Oniontown Pastoral: Wakefulness at Twilight At first the term “sleep hygiene” confused me. Who relates laying your head down at night and hauling it upright in the morning with cleanliness, after all? But when scientists delve into an issue, language … Continue reading
Oniontown Pastoral: Pop’s Christmas Psalm
Schmaltz Alert! If you’re tired of my posts about the grandsons, please take a pass. No hard feelings.
My grandson Cole loves all things mechanical. Put a toy hammer in his hand and he’ll go on a fixing spree. Wobbly bed posts will be pounded tight, rough edges in the home tapped smooth. Whining drills and purring engines command his rapt attention.
Come to think of it, Cole’s love isn’t restricted to tools and motors. He has an expansive spirit for a tenderfoot of three years. His interest reaches beyond fascination. When I recently took my thumb off for him–a corny trick I picked up years ago from Steve Martin on Saturday Night Live–he said, “I don’t like that.”
“Oh, buddy,” I said, “I didn’t really take off my thumb. That was make-believe.”
But he assumed that if my thumb came apart at the knuckle, I must have hurt myself. Honest to God, his frown and furrowed brow have medicine the human race needs to feel compassionate again. I promised not to do that trick anymore.
When Cole comes with my wife and me to St. John’s in Oniontown on Sunday morning, he often ends up weaving between the pine trees along the parking lot. Grandma Kathy follows behind, the two of them gathering a treasure of cones. The air itself–hot, cold, doesn’t matter–brings the kid joy as he runs his silly run through it. His trunk and limbs swing independent of each other so he looks like a marionette with a drunkard at the strings.
Cole’s run put to words would mean, “Look! This is gladness!”
But he wouldn’t say anything like that. He is too giddy to make an observation. Anyway, his mouth has no way of keeping pace with his speedy mind. He deals with this inconvenience by simply repeating whatever word happens to be on his tongue until the logjam in his brain clears. Many of his sentences begin with “I, I, I, I, I.”
Fortunately, the boy makes listening worthwhile. My daughter Elena told me about watching with Cole from the family mini-van as a backhoe scooped away at a patch of ground next to a pine tree. The hole got deeper and deeper, but neither mother nor son knew why.
Then the backhoe did something surprising. The driver put the back of the bucket against the tree and pushed it over. Turns out the hole was dug to weaken the roots and fell the tree.
Elena didn’t need to describe Cole’s expression. I could imagine it. His face—those pink cheeks and fine eyelashes—bright with awe, darkened in an instant. And I’m sure what happened required a few seconds to take on words.
“The tree can’t be down like that,” he finally said. “It has to be up. So so so the squirrels can eat the pine.”
I can’t remember what Elena’s response was, but I’ll bet everything she kissed him and said he was right. My buddy didn’t get a great soul by accident. His parents are faithful stewards of their son’s divinations.
Sure, there was probably an excellent reason for the pine tree to fall, but that’s not the point.
And now you’ll assume I’m speaking poetically, but my purpose couldn’t be more prosaic. Please don’t try to domesticate my grandson’s wild kindness or the Christmas psalm I now write, grateful to be his Pop:
Listen, you nations of the world,
listen to my grandson
and make his loving gaze your own.
Children of God must never be uprooted,
offspring of the Creator never left without pine.
Legs must run a silly run for the Lord.
Arms must never be separated from their bodies,
lest infants who find no room in the inn
be denied the manger of human hearts.
Sing, all people to your God,
sing a song of mercy.
Pray to your Lord for spacious spirits,
where refugees find welcoming borders
and bread enough for multitudes.
Look, you nations, at children.
Your Lord sees you with their eyes.
The Counterintuitive Truth About Violence: The Day After Dallas
Begin with speculation: Why do mass murderers often finish their missions by committing suicide, either by cop or their own hand? Various sources suggest self-loathing, hopelessness, a weird attempt at revenge, and a refusal to endure the consequences of their actions.
All of those reasons make sense, more or less, but this morning, riding out the dismay of yet another mass shooting, another explanation occurred to me.
After you kill people, you are in great measure dead already. Suicide is the end punctuation of the truth.
This basic idea—the violence you do to others returns home to you—is hardly new, but it is so unpalatable, abstract, and counterintuitive that we reject it, if we acknowledge it at all.
The Psalmist writes of his enemy, but speaks a universal reality: “He made a pit, and digged it, and is fallen into the ditch which he made. His mischief shall return upon his own head, and his violent dealing shall come down upon his own pate”(Psalm 7:15-16).
Arthur Conan Doyle certainly borrows from Psalm 7 when his Sherlock Holmes observes, “Violence does, in truth, recoil upon the violent, and the schemer falls into the pit which he digs for another” (“The Adventure of the Speckled Band”).
Buddhist teachings also acknowledge the result of letting yourself be consumed by anger and violence: “By doing [violence] you are like a man who wants to hit another and picks up a burning ember or excrement in his hand and so first burns himself or makes himself stink” (Visuddhimagga IX, 23).
The temptation is to domesticate such wisdom by restricting it only to terrorists and crazies. But anger is wild, violence a delinquent student. And, no revelation here, we human beings can all get pissed and throw haymakers. Who among us doesn’t take life from others, blood cell by blood cell, hour by hour? The unkind word recoils upon the speaker as surely as the shooter is wounded in his own crossfire.
Of course, not all violence is driven by anger. A soldier, for example, might wish to do anything rather than kill. Unfortunately, taking another person’s life, even for a just cause, can still be lethal for the most stable of soldiers. Some in military service die in battle, obviously. Others return home with beating hearts and tortured spirits. From 1999 to 2010, one veteran committed suicide every 65 minutes, 22 of them each day. In 2012, active-duty suicides ever-so-slightly outpaced deaths in engagement (177 to 176).
I regard members of the United States armed forces as heroes. They risk life and limb out of a deep, difficult calling. They carry out orders they may not like in conflicts perhaps troubling to them in hopes of defending their country.
It’s unfair that a noble person can survive a battle only to discover in the aftermath invisible, self-inflicted wounds. A glowing coal doesn’t care whether the hand about to throw it is right or wrong, good or evil. It burns whatever it touches.
I’m prepared to be corrected in my speculations. I’ve never taken a human life. But why did many veterans of my father’s generation remain silent about what they saw and did in World War II? Why was the scorn Vietnam vets endured so personally and spiritually devastating? Why are those serving in today’s military taking their own lives in record numbers?
Because killing kills. Failing that, it maims. The recoil of violence is so strong that even those of us who lash out only in insults and dirty looks bruise ourselves.
The sniper who murdered five police officers in Dallas was killed by a robot reaching toward him with an explosive—the fruit of his evening’s labors. But he was dead already.
And what about the rest of us? Is there any hope of stopping what has become our planetary routine of violence?
My kingdom for selfless love pandemic! But that wish amounts to whistling into the wind. What we have right now is rage, which, though understandable, is not inclined toward the Golden Rule.
Any suggestion these days ends up sounding impotent, but I’ll offer mine just the same: We ought to teach our children right from the start that any blood they shed in this life will generally include an equal share of their own.
Practicing Environmentally-Friendly Speech
(Note: Here’s a summer re-run for your enjoyment or consternation. I originally posted this in slightly different form in July of 2013, when not many folks knew about A Napper’s Companion.)
5:28 a.m.: Birds in the boulevard’s maples sing in the first breath of light. Hoping for a scratch on her temples, portly cat Shadow waits by Kathy’s hand. This is sweet pre-dawn, an hour made for shamatha—calm abiding. I woke up around 4:30, stepped on the bathroom scale, grimaced, and returned to bed for thirty minutes of propped-up prayer. Now I have until 7:00 to do as I please. One flat note on this start to my day off is a neighborhood skunk that responded to some threat. Ugh.
There’s always something to spray about: two pounds forward, one pound back; my right foot getting chilled in the breeze, now covered by the sheet; the moppy dog across the street complaining about newspaper delivery; skunk is as skunk does. But none of this noise overcomes the silence. Even a distant train’s groan and rattle treat the morning’s meditation kindly.
I want to be kind, too, kind and loving toward this day. For starters, I just set my iPhone alarm for wife Kathy, who has to get up at 6:50 and go give cancer patients chemotherapy. She doesn’t want to keep clicking her snooze button, and I don’t blame her.
Since an out-of-town visit with a friend got scuttled, I plan—in no particular order—to visit my friendly barber Pat, go for a four-miler at Presque Isle State Park, fold laundry, buy sardines in mustard sauce (yes, I do like them and recently read that they’re a nutritional marvel), and skim The Erie Times-News at Starbucks while sipping an iced coffee with a shot of espresso, all decaf, half and half, two Splendas.
The fish, jog beside Lake Erie, handkerchiefs, and the rest aren’t this Friday’s center of gravity, though. Neither are two ABC News articles slated for Starbucks: “New Limits on Arsenic in Apple Juice” (Huh? Shouldn’t the limit be . . . none?) and “The History of Urinating in Space” (pretty sure I’ll regret this one). With luck, loving silence will be the force pulling this day together.
With luck! I hope to devote two hours to prayer and napping, both sane and quiet acts. Lots of slow, deep breaths will be signs that my spirit is blinking its eyes. Breathing in and out makes wispy sounds—not noise pollution at all. Most important for the environment, I’ll try not to litter with my mouth.
Eco-friendliness is not only fantastic, but fashionable, and I’m on board. Like many families, the Colemans have a compost pile, recycle everything we can, conserve electricity, etc. My personal care for creation also includes the unconventional measure of shutting-up. Readers who know me personally are laughing: “Seriously, John?” Far from being quiet, I’m probably known as talkative and occasionally buffoonish. To be more specific, then, I want to practice environmentally-friendly speech: healing and productive rather than wounding and destructive.
I want to talk in life-giving ways, but my mindfulness slips constantly. If I could view a daily transcript of everything that comes out of my mouth, I’d be discouraged at how many words are either unkind or unnecessary. (Don’t worry. I’m not going to lose sleep over this. Humans talk a lot of crap, and I’m human.)
Still, I want to honor the life I’ve been granted by letting blessed silence—like that of pre-dawn shamatha—replace blather, gossip, snark, and holler. To center myself for the effort, I’ve poached some quotations from the Internet:
- “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” (Blaise Pascal)
- “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” (Franz Kafka)
- “The deepest rivers make least din, the silent soule doth most abound in care.” (William Alexander)
- “Words can make a deeper scar than silence can heal.” (Author unknown)
- And, finally, a beloved quote from Anne Lamott, which you shouldn’t read if a mild swear-word will put you out: “Rule 1: When all else fails, follow instructions. And Rule 2: Don’t be an asshole” (from Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith).
Regarding that last quote: I figure shutting-up is one of the best ways not to break Rule 2. Now that I think about it, Lamott wrote in four words what I just sweated out in a couple hundred. That’s why she makes the big bucks. I’ll be satisfied with getting a little better each day at listening to her.
Art and I had a routine. He poked his head into my office doorway, checking to see if the coast was clear—a few times a week since Doris passed nine years ago.
“Thought I’d come in and bug you for a few minutes,” he said, then had a seat.
Half-hour by half-hour we picked through his life and pulled out stories as if from attic boxes: Korea, close enough to the action to hear the shells whistle; a garage-building crew in the old neighborhood and the keg they were bound to finish and the world spinning; Doris dying alone in the afternoon while he ran errands—he never quite forgave himself.
“Well,” Art said, standing up, “I’ll let you get back to work.”
“But, Art,” I always answered, “I have been working.”
He had to stop on the way home for something, maybe boloney. Samwiches every day for lunch get boring. After a while you forget to eat.
Art got to church first on Sunday mornings, unlocked the doors and set the bulletins out. But arthritis clamped down on his shoulders so badly that he gave in and got a crew cut. Combs and spoons weren’t his friends anymore. If I had a nickel for every time I fixed his collar or untwisted his suspenders . . . . Getting to worship became a project, weary and burdensome.
This past winter Erie, Pennsylvania, was cruel. Art’s car and many others at Niagara Village were snowbound, but the wind chills would have kept him inside anyway. He had time to dwell on the indignities of age: obstinate hearts, lungs, and bowels. And loneliness. He looked at Doris’ picture on the wall and told her, “Send me my ticket. I’m ready.” He lay in bed before dawn, anxious and hazy, and wondered if what he was feeling was death.
Kidney failure pushed him over the edge. I was there when a kind doctor leaned in close and with his manner as much as his words let Art know that forgoing dialysis was just fine. We prayed.
Oh, his poor arms, torn and purple.
Loved ones and nurses took in what was happening. Muffled tears. Compression devices off of his calves, the Velcro cackling. A tube or two removed. I don’t remember, exactly.
Art’s faithful son Mark went to make calls. Suddenly, Art and I were alone.
“What do you think Doris will say when you get there?” I said.
“Probably ‘What took you so long?’”
“Can I tell the [church] people what’s going on with you?”
“Yep, tell them I’m going home.”
I held his hand as he looked far off. Death wouldn’t arrive for a week or so, but he seemed to be peeking into another doorway, one where the coast is always clear—so I believe.
“Are you okay with this, Art?” I said. “Are you at peace?”
He was already on his way: “Yep, just help me through the door.”
Still holding his hand, I cried without him seeing.
The sanctuary filled up for Art. We gave him a good send off—big choir, his boys sharp in uniform, loving words and a salute from his eldest, “How Great Thou Art” sung by one of his beloved church-grandchildren. We ended with our beautiful old prayer poem: “Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant, Art. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.”
The next morning I gathered with family at the cemetery. We said more words—“earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”—and slid Art’s urn in next to Doris’. Some hugs later, I drove away through the deep, winding green of summer. I can’t recall what I did the rest of that day.
I sit now with coffee, keeping company with a few more tears that are still floating in my reservoir.
And I sit with an understanding: nothing can rush sadness through the door after a friend dies, especially one you’ve said to many times, “Here, let me fix your suspenders.” It was my privilege.
The Lake Erie sunset was on. Yes, a sunset, stunning cliché of the western sky, light everybody sails into eventually. Wind kept the landscape in motion, waves and light playing in the last few minutes of day.
Kathy and I stood at the water’s edge and held each other. The air moved over us—I want to say blew through us. As I breathed in and out, we seemed to be welcomed in by the sinking sun, the clouds mysteriously still, restless Lake Erie, and all the quick and the dead. We embraced each other, and creation embraced us.
It would be satisfying to say that I sensed Art’s presence, but that would be a slanted truth. Rather, resting my cheek against Kathy’s hair, receiving her cheek against my chest, my soul knew the hope of a gathering, a cosmic dance of sun, water, wind, sand, grass, and hearts. The song is of mercy.
Just after the sun set, a pale vault opened in its place, glowing in the memory of the great light. I felt as though I was looking into the dance, moving with it as much as anyone can without joining it entirely.
What does death feel like? Art wondered, and so do I. Now he knows. I pray that it’s like losing yourself in a dance, completely embraced, yet free, too amazed by color, light, and love to straighten your collar or imagine that anybody has ever died alone.
I can’t hear mention of the good old days without grimacing. Golden days for some folks were hell for others. At the same time, some good-old-days conventions and assumptions come in handy. The unspoken agreement, say, to prevent blacks from moving into white neighborhoods, is/was crappy. The old boy system that has women earning 78% of what men make is intolerable (AAUW statistic). But what I think we’re seeing in 2015 America is the disappearance of useful conventions.
It’s hard to imagine people “somewhere ages and ages hence” telling their grandchildren about these days “with a sigh.” Maybe Americans are as happy as ever in their homes and relationships, but societal life is often a vexing pain in the ass. Why? Our conventions—shared beliefs about how the world works and how people ought to behave—are being put out to pasture one by one.
Schmoes like me watch the news and say, “Hey wait, I thought we had a deal!” Our pacts sometimes find words: “Don’t hit below the belt.” “Don’t stab a man in the back.” “Don’t run up the score.” LeBron James shouldn’t (and wouldn’t, of course) cream a teenager in one-on-one. That’s not how we operate. Have some class. We’re all in this together. Show a little mercy. Give the kid a break.
Sadly, such deals are collapsing, especially in politics. Each time a convention is smacked on the rump and told to start grazing, folks with manners and a sense of fair play slap their foreheads. When forty-six Senate Republicans signed Tom Cotton’s (R-AR) open letter to Iran about Obama’s nuclear talks, another Clydesdale clopped off with head hung low: “We Americans are all on one team, and in some matters we don’t undermine the Commander-in-chief.” Conservative columnist Michael Gerson puts a fine point on it: “Congress simply has no business conducting foreign policy with a foreign government, especially an adversarial one.”
It’s no big deal that one greenhorn senator penned a letter meant to interfere with delicate negotiations. The problem is, forty-six of Cotton’s colleagues signed the letter and are now taking turns tussling his hair, if indeed they can reach that high. In other words, about half of the United States Senate thinks it’s not only okay, but laudatory, to reject a long-standing assumption about constructive and honorable political behavior.
The Republican objection, summarized by Rand Paul (R-KY), is that President Obama is undertaking negotiations with Iran without congressional participation. Well now gosh, I wonder why the President would do such a thing—which leads me to another convention standing out in a rainy field: bipartisan cooperation.
When former Tennessee Senator Howard Baker (R-TN) died in June of 2014, both Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Harry Reid (D-NV) practically wet themselves on the Senate floor paying tribute to the “Great Conciliator.” Current Speaker of the House, John Boehner (R-OH), also praised Baker: “His service was marked by a courtly, civil, and respectful style that won him friends and admirers on both sides of the aisle. His example — his ability to fight for principle, and disagree without being disagreeable — will continue to inspire us as we honor his life and memory.”
Yeah, right. This from the Speaker who took the uncivil, disrespectful liberty of inviting a foreign head of state to address a joint session of Congress behind the President’s back. Has this ever happened before? No. And so, ciao to another understanding among the branches of government. Add to this Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s eagerness to accept such a shabby invitation, and convention takes another blow: of course Bibi knew that his speech would break with tradition. He just didn’t care. Let’s face it: all that Howard Baker stood for is now scorn fodder. Imagine the “Great Conciliator” and young Turk Tom Cotton brokering a deal in a present day cloakroom. The beloved Tennessean would be scorched earth.
Not because Baker would be outmatched, but because the rules he played by no longer apply. In a Washington Post essay, Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein blame Republicans: “The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
Let’s pause for a little contrast. Consider the words about compromise from Senator John McCain (R-AZ): “The way you have bipartisan negotiations, you sit down across the table, as we did with Ted Kennedy, as I’ve done with many other members, and you say, ‘OK, here’s what I want, here’s what you want. We’ll adhere to your principles, but we’ll make concessions.'” Now let’s hear from John Boehner as he summarizes his goals for leading the House of Representatives (it refers to Obama’s agenda for a second term): “We’re going to do everything — and I mean everything we can do — to kill it, stop it, slow it down, whatever we can.”
For Boehner, “everything we can do” includes holding multiple votes on the Affordable Care Act, a recent one merely for the benefit of freshman Republicans who haven’t had the chance to record their ire at Obamacare. How many is multiple? TheAtlantic.com reports fifty-six. My head spins at the wasteful stupidity. According to MiamiCBSLocal.com, the estimated cost to taxpayers for each of these votes is $1.45 million.
I wish to God I could track down which politician said something like, “When I lost a vote, I walked across the aisle, shook hands, and said, ‘I hope I can count of your vote on the next bill.'” Was it Howard Baker? Bob Dole? Richard Lugar? (I really looked hard. If you know, please pull me aside!)
Oh for the days of debating, voting, and moving on. But this is yet another demoralized horse. “Go munch bramble, you mangy thing!” Votes, it seems, are meaningless anymore. Which returns me to a question I asked earlier: “Why would the President undertake nuclear negotiations with Iran without congressional participation?” Why bother? Colleagues who would spend $81.2 million on symbolic votes and have repeatedly made their subversive intentions clear aren’t looking to provide input. Their goal is to impede and frustrate. The evidence of this is indisputable. By any measure of productivity, argues Chris Cillizza, the 113th Congress is the worst in history.
This is what happens when a democracy is deprived of its long-standing working agreements. It’s also what happens when, as Mann and Ornstein suggest, facts and scientific evidence don’t matter. Example: according to Climate.NASA.gov, “Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities.” I would call this a consensus, but not Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who said in 2012, “Just so you’ll know, global warming is a total fraud and it’s being designed because what you’ve got is you’ve got liberals who get elected at the local level want state government to do the work and let them make the decisions. Then, at the state level, they want the federal government to do it. And at the federal government, they want to create global government to control all of our lives.”
Believe it or not, my intention here isn’t to take Cotton, Boehner, et. al. to the woodshed, but to make observations that help keep me sane. Taking in the world, politics in particular, sometimes steals my peace, so I lay out my case as a way of regaining equilibrium. For the record, I’m a Democrat, but plan to forgo participation in future primaries by becoming an Independent. Why? Republicans are responsible for most of the demise of conventions, but I don’t despair about the possibility of them taking over America because, as I often say, “They eat their own young.” By disposition, theirs is a house divided. On the other hand, Democrats violate shared understandings when it suits them; they just don’t do it as often and with such glee as Republicans. When a politician of one party is indignant over the effrontery of a colleague from the other party, prepare to hear some hypocritical bull crap. They take turns being aghast. Awww, shaddup!
Which is probably what I should do. To the litany of conventional behaviors sent to the glue factory I’ll add two quick others from outside the beltway. Consider these me waving so long on a lighter note.
- My son Micah watches Mixed Martial Arts matches, where the “don’t hit a man when he’s down” deal is off. When somebody gets knocked out, the victor keeps hammering the guy’s unconscious head until the referee steps in. I’m not a fan.
- I’m all for earthy, sophomoric humor, but wasn’t sure what to do with a bumper sticker I saw yesterday. Irreverent, yes, but it seems like a minor violation of bumper sticker etiquette.
The next time I see a convention trotting into the sunset–an overshare or a politician being ill-mannered–I’ll say, “Nope, you’re not stealing my peace. Not today!”
I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself . . . .
Me, neither, especially the last part. If you want to know the truth about me, best ask somebody else. But one thing I have learned over the years is that I’m an optimist, occasionally to the point of foolishness. How I know this doesn’t matter. I just know.
At 6:20 this morning I woke up ahead of the alarm. This was a good waking, not the wretched sort when you would pay a $100 or sell one of your nostrils for just one more hour of sleep before heading off to work or chores. I was fresh, mulling over the fine possibilities on the horizon.
Imagine you wake up
with a second chance
Heck, yeah! I believe in second chances, endless chances. (I would like to share the entire poem, but copyright blah blah blah.) The following made my soul’s lungs fill with new air:
The whole sky is yours
to write on, blown open
to a blank page. Come on,
shake a leg!
Preach it, Rita! Every once in a miraculous while, my spirit’s stirring converges with a friend’s innocent remark or an adagio or a poem. As soon as I finished pray-meditating, I actually wanted to “shake a leg,” and here a voice visited with encouragement: “Come on!”
The poet spoke about three hours ago, and I’m still rolling. Afternoon can be a slog because old wounds and griefs sometimes visit; breathing gets leaden. My past has strong hands, which it uses to grab my throat and back me up against a cinderblock wall. “Listen, little bitch,” the past says, “you’re not going anywhere.” It squeezes harder: “Just try to heal up and move on, punk!”
Sometimes, but not today. Sadly, I’m not a fighter, so I won’t be telling the old hurts to “go pound salt.” A story is told about Mahatma Gandhi being confronted by an angry man threatening violence against him. Gandhi embraced the man, who collapsed in tears. I’m no Gandhi, but this is my way. Today, if the past intrudes, I’ll kiss its lumpy head and say, “Not today. I’ll take care of you, but you’re not going to choke me.” In other words, I’ll breathe and keep shaking a leg.
Such mindfulness and discipline take a lot of energy. Still, the sun is bright, the sky is clear, and I have hope. Wednesday, February 25th is a second chance. Actually, I’ve lost count of what chance this day is. Above my desk at the church I have a drawing of a bald man sitting in meditation (in Desert Wisdom: Sayings from the Desert Fathers by Yushi Nomura). The caption in calligraphy goes,
Abba Poeman said about Abba Pior
that every single day he made a fresh beginning.
What luck! This morning must be my millionth chance, since I often start over a couple times during my waking hours. The present can be better than the past.
So, goodbye for now. I need to go write on the sky.
A couple weeks ago an email from Mount Saint Benedict Monastery landed in the morning:
Sister Phyllis Weaver went to her Eternal Reward last night (Monday) around 9:00PM following a very brief illness. She was surrounded by her family and a number of Community members. S. Phyllis touched the lives and hearts of many through her years of ministry in education and hospitality.
Until a few years ago, Phyllis was the sister I called to reserve a room or hermitage. When my daughter and son, now grown, were going through terrible times, I crawled to the Mount for sanity. The place was—and still is—life! Phyllis was at the center for me, greeting me when I arrived and checking on me unobtrusively when we saw each other after worship or lunch. Near the end of her call as Hospitality Coordinator, Phyllis’ shuffle gave way to an electric scooter—no padding left on the soles of her feet, she explained, just bone and skin.
In retirement, Phyllis’ prayed for retreatants. I needed her petitions for their intention if nothing else and appreciated them as I rested like a crimson bruise in the light of the chapel’s stained-glass windows.
Kids often outgrow problems. Most bruises fade. But Phyllis’ and her sisters’ gift during some raw years has grown in me and taken on more color than I can say: “Let my life be about loving people, one brother or sister at a time, moment by moment.”
If only I could be my own answer to this prayer. The best I can do some days is draw a meager smile from the deep well of mercy I’ve been granted. Still, Phyllis extended to me love based on the conviction that the Creator’s Spirit dwells within all people and nothing in daily life is more sacred than that moment when a person needs love in one of its countless forms and another person provides love gladly. “Let me recognize the Ultimate in you,” I say, “and may you find love in my eyes.” My namaste is ragged. If it gives warmth, it comes from a cold and broken hallelujah.
I do trust the Divine Mystery to lead us to security eventually, but for now, I feel the cold of a world order in which being human doesn’t count for much. As massacres and fiascos make a disturbing media racket, people–individual dwellings for the Ultimate–lose life quietly, invisibly. Society’s eye evaluates humans, and, increasingly, we are expected to defend our personal cog on the rim of an imposing, impersonal wheel.
I’m talking about progress. E. B. White first drew my attention to the crooked assumption that the best way to improve life is to nudge human beings out of the picture. In a 1955 New Yorker essay, White grumbled that the telephone company “saddled us with dials and deprived us of our beloved operators, who used to know where everybody was and just what to do about everything.” Good thing he passed in 1985, before call waiting and voice mail joined our cultural lexicon.
I don’t think there was a religious bone in White’s body, but he and Sister Phyllis probably would have hit it off. She was all about taking care of pilgrims, and he wrote, “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” You can’t read one paragraph of E. B. White without recognizing that his world was human beings and animals. He was against whatever threatened either one.
In the last month I’ve heard stories that worry me. Andy, as White’s friends called him, would bristle. And I’m not sure, but Phyllis might have just shaken her head and returned to praying for retreatants.
–A December 14, 2014, New York Times article by Claire Cain Miller opens with a troubling trinity: “A machine that administers sedatives recently began treating patients at a Seattle hospital. At a Silicon Valley hotel, a bellhop robot delivers items to people’s rooms. Last spring, a software algorithm wrote a breaking news article about an earthquake that The Los Angeles Times published.” If somebody is going to sedate me, I want to look ‘em in the eye. And some of my friends are print journalists, a profession already in decline. I’m not sure what an algorithm is, but it’s a scab compared to Jennie, Gerry, and Erica.
–Also from Miller’s article: “Ad sales agents and pilots are two jobs that the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects will decline in number over the next decade. Flying a plane is largely automated today and will become more so.” As a jittery flyer, I don’t want my plane piloted entirely by computers. They fail without warning, constantly leave the backdoor unlocked, and refuse to accept reason.
–NPR ran a story about computer chips being implanted in grape vines. This technology can take the guesswork—or artistry, depending on your point of view—out of watering and harvesting. When a commentator claimed that the chips’ grapes made better wine than the winemaker’s, I thought of poor Paul Bunyan being surpassed by a chainsaw.
–A couple of weeks ago NPR’s Marketplace reported on the sale of PetSmart to a private-equity firm. Amidst the chatter somebody commented that Walmart-type stores cut into PetSmart’s business by carrying lots of pet supplies. At once my White-ian fears took hold. How long will it be before you can accommodate all of life’s needs at a single destination? Get your Airedale bathed and groomed while your SUV gets snow tires put on. Pick up General Tso’s chicken for supper. Have cataracts removed and touch base with your life coach. Yes, I’m being silly, but a voice in the ear of my heart warns me that herding every specialty under one roof managed by one entity could make transactions more uniform and less personal.
Maybe I’m wrong, but for fun I just Googled “shoe repair erie pennsylvania” and discovered that in my hometown proper, one shoe repair shop survives. The idea to check came when I saw that Dom Bruno’s Shoe Repair in Little Italy had closed. Ten years ago I took a pair of black wingtips to Dom, who resoled them for $45. Sounds like a lot, but those refreshed throwbacks remain my only pair of black dress shoes.
According to Google, M. A. Krug and Son is now my only option, unless I want to drive fifteen miles west to Nick’s Shoe Repair in Girard. My wingtips need attention, and I wish for a redundancy of shoe repair shops in Erie, Pennsylvania–and at least one mom-and-pop corner store in every neighborhood.
On the way to Sister Phyllis’ viewing, I made a sad discovery. Unless somebody is tending shoes beneath an inconspicuous shingle, Erie, home of around 200,000 feet, is bereft of cobblers.
Actually, I’m not all that bugged about my wingtips being S.O.L. I’ll get a new pair. The trouble is, I’ve lost track of Dom Bruno, and it might have been nice to meet Mr. Krug and ask which kin started the shop in 1895. And anybody who makes a sign like Matt’s is bound to be good for a laugh or two.
Bottom line: the world’s best hope for health and gladness isn’t the robot, but the bellhop. There’s no way the former can look into a stranger’s eyes and recognize that a special word of kindness is needed. The latter not only carries luggage, but can also lighten a burden.
I might not be able to tell which wine was made by person or machine or which news story was written by an algorithm or a friend, but none of that matters. I want to be a Sister Phyllis receiving flawed, unpredictable, expensive human guests into the safety of my presence. I want to be an Andy White, betting my money and heart on women and men creating and mending the world over and over, messing up and starting again.
When I reached the Mount and looked down at Phyllis, I was sobered. She didn’t look herself at all. Her face was oddly tanned, her hair flattened. But I’ve seen enough dear ones in coffins to give an interior shrug.
Before long Prioress Anne Wambach said hello and took my hand. At once I understood that my reason for paying respects to Phyllis wasn’t to honor the dead, but to receive life. Our conversation took less than a minute. I don’t remember what I said, but the idea was that Phyllis made me feel welcome. Clearly, Anne had heard this dozens of times already. She told me that Phyllis had done well until the end: a couple of falls, morphine, and confusion. Death came within a week.
Phyllis hadn’t suffered long; this gave me comfort. Anne took my hand and looked into my eyes; this gave me not only comfort, but a truth to live by. No software can estimate the value of a handshake or predict what healing and wisdom can result when two persons look into each others’ eyes.
Thanks, Anne. Thanks, Phyllis and Andy. I have my personal orders within the world order. I’m bound to mess it up, but I’ll try: take strangers by the hand, John, and see the Great Mystery in their eyes.
Here’s another installment on my very slowly developing vlog (video blog). It’s kind of a bummer, so pass on this if you want to focus on sunny thoughts today. And faithful blogging friends, chances are you’ve already read this, so don’t feel obligated.
Peace and love,
I heard first that 295 of your daughters and sons were killed on the Malaysian Airlines flight shot down over Ukraine today. Now the number is 298. Ah well, three more souls, no big deal.
Gracious One, what’s happening to us? We can’t seem to stop blowing each other up. Let’s see: Amish school girls, Connecticut first graders and teachers, Colorado folks out to catch a movie, and just yesterday, four boys playing soccer on a Gaza beach.
And now, almost three hundred of your children fall from the sky. I confess, their descent haunts me. You know, I hate flying. While in flight, I imagine the plane nose down, spiraling toward the earth. On impact, my face and chest smash into the seat in front of me. It would happen so fast I wouldn’t experience any pain, but in my nightmare I feel it all.
And I’ve dreamed—many times, even safe on the ground—something like what happened today in Ukraine: the plane in pieces and me stunned in the frigid air, the ground rushing toward me. At 33,000 feet, would you pass out on your way down and die before landing? It doesn’t matter, God, I’m awake for everything, including the instant crush of death.
In an odd way, this prayer is selfish. Not everybody on that plane out of Amsterdam was blessed to die when the missile hit the plane, blessed to pass from this world to you as they slept, one head resting on a beloved shoulder or held hands or said, “You know, in Kuala Lumpur we’ll have to . . . .” Some must have shot out into the open air and at least for a couple of seconds reckoned, traveling through cloud-blindness to the sight of green fields, the immediate future.
It’s these brothers and sisters I’m praying for. I have no clue how you work and whether it’s possible to ask you for a grace whose time has already passed. Well, I’m asking anyway. This is crazy, but may it be so that you touched the wicked shock of your children’s last moments. I dream this prayer:
They soared above oxygen, but you gave them the breath of peace. They spun and somersaulted, but you spoke into the ear of their hearts: “Laugh and love the view. I’ll catch you on the ground.” They didn’t grieve what they never said to those they loved because you comforted them: “I’ve prepared a place for you—all of you.” Most of all, you helped them stay awake, free from fear, and they said, “Mercy, so this is what it’s like to fly!” Then they woke up, and you were cradling them, looking into their eyes.
“What was that place?” they asked you. “I remember loving and crying. Why were we always hurting each other?”
But since you were holding them, they forgot the question. They had flown, and you had caught them. What bomb or bullet could touch them now?
In eternity, God, may needful answers descend slowly upon all of us. And may our arms be used only for embracing.