Oniontown Pastoral #7: You Learn to Like It

Oniontown Pastoral #7: You Learn to Like It

“You learn to like it.” Grandma Coleman leaned hard into learn. She was talking about an instant mocha coffee powder, which she used at half strength. To me it tasted like stale water, but Gram, with her cherubic face, furrowed her brow and insisted. Raising children during the Great Depression taught her that she could decide what she wanted and needed. One teaspoon-full can taste better than two—but you have to work at it.

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Corn field: a great teacher if you work at listening

Gram’s wisdom echoes more with each passing year, mainly because what I want is often the opposite of what I need.

My latest lesson is, to tell the truth, plain silly. After fourteen years of ministry in Erie, I’ve settled nicely into the pulpit at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown. As I’ve said to parishioners and friends, “I’m having the time of my life. What a great place to be.” Since I showed up about six months ago, I’ve come to love the folks and the land—so much beauty.

But what’s embarrassing is this: although the scenery is soothing, I’m an impatient driver. The accelerator has a gravitational pull that I can’t resist. Come on, let’s go! On Route 19, District Road, and just about everywhere else, my brakes are getting a workout.

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No clue what purpose this old machine served, but its repose in a field is soothing to me

I’ve lived most of my life in medium to large cities where drivers don’t dillydally on turns. In these parts, abundant caution, reconnaissance and perhaps a little prayer precede pulling into each driveway or parking lot.

The other day at the Stone Arch, the St. John’s Seniors and I had a good laugh over the matter. “It’s as if,” I explained, “drivers are afraid a Tyrannosaurus rex is around each corner, waiting to chomp into the roof their car.”

“But there might be!” several said at once. “Or a cow or a dog or a . . . senior citizen!”

Thank God for their good humor. They already understand what I’m still trying to learn: slow down, what’s the rush?

I didn’t bother mentioning that on my way to the restaurant, a navy blue sedan in front of me inched fearfully into a lot that was so clear a Concorde could have come in for a hot landing. No tumbleweed, no crickets, just acres of glorious, barren blacktop.

“Why?” I cried out behind my closed windows. “What are you waiting for?”

Of course, I’m not proud of my frustration, but it does hold a truth: taking my time doesn’t come naturally. I’ve got to lean into liking second gear as much as fourth. My father would add his words to Gram’s: “Take it ease, disease,” he used to say, and “simmer down, bub.”

I have been making incremental progress. Last week an Amish guy sat stock still in his buggy in the middle of District Road as his horse swung his head this way and that, like a city dweller searching for a taxi. As I crawled past, my neighbor looked at me with a whimsical expression and waved, as if to say, “Thanks for not crashing into me.”

The exchange was pleasant. So, too, was my encounter with a wide piece of farm equipment—many circular blades—on my way to visit Ellen the other day. Both the farmer and I hugged our thin berms, and as we passed his eyes told me, “Yeah, we’re good. We’ve got this.”

I’ll simmer down eventually. My folks and the rolling fields are great teachers. Now I need to be patient with myself.

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A Dream Yields, A Blessing Takes Hold

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Field near Prospect, Pennsylvania: a dream view

Solitude, unmasked stars and planets, the shocking cold before dawn, generous draughts of silence: decades ago I wanted this world. Someday, for sure, I would own a house in the sticks with some acres. But—one season following another—age can plow old dreams under, let longing lay fallow, and call a soul to entertain wishes again at the right time or to give them up all together.

The catch is, living more than a holler away from the nearest neighbor is perfect for me. I should want to wind up in the country. I’ve had plenty of great neighbors, some of them like family, but population-density can be a nuisance, right? One former neighbor always fired up her leaf blower whenever I lay down for a nap. It sounded like Carol Channing trying to clear her sinuses. Another neighbor enhanced home security with a nuclear front-yard lamp—impossibly bright. In a step of first-string, All American effrontery, he installed a black shield on the panel facing his house. Why sear every retina on the boulevard, after all? One guy tried to save us by covering the light with a sombrero, only to find it returned to his stoop the next morning.

But such annoyances never drove me from Erie, Pennsylvania, with its 99,542 residents. Columbus and Baltimore, two real cities I’ve called home, were fantastic. So why the persistent sense that I should hear a creek running outside my window? I’ve been thinking in recent years that my dream of rural living was not, in fact, stirred by desire, but by obligation. As a writer who prays a lot, I should want to live a couple hours to the east in Potter County, where deer outnumber humans. Why wouldn’t I want the Coleman home to breathe like the hermitages of my many spiritual retreats in the woods?

This question has occupied me ever since I accepted a call to serve a rural congregation a couple of months ago. The hour’s drive from Erie, where I continue to live, to St. John’s Lutheran Church outside Greenville, Pennsylvania, provides time to sort things out. I listen to tenor arias or fingerstyle guitar or nothing, watch the gray land roll toward the horizon, and let my mind do anything but worry—its default mode.

Wouldn’t the horses I pass on Route 19 be a better routine for my eyes than the strip mall before me at the moment? Shouldn’t I want to move close to the Amish, whose black buggies on District Road tell me to slow down?

I don’t know where “Don’t should on yourself” came from, but the earthy advice points my way. Maybe my closest neighbors should be black bears, but my fifty-four-year-old joys and aches rest easy in a neighborhood, within a stone’s throw of a lady who uses electricity to herd leaves and a better-safe-than-sorry man whose light insults the stars. Being a few minutes away from a ripe avocado, a bottle of cheap red wine, and coffee in a clean, well-lighted place fits me.

Truth: As the days flow by, my old dream yields to a small house in Erie, where I regularly smack my head on the basement ductwork. Less than half the size of the house Kathy and I raised Elena and Micah in, this blue-collar hermitage a mile from my high school feels just right. I don’t want to be anywhere else.

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Out the Pastor’s Study window at St. John’s

But the story doesn’t end here. Even as Parkway Drive becomes home, a blessing takes hold when I head south to St. John’s. It fills me as I wonder why some horses wear blankets and others don’t. It abides with me as I work in the pastor’s study, try to offer the folks a good word on Sunday morning, and eat chicken pie with the seniors at the Stone Arch Restaurant: The land and its stewards reach out and pull me in, as if to rest against the bosom of the Lord.

Winter is being coy with us in northwestern Pennsylvania, but my view of the blonde corn stubble out my study window calms my heart. And the parishioners I’ve gotten to know wear their goodness without pretense.

The other day Parish Secretary Jodi got a call reporting that we have roof leaks dripping into the church lounge. She hadn’t finished passing along the news when Anne and Dave’s car pulled up in the parking lot. They had also received word and were coming to check things out.

The problem and temporary fix were quickly settled, but in a fifteen-minute crevice of the morning, Dave and I talked. More importantly, I listened. Amazing what you can learn in a quarter of an hour.

Dave is a retired veterinarian who restricted his practice to cows. He still has twenty of them, three of which are calving. You can take the veterinarian out of the cattle, but apparently you can’t take the cattle out of the veterinarian. I mention this detail because Dave had been overseeing developments before showing up at church and had work clothes on: think dusty Carhartt-type coat and a long-punished hat with earflaps aspiring to be wings. Anne tried unsuccessfully to smooth those flaps, but Dave said, “I like it this way.”

Confession #1: I want to be like this guy. If his hat looks poised for flight, so what. It feels right on his head. And, really, isn’t that what counts when you’re making sure cows get off to a good start in life?

Confession #2: It took me a few seconds to open up my ears. How long have I known that wisdom isn’t restricted to the monk’s cell or the desert hermit’s cave or the scholar’s podium? Riches for mind and soul can also germinate under a quirky lid. Fortunately, I forget easily, but remember with light speed.

Confession #3: The instructions I gave myself wouldn’t suit a sermon, so I’ll give the G (all ages admitted) version: “Listen up, pal,” I thought, “this man has something to teach you.” I caught two lessons in five minutes, not a bad return on the time investment.

Lesson #1: Dave said, “Everything is born to die.” I recalled at once some years ago asking farmer and author Joel Salatin about vegetarianism, and his response was similar. Dave brought me back again to the possibility that death’s inevitability is less important than how it’s attended. He described slaughterhouses he had visited where the cows walked a curved chute toward a pitch-black elevator. Cows will hug an outside wall following a curve—natural to them, I guess. And when they emerge from the darkness, their end comes immediately. No fear or trauma, no months of anxiety about diagnoses and treatments and the dying of the light.

Everything is born to die: not a callous statement or lazy rationalization, but a confession. Salatin pointed out to me the arrogant assumption that the death of a pig is necessarily more noteworthy than the cooking of a carrot. Sounds silly until you understand that the observation lies far down the anthropocentric path. Salatin didn’t use that fancy word, but that’s what he meant. Parishioner Dave can speak for himself, but I bet he knows more about life and death than I do. His days involve walking land I only visit and touching animals I know from a distance. Best to learn from him with an open, humble spirit.

Lesson #2: Dave cares about those twenty cows. His words, voice and manner had a tenderness about them. An animal’s suffering or an injury to the land would pain him. He doesn’t emote as I do, but I know love when I see it—not the love shown in a photograph of an infant in a boot, but the love visible in a retired veterinarian keeping vigil to be sure a calf gets on its feet. The calf will grow and be sold someday, but it’s loved no less for that.

I gathered all this from a man wearing a hat with wings and speaking softly. Acreage in counties close to St. John’s wouldn’t suit me, but traveling there a few times a week is healing my spirit in ways I’m only beginning to understand. And I didn’t count on being edified by folks like Dave and Anne, who would read this and probably tell me to quit fussing.

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Rooftops and bare trees on Parkway Drive

But I’m going to fuss. Tonight I’ll fall asleep next to beloved Kathy in a blue-collar hermitage. And tomorrow morning I’ll drive an hour to tend my flock in a place where you can see the stars.

Right now, across Parkway Drive, a neighbor puts away fake garland. Kathy just lay down on the couch and mentioned that from her angle, all you can see is rooftops and bare trees.

I thought, “You could almost be in the country.”

The Wisdom of Fetch

The Coleman family’s black Lab-terrier mix Watson is getting to be more of a jalopy every day. It’s hard to believe he showed up at our house twelve years ago in the arms of a neighbor and slept peacefully and without piddles between wife Kathy and me his first night with us. Now he has fatty tumors everywhere (one the size of a Florida orange morphing into Nebraska on his flank), a gnarly-pink-jelly-beanish growth on his gums, arthritic shoulders and hips, two blown ACLs, and a metal rod in one leg.

He may also have hearing loss. He has never been tested, but he talks as though we can’t hear him. A noise outside or anybody’s arrival warrants hoops and hollers ascending in pitch and volume. His request for Senior Milk Bones is a single, soul-piercing bark. Most of the colorful language in the house is in response to Watson’s loud barking.

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Watson is convinced that every sound in and out of the house is one of this guy’s cousins. (Credit: John Coleman, taken at L. L. Bean’s big store in Maine)

I ought to be more disciplined about giving the old boy treats, for three reasons: 1.) More treats lead only to more barking. 2.) He is gaining weight. And 3.) Senior Milk Bones give him gas, which he most often shares during our afternoon nap.

We have a ritual. Watson hobbles after me to the bedroom, his nails dragging across the wooden part of the steps. I set my alarm for one hour in the future, put my head on the pillow, and he plops on the floor. After five or ten minutes, he walks around to the other side of the bed and stands there as if to say, “This is going to hurt.”

I say, “Come on up, Watty. Get your spot.” Kathy and I love him so much we removed the bed frame to make it easier for him to get up. “Come on,” I usually have to nudge. “You can do it.”

He hops up, presses his nose against mine, and looks me in the eye—no kidding.

I scratch his jowls, receive a lick on my snout, and tell him, “Okay, buddy, it’s nap time. Lie down.”

He spins twice or thrice and lands in a heap, usually with his bum inches from my face. Twice a week, I’d say, the fun begins right here. I’m not sure what it was about yesterday’s treat allotment, but that mutt stung my nostrils.

For fifteen minutes afterwards, Watson’s flatus molecules clung to my cilia. His oblivion spoke like film’s Rain Man to his brother in the phone booth: “I don’t mind it.”

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An old dog thing: a two-inch tuft of gray hair sprouting from Watson’s chest–a sequoia among saplings.

 

This coming Saturday morning, Kathy and I are taking our pal to Union City, Pennsylvania, thirty minutes from Erie. We hear a veterinarian there has unorthodox methods that restore broken-down pups. All Watty’s barks, infirmities, and air bagels aside, his death will knock the wind out of us. He is unconditional love in a loud, lumpy, smelly package.

A couple months ago Kathy and I closed on a house less than half the size of our current place. We want to hose the material excess and crud from our lives, but a benefit to having everything on one floor is that our gimp won’t have to climb stairs. We’ll move soon, but I looked at Watson the other day and thought, “Oh, buddy, I hope you get to spend some good time with us there.” You never know when.

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A small house will be home with beautiful Kathy, son Micah, the cats, and monarchs. Please let Watson enjoy it, too.

I’ve always said that Watson is as dumb as a turnip, but as I make my way toward needing senior biscuits, I’m learning that intelligence isn’t all about brain cells. In fact, I would argue that wisdom generally has to overcome gray matter. My dog taught me this a couple days ago. Here’s the chronology:

  • I got home from work, put down my satchel, slung my coat over a dining room chair, held a couple of Senior Milk Bones out to Watson, and put little kitty treats on the counter for Shadow Cat and Baby Crash, who were trying to hypnotize me with their stare.
  • I made a quick visit to the bathroom. As is his custom, Watson heard the flush and remembered where the coldest, most refreshing water bowl in the house was. Ugh.
  • I sat down in the living room for twenty minutes of prayer-meditation. My Zen bell had just sounded when I heard Watson labor upstairs. A few seconds later he thumped back down. My eyes were closed, but I could feel his doggy presence beside me.
  • He had retrieved his biscuit ball, a heavy rubber toy with holes on each end that you stuff broken bits of Milk Bones into to occupy your dog. For once he didn’t care about treats. He wanted to play fetch.

I’m not a fetch kind of guy. I enjoy a good laugh; beyond this I’m not much fun. Occasionally I’ve explained this to Watson: “Now look, you know I don’t play. I cuddle. Your mother plays, right?”

Two brown eyes can teach a lot, even if there’s not much between them. “Hey, Dad,” my dog said, “what’s your life worth if you can’t spare enough time to throw a ball ten times? You know that’s as much as I can handle these days.” Seriously, that moment with Watson, his eyes pup-clear and that purple toy sticking out of his dopey mouth, goes into my spirit’s photo album. My brain cells are always crowding out wisdom. My old friend clarified a lot for me.

Pray or play? A whisper came from inside: “Why not both, busy, neurotic, fragile man?”

“Okay,” I said and sat at the end of the dining room table. I threw the ball all the way to the kitchen counter, fifteen feet, if that—field enough for a twelve-year-old. He rumbled to fetch it and limped back. On maybe the fourth toss, he turned the wrong way and walloped his head against the refrigerator. After recalibrating, he got the ball and sat down beside me as if to say, “What the hey? What just happened?” Thankfully, his head is mostly bone.

But he was right. After a few more trips, he was done.

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Watson after fetch, catching his breath and getting his bearings

Replaying fetch in my head right now, I think, “Watson, who will remind to play when you’re gone? Who will look at me in love and help me say to myself, ‘John, stop living in compartments. Always pray. Always play’”? Maybe he’ll stick around long enough to teach me a few more times.

This morning Kathy got up before I did, so Watson took her place. For once getting out of bed wasn’t a chore, but I stayed a couple of minutes. I rested my face on his side and talked to him: “You know I love you, right? You know you’re a good boy? You know I love you?”

He stretched his head back, put his cheek against mine, and snorted—just the answer I was hoping for.