Oniontown Pastoral: What I’m Looking For

Oniontown Pastoral: What I’m Looking For

IMG_4286Cashiers at Wine and Spirits Stores always ask the same question before scanning my bottle: “Did you find everything you were looking for?”

I say a lazy “yes, thanks” because an honest answer requires a treatise. Rarely, when nobody else is in line, the thesis comes out: “Well, I didn’t know what I was looking for, so I’m good.”

After a polite chuckle, the cashier carries on with no idea that a confessional transaction has also taken place.

I seldom know what I’m looking for. Call me slack, but purposeful searching generally yields frustration. The quotation residing warmly in memory is elusive, impossible to verify. And never go hunting for epiphanies. Those gems hide in desert caves until the seeker has forgotten that they exist.

But when I look for nothing, wonder ends up finding me. Of course, sometimes we’re all assigned a specific mission. There’s no avoiding, for example, the Thanksgiving curse of tracking down nomadic French fried onions in the grocery store for the sake of green bean casserole.

Obligations aside, though, I live like my late dog Watson, who was clueless as to what he was sniffing for, but overjoyed to discover it. What am I after? I’ll know when I find it.

Case study: Parishioner Barb invited me to her neighborhood. About twenty minutes from Oniontown, her neighbors are Amish. She introduced me to a couple of young guys working in their family’s lumber mill and walked me to points of interest, which on dirt roads can be beautiful, but nonchalant: houses with curtains pulled to one side, a sugar shack tucked back in the woods, a one-room school house, and one thing I wasn’t expecting.

IMG_4907

Amish phone booth

A phone booth. The Amish, it turns out, have a nuanced relationship with telephones. They can use them, but they can’t own them. So in her front yard, Barb collaborates to provide them with phone service. The booth, built with their wood and running off of her lines, gets used six or eight times each day.

An obvious question occurred to me: “What sense does it make to use a phone, but be forbidden to own one?” But hush. My faith can’t stand up to logic, either.

When Barb and I returned from our walk, a horse and buggy was parked by the phone booth. The father indulged in technology while his kids waited. The horse worried its bit and nodded as we rubbed its long face.

Since the Amish don’t allow photographs, I snapped only a shot of the booth. It says something about caring for people you don’t quite understand and keeping a spare room open in your heart for guests.

This is why I love Oniontown so much: it always teaches me. A village an hour south of Erie has even helped me to look at home and everything nearby with fresh eyes.

Days ago at Starbucks, I chatted with a boy, maybe six or seven, and his mother. The kid was a whip, his mom cheerfully resigned to having a child able to talk the bark off a tree. His segue between topics was “by the way.”

Our conversation ballooned to ninety minutes and included his Gentleman Claptrap toy, requests for the family shopping list, and some kiddie movie. I was weary, but sensed the approach of wisdom.

As Mom loaded her purse, I said, “I’ve never heard of that movie before.”

He looked at me in disbelief and said, “You have a lot to learn.”

Mom gave him a tame rebuke, but I interrupted: “Well, actually, he’s right.”

And he was. As a lifelong novice, I learn best by opening my eyes and holding out my hands.

Advertisements

Practicing Environmentally-Friendly Speech

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.

IMG_0863

Sign hanging over my dresser–$3.00 at an estate sale

 

Waking from a Dream of Separateness

Waking from a Dream of Separateness*

In the midst of shamatha—calm abiding—lately, I’ve been having Fourth-and-Walnut moments. Thomas Merton (1915-1968) enthusiasts know what I’m talking about. One of the famous monk’s most beloved writings comes from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, which Thomas Moore calls a “mind-bending collection of short pieces”:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness . . . .

As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

But even if it were possible to tell a friend or stranger, “You know, I see past your skin and know we’re family. Do you understand that you’re beautiful?” it wouldn’t be advisable. First, I would appear to be on an acid trip. And second, I would stomp all over the moment with my inadequate words.

It’s better to stay quiet, as I did last evening over a few Lucifer Belgian ales at the Tap House with old college teaching colleagues. One guy, who has been retired for over ten years but looks in better shape than I do, nursed his beer and held forth at length. But this wasn’t a self-indulgent, drunken monologue. Behind my friend’s animation I witnessed his soul’s lightening. He is engaged in a life-long lover’s quarrel with the world: what he loves, he loves recklessly; when he rails, he rails through clenched teeth. He has got the universe caught up in a fierce embrace.

Another shining spirit is a woman I saw at church this morning. I won’t name her because she would be embarrassed, but as she volunteers with more efforts than I probably realize, she gives off life. We had a belly laugh when she showed me a potless plant. Obviously somebody had broken the pot and put the dirt and root system back in the stand. There’s no way I can imagine being alien from this friend.

Yet another church friend hangs his paintings in the office. Parish Administrator Michelle and I love the work of this self-taught guy whose basement is full of decades of canvasses. He and his wife are getting on in years, but their gentleness glows. Being with them for ten minutes can bless a whole morning.

IMG_0846

Hanging on the church office at Abiding Hope

IMG_0850

Taped to my office door, a portrait of me by Meghan, a kid who emits showers of sparks. I especially like my nostrils.

IMG_0729

Barista Abbey wearing a little girl’s crown

Of course, Thomas Merton was talking mostly about strangers in his Fourth-and-Walnut epiphany, and the more I’m able to give myself to the refreshment of siestas and the sanity of prayer, the more I notice great light all around me. Some time ago here at Starbucks, I saw barista Abbey knitting as a young friend made crowns. The kid was happy, proud of trying to fashion power and might out of construction paper. As I talked to them for a few seconds, we belonged to each other.

Unfortunately, sometimes shining people cause sunburn. A young woman here at Starbucks just had a lover’s quarrel of her own via cell phone. After a short, tearful fight, she retreated to the restroom, where I imagine she is crying some more. I’ve never seen her before, but have an empathetic pit in my stomach for her. And now she is gone, out into the 90-degree swelter with her puffy eyes, damp cheeks, and upset heart.

I’m still here in the air-conditioned shamatha of 4:02 p.m., glad that the sad girl was mine and I was hers (though she knew nothing about it). Most of all, I’m grateful not to suffer from the dream of separateness. I belong to everyone. Everyone belongs to me.

*This post first appeared in slightly different form on A Napper’s Companion in July of 2013.

Humility Needed as the New Millennium Clears Its Throat

800px-Chili_con_carne_1234

It’s chili. You eat it. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Last week while eating lunch at Coffee Culture courtesy of a parishioner’s gift card, I felt them: the twitches of meaningless impulse. Open up the MacBook. Check the iPhone. Write a few notes. Skim the newspaper. These twitches were both mental and physical: adrenaline-fueled, microbursts of habit energy. I saw Ronald Reagan smiling and delivering his famous 1980 debate line to me: “There you go again.”

This is Mindfulness 101! When you eat, eat. When you read, read. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Don’t just do something. Sit there.” I know all this stuff, but even with pray-meditating twenty minutes twice or thrice daily, I constantly forget. Early into my huge Caesar salad and spicy ambush chili, I remembered, “John, you’re allowed to just eat. You don’t have to be doing something else.” As I replay that moment, the image of my late dad pops up, his fussy dementia hands going: fidget, fix, reach, button, smooth, worry. Madness.

IMG_2704

Ahhh. In the chapel at Mount Saint Benedict Monastery.

Don’t be afraid. This is not a rant, kvetch, or lament. Like everybody else, I’m responsible for the state of my own interior, which is getting some special attention these days. This morning I sip coffee and release my old inventory of anxiety, breath by breath. I’m good—well, getting better, let’s say. By 10:00 a.m. I’ll be at Mount Saint Benedict Monastery, trying to stay ahead of worries in progress.

In the words of the recently departed Joan Rivers, “Can we talk?” Is it just me, or is it quite a chore to remain centered as this new millennium clears its throat? Assemble the following ingredients: middle-class income, spiffy technology, and submission to contemporary attitudes toward time and labor; then, bam, like Emeril Lagasse, add pinches of garden-variety stress and a personal crisis or two. What do you get? You get a guy with an expanding torso, irritated tongue, jerking brain and muscles, and pleading spirit: For God’s sake, relax, will you.

The first thirty or so years of my life weren’t jerky. When I think about growing up and even college and graduate studies, 2014’s brisk march of time and frenzy of labor comes into clear view. For years I’ve had Han Solo’s bad feeling about this. Recently I happened upon an article by Dr. Peter Gray, who put some good words to my concerns. He graduated from high school in 1962, a year after I was born, but his description of childhood sounds a lot like mine:

In the 1950s, when I was a child, we had ample opportunity to play. We had school, but school was not the big deal that it is today. Some people might not remember, but the school year then was five weeks shorter than it is today. The school day was six hours long, but at least in elementary school, two of those hours were outdoors playing. We had half-hour recess in the morning, half-hour recess in the afternoon, a full hour lunch. We could go wherever we wanted during that period. We were never in the classroom more than an hour at a time or for four hours a day. It just wasn’t the big deal, and homework for elementary school children was essentially unheard of. There was some homework for high school students, but much, much less than today. Out of school, we had chores. Some of us had part-time jobs, but for the most part, we were free to play for hours a day after school, all day on weekends, all summer long.

IMG_2722

Beloved wife Kathy is still in touch with the power of play. This is our front yard on Halloween. The trick-or-treaters were slack-jawed with wonder.

I don’t know about the shorter school year, but Gray nails it for the 60s and 70s. I neither noticed nor appreciated the wide fields of time that opened up after school and in the summer. My single academic stress was trigonometry. Bless his heart, teacher Chet—an old anomaly who went by his first name—gave me a passing D one quarter to save my National Honor Society hide. Beyond that, my turmoil had to do with divorced parents and withering nerves with the ladies. But when my twenty-two-year-old Micah was in school, the whole family was constantly stressed. The homework was oppressive, especially for a kid who didn’t engage well with books and worksheets. I’m out of the loop now, but can’t imagine the expectations have eased much, if at all.

One of my favorite memories is of Micah’s fourth-grade teacher talking to wife Kathy and me about our son’s messy daily planner. “Daily planner?” I thought, “Micah’s follow through with toilet paper is sketchy, and you want him to keep a to do list? You’ve got to be &^%$# kidding me!” Of course, we nodded politely. Twenty-six-year-old daughter Elena faired much better academically, knocking off homework in study hall and devoting her teenage suffering to bi-polar disorder—at least we think that’s what it was. For me, 1988 through 2012 was a long stretch of parental confusion and convulsion peppered generously with joy.

IMG_2787

Micah in, what, kindergarten? His first grade teacher didn’t have much use for him, with his silly heart.

It would be whiney of me to blame academics for Micah’s troubles growing up, but I saw in his school experience seeds that have grown into the view of life that had me jangled over my lunch last week. I should first say that my son had many wonderful, skillful, appropriately affectionate teachers. My only gripe is with a few along the way who seemed to dislike children.

I get the impression that lots of teachers are frustrated by the Weltanschauung that stresses kids out and has adults multi-tasking themselves into hemorrhages. (Check out the excellent reflections of my blogging friend Beachmum for some insights on how some teachers feel.) We’re caught in a powerful current, a way of being that constantly vexes gladness. This way, the delight of pharmaceuticals, is driven by hubris and faulty assumptions.

We humans are overconfident in our knowledge. It’s an attitude thing. How many of us got pudgy twenty years ago because we watched our fat intake and gorged at the carbohydrate trough? One at least. Today, we’re assured that the sophistication and competence of the United States health care system make an Ebola outbreak here highly unlikely. Forgive my dis-ease. This has nothing to do with researchers, doctors, and nurses, who no doubt take their work seriously and have good intentions. But what seem to me to be preliminary findings are regarded as conclusive.

I may be in the minority, but the precaution of requiring people who have worked closely with Ebola patients to lay low for three weeks seems reasonable to me. Zipping Kaci Hickox into a tent was perhaps unwarranted—even though the tent was inside a hospital building, not outside as I foolishly first thought—but asking her to avoid contact with folks for a while is prudent. Given the ferocity of Ebola, the fuss over a twenty-one-day quarantine is surprising. Is that really a burdensome sentence, even if all the evidence suggests that a health care professional isn’t contagious? I suppose if you’re absolutely positive that we know all there is to know about Ebola, then ¾ of a month feels like a year. (More on time later.)

200px-Harland_Sanders

How sad: a “really inhumane” recipe. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Kaci Hickox could probably use a port-a-potty, not wash her hands, and stick her fingers in thousands of Maine residences’ mouths and not pass along a single case of Ebola. In fact, I’m not worried, but I do harrumph at the prevailing lack of humility, any sense that our knowledge might be incomplete, indignation toward those who maintain skepticism, and willingness to sling lawsuits so quickly. And Hickox’s comment that her treatment was “really inhumane” may be a stretch. Newark’s University Hospital didn’t shove her adrift on an ice flow; they put her in an indoor tent and brought her Kentucky Fried Chicken.

My point with the examples of carbohydrates and Ebola is that once we’ve decided we know something about science, we dig in our heels. According to Peter Gray, what we know about education and child psychology might also be mucking up future adults. In his aforementioned article, he identifies . . .

a “school-ish view of child development” – the view that children learn best everything from adults; that children’s own, self-directed activities with other children are wastes of time. We don’t often say it that way, but that’s the implicit understanding that underlies so much of our policy with regard to children, so childhood has turned from a time of freedom to a time of resume-building. 

Gray presents convincing evidence that our adult impulse to micro-manage childhood learning and development (i.e. not letting kids play, make up their own rules, work out their own conflicts, and generally not getting the hell out of the way and leave them be) is burdening a generation. Depression, anxiety, and suicide have been on the rise in recent decades. (Here’s a link to his article, “Kids Today Are More Depressed Than They Were During the Great Depression. Here’s Why” if you want his numbers.) My concern: like Gray, I remember when my habit energy wasn’t jangled and so have a shot at making changes to restore my peace. But what if all you’ve ever known is a relentless impulse to accomplish something and a haunting sense that if you’re playing or resting, then you’re wasting time? Gray argues that there is a crucial, “evolutionary function of play.” Again, follow that link if you want to explore his reasoning.

Our experience of time is irrationally rushed and troubled. Isn’t this really the impulse that drives multi-tasking, texting while driving perhaps being the most hazardous example? On his television show Phil Donahue used to hold the microphone in audience members’ faces and say, “So little time.” Those words knuckle our heads and slap our asses. You need to perform several actions at once because you don’t feel like you have enough time.

I offer one flimsy piece of evidence, a phrase that is regularly spoken by my adult children: real quick. Catch the urgency? “Dad, can I see your laptop real quick?” “Dad, can you hold [grandson] Cole real quick?” My thought is generally, “No.” I want you to use my laptop for as long as you need it. And, damn it, you hand me that baby, it ain’t going to be real quick.

IMG_0846

A painting by the late, self-educated Milton Sontheimer, whose work helps me to center myself

As proof that we can safely slow down, I present Milton Sontheimer of blessed memory. Toward the end of his life, which came about a month ago, congestive heart failure had reduced his pace to a crawl, but Milton always moved as if he had more time than he needed. The walls of his home with now-widowed Mary are crowded with his paintings. For years, he baked Communion bread for our church and wrapped it in foil, using and reusing the same piece until wrinkles rendered it flimsy. Wise Milton: no rush—and no waste.

We assume that because technology exists, we should make full use of it. Many thoughtful people are aware of this observation, but I want to credit the last two sages who have brought it to my attention: Beachmum, whom I’ve already referenced (I read back some ways, Mum, and couldn’t find the citation; I know you wrote it, though), and Dr. Brad Binau, a professor from my days at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, whom I mentioned in a recent post. Smart phones, tablets, notebooks, and laptops exercise centripetal force—literally, almost, considering how often my ear and nose are smashed up against my iPhone.

Birnau_Uhr_Sonnenzeituhr

Our opulent enemy? Why? (Credit: Saberhagen on Wikimedia Commons)

We peer over our reading glasses at people who are apparently lost, confused, or just making up their minds. I’ve learned to be watchful for what I call periods of discernment both in myself and others. In thirteen years as a parish pastor I’ve sat with scores of pilgrims on their way to new lands of the spirit. They wonder what to tell loved ones who want to know what’s up. I suggest, “Tell them you’re taking some time to figure things out.” These are stretches of months, even years, to honor, not stampede through. A couple days ago I heard the following what-I’m-saying story on The Writer’s Almanac about the poet C. K. Williams:

His two greatest passions in high school were girls and basketball. He was a good basketball player, 6 feet 5 inches, and he was recruited to play in college. But then he wrote a poem for a girl he was trying to impress, and she was actually impressed, and so he decided he should be a poet instead. He dropped out of college to move to Paris because that’s where he thought a poet ought to live. He didn’t write at all while he was there, but he did realize that he didn’t know anything and should probably go back to college. He said: “It was an incredibly important time. Not much happened and yet my life began then. I discovered the limits of loneliness.”

My point, I guess: if I’m not willing to be lost, I might not ever be found.

IMG_2699

A three-hour nap in a monastery guest room–a remarkable blessing

Endnote: I did make it to Mount Saint Benedict Monastery. (Obviously I wrote much of this post after my retreat.) I won’t bore you with the whole day, other than to pass along two details. 1.) I took a three-hour nap in the afternoon; the twitches of habit energy wear a guy out. And 2.) I noticed while reciting psalms with the sisters that they spoke more quickly than in the past. Their recitation is still spacious, but the gentle silence between verses is now thin. I don’t know why.

Lord, spare the sisters and us all from contemporary adrenaline and grant us mindful, humble impulses.

Variation on a Theme by William Carlos Williams

“The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams

 

So much depends

upon

 

a red wheel

barrow

 

glazed with rain

water

 

beside the white

chickens.

566px-William_Carlos_Williams_passport_photograph

William Carlos Williams, physician by day . . . (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Literary critic John Hollander writes, “Williams ‘etymologizes’ his compounds into their prior phenomena, and his verbal act represents, and makes the reader carry out, a meditative one.”

In other words, meditative phenomena. Shamatha. Breathe. Receive.

unnamed

So much depends . . .

Kathy, Elena, and Cole drive seven hours to Virginia for a baby shower. They also visit Polyface Farms, where Joel Salatin and family love creation, collaborate with it. Elena sits on a swing and nurses Cole. She’s not ashamed. Kathy brings home a pound of bacon from a pig joyful until its last moment. Salt and earth. We taste the earth.

799px-Coriandrum_sativum_004

A friend showed me . . . (Credit: H Zell / Wikimedia Commons)

For Sunday family dinner, we have purple potato salad and wraps: real, northwestern Pennsylvania tomatoes; avocado; feta; dill sauce; red bell pepper; chicken thighs sautéed in ground coriander seeds.

(I once saw coriander in Mary’s mortar. That’s why I thought to buy coriander, grind it, and put it with the chicken. My friend showed me.)

IMG_2592

I’m busy, Gramps . . .

Before Sunday family dinner, Cole works in his playhouse in the backyard. He pounds with his hammer. He examines plastic nails and a sink and makes comments about them into the perfect air. Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom (James Wright).

1606857_685479224855602_1249260779706027143_n

Matt and Layla

Before Sunday family dinner, Elena says, “We were going to plant flowers beside the house, but Matt says he wants to keep that space open. Layla likes to run there.”

IMG_0532

Boulevard altos . . .

This morning, breezes lift the bedroom curtains. Kathy and I lay together, my arm around her shoulder, her head on my chest. We say nothing, listen to the trees, receive Earth’s cool hymnody on our faces and arms.

Finally: “I love you, Kathy Coleman.”

And: “I love you, too, John Coleman.”

Strange: we call each other by our full names.

 

The Song of a Frozen Thrush

I was getting cherry tomatoes from the basement freezer to make marinara sauce when I remembered a karmic coincidence. It happened a few years ago and was so unlikely and sacred that I took the bizarre step of freezing the evidence—a dead Swainson’s (or olive-backed) thrush.

220px-Catharus_ustulatus_-North_Dakota-8a

Swainson’s thrush (Credit: Wikipedia)

I first wrote about this handful-of-a bird a couple years ago while on a train to Florida to visit my dad and step-mother, both of whom were in an Edvard-Munch-spiral of dementia:

The_Scream

Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” 1893. Can a serious painting be a cliche for despair? Maybe, but it fits. (Credit: Wikipedia)

“The lights have gone off and engine and ventilation moans have stopped. As the Silver Meteor sleeps for what we’re told will be fifteen minutes, I remember Swainson’s thrush. Named after 19th century ornithologist William Swainson, the thrush takes numerous micro-naps during the day, each of just a few seconds, according to hras.org—like naps on the train. Passengers nod off for a minute, until the car jerks or somebody walks by and brushes against them or a grizzly old guy hacks cave breath from one seat back to their nose—my present situation. Then they strain their eyes open a slice, shift position, and nap again. 

© Copyright 2011 CorbisCorporation

Please! Nobody, woman or man, looked this together on the train from Pittsburgh to Orlando. We were all visual renderings of halitosis. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

“Sometimes I myself check things out with one eye because the annoyance isn’t worth the effort of pulling both open. In this I imitate Swainson’s thrush. Saul Scheinbach describes the nifty mental trick this bird and others use to sleep and prevent getting eaten at the same time:

“’Scientists found that when the birds were in a migratory state, they reversed their activity cycle, resting during the day and becoming active at night. As a result daytime ‘drowsiness’ (eyes partially closed) increased, but total sleep time dropped by 67% as compared to birds in the non-migratory state. To partially compensate for this sleep loss migratory birds took daytime micro-naps with one or both eyes closed. These episodes occurred during periods of drowsiness and lasted about eight seconds each. The team suspected that unilateral eye closure (UEC) during the micro-naps allowed one brain hemisphere to sleep while the other stayed awake to avoid predation.’

© Copyright 2010 CorbisCorporation

Little thrush, you are getting sleepy, very sleepy. (Credit: Herbert Spichtinger)

“Scheinbach goes on to report that the research team referred to here went on to prove their suspicions true and adds tongue-in-cheek speculation: ‘UEC has also been observed in ducks, whales and dolphins, indicating it may be more widespread across the animal kingdom. Perhaps humans exhibit some form of UEC too. I recommend testing college students during exam time and security guards at night.’” Har har.

The mission to Florida, via Amtrak for fear of flying, failed. My father and step-mother refused to move into assisted living. To their neighbors’ dismay, they hunkered down in their Bastille of anguish and confusion for several more months. The trip’s only grace was long stretches of writing on the train and dozens of naps taken like a migratory animal.

Back in Erie, bummed about such a dreary use of vacation time, I showed up at the church and found what looked like a Swainson’s thrush lying dead on the sidewalk. I imagined it flew into the glass door and fell into my path. It was perfect, as if it had taken a macro-nap until I arrived. What were the odds? A sage bird I read and wrote about but never met lay before me in repose. I’m not much for signs, but I know a wonder—albeit a dark one—when I see it.

IMG_1277

I think you’re a Swainson’s thrush–anyway, sing. I’m listening.

So I picked the thrush up, wrapped it in napkins until I got home, and froze it in two sandwich bags. True, keeping a tiny cadaver in your freezer is morbid, gross, weird, whatever, but I wanted to hang onto Swainson’s thrush. We had a conversation pending, but after watching my dad flail about in dementia’s white caps and refusing rescue, I had no shamatha left to imagine what a dead bird might say to me.

My shamatha may not be functioning any better than when I stepped off the Silver Meteor all those months ago, but lately gifts have landed in my path, both quick and dead, and I suspect they’re in formation with Swainson’s thrush. Just now I reached into the basement freezer and returned to the dining room table. Again I laid napkins down and took hold of the body, this time expecting freezer burn. But no. Its wings have darkened, but otherwise it looks the same as the morning I found it.

Had the thrush offered itself to me? Ah, a trite thought, spiritual kitsch. But regardless of her intent, she’s been teaching me. If you can’t nap for an hour, take thirty minutes. Too busy for twenty minutes of prayer? Do ten? Savor three bites rather than swallow ten whole. A truckload isn’t preferable to a teaspoon.

In fact, as one who takes in everything from memoirs to avocados to Starbucks coffee way too fast and in embarrassing quantities, I believe Swainson’s thrush may be trying to lengthen my days. Receive staples, luxuries, and blessings in small portions, you middle-aged glutton!

photo-18

Micro-blessing Cole sleeps on macro-blessed John.

I’m breathing, listening for this frozen bird’s song. (Lord, help me.) Micro-graces have been appearing, and fortunately I’ve had one eye opened to notice them. They’re all singing to me mercy within mercy within mercy.

Neighbor Patrick, Shenley Drive’s Down’s-syndrome sage, just turned twelve, but his boy-wisdom isn’t getting all mature, fussy, and sophisticated. He lives in a relentless now; I wonder if what the world regards as a deficiency is really an absence of intellectual clutter and absurdity. He does his best to teach the neighborhood. Sometimes we pay attention.

IMG_1285

Patrick: Let’s play! I’ll be Superman.

Friend Mary posted the following on her Facebook page: Foster & Help Needed! “Noel–The Christmas Kitten”: This little kitty was found tonight after she crawled up through a heating vent into a house in Millcreek. We assume she went in to try to keep warm. She is very sweet, and just wants to be held and cuddled. As you can see, she is emaciated and obviously has been on her own for some time. Orphan Angels Cat Sanctuary and Adoption Center will be overseeing her care, and a vet appointment has been made for her first thing in the morning. She needs a good foster home until she can get strong enough to be ready for adoption. Orphan Angels could also use donations for this little one. This case was unexpected, but they want to make sure she gets the help and care she needs. Anyone interested in fostering, please call Eileen at 814-504-3246 to be screened. Donations can be made via paypal on the OA website: http://orphanangels.weebly.com/.

Mary and husband Mike agreed to take Noel in, knowing she’d need a couple months of care before a permanent adoption would be possible. Noel didn’t survive, though. Mary writes, “I am at least grateful she had warmth, food and love in her last days.” And I’m grateful for friends’ yes to one of my frozen thrush’s forgotten sisters. Mary and Mike quietly hugged the world.

1501811_679531342087564_2145279789_n

Noel, Swainson’s thrush’s little sister. Her eyes teach me.

This Christmas week my brother Ed asked if I had our Grandma Miller’s molasses cookie recipe. He made some on his own and said they were hockey pucks. We looked in a family cookbook without luck. In passing he also mentioned that Gram made a batch of those cookies once a week because Earl (Gramp) loved them. This hardly seems worth sharing, but the idea has stayed with me, especially since Gram’s body was gnarled with arthritis. Her cherubic face was always pursed with pain. “So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow,” William Carlos Williams wrote. Correct. A red wheelbarrow and a molasses cookie.

42-39795207

Dora Miller’s molasses cookies weren’t so puffy. I never knew I’d want a picture of Earl’s favorite someday. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

Also this week, parishioner Bob and his grandson Gabe stopped by the church to do some cleaning. When they came into my office, I crouched down and said to Gabe, “Hey, you got a hug for Pastor John?” He smiled and let me have it. For him it must have been like hugging a sequoia. For me it was one regulation clergy hug—until I tried to pull away. Gabe hadn’t gotten the memo that this was to be a micro-embrace. A Swainson’s thrush-preschooler passed his goofball minister a universe of grace without realizing it.

Father Comforting Son

A standard hug micro-heals me for days. (Credit: corbisimages)

When an olive-backed bird is your mentor, even a fart can be a blessing. Yes, you heard me: a fart. (Roll the r. It’s more fun that way.) Friend Abby recently shared this laugh on Facebook:

Conversations with my 4 year old. Take two.

Keenan: FLURRRP!

Me: Hah! That was quite a toot!

Keenan: (Very serious) that wasn’t a toot momma.

Me: It wasn’t? Sure sounded like one to me! What was it then? A fluff? A fart? Did you shoot a bunny?

Keenan: No momma. None of those. My butt blew you a kiss.

I accept Abby’s word (If I’m lyin, I’m dyin!) that Keenan came up with his own version of the scene in Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale in which Nicholaus “anon let flee a fart.” In the heart a four-year-old boy, such a kiss is precious, not to be wasted. The point: I need Swainson’s thrush’s strangest song to make me laugh and drag me out of the terrible squirrel cage of self .

© Copyright 2013 CorbisCorporation

Sniff. Oh, that was supposed to be a kiss. Why, thank you. (Credit: Lars-Olof Johansson)

Because my olive-drab bodhisattva hasn’t finished saving me yet, I’ve returned her to the morgue. Such power! Even frozen she sings to me: “Creation screams and groans, but shh. Do you hear the descants of grace and mercy?” 

394px-Jiuhuashan_bodhisattva_image

A bodhisattva with many wings. (Credit: Nat Krause)

The Sacrament of Trying on Boots

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.

220px-MotherTeresa_094

Mother Teresa of Calcutta (Credit: Wikipedia)

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.”

IMG_1172

Amen

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.

IMG_1162

Some glue might have fixed Gene’s boot, but oh well.

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.

© Copyright 2011 CorbisCorporation

Prescription for joy. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

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.

© Copyright 2010 CorbisCorporation

You’re holding gladness in your hands, little sister. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

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.

The General Dance

When we are alone on a starlit night; when by chance we see the migrating birds of autumn descending on a grove of junipers to rest and eat; when we see children in a moment when they are really children; when we know love in our own heart; or when, like the Japanese poet Basho we hear an old frog land in a quiet pond with a solitary splash—at such times the awakening, the turning inside out of all values, the “newness,” the emptiness and the purity of vision that make themselves evident, provide a glimpse of the cosmic dance.

42-25254327

Credit: Gyro Photography

For the world and time are the dance of the Lord in emptiness. The silence of the spheres is the music of a wedding feast. The more we persist in misunderstanding the phenomena of life, the more we analyze them out into strange finalities and complex purposes of our own, the more we involve ourselves in sadness, absurdity and despair. But it does not matter much, because no despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not. 

Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance. (Thomas Merton, The New Seeds of Contemplation)

42-17792809

Credit: Bill Byrne

My wife Kathy is not a napper. I’ve sung her praises in at least one previous blog post, but she and I differ on the matter of midday oblivion. It occurs to me that she and I also approach shamatha differently. My calm abiding tends to be self-referential (i.e. naval gazing), while Kathy mostly looks outward at the world and others to find meaning. This is not to say that she lacks self-awareness and I am captive to my own reflection; rather, we have different spiritual styles.

It helps to acknowledge this. For a couple weeks my karma’s been cramped and bitter, and it may be because I’m stuck in my own awful solemnity, analyzing the phenomenon of my life into strange finalities. In other words, I need to get out of my naval and out into the general dance, which has been going on around me all these days of my funkification.

In fact, the cosmic or general dance—whatever you want to call it—has been getting a bit out of hand, especially in Kathy’s land of shamatha, the Coleman backyard. Check out this short gallery I took a couple weeks ago of God and Kathy dancing.

IMG_1085

Evidence of this being the Coleman’s driveway? A garage at the end; that’s about it.

IMG_1081

A clematis vine taking over the hedge and gardening tool shelf.

IMG_1080

Behind the foliage is a grill. When I cook, I look like Arte Johnson on “Laugh In.”

IMG_1079

Getting in the backdoor requires dancing with greenery.

IMG_1095

The dance isn’t restricted to the backyard. It plays inside, too, on the kitchen windowsill. You have to move plants to open the window.

IMG_1107

An orange tree took over the breakfast table until friend Claudia adopted it last week.

As plant life took over our property inside and out, pineapple-sized grandson-to-be has been shaking his groove thing under the firmament of daughter Elena’s belly.

photo

Elena with dancing future grandson.

No matter how much I try to turn the joy beating in my very blood to hot dog water, frogs keep inviting me to splash into ponds with them. Mint leaves wait for me to pick them and lift them to my nose. The clematis overtaking the hedge hopes I’ll stand still and receive its gladness. My future grandson is generally dancing and wants his gramps to join him. Kathy says, “You need to go outside and look!”

Forget yourself, Coleman. Go outside. Breathe. Know shamatha. Cast yourself dancing to the winds.

Waking from a Dream of Separateness

Unknown

Thomas Merton (Credit: Wikipedia)

In the midst of shamatha—calm abiding—lately, I’ve been having Fourth-and-Walnut moments. Thomas Merton (1915-1968) enthusiasts know what I’m talking about. One of the famous monk’s most beloved writings comes from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, which Thomas Moore calls a “mind-bending collection of short pieces”:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness . . . .

After a couple paragraphs of poetic crescendo and decrescendo, Merton closes his epiphany:

As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

But even if it were possible for me to tell a friend or stranger, “You know, I can see past your skin and know we’re family. Do you understand that you’re beautiful?” it wouldn’t be advisable. First, I’d appear to be on an acid trip. And second, I’d stomp all over the moment with my inadequate words.

It’s better to stay quiet, as I did last evening over a few Lucifer Belgian ales at the Tap House with old college teaching colleagues. One guy, who’s been retired for over ten years but looks in better shape than I do, nursed his beer and held forth at length. But this wasn’t a self-indulgent, drunken monologue. Behind my friend’s skin I could see a spirit beyond shining. He seems to be engaged in a life-long lover’s quarrel with the world: what he loves, he loves recklessly; when he rails, he rails through clenched teeth. He’s got the universe caught up in a fierce embrace.

GetAttachment.aspx

Kathy’s grilled vegetables, a dog, and deviled eggs

During my first beer last night at the Tap Room, Kathy e-mailed me a photograph along with this message: “Wish you were here to share our fresh garden veggies.” Behind the food I could see my wife shining; she lives as if she were a sail, snapping full in a puff of wind and going where the weather takes her. I’m not adventurous, but I can join her when my neuroses permit and stand clear when they won’t.

IMG_0868

A potless plant: as good a reason as any for a shared belly laugh

Another shining spirit is a woman I saw at church this morning. I won’t name her because she’d be embarrassed, but as she volunteers with more efforts than I probably realize, she gives off life. We had a belly laugh when she showed me a potless plant. Obviously somebody had broken the pot and put the dirt and root system back in the stand. There’s no way I can imagine being alien from this friend.

Yet another church friend hangs his paintings in the office. Parish Administrator Michelle and I love the work of this self-taught guy whose basement is full of decades of canvasses. He and his wife are getting on in years, but—honest to God—their gentleness glows. Being with them for ten minutes can bless a whole morning.

IMG_0846

Hanging on the church office at Abiding Hope

IMG_0848

Another painting from the office gallery

IMG_0850

Taped to my office door, a portrait of me by Meghan, a kid who shines like the sun. I especially like my nostrils.

IMG_0729

Barista Abbey knitting or crocheting something and wearing a little girl’s crown.

Of course, Thomas Merton was talking mostly about strangers in his Fourth-and-Walnut epiphany, and the more I’m able to give myself to the refreshment of siestas and the sanity of prayer, the more I notice multiple daily shinings. Some time ago, here at Starbucks, I saw barista Abbey knitting something as a young friend made crowns. The kid was happy, proud of trying to fashion regal gladness out of construction paper. As I talked to them, for a few seconds, we belonged to each other.

Of course, sometimes seeing people shining like the sun causes sunburn. A young woman here at Starbucks just had a lover’s quarrel of her own via cell phone. After a short, tearful fight, she’s now retreated to the restroom, where I imagine she’s crying some more. I’ve never seen her before, but have a fist in my stomach I’m trying to breathe away. And now she’s gone, out into the 90-degree swelter with her puffy eyes, damp cheeks, and upset heart.

I’m still here in the air-conditioned shamatha of 4:02 p.m., glad that the sad girl was mine and I was hers (though she knew nothing about it). Most of all, I’m grateful not to suffer from the dream of separateness. I belong to everyone. Everyone belongs to me.

P.S. Who broke that pot? Wife Kathy just confessed. I should’ve known.

The Day My Bones Turned to Dark Emeralds

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

This morning at 3:50 my body woke up with the off-kilter assumption that the routine was underway. Years ago I responded to such circadian hiccups by trying to will myself back to sleep. Now I prop myself up in bed and practice my trippy marriage of Christian prayer and Zen meditation for as long as it feels right. If my head gets heavy, I lie down and let go. If I’m fresh, as was the case before dawn, I keep going–in this case for sixty minutes.

Fotothek_df_pk_0000069_023_Szenenbilder

“Make mine a San Pellegrino water, if you please.” (Szenenbilder aus dem Stück “Der Snob” von Carl Sternheim. Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

For another hour I pecked out notes on my iPhone, planning church work and making a shopping list: pistachios, avocados, San Pellegrino water (aren’t I refined?), pinto beans, soy hot dogs, etc. Thinking at 5:00 a.m. about anything positive or even mundane has a spacious quality. The mind drinks cool draughts of sanity. Wonderful!

At 6:00, as the maples on Shenley Drive took shape in the first light and the neighborhood cardinal chanted his dawn mantra, I took an hour’s siesta. Yes, siestas are by definition an afternoon activity, but I’m taking a semantic liberty. After two hours of healthy wakefulness, lying down again and drifting off with a lovely breeze on my face and arms and a lovely wife beside me seemed more like a nap than a resumption of night sleep. A little after 7:00 I dressed and creaked downstairs to discover a small envelope on the dining room table.

IMG_0851

If I weren’t already light and refreshed, the contents would have washed any sludge off my spirit. Son Micah had written me a belated Father’s Day note, full of love and gratitude, and enclosed a Starbucks gift card. Had I not been under the emotional surveillance of Zoloft, I’d have cried. As it was, I rubbed the gift between my fingertips like a feather found on a beach, like a leaf of the lamb’s ear Kathy has growing out front.

IMG_0853

One of Kathy’s lamb’s ear leaves.

Driving to church, I decided to record Happy Birthday and send it as a text message to daughter Elena, who turns twenty-five today. One voice in my bush league vocal repertoire is a schmalzy vibrato, and I laid it on thick for my pregnant girl. For a flourish I scooped the last you note.

Elena’s text response: “Thx daddy! U just made me laugh cry. Damn hormones!” At 2:22, when I would normally take a siesta, Elena texted me a recording of my dancing grandchild’s heartbeat. Woosh, woosh. Sounded herculean to me, but what do I know? I smiled, but again, wasn’t verklempt.

Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-13175-0015,_Bergarbeiter_bohrend

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I never did get a nap. Didn’t get a run in either. Obligations took over. I spent half an hour with a parishioner in a soul-strangling situation and drove home gratified that he and I had extracted a couple veins of grace out of a cavern of darkness. In my chest, joy and depression played Twister.

Close to dinnertime, I received another text message from Elena, which I paraphrase: “Daddy, any chance I could use my ‘I’ve had a bummer of a day and need my daddy’ coupon?” A couple Christmases ago I stuffed the family stockings with coupons written on index cards. Ever since, Elena and her husband Matt have been redeeming them. Elena and a co-worker hugged goodbye this afternoon as the latter was moving to Columbus. Seeing a dear friend leave combined with those damn hormones had Elena’s tears splashing out. So off the load of us went to Perkins Restaurant, where wife, son, daughter, and son-in-law had a pancake-waffle frenzy. Thankfully, the carbohydrates and bummer coupon brought Elena’s hormones back into balance.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013: one ambush of blessing after another. I’m constantly aware that my personal healing from living for years under reality’s fist is taking longer than I’d like, so I’d be a fool to rush this day to a conclusion.

IMG_0856

Kathy’s trumpet vine waiting for hummingbirds.

When people I love blossom—even those standing throat-deep in compost—I’m going to stop! Shamatha—calm abiding—in an elementary extravagance: a wife who loves me, though my faults are legion; a daughter and son-in-law in giddy orbit around her belly; a son whose true self emerges more each day after being suffocated so long by addiction; friends and parishioners whose goodness keeps making me pinch myself.

Gladness lives under no obligation to stick around. I remember this constantly. So on days when joy is so thick that no afternoon nap is needed, I wear a wide interior grin of gratefulness. My amen is written by the poet James Wright:

When I stand upright in the wind, my bones turn to dark emeralds.

761px-Beryl-Quartz-ec01e

(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)