Oniontown Pastoral: Report on Erie’s Christmas Blizzard

Oniontown Pastoral: Report on Erie’s Christmas Blizzard

Bird feeders out my front window

As anybody with a television knows, Erie, Pennsylvania, has made the national news in recent days. Apparently, the sentimental souls who asked God for a winter wonderland on December 25th earned a pray-one, get-one-free coupon. The National Weather Service promises that Erie County can count on 12-18 inches of snow in addition to the 60+ we have already.

Of course, fans of Christmas flurries didn’t say to the Lord, “Thank you, sir, may we have another.” I bear no grudges.

Nor am I complaining. The YMCAs in Erie closed, so I was spared the effort of getting on the treadmill and starting to sweat off my holiday lard.

I’ve had the walk shoveled, but we still haven’t received mail in three days. As a result, we haven’t opened up a bill since December 23rd, which is a victory. The longer money stays in my wallet the better.

Portrait of an antenna. Is my 2006 Hyundai Elantra grinning?

The only part of my 2006 Hyundai Elantra visible now is the antenna, but wife Kathy’s new Kia Forte is getting us around great. In typical Coleman fashion, I had studded tires put on two days after the worst of the squalls, but we never did get stuck.

Actually, far from being put upon, me, mine and my hometown have cause to give thanks. Severe weather presents logistical hassles, but a festive spirit tags along with a blizzard’s wind chills.

We Americans are trapped in an age of cruel, shabby behavior that has put millions in a stupor. We’re tired of being aghast and offended at every turn. Our alarm and worry has morphed into a weary nausea. But relentless snow is a variation in the routine. Marching into blinding swirls and getting a thousand tiny, frigid slaps in the face reminds human beings that life has a diverse, engaging menu.

A blizzard is the meteorological equivalent of devouring an ox roast sandwich with a snappy horseradish mayo and a tidal wave of jus after living for a year on bargain baloney between stale white bread, no ketchup, no mustard, no milk.

Brief case study: I’m writing this report at Starbucks, where minutes ago a middle-aged husband and wife danced to the 1976 Abba hit, “Dancing Queen.” (Note: patrons don’t dance at Starbucks.) Their teenage daughter and son were mortified.

The woman had groovy moves. The guy, who had a shaved head and soul patch, was no slouch. Suddenly, by impulse alone, I joined them.

“You kids should get up and move,” I said. “When you get old you’ll wish you had.”

The boy pulled his stocking cap down over his nose and slumped in his chair. We three oldsters laughed from our bellies.

Now tell me, when but during a historic snow event would a rhythmically challenged clergyman find the mojo to dance in Starbucks? Something primal simply gets released in a fellow.

Erie-ites will be waxing about the Christmas Blizzard of 2017 for decades. Even now we’re basking in the sympathy of a nation.

I’m already having a grand time telling out-of-town friends about our poor streets. Unlucky drivers get stuck and spin like mad until they fishtail away, leaving behind ruts. Wherever you go, you’re in for a rough ride that feels like Charles Atlas has seized you by the lapels and shaken you wildly.

The day after Christmas took me to my beloved Oniontown, where the roads were clear and the driving non-violent. On the way, I stopped at the hospital in Greenville to see Rosellen, who was nearing the end, and her kind, gentle husband Dale. We prayed, and I got to say, “I’ll see you soon. Love you. I’m going to miss you.”

Rosellen could double me over by raising an eyebrow or shaking her fist at me. Never do the fields near St. John’s Lutheran Church look bleak, but they did on December 26th. A helping of Erie’s snow might have dressed them up. Or maybe I was sad about telling a friend goodbye.

The next morning, I learned that Rosellen passed. Am I askew in believing that her steps are now steady, her memory clear and sure? Am I strange to grieve her death and be excited for her in the same breath? And am I crazy to find joy in foul weather?

Yes. Crazy enough to dance—in celebration of a blizzard and in gratitude for Rosellen made whole again and embraced by Eternal Love.

Advertisements

Christmas Time Is (Still) Here

Christmas Time Is (Still) Here

Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” playing in my ear buds is barely overcoming the percussive assault on Starbucks’ speakers—over which my beloved baristas have no control. The Mother Ship picks, I guess.

Our Advent binge on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Blue Christmas” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Christmas Time Is Here” and “The Christmas Song” and “Please Come Home for Christmas” and “What Christmas Means to Me” and “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)” has lots of folks hung over as of December 26th.

Not me. Music of the Nativity will decorate the Coleman house until the Epiphany, our idea being that it’s impolite to close down the celebration before the magi have arrived with their gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The tree is lovely. Leave it up. The songs are soothing. Keep listening.

Honestly, though, my reason for lingering in the yuletide has more to do with what has filled my soul’s stocking lately than with the Christian calendar. Over my fifty-four gift-giving seasons (good grief!), my thoughts have turned from what I hope to receive to what I’m fortunate to have. Much as I loved the packages I opened on Christmas day, never have I cared less about what would be in them.

A man would be greedy to expect more from his portion of years than I have right now. This understanding settled upon me as I lay in bed some nights ago while wife Kathy made doll clothes at the dining room table. Her sewing machine hums and whirs regularly in our Parkway Drive home, but hearing it embraced by the warm promise of sleep returned me to Wagner Avenue, where I grew up.

A sewing machine’s singing, like other music, is sweetened by rests. The gift being stitched together breathes, as does the whole dwelling.

My mother made her own skirts and alterations to our family’s clothes. It never occurred to me before that the sound of a sewing machine holds for me what was loving and healthy on Wagner Avenue.

IMG_4031

My mother’s Christmas cactus, once on Wagner Avenue, now on Parkway Drive

As I opened my eyes a crack to taste the hallway’s dim light and groaned at a throb of bursitis in my shoulder, the joy and affection that fed me long ago kept company with current blessings.

The Colemans are housed, fed, clothed, adequately employed, and reasonably healthy. In other words, we’re all okay at the moment.

Most of our life-stealing troubles have passed away or at least gone on hiatus.

Like many Americans, I wouldn’t protest if somebody threw unexpected fists-full of cash at me, but, thank goodness, money and possessions aren’t obsessions.

I’ve known the gladness of being a husband, father, grandfather, friend, and pastor. The people closest to me tolerate my shortcomings.

After thirty-two years, I love my wife more than ever.

I believe in a God of grace and mercy.

In the quiet between Kathy’s stitches, such unmerited gifts hemmed me in, behind and before. “Enough,” I thought, “much more than enough. More than plenty.”

But there was still more. There was Christmas day. Daughter Elena and son-in-law Matt donated immunizations and medicine in my name for Third World children. They thought about who I am and came up with that idea.

Son Micah made us close our eyes. After a minute, he told us to look. On our laps rested stockings. With 2015 being tight, we told the kids we would be skipping this tradition temporarily. “It’s not much,” Micah said, “but we’ve got to have stockings on Christmas.” Mary Janes never tasted so good.

Grandson Cole handed each of us a homemade ornament made out of some baked flour concoction. Like the others, mine bore a few smears of watercolor. “Cole paint that,” he said. Three words and earthly elements: a sacrament stirred in my chest.

When everybody headed home, Kathy said over and over again, “I had so much fun. That was the best Christmas.”

Just one more: Cole and I sat on the couch and shared peach pie a la mode. I got to watch him open his mouth for every bite as the Grinch and his rein-dog trumpeted their way back into Whoville to pass out gifts and share roast beast.

I’ve memorized all the kids’ Christmas shows. These days I would rather stay with my grandson’s eyes—merry and bright!—until I know them both by heart.

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.

Clouds Over Peach Street Starbucks

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

unnamed-2

Clouds over Peach Street Starbucks

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

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

unnamed

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

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

unnamed-4

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

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

unnamed-1

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

unnamed-6

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

unnamed-5

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

unnamed-7

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

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

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

Marriage Along a Napper’s Way

unnamed-1

With Baby Crash, watching a gray day out the den window . . . small house.

Gray day. The air itself was wet.

One intersection from Starbucks and my appointment with the writing table, wife Kathy’s guitar ringtone strummed. “John Coleman, where is that Pampered Chef stuff?” She spoke of a baking sheet and hell-I-don’t-know-a spatula that her friend would be picking up soon. Due to a recent, understandable case of what we call ping brain, she forgets and occasionally slides off the rails. When you’re moving from big house to small, as we are now, the cranium can get crowded.

“Uh, here in the truck behind my seat.”

“Where are you?”

“Turning into Starbucks. But I can run it down to you.” (“And lose half my writing time,” I thought, but didn’t say.)

“Ooh, by Starbucks? Maybe you could bring me a venti chai tea latte?”

“Sure.” (“Make that 2/3 of my writing time.”)

“Okay, thank you, John Coleman!”

In I went, ordered the tea and talked to a couple of friends, then headed north on I-79 to the Regional Cancer Center.

640px-Rembrandt_Christ_in_the_Storm_on_the_Lake_of_Galilee-1

The Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt, 1632 (Credit: Wikipedia)

And that’s when my napper’s way took over. A nap or siesta generally involves down time in the afternoon–pretty simple. But the napper’s way is round-the-clock: in the midst of activity, obligation, and distraction, you stop. “Peace, be still.”

The Mazda 4X4 was exceeding the speed limit, but the driver’s spirit-mind pulled to the berm. A couple nights ago I scratched loose one of Kathy’s old scabs (most wives and husbands have them, I suppose), and she forgave far more quickly than I did myself.

Breathe. Nap while fully awake. Oh, bars of my soul, open, open. What’s worth upset? What deserves anything other than a smile and no worries? And for those in love, what response is better than a kiss?

Salting old wounds or inflicting new ones calls for a cold shoulder, maybe worse, but losing a hundred words for my wife’s sake is of no account. The inconvenience is a single hiccough. It’s a sweat bee brushed out the car window.

So I delivered the tea, baking sheet, and whatever-the hell. One of Kathy’s officemates laughed: “She just wanted you to bring her a Starbucks.”

On the way to the exit, Kathy said, “I’m sorry. I put the stuff on the seat so I wouldn’t forget.”

“Oh, you mean the seat you were sitting on?”

“Yeah, that one.”

We smiled–at her ping brain and my frailty and at love on a cloudy day–and leaned into each other. “Be in touch,” I said.

unnamedThen I landed here at Starbucks, where Kathy’s email chimed: “Thank you, my dear. Love you.”

No, my dear. Thank you.

 

An Understanding of Prayer

7:39 a.m. at the downtown Starbucks. 7° with a wind chill factor of misery. A burly guy I’ll call Constance lumbered in ten minutes ago carrying his taut duffle bag. It looks like he’s lugging around a four-foot section of big telephone pole. Who knows what’s in there? The pockets of his fisherman’s vest are tumors of valuables.

After a trip to the restroom, Constance resumes his animated discussion with State Street, jabbing the table with his pointer finger and staring down the swirls of snow. His negotiations are urgent, relentless.

I see Constance a couple times a month. My daughter said years ago that he goes by a woman’s name and sometimes dresses in drag. I’ve only seen him dressed for weather, even in summer, but his name is none of my business. Only death will end his wandering and lonely arguments.

What locks await the cluster of keys hanging around his neck and resting on his gut? Mirage homes? And now, he is pissed: “No! No! You will not!” Silence, then, “I . . . didn’t . . . know! Why are we talking about this?”

IMG_1297

Oh, Constance, may one of those keys open up a home of warm color, a cat waiting for you, and loved ones who agree with your argument.

I pray for Constance. I also pray for the guy who picks up garbage and shovels snow outside my primary Starbucks haunt near the Millcreek Mall. Yesterday was nearly as severe as today. He was bundled beyond recognition when I drove by him on my way to work. I could make out a slit of flesh from his eyebrows to the bridge of his nose. That was it.

“God,” I said. More and more I’m finding that is prayer enough.

I pray all the time, and I mean all the time. This statement is frankly uncomfortable, not because I’m ashamed of prayer. As Constance just said, “No, no, no, no, no!” My squirming comes because I suspect folks would find my practice of prayer weird and pointless.

IMG_0384

The point of prayer: to be spirit still, to let light shine into and through me? (Balcony of chapel at the Abbey of Gethsemani)

In The New Seeds of Contemplation, Trappist monk Thomas Merton describes my context for prayer:

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 wind and join in the general dance.

200px-TMertonStudy

Thomas Merton (Father Louis) (Credit: Wikipedia)

As a spiritual master, Merton dares speak of mysteries with certainty. I avoid that. Who am I? But Father Louis, as he was known at the Abbey of Gethsemani, comes up with words that work for me—as much as language can take hold of the Ultimate, anyway.

If “the world and time are the dance of the Lord in emptiness,” then prayer is my daring to join in. I’ve spent years “analyzing the phenomena of life out into strange finalities and complex purposes of [my] own” and have had enough of that absurdity. The best prayer I can offer, then, is impoverished and goes like this: “I don’t know anything. But please fill me. I’m here.”

Intercessions are important, of course, but I hold an unconventional view of them. My prayer for the garbage-snow removal guy was monosyllabic because of what I believe about God. Of course the Creator wants everybody to be sane, healthy, warm, fed, clothed, and loved. So saying anything more than the Sacred Name isn’t essential—like asking snow to make its way to the ground. It’s what snow wants to do!

800px-Snow_crystals_on_car

Dear Snow, Almighty and Everlasting, fall to earth, cover our cars and houses. Amen. (Credit: Barasoaindarra on Wikimedia Commons)

If God wants the whole world taken care of, then why the hell doesn’t God do it? We’re heading for the good old theodicy conundrum: If God is infinitely good, where does evil come from and why does it exist? My answer is the spiritual foundation of my prayer life: “I don’t know anything.”

Some believers might tap me on the shoulder with familiar answers: “God answers all prayer, but sometimes the answer is ‘no.’” Or “God knows what’s best for you, even when what’s happening is terrible.” Or “God is testing you.” Or “It’s all part of God’s plan.” Or, the one I find most irksome: “God never gives you more than you can bear.”

Tell that to the man I hugged whose father died a few months ago and whose mother was going into surgery—anesthesia when you’re sneaking up on ninety is sketchy. Imagine losing both your parents four months apart. Serving up a platitude might get you a well-deserved knuckle sandwich.

After a few thousand hugs like this, I refuse to reduce prayer to a crapshoot. “Dear Lord, please bring So and So through this surgery and grant a speedy recovery.” I might actually say something like this, but I would never do so with a what-the-heck-it-can’t-hurt attitude. And I would never think to myself, “Well, gosh, I’ve prayed like this over and over. Maybe God will hear me this time.” And I won’t try to explain the ways of the Eternal Mystery. The presumption!

IMG_0369

Prayer: whatever I am, whatever I wish, open and vulnerable with the Ultimate Truth? (Figure at the Abbey of Gethsemani)

But as I wait for my cell phone to ring, I pray for the woman in surgery and her son, not because I expect to influence the outcome. I say “help,” sigh, and look beyond these walls, windows, and patrons because my present reality is this: I wish for a dear old soul’s return to health, if nothing else so her son can catch his breath before adding another layer to his mourning. My prayer is, “Please, Lord, please.” At the moment, I am this prayer.

If I’m to join in the general dance, I can only do so as myself—a duffle bag fat with frailty and fear, longing and gladness.

Not surprisingly, most of my prayers are silent. Abide in what is, John. Swim in grace. Dance in peace. Every now and then, I’m aware that I’m praying for everybody who has ever lived, every creature. And though my hands rest in my lap, my spirit arms are open wide, lifting up all of our laughter and lament—yours, too—as if God doesn’t already see!

I’m quiet. My wordlessness says, “Here we are, God, right here in my arms. Beat in our blood. Fill us. We are yours.”

Earth_Western_Hemisphere

“Here we are–the Western Hemisphere, at least. Fill us. We are yours.” (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

 

A Soul Message to My Regulars

Dear Regulars:

Europe_orthographic_Caucasus_Urals_boundary.svg

Elena’s old teacher notes that some students can’t find Europe on a map. You never know what the Starbucks regulars will kibitz about. (Credit: Wikipedia)

So what else would I be doing at 8:21 on a Monday morning? I’m at Starbucks, surrounded by regulars: a couple of lawyers dressed for court; a retiree who by coincidence was daughter Elena’s social studies teacher; a young artist who sketches fairies and dragons and buzzes half her skull down to stubble; an engineer numbed by an online meeting; and a woman who pours out her life for children and grandchildren. I’ve talked to all of them, some more than others. They feel like beloved cousins. Such goodness in these folks.

All tables are taken. The guy in my seat tries to pull the reigns on aging and negotiates with a temporarily bum shoulder. “Shoveling snow really did this to you? Do you need three ibuprofen or four?” “Make it four.”

As I sip a refill, the sun shines, then hides, then shines again. Breathing in and out, I think of you, whenever and wherever we inhabited each others’ days:

childhood

high school

college

graduate schools

seminary

old neighborhoods

and

jobs

grocery stores

coffee houses no longer

offices and waiting rooms

220px-Gilman_Hall,_Johns_Hopkins_University,_Baltimore,_MD

Gilman Hall at Johns Hopkins: it’s been thirty years. Herb and Rosemary, hi! Armand and Lynda, I’ll see you on the other side, right? (Credit: Wikipedia)

You aren’t showing up all at once. No, I receive you one-by-one, gratefully. Caroline. Bill. Jeff. Nancy. A procession of Garys. Because I know others by your names, namesakes straggle in. Welcome, everyone.

Hello, Becky, sister of Steven from Diehl Elementary School. (She had her leg amputated below the knee, then later—I don’t remember how long—she died, ten or twelve. Cancer.) Look into the eyes of glory, Becky. Belly laugh with the other children.

You don’t have to walk among the quick to be one of my regulars.

220px-Hyacinth_-_Anglesey_Abbey

Hyacinths always remind me of you, Gram–the curls of your wig.

Grandma Miller, your fingers are folded back into knuckled wings! I see your hair curled like hyacinths and your swollen face, but I can’t hear your voice anymore. I was sixteen. If it is permitted, Gram, please be there to receive me.

Hi, Alice, a wealth of Johns (that sounds wrong in a couple of ways), an embarrassment of Marys, more Kathys than I know what to do with. Matthews and Marks.

Now a tangible Patty shows up to share my table. That’s fine. She brings other Ps with her. Pauls, Pegs, Phils, one Penelope, and a lone Poopsie.

So many Richards and Elizabeths!

200px-Anne_Frank

Why have you arrived here, Anne Frank? No matter. All kids’ faces are sweet in my eyes. All are welcome. (Credit: Wikimedia)

What’s this? Jesse? I never knew you, but here you are, a sweet obituary face. Those who love you still dream you in their arms–your dear smile alone tells me this. I wasn’t expecting to welcome strangers to this gathering, but my plans seldom work out. So come in, Jesse. Stand glad with me in this warm light. Thich Nhat Hanh, wake up and bow to me. I’m listening. Rise, Ann Frank. Find your way home, Nigerian school girls. All of you, join Patty and me at this table.

Oh, my Lord, friends I’ve never seen or held are asking to join me in this public grace–names beginning with S, N, R, D, K, C, M. The alphabet isn’t long enough, though, miraculously, there’s room at this table, in this column of sun, for all of you, my regulars of many initials.

I don’t want to pretend. During these coffees in this now constant light, you haven’t all arrived. But wherever you are, I’m waiting. If mornings and afternoons are bitter and twilight is fretful, I’ll sit with you in safety. And if you have too many blessings to carry, hand me a few. We’ll give thanks together and I’ll share what you’ve given with others and probably hang on to one for myself.

I love you, friends. Your faces—skin creased by decades or still fair, eyebrows raised in surprise, or cheeks flushed with excitement or trouble—are dear to me.

Photo on 10-10-14 at 10.02 AM

This face, such as it is, welcomes you. Come share the light, rest a while.

If you haven’t visited today, don’t worry. You will soon. Meanwhile, know that whether this day is good enough to travel by its own steam or so lousy it refuses to budge, call on me for a visit. The shoulder pain has eased enough for me to put an arm around you.

We’ll be calm and glad. If clouds take over, so be it. Present to each other–just two or three gathered–we can shine anyway.

Peace and love,

John

Micro-Post: A Birthday Postcard to Loved Ones

Dear Blog and Regular-Old Loved Ones:

Yesterday, October 9th, was my fifty-third birthday. At 8:30 a.m., as I was sipping at Starbucks, I received an inconspicuous present that I want to share with you.

Photo on 10-10-14 at 10.02 AM

This is what fifty-three looks like–beard probably six months away from eliminating any need for a collar or necktie.

I had just finished a refreshing, philosophical discussion with Star-buddy John about goodness, forgiveness, and consequences and was getting back to polishing a depressing blog post when an unsteady, elderly woman shuffled past my perch with a hot beverage. She must have given her cup a random squeeze because the lid popped off and hot whatever it was started spilling over her trembling hand. I love Starbucks, but if they make their lids any more flimsy, they may just as well go with Kleenex or phyllo dough. She looked like her car just crapped the bed at 2:00 a.m. in rural Wyoming (redundant?). Anyway, I did what all of you reading this would have done. I stood up, said, “Let me take that for you,” pressed the lid on, and carried the cup to her table. She thanked me, and I made a remark on those darned lids and went back to writing.

IMG_2623

No, young lady and old lady . . . thank you!

As I sat there, though, my insides were calm and blessed. It felt like a gentle spirit breeze or a hug held for three extra seconds. Ah! In half-a-minute’s time, a young woman, maybe twenty-five, tapped me on the arm and handed me a gift card. “I saw what you did,” she said. “There’s $5 on this. We’re just not nice enough to each other in this world. Thank you.”

Hey, friends, this is not about me. I’m sitting guess where again this morning and thinking about the reason my soul knew healing after doing what all of us would have done: maybe we were built to look out for each other, so when we actually manage to do so, it feels like Eden–the place we were intended to be all along. Plenty of shade. Food enough for everybody. Kind faces everywhere you look.

Did the Loving Creator make us for grace and mercy? I hope so. I think so. That would mean there’s good hope for the world.

Love,
John

A Prayer from State Street Starbucks

Dear God,

You know everything I’m going to tell you. I’m writing these words as a way of inviting friends into my prayer.

IMG_2047

Oprah smiles on us all–hope she’s channeling you, God.

Constance* is ranting eight feet away. He’s pounding the table with his pointer finger. He’s alone, and there’s no way to join him. Years ago daughter Elena told me Constance sometimes cross-dresses and, in fact, has a home and money. I don’t know what’s true. I only know that Constance wears perma-stained sweat suits, walks everywhere, lugs a stuffed army duffle bag, and talks constantly to imagined companions or combatants.

What happened to Constance, God? I can’t imagine these wandering days and upset conversations are what you intended for him. I’m sad, choked up actually, because the only meaningful thing I can do is look at him without judgment and love a man who can’t escape a nightmare. What human being is under the soil and blather? You must know him. In your mercy, here or in your eternal arms, birth a sane Constance, bring to life a soul who can speak to real friends. He just walked outside—for air, to follow a hallucination—and he’s weary, winded. Pacing, talking, exhausting himself.

IMG_2037

Did Constance start out like grandson Cole–loving mother and father, gushing family, sound mind?

And now he’s back, grabbing the bathroom key and aching his way down the hall. It’s hard for me to trust that in your own time and way you’ll grant him peace. To tell the truth, God, I often feel like a dunce, believing that somehow, as days turn to decades and millennia waltz toward the eventual collision of galaxies, you’ll receive Constance and me and every dog, druggie, and run-of-the-mill spirit into your grace. But I do believe–can’t help it.

And the guy who was in here an hour ago with a ponytail and booze-red face, you know, the guy with no ass to hold up his jeans: someday you’ll fill his pockets with peace more lasting than the money he was trying to pester out of his frustrated, broke friend. You will, right? Please.

Of course, there’s plenty of joy here at Starbucks, too, God. Jesse and Ricardo, our beloved Erie couple who dress as wild twins and ride a tandem bike everywhere, even in winter, were here. Thank you for them, God. Thanks for the hats they wore this morning: Jesse in a white one the Queen of England would prize, Ricardo also in a white one that reminded me of a Hostess Sno Ball. They refuse to be other than what they are, and I’m grateful for that. I find them holy.

Queen_Elisabeth_II

Like Ricardo’s hat, God, except make it white and top it with coconut. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Well, Constance finally headed out and slogged across State Street, his duffle bag bouncing against his back—a light burden, I imagine, compared to the voices. I can’t see him anymore, but until his new birth or the inevitable last dance of the Milky Way, whichever comes first, I’ll keep an eye on Constance for as long as I can. Receive my offering: I won’t think any less of him than I do myself. It’s not much, I know.

800px-Milky_Way_galaxy

I can’t quite spot Constance from this view, but I believe you can. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Lovely day, God. Ribs Fest is rocking downtown Erie, Pennsylvania. The volume swells every time somebody comes in. A couple of teenagers just entered. From the way they smell, I’m guessing a case of the munchies will drive them toward a vendor who will smile and gladly take their money.

Joint(detail)

I’ll take this opportunity to ask you, God, about your stance on legalization. (Credit: Chmee2. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

It’s a good day; it really is. Soon I’ll head out myself into the gorgeous light, the comfortable air. My meter is long spent, so I’ll probably get a $10 ticket. Anyway, please hear my thanks. It’s just that Constance was here, suffering and lost, and seeing him got into the place in my chest you have created to hold tears.

I needed to talk to you. Please help us. And if nothing else, let Constance sleep well tonight. Give him a dream that feels like your embrace.

Love,

John

*Not his real name.

A Sad Bird Looked Back at Mary

Mary Birdsong, my photographer/writer friend, has a fierce love for . . . well . . . birds. She, Erie Times-News features writer Jennie Geisler, and I met Friday morning at Starbucks and covered a lot of territory: skunks, writing (of course), the assault on laws protecting endangered species, birds, tuna casserole, and more.

1376420_10203516849066677_842090667_n

Mary, Jennie, and I all made tuna casserole recently. A harmonic comfort food convergence during a long winter? This one is Mary’s. (Credit: Mary Birdsong)

We laughed a lot, but Mary was swimming upstream. In recent days she’d rescued an injured red-necked grebe, took all the right steps to give it a chance at survival, and returned it to the water. When she checked on it the next day, it was floating. Damn.

1689651_10203505338738926_421648149_n-1

This red-necked grebe looked good, but didn’t make it. Watch out for that beak! (Credit: Mary Birdsong)

As Mary talked, I remembered the story of a man who traveled to Calcutta to volunteer with Mother Teresa. He presented himself to the future saint, who took him out to the streets, where they came upon a destitute man curled up on the ground. She asked the new volunteer to pick up the man. As he did so, he found that the man had lain so long in the same position that his skin was stuck to the pavement. As the volunteer held the dying man, Mother Theresa said, “The body of Christ.”

Terrible—and lovely! The story is redemptive only because of the denouement: the man, who left skin behind, died surrounded by love and care. Not alone. Not forgotten.

“You’re the Mother Theresa of birds,” I told Mary. That’s much of what Teresa of Calcutta did. She and her sisters gave the forgotten gentle deaths.

I didn’t blame Mary for being down. Her last three rescues didn’t make it: the grebe, a herring gull, and a turkey vulture, whose story she shared on her blog. Here’s an excerpt:

Sitting on the ground, unable to fly, was a young Turkey Vulture, with some white down still visible on its back and sides. It was huddled at the base of a tree, obviously injured and barely moving around. I called Tamarack Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center, they agreed to take it and with their help I hatched a plan for catching it. Anne Desarro, a park naturalist generously agreed to help and soon arrived with gloves and tarps for securing the bird. I had a box in the back of my truck. After several attempts, we eventually cornered the bird and I wrapped it in the tarp. It calmed down in my arms. It felt much lighter than anticipated. In the process of the catch we both discovered that its injuries were far worse than we first thought; most of its right wing was missing. We both knew that Tamarack would probably have to euthanize it due to the severity of its injuries, but we agreed that I should still take it.

TUVU

A turkey vulture, soon to be granted a peaceful end. (Credit: Mary Birdsong)

We put it in the ready box, secured the lid and I headed out for Tamarack. When I arrived, the rehabber on duty agreed when I explained the injuries. They deftly and gently prepared the bird for its last. 

The rehabber asked if I wanted to stay. I learned many years ago that I should always stay at moments like this. I had a cat named Buster who was one of my greatest delights. He developed cancer and at the tender age of three needed to be put down. Thinking that I could not bear it, I elected to not be in the room with him when they injected that shot. I still regret that decision and will always feel that I abandoned him at his most vulnerable moment. And I learned that love is not selfish.

I said yes and reached out, putting my hand on the vulture’s chest. It was breathing hard. Slowly, though, it became more shallow. Eventually its chest stopped moving. The room was quiet and filled with respect for such a magnificent bird that did not get to live very long. Eventually, the rehabber said to an intern, “you can let go of its legs now.” 

As I re-read Mary’s account, I’m alone at home on Saturday. The only sounds here are a warm hiss and crack from the fireplace and Watson making old dog smacking noises with his mouth. I read again: “They deftly and gently prepared the bird for its last.” “My hand on the vulture’s chest.” “Love is not selfish.”

Am I morose for receiving these words as a gift? In my particular vocation I see lots of lasts, so when a mindful, loving, gentle death reveals itself, I close my eyes, breathe in and breathe out. How many earthly endings look like a crushed beer can by a dusty curb? This vulture died with a reverent sister blessing its chest. My joy is gray, but it’s joy all the same.

lake

Joy can be gray. Presque Isle on Lake Erie. (Credit: Mary Birdsong)

Since coffee yesterday, a detail about that red-necked grebe has kept returning. Mary found the bird on a driveway late at night. Who knows why it was there? She said birds sometimes mistake concrete for water. She also said that a grebe can poke out your eye with one swift stab, which is why she approached it from behind. As she drew close, the bird looked back at her—no strength for defense.

1796566_10203347124943680_1600194933_n

The grebe looked at Mary.

On a winter night, a wounded grebe glanced over its wing at Mary. The image won’t leave my grateful imagination alone. Maybe it’s just me, but world news lands heavily on my heart. (I understand that we—the United States—have flown fighter jets to Ukraine to say hello to Putin. Sigh.) The grebe died, but that’s not the point.

All the birds Mary tries to help can end up floating or put down, but each one is still saved. When Mary and her fellow birders tend the healthy and rescue the languishing, they lay a tender hand on creation’s shoulder. This isn’t poetry! When the grebe looked at Mary and she looked back, the planet saw and whispered, “Thank you, bird. Bless you, sister.” I’m sure of it.

599px-The_Blue_Marble

Grateful for a dying grebe and a woman connecting? A vast planet? Absolutely! (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)