Oniontown Pastoral: A Mercer Road Love Story

Oniontown Pastoral: A Mercer Road Love Story

This past Tuesday was one for the books. The morning was fine. I worked in the church office until 12:30, then headed to the Stone Arch to pick up a lemon meringue pie I had ordered for an Erie neighbor who kept our sidewalk clear all winter while our own snow blower was laid up.

Since I was on that errand, it seemed foolish not to slide into a booth for a Reuben with extra thousand island and fries. On the way back to St. John’s Lutheran, wife Kathy’s 2006 Chevy HHR that goes by Bubba gradually lost steam and finally clattered to a halt right across Mercer Road from Frank Crash Auto Wrecking—one day after a new inspection.

The 89 degree humidity made sure I didn’t grin at the great gobs of irony. Friend Jodi was kind enough to fetch me back to church, where I chucked the pie in the refrigerator, waited for wife Kathy to return my call and sulked about every vehicle in my life betraying me. I had driven Bubba to Oniontown, after all, because my own 2006 Hyundai has the croup thanks to a failing fuel pump.

Long story short: Kathy’s work as a radiation therapy nurse and a sundry or two kept her in Erie until 7:00 p.m., which means she picked me up after dark, which also means she and I slouched in a borrowed mini-van with our lights shining on poor, comatose Bubba and beleaguered spirits waiting on word from AAA.

Actually I was managing okay. Kathy’s already challenging workday went an hour over, after which she had to scrounge a trustworthy vehicle and slog seventy miles south to schlep her husband home. My afternoon consisted of tasks handled at a stately pace in an air conditioned pastor’s study, a siesta and thirty minutes of silent prayer.

By the time Kathy picked me up and we reached Bubba, the quiet had reminded me that broken cars and endangered meringue are mosquitos hovering over a lifetime’s standing water. Most inconveniences are reduced to laughing matters, somewhere ages and ages hence.

Still, something about waiting on a berm, headlights glowing and darkness beyond, opens up your heart, if nothing else out of reverence for the hush of night accompanied only by gravel crunching under foot.

My heart received a blessing. I won’t lie, it wasn’t at the roadside, but as Kathy and I were at last rolling on Mercer Road toward Greenville.

The hand I kiss also raises up flowers

The words came out without my having to decide on them first. Glancing over at my wife, who hadn’t eaten since breakfast, whose eyes were glazed with the enough-ness of the day, I said, “You know, I’d rather be with you right now than with any other wife on the best evening ever.” Then I took her hand—which comforts those staring down their mortality—and kissed it, as I always do.

Was I speaking the truth or just trying to be romantic? At 3:27 this morning, I lay awake on purpose, listened to Kathy breathe, and knew that my Mercer Road love story was honest to goodness.

When days are burdened by soul-testing challenges and generic bother, sleep is oasis and balm. Kathy’s slow, deep breaths, even the odd snuffle or two, gave me joy.

Kathy, with unapologetic gray hair, and our daughter Elena

As always the morning would bring us fresh gladness and upset, but in the familiar darkness of home, I touched my wife’s hair, now unapologetically gray, kept glad vigil and reckoned blessings that turn a cracked engine block and a brand-spanking new car payment into trifles.

This evening we’ll start in on that lemon meringue pie that we couldn’t give to our neighbor, who, it turns out, is away on vacation.

As long as Kathy and I are together, that pie will taste great.

 

Advertisements

Belated Happy National Napping Day!

Belated Happy National Napping Day!

Blogger’s Note: I had this post almost ready to go yesterday. Events conspired against me, though. Since A Napper’s Companion is thus far a gratis gig, the scrumptious words that follow had to wait until this morning. Enjoy a day late. Peace, John

IMG_3021

Grandson Cole practicing sanity and wisdom . . . before his red hair came in

Thirty-five years ago at Behrend College in Erie, Pennsylvania, Mr. Michael Tkach did me a life-changing service. His persuasive writing class convinced me to become an English major. I was a milquetoast Business Management student, but once Tkach—pronounced tack—made me wrestle with fallacies, my major took a hairpin left–English it would be.

My former professor is now a friend, and today I owe him a second, albeit more quiet, thank you. The following Facebook message from Mike just landed in my box: “National Napping Day! I didn’t know about this, but I thought you might.”

A.Cortina_El_sueño

“Joven Dormida” (Sleeping Girl) by Antonio Cortina Farinos on Wikimedia Commons

I do, in fact, know about today’s sane and gentle observance, always the day after our clocks spring forward an hour, but without fail I forget. According to wowktv.com, “William Anthony, Ph.D., a Boston University Professor and his wife, Camille Anthony, created National Napping Day in 1999 as an effort to spotlight the health benefits to catching up on quality sleep. ‘We chose this particular Monday because Americans are more ‘nap-ready’ than usual after losing an hour of sleep to daylight saving time,’” said Dr. Anthony, also known as the Napmaster General, in a BU press release.

The host of a blog called A Napper’s Companion should have this date circled in red on the calendar. I have one defense: for me, every day is National Napping Day. Thanks, Mike, not only for giving me a great steer decades ago, but also for sounding the alarm about this holiday.

“National Napping Day is probably for amateurs anyway,” Mike concluded. “You’re a pro.” I wish, old friend. Dedicated volunteer is more like.

When I started www.ANappersCompanion.com almost three years ago, I shared piles of information to defend and encourage napping. If you’re intolerably bored, you can dial back many months and find more benefits of the blessed oblivion of midday than any reader could wish for.

800px-Andrea_Mantegna_022

Jesus pleads. His disciples nap. “Christus am Olberge” (Christ on the Mount of Olives) by Andrea Mantegna (Wikimedia Commons)

But I don’t write much about napping anymore. First, the practice no longer needs any defense. Research rendered in snappy graphics are all over the Internet. Facebook crackles with exhortations and celebrations. Big business has slowly caught on to the wisdom of not only allowing naps but also dedicating space to them. Bill and Camille Anthony have served us well.

To date I’ve posted 179 essays on A Napper’s Companion, and one entitled “Napping Pods for $12,985: A Commentary” has been visited more than any other. By far! And much to my chagrin. I wish a couple of my other posts had attracted such numbers. WordPress sent me an alert yesterday that my stats were soaring. Cool beans, but nearly all the interest was in napping pods.

I’ve never even seen a pod in person, by the way. I remain a garden-variety napper who finds that a couch or bed works fine. A floor is okay, too, as long as I have a fluffy pillow. My siesta strategies haven’t changed over the years.

Nap-Strydonck

“The Nap” by Guillaume Van Strydonck. Time was I could relate, sister. (Wikimedia Commons)

But circumstances have eased. Pitiful as it sounds, napping used to be serious. The last fifteen years or so have included intense, excruciating stretches, some of which regular visitors to this blog know about. During the worst times, knocking off for an hour in the middle of the day was essential. I either stepped off the planet into oblivion or imploded. Heck, I almost broke down anyway.

It would be nice to say that I’ve grown or gotten stronger, but I’m as vulnerable as ever, unequal to many gauntlets humans must run. But for whatever reason, swords and clubs are fewer these days, challenges that slash at my spirit mostly disarmed.

the-siesta_med

Van Gogh’s “Mittagsrast (nach Millet)” (Wikimedia Commons)

I’m still devoted to naps not because I’ll fall apart without them but because they’re good for me. Some folks do well sleeping in one long session over twenty-four hours. I’m happy for them—really. Others’ schedules don’t allow a siesta, which is a shame if they’re tired.

National Napping Day has plenty of scientific support. I’m buoyed by the fact that my daily rest is blessed by research, but I’ll close my eyes in an hour mostly for subjective reasons. Napping is my way of kissing myself on the forehead and saying, “You’re trying to be a good man, John. Lie down and breathe.”

Happy National Napping Day and love to you all.

Oniontown Pastoral #1: My Wife Sleeping

Oniontown Pastoral #1: My Wife Sleeping

IMG_4284I’ve been going to bed by 9:00 p.m. lately and waking up several times during the night–changes in established rhythms. Wife Kathy and I have pruned home to 1000 square feet. My pastor work has slimmed to part-time to make room for writing. And Kathy cries out whenever she rolls over.

As our friends know, Kathy climbed to unfurl the royals on Brig Niagara. She put a new roof on our old house, remodeled the bathroom, fashioned a patio out of salvaged brick, and planted flowers I could never name.

When we bought our little house, which I call the hermitage, Kathy willed the dingy place into fresh order with elbow grease and doggedness. She has big plans: a vegetable and herb garden with raised beds; a deck cobbled together with wood from a backdoor ramp she will saw into pieces; and, of course, flowers.

Kathy has plans, but as we found out a few weeks ago, she also has rheumatoid arthritis. Questions still outnumber answers. Will medication help? Diet? Exercise? Can the condition be coaxed into remission?

She has swollen joints, particularly at the fingers and wrists, and pain all around. A steroid helps for now, but it’s not a long-term solution. Her spirit still sings. Just now she sent me this message: “I hope you are enjoying your morning writing time. You should try to get out for a walk today. What a lovely day. Love you.”

Lovely day, indeed. Lovely human being!

This morning at 1:48 I woke up, sipped some water, and watched Kathy sleep. She should win awards for the dexterity and variety of her snoring. A couple of exhales in a row, her throat sounded like a playing card being flip-flip-flipped by bicycle spokes.

When I smoothed hair away from her forehead, she started. “Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. For the first time in my life, I heard a complete, discernible sentence uttered in mmms. Cadence alone provided the words: “Oh, that’s okay. You can put your hand on my head.”

So I held her hair between the fingers of one hand, rested the other on her puffed out knuckles, and prayed—sort of. If wanting to draw pain out of my wife by touch, to take it upon myself, counts as prayer, then I prayed.

And if “Oh, my dear” counts, then I prayed without ceasing. How many times did moving a little bring rapid breaths and four or five ows out of her sleep?

“Your hands?” I asked.

“My leg,” she answered.

“Oh, my dear.”

She returned to snoring. I looked at her face and longed for a miracle, but I’m eccentric, a pastoral black sheep. You would expect articulate petitions from a trained theologian, but I pray best by breathing.

Each time Kathy resumed snoring, I drew close again and kept vigil. In our shadowy bedroom, we lay bathed in holy light.

One belief granted me sleep: every cry ripples in the waters of Eternal Love.

P. S. Please stay tuned for further Oniontown Pastoral posts and other explanations and solutions.

A Zen-Christian Night Teaching

Running into Thich Nhat Hanh is always cause for celebration. I’ve never visited Plum Village, his community in France, never heard him speak in person. Still, like millions of his mindful followers, I consider him family.

Thich_Nhat_Hanh_12_(cropped)-1

Thich Nhat Hanh in Paris in 2006. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Last night he showed up in a short dream. Thay, as he’s known to his students, and I stood in the Coleman family kitchen. I can’t remember his exact words, but he said that in his family they drink tea from small cups. He smiled, gently rested his hand on my forearm, then placed a tea pot and a cup on the counter. He smiled again. That was it.

42-38174673

Credit: Michele Constantini

In this moment, I breathe in and out and savor Thay’s night teaching. Most of my dreams are anxious, like I’m enrolled in a college calculus class and forget to attend all semester. But I receive Thay’s visitation as a blessing from my Judeo-Christian God. “Drink slowly from the little cup,” both say. “Why are you always rushing?” Thank you, Thay. Thank you, Lord. Your spiritual hybrid gratefully accepts the healing lesson.

IMG_1055

Stop to notice the spider plant blossoms reaching to the sink in the church bathroom.

A week ago Thich Nhat Hanh showed up in the form of words: “To be is to inter-be,” he writes. “We cannot just be by ourselves alone. We have to inter-be with every other thing.” For Thay, garbage and flowers inter-are. “The affluent society and the deprived society inter-are. The wealth of one society is made of the poverty of the other.” The same goes for people. Reflecting on the suffering of a young prostitute in Manila, Thay observes, “Looking deeply into ourselves, we see her, and we will share her pain and the pain of the whole world. Then we can begin to be of real help.”

IMG_0982

Neighborhood sage Patrick with well-loved Tin Man. This Down’s syndrome kid’s a master at inter-being.

Half an hour ago, sipping a Starbucks redeye, I was inter-are with a tall, skinny guy standing in the long line: shaved head, felt newsboy cap, great puff of a graying beard, black long-john shirt, corduroy pants. For all I know he may have been the most neurotic soul in the coffee shop, but he appeared so overwhelmingly corduroy that I thought to myself, “That dude. I want to be like that dude.” And now, darned if I’m not relaxed—chunky, tight-bearded, balding, but relaxed. I’ll take it, thankful that inter-being is concrete, tangible.

Hund-hut

A dog channels my corduroy brother. I want to be like this dog. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Five minutes more and I’m off to the church for office time. In prayer this morning, I leaned everything I had into the loving bosom of I Am. In the night, Thay touched my arm. I can still feel I Am and Thay. I’ll take them both with me, along with the corduroy man who blessed me with his peace.

Swimming Upstream on a Bad Hair Day

IMG_0736

An image for today: trying on one of our bathroom remodeling purchases. Does this seat make my face look fat?

Swimming upstream: that’s what I’m doing today. At home when I was a kid, we’d say, I’ve got the blues. Depressed is too strong a word. I’ve wrestled with depression before, so in my vocabulary that term is reserved for times when sleep is your lover, when you constantly feel the weight of tears behind your eyes. Tuesday, July 9, 2013 is actually in the okay category, but I can say so only by pushing myself and acknowledging an aggravating fact: nothing’s wrong! I should be following Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice and smiling at my non-toothache. In the words of Patrick, my ten-year-old neighbor with Down’s syndrome who drops his helping verbs, “It not working.” Patrick is the Sage of Shenley Drive. I not kidding.

An hour’s blessed oblivion at 2:00 p.m. didn’t work either. Usually the world shines when my alarm, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, goes off and I stand up and stretch. For a few minutes it seemed that I’d flown above the clouds, but soon, without my approval, my nose descended back into the inexplicable turbulence.

113px-Barry_Manilow_1979

I need your help, Barry Manilow! (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

To borrow a phrase from a mom who stopped by the church this morning, if I weren’t having a bad hair day—another way of describing the blues—I might look for an answer to a question in my head: “Is my swimming upstream the result of a mostly pampered life?” I suspect today is a bummer because current troubles, most of them imaginary, have eased up enough that nebulous old sorrows have space to stretch their legs and kick at my spirit. But with this gray Tuesday matching my interior, I’m not doing research. The best I can do is recommend a fitting song: Ray Stevens’ “I Need Your Help, Barry Manilow,” from which I quote:

I need your help, Barry Manilow,

I’m all alone and sitting on a shelf.

Sing me a song, sing it sad and low,

I feel like feeling sorry for myself.

ISHERB_Caveman

Probably a very introspective caveman (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Like the rest of the song, my case of the blues is self-indulgent, worth a laugh. Imagine a caveman sitting on a rock, rubbing his forehead and saying, “I just need a little space. I’m having a bad day. Okay?!” I doubt troglodytes had as much time as I do to nurse neuroses, because if they hadn’t gone out and speared a wooly mammoth, hungry cave-children would have gnawed on their hairy calf muscles in the middle of the night.

Or what soldier in a trench mopes if she or he doesn’t get a siesta? Troops might sneak in a nap when the action slows, but when a comrade says, “I’m storming that bunker. Cover me!” you can’t say, “Aw, can’t it wait? I’m about to take my siesta.”

170px-We_Can_Do_It!

Did World War II’s Rosie the Riveter have time to nap? Doubtful. (“We Can Do It” by J. Howard Miller. Credit: Wikipedia)

The point I’m back-stroking toward is this: When I say I’m swimming upstream, sometimes I’m experiencing an honest-to-goodness visitation of toxic life junk that’s worth examining. Other times, I “feel like feeling sorry for myself”–just because. Often it’s hard to tell the two streams apart. Either way, I admit that today’s bad hair is Manilow-vian. The same goes for my siesta. Most people don’t have the luxuries of stopping to wonder why they’re iron gray inside and lying down at midday to take a break from struggling against the current. Remembering the billions for whom a ten-minute prayer or a thirty-minute nap is out of the question keeps me from being ridiculous and narcissistic.

I plead guilty to being silly and occasionally self-absorbed.

First Report from the Ark: Taking the TURMOIL ME! Sign Off My Back

Day One

IMG_0778

Hanging behind the Ark couch.

First light, Monday, June 17, 2013 at Camp Lutherlyn in Prospect, Pennsylvania. I’m here with four other Lutheran pastors to teach 7th through 9th graders the catechism, go to campfires, and conduct a postmortem of each day back here in the Ark, a comfortable two-bedroom, two-bathroom cabin that’s relentlessly arky. Valances, rug, wall-hangings, placemats, cookie jar, and trinkets are all about pairs of animals, Noah, rainbows, and the big boat. Thankfully, the toilet paper isn’t a spool of two-by-two giraffes and gazelles.

IMG_0779

An Arky valance.

IMG_0772Last night, our conversation was leavened with Maywine, “Light Wine flavored [sic] with Woodruff.” Imagine a Riesling, minus the tang, plus an undertow of a musty mystery herb. The maker is Leonard Kreusch, who tells us that Maywine is “a rite of spring, appearing in conjunction with the bloom of Sweet Woodruff in early May. Traditionally, produced with this herb, which was dried and steeped in the wine overnight.” This wine snob is reluctant to say so, but I enjoyed a couple splashes, though the experience was like trying to recall the name of an old high school classmate—the name (or flavor) was familiar, but I couldn’t identify it.

IMG_0780

Noah, looking like a bald Santa, says, “Have a cookie.”

After a full-on-drool siesta yesterday afternoon (no teaching; just show up and go to campfire) and a decent night’s sleep, I’m trying not to stare at Noah on the cookie jar lid and hoping to settle into a new life. For ten years I’ve army crawled so often through my days that now I have to learn how to walk upright and quit anticipating the next ambush. Both daughter Elena and son Micah worked through unnerving, occasionally life-threatening problems, some of which I’ve mentioned in previous posts. We’re not out of the woods yet, as the saying goes, but it’s time to stop functioning as if I have a TURMOIL ME! sign taped to my back. Just as a person torched in romance needs to learn to love again, I have to figure out how to trust life again.

Day Two

4:44 p.m., Tuesday, June 18, 2013, in Lyndora, Pennsylvania’s Panera Bread. Tired as I was at 2:30 this afternoon, I couldn’t fall asleep. My bedroom in the Ark was quiet, my old K-Mart box fan had cool air moving, and the courtesy pillow was perfect. The trouble: a dull ache behind my right ear nagged just enough to keep my awareness above sleep’s surface. I may have gone under for ten minutes—not sure.

IMG_0782

Mac-Snot-Book Air

After a stop for pinot noir and a bottle of ibuprofen, I’ve landed at Panera, only because there’s no Starbucks nearby. My Mac-Snot-Book Air, which I normally love, also refuses to let me hook up with the camp’s Wi-Fi. Mac-Snot-Book grabs the signal + I’ve got the password = 0. So here I am, drinking a wimpishly acceptable iced decaf latte and fighting off disappointment that at the moment what I have to say about napping and sanity seems to be stuck in orbit around my own neurotic navel.

I want to write about how Swainson’s thrush naps in flight and how decision fatigue makes fools of us all. Dozens of newsworthy nappers—other than Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, whom I’ve already profiled—wait for me to tell their stories. I don’t intend to whine indefinitely, but siesta news of interest will have to wait until I can wiggle outside of myself. May it be soon.

In short, my twitchiness is as strong as ever. Yesterday I missed a phone call from Micah, followed by this text message: “Please call when u get this.” I tried to return the call, but no answer. During the twenty minutes I sat in prayer, the familiar anxiety buzzed in my chest. Did something go wrong at work? Did he get bad news about the blood tests he had done recently? My answer arrived with a text message beep. It was a “Microsoft Support Code,” which meant that Micah was having trouble getting his X-Box to cooperate with our television. I forwarded him the number, which prompted this response: “Thanx sry just xbox live bullshit again.” I asked him about his doctor’s appointment: “Everything ok?” I got back this: “Yupp.” Worrying over nothing gets tiring, hence my compulsive napping.

I told my friend Kim the story as we sat on a bench watching kids play Tip Frisbee (if you tip the Frisbee and a teammate catches it, your team gets a point). She responded with four letters: “PTSD.”

“Really? You think I could have that?” I said, implying I hadn’t thought the same thing myself many times.

“Oh, yeah, absolutely.”

Omaha_Beach_wounded_soldiers,_1944-06-06

Omaha Beach wounded soldiers. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

But I don’t feel entitled. People who get their knees blown off in Afghanistan or are beaten by their husbands earn their post-traumatic stress disorder, not me. Still, I suppose you don’t get to choose what disorders take up residence in your navel. I figured once my kids’ lives calmed down, I’d float along with a light heart. Not that I’m complaining. I much prefer where the Coleman family is now compared to where it was a year ago. I just hadn’t thought jangled nerves would be part of the healing process.

IMG_0774

View from the worrier’s swing on the Ark’s porch.

Stay tuned for another report or two from the Ark in the days ahead.

Wanting To Be Verklempt After Nappus Interruptus

IMG_0764

More people should go to this joint! 3741 West 26th, Erie, PA.

I’m sipping an iced, decaf latte at Brick House Coffee at 5:19 p.m. Micah’s talking life over with his therapist—a life in progress. Those words triggered my question for the day: should I say in progress or incomplete? The answer depends on whether I’m glad or disgruntled. My aura is foggy and fatigued, thanks to a neighbor whose yard work occasionally collides with my siesta, so for the moment, disgruntled wins. She’s nice, but has the loudest leaf blower and weed whacker on the market. A couple years ago when Micah’s death metal band Festering Pestilence practiced in the Coleman basement, I could nap through their roaring hits “Dead and Leaking” (a tribute to one of the boy’s ex-girlfriends) and “Stench of Greed.” Those were the days! But lawn grooming’s high-pitched wheeee and whirrrr make the maple tree propellers, weeds, and me all toss and turn. I gave up and joined neighbors Joy and Kevin on their porch for a Saranac pale ale, which landed in my belly like a quart of bacon grease. Delicious, but ugh.

220px-Coffee_talk

Mike Myers as Linda Richman on Saturday Night Live, getting verklempt. (Credit: Wikipedia)

In addition to my cases of nappus interruptus and gut slosh, Zoloft also has a cry trapped in my chest. Yes, I’m a man, and I could use a good blubber. Who knows exactly what it’s about? This is one drag about being on an anti-depressant. Before Zoloft, every day was a swim upstream. I’m much more peaceful overall now thanks to a slim 50 mgs of a chemical, but the sanity comes at a price. Geritol and the Church of Latter Day Saints commercials used to make me verklempt. No more. Tears are rare these days, and I miss them. Anyway, the point: an incomplete cry is exhausting. You try to sigh it out, cough it out, talk it out, whatever. Nothing works. (I’d be glad to hear from any of you who can relate.)

Fortunately, not all of the day’s incompleteness has been a bummer. After prayer this morning, I surveyed the downstairs bathroom, which wonder-wife Kathy is tantalizingly close to finishing. Check out the photographs for a summary.

IMG_0743

Register not yet de-crudded. Cats stay out!

IMG_0745

I’d probably be okay with this for a year.

IMG_0746

Until the privacy curtain is finished, we shower at the rodeo.

IMG_0750

Bathroom door still under anesthetic in the garage. From this angle, it could be art.

Since the bathroom is functional in all necessary ways, I put it in the joyful, in-progress category.

IMG_0742

Shower, sink, toilet: yep, it’s a bathroom, all right.

IMG_0766

Until the door is finished, a curtain fit for a brothel.

Micah himself is obviously in progress. Possibly for the first time in his post-pubescent years, he’s taking employment seriously. (A good friend went to bat for him, got him a job. Gracias!) Nearly one-year clean now, my twenty-one-year-old slides into the passenger seat after a day of painting, lights up a Camel Wides Menthol, and groans. It’s a good tired. For once I’m grateful for cigarette smoke, which smothers his lathery stench of work.

Near the complex where Micah’s painting, a multi-generational gaggle of geese congregates. When I dropped him off this morning, I thought to myself that the youngsters are in progress, which can be a gentle way of saying, “Kind of stupid.” One of them was sleeping in the middle of the road, and as I approached, one of the adults waddled out and said, “Hey, Scooter, get your downy rump off the road.”

IMG_0755

Come along, Scooter.

IMG_0760

Don’t judge me. I’m “in progress.”

IMG_0763

One of the rooms at Brick House. (They also have micro-brews!)

From my corner of the Brick House, I laugh at a gosling and a man-cub, but if ever there were a work in progress it’s me. Or am I incomplete? Eh, whatever. If there’s one thing I’m not, it’s a brick shithouse. I mention this because Micah asked me about the term’s origin as we passed this coffee house on the way to therapy. I told him it probably comes from the image of a structure that’s stronger than necessary for its purpose. I was right, basically. Check out straightdope.com if you can’t find anything else to do with yourself.

Off now to fetch my son from shrinkage. He’ll light up, I won’t cry, and we’ll drive home, each thing we speed past praying in its own way for an aura that shimmers hope and growth into the ambiguous afternoon.

800px-Poplar_Forest6

A brick . . . outhouse, surrounded by trees putting out a hopeful aura. (Credit: Wikipedia)

A Shark, a Pan Flute, and a Lemon-Sized Grandchild: It’s All Good!

Over the last ten years, I’ve learned how to answer the question, “How’s it going?”

ImageProxy.mvc

At Fourteen Weeks (Credit: http://www.pregnant.thebump.com)

Daughter Elena, twenty-four, is carrying wife Kathy’s and my lemon-sized grandchild and constantly breaking into uber-pearly smiles. Son-in-law Matt, who could probably build a harpsichord blindfolded and with half of his brain tied behind his back, installed a light-fixture today in our bathroom. Now, at 9:19 p.m., Kathy’s willing the new medicine cabinet into its designated spot. Micah’s watching a movie about Siamese warriors with mustaches and puffs of hair he finds annoying. He’s been pleasantly chatty over the past hour, quizzing me on quotes by William Cowper, Oscar Wilde, Aristotle, and Thomas Jefferson. Amazing what you can learn from packs of Mentos gum. I should have known the source of Micah’s favorite: “The whole is more than the sum of the parts.” His hint, “like some Greek guy,” helped.

Other details worth mentioning: at least one of the cats has been rogue pissing in the basement; money’s snug (what’s new); the house is messy in part because the bathroom project presents one complication after another; and a shark is sleeping in the Coleman family’s beach house.

220px-Mad30

Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neumann (Credit: Wikipedia)

“So how’s it going?” Splendidly! I’m serious. When Elena was a teenager she went through a Goth period, though black clothes and eyeliner were pimples on the rump her high school years. In my last post I went into Micah’s thrashing about and legal trouble. Sure, cat pee is unpleasant, but in the “how’s it going?” department, Alfred E. Neumann speaks for me: “What, me worry?” My recovering druggy son is playing the pan flute as he watches that fighting movie, and by Thanksgiving I stand a good chance of being a grandfather. So . . . I’m fantastic!

In the midst of my current messes and blessings, I’ve discovered yet another napping venue, which adds to my light spirits. A couple years ago, Renaissance Kathy remodeled Micah’s old basement bedroom, which he called the Batcave—don’t think superhero, think squalor. The rehabilitated room would be called the Beach House, a guest room where Kathy’s friends could stay when they come to Erie to sail on the Brig Niagara.

Last week, when we had a couple of hot, close days, I decided to take siestas down in the Beach House. Great choice. Kathy and I differ in décor tastes, she preferring bright and whimsical and I favoring earthy and depressing, but falling asleep in a cool space that reminded me of my wife’s smile was joyful. I told her the other day I’d consider transferring all dog-days-of-summer sleeping to the Beach House rather than putting the window air conditioner in the upstairs bedroom. We’ll see.

IMG_0709

The Beach House Bed

IMG_0706

Above the Bed

IMG_0707

Starry, Sunny Plate by Elena Thompson

IMG_0711

Visual Wind Chimes (No Breeze in the Basement)

The room’s not perfect. An artificial Christmas tree and air mattress, both in their plastic cases, have moved in temporarily, and a papier-mache shark Kathy made a few Halloweens ago is biting down on a love seat at the foot of the bed. Far from bothering me, sharing the Beach House with Jaws reminds me, again, of my wife. As Micah’s fond of saying, “It’s all good.”

IMG_0715

No, I Did Not Move the Shark for This Photograph

So how’s it going? I’ve got a new place to nap, kids whose future looks decent at the moment, and a wife who got that medicine cabinet where it belongs. The present blessings are more than enough. I’m doing fine.

IMG_0716

Kathy 1, Medicine Cabinet 0

Socks, Pasta, a Memory of Heroin

IMG_0539This Memorial Day weekend I spent an hour sorting socks. The only detail that makes this chore noteworthy is how long I put it off. Eighteen months? Two years? I don’t remember. Why so long? The short answer is, “My son was hooked on heroin, got arrested, and spent ninety days under house arrest.” Micah was a free man as of January 28, 2013, but when you’re a felon, freedom is relative—no driver’s license, no job, hours in group therapy. You’re free, but your penance is lengthy and leaden.

The clean Micah (for almost a year now) is fantastic. With the drug and its relentless, frantic acquisition gone, he’s growing into the twenty-one-year-old man I figured might be under all the junk. He’s not a roaring maw of rage and narcissism. His wardrobe is now polychromatic. He’s patient, generous, quick-witted, and curious. He’s still a slob, but his Titanic is restored, afloat; I’m not about to rearrange his deck chairs. The future is hopeful.

1848 Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe at 39, a...

1848 Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe at 39, a year before his death (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But as anybody who witnesses a loved one’s addiction knows, life consists of one emotional butt whipping after another. I pulled the afghan tight under my chin every afternoon and received what Edgar Allan Poe called “sleep, those little slices of death.” He loathed them. I loved napping as a protest against reality.

IMG_0650

Shredded Basement Paneling, a Scar of Micah’s Worst Months

Days and siestas are much improved as of May 29, 2013; still, mixed in with the relief and stability of Micah’s recovery is residual pain from the past. In the way a marathoner’s body needs time to heal after 26.2 miles, my mind and spirit continue to ache now and then from those times Micah smashed objects in his basement bedroom or paced around the house with clenched jaw and trembling fists. I’ve done some reading on PTSD and wonder about myself. (The particulars of Micah’s, wife Kathy’s, and daughter Elena’s experiences are theirs to tell, so I’m not going into them.)

One sign that I’m healing has to do with socks. An hour seems like nothing, but for however-long-it-was I couldn’t gather up sixty scrawny minute’s worth of energy to pair them. Some people get rid of stress by cleaning. Not me! For whatever reason, then, a couple days ago I dumped that basket on the bed and sorted. Since Micah was in the habit of wandering around in stocking feet, most of the pairs were the sickly gray of dirt that doesn’t yield to bleach. Some were salvageable. Nearly all of them needed to be washed again after multiple seasons in the basement—they smelled like a bunk at summer camp. Random artifacts hid between the folds and in the toes.

IMG_0615

The Throw-Aways

IMG_0614

A Few of My Pairs, Emancipated

IMG_0616

Random Items: BBs, a Bracket, Wood, and What-the-Heck?

Part of me wants to be ashamed of putting off such a simple chore, but as today’s slogan goes, “It is what it is.”

As socks piled up during Micah’s fury, non-perishables also accumulated in the Coleman household’s black-hole-of-a pantry. A couple months ago I reached in and discovered that every time I went to the grocery store a pound of pasta rappelled into my shopping cart. I’d basically been shopping unconscious. “In case we’re out,” I must have thought. We’ll be in good shape with angel hair, linguine, egg noodles, and shells for a while.

IMG_0196

Got Starch?

I asked Micah to read this post before publishing it, and he approves. (He did suggest one change. I’d described above the bunk at summer camp as dank, but he reminded me that word doesn’t just describe moldy caves.) Last night he was catching a smoke on the front porch when I told him through the screen door that I was proud of him, of how well he’s doing. “You know, Micah,” I said, “a lot of what I’m writing about now is what’s going on with me.”

He answered with selfless insight: “You had to live through my addition. You ought to be able to write about it.”

IMG_0183

Micah in December of 2012: Six Months Clean and Experiencing House Arrest’s Cabin Fever

Like I said, the future is hopeful. Micah’s earning back his freedom and learning patience and persistence. I’m healing slowly, waking up to all the socks and pasta that have been keeping vigil as I lurch toward normal.

The Gift of an Unvarnished “No”

Obrecht

Dom Edmond Obrecht (Photo Credit: Abbey of Gethsemani)

This past Thursday, the last full day of my retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, was extravagant and challenging. As usual, I wrote in the morning at the Java Joint in Bardstown, then returned to the abbey for lunch. I had it in mind to ask the guest master if I could enter the cloistered area of the monastery to look at the graves of those who died long ago, some of whom I feel like I knew: Dom Frederic Dunne, Merton’s first abbot, and his predecessor Edmond Obrecht, and the abbots before them. I’ve read so much about them it’s as if they’re friends.

At 1:00 I caught the guest master outside his office. “Do you have a minute?” I said. “I have a question?”

His body language said, “Oh, bother,” but he said, “Sure, come in.”

Fred-dunne-ocso

Dom Frederic Dunne (Photo Credit: Biographia Cisterciensis)

I said, “It’s a simple question, and I’ll understand if the answer is no.”

“That’s quite a forecast,” he said. “Okay, no.” He laughed. Before I could get my question out, he followed up: “Okay, maybe.” Big smile.

A little awkward. “Maybe’s a start,” I said. “I was wondering if I could look at the monks’ graves in the enclosure after Compline tonight?” The Great Silence begins after Compline, when the brothers go to bed. I figured there’d be no chance of disturbing anybody.

Before my words were out he was shaking his head: “No.”

Silence.

“Okay,” I said, nodding and keeping my word that no was all right.

More silence.

“Yeah, that was all,” I said.

“Oh,” he said. “That was easy.”

“Yeah. Thanks.” I walked down the hall and climbed the stairs to my room. Of course, I was crushed—temporarily at least.

IMG_0482Okay, this was no big deal, but nobody likes to receive such a flat out denial to a reasonable request. Nobody would have been around? Who would have been hurt by my walking softly on those graves?

When I reached my room, it was my normal prayer time, so I began to do what I always do, which was try to make myself peaceful before I’m finished being hurt and pissed. So I let myself have some time to be put out. Eventually, as so often happens with shamatha—calm abiding—in the Sacred Presence, truth arrived. My reaction wasn’t about the kind, but honest, guest master, but about me.

No doesn’t work for me on any level. I’m terrible about saying no to myself (this is partially why I’m a diabetic), and I agonize about saying no to others. When somebody says no to me, suddenly I’m an adolescent with a quivering lip. Why? Long story, birth family, blah, blah, blah.

Anyway, during those forty-five minutes I sat in silent prayer after what felt like a rebuke, I understood that the guest master had actually given me a gift.

IMG_0392

During Worship at Gethsemani, Retreatants Don’t Sit with the Brothers

Often in this life, the answer is no. No, no, no! There’s no dressing it up, no making it palatable or painless. It doesn’t matter that the question is reasonable. And this isn’t about the old saying that “God answers all prayer, but sometimes the answer is no.” None of that business of cleaning no up and making it a buddy.

Central to being mature and healthy for me is the ability to say and hear the fullness of no. I’m not there yet, not even close. No kidding, I’m glad now that I heard no unvarnished. Later at Vespers I saw the guest master and thought to myself, “I wish I were more like him.” Thank you, brother!

After forty-five minutes of prayer, my gut relaxed, and I felt in my body what I knew in my head: I’d received a severe blessing. That’s how growth happens.

IMG_0493

Brother John (Photo Credit: Abbey of Gethsemani)

The extravagance I mentioned came in the presence of Brother John, who shared pizza and Chimay Trappist Ale with me in the Norton Speaking Room. Thursday was the Ascension of Our Lord, an observance for Christians and an occasion for monastic partying. On festival days, the brothers crack excellent beer and eat something unusually delicious for dinner. For Brother John, the celebration consisted of two beers and two pieces of pizza. I consumed the same, but under normal circumstances, I’d consider such a meal dainty. John has his hungry ghosts (stay tuned for a future post on these ravenous spirits) under control; me, not so much.

IMG_0466My Gethsemani retreat was crowded with blessings. I enjoyed free-range siestas, long hours of prayer, plenty of reading and writing at the desk by the window, and especially those talking dinners with Brother John. I even appreciated remembering my father’s death and hearing the guest master’s no.

I wish my most important lessons didn’t feel like a punch to the sternum at first, but that’s how learning seems to happen for me. Some foolishness needs to get expelled so there’s room for health and insight.

It’s Sunday afternoon now, back home in Erie, Pennsylvania. For Mother’s Day the Coleman family will go out for all-you-can-eat shrimp, but first I feel a nap coming on. Being away is great, but getting back home is better still.

IMG_0504

Man and Beloved Cat, Together Again.