Oniontown Pastoral: Sabbatical in the Writing Hut

Oniontown Pastoral: Sabbatical in the Writing Hut

On Friday, July 2, 1971, I was almost 10. Evonne Goolagong beat Margaret Court at Wimbledon, and Americans were humming Carole King’s “It’s Too Late,” baby. Richard Nixon and his associates were being tricky in all manner of things from D.C. to the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Inconspicuous 7-2-71 is neatly painted on the wall in front of me in a chalky white. A normal person would have sanded the board and hit it with polyurethane, but Mr. Tyler, the previous resident of the Coleman house in Erie, Pennsylvania, obviously had good reason for dating the wood rather than burning it. 

In any case, I’m far from normal. It’s not normal to make the walls and floor of your new writing hut out of hardwood scraps from an Amish lumberyard, leftover boards waiting above your garage rafters and tormented barn wood from Conneaut Lake, Pennsylvania. Ordinary isn’t turning a slab of Old Man Tyler’s wainscoting, roasted and frozen by turns over the decades, into a desk top.

Crazy is more like. What began as tame diversion has become zealous mission. Writing is mostly on hold. The summer and fall of 2020—this strangest of years—are a sabbatical during which my medium isn’t language, but boards that you might say are grimacing if they had faces.

The peak of my ceiling, made of boards shining through every grimace

Meanwhile, writing continues in my head. For one thing, I’ve been engaging in spiritual poetry, regarding my endeavor here as redemptive. This castoff lumber represents sisters and brothers who are rooted nowhere, who stick out like burls, whose misfortunes and trespasses are knots that make sawing iffy. 

In this shed of reject materials, there are no outcasts. In fact, when handled with care and beheld with generosity, the ash and cherry and maple and pine I bought for a song or employed in honor of thrift sing of hope. Resting my eyes on misfit and forgotten boards that have found welcome and good purpose makes me glad. 

The wall behind my desk

Another fortunate thing: As I’ve refrained from putting down words, the kinship between language and lumber has revealed itself to me. Just as Mr. Tyler couldn’t part with the odd cupboard door or 10’ planks of pine painted red, over the years I’ve been hoisting extraneous words and expressions to my lexicon’s rafters. 

Some words have simply fallen out of favor. Nobody spreads oleo on toast anymore, naps on a davenport or wears dungarees. School students don’t hang their wraps on a hook and leave their galoshes in the hallway. 

Other words are so seldom called for that they get musty. I’m a devoted gourmand, but rarely say dollop. An evening beverage is medicinal, but I never drink liqueur. Reading yesterday I tripped over payola, which has never crossed my lips, but it reminded me that my parents’ generation liked to say Shinola.

And again, plenty of words have received their melancholy gold watches. Today’s cars don’t have fender skirts like my folks’ 1967 Pontiac Grand Prix did, never mind rumble seats. Does anybody still pay the light bill, unlock a door with a skeleton key or keep a milk box by the front door? 

Tortured barn wood or heirlooms?

Ah, but who cares? Rummaging through heirlooms clacked out on a manual Smith Corona before computers existed is sweetness and light. My mom collected Green Stamps and sewed herself scooter skirts. My dad got his Schlitz from the icebox, called me Buster Brown and my nose a snot locker. My coaches grunted walk it off. No matter how busy my vocabulary becomes, I’ll never scrap such pieces, which form memory’s truss.

In a week or so, the carpenter’s obsession should be out of my system. The last task, a hardwood floor, is no gimme, though. The boards are as even as I can get them, a process that started in July’s steam and finished in October’s soaked chill.

The floor in waiting, in front of wife Kathy’s tomatoes and basil

I turned 59 on 10-9-2020, not too late, I hope, to enjoy some fruitful seasons of fulfilling this place’s mission. But about the floor: It will have to tolerate wet galoshes and spiritual poetry. Its boards can’t be like words brought out seldom, if ever. 

No, any visitors will stand with me on load bearers like love, compassion, tenderness, justice, honesty, fairness, forgiveness and truth. Kindness, grace and mercy, too. 

The Amish man’s scraps at pick up

If the friendly Amish man’s scraps fit together, the floor will join Julian of Norwich in assuring this writer, guests and the walls themselves, “In this hut at least, all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

Practicing Environmentally-Friendly Speech

Practicing Environmentally-Friendly Speech

(Note: Here’s a summer re-run for your enjoyment or consternation. I originally posted this in slightly different form in July of 2013, when not many folks knew about A Napper’s Companion.)

5:28 a.m.: Birds in the boulevard’s maples sing in the first breath of light. Hoping for a scratch on her temples, portly cat Shadow waits by Kathy’s hand. This is sweet pre-dawn, an hour made for shamatha—calm abiding. I woke up around 4:30, stepped on the bathroom scale, grimaced, and returned to bed for thirty minutes of propped-up prayer. Now I have until 7:00 to do as I please. One flat note on this start to my day off is a neighborhood skunk that responded to some threat. Ugh.

There’s always something to spray about: two pounds forward, one pound back; my right foot getting chilled in the breeze, now covered by the sheet; the moppy dog across the street complaining about newspaper delivery; skunk is as skunk does. But none of this noise overcomes the silence. Even a distant train’s groan and rattle treat the morning’s meditation kindly.

I want to be kind, too, kind and loving toward this day. For starters, I just set my iPhone alarm for wife Kathy, who has to get up at 6:50 and go give cancer patients chemotherapy. She doesn’t want to keep clicking her snooze button, and I don’t blame her.

Since an out-of-town visit with a friend got scuttled, I plan—in no particular order—to visit my friendly barber Pat, go for a four-miler at Presque Isle State Park, fold laundry, buy sardines in mustard sauce (yes, I do like them and recently read that they’re a nutritional marvel), and skim The Erie Times-News at Starbucks while sipping an iced coffee with a shot of espresso, all decaf, half and half, two Splendas.

The fish, jog beside Lake Erie, handkerchiefs, and the rest aren’t this Friday’s center of gravity, though. Neither are two ABC News articles slated for Starbucks: “New Limits on Arsenic in Apple Juice” (Huh? Shouldn’t the limit be . . . none?) and “The History of Urinating in Space” (pretty sure I’ll regret this one). With luck, loving silence will be the force pulling this day together.

With luck! I hope to devote two hours to prayer and napping, both sane and quiet acts. Lots of slow, deep breaths will be signs that my spirit is blinking its eyes. Breathing in and out makes wispy sounds—not noise pollution at all. Most important for the environment, I’ll try not to litter with my mouth.

Eco-friendliness is not only fantastic, but fashionable, and I’m on board. Like many families, the Colemans have a compost pile, recycle everything we can, conserve electricity, etc. My personal care for creation also includes the unconventional measure of shutting-up. Readers who know me personally are laughing: “Seriously, John?” Far from being quiet, I’m probably known as talkative and occasionally buffoonish. To be more specific, then, I want to practice environmentally-friendly speech: healing and productive rather than wounding and destructive.

I want to talk in life-giving ways, but my mindfulness slips constantly. If I could view a daily transcript of everything that comes out of my mouth, I’d be discouraged at how many words are either unkind or unnecessary. (Don’t worry. I’m not going to lose sleep over this. Humans talk a lot of crap, and I’m human.)

Still, I want to honor the life I’ve been granted by letting blessed silence—like that of pre-dawn shamatha—replace blather, gossip, snark, and holler. To center myself for the effort, I’ve poached some quotations from the Internet:

  • “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” (Blaise Pascal)
  • “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” (Franz Kafka)
  • “The deepest rivers make least din, the silent soule doth most abound in care.” (William Alexander)
  • “Words can make a deeper scar than silence can heal.” (Author unknown)
  • And, finally, a beloved quote from Anne Lamott, which you shouldn’t read if a mild swear-word will put you out: “Rule 1: When all else fails, follow instructions. And Rule 2: Don’t be an asshole” (from Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith).

Regarding that last quote: I figure shutting-up is one of the best ways not to break Rule 2. Now that I think about it, Lamott wrote in four words what I just sweated out in a couple hundred. That’s why she makes the big bucks. I’ll be satisfied with getting a little better each day at listening to her.

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Sign hanging over my dresser–$3.00 at an estate sale

 

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.”