Oniontown Pastoral: The Blessing of Okay

Oniontown Pastoral: The Blessing of Okay

“How’s it going?” If ever a question begged for a bland answer, this is it.

Occasionally a brave soul will come back, “Do you really want to know?” But we mostly say, “Oh, pretty good” or “not too bad,” then wander into other conversational pastures.

Years ago, maybe fifteen, I picked up a habit that persists to this day. When folks ask, “How are you today?” I pause. “Well,” my inner voices says, “how are you doing, John?”

After a couple seconds of taking stock, I usually give this honest reply: “I’m vertical. Nobody is busting my chops today, so I’m actually doing great.”

Elena and Micah as teenagers. Don’t they look sweet? Um, they about did me in.

Like most people, I’ve had stretches of years when life was decidedly not okay. Shortly before my daughter Elena was born, I developed panic disorder, an exquisitely shattering affliction. Both Elena and son Micah were high-spirited as teenagers, by which I mean, “Holy cow, those two just about killed me.” Along the way, a few professional challenges taught me that I can be embarrassingly fragile sometimes—not an easy confession for any man.

And, again, like most people, I’ve learned to appreciate life’s temperate seasons, especially following the brutal weather of loss, illness, disappointment, name your own stress or sorrow.

After getting knocked flat by a frigid gust of crisis, being able to say, “I’m vertical” seems miraculous.

And it is. “Count your many blessings,” an old hymn advises, “name them one by one.” Standing on my own two feet and walking to the kitchen to pour a glass of iced tea is an honest-to-goodness blessing, and you can call me trite for saying so.

Understand, I’m not suggesting that gratitude is a treatment for clinical depression or a remedy for terrible circumstances. (Take it from me, a panic attack licks its chops and guffaws at church hymns.)

All things being equal, though, I maintain that “okay” is really “amazing” speaking in a whisper.

Friends often remark that driving from Erie to St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown and back again must be a combination of bore and chore. Not so. A couple of times each week as I speed past the fields and their inhabitants, I find myself caught up in the splendor of nothing much being wrong.

Just as a frosty Coca-Cola pairs perfectly with Brooklyn style pizza or household chores can be joyful if tenor arias are playing in the background, listing what all is not wrong these days—in other words, what is just fine—takes on added sweetness when I’m looking out my car window at summer forests and fields.

“I have a decent place to live,” comes to mind first. Then “food on the table and clothes to wear.” (In fact, I have three wardrobes, not extensive, but adequate for different weight classes. Sadly, I’m in my top tier of trousers at the moment and will be forced into suspenders if I don’t start pushing away from the dinner table soon.)

“Bills are paid, cars are running.” Much “okayness” crosses my mind as I nod to cows and horses, dozens of them, grazing calmly as if they’ve never had a single worry about their mortality. Sun, rain or snow, they stand, blink and flip their tails. “I feel vertical lately,” I say, taking in a generous breath. “And nobody is ambushing me with drama.”

As I add up all the okays, a gentle descant sounds: “Amazing.”

Amazing Kathy on the patio/deck she made from the long ramp she removed from our backdoor.

When trees nearly form a cathedral over the road, I think of the best part: “I’m happy with my wife Kathy, my children and grandsons, too. And everyone is ambulatory and taking nourishment.”

In addition to my embarrassment of okayness, I can’t walk far in any direction without running into love—and that includes my faith in Mysterious Love, who holds this crazy world together and abides my frustrating soul.

Of course, unexpected complications constantly raise their voices, pretending to be tragedies. This afternoon I have to figure out what’s wrong with my car’s fickle battery, which warrants nothing more than, “Oh, bother.”

When I get a case of the blues, I try to remember that if my life were even a smidgen more okay, I’d be twins.

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In Gratitude for Annoyance

There’s no denying, over the last two years I’ve been out of sorts. A Napper’s Companion has often been a long-suffering sounding board as I’ve droned, waxed, and howled. Sure, joy has visited for long spells, but if life were a bar graph measuring months, more than a few of them would dip below emotional zero.

When feeling sorry for yourself becomes a habit, it’s actually refreshing to find yourself merely annoyed rather than crestfallen. Narcissus stared into a pool of water and beheld his beauty. I’ve only recently pulled my gaze away from my navel, which is a deepening pool of the unspeakable—I speak literally here. Weight loss is in my future. Anyway, events that would have reduced me to curses and sighs a few months ago now hardly register on my graph. In fact, I’ve been laughing.

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Narcissus by Caravaggio (Credit: Wikipedia)

“Laughing? The hell you say, John!” Yes, from the belly right into the crevasses of existential paper cuts. Feels good.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that wife Kathy and I bought a 1000 square foot house. Downsize and all that. Kathy loves me, but doesn’t fully trust me to do grown-up quality work on the new place. So far I’ve been cleared to wipe down shelves and cabinets with Murphy’s Oil Soap, prime old thirsty walls and our bedroom closet, and scrub and sweep the basement. Fans of physical comedy would pay up if I could produce a video of my efforts.

Painting a closet is like doing calisthenics in a phone booth. I got flat white prints everywhere on my person, not from my brush, but from bumping into what I just painted. The language was mild but repetitive, damn it after damn it plunking as if from a leaky faucet. The worst part was tapping all quarters of my head against wet shelves. (Former owners, Mr. and Mrs. Tyler, God rest them, were a shelf- and hook-happy Depression-era couple. Random hooks and shelves stick out from walls, woodwork, and crannies like Betty White flipping me the bird. How many items can you actually hang up? Used and washed Saran Wrap to dry? Lonely socks?)

When the job was finished, I expected to see in the mirror a balding man with ridiculous blotches of paint all over his head. The sad fact was, aside from an Ash Wednesday-level smudge on my forehead, nothing much had changed. Turns out flat-white primer is a good match for my hair. I can apply Just for Men Touch of Gray, paint another closet, or go natural? It’s good to have options. My policy is to refrain from laughing at my reflection, but in this case I gave in.

Video of basement duty would appeal to folks comfortable laughing at actual pain. The space is clean, dry, and stand-up-friendly, mostly. A couple of fixtures make this six-foot man dip, and one run of ductwork can be cleared only by a hobbit. Of course, units of especially dusty shelves ran parallel to the damn it ductwork. During the three hours I spent bobbing, weaving, push-brooming, scrubbing, and absorbing the perfume of Murphy’s Oil Soap, I forgot to limbo ten times. Ten matches of fathead versus galvanized steel. Two knocks resulted in language. A few got harrumphs, and the rest snorts. A week later, my head still looks like a wounded cantaloupe.

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Yes, this is my scalp. God help me. And, heck, why not an age spot or two?

Fortunately, I don’t have any goose eggs as big as our black Lab-terrier mix Watson’s. The fatty tumor on his left flank is so ridiculous we finally took him thirty minutes from Erie to a veterinarian who specializes in animal homeopathy and chiropractic. As I wrote recently, the old mutt is gimpy, and the present steroids and NSAIDs don’t seem to be helping much.

When the veterinarian entered the examination room, I liked him before he said a word—a skinny old guy wearing jeans, a craze of wiry gray hair, and a bushy mustache. He could have been Clem Kadiddlehopper’s brother. (I mean that as a compliment.)

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Red Skelton (center) as Clem Kadiddlehopper. (Credit: NBC TV on Wikimedia Commons)

He talked rapidly and passionately, flitted in and out of the room to mix potions, and finally poured out on the counter bottles, an envelope, and a medicine dropper. With no other social segue than “okay, bye” he was back into his homeopathic sanctum. We paid, hoisted Watson into the truck, and headed for home.

On the way down, in the vet’s office, and on the way back to Erie, Watson was calm. As soon as we were in the door, Kathy administered the first dropper full of homeopathic pain relief. Did the new experience send a ripple along Watson’s bowel? Make him feel momentarily tipsy? I’m not sure what he felt, but I know squirtle when I smell it. That’s what we call doggy fear fluid in the Coleman household. I’m used to dogs squirtling in the car or at the vet’s office, but safe at home, the ordeal passed?

He lay beside me at the dining room table, dazed and wretched. His eyes said, “Yeah, yeah, I know. Sorry.”

Dear blogging friend naptimethoughts explained to me in a generous comment the anatomical cause for squirtle and described how the sacs in question sometimes have to be manually expressed. My grand-dog Layla occasionally gets plugged up, and her vet offered to show daughter Elena how to glove up and give relief right at home for free. “Ah, no.”

Last evening Kathy and I made a run to the new house and took Watson along. Was it that my lift into the truck squeezed his belly? Or has he acquired a hair trigger? Whatever the case, the cab hazed over with Eau de Sacs. Today in frigid Erie, Pennsylvania, the sun warmed the truck seats, normally a bonus. Obviously, nature toasted the spots where my old pal pressed his rumpus against the fabric, freeing up the squirtle for continued enjoyment.

Ah, if the day’s worst ambush is a dropper-full of Watson’s anxiety juice, I’m golden. Is it possible to find an elderly dog’s harmless infirmity endearing? I think so.

It’s at least as possible as enjoying the supreme annoyance that is football’s Super Bowl. The family was over, and we took in the Seattle Seahawks’ last offensive play, when team strategists squirtled away the game by passing from the one yard line rather than handing the ball to Media Day wag Marshawn Lynch.

The highlight of the game for me was halftime. Katy Perry rode a twinkling gold behemoth and ascended into artificial fog, but grandson Cole stole the show. Sitting in Kathy’s lap, he made the best possible use of the spectacle: his fine eyelids slipped, slipped, slipped.

As I watched Cole’s commentary, I thought something that might seem dark at first: if somehow we humans aren’t suited for eternity, if an arbitrary sac of years in the here and now is all we get, then I might be okay with that. I hope for forever, but I got to watch this boy in his grandmother’s lap, as treasured and lovely as can be. Katy Perry fell quiet, or may as well have, and I figured that witnessing such love was more than enough justification for a lifetime.

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My grandson in his wagon: take that, Katy Perry! (Credit: Elena Thompson)

In the annoyance and blessing of recent days, I’m starting to feel whole again. I guess that’s what I’ve been trying to say. I could learn to like this.

An Apology to President George W. Bush

Dear President Bush:

I write to apologize. Your presidency was an awfully long eight years for me, but I read a newspaper column today that made me stop, think, and admit something to myself: From 2001 to 2009, I seldom looked at you with compassionate eyes. Instead, I allowed myself to sink into the mud of political frustration and rancor that has only gotten worse since you left office.

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“A second plane has hit the second tower. America is under attack.” Still, you read The Pet Goat to the children so they wouldn’t be alarmed. Thank you. (Credit: Wikipedia)

The column that prompts my letter is by Cokie and Steve Roberts, “What Clinton, Bush can teach us about leadership.” You and President Clinton, the Roberts report, are starting the Presidential Leadership Scholars Program, and “part of [your] mission is to demonstrate that Washington does not have to be a cesspool of toxic partisanship.” I get the impression that you and President Clinton are comparing the political climate of your presidencies with that of President Obama and trying to push us out of the muddy cesspool that is only getting more toxic. And, the Roberts note, the libraries of Lyndon Johnson and your father are joining with you in this effort.

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What would our country look like if your faces in this photograph reflected Washington’s modus operandi: good spirits and mutual kind regard and respect? Please help us to get there. (Credit: Wikipedia)

A photograph from the program’s launch shows you and President Clinton sharing a hearty laugh. More from the column: “By [Bush’s and Clinton’s] presence and performance, they embodied a key dimension of effective leadership. They showed that political rivals do not have to be personal enemies. In fact, they can actually like each other, trust each other, cooperate with each other. And they can do so while disagreeing on basic issues.” Oh, my Lord, may it be so. Please know that I’m sending prayers and every good wish your way for success.

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You look like a man giving a genuine hug–to hurricane victims in Biloxi on September 2, 2005. (Credit: Wikipedia)

I’m pretty sure this spirit of collegiality and cooperation was alive and well in you during your presidency, and occasionally it would occur to me that your job was daunting, your challenges staggering. The trouble is, that sympathetic sentiment never made the southward journey from my head to my heart. Of course, now I watch the guy I voted for trying to get anything at all done, and sadness rests in my chest. I get it. For some time now, governing has been exceedingly difficult and often impossible. We’re stuck in mud. So I feel sad for you retroactively. Forgive me for being late.

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Lots of us didn’t care much for what we considered too much grin and swagger. I’ll speak only for myself: I was being petty. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I should mention that during your years in office my next-door-neighbor and I agreed you would be a great guy to have a beer with. It’s strange, even with my passionate opinions about all that occurred on your watch, I would rather talk to you about incidentals. For example, your gaffs are legendary. My favorite is from 2002: “There’s an old saying in Tennessee I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee that says, fool me once, shame on shame on you. Fool me you can’t get fooled again.” As I read this, I laugh, but honestly, there’s no edge to it. My old frustration has softened. George W. Bush was President, but he was also a guy with a microphone in his face for hours each day. So I probably should cut him a break.

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Express yourself, Mr. President. Why not? (Credit: LyleLanley99 on reddit.com)

I also recently saw one of your paintings, the one with your feet—those are your feet, correct?—sticking out of bathwater. Again, I’m laughing, but if you were here with me this morning, you would understand at once that it comes from a loving place. You’re a fellow human being, and when you were in the Oval Office, I routinely forgot that.

The Roberts mentioned something about you in their report that I wish I had known years ago. “And during Bush’s tenure, Clinton revealed, the president would call his predecessor on a regular basis and ask for his advice.” I can see now your humanity more clearly. A man who would paint his feet in the bathtub would have no qualms about calling the guy who worked the previous shift for help.

So, Mr. President, please accept my apology. It’s not fair to bemoan the intolerance and anger in Washington when I’m a willing participant. This letter may never reach you. If by chance it does, receive my good wishes for your Presidential Leadership Scholars Program and my thanks for what I now believe to be your sincere efforts to do what you thought best for our country.

Peace and blessings,

John Coleman