Coming to Myself from a Distant Country

Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. (The Gospel of Luke 15:11-24)

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The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773) by Pompeo Batoni (Credit: Wikipedia)

Most Christians I know read this Parable of the Prodigal Son from the perspective of the faithful son, whose verses I didn’t include. He worked hard for his father “all these years” and stomps off, resentful that his narcissistic punk brother is about to enjoy some “fatted calf.”

I understand the faithful son, but more often I feel sympathy for the Prodigal son. Now let’s be clear: for the first part of the parable, he is—to employ a theological term—an asshole. Imagine proposing to your folks that they hand over your inheritance before they die. It’s amazing that the father doesn’t simply have his son flogged or thrown off a cliff. But he doesn’t, and off the kid goes to get sozzled and satisfied.

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The Prodigal Son Living with Harlots by Johann Wolfgang Baumgartner (1712-1761) (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Having missed any early-adult period of drunkenness, debauchery, and licentiousness, I don’t relate to that side of the Prodigal son. Instead, I find myself standing with the hungry kid and the pigs at that moment “when he came to himself.” What gorgeous phrasing! The New International Version of the Bible says, “when he came to his senses,” but “came to himself” more accurately describes a universal human experience. At least it resonates with me.

Here’s my prodigal process. In the parable, the son, wanting to party and get horizontal, leaves behind his best self, the self he comes to recognize only by getting his face rubbed in pig sludge. He also happens to travel to a different country. My story works differently, but ends the same. I stay right where I am and come to understanding not dallying with prostitutes—I do drink some wine—but frittering away my inheritance by succumbing to stressors that seem perfectly matched to my weaknesses.

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If I looked this good anxious, I might not complain. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I don’t know what the Prodigal’s household was like. (Yes, it’s a parable, so there’s no real background, but work with me here.) Maybe he was pampered. Maybe he got away with everything. His big brother probably hated him from the start. And since nothing was ever good enough for the Prodigal, the second he passed puberty a hedonistic frenzy was inevitable.

The Coleman household for me, the youngest of four children, was full of love, but like so many families of my generation, we panicked at any rocking of the boat. Many people my age know exactly what I’m talking about, and whole disciplines and vocabularies have evolved to explicate and heal family systems and all the frazzled, wounded boomers they’ve produced.

Don’t rock the boat: the colloquial mantra of 2225 Wagner Avenue. Of course, I didn’t have the maturity to realize it at the time, but being outwardly upset or angry was not acceptable. When it happened, everyone’s guts turned to water. A top priority, then, wasn’t to be happy and well-adjusted (who knew what that meant back then?). Just let the waters be calm! As long as we were acting okay, then everything was okay. Yeah, sure.

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Ah, still waters! Might be Three Mile Island, Love Canal, and Vesuvius underneath, but as long as there aren’t any whitecaps, we’re solid. (Credit: Thomas Bresson on Wikimedia Commons)

I can’t speak for my siblings, but this fallacy has followed me into adulthood and climbed the walls of my psyche like ivy. Over the last thirty years, this plant has been ferocious. Whereas the Prodigal got lost in harlots, booze, and hunger, I’ve found myself lost dozens of times over the years when people don’t act okay. Nothing different than back home. When someone isn’t being normal, then do something to get ‘em normal again! Don’t fix the problem, mind you, but get ‘em normal. (Let me state, again, my home when I was growing up had much to praise. Everyday wasn’t a dysentery epidemic. And on a different subject, I’ll also toss out, if you’re going to get lost in something bad, reckless sex and drunkenness might be more fun than crippling anxiety and paralysis, but I can only speculate here.)

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Sometimes ivy takes over so it seems like there’s more plant than stone. (Credit: Psyberartist on Wikimedia Commons)

So the Prodigal “comes to himself” standing in a field with pigs and staring longingly at what one blogger says are carob pods. Hunger has granted him an epiphany: “What in God’s name are you doing? Go back to yourself. Whatever is good and wise within you, return to that. Now!” I envision him taking those first steps back toward himself. The parable teaches that the young man is going back to his father (God), but I choose to hang onto those words, “when he came to himself,” and let God and the son marry. The long walk toward God is the walk toward himself.

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Mmm! An overripe, dehydrated banana? A used, sunbaked . . . ? Oh, never mind? Carob pods. (Credit: Roger Culos on Wikimedia Commons)

A few twilights ago at 4:10 a.m., my walk began, not away from squandering inherited wealth, but from squandering myself. I awoke content. For the most part, this isn’t how things have been going over the last couple of years. I’ve been feeling the crack, sting, and ache of ivy digging into my brick and mortar. So what do you do when you’ve been hurting lately, and contentment shows up a couple hours before the alarm goes off?

Pee. That was my first decision. My second was to prop myself up in bed next to sleeping Kathy and pray. And breathe. And enjoy. Then, like the Prodigal, I came to myself. I have no clue why. All I know is that I somehow saw clearly the fallacy I’ve been living under for far too long. Weakened by the pull and weight of my personal ivy, I’ve gotten lost. Prayer, running, and dietary sanity—outward signs of the inner John—have shrunk or ceased altogether. I used to get up before dawn to pray and write, then jump into company time. Most days included four or five miles on the track. Meals weren’t perfect, but they were generally mindful.

Well, in recent months you can forget all that shit. So why, as I sat straight up with the cool, dark air touching my arms, did I come to myself? “What in God’s name are you doing? Go back to yourself. Whatever is good and wise within you, return to that. Now!”

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Son Micah working on a two-pound Rice Crispy Treat after a hard day of painting. Laughter comes more easily after I find myself

I guess the timing of my Prodigal moment doesn’t matter. Nor do I need a reason that I felt welcomed and embraced, as if I had left myself for a distant country and returned. An embrace. My body received it, as when your chest meets another chest and you rest your cheek on a beloved shoulder and know you’re not lost anymore.

In the parable, the father sees his son in the distance and runs out to hug and kiss him. Then they finish the walk home. I got hugged and kissed, too. Maybe it didn’t come from God, but it sure seemed like a greater “Welcome home, son!” than I could have given myself.

This home isn’t on Wagner Avenue or Shenley Drive. It’s the home I believe we all have to find for ourselves over and over again. For me, it’s about “coming to myself”: held close by One who rejoices that I’m found, sitting next to my sleeping wife, putting my soul’s arms around all those I love, and believing that Mystery has ways of making weak brick and mortar strong again.

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My soul’s arms hold Cole when I come to myself

An Overcast Sky Sings My Revelation

Note: All photographs in this post appear courtesy of Giuseppe Colarusso. Mr. Colarusso, I’m in your debt. Thank you.

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Have you ever had a morning when the environment collaborated with your spirit to yield a revelation?

A gentle rain persists out Starbucks’ window—looks like all-day. The Neil Young songs playing are mostly unfamiliar, but his voice, mournful and easy, soothes me. Milan, the manager of a tuxedo store in the Millcreek Mall, just showed me some absurd photographs by Giuseppe Colarusso, and laughs poured out of my tears reservoir. Damn, it felt good! (I’m convinced, by the way, that sorrow and joy swim in the same waters.)

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Inside my fifty-two-year-old soul, rain also falls, a voice that sounds a bit like crying sings, and here and there, cleansing laughter comes out, inappropriately loud, and turns heads toward me. I’m having a revelation, at once comforting, sad, and playful.

There’s a popular saying these days: It is what it is. Like all maxims it will fall out of favor soon enough, but I plan to appreciate It is what it is (IIWII: pronounced eye-why) while it’s around. IIWII says, “Okay, everybody, the time for acceptance has arrived. We can talk lots more about the situation at hand, complain, dissect, laugh, kvetch, wrestle, curse, and so on. But we should understand that, despite our best efforts, some things aren’t going to change. So let’s just deal. Let’s move on.”

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In this same spirit, a voice like Neil Young’s sings loving words into the ear of my heart. They sound like this overcast sky looks—pale gray pillows: “John, you are who you are.”

Has your life run like mine? Do you struggle to change characteristics that seem, as the years unfold, like matters of wiring? Do you promise yourself that the next time such and so happens, you’ll do better? You’ll be stronger, calmer, smarter, more centered, less sensitive, or whatever more or less you need to be? If your life hasn’t gone this way, you may want to escape and read something more in line with your reality. But if my questions resonate with you, I have one more for the list: At what point in the progression of decades is it best to say, “I am who I am. It’s time to make decisions based on the person I am, not on the person I would like to be”?

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In March of 2006, I wrote in my book Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs to my future children’s—Elena’s and Micah’s—children about identity:

Be warned: the blood in your veins will predispose you to Coleman attributes, some of which you’ll like, and some you won’t. I would like to pick which of my qualities you’ll inherit and which ones will pass you by, but we both know fate doesn’t work that way.

Elena and Micah got your grandmother’s strong, crooked teeth rather than my straight, weak ones, which is to their advantage. Braces can align smiles, but the only cure for rotten teeth is pliers. Micah, who at fourteen brushes his teeth only when I remind him, had zero cavities at his checkup a couple weeks ago. Elena, who at seventeen brushes like a grown up, had two puny cavities. By the time I was their age, I had a couple dozen fillings. If your teeth fall apart, blame me.

Elena inherited my hips, which were wide even when I was running forty miles a week, but Micah got a skinny frame. If you carry extra pounds from the waist down and end up with pants tight at the hips but baggy at the waist, blame me.

When you glance at your reflection in a storefront window and wonder how you got to be who you are, you’ll have plenty to blame me for.

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Mark Twain was supposed to have said, “I’ve had lots of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” If you squander days fretting about problems that never materialize, blame me. If you have bottomless patience, too much patience, occasionally stupid patience, blame me. If you’re smart enough to spot brilliance in others, but aren’t brilliant yourself, blame me. If you endure inexplicable anxiety and depression, blame me. If arguments leave you weary and shaken, blame me. If anything gorgeous makes your spirit ache, blame me. Blame me and forgive me.

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In the eight years that have passed, little has changed. If anything, I may have lost ground where inner-strength and tranquility are concerned, and I’m just as vulnerable in relationships as ever. I am what I am. So, in this moment, Neil Young sings me a question: “Is it time shape your circumstances around the person you are rather than force the person you are to strain and stretch around your circumstances?”

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Does that make any sense? Does there come a point in the maturation process at which you decide to stop trying to muscle your way again and again through situations you weren’t designed to endure? Can there come a revelation when you see clearly that loving and embracing the person you know yourself to be requires that you say goodbye to the person you would prefer to be?

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Such a moment descended on me with this morning’s precipitation. For most of my adult life, I’ve been trying to transcend troubles like a levitating bodhisattva or Jesus asleep in the stern during the storm. Turns out I’m as loving and compassionate as they come, but I’m in equal measure fragile and nervous. I’m not enlightened. And a mustard seed is a boulder next to my faith—if, indeed, faith means an abiding sense of peaceful trust.

I’m a guy sitting in a coffee shop full of pilgrims on a gray day—a guy with more years behind than ahead who has finally, mercifully, gently realized that I am who I am needs to prune IIWII, plant fresh manure around its roots, and dance prayers for rain and sunlight.

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This damp Monday is nurse-wife Kathy’s day off from trying to kick cancer’s butt. Obituaries of her patients say day-by-day, “IIWII.” She loves me in spite of my snoring, recognizes that IIWII is spanking me good, and agrees that it’s time to dance and pray. We’ve made an offer on a fixer-upper, 854 square feet, on the other side of town. Maybe we’ll hear something this week. Boy oh boy, will we have to trim away at what our present 2,100-square-foot house holds—if our bid tops the flipper we’re up against.

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No matter. Who cares if the clouds sprinkle me on the way to the truck? I’ll head for church work, knowing that IIWII often has the last word, but not today. (Does IIWII have you by the throat? I’m thinking strength your way!) Lovely Kathy and I may move into a puny house–or not. Either way, I will toast the bodhisattva Jesus I would prefer to be, give him a kiss, and tell him it’s time to move along.

P.S. The flipper won this round.

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Giuseppe Colarusso