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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American Lament

American Lament

Dear Friends,

I just posted an essay called “American Lament” on my buzzkill of a second blog, Matters of Conscience. This primary blog, A Napper’s Companion, will probably be quiet a little longer–until I can write about beauty again.

I alert my Nappers to this lament because I know some of you will be interested. But I’m not encouraging or asking anybody to read. This was something I felt compelled to write.

Peace and love,

John

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Grandson Cole

I Want to Be “Decisive” When I Grow Up

I guess decisive is the word. Maybe it’s convinced. Or certain. But since I’m fifty-something, the question of what I’ll be when I grow up is academic.

I am what I am, which is discerning. Discernment’s pace toward decisions is stately. It’s focused, but patient. That’s me. I’m comfortable with interesting and hmm. No need to stampede toward conclusions.

Practically speaking, I’m how rich and what poor. I know, for example, how to sit with people and listen, but am nearly clueless when it comes to what they should do. I can figure out how to string sentences together, but readers these days pay to be told what to do, and I suck at that. After “secure that smartphone and pay attention to your kid, wife, husband, and ferret Rafael,” my prescriptions run out.

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Raphael (Credit: Wikipedia)

My life-management skills are sketchy. Walking with you? That I can do. Giving you a plan or grid or diet? Don’t look at me. This is a suspect orientation for a Lutheran pastor and writer. Men who get paid to wag their chins on Sunday mornings and volunteer their personal essays for Internet consumption should clarify more often than mystify.

Here’s a brief study in what I’m bleating about. If I were a decisive grown up, you would be reading a compelling case for one of the characters currently plotting to be President of the United States of America. What a rush it would be to write with the conviction of, say, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, who can tell you exactly whom to vote for and why.

I wish. Like hundreds of thoughtful citizens, I’ve been grazing in the unkempt fields of campaign coverage and punditry. Two states into the meal, I’ve strayed into gray pastures, nauseous with uncertainty. What I’ve got to say may feel good, but mostly as a purgative.

  • Does the news media manufacture—or at least feed—nerved up realities? Why the breathless, urgent reactions to voting in two Wonder Bread states—no insult intended (Iowa: 92.1% white; New Hampshire: 94% white)? Talk about racism! The suggestion that any candidate is already washed up comes from a malnourished perspective. Would Harry Carry have declared the game over if the Cubs gave up a couple of runs in the first inning? Do cancer patients call off chemotherapy when hair starts to fall out? Come on.
  • What is the most important consideration in voting for President of the United States? Platform? Experience? Promises? Charisma? The older I get, the more I care about intelligence and integrity. Maybe this concern grows out of my cynical hunch that some candidates don’t believe in much of anything—a whoredom that trumps all other prostitutions. I remember decades ago elders saying that they would vote for somebody from the other party; they rooted for the best person for the job. The sentiment is worth revisiting. How much stock should we place in a candidate’s humanity? You can study up on economics. But can you acquire character?
  • Is a revolution really the best corrective to our current governmental dysfunction? I acknowledge the appeal of a righteous battle, the blood rush and passion, the idealism and purity, the triumph of justice and common sense. There’s no shortage of revolts being proposed as we all pant for the results in South Carolina and Nevada. Bernie Sanders has employed the r-word itself. Other candidates vary the diction but stump in the same genre. Although I’m not without sympathy for Sanders’ uprising and even saw merit in Ron Paul’s long-shot crusade, revolutions have drawbacks. The Tea Party has been throwing everything not bolted down into the Potomac for a few years now, which has done nothing but dam up the government. How likely is it, then, that another revolution would yield better results? Nothing beats the language of war for whipping voters into a bloody foam, but if brawling remains our go-to legislative strategy, we’ll have to name Mathew Brady our Capital Hill Photographer. And 2.) losers in a revolution—and there can’t not be losers—go home pissed off and start plotting their revenge.

I could happily go on, speculating about the place of objective truth (what little there is) and manners in politics, but who really wants to follow me further into what started as a dreary example of one Lutheran pastor’s turn of mind?

The point, for anybody still awake, is me—by which I mean, maybe you, too. I’ll put myself in your shoes. Let’s see if I’m warm.

  • Every day is a litany of fast judgments and flawless answers. Television knows the best seat for surviving a plane crash and how to weave to escape a shooter. Family-friends-whoever cure timeless worldly ills with one flippant sentence. The lovely can transform the normal for three easy payments. You say, “I wish I were so sure.” Or “How can anybody be so impossibly full of crap?”
  • You’re overwhelmed, weary with information, each expert shaking you by the lapels. Even as you purchase another plan, your own wisdom speaks: “Tend first to your troubled heart, beloved.” “Hush up,” you respond, for the hundredth time, and swipe your credit card.
  • Part of you hangs onto the belief that you’ll feel settled eventually, at peace and complete. You’ll be grown up, a finished human being.
  • Then, sweet then: questions and doubts will fall silent. You won’t be vulnerable anymore. You won’t have to be humble either, but you will.
  • Long before the polls open, your choice will be set.

If your shoes don’t fit me, please forgive my presumption. But if they do, I’m guessing you have balm for humanity in your soul. If only somebody would listen, you would say, “Let’s pay attention to how we treat each other. Then what we should do to fix the world would be clear.”

As for me, I’m not decisive enough to speak up–afraid of sounding frivilous. Until I grow up, I’ll just say that I’m discerning.

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.”

Report from California

Off and on over the years, I’ve thought travel writing would be a great gig: get expenses covered, see what’s on everybody’s bucket list, flirt with unfamiliar cuisine, generally live it up, and report on the whole experience.

As I sip an iced Americano at Starbucks, the truth is finally setting in that I wouldn’t make a good travel writer. First, I dislike flying. Xanax keeps my anxiety almost tolerable, but the only time I’m at ease on a plane is when I’m picking up my bags to disembark.

Second, adventure isn’t really my thing. Ah, to be a man’s man, to dig white-water rafting and wear t-shirts saying something like, “I kicked the OMG Rapids in the ass!” To own sinewy, tan, muscular arms sticking out from short sleeves, my whole image punctuated by a forearm tattoo that roars, “Testosterone!” Alas. Enjoying the burble of my immersion blender in an Alfredo sauce while kibitzing with friends, lifting a bit of wine, that’s my speed.

And third, the sites that stir this homebody’s heart don’t have much to do with popular vistas. For the most part, the views that make me say “ooh, ahh, wow” don’t depend on geography. The point: what follows is the least useful travel essay ever.

Wife Kathy and I are bunking at generous friends Karl and Jennifer’s place in Citrus Heights, a suburb of Sacramento. Their daughter Claire, coming up on three, is the blessed home’s center of gravity. After a couple of days at their place, we left for four days in San Francisco, a look at the ocean, a stroll through the redwoods, and now have returned to our friends’ base camp. Tomorrow we’ll fly home to Erie, Pennsylvania. This trip, funded mostly by a travel voucher we won at a fundraising Vegas night, has been more than worth our time and outlay of cash.

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I asked this guy at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf if I could take his picture. He nodded at a sign to his right indicating he just got married and was charging $2. I felt both suckered and obliged.

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One of the senior sea lions at Fisherman’s Wharf. They fill the floating docks by the dozens, nap packed in cheek-to-jowl, crawl all over each other for no apparent reason, and constantly snort, bark, bare their teeth, and posture. Kathy stared at them for forty-five minutes. Five was enough for me.

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What’s a tour of San Francisco without paying homage to the Summer of Love? Strolling the streets, Kathy and I probably inhaled a joint just in second-hand smoke.

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Kathy ready to bike the Golden Gate Bridge.

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Redwoods at Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve.

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Kathy in the hollow of a redwood.

No, we didn’t ride a trolley car or catch the ferry to Alcatraz, but we took in our fill of destinations. I have to confess, though, that none of them grabbed me by the lapels as much as several inconspicuous moments did–nonchalant and passing as a breeze.

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Light art on the ceiling of our room at the La Rose Hotel in Santa Rosa.

Moment: After a long last day in San Francisco, Kathy and I landed at a hotel in Santa Rosa. We had biked the Golden Gate Bridge and walked the city’s famous hills, so we were glad to flop for a while. As I dozed, Kathy talked to our son Micah, who was back home tending dog, cats, and a chrysalis nearly ready to unfold and make for Mexico. What Kathy said was obvious, but I could hear only Micah’s voice, not his words. But that was enough. Surrounded by West Coast walls, I took in a distinctive sound of home: my boy’s enthusiasm in telling a story, some humor or absurdity of his day. I wasn’t sad, but filled with gratitude that I look forward to being home, to seeing all of our beloved faces in one space.

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Claire

Moment: Karl and Jennifer took us horseback riding near Lake Tahoe, followed by chili and a walk around town and down by the water. When we returned to Citrus Heights, I was fit for red Zinfandel, a couch, and nothing else. But young Claire was ten kinds of psyched to have us back–spinning, sprinting, squealing psyched. Through my fog of fatigue I heard Kathy say, “Do you want to read, Claire?” I couldn’t muster the energy to burp, but my wife was game. In the middle of one book, Claire looked at Kathy with a grateful smile, full of peace and wonder. The big bridge is cool, but that kid’s face, shining and sacred, is eternal.

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Far from home and yet, suddenly, right at home.

Moment: Kathy made it clear weeks ago that come what may on this vacation, she was going to put her feet in the Pacific. We wove along Route 1, found steps to the beach, and headed for the water. Cold. She was excited and giggly. Our stop was no more than fifteen minutes. My blessing came when I was facing away from the ocean with my eyes closed–kiss of the long-married, ahh of the soul’s landscape.

Moment: Anybody who loves me knows that I’m often struggling, even when there’s no particular stressor at hand. Joyful as recent days have been, waves of worry and sadness have also rolled over me. Always something, I guess. In response to particularly rough water yesterday, I took in a long draught of prayer and meditation, which I finished off with a contemplative walk in Karl and Jennifer’s backyard. For twenty minutes I looked closely and stopped often: lemon trees, herb garden, ripening tomatoes, trumpet vine, flowers with names I don’t know. Breathing, breathing. The place in my chest that fills up when I kiss Kathy’s graying hair is also a bilge for angst.

But the walk was healing, the air, the sage and oregano scent on my fingers. As I stood still behind a circle of flowers, a hummingbird hovered at my feet, inches away. It sipped nectar, then flew off to a pine branch. “You can come back,” I said. Apparently, I’m not a bird whisperer, but one visit, so kind and close, was plenty.

A friendly hummingbird, a kiss, a sweet young face: not content that makes readers restless for new journeys. With middle-age stretching out in front of me, my modest travels aren’t about a blood rush or a stunning expanse. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been on the lookout for peace. Always peace. The peace that passes all understanding.

All other attractions are incidental. For good or ill, I’m always moving toward spiritual destinations.

An Anniversary Letter to My Wife

Dear Kathy,

Here we go again: Time to buy another used car.

Life is strange and, as we figure out how to celebrate the thirty-two years that have been our wedded casserole, so different from what I imagined it would be.

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121,000 miles and a blown clutch. Time to say goodbye.

I never thought that when we settled into our fifties, our vehicles would still be shitting the bed. We’ve never prayed, “Oh, Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?” Come to think of it, one of our neighbors does drive Porsches, but none of that’s for us. It would be nice, though, to own cars that don’t tremble and wheeze.

Tomorrow I’ll check out a bulbous orange Chevy priced at $5000, and, who knows, maybe we’ll get a couple of worry-free years out of it. Ah hell, it’s just that at this point in our lives, we shouldn’t be sweating bills every Saturday morning at the dining room table and lamenting a pile of dumb debt.

And, of course, there’s my old writing dream. I haven’t given up hope, but the picture has gotten more complicated. Could it be that what I need to say matters only to a small tribe? I’m an authority on precisely nothing except noticing the world and examining my own deepening naval. But the lurking question is, “Am I one of those writers who’s good, but not that good?”

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231,000 miles, tattered but holding up. The clock is ticking on this one, aye, Kath?

Basta! Looking out across decades of slipping transmissions and impulsive decisions and usurious interest and bulging files of sentences is like digging a ditch in mud, climbing in, and having a seat.

The good news is, we bought Schwinns. The other night when we went for a ride, I realized that it’s possible to be frustrated with you and treasure you in the same instant, to say, “You are such a pain in my ass” and “I couldn’t possibly love you more” in a single utterance.

You know that I like to take walks and rides the same way I shop for shoes. I’ve got a mission: Go to shoes. Try on a pair. Purchase. Return home.

Whether you know it or not, you like to take walks and rides the same way you shop for shoes. Go to shoes. Stop on the way at a bargain outlet, check out area rugs, and leave with cookie sprinkles and Swiffer accessories. Arrive at shoes, frown, and go to other shoes. Stop on the way at a fabric remnant store for no other reason than sewing’s gravitational pull. Arrive at other shoes. Ooh. Ahh. But not in your size, ma’am. And so on.

Bottom line: I’m focused on the destination. You’ve got your eyes peeled for Yeti and milkweed. I stick to the chosen route. You veer onto dirt roads and cul-de-sacs.

My dear, how is it that we’re still together?

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Look familiar? One of your favorite detours close to home.

On our bike ride, you took every available detour to get as close as possible to the lake, to receive whatever the waves and light might offer you. Close to home, when we stopped at a cliff for you to have a hundredth look at the water, I watched you—the new helmet making your head look like a shiny white mushroom, your lovely beak pointed north.

Swallowing a grr, I knew that if a Schwinn could fly, you would peddle to a great height, then bank and dive, pulling up just before a splashdown. Your eyes would be wide, and from shore I could hear you laugh.

Nothing has turned out for us like I figured. Used cars and thin wallets. My God, what our kids went through! What we witnessed and endured. And years of paragraphs stacked up like aging split wood in the garage.

But then, I never knew Elena and Micah and Matt would eventually swing open the gate to my weathered soul and come in and go out and find pasture. Such gladness.

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Joy catches in my throat. Our Cole!

Most of all, who could have predicted that a man who doesn’t get misty about babies would be so undone by a grandson?

The truth: If our possessions burned, I could warm my hands by the flames with not much regret as long as my own small tribe was whole and nearby.

Our tribe, Kathy, those we adore in a broken down, breathtaking world, and each other. That’s what matters.

That and what I’m going to tell you now, what I said inside as you enjoyed the view from the cliff: “Damn it, can we go home already?” and “Save me, my love. Don’t give up on me. Teach me to fly.”

Happy anniversary! Love,

John

Wanting to Write about the Martyrs of Charleston

Dear Napper’s Companions,

Toward the end of May, kind and thoughtful Mary sent me an email that has stayed with me. I had posted a newspaper column I wrote over a decade ago about the prospect of the United States bombing Iraq. Here’s most of Mary’s response:

I came home from my job . . . here in Asheville where you and I briefly met and realized that I have not read A Napper’s Companion in a while. It was a treat to read your posts all at once in the silence of my living room while my husband flipped through The Mountain Express and my Pug snored contentedly.

I enjoyed all of them except the political one, but it got me thinking. I think the political system is broken, because we are. I think we should all step back and let go of our identifying with political parties so strongly and begin to really, actually listen to each other. Perhaps more healing could take place. Hmm. More for me to think about and try to do.

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The first words of Benedict’s Rule for monastic life: “Listen to the ear of your heart.” (Credit: Wikipedia)

First, Mary’s setting for reading is enchanting. Would that we all could relax in living rooms with a spouse honoring the silence and a dog snoring to provide the necessary punctuation.

But “I enjoyed all of them except . . .” made me pull up short. A baseball player who bats .300 has reason to celebrate. Thin-skinned writers, on the other hand, get moody over a .900 average. A single clunker can make us sulk and whine, “Aw, to bloody hell with the whole writing thing!”

In fact, I don’t bruise so easily. My stay at the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars thirty years ago gave me callouses, as did the fat file of rejection letters I’ve received from hundreds of magazines and book publishers. Mary’s except stung for an instant—a flu shot, a plucked eyebrow. The pinch was immediately followed by gratitude.

I wrote back, “I couldn’t agree with you more. I’m really grateful for your note because you’ve taught me something important.” Her lesson takes some explaining.

A week ago I savored the free Wi-Fi at a Panera Bread in Lyndora, Pennsylvania, and started a report about my week with kids and pastors at church camp. (You’ll get to read that soon enough if you want to.) Unfortunately, the joys of hanging out with fresh-faced teenagers and clergy friends intersected with receiving news of the nine martyrs of Charleston, South Carolina.

As I sipped mango iced tea and sighed, my intended report buckled under Dylann Roof’s scowl. Rather than staying in the woods of Camp Lutherlyn, I followed the thruway to Emanuel A.M.E. Church. Soon I was dissecting the latest installment in our national shame, and the kiddos and Martin Luther’s Small Catechism were hundreds of miles behind me.

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I should have stayed at camp, where a butterfly rested on my sneaker.

I had a morning after experience when reviewing what I had written: “What did I do?” Even as I was droning on about a racist, terrorist attack, Mary’s except cautioned me. I should have known. Sampling around 1500 words, I felt like a cook who had spent hours on a dish that turned out bland. Eh!

The fact is, writers need to be open to learning their gifts and limitations. At fifty-three I would have hoped to be confident in my wheelhouse, but since most days I squeeze in at most an hour at the writing table, awareness has been delayed.

Ah well, as Sherlock Holmes said, “It is better to learn wisdom late than never to learn it at all.” Did you know that both William Shatner and Sebastian Cabot covered Bob Dylan? “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It Ain’t Me, Babe” respectively, and others, too. The results, spoken rather than sung, were embarrassing and have been justly consigned to, well, camp. Captain Kirk seems to have embraced his inner pink flamingo. I don’t know about Mr. French.

There’s nothing much sadder than writers and artists who are under the impression that their stuff screams when, in fact, it’s eh or worse, ridiculous. (Lack of self-awareness is hardly sadness at all, of course, compared to getting murdered in a Bible study.)

I’ve written a fair amount about societal cancers and governmental rancor and absurdity because of the effort’s therapeutic purging. But in sharing such work, I may sound like a baritone trying to tackle “Nessun Dorma.” Some measures work, but the entirety doesn’t sing.

The point: Mary’s except, so gently rendered, invited me to recognize my voice, which has more to do with singing about my wife, children, grandson, and dog–close to the end, I’m afraid–than with spelling out what we humans can do to keep our species from imploding. More to do with celebration and lamentation than explanation. I enjoy having my say, but folks don’t stop by A Napper’s Companion to pick up ways to save the world.

I imagine if you’ve hung around here for long, you’re like Mary from Asheville, reclined in a quiet room with a sleeping Pug. You’re looking for a few minutes of hope, a port of joy or comfort in all kinds of weather, or a love letter.

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Like you, friend, I don’t have much other than questions? (Credit: Wikipedia)

Or maybe a song and a prayer, which are good places to end. As I hold our family members who welcomed in a young man concealing bullets and rage, I’ve got no answers, no fix. But I do have a song, not from church camp, but verses from an old hymn:

From ev’ry ailment flesh endures

our bodies clamor to be freed;

yet in our hearts we would confess

that wholeness is our deepest need.

In conflicts that destroy our health

we recognize the world’s disease;

our common life declares our ills.

Is there no cure, O Christ, for these?

And I have a prayer:

Let there be a cure, Eternal Love,

and lead us to it.

A song and a prayer aren’t much, I know, but they’re all I’ve got.

Peace and love,

John

In Defense of the M.F.A., M.A., or Whatever

Only at the end of Cecilia Capuzzi Simon’s New York Times essay “Why Writers Love to Hate the M.F.A.” did the truth hit me. 2015 marks the thirtieth anniversary of my M.A. from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. The program was one year long at that time, and I spent one semester studying under John Barth and the other under Doris Grumbach. I also finessed my way into Elizabeth Spires’ undergraduate poetry workshop.

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A twenty-three-year-old punk types out a draft at his desk in Baltimore.

I held up the rear of the mid-pack, turning out short stories and poems that were neither embarrassing nor accomplished. Actually, I was probably of most value as a critic, giving every manuscript an energetic round of copy editing and a lengthy summary comment. The greatest compliment I received at Hopkins came from one classmate who has gone on to nonfiction notoriety: “I always pay attention to your comments.”

But I was out of my league, and the nine months wife Kathy and I spent in Baltimore was a mostly unmerited privilege. My fellow fictionists came from Harvard, Yale, Sarah Lawrence, and so on. One already had his Ph.D., and another received a perfect score on the verbal section of Graduate Record Exam. One who has since gone on to glory was married to the actress who played Quincy’s (Jack Klugman) wife on television. One fought in Vietnam. So we’re talking smart, interesting people. And the alumni are distinguished: Frederick Barthelme, Louise Erdrich, Martha Grimes, Molly Peacock, John Barth himself, et. al.

I graduated from Penn State-Erie and scored in the 26th percentile on the GRE literature section. How the hell did I sneak in? I perched on the waiting list for some weeks, so at least a few applicants said “no, thanks” before my acceptance letter landed.

I appreciate the reservations some writers and scholars have about M.F.A.s and M.A.s. Capuzzi Simon points out the objections that tuition is steep and teaching opportunities—for those who want to pay the bills that way—are scarce compared to the number of graduates. And even in the mid 1980s harrumphs circulated about the gush of monochromatic work coming from apprentice writers who nurtured voice and vision in at best a comfortable terrarium and at worst a snarky thunderdome.

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The Coleman residence for a few seasons–on North Charles Street in Baltimore

My experience from September 1984 through May 1985 was in equal measure stressful and magnificent. The former was my fault. My lungs got punished by Vantage 100s, and I lost thirty pounds in my first two months. A little Zoloft would have helped. As I settled in, though, Kathy and I found C. C. Carry Out egg rolls one block away and the Graduate Club in the basement of our apartment building, an old hotel probably grand in its day. On Hump Night, dime Rolling Rock ponies washed down chicken fingers. Some weight returned. Gradually I understood my place and relaxed enough to avoid a nervous breakdown.

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John Barth (Credit: Bettmann/Corbis)

And I learned. Jack Barth—yes, we called him Jack—was more skillful and generous than I can say. He was much concerned with story-telling technique. If you’re going to tell stories, you ought to know what’s under the hood, as it were. When your story was up for the workshop, you met with Jack for thirty minutes in the days beforehand for a private conference. I’ve said many times that my hour and a half with Jack Barth was worth the tuition. How astute he was, reading my young work and discerning what I most needed to hear at that moment to grow and develop—and not a hint of annoyance at my ignorance.

Doris Grumbach established a rule during her first appearance at the helm: criticize what you will, but the subject matter of the story or chapter is off limits. I appreciated this, since my stuff was about the mundane lives of blue-collar sorts from the rust belt. It was all I had. In her teaching, she emphasized the importance of line-by-line attention to our prose. In one session we compared an original Raymond Carver short story with a revision that appeared in a later collection. The late minimalist made but a handful of minor changes, and we dissected each one. The point: if you’re going to be serious about writing, every pen stroke matters, so pay attention. Doris also invited the fiction workshop to her row house on Capital Hill and let us have a look at her carriage house study. For years thereafter I longed for such a sprawling, dignified space for my desk.

When Kathy and I drove back north to Erie, Pennsylvania, with my M.A. in hand, we moved into an attic apartment in a sketchy part of town. I set up shop in a 4’ x 4’ turret and, oddly, turned out poems. I’ve now written dozens of them, as well as scores of essays and a couple of books about spirituality and religion and one memoir—but never another short story. The poetry I generated for Beth Spires’ workshops was eh, and she did me the great favor of treating my work with respect and care without ever giving me reason to dream big.

Still, verse took hold of me. Over the next five years I got my work into a handful of solid literary magazines and bet I would have eventually published a collection. In the late 1980s I squeezed in the nervous breakdown I put off in Baltimore.

Though I haven’t completed a poem or story for going on two decades, Hopkins still shines in my memory. Thirty years ago this month I typed the final copy of my thesis, a collection called Senior League. I drafted longhand and moved to a little Smith Corona electric for revision and submission. In the turret, it was poems put down on an 8.5” by 14” yellow tablet, followed by typing when things got serious. For a while, when I taught English at Penn State-Erie, Kathy and I lived in a freezing farmhouse. Steam rose from our knees when we bathed. My study was tucked under a set of steps. Revisions got pounded out on a rickety old manual; the print quality was about as good as the poetry. Eventually faculty members received IBM computers with a blessed, crappy, postcard-sized screen, and I started composing on the keyboard.

I mention these details to demonstrate that writing changed for me at Hopkins. It became something I sat down and did, scribbling or clacking or clicking, whether I was in the mood or not, whether I had anything to say or not. I showed up in Baltimore in 1984 to study writing. When I left in 1985, for good or ill, I was a writer. Why? I had seen what committing to a craft looked like, received guidance from masters, and spent time with peers on their own pilgrimage. In all this I learned a simple fact: writers sit or stand or recline, get out a pen and paper or prop a keyboard on their laps, and bloody well write. And they spend far more time writing than talking about writing or figuring out what clothes an author should wear. Thomas Merton wrote, “What I wear is pants.” Amen. Oh and if writers aren’t gluttonous readers, something is amiss.

One thing I didn’t learn at Hopkins was what I ought to write about. That was a good thing. As I’ve shown up at my writing desks and waited for words to find me, I’ve also been figuring out what’s worth saying at all. Cecilia Capuzzi Simon summarizes a common objection to the M.F.A.: “Detractors . . . say the degree is responsible for so-called program fiction—homogenized, over-workshopped writing void of literary tradition and overly influenced by the mostly upper- and middle-class values and experiences of its students.” Poetry workshops could be guilty of the same charges.

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Resting with son Micah at the seminary townhouse complex–four of the best years of my life

In fact, you could accuse plenty of graduate programs of over-workshopping students. In addition to an M.A., I have a Master of Divinity and a year of Ph.D. studies (a twenty-page paper on Sir Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial was enough to show me that a literature doctorate wasn’t for me) on the old curriculum vita, and each excellent, soul-shaping experience left its distinctive perfume—or stink, as I’ve occasionally said—on my thinking. I left Hopkins writing stories with nearly invisible endings. Twelve months at Indiana University of Pennsylvania was exhilarating, but nearly turned me into a Marxist. And Trinity Lutheran Seminary cracked me open and called me to believe like a grown up. In each case, over time, lessons that held up got integrated and those that didn’t got left beside the road.

The point: during grad school I immersed myself in the ideas being presented, welcomed them, lived with them, sometimes championed them. Sure, I got homogenized, but only for a while. Eventually my brain and identity returned. And isn’t this the educational experience: binge on learning, figure out what’s crap later, and grow?

When I was at Hopkins, I wrote about white, lower-middle-class folks whose lives were going nowhere. The resolution to my minimal conflicts was the moment when the reader understood that my characters were hopelessly stuck, even if they were oblivious. After covering the same territory in verse for a few years, I took up panic attacks, which led me in a direction I would have sniffed at in Baltimore: spirituality, and now, creative non-fiction that my younger self would have regarded as maudlin or trite.

In short, Hopkins was a critical stop on a thirty-year writing trip, but it was only one stop. Barth, Grumbach, and Spires were mentors, but so earlier on were Diana Hume George, J. Madison Davis, and the late Chet Wolford, who taught me to be merciless with a manuscript. I’m indebted to all of these guides, but none of them could help me with the most important questions to answer: What do I have to say? And what’s worth saying at all?

Here I admit a prejudice: if an M.F.A. graduate’s top answer to these questions ends up being, “Publish me!” then, well, yuck. Without something pressing to say, a writer produces literary hothouse tomatoes. And if M.F.A.s aren’t asking themselves about meaning and purpose each time they invoke the Muse, their degree isn’t to blame. Go ahead and throw a tomato at me, but I say the problem is poverty of artistic soul. Maybe this is an errant position.

Forgive. These are only the impressions of a middle-aged M.A. who, in the words of literary critic Anis Shivani, “[did] a degree” and nevertheless has been “condemned to obscurity.” Would I jamb a Chevette full of essentials and drive with my young wife from Erie to Baltimore all over again?

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C. C.’s egg rolls weren’t this crispy. They were a little soggy, in fact, but Kathy and I ate a hundred or more doused in soy or duck sauce. (Credit: Albert Cahalan on Wikimedia Commons)

You bet. Objections to graduate writing programs don’t factor in the need for those Jack Barth called “advanced apprentices” to get the hell out their own particular Dodges, drink and spar with classmates whose names they can’t forget, gather up the tricks of the trade, find a great egg roll, and rinse down memorable chicken fingers with Rolling Rock.

I learned from Jack about Chekov’s Gun: never hang a pistol (or egg roll, chicken finger, or Rolling Rock) on the wall in the first act without firing it by the third.

 

A Man of Second Chances

The late Trappist monk Thomas Merton included the following confession in one of his famous prayers:

I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself . . . .

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Optimism

Me, neither, especially the last part. If you want to know the truth about me, best ask somebody else. But one thing I have learned over the years is that I’m an optimist, occasionally to the point of foolishness. How I know this doesn’t matter. I just know.

At 6:20 this morning I woke up ahead of the alarm. This was a good waking, not the wretched sort when you would pay a $100 or sell one of your nostrils for just one more hour of sleep before heading off to work or chores. I was fresh, mulling over the fine possibilities on the horizon.

Before my twenty minutes of prayer, I listened to The Writer’s Almanac podcast, which concluded with a poem by Rita Dove entitled “Dawn Revisited.” The first lines had me:

Imagine you wake up

with a second chance

Heck, yeah! I believe in second chances, endless chances. (I would like to share the entire poem, but copyright blah blah blah.) The following made my soul’s lungs fill with new air:

The whole sky is yours

to write on, blown open

to a blank page. Come on,

shake a leg!

Preach it, Rita! Every once in a miraculous while, my spirit’s stirring converges with a friend’s innocent remark or an adagio or a poem. As soon as I finished pray-meditating, I actually wanted to “shake a leg,” and here a voice visited with encouragement: “Come on!”

The poet spoke about three hours ago, and I’m still rolling. Afternoon can be a slog because old wounds and griefs sometimes visit; breathing gets leaden. My past has strong hands, which it uses to grab my throat and back me up against a cinderblock wall. “Listen, little bitch,” the past says, “you’re not going anywhere.” It squeezes harder: “Just try to heal up and move on, punk!”

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Cold, bright day. A new blue page ready for words.

Sometimes, but not today. Sadly, I’m not a fighter, so I won’t be telling the old hurts to “go pound salt.” A story is told about Mahatma Gandhi being confronted by an angry man threatening violence against him. Gandhi embraced the man, who collapsed in tears. I’m no Gandhi, but this is my way. Today, if the past intrudes, I’ll kiss its lumpy head and say, “Not today. I’ll take care of you, but you’re not going to choke me.” In other words, I’ll breathe and keep shaking a leg.

Such mindfulness and discipline take a lot of energy. Still, the sun is bright, the sky is clear, and I have hope. Wednesday, February 25th is a second chance. Actually, I’ve lost count of what chance this day is. Above my desk at the church I have a drawing of a bald man sitting in meditation (in Desert Wisdom: Sayings from the Desert Fathers by Yushi Nomura). The caption in calligraphy goes,

Abba Poeman said about Abba Pior

that every single day he made a fresh beginning.

What luck! This morning must be my millionth chance, since I often start over a couple times during my waking hours. The present can be better than the past.

So, goodbye for now. I need to go write on the sky.

Naming Monsters on Black Friday

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Birthday-boy Cole and his sister Layla catching a nap

Friday, November 28, 2014: While millions of Americans fed this day’s gaping maw of capitalism, I engaged in my own form of madness. For seven hours I sipped decaf redeye after decaf redeye at a Starbucks miles away from the shopping traffic and named monsters. Daughter Elena sewed and stuffed fifteen of the little weirdos, and my charge was to come up with biographical snippets for each of them. My motivation was compelling: each monster would be given to a young guest at grandson Cole’s first birthday party this coming Sunday. Parents would read the bio; kids would squeeze, lick, and gnaw on Elena’s handiwork. In the midst of much online research, I informed my erudite table mates of incidentals (e.g. kangaroos do not, in fact, burp) and learned, stifling laughter, what “upper decking” means. When at last I looked up from the screen to see the patrons spinning–no lie!–I knew it was time to go home for a nap. When I awoke, I had a Philly cheesesteak with handsome Cole and family, then sent the following to Elena in preparation for Sunday. Enjoy . . . if you dare.

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Battersby “Juano” de Vamp

Battersby “Juano” de Vamp: Battersby’s love for the night life and chatting with the ladies led to the first part of his nickname, Juan—this being Don Juan, a fictional character who enjoys hanging out with women. The “o” part of his nickname came from his buddies, who discovered that “Juano” rhymes with “guano,” which is bat poo. But don’t worry about Battersby. He gets his pals back by sneaking bites of their cheesecake—when they go out for dinner—and leaving his distinctive single tooth mark in their dessert. Juano’s favorite Maya Angelou quote: “I don’t trust any [monster] who doesn’t laugh.”

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Babbatte “Hang” de Vamp

Babbatte “Hang” de Vamp: Babbatte’s nickname, which she would gladly lose, comes from her childhood inability to say “fang.” “Listen, young lady,” her mother would say, “get back into that bathroom and brush and floss your fang.” Babbatte would insist that she already “bussed her hang,” the “f” sound being painful for little de Vamps, until they build up a callous on their lower lip. Hang wears ribbons on her ear and bats her eyelashes to make a point: “There’s a lot more to me than this pearly white fang!” Babbatte’s favorite Katherine Hepburn quote: “If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.”

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Kenneth “Ken” Knipmeier

Kenneth “Ken” Knipmeier: Everyone thinks “Ken’s” nickname is short for “Kenneth.” Not so. Ken grew up playing with his older sister Babs’ Ken dolls. When his friends played “snow wars” with G. I. Joes, Ken brought a Ken doll to the battle, insisting his Ken’s ski outfit would keep him warmer than the soldiers’ thin layer of olive and black camo. From childhood on, Ken always made it a point to follow his own instincts. Kenneth’s favorite Chinese proverb: “A wise [monster] makes his own decisions, an ignorant [monster] follows the public opinion.”

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Barbra “Babs” Knipmeier

Barbra “Babs” Knipmeier: The unusual spelling of Barbra’s first name can be blamed on singer Barbra Streisand, after whom she was named. From the time she could hold something and babble at it, she clutched a Barbie doll. For a short time, Barbra’s parents called her Barbie. At her first birthday party, however, Dad put on a bootleg Streisand’s Greatest Hits CD. When “[Monsters, monsters] who need [monsters], are the luckiest [monsters] in the world,” tears ran down Barbra’s cheeks. She wasn’t sad or hungry or poopy. She was verklempt. “Oh,” Mom said, remembering the singer’s nickname, “our little Babs is crying. My word, how sensitive she is!” During her rebellious teenage years, Babs was crazy for Madonna, but now considers her namesake the best female artist now living. Barbra’s favorite Barbra Streisand quote: “There is nothing more important in life than love.”

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Rosalyn “Ozzie” Hightower

Rosalyn “Ozzie” Hightower: How many monsters have nicknames because other monsters mess up their regular names? Rosalyn—born an identical twin—got stuck with “Ozzie” because her sister Jocelyn couldn’t say “Rozie.” Ozzie doesn’t hold a grudge, though, since she has other challenges to overcome. Even with all the odd appearances in the monster world, Ozzie, with eyes perched on arm-towers and baby in a pouch, gets teased by other monsters. She wears a smile because she refuses to be bummed out by smart remarks. And you’ll never hear a mean word come out of her mouth. Her baby’s name: Jillian. Her favorite Chinese proverb: “A bit of fragrance clings to the hand that gives flowers.”

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Jocelyn “Joey” Hightower (and Jack)

Jocelyn “Joey” Hightower: Jocelyn, born an identical twin, gave sister Rosalyn her nickname, but “Ozzie” returned the favor. Jocelyn’s parents chose her name because it rhymes with Rosalyn—sort of—and planned to call her “Josey,” but “Joey” was the best her sister could do. At first it was “Doughy,” so Jocelyn was at least grateful she escaped being thought of as a dinner roll. Joey is a brave marsupial in a sometimes unkind world, giving lippy monsters a little what-for when they talk smack, especially against Ozzie. She doesn’t go looking for trouble, but she doesn’t hide from it, either. Her baby’s name: Jack. Her favorite proverb: “One can easily judge the character of a [monster] by the way they treat [monsters] who can do nothing for them.”

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Boris “Chops” Pillosevic

Boris “Chops” Pillosevic: Of Serbian descent, Boris got his nickname not from his razor-sharp bottom canines, but from his cheerful, steady nerves in the face of danger and his favorite dish: lamb with a mint, yellow tomato, and sweet corn salsa. In high school, Chops won “The Guy You Want Most in Your Foxhole” Award. Today, he is an interior decorator. His favorite Charles Atlas quote: “Nobody picks on a strong [monster].”

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Nevena “Marigold” Pillosevic

Nevena “Marigold” Pillosevic: Sunny and cheerful by nature, Nevena’s nickname comes from her given name, which is Serbian for “marigold.” Lovely Nevena is easily surprised, which led to school classmates always jumping out from hiding places to scare her. “Ohhh,” she would squeal, then have a giggling fit. No longer in school, Marigold still can’t help watching out of the corners of her eyes for the next prank. Poor girl. Watchfulness is tiring, so she loves to nap, though she spends the rest of the afternoon yawning. Nevena’s favorite Chinese proverb: “You cannot prevent the [monsters] of sorrow from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from building nests in your hair.”

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Retina “Lovey” Glover

Retina “Lovey” Glover: Retina’s nickname comes from many years ago. Her first love, Leonard Palmer, called her “Lovey” because her lips always seemed to be puckered for a kiss, and he couldn’t stop looking into her eyes, all three of them. The name fit then and still does today. If you ever need a monster to talk to, Lovey is the one. No matter your age, she’ll bounce you on one of her knees, kiss your cheek, wink three times, and give you a little hope. Lovey’s favorite Chinese proverb: “One joy scatters a hundred griefs.”

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Leonard “Lensie Poo” Palmer

Leonard “Lensie Poo” Palmer: Leonard’s nickname comes from many years ago. His first love, Retina Glover, called him “Lensie Poo” in a moment of awkwardness. He was so gushy with her, calling her “Lovey” and staring into her eyes, that she said the first cute thing that came into her mind: “Lensie Poo.” Once their circle of friends passed around this juicy gossip, Leonard—a bright, bookish kid—was forever after “Lensie Poo.” He was a little disappointed when, at a monster class reunion, Lovey confessed that nothing in particular was behind his nickname. But Lensie Poo worked with what he had been given, using his warm-and-fuzzy nickname was an ice breaker with strangers. Leonard’s favorite Spanish proverb: “Since we cannot get what we like, let us like what we can get.”

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Cyrus “Clopsy” Henson

Cyrus “Clopsy” Henson: Cyrus, Cyrus, Cyrus! It’s not easy for any monster to grow up perfectly round, but Cyrus’ early life was awkward, indeed, before he learned to roll. Until the age of four, Cyrus moved about the world by flipping himself forward like a pancake. Each time his big, wet eyeball hit sidewalks or hardwood floors, it sounded like a horse stepping in a mud puddle. “Clop. Clop. Clop” So, the other monsters declared, “Clopsy” it was. “Cy,” as his sister is kind enough to call him, doesn’t show his emotions easily. He is the strong, silent type. The only way you know that Cyrus is sad is when he leaves tear drops on his way from point A to point B. Cyrus’ favorite Chinese proverb: “The journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single [roll].”

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Sydney “Cookie” Henson

Sydney “Cookie” Henson: Not many youthful dreams come to pass. So it was with Sydney, who long ago aspired to be an actress. Roles for round, blue characters being rare, she was over-the moon about reading for the role of Cookie Monster on Sesame Street. “The part is mine,” she said, rolling home. Ah, Sydney. Years passed before she stopped complaining about that amiable oaf’s fame. “He is bulky, blue, and hairy,” she would say to anybody who would listen. “So spray paint him white and cast him as the Abominable Snowman!” Her family loved her a lot and told her, “You know, you’ll always be our ‘Cookie.’” The older she got, the more she understood that being her family’s Cookie is better than being a television star. Sydney’s favorite Chinese proverb: “Not until just before dawn do [monsters] sleep best; not until [monsters] get old do they become wise.”

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Rudolph “Rudy” Tuberski

Rudolph “Rudy” Tuberski: There’s absolutely nothing interesting about Rudolph’s nickname. Monsters with his name get called “Rudy,” and he’s fine with that. As any of his buds will tell you Rudy is a real meat-and-potatoes guy, very grounded, no-nonsense. His philosophy is simple: smile, laugh a lot, keep an eye out for your fellow monster, and don’t hog all the gravy in life. Rudolph’s favorite Charles Schultz quote: “Good grief, Charlie Brown!”

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Eartha “Yammy” Tuberski

Eartha “Yammy” Tuberski: Some monsters dislike their given names. Growing up, Eartha complained to her parents: “Eartha! Eartha! Where in the world did you get that name? It makes me sound like a clump of dirt.” In truth, Eartha was a great kid. Her parents were loving and gentle. And she did her chores, minded her manners, got good grades, and was about as happy and playful as the next monster. Still she couldn’t stop griping about her cloddish name. Patient as her parents were, her brother Rudy reached his breaking point. “Good grief,” he hollered one day, “will you quit your yammering.” Thereafter, in his youthful insensitivity, he called her “Yammer,” and in tender moments, “Yammy.” “Well,” Eartha thought, “at least Yammy sounds cheerful, kind of sweet.” When she introduces herself, monsters figure she is saying, “Tammy,” and, blessed with the wisdom of years, she doesn’t generally correct them. Eartha’s favorite Beatles song: “Let It Be”.

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The first-ever, formal portrait of Loxi “Picabo” Nessor

Loxi “Picabo” Nessor: In spite of Loxi’s endearing smile and welcoming blue eye, she is extremely shy. Her nickname has nothing to do with the old baby “I see you” game. She loves to water ski, but prefers snow, since for mysterious reasons she ends up under the waves rather than on top of them when water is the venue. Loxi watched so many hours of the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary that friends started calling her “Picabo” after the winner of the Super G, Picabo Street. The cute handle embarrasses her, so she closes her eye and dips down her head when she hears it. Loxi’s favorite Rosanne Barr quote: “I’m mostly introspective and don’t talk to [other monsters]. I get into a real quiet, meditative place.”

It’s 11:10 as I sign off. Black Friday of 2014 is almost over. My nap has worn off, and the monsters and Cole are tucked in, the latter until tomorrow morning, the former until Sunday afternoon, when monsters and humans will sing, eat cake, and wish a happy baby many more.