Oniontown Pastoral: A Neighbor Shows Me How to Figure Out Ireland

Oniontown Pastoral:

A Neighbor Shows Me How to Figure Out Ireland

The site was comical. On my way to St. John’s Lutheran Church recently, I drove past a neighbor who was poking leaves with a litter stick and sliding them into a big white bucket. The odd part was, there weren’t enough leaves to rake, maybe a hundred scattered over his yard.

“Why bother?” I thought. On the other hand, what a senior citizen does on a windy morning is none of my business.

We exchanged glances, me offering a smile, he raising his eyebrows and chomping on the last inch of a stogie.

I knew instantly that the man was trying to advise me. But about what? Cigar smoking wouldn’t suit my temperamental lungs, and gnawing on a cheroot would result in wife Kathy hesitating to kiss me.

No, the counsel had to do with leaves. A few days went by before I understood that my neighbor wanted to help me figure out Ireland.

The author with two new friends at the Cliffs of Moher. No, I don’t normally wear a scarf with a cardigan. There was a chilly mist coming off the ocean.

Since Kathy and I returned from the Emerald Isle a couple weeks ago, my spirit has been overflowing. Kind brother Ed and his wife Debby drove us all over southern Ireland to sites both popular and inconspicuous. I gave the Blarney stone a peck, communed with two cows at the Cliffs of Moher, knelt in prayer at St. Colman’s Cathedral, and at St. Michan’s Church let my hands hover over the keyboard Handel used to compose his “Messiah.”

Then there was the countryside, where cattle and sheep grazed within stone walls, and church and castle ruins gave the land gray benedictions, as they have for centuries.

The inexorable passing of time

You can’t roam Ireland without feeling the inexorable passing of time. I’m home at the moment on an afternoon with intermittent drizzle—very Irish weather—but even now time’s gentle, but calloused, hands hold my face.

Part of me is in Erie, but part remains at Kilmainham Gaol, where architects of the 1916 Easter Rising awaited the firing squad. Joseph Plunkett, who married Grace Gifford in the prison chapel hours before his execution, was not yet thirty. After the ceremony in his cell, the bride and groom were permitted to spend ten awkward minutes together in the presence of guards. According to the tour guide, they sat quietly.

Another part of me reverences miles of stone walls. The only way to farm the island’s fields was to pry the limestone rocks out and pile them into long lines. During the Potato Famine (1845-1849), starving men were fed in exchange for clearing land and building walls that led nowhere. “Famine walls,” they were called. If grassy pastures were poetry, Ireland would be sonnets, beautiful but melancholy.

My great-great grandfather, Timothy Coleman, most likely sailed from County Cork to America before the historic blight that turned the country’s main food source to smelly mush. A million to starved to death and about as many emigrated elsewhere. Ireland’s population has never recovered the loss.

Stones, everywhere stones. Church ruins next door to apartments. Stone shape the landscape.

A dozen times each day, as I brushed ancient cathedrals with fingertips and tried to read eroded gravestones, Timothy’s absence haunted me. He was a farm laborer. I dreamt his face and imagined his voice.

Debby, who has dug into the Coleman family history, records the following about Timothy’s son, Edward: “[He] moved his family 31 times. . . .The family lived on mashed potatoes, gravy and hamburg.”

Part of me grieves for these ancestors I’ve never met and wonders with unfeigned love about their days and decades, their toils and joys.

Ireland rests in my spirit like the fallen leaves I’m studying, just a scattering this fall in Erie, Pennsylvania. I can only gather them one at a time, like my Oniontown neighbor did.

Timothy is but one leaf. Another is his wife Helen Salsman, who bore seven children. Someday Kathy and I will drive to Norwich, New York, and pay respects at her grave (1836-1918). We don’t know where Timothy is buried, which pains me a little.

A gleeful Kathy peeking out of the Witch’s Kitchen on the grounds of the Blarney Castle.

Leaf by stunning leaf I’ll sort through Ireland, maybe figure out why I was so moved by the walls and ruins, cows and sheep, friendly folks and all those starving spirits who built walls that now look like random adornment, innocent alleluias stretching toward the horizon.

If you see me these days with my eyes closed, I’ll be imagining Timothy Coleman and remembering the island he left behind. And if you catch me chewing on a stogie, pray that Kathy will kiss me anyway.

Bonus Photographs

One of the best parts of Ireland was hanging out with Ed and Debby in interesting places, like this pub originally built in the thirteen century.

A crow perched on a stone wall in Blarney Castle’s Poison Garden. Stay tuned for a future post on the crows of Ireland.

Mummies in a crypt at St. Michan’s Church. Again, stay tuned.

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Watching the Clock Rock Evenly

At my back I always hear time’s winged chariot hurrying near.

“To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell

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Most of the news is still fresh to me. I’ll read it. I promise.

If you know me personally, prepare to wet yourself with laughter: there’s hardly a moment when I’m not aware of the clock. I was reminded of this a few days ago while deciding whether to buy a copy of the Erie Times-News.

“Come on,” I thought. “When are you going to have time to read the paper today?” And that’s when I caught myself: “Really? You don’t have time for the news? What the hell’s wrong with you?” That was my non-Zen way of saying, “Hmm. You’re a little out of balance these days, old boy.” So to make a point to myself, I bought the paper and snapped a picture of one just like it, one that I haven’t read yet.

“Seriously,” you might be thinking, “you have time to nap, pray, jog, cook, sip wine, not to mention do pastor work and write, but you can’t squeeze in the obituaries and funnies? Have you considered therapy?” Yes, actually. But I do have an explanation. All of the activities I get to have a clear purpose.

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This photograph is proof enough for me of napping’s clear purpose: Thomas Edison asleep in the afternoon. (Credit: corbisimages.com)

  • Nap: I sleep one hour less at night and reserve an hour in the afternoon. My experience and the science are conclusive: I work and function much better in the late afternoon and early evening with a siesta under my belt.
  • Pray: One hour a day for prayer is medicinal, like insulin and Zoloft.
  • Jog: If I run four days a week and am still Mr. Chunky Trunks, imagine me without exercise. I’d need to get a second job just to afford enough talcum powder to keep my thighs from chaffing.
  • Cook: Hey, the family has to eat.
  • Sip wine: You raise your eyebrows: what’s the clear purpose here? Well, that shows how little you know. Red wine has many health benefits, as does dark chocolate. Honest. Look it up.
  • Pastor work: No joking around. I can’t imagine a better bunch of people to work with and serve. I’m constantly grateful that they trust me with a flexible schedule; therefore, I watch the clock and give them a full week’s work for a week’s pay.
  • Write: Out of all the activities on this list, the world would probably take the least notice if I didn’t find time to write. Regardless of my abilities, life without writing would amount to that feeling you get in your throat before you cry.
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No, this isn’t me, but a fellow Mr. Chunky Trunks. (Credit: Ian Hooton)

But reading the paper, that has always fallen into a forgiving category of time use—until now. As I get to know some friends who write for the Erie Times-News, what was once a guiltless omission is now selfishness. Not only do my friends’ livelihoods depend on the 285k-plus residents of our region buying and reading the paper, but as a blogger I’m becoming an auxiliary member of the local writing fraternity/sorority. Just as I take seriously keeping up with the work of my fellow WordPress bloggers, I’m now settling into reading the daily paper as a pleasant obligation.

Sadly, my personality defect remains, which you have probably figured out by now: I struggle to relax and have fun. As I mentioned, I understand the need for rest and get it, but I’m way too constipated about the whole business. I’d be much better off learning how to sit on the couch in my boxers, munch Cheetos, and curse as the Cleveland Browns give the game away after cruising for three quarters. Probably won’t happen.

I remember during my seminary studies a professor said that once you hit forty, you aren’t likely to improve more than 10% in any specific area of life. Are you generally nerved up? Don’t count on mellowing out more than 10%. I don’t necessarily believe this number, but I keep it in mind as a reality check, along with the lyrics from Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer”:

Now the years are rolling by me

They are rockin’ evenly

I am older than I once was

And younger than I’ll be and that’s not unusual.

No it isn’t strange

After changes upon changes

We are more or less the same

After changes we are more or less the same.

That same morning I bought the Erie Times-News and wondered about my life balance, I ran across a cluster of yard sales after picking up flea medicine at the veterinarian’s office. I breathed and walked from house to house, picking up a couple treasures and reminding myself that I’ll always be more or less the same, but once in a while I can step outside of my normal and do something for no good reason. The purchases pictured below should prove that I had a little fun.

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I bought three books for a quarter each. I’m all about simplicity but laid down these two bits to say, “I call BS.” No, you can’t be happy no matter what. If you can’t say something wise to people sitting around a deathbed, then stifle yourself.

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This Dr. Ornish cover is guilty of a typo. It should read, “Eat More Lettuce, Weight Less”

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Note the artistic reflection of my dumb hand and iPhone taking a photo of this book. One of the many unsavory questions from the authors: “If you could be one article of clothing, what would you be, and who would you want to belong to?” I’m leaning toward Charles Kuralt’s suspenders. I want to see America, baby!

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If I could pick the Coleman household’s china, I’d get all different plates, bowls, etc. Kathy prefers a pattern. Okay, but I still bring home refugees. At this sale an old guy tried to sell me Ike and Mamie and LBJ plates–out of his trunk! No, thanks.

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A twenty-cent purchase for one reason and one reason only: Marvin Gaye: “The Christmas Song”!

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My favorite, $5.00. A coconut pirate whose skull cap lifts up so you can put in a beverage, stick a straw through a hole, and sip away. Bulky, but festive. He may be Wilson’s cousin.

A closing reality check: I did visit a few yard sales, but was thinking of “A Napper’s Companion” the whole time. So I had some task-oriented fun. Let’s call this progress.