a little like Karen before the anorexia took over, was at the center of my memory’s comforting song. I can still see “We’ve Only Just Begun” in calligraphy at the bottom of our friends’ wedding photograph, their giddy features pinched against the flying rice. Who says “Goodbye to Love” and “Rainy Days and Mondays” aren’t happy songs? Those years weren’t too shabby, nestled in between my parents’ divorce and the ravages of Mom’s arthritis.

Part of my longing is to go back, before I knew how fragile and bruised elderly skin could be, how worry and disappointment can hunch your back, how some dreams end as wisps of smoke.

But that’s not all. I want to dunk my Grandma Coleman’s molasses cookies again, sit on the floor of a room packed with relatives as Tinkerbell blesses the Magic Kingdom with pixie dust and Fowler saves Perkins from a boa constrictor, and watch Mom tease her hair, then set it in curls with Dippity Do and bobby pins.

I wish for Karen Carpenter to sing again. I want to rewind Lawrence Welk’s sign-off and listen back when I couldn’t wait for it to finish.

Good night, good night, until we meet again,

Adios, au revoir, auf wiedersehn till then.

And though it’s always sweet sorrow to part,

You know you’ll always remain in my heart.

Good night, sleep tight, and pleasant dreams to you.

Here’s a wish and a prayer that ev’ry dream comes true.

And now till we meet again,

Adios, au revoir, auf wiedersehn.

Good night!

I’m not wiping away tears. My hand is drawn to my chest, though, and I’m sighing. Sadness and gratitude sit together. This is the best happy birthday I can say to Mom right now.

Clouds Over Peach Street Starbucks

Erie, Pennsylvania, 9:05 a.m. This June 8, 2015, is gray, drizzly, close, still. If I accomplish anything worthy, it will come from without–a descending muse, a cloudburst of grace.

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Clouds over Peach Street Starbucks

When I looked at my watch just now to check the date, I remembered: my mom died seventeen years ago today. Another layer of humidity touches my skin. (I miss you as much as ever, Mom, but these waking hours are unfolding, and you would want me to do more than cradle the sadness pushing inside my chest.) Crying is therapeutic, but it reaches a point of diminishing returns.

I want to let wife Kathy’s words be my weather. Early this morning she borrowed a line from Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park: “Life finds a way.” He was talking about a species of dinosaurs reproducing, even though they were all engineered to be females. Kathy had in mind a neglected amaryllis bulb. During the flurry of our recent move, it slept in a pot by our dining room window without soil or water.

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“You won’t plant me, so I’ll show you,” Kathy heard the flowers say.

Life finds a way. So does hope. At about the time I was recalling Mom’s face, a woman bought a tired, weathered guy coffee and a bagel. They were strangers. No fanfare. “Thank you.” “You’re welcome, sir.” Quiet hope, almost invisible. Not all flowers are stunning. Some just sigh.

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Parked by my truck, these say, “Shh. I’m only slightly lovely.”

All hope asks of me is that I watch for it–amazing how often I can’t even do that. But maybe I should honor Mom’s memory by opening my eyes.

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I come home regularly now to find that old gimp Watson has willed himself up on the bed. Here he joins cat Baby Crash for a siesta. For me, hope requires a climb.

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A couple blocks from our new house: this mutt clawed a window air conditioner out of the way and kept watch on the porch roof. On bad days, I also have to push some shit out of the way to get into open air, where hope resides.

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Then again, sometimes gorgeous life is hiding in what I consider inconvenience. A downpour delays my leaving Starbucks, but the splash invites me to look.

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Yeah, yeah, yeah, rainbows are cliches. So what. This one, outside of Abiding Hope Lutheran Church, had Kathy and me standing in the rain. Sing us a song, Kermit the Frog.

I can leave my Starbucks perch now without getting drenched, so off I go. Thanks for the good words, Kathy. And stay with me, Mom. Help me to find life and hope and to remember you with joy.

P.S. A note to friends: Please forgive me for falling behind on blog reading, commenting, and posting. In a few days I’ll be taking A Napper’s Companion on the road for a presentation at a regional church gathering. Combined with usual duties and moving the Coleman household, preparing for this talk has had me busy up to my nose. Hang in there with me and send some loving energy my way. I’ll see you again soon. Peace, John

What I Hope My Grandson Will Remember

A Napper’s Companion love, love, love alert. If you’re tired of me going on about grandson Cole, you are hereby issued a pass. My next post, already in progress, will be the customary blend of joyful and brooding. For now, if you can’t get enough of bald babies, come on in.

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Cole’s friendly monster first birthday party . . . by Elena Thompson and Cole’s groupies

Following my last silly post, Naming Monsters on Black Friday, dear blogging friend NapTimeThoughts and I had a little exchange that basically ended this way:

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Fifteen little monsters up for adoption

I wrote: “Wouldn’t it be great to sit with our grandmas again? Mine would have Vernors ginger ale and big brown tins of pretzels. Heaven.”

NapTimeThoughts wrote: “Mine would have coffee ice cream and graham crackers with butter on them, and we’d be playing Chinese checkers in the den. Someday Cole is going to have this conversation with someone, you know. What do you want him to remember?”

Not only does NapTimeThoughts have a belly-laughing, thoughtful blog, but she comments generously and genuinely on mine and others. Her question here has lingered with me in the days since she asked it. “What do you want [Cole] to remember?” My answer will change over time. Since Cole just celebrated his first birthday, he would be beyond genius if he remembered anything about me, should I cash in my chips in the near future.

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Whatever you remember about your gramps, kiddo, be sure to include color!

But a grandfather can hope. My Vernors and pretzels and NapTimeThoughts’ coffee ice cream, graham crackers with butter, and Chinese checkers are details—as my friend well knows—that help resurrect our grandmothers. A soda pop bottle, a cool marble, that’s all it takes. Suddenly, a personal, particular love lives again.

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Thanks, NapTime, for a question worth a couple days’ reflection. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Good old NapTime enjoys a bit of back and forth, thank God. Her query was a gift that led me to an answer. “What do I want Cole to remember?” Assuming at this point he won’t recall my feeding him broccoli cheddar soup or his kissing my cheek with a peck and a mmmwah, I do pray that this one piece of Gramps takes hold.

Here’s What Happened

This morning daughter Elena and Cole showed up at the house. As usual, wife Kathy and Elena had a plot to hatch, so Little Lord Cole and I had to find a way to amuse ourselves. Grandma’s ginger snaps and a walk around the dining room was the ticket. Already eager to embrace multi-tasking, Cole gummed bits of cookie and reached for my mother’s old teapot on top of the china cabinet. In response, I channeled Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh—gently, without being heavy: “Cole, just enjoy the cookie. You don’t need to do anything else.”

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This is life, Cole: taste the cookie.

“Yeah, right, Gramps,” he probably thought. But Cole is a deep soul. Once he had a fresh piece of ginger snap on his tongue, I stopped roaming and looked at him. We were perfectly alone.  “Listen, Cole,” I said. “This is very important.”

He actually got still. Amazing. His only movement was the cookie lolling around in his mouth.

“You have to remember,” I said, “I love you. It doesn’t matter if things are really great or really bad, your gramps loves you. Nothing can change that.”

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Schmutz face or pristine face. National Honor Society or way out of line. A life-time promise, sir. I’ll never give up on you, and when you stumble, I’ll remind you of the good I see in you. Take that!

After Cole and Elena left, I walked around the house for a while, looking at the commonplace–the wilted blossoms of Cole’s great-grandmother’s Christmas cactus–through a watery blur of blessing.

Here’s What I Hope:

Cole will remember neither the cookie nor my words. And on glad days, he won’t need a rearview mirror to make do. But, my dear NapTimeThoughts, my answer to your question on my grandson’s first birthday is this: when he is old enough to shave and has done himself stupid harm, let spirit-memory bring back what I gave him this morning. Let him know that he is worthy of love. Let his shoulders recall these old arms drawing him close and let his cheek still feel the kiss of unconditional grace.

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You won’t always be this cute, birthday bucko. No worries. When you get pimples and smell like sweaty socks, you’ll still be okay with me.

P. S. Thanks, NapTime. And Elena, could you put this one in Cole’s memory book, please?

 

 

The God I Love: A Letter to My Friends

Dear Friends:

A little after 9:00 this morning I called Denise at church and told her I’d be laying low today. Low happens to be my usual perch at Starbucks with an iced decaf coffee deepened by a shot of espresso and lifted by cream and Splenda. Bittersweet.

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Out on the boulevard, a maple with buds smaller than capers.

This Easter Monday, which we pastors often take off, looks and feels like spring—bright, but with enough chill in the air that you’d never mistake it for July. After a confounding winter, the trees might actually get around to budding, provided we can string some gentle days together.

April 21, 2014, is the kind of day you’d walk out your front door, take in a breath that makes your lungs unfurl, and believe for a second that joy might carry you away.

My watch says 10:23; its hands ask in their dying language, “What’s wrong with you? A sweet sky is being wasted.” I close my eyes, keep company with the mud in my chest and the catch in my throat. Then the Eternal Voice whispers, “Don’t worry, John. I’ll keep you.” (Some of you think I’m listening to nothing but my own desperate hope. And I’m fine with that. Honest. You might be right.)

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Gladness has its own hands, I guess.

To all of you taking five minutes to read this letter, please consider this an offering. I believe in God because of mornings like this, when nothing more could be asked of weather and circumstance, but when sorrow still throbs like a toothache in the soul.

Sorrow. Okay, sorrow about what? That’s the rub. Who knows? I’m convinced the sadness I’ve experienced over the years regards itself as family that is obligated to visit when my calendar clears and my emotional doors are ajar. So which blue relative is reclining in my spirit, looking at me with watery eyes?

June of 1998? Mom’s hand was purple, swollen three times normal. I held it, cold and taut. “If you want to go, Mom,” I said, “I understand. But I want you to know I love how gentle you are, how you’ve loved Elena and Micah, how you always tried to help me. And if there’s anything you feel bad about, I love you and believe you always tried as hard as you could to do what was right. And if you can get better and live, that would be really great.” I should have stayed until she died two days later, but I went back to seminary in Columbus. What was I thinking? “I’m sorry, Mom.”

January of 2012? Pleasant Ridge. Nothing against the place, but what an insulting name! Two physical therapists tried to get loopy Dad out of his wheelchair for a walk. They held him up by his waistband, but his knees wobbled and a diaper sagged from his boney ass. Why? What for? “I didn’t have the presence of mind to tell them to let you be, Dad. I’m sorry.” A couple days later, he lay in bed, howling and grabbing at the air. For what? More time? Another chance? “I left after an hour because my loving voice made you thrash like a drowning man, so I’m not sorry, Dad. Just haunted.”

A thousand other losses, failures, injuries? Who knows? They refuse to identify themselves, and I’m terrible with their faces and names. Still, they are relatives. More than that, I have the feeling God is holding their hand when they show up.

Sure, I believe in God because of this day’s wonder and my current nave full of blessings, especially grandson Cole. But sorrow—inconvenient kin—is my faith’s mast, at least on these present existential breakers. Without sorrow, my sails have nothing to hang from.

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My Wagnerian Cole. You fill my sails, chubby cheeks, but I’m also trusting God not to forget your first week of life in the ICU.

Here’s my confession: a God who can blossom as healthy babies, Grand Canyons, and love-making deserves worship. But a God who cradles misery and refuses to let it slip away into denial or insignificance deserves love. This is the God I believe in.

I often sit with people who are being sucked under by worry and turmoil. As I join them in ashes, a quiet joy rises up in the sacred conversation. Just as nothing tangible in creation is wasted, so I think God takes hold of everything. Everything! No waste.

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Ashes. One of the many homes God makes with us?

When Cole was born, Micah looked at him and cried. What a great belief moment. How could God waste the grace of those tears? If the fluid and chemicals I haul around as whiskers and cellulite will change form for eternity but never disappear, why shouldn’t I also assume that the fullness of human experience is in its own way cosmically material, never to be lost?

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Spring flowers. Autumn’s fallen leaves. Love. Disappointment. All cosmic matter?

And I mean all experience, an idea that demands a dark, holy logic. When I was in fifth grade, Mom met me at the door after school. “John, you knew your father and I would split up someday,” she said. “He is down at the courthouse now filing the papers.” I think I cried for a minute as she held me. I’m not sure. Then I ran to Eddie’s house. “Holy hell,” he kept saying. “Holy hell.” We climbed our usual tree in his backyard and sat in silence. “No, Mom, I didn’t know.” And, my friends, this memory still has me longing for a hug I don’t expect to enjoy this side of glory. (Don’t feel sad for me. We all have our pockets stuffed with scraps of life we figured were in the waste basket or attic. Right?)

Is this my visitor now, as morning bleeds into afternoon? A day when I was a lost boy? Maybe so. In an hour, odds are decent I’ll walk outside and be light enough for the warm wind to shock me with new life. Whatever happens, I believe in the God who remembers a kid sitting shaken and afraid forty years ago up a tree. A God who remembers how I couldn’t stop crying at Mom’s funeral when we sang, “Abide with Me, Fast Falls the Eventide.”

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Elena and Micah in 2006, as the rough years were starting up. They’re both great now, a fact I celebrate daily. But I believe our struggles add compost to the flowering universe.

“God,” I pray right now, “remember your creation’s joy, but especially how spring shines on our grieving hearts. You do remember, right? That day in 1990 when Kathy and I buried mutt Bandit’s ashes at Wintergreen Gorge? Just a dog, but we were hurting. Amazing how we still miss him. I trust that you recall Bandit’s hundreds of seizures and step out of time with me and watch the way Kathy holds his head and wipes away drool. I love how you remember. Amen.”

Breathe in. Breathe out. I hear silence in my chest, which is a good answer. Until we find out the Great Mystery, stay with me: join in all of my comforting embraces; sit with me in a tree when I am a stunned boy; hold my hand as my father howls.

Love,

John