Thanksgiving for Eight Kisses In her journal The House by the Sea, May Sarton describes walking with her friend Judy and dog Tamas to the Maine shore in early December: “How glorious it was! Fifty-mile gusts of wind driving the waves … Continue reading
A Deep Breath and I’m Good Again
“It’s hell being nuts, Pastor,” Ray said over coffee. “I never know who I’m going to wake up to.”
My friend’s mental illness has been lifelong and ferocious. Hardly a day passes without one of his demons exacting misery. As I’ve mentioned in previous reports, we talk on the phone daily, usually more than once. Our conversations skip like records. He craves tobacco. He’s paranoid. He’s confused. Pray for him.
Occasionally he comes out with a revelation. “I never know who I’m going to wake up to.” If anybody else said this, you’d think he was joking about boozy one-night stands, but not Ray. Every day at 8:53 or shortly thereafter, my cell phone rings—or, I should say, quacks. I’ve recently given Ray his own ringtone so that I don’t rush to answer, not out of insensitivity, but realism. He’ll call back in 20 minutes.
Just as he has no idea what his alarm clock will bring, neither can I predict the stability of the voice on the other end of the line.
“I really want to smoke bad this morning, Pastor.” That’s a common complaint.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” I think, “smoke already!” No, I don’t advocate bad habits, but obsessing might be as carcinogenic as tar and as addictive as nicotine. My annoyance doesn’t linger like it used to, though. A deep breath and I’m good again.
Friendship with Ray is an exercise in forbearance, but it comes with rewards, chief among them is that loving him precisely as he is nudges me into loving others as they are and, no kidding, accepting life as it is.
The latest beneficiary of John’s love fest is the Coleman’s foxhound Sherlock Holmes. The facts are these. Sherlock, as I have noted in the past, is loud. If you could hear him carry on when I get home from work, your guts would quiver. Hollering won’t change this. Ignoring him won’t change this. Filet mignon won’t change this.
Now, I can boil over, or I can remember what Ray taught me: You can’t—or, I insist, shouldn’t—train people or dogs to be something that they’re not. That’s pointless and unfair. Either track down what’s lovable or start kicking friends and pets out of your pack.
Obviously I’m not talking about, say, a woman staying with an abusive man because, oh bother, he can’t change. There are limits.
But if your foxhound goes nuts on the way to the dog park, sounding off with his head hanging out the window, you have choices. That is to say, I have choices. 1.) Stop taking Sherlock to the dog park. 2.) Roar shut up until a sore throat sets in. 3.) Bark along with him. Only one of these makes since. Once the spirit takes over, the chats I have with my sleuthhound are almost as instructive as the ones I have with Ray.
Sherlock’s vocabulary is stunted, but adequate. He’s got ruff, whoop and whimper as well as several variations. Wimper is phonetically impaired, but you get the idea. We drive by pedestrians, who grin or go slack jawed. Some must wonder, “Was that driver barking like the dog?” Why, yes, he was. The performance also includes an intimate exchange. “Rah, rah, roo,” Sherlock often says, undoubtedly meaning, “I love you.” So I respond, “Rah, rah, roo, roo.” “I love you, too.”
After dashing, frolicking and indiscreet sniffing, he hops in the backseat for the five minutes home. Tired into silence, he who sheds fiercely puts his paws on the console, thrusts his head beside mine and slobbers.
Nobody has ever accused me of being tidy, so my gearshift panel is a commotion of dog hair, dust and coffee stains. Thanks to Sherlock, this dry slurry is now cemented in place by K-9 shellac. The dog has a surplus of spit, especially after playtime, and when he pants, that paddle-shaped tongue flings the slime everywhere.
I could get grouchy, but what’s the use? Scolding will never subdue saliva glands. Neither will admonition make a troubled soul wait until 9:00 a.m. to call.
I have some experience with neuroses, so I can confide in you this blasphemy. Prayer won’t still Sherlock’s thrill of the chase or cure Ray’s ceaseless mind. It’s more blessed, if you ask me, to bay with the dog or answer the phone saying, “So who did you wake up to today? If he’s giving you trouble, let’s talk a while. Then I’ll bend God’s ear for you both.”
Oniontown Pastoral: What Will Happen with Ray?
My phone will ring. It will ring now in the middle of a sentence or during my siesta or when wife Kathy is telling me about her day. The name Ray will roll across my screen, and my chest will tighten with annoyance. I’m ashamed to say so. The deal is, if I’m occupied—and what I’ve just mentioned counts—then I don’t answer. Otherwise, I pick up.
Used to be Ray would ask for a ride to get tobacco or to borrow money. He always paid me back, but the loans messed with my cashflow. Other than an occasional fiver, the Pastor John Bank is closed.
I still take him here and there. He gives me a few bucks for gas and thanks me over and over. Occasionally he can’t help himself and calls me an hour after I drop him back off at home: “Pastor, I just wanted tell you how much I appreciate everything you do for me.”
Ray’s mental illness is chronic. If there’s a psychiatric condition, it has paid him a visit. I don’t know all his medications, but the man sags, drags and droops—same with his jeans, suspenders not withstanding. But he still gets sick. That’s what he calls his collective turmoil, whether it’s fretting about somebody breaking in and stealing his debit card or being scared that God is punishing him for smoking or some other trifle.
“Hey, Raymond, how the heck are you?” is my usual salutation.
“I’m really sick today, Pastor,” he’ll say first thing. “Please pray for me.” We talk for a minute, maybe two.
Sometimes he responds, “You know, I’m doing pretty good today, buddy,” and I get another feeling in my chest, a lightness. We chat, enjoying the nonchalant fact that he’s OK.
And so Ray goes. Tolerable days string together, then the old anvil falls. He checks himself into the hospital, where a doctor tweaks his meds. After a week he gets released, does OK for a while, then, here we go again.
Ray doesn’t have many interests to leaven his lonely hours folded up in a broken recliner. He once collected beer steins, record albums and even cigar humidors, but every diversion has a way of turning into an obsession that crushes all good sense.
To his credit, Ray has gotten better at holding binge behavior at bay, except with Starlight peppermints that constantly clack against his dentures. When the smoking habit reigns, his fingertips go rusty blonde.
As long as he’s feeling alright, my buddy is content. He reads chapters of the Bible over the phone with friends and is satisfied with a diet of plain boloney sandwiches and Cornflakes.
At 62, though, Ray is never free of legitimate worry about his future.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen with me,” he said the other day from my passenger seat. “I’ll probably end up in Warren.”
Warren State Hospital, that is. When I was a kid in northwest Pennsylvania, “North Warren” meant “loony bin.” Sad, but that’s how it was.
But what I heard Ray saying was, “I expect to be forsaken.”
And I heard, “I’m going to completely lose my mind, and nobody will care one way or the other.”
A couple years ago, Ray almost made me lose my mind. His illness was particularly severe, and he would call me eight to ten times a day. When I brought the number to his attention, he had no idea.
“I’m sorry, Pastor,” he apologized. “I’m not playing with a full deck.”
“I know, Ray. I understand,” I assured him, swallowing frustration.
He is infinitely better now. So why is it that when Ray runs across my screen these days, I react inside like he had whacked my thumb with a hammer? Not every time, but often enough.
Other than a ride or a cup of Starbucks coffee, all Ray wants is a moment. He wants a friend to give him hope that once he runs out of cards entirely, his name will still mean something to somebody.
When Ray said, “I don’t know what’s going to happen with me,” it was as if God leaned in close and asked, “So, what will it be, John? Will my son be forsaken?”
If you ask me what faith is, I say it’s believing that when Ray falls asleep every night, God is nowhere more present than in his room. It’s dreaming that God looks at my friend’s face in the dark and sighs.
Faith is answering my phone.
Oniontown Pastoral: As If You Can Kill Time
If you saw me walking down the street, you wouldn’t say, “Now there’s a guy who values time and uses it wisely.” No, you’d say, “Gosh, he’s pudgy and rumpled. I’ll bet he’s lazy.”
A gumshoe hired to investigate me would report that I’m “bone idle” and “lackadaisical,” but he would be wrong.I prefer “unconventional.” One of my favorite lines of poetry comes from Andrew Marvel: “But at my back I always hear time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” And two expressions that annoy me are “killing time” and “wasting time.” Henry David Thoreau was right when he mused, “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.”
Frittered hours can never be recovered, but I must add that one highly organized, go-getter’s waste is this Lutheran pastor’s treasure.
Waiting in a grocery store line, for example, can be a respite if I keep my billfold full of compassion. The customer fiddling with change or rummaging for a coupon is stumbling through life just like I am. Giving the cashier the skunk eye and snorting loudly: now that’s wasting time.
Years ago I put checkout time to use by monitoring tabloids. Rather than glower at my provisions stranded on the conveyor belt, I got updates on Elizabeth Taylor’s marriage to a Martian and the cellulite epidemic among aging actors and actresses. These days I close my eyes, take in a deep breath and give thanks for food, clothing, shelter and love.
Any still, mindful moment is never an assault on time, nor for that matter is a nap. I could offer here a brigade of scientific support for what history’s most prolific napper, Winston Churchill, described as “the refreshment of blessed oblivion.”
The stigma associated with napping persists, but I remain defiant. In my experience, much of what gives each day its shine takes place in inconspicuous pockets of time. My thrice-weekly commute to and from Oniontown is a perfect example. Folks ask how I like the drive and are occasionally flummoxed to hear me rhapsodize about it.
You readers of A Napper’s Companion may suspect me of blowing sunshine, but I’m on the level. Last Thursday provides a good case study.
En route to St. John’s Lutheran Church I had just finished an audiobook biography of President Lyndon Johnson and was still recovering from the revelation that he fancied interrupting meetings with male staffers to go skinny-dipping in the White House pool—and cajoled them into joining him. No funny business, only matters of state being discussed by awkward faces bobbing up and down in the water. (I’m not making this up, and, sorry, there’s no way you can un-know this piece of historical trivia.)
As the scenery on I-79 slipped by, I took my mind off of unfortunate LBJ visuals by listening to a podcast (basically a radio program over the Internet) called Milk Street, which is about gourmet cooking.
Far from killing time, I rescued it by listening as legendary foodie Christopher Kimball preached the glory of pomegranate molasses drizzled over crispy baked chicken and the foresight of freezing pots of intensely darkened roux for convenient and flavorful sauce thickening.
“But, John,” you’re wondering, “do you really need to consume more crispy chicken and gravy?”
The same goes for wandering the expansive antique shop in Sheakleyville, where I stopped on my way to Oniontown not last Thursday but a couple of weeks ago. It feels like prayer to behold objects once commonplace but now replaced by the “new and improved”—alarm clocks that wind up, communicate with hands and measure time with ticks and tocks; blue and white Currier and Ives plates adorned with horse drawn wagons taking bundled up families home for Christmas.
Am I unconventional? So be it. The old suitcase I bought from the friendly proprietor and polished back to life has given me inexplicable pleasure. It was a treasure hiding in a pocket of time.
Whether at church in Oniontown or at home in Erie or shuttling in between, I try to honor each second by harvesting the wonder around me.
Do you understand? Zooming down Route 19 without saying hello to dirty blonde horse Onslow is an injury to eternity. Likewise, noticing son Micah bending down right now in the dining room to kiss our foxhound Sherlock Holmes right between the eyes is a prayer: “Thank you, God, for this present hour.”
Oniontown Pastoral #7: You Learn to Like It
“You learn to like it.” Grandma Coleman leaned hard into learn. She was talking about an instant mocha coffee powder, which she used at half strength. To me it tasted like stale water, but Gram, with her cherubic face, furrowed her brow and insisted. Raising children during the Great Depression taught her that she could decide what she wanted and needed. One teaspoon-full can taste better than two—but you have to work at it.
Gram’s wisdom echoes more with each passing year, mainly because what I want is often the opposite of what I need.
My latest lesson is, to tell the truth, plain silly. After fourteen years of ministry in Erie, I’ve settled nicely into the pulpit at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown. As I’ve said to parishioners and friends, “I’m having the time of my life. What a great place to be.” Since I showed up about six months ago, I’ve come to love the folks and the land—so much beauty.
But what’s embarrassing is this: although the scenery is soothing, I’m an impatient driver. The accelerator has a gravitational pull that I can’t resist. Come on, let’s go! On Route 19, District Road, and just about everywhere else, my brakes are getting a workout.
I’ve lived most of my life in medium to large cities where drivers don’t dillydally on turns. In these parts, abundant caution, reconnaissance and perhaps a little prayer precede pulling into each driveway or parking lot.
The other day at the Stone Arch, the St. John’s Seniors and I had a good laugh over the matter. “It’s as if,” I explained, “drivers are afraid a Tyrannosaurus rex is around each corner, waiting to chomp into the roof their car.”
“But there might be!” several said at once. “Or a cow or a dog or a . . . senior citizen!”
Thank God for their good humor. They already understand what I’m still trying to learn: slow down, what’s the rush?
I didn’t bother mentioning that on my way to the restaurant, a navy blue sedan in front of me inched fearfully into a lot that was so clear a Concorde could have come in for a hot landing. No tumbleweed, no crickets, just acres of glorious, barren blacktop.
“Why?” I cried out behind my closed windows. “What are you waiting for?”
Of course, I’m not proud of my frustration, but it does hold a truth: taking my time doesn’t come naturally. I’ve got to lean into liking second gear as much as fourth. My father would add his words to Gram’s: “Take it ease, disease,” he used to say, and “simmer down, bub.”
I have been making incremental progress. Last week an Amish guy sat stock still in his buggy in the middle of District Road as his horse swung his head this way and that, like a city dweller searching for a taxi. As I crawled past, my neighbor looked at me with a whimsical expression and waved, as if to say, “Thanks for not crashing into me.”
The exchange was pleasant. So, too, was my encounter with a wide piece of farm equipment—many circular blades—on my way to visit Ellen the other day. Both the farmer and I hugged our thin berms, and as we passed his eyes told me, “Yeah, we’re good. We’ve got this.”
I’ll simmer down eventually. My folks and the rolling fields are great teachers. Now I need to be patient with myself.
Blogger’s Note: If you read my last post, “Why Babies Fill Us with Longing,” you’ll appreciate daughter Elena’s description of what grandson Cole does when he’s not busy being cuter than a bucket of Shar Pei puppies. Enjoy!
Dear Mom and Dad,
It’s been a funny morning. Cole soaked through his diaper onto the bed (my bed, ugh). Then when I took his diaper off he peed on his own face! So I decided to give him a bath, but the washcloth I had over his bits didn’t hold the explosive poop that is all over my bathroom.
Thank God for dogs.
If it weren’t for the semi-good night sleep I probably wouldn’t have found it so funny.
Of course you can’t read, but I’m writing this letter for myself. So please sit still and pretend to listen.
When you stood at my side of the bed this morning and sighed, I knew what you were saying: “It hurts for me to hop up on the bed.” That’s why I hold open the blankets and wait. When you’re ready to try, it means curling up beside me is worth the extra ache in those bum legs of yours. And I know, even if you don’t, that you won’t be able to jump much longer. I thought about getting a futon but figured the longer you have to work, the longer you’ll be around.
I sure do love you, old buddy. I love that every time I climb the steps and lie down for a nap, you hobble up with me. Your nails clicking as you scrape them across each step reminds me that eventually you won’t be able to make it to the second floor. Your mother doesn’t know this yet, but when you’re grounded, I’ll lobby for moving our room to the first floor and getting a bed that’s Watson friendly. You’ve had a place in our sleep for around ten years; I won’t abandon you to the cold floor as you near the end.
Actually, you’ve had a place in our sleep from your first night in the Coleman house. Downstairs in the puppy crate, you yipped and howled, so I did something ridiculous. Knowing you weren’t house broken, I still picked you up, brought you upstairs, and settled you in bed between your mother and me. Guess what? It was as if the winter world you were rescued from had disappeared, and you were at peace. I kept expecting to wake up soaked in pee, but all night you slept between us, a black fur ball of relief. Dry. Safe. Home. Love.
You’ve been a gift to me, Watson. Sure, you have some annoying habits. If a squirrel squeaks on the boulevard, your alarm bark is like a funhouse scare–way out of proportion to the threat! For reasons I’ve never figured out, you take five seconds to decide if you want a treat from the table. I hold out a chunk of steak gristle, and you sniff and stare with suspicion. This is in violation of the Code of Dog Behavior, but you are gentle, which is good. You are the only dog I’ve ever seen who wanders when he craps. Cleaning up the backyard means sleuthing down a couple dozen micro-turds rather than spotting five or six robust piles from yards away. (Since your mom covers scooping detail, catching sight of you doing a pooping pirouette is more funny than upsetting.)
Finally, and increasingly, when we’re napping you point your bum toward my face and crack nasties. You know, the barber no longer needs to trim my eyebrows. They’re all gone. Damn, Watty. But you’re around eighty, so I can make allowances. Besides, farts in the animal kingdom aren’t frowned upon. Neither is indiscriminate humping, though you are rarely so inclined. Thanks, pal.
You probably have a couple years left, but who knows? I suspect you understand in your wordless spirit how grateful I am for you: how you lick my hand and face in the morning; how you wait for me to finish praying before going down for breakfast; how you used to love running with me so much you’d press on even when your nails bled from dragging across the pavement; how you lay down beside me when I’m writing at the dining room table–just to be close, I guess.
Silly people argue about whether dogs have souls. Walt Whitman once wrote about your kind:
I think I could turn and live with the animals, they are so placid and self contained;
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition;
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins;
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God;
Not one is dissatisfied-not one is demented with the mania of owning things;
Not one kneels to another, nor his kind that lived thousands of years ago;
Not one is responsible or industrious over the whole earth.
As far as I know, Watson, you don’t commit my sins: take too much to heart, nurse grudges, insult others, and fall short of love in a thousand other ways. You, on the other hand, seem motivated entirely by love–when you’re not scheming to get extra Milk Bones. But I’m in no position to call you a glutton.
Between the two of us, my old napping partner, I bet you have the bigger soul. None of us knows what eternity looks like, and as I said, you probably have some good time left. But hear this in your dog heart: I pray that we both have a place at the Final Table, that we can look into the face of Perfect Love and eat our share, and when the meal is over, we can climb stairs to the bedroom on strong legs. I pray there’s space in Forever for me to rest my face against your gentle head, put a hand on your paw, and nap away an endless afternoon.
When we have a toothache, we know that not having a toothache is a wonderful thing. “Breathing in, I am aware of my non-toothache. Breathing out, I smile at my non-toothache.” We can touch our non-toothache with our mindfulness, and even with our hands. When we have asthma and can hardly breathe, we realize that breathing freely is a wonderful thing. Even when we have just a stuffed nose, we know that breathing freely is a wonderful thing (From Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Life Is a Miracle” in Essential Writings, Orbis Books, 2001).
I sit up straight against my husband (that would be a sit-up-in-bed pillow), put the soles of my feet together, and draw both heels in—a pudgy guy’s lotus position. A couple minutes ago, Kathy pulled back the covers: “I really have to get up. Got to shower.” She loves me, understands I’m trying to bounce back from a tough emotional stretch. But it’s one thing to love someone, another to grant marital patience to a neurotic spouse since 1983.
That’s where today’s renegade prayer begins. The idea is to breathe and abide in Divine Love, not to glom onto thoughts, but gratefulness takes over. I smile at my wife.
My right knee rests against nap and prayer partner Watson’s back. I smile at my dog.
Micah’s turbo alarm goes off. Soon I’ll drive him to work. I smile at my son, at his sobriety, at his zealous work ethic. I knew it! I knew he had it in him! Proud.
Yesterday daughter Elena, son-in-law Matt, and grandson Cole came over for Matt’s birthday: California melts and chicken noodle soup. I smile at food, shelter, and love that pours out more than my cup can hold.
The church I serve is full of compassion. I smile at my sisters and brothers, all of us trying to love our way through this crazy world.
And my teeth are okay these days. No throbbing, no cracked incisors. I smile at my non-toothache.
A few years ago: I had bronchitis and cracked a rib coughing; my dad was sobbing and howling his way through dementia; my naps were delicious only because they were an escape. I smile at my clear lungs. I smile at you, Dad, resting in the lap of mercy. I smile at 3:00 p.m., the gentle rest that’s no longer about survival.
And I have you, sisters and brothers visiting A Napper’s Companion. I smile at you, and in this final moment before Amen pray you are whole and at peace.
Yes, yes, I know: Mother Teresa was accused of financial impropriety and of accepting contributions for her ministry to the poor from questionable sources. Her defense was that the poor were more important than the motives or morals of benefactors.
Say what you will, I love Mother Teresa. She was a saint—or will be soon enough. Two of her quotations guide my thinking. Friend Michelle had the first printed and framed for me as a gift: “I would rather make mistakes in kindness and compassion than work miracles in unkindness and hardness.” I keep these words on the wall in front of my desk. The second quote is just as powerful: “There should be less talk; a preaching point is not a meeting point. What do you do then? Take a broom and clean someone’s house. That says enough.”
Underneath all of Pastor John’s patience and compassion is selfishness. I don’t like to sweep floors, not even my own, and I covet time. Andrew Marvell’s lines often haunt me: “But at my back I always hear, / Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.”
For reasons I don’t understand, Mother Teresa’s words have visited me lately to remind me that her broom is a metaphor and many days my most useful, loving action is invisible, inconspicuous, known only to a person or two and a gray sky or a lonely afternoon.
A couple days ago a friend—let’s call him Gene—asked if I’d take him to buy a new pair of winter boots. He laughed as he told me about one sole of his old pair flopping around like a drunk’s tongue as he walked home. Finally he gave up, took off the wounded boot, and hobbled up his gravel driveway, one socked foot wet and tender.
So I picked Gene up, and within fifteen minutes he was trying on boots. One problem: health issues render him listless sometimes; tying his shoes or buckling a seatbelt can be exhausting. Though it was a bad day, Gene, as always, was aware of my time. He tried to hurry, but our footwear errand had him sagging to the Walmart floor. Every movement was a labor: tugging the wad of tissue paper from the toe of the boot; unraveling the laces and flipping down the tongue; and—my Lord—pulling on the boot.
After watching for a minute, I said, “I got you, Gene.” So I helped him find the right size, get the boots out of the box and onto his feet, each time pulling up his weary white socks, and watched silently as he did test runs. He tried on four pairs, finally settling on ones without laces, like cowboy boots with chunky treads and generous toes.
The second pair into this process it occurred to me—breathing, shamatha—that helping Gene in, ugh, Walmart, was sacred. He droops from the effort of taking money out of his wallet, and all he needs to make his life significantly easier is somebody to take forty-five minutes and spot him as he buys boots that won’t rub a sore on his ankle.
I also knew that Gene needed more than new boots. He needed to know that I wasn’t impatient or annoyed. So I put my hand his arm and said, “How about I help you get that on?” And, “Don’t worry, Gene. I’m not in a hurry.” And, in the case of a pair with a dozen eyelets, “Hmm. You’ll be an hour getting into these. By the time you get them tied, you’ll be too tired to go anywhere.” Like I said, Gene and I are friends. We had a good laugh.
A couple minutes after I dropped him back off at home, my cell phone’s Sherwood Forest ringtone sounded. It was Gene, but since I was driving, his call went to voicemail. The message: “I just wanted to say thanks again for helping me, John. See you.”
Mother Teresa also said, “We cannot do great things on this earth, only small things with great love.” I’m not sharing Gene’s and my excursion because I’m a great guy. I’m a normal guy with the usual human portion of self-absorption, a guy with an aversion to brooms, but I got lucky. In a moment of potential frustration I was blessed with a visitation of the Spirit.
A friend’s boots broke down. We got him a new pair. We did it together with love. I close my eyes, breathe, and days later the sacrament of trying on boots still cradles my soul. This is gladness.