Oniontown Pastoral: Promise of the Onion

Oniontown Pastoral: Promise of the Onion

I wonder how many good onions rot in landfills because of flaws on their outermost layer. Fumbled by a customer or split open by a box cutter, they join the forlorn cast of undesirables, like Charlie-in-the-Box on the Island of Misfit Toys.

Of course, Charlie, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the caboose with square wheels and Dolly the rag doll, whose only flaw is sadness, don’t belong in exile. All they need is a loving child with imagination.

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From Burpee’s Farm Annual (1882). Credit: Wikimedia Commons

And everybody knows that all an imperfect onion needs is touch-up work. Just peel down to a good layer. From there on it’s fit to join its soulmate, garlic, as the two aromatics chefs can’t live without.

The onion, I can’t help noting, really is a wonder. It’s made out of rings for the sake of convenient battering and deep-frying. And have you ever noticed that onions participate in their own chopping? After a few knife strokes, they very considerately fall apart, thanks to those layers.

Yes, onions can make you cry, but I’ve never met a cook who counts that against them. Why? Because the onion is a poet among vegetables. We foodies understand this.

Okay, I think a lot about onions, but maybe you can forgive me. I not only work in the village of Oniontown, Pennsylvania, at St. John’s Lutheran Church, but also practically live in the kitchen. And if that weren’t enough, I’m a writer, a vocation that thrives on the inclination to think in layers.

“O Onion! My Onion!” The commonplace observation that it consists of layers has been therapeutic lately for my uneasy soul. The skin of our 2017 world—the societal, national and international epidermis—is a torn, mushy mess. The old saying “going to hell in a hand basket” comes to mind.

But the onion is my oracle. Its counsel shone upon me this past week when I dropped in on parishioners who have a decorative plate on their car:

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Seeing the village name, its proud letters larger than the others, felt like a grandfather’s encouraging pat on the back.

Bill answered the door and led me to the bedroom, where Connie lay on her side with a blanket drawn up to her eyes. Her ponytail reached the middle of the neighboring pillow. Ailment upon ailment has rained upon her in recent years, and now two misbehaving vertebral discs have added thunder.

Oh, dear! The onion is companion to garlic as back pain rivals the toothache for the most dreaded, non-life-threatening complaint. Connie was okay, provided she didn’t move. We talked for a few minutes, long enough for me to make her laugh. Nice going, Pastor. I said a prayer, soft but urgent. Relief can’t come soon enough. Options are running out.

Pausing on our way to the backdoor, Bill leaned against a kitchen chair. His posture matched his hushed words: “I don’t know what we’re going to do.” We shook hands goodbye.

“Onions.” Glancing back at that decorative plate, I held the word in my mouth. The blue marble speeding at 18.5 miles per second around the sun may not be watching, but in a warm house on Mercer Road, a man fusses over his wife, who endures with dignity. And people in warm houses in villages and cities everywhere quietly love and tend to each other.

IMG_4286The onion—cliché that it may be—teaches me never to neglect the many layers below the surface, where anonymous multitudes dwell, overjoyed or getting by or out of rope. Down here, bane is always neck-and-neck with blessing.

But hope lives down here, too, with Bill, Connie, Charlie-in-the-Box and all the rest of us who never make the evening news. There are even families waiting to cradle Dolly the rag doll and dry her tears.

Only down here can you believe the onion’s greatest truth. Even in sorry shape, its theme is still promise. What appears, after all, when the onion’s weepy skin is pealed away? New life, bright, smooth, vulnerable with possibility.

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Writing and the Narrative of Suffering

I’ve never thought much about where my writing comes from, maybe because time for it is constrained. For over a dozen years, my habit has been to drop wife Kathy off at work or children Elena and Micah at school, then land at Starbucks or some other coffee house and peck away at a keyboard. Words have shown up faithfully, and the twenty to thirty to sixty minutes I manage most mornings are blissful, though my subjects sometimes involve torment.

Some people escape to their woodshop to make lamps shaped like whales, others prefer quilting, still others take photographs. To borrow from Stephen King, “I just flail away” at paragraphs—happily. In my experience, joy isn’t the best motivation for reflection. Why dig around my insides to figure out what makes me write? Does an old guy who has yards and yards of miniature train tracks set up in his basement sort out his aesthetic?

But now, after thirty years of fussing with books, poems, stories, and essays, I finally have good reason to ask myself, “Why do you write?”

Pema Chodron is to blame. Better put, I’m to blame for inviting this Tibetan-Buddhist monk into my soul. Pema, the first American woman to be fully ordained, directs Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia. She writes books with titles like The Places That Scare You and Smile at Fear. I’ve known about Ani (sister) Pema for a while now, but not being a big fan of fear, I’ve resisted getting close to her teachings.

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Pema Chodron in 2007 (Credit: flicker.com on Wikimedia Commons)

I am interested in Buddhism, though, and Facebook obviously knows this. A video course called “The Freedom to Choose Something Different” kept popping up on my News Feed, accompanied by Pema’s face. I finally watched a sample and thought, “Oh, crud, this sounds like advice I need to hear”—needful enough that my credit card took a $67 hit.

The presentation was spartan. A nearly eighty-year-old nun in a maroon robe talked, answered questions, and sipped water. And it’s way too early to tell, but she may have significantly reduced my neurotic load.

I won’t presume to offer here a detailed summary of her seven hours of lectures, but the key concept is shenpa. The word is already dear to me. Pema describes the shenpa phenomenon as “getting hooked.” Minute by minute, day by day, people and events yank our chains, sucker punch us, break our hearts, or merely Taser us with annoyance. Mild: being cut off in traffic. Major: getting fired. Whatever the instigation, human nature is to think about the pain, explain it to ourselves, create stories about it, argue against it, and brainstorm the demise of those responsible.

We hope that letting our obsessing and verbalizing run their course will ease our suffering, but actually the opposite happens. As the storyline (Pema’s term) gains momentum and energy, we feed the fire of our anger, fear, jealousy, whatever.

Pema’s central teaching is that continuing to develop the storyline in hopes of feeling better is like trying to put out a fire with kerosene. The best action is to shush the shenpa-speak gently, without self-reproach, and focus on your in-breath and out-breath.

In case this all sounds like transcending suffering, well, sorry. No levitating in the lotus position. When the storyline is silenced, the physical sensations that accompany anger, sadness, and so on remain: the lead in the stomach, stiff neck, lump in the throat, fury rising in the chest. Pema’s counsel is to breathe with the feelings, to touch them instead of running away. Referring to her own panic attacks of the past, she said one of her teachers told her to lean into them.

Hush. Lean in. Yes, yes, I know, this is nothing new, especially the hush part. Don’t dwell on your problems. Do something to take your mind off things. Let it go. Lots of ways to say it.

But for whatever reason, Pema’s situating the practice of quieting shenpa within the context of meditation works for me. For years I’ve doused my inner coals with lighter fluid, thinking that they would eventually burn out. It’s sobering, though liberating, to learn that those emotional embers have the density of a black hole. Some of them might glow forever.

There’s just one complication with Pema’s sanity saving lesson: I’m in the storyline business. Words are allies, not enemies. For the first week I tried to be mindful of getting hooked and not starting up the potentially endless narration, I lost all desire to write. Nothing would come to me.

Oh, boy. “Is my writing essentially shenpa-speak?” I worried. For a couple of years, I’ve concentrated on A Napper’s Companion, and while gladness and wonder are frequent visitors, much—maybe most?—of the work begins with suffering. The death-resurrection pattern is well worn here.

The impulse to peck away returned quickly, but now I’m left with discernment. Writing and shenpa are unquestionably neighbors. The former has brought decades of gratification and comfort. Negotiating with the latter, away from the desk at least, has been a spiritual and physical sinkhole. Much anguish.

Most of the time I’m self-aware enough to know when my words are kerosene. But I’ve also teased, harassed, and howled on paper at my injuries, frustrations, and sadness.

Flailing away at paragraphs is a vocation, so I’ll have to lean into ambiguity: When does creation give healing and clarity? And when does creation pick at the scabs of suffering, keeping the mind’s wounds fresh, the body weary and shaken?

I imagine the answer to both questions will sometimes be, in the same breath, “Right now.”

My Problem as a Parent

A couple of weeks ago daughter Elena and I lunched on Reubens while grandson Cole chipmunked curly fries.

“Cole,” she said, “swallow your food before you take another bite.”

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Sorry, buddy, but the answer is still “no.”

“My biggest problem as a parent,” I said, “was that I couldn’t watch you suffer.” I had complimented Elena a moment earlier on her heart of flint when Cole pitches fits over major and minor upsets. A distinctive strength is needed to stand clear and let a child, or any loved one for that matter, endure inevitable pain. Elena has got the moxie and nodded in agreement that I don’t.

I never have. There are good reasons, family dysfunction, blah blah blah. But as I stare down the barrel of fifty-four—one highlight of my birthday will be the delivery of new blades for my Panasonic wet/dry electric razor—rummaging through the dynamics of home over two score years ago isn’t on my agenda.

Still, I’ve been doing naval gazing in excess lately, mainly because I’m pulling up vocational roots, leaving the church family I’ve served for fourteen years, and assuming a part-time call starting November 1st. You name the emotion, I’ve got it going. My late father’s favorite song, “Feelings” by Morris Albert, plays in my head. “Feelings, whoa whoa whoa feelings.” Rats!

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Oh, Abiding Hope, I’ll miss you.

Sadness has the upper hand at the moment. During prayer this morning, a sob seemed to be building. When that baby cuts loose, all the handkerchiefs in my drawer won’t handle the tears and snot. Fatigue also has me by the collar. Having a projectile crying jag stuck in your throat is draining.

The point is, I’m raw, looking inward, giving thanks for peeks of goodness, lamenting valleys of deficit—which brings me back to watching loved ones suffer. My favorite quote from Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha touches my feelings:

Do you think, my dear friend, that anybody is spared [the path of suffering]? Perhaps your little son, because you would like to see him spared sorrow and pain and disillusionment? But if you were to die ten times for him, you would not alter his destiny in the slightest.

Same goes for daughters, wives, friends, et. al. While swimming in the river of ambiguity is comfortable, agony plunges me under. I haven’t given up hope of knowing peace in currents of distress, but each passing birthday ups the odds against me.

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Joy visits in the form of lipstick flowers at the house wife Kathy and I are getting ready to sell.

In case you think I’m beating myself up, don’t worry. I just want to be truthful and authentic. No posturing, no rationalization. If I’m full of crap about myself, it won’t be intentional.

And in case you think John’s October days are nothing but whoa whoa whoa, don’t worry. Joy visits frequently, reminding me that my gifts keep pace with shortcomings.

Case study: It’s 7:54 p.m. in the Coleman house, and son Micah (23) and I have been talking about, well, feelings. The conversation consumed forty-five minutes, half of which consisted of his account of anger behind the wheel.

My boy was following a fogey from Wyoming, probably a poor soul for whom Erie may as well have been the D.C. beltway. Micah was pissed. Trying to get from one worksite to another, he could see only his nemesis’ gray hair.

“Breathe in anger,” Micah said. “Breathe out compassion.”

I was quiet. Where the hell did he get this?

He went on: “I was thinking that when you’re old, you’re probably not in a hurry. Maybe you’re alone and don’t really want to get home.”

I closed my eyes.

“You know, like, if I’ve been home all day and I think of getting a Gatorade, I’ll just say, ‘I’m going to go get a Gatorade.’ So I go, and I don’t give a shit about getting back.”

“Yes,” I thought, “this is what I’ve been trying to teaching you.” But I kept my mouth shut.

Turns out my son has been taking in some Thich Nhat Hanh talks on YouTube. Days ago he mentioned the name to one of his doctors, who replied, “How long have you been seeing him?”

Micah joked that the famous Buddhist monk isn’t covered by our insurance and is out of his price range anyway. He was trying to sit with his emotions, he explained, not run away from them, not deny them.

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You’ve learned. Micah. Now teach your father.

All these years! All the rages during which I despaired at my son’s future. Addiction. Arrest. Felony. Moving on. And somewhere in the crevasse, at the bottom of the bottomless ice that froze away twilight after twilight of my peace, he heard a word or two. Now he is looking down his fragile old man’s path. Maybe sanity will be there, maybe truth.

I’ll take every lump my weaknesses have earned, but a gentle soul is also due its compensation. Micah got the Zen business from me. My foolish enabling put Kathy, Elena, and Micah through hell, but my refusal to close compassion’s door made this evening possible.

The jerks who get in my boy’s way have their own stories, just like he does. He swears at them one day and expects that the next day somebody else will curse him. But before his sputters swell into rants, he breathes in and out. Compassion floats in his messy car along with the coconut vapor from his electronic cigarette. Maybe the driver in front of him is choking on grief or so lonely that any errand beats an apartment’s dim silence. At last he understands.

Birthday presents this year will be incidental blessings. I’ve already received extravagant gifts. My daughter is a stronger, wiser parent than her father. My son is falling in love with the world.