Oniontown Pastoral #9: Kitchen Talk

Oniontown Pastoral #9: Kitchen Talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Clouds Over Peach Street Starbucks

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

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Clouds over Peach Street Starbucks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Letter for My Grandson’s Memory Book

Dear Cole:

Three times today, tears have caught in my throat. They came in bed this morning while your grandmother was still asleep. A cry sat in my chest—the ghost of old grief? I remembered Kahlil Gibran’s words: “Joy and sorrow are inseparable . . . together they come and when one sits alone with you . . . remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.”

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Some days are just this way, Cole, but they pass.

Tears came again in the truck as I listened to Paul Simon‘s “Father and Daughter.” When your mom and dad got married, your mom and I danced to this song. Before that day, October 2, 2010, I worried that the father/daughter wedding reception dance would be awkward, but those were three of the happiest minutes of my life. Everybody else in the hall disappeared; it was just me and Elena. We talked, I don’t remember about what. I rested my lips on her head. At the bridge, we sasheyed. We worked our big old hips, kiddo. Anyway, as I drove along, Simon sang and strummed, and I remembered and blinked back water.

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A picture of flowers? Actually, my soul while dancing with your mother.

And a few minutes ago tears accompanied my Starbucks coffee. I was listening to another Paul Simon tune, “You’re the One” and thought of you:

May twelve angels guard you

While you sleep.

Maybe that’s a waste of angels, I don’t know

I’d do anything to keep you safe

From the danger that surrounds us

There’s no particular danger surrounding either of us, but your face came to mind, and that’s generally enough to get me verklempt.

You cry a lot these days, Master Trouble Trunks. People who love you are always trying to figure out why. Hungry? Tired? Where’s Mommy? Irritated bum? A stubborn little rectum rocket? Sometimes I bet you just miss being inside your mom, where the gentle universe was shaped like your body.

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When the gentle universe was shaped like your body.

But I don’t know. Something’s going on inside me; past tears I neglected could be offering me another chance to honor them. You’ll have days like this, too, when you’re either over the moon or in the lonesome valley (or both!) and haven’t a clue why. Maybe there are human equivalents to earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes. Anyway, since I can’t understand myself, don’t plan on me ever explaining the wonderful, goofy person you’re sure to become. I say that in love.

You can bet your life on this, though: for as long as I can, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing right now: loving you with a love that roars silently, that looks into your eyes and sees what blessings are swirling around in your presently gaseous self, that hopes you’ll see in my baggy eyes your birthright: every soul deserves to be held in a grandfather’s agape. Not every soul is so fortunate, and if I’m right about your other grandfather, boy-oh-boy, are you ever in for it.

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Look at your mother’s and uncle’s dreamy faces. That’s because of you, you know.

Someday you’ll wonder what your first months of life were like. On one of those crappy-for-no-good-reason days of adulthood, you’ll think, “What the hell’s up with me? Did someone do me wrong? Did one of my relatives keep pinching me? Did a mystery person holding me whisper, “Everybody fusses over you, how cute you are, but listen here: you’re a hideous little dope”? No, no, and no. You’ve had more love directed at you in three months than lots of people get in a lifetime. No kidding!

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I actually took this one when you, your mom, and I had lunch one day. You were a happy little man.

Every single day, your mother sits you somewhere comfy, says something like, “Who’s Mommy’s lil bootie bootie boo? Is he going to smile for Mommy today?” then snaps five or six hundred pictures. At mid-morning, a few of the best ones hit the inboxes of people who love you. When your dad gets home, he makes you laugh and squeal. Both of your parents are beyond thoughtful and patient. And pretty much wherever you go, people crowd around you and get remarkably weird. Example: yesterday after lunch your mother and I sang “I Been Working on the Railroad” to you, even harmonizing on “strumming on the old banjo.” The last stanza’s a bummer, so we skipped it.

When you read this for yourself, hear a message from before your memory got started: Your grandpa prays on March 1, 2014, that the crazy, silly love surrounding you now will reside in you after your hair has come and gone, and that it will rise on those days when you are a stranger to yourself and remind you of my eyes, always finding the sacred Cole.

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Someday you’ll want to hide your goodness from me. Go ahead and try. I’ll see it anyway.

Love,

Grandpa John