My drink finished, I notice the cool air on my arms and the silence, which is congested with circumstance, with the way things are, with roundabouts, blossoms and souls getting by on what they’ve got. That’s what we all do, I suppose. Continue reading
Oniontown Pastoral: Going Visiting My career in visitation began over 50 years ago with Mrs. Gillespie, who lived across the backyard. Johnny’s perch was a red metal step stool beside the kitchen counter. His usual was strawberry Nesquik. Who knows, … Continue reading
A Letter to My Grandsons’ Mother
August 4, 2021
You probably don’t need me to tell you any of this. On the other hand, it could be helpful to read what your best and most centered self already knows. Daily life on our convulsing, nervous planet shouts down the best messages we can give ourselves. So I’m here to whisper back.
For the record, then, I’m glad you called. In 45 minutes, I’ll sit in your van with the boys in Dr. Weber’s parking lot. You’re right, getting your bones cracked while Cole, Killian and Gavin whirl like maelstroms around the waiting room is a disaster in the making. And like I told you, the doctor’s office is five minutes away—nothing.
But I have more to tell you this morning. What I’ll now say has been fermenting for weeks, but correspondence that isn’t urgent doesn’t always make it to paper. Though we don’t have an emergency, you and others who will read over your shoulder might find what follows medicinal, if slightly bitter.
In case you’re not aware, you and Matt are raising children under duress. This is no exaggeration. No, bombs aren’t reducing your house to splinters and dust, as in some cursed lands. No, your comings and goings aren’t under Big Brother’s surveillance. You can speak as you wish without fear of ending up in the Gulag.
Still, as comfortable and affluent as our material circumstances are at present, you face challenges that ought not be dismissed with a snort and “suck it up.”
When you and your brother were young, Mom and I had much less to fret over than you do. No pandemic was looming, with one wave crashing on the shore before another rolls back. We had few educational decisions to make. You and Micah went to public schools. Homeschooling and remote learning weren’t as common as they are now. And, by the way, the social and political climate in America is infinitely more venomous and vengeful than it was in the 1990s.
Begin again: I’m back from Dr. Weber’s parking lot. When Pop feeds Gavin bits of hash browns and gets used by Cole and Killian as a bongo drum in an air conditioned mini van for 20 minutes, I call that a blessing.
I can still recognize blessings, Elena. Out my hut window, your mother’s sunflowers sway in the breeze as if to a hymn, descants over scores of blossoms near the ground—flowers I can’t name. Simple joy is what I now behold.
But hardly anything is simple anymore. Children’s carseats now have expiration dates. Tiny screens are here to stay, but they anesthetize little brains? How long is too long? And, panning the camera for a global look, our climate is, like parents right now, under duress.
Ah, but millions of Americans believe that scientific findings are jokes being played on the gullible, which points to what may be the most disorienting fog you have to walk through. As a society, we no longer have a firm ground of accepted factual knowledge and agreed upon standards of personal conduct to stand upon.
Just now, a yellow finch flew across the backyard to a sunflower. You know, Mom pointed out to me yesterday that those bright birds have a flight path like a wave. It’s true.
The trouble is, as civilization stands, a neighbor could claim that the two finches at this moment making waves and pecking at seeds are not finches, but vultures. The hyperbole is only slight.
So, my wondrous daughter—of whom I’m more proud than you can imagine—this is what you and Matt are up against. The words humans use to communicate flop about like fish on the sand because they no longer mean anything. Folks decide definitions by agenda or whim, dictionaries be damned. And statements that in your childhood would have been self-evident are now ridiculed with impunity.
I did warn you that this medicine was bitter, but there are other truths I have to share that are sweet.
Hear this: Since you were a child, your heart has flown in graceful waves like the yellow finch. At the same time, your soul is earnest, built on a stony foundation of wisdom, sincerity, bravery and compassion. You must understand that what I describe as if in a poem is the real you, the you who is raising our boys.
Lately you and Matt—he is a pretty good sort in his own right—have been struggling to decide on Cole’s schooling arrangements for the fall. You want to get it right, don’t you?
Rest easy, Elena. What matters most in however many years we’re granted is that we try. As a mother you try so hard that some days you ache inside, don’t you? Everybody who loves you sees this.
Take it from your old man, even the flowers and winged waves I watch between sentences aren’t as lovely as you brushing the hair from my grandsons’ foreheads or pulling one of them aside to whisper rather than shout, to tend them day by day as they grow into the men you dream they might be.
Yes, you are a mother whose light yields to no worldly darkness. Believe me.
Letter to My Grandson, for the Future
July 7, 2021
My five-year-old pal, you are having one rough time. In 10 years or more, you might find some value in your Pop’s thoughts about what your heart, mind and body are going through these days. I’m asking your mom and dad to hold onto this letter until you’re confused, stuck, maybe miserable, trying to figure yourself out—why you feel like you feel and tick like you tick.
I’m almost 60 now, and for the whole stretch I’ve over-thought and over-felt nearly everything. I’m a genius at crippling myself with worry and concocting troubles that don’t exist. Just before your mother was born, I started to have panic attacks that raided my sense of self for a good five years. “Anxiety disorder,” that’s the box my therapist checked on my bill after each session.
Now at this point, listen closely. I’m not saying that someday you’ll go through what I went through. No, no, no. It’s just that the struggles you’re enduring tell me that you have a sensitive soul, like your Pop’s. If this is true, you’re in for a ride. Joy will take your breath away hour by hour. On the other hand, the wrongs you witness will bring on tears or—as my mother used to say—“make you so mad you could spit.”
The older you get, the less you’ll remember the preschool-aged Killian. I’m a reliable source, though, and you could do far worse than consider whether the boy you’ll now read about has turned out like his grandfather.
First, a caveat. Keep in mind that the last two years have been bat crazy. The Coronavirus, which has claimed over 600,000 lives in the United States alone, still has us frightened and confused. The social and political climate—to say nothing of our changing planetary climate—is brutish and wicked. In short, to be an American of any age in 2021 is to be hemmed in by exhausting absurdities.
Be assured, your mom and dad and both sets of grandparents are tender and mindful, doing everything possible to give you a safe, lively and fulfilling childhood. You and your brothers are lucky beyond measure. But I wonder if, despite much wise protection, you still manage to absorb how nasty and bonkers the world around you is without having the cognitive development to process it all.
Although your life with family and friends is charmed, you take deep breaths constantly. You’ve got a fiery, nameless burden in your chest that returns even as you blow it out through puffed lips.
For months now you’ve had a cranky stomach. You chew food, then chipmunk it in your cheeks, afraid to send it down for digestion.
Sometimes in the middle of the night you wake up with cramps in your foot. For a while your eyes were always itchy, and I thought you might rub them right off your fair face. Oh, and for another while you got sharp headaches while riding in the car. All of these concerns are improved, thanks to your mom and dad’s persistent efforts to find causes and treatments.
You’re now reading about your younger self and maybe saying, “Man, I was a mess.” Well, to tell the truth, kind of, yes. I would call you delicate. Your mom said, “Some kids are dandelions, some are orchids.”
So far, your older brother appears to be a dandelion, while it’s too early to predict what flower your younger brother will be. But you, sir, are a delicate orchid. Accept no blame on that account. Feel no shame. This is a comrade addressing you. If honorary doctorates were awarded for fragility, your Pop would have a wall full.
My list of your ailments isn’t offered to depress you, but to open you up to self-awareness and ultimately a growing sense of ease with the person you are. This moment’s cleansing breaths and bellyaches may well be outward signs of turmoil trapped inside you. Nobody knows for sure.
But since your folks have handed you this letter, what you went through so long ago is possibly paying you a return visit—in a new form, spurred by new circumstances, wearing a new mask. Then again, maybe nothing is wrong. Mysteriously you’re rubbing your eyes again for no good reason. Riding in the backseat hurts your head.
Mystery is the perfect word. Microscopes and test tubes teach us what truths they can divine, but human beings pretend to know more than we really do. In many ways, the person you are and the person I am are mysteries. We are tiny mysteries caught up in a loving, but ferocious, embrace of the Great Mystery.
Why is Killian Thompson the way he is? No matter how you answer that question, in dark valleys you might long to turn into a different person altogether—somebody stronger, braver than you are, some carefree guy whose troubles lift from his mind like morning mist.
If you are ever granted such a wish, you will find what’s left of me inconsolable in my writing hut. You will little remember how many times I sidled up to the troubled five-year-old you, pulled you toward me and kissed the sandy shock of hair behind your right ear. Nor will your hurting feet recall the heat your grandmother applied to them at 5:00 a.m. And how could you know that your mom and dad breathed in your every sigh to be sure you never worried alone?
I ask you now, Killian, to trust that your parents and grandparents have always had but one fervent intention: To help you give birth to yourself and to love you so fiercely and unconditionally that you will dare to love yourself—exactly as you are and much the same as you were in 2021, when you gave your Pop more gladness than you’ll ever know just by sitting in his lap.
With abiding love,
Intercessory Prayer in an Age of Malice by John Coleman “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute … Continue reading
Wearing Another’s Skin
I’ve seen him before: a hulking man probably younger than he looks, dressed in stained layers, even in the summer. He paces outside a convenience store, stops and turns as if a shadow has called his name. His countenance is rage, barely mastered.
I always figure he is going to roar at me or ask for spare change. His base is in one of Erie’s rough areas, so being panhandled or hassled wouldn’t be unexpected. His bench is at the intersection 30 yards away. He sleeps on his side.
My mother raised me to avoid such neighborhoods. In fact, there’s one street in Erie that she refused to travel, and that’s where I was this morning, buying my newspaper and iced tea.
Getting back in my car, I glanced his way and thought, “Just like me.” Not the homelessness, thankfully. Not the dirty clothes, not what I take to be the fury on simmer. I’ve lost some weight recently, but remain hulking.
Still, I’m a lot like this guy. I want to be loved and understood. I want to be comfortable, sheltered, clothed and fed. I want a mind that functions, friends to laugh with and a decent portion of gladness.
The American Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chodron deserves credit for “just like me.” She told Oprah Winfrey about it, and I overheard. Admittedly, you probably don’t need to engage in this contemplative practice with folks you love, though it can’t hurt. No, realistically, Chodron’s phrase has to do with those you find objectionable, often strangers.
But even the first woman ordained a Buddhist monk in the United States didn’t come up with “just like me.” In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, novelist Harper Lee famously put an echo of the notion into Atticus Finch’s mouth. His daughter has had a rough first day of elementary school and disapproves of her teacher. “Well, maybe she was just nervous,” Gregory Peck explains in the film adaptation. “After all, it’s her first day, too, teaching school and being new here.” Then comes Lee’s gem: “Just learn a single trick, Scout, and you’ll get along better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
In the novel’s last chapter, Scout recalls the lesson: “Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.”
Delivered in Peck’s legendary baritone, empathy comes across as warm and folksy, but American poet Walt Whitman knew better. Of his experience nursing Civil War soldiers, he writes in Leaves of Grass, “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.”
All of this imagery points toward pain. Saying “just like me” demands that I set aside the fine appointments of my days and recognize that but for bad luck, an unfortunate decision or the curse of mental illness, I might have no roof to call my own. Climbing into another person’s skin implies that I first peel off my own. To become the wounded soldier—or the person I’m inclined to hate—means that I receive another’s gut shot, that I dare to trade places with a broken soul, that I claim a sister or brother’s graceless desert as my own.
Empathy is easy on occasion, but most often it’s exasperating, like a riddle that’s beyond my patience or capacity. Anyway, stewing in ill will is easier than reflection and over time gets to be addictive. And prior to my self-explication, the person who has triggered my brain stem is nothing like me, damn it.
Northern Mockingbird (Credit: Wikipedia)
Walking ￼for a time in someone’s stilettos or loafers doesn’t mean that I condone a single chapter of her or his story. On the other hand, until I put into practice the raw, chafing wisdom of Chodron, Lee and Whitman, I’ve no business peddling criticism. In fact, if I review other people’s lives while still abiding in my own skin, I’m apt to kill a mockingbird.
“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy,” Atticus Finch says. “They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs. They don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.”
The older I get, the more I’m convinced that most people just want to be mockingbirds, in a fashion: To do no harm and sing their hearts out. Of course, if my supposition is true only of folks I love, then it isn’t true at all.
Thanksgiving for Eight Kisses In her journal The House by the Sea, May Sarton describes walking with her friend Judy and dog Tamas to the Maine shore in early December: “How glorious it was! Fifty-mile gusts of wind driving the waves … Continue reading
Oniontown Pastoral: Holding My Wife During the Evening News
Our days generally begin in decent form. As wife Kathy and I are both working from home as the Coronavirus pandemic plays out, she takes one side of the round table in our den and this Oniontown pastor gets the other. I put shoulder to the church or writing wheel, as the day dictates, but last Friday I took a few minutes to smith for Kathy an over-the-top menu for lunch and dinner.
Shrimp and Lobster Bake, which came frozen in a box the size of an Etch-a-Sketch, provided a tantalizing description: “Premium shrimp and lobster blended with tomato, ricotta, fontina, and mozzarella cheese layered between sheets of pasta.” Another dinner option, Fredonia Grade School Pizza Burgers ala Sherry, owes its inclusion to a St. John’s friend whose mother once wrangled the recipe from a cafeteria worker. “A comfort entrée for the child in all of us!” I promised, but Kathy opted for the seafood.
My establishment was called “Chateau de Pop,” in honor of the grandfatherly chef. It was tame diversion for two 50-somethings making phone calls, clacking away on keyboards and hoping that an oriole would peck on the orange halves waiting by the feeders.
Kathy decided on Ham, Potato and Cheese Casserole leftovers for lunch, which may be the most deadly choice on any menu ever. It’s so shamefully bad. Think ham niblets, instant potatoes and wads of Velveeta cheese. The flourish is an anointing of melted butter that makes your eyes scrunch together with every bite. The Colemans are also a salty bunch, so the health threats posed by this dish are myriad. Had I written a teaser, it should have been a referral to a cardiologist for angioplasty.
Far more than decent, the day verged on merry. Kathy and I safely traversed the afternoon, walked foxhound Sherlock Holmes, and settled in for ABC’s World News Tonight with David Muir. That last step was a mistake. As we have all learned during our pandemic du jour, current events can send a chilly draft through chateaus both grand and humble.
Before saying what pushed my wife over the edge, I’ll note her frustration with working from home. As an oncology nurse, she shines especially as a calm, reassuring presence to her patients, many of whom are scared and confused. And Kathy is empathetic, not only at work, but also toward people whose turmoil is shrink-wrapped in one- to two-minute TV news stories.
Friday’s broadcast included a report about 26-year-old flight attendant Taylor Ramos Young, who is now recovering from COVID-19. A couple of weeks ago, he asked his father, who along with his mother was unable to visit Taylor in an ICU, “If I go on the ventilator, do you know how long I’m going to be on it?”
Kathy hears every day of patients who are dropped off at a hospital entrance and wheeled away for treatment without a loved one by their side. She can’t bear the thought.
Taylor’s father recounted his son’s question, choking on tears, spittle trailing between his lips. “How long?”
He coped better than I would have. Watching Elena and Micah walk away on their first day of school did me in. Whether children are 6, 26 or 76, a parent’s urge to protect them never expires.
When David Muir marched on to the next story, Kathy announced, “I want pizza and wings for supper.” Then she cried. I was affected, but my wife—whose righteousness inconspicuously exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees—had reached her limit.
Never mind Shrimp and Lobster Bake! She needed pizza and wings. And not just any pizza and wings, but a scandalous, large Brooklyn style with cheese and pepperoni and 40 barbecue wings from Domino’s. Domino’s! Talk about your comfort food.
What Kathy really needed was a hug, which I promptly delivered. Sounds simple, but the duration of hugs is silently negotiated. Some take a while, especially those that say, “I’m falling apart. Hang on to me.”
She did that for me months ago when, having buried too many folks I’d loved in a short stretch, I leaned back on the couch, no match for sadness. Friday was my turn.
Other than those irresistible, underachieving wings, I can’t tell you anything about that evening other than Kathy and I embraced in a timeless present. I remember giving and receiving a love that makes tomorrow possible.
God gave us arms for this purpose. To gather up each other’s broken pieces and hold them together until our faces dry and our hearts grow strong again.
Oniontown Pastoral: A Lutheran Response to COVID-19
Sometimes I’m particularly proud to be a Lutheran. When I read a pastoral letter about the Corona Virus from Elizabeth Eaton, Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I was so grounded and refreshed I can hardly tell you. Before sharing what Bishop Eaton wrote, I’ll set the stage.
Wife Kathy was just checking the latest news across the table from me in our den—the tongue-in-cheek name of the room where both of us are working from home during COVID-19’s deadly fuss. She exclaimed something from behind her computer screen. (I feel like television’s Tim “The Toolman” Taylor peering over his privacy fence at neighbor Wilson’s forehead on Home Improvement.)
My beloved may have used colorful language, but I can’t swear to it—groan. She passed along a report from NBC News about a Louisiana pastor who persisted in holding worship services in defiance of Governor John Bell Edwards’ executive order against gatherings of more than 50 people. The Reverend Tony Spell, however, packs in around 500 at Life Tabernacle Church. The trouble is, songs and amens are accompanied by airborne spittle, which passes infection.
Don’t be deceived if I sound momentarily whimsical. According to the Los Angeles Times, on March 10th a choir of 60 asymptomatic voices in Skagit County, Washington, assembled for a practice complete with social distancing and hand sanitizer, and now 45 of them have tested positive for COVID-19. Two have died.
Faith gives life, but mindless faith can also snatch life away. I don’t fault members of the Shagit Valley Chorale for rehearsing, as no restrictions had yet been announced for their county. Tony Spell’s faith, on the other hand, is dangerous. I’m sorry, it just is. “The virus, we believe, is politically motivated,” he stated. “We hold our religious rights dear and we are going to assemble no matter what someone says.”
Lutheranism rejects such arrogance. Bishop Eaton rightly referenced Martin Luther, who wrote his own pastoral letter in 1527 on a topic that hits home today. “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague” addressed a population still mindful of a scourge that killed over 23 million people in Europe 200 years before:
“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me He will surely find me and I have done what He has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person I shall go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.”
I am not a Luther scholar, nor do I possess any insight about 16th Century Germany. For this reason, I trust the ELCA Bishop’s knowledge and direction:
“Many of our [parishioners] have the same concerns as those in Luther’s day. Many of our people are anxious. Luther’s counsel, based on Scripture, is still sound. Respect the disease. Do not take unnecessary risks. Provide for the spiritual and physical needs of the neighbor. Make use of medical aid. Care for one another, especially the most vulnerable.”
This exhortation is neither soaring nor inspiring, which is why I love it. Discipleship looks pale compared to the flash and fluorescence that hypnotizes our culture. The acts of belief that move me most are nonchalant: swallowing an unkind word; listening to a loved one without glancing at the smartphone or television; shoveling a neighbor’s steps after a snow storm.
Most of all, in current circumstances, calling myself a Christian has a lot to do with using the brain God gave me. Health care professionals are begging Americans through their exhaustion and tears to stay home. Communicable disease experts say that COVID-19 is stealthy—and doesn’t the poor Skagit Valley Chorale know it?
Tell you what, as a diabetic, I’m going to listen to smart people. I don’t want to be infected or, what’s worse, pass along misery to an innocent bystander. Unless I must go into public places, you’ll find me at the Coleman house, praying for our protection and fumigating, my faith and intellect sitting peaceably side by side.