Saturday, May 29, 2010

May 29: Blessed Richard Thirkeld

It's Saturday night, and I'm sitting on my mother's back porch watching my 20-month-old son push his trucks around. My son is very blond. As the weather has warmed and he has spent more time in the sun, his hair has lightened even more. He hasn't gotten his first haircut yet, so the back of his head is a nest of baby curls. It's so long now that he's often mistaken for a girl when we take him to the store or a restaurant. I'm OK with that, but other of my family members tend to get upset by such gender confusion.

It's a lazy night. Aside from church tomorrow morning, we really have no other obligation s this weekend. I like this languid time, when I don't have anything to do or any place to go. It gives me a chance to watch my son and be amazed at the power of his tiny legs, the dimples of his elbows, the embers of his cheeks (he's cutting a tooth). It's nearly June, and in just four months, he's going to be two-years-old. It's true what they say about the passage of time. When you're young, time seems to crawl by at about the pace of an ice age. As you get older, time goes faster and faster. I can't believe my son has been a part of my life for almost two years already. I can't believe my daughter is moving into the double digits this year.

Watching my son and daughter just be themselves makes me want to live forever. I want to be there to see them graduate from high school and college. I want to be there when their hearts get broken for the first time. I want to be there when they fall in love. I want to be there when they become parents. I want to be there to put bandages on all their scraped knees. I want to be there to fix everything that gets ripped, torn, bruised, or broken in their lives.

That's the dream of every parent, isn't it? Every parent wants his/her son(s) and/or daughter(s) to grow up completely unscathed by life's twists and turnarounds, by the brutality of the world. No matter how hard I try to shield my children, however, I know cruelty and disappointment will somehow slither into their lives. There's going to be bullies at school. There's going to be failed exams. There's going to be prom dramas and car accidents. If I'm lucky, that's all there's going to be. There are other specters that lurk in my parenting nightmares: drugs, teenage pregnancy, school shootings, STDs, sexual violence. Don't even get me started on mental illness.

That is why, for me, the prospect of my not being around to pick up the pieces and put Humpty back together again for my kids is terrifying. On nights like this, when time seems frozen in a moment of absolute summer ease, the heat sitting on my skin like a winter coat and my children happy being children, I want the world to stop. I want it to last forever.

Richard Thirkeld, the patron of the day, stands out in my mind for one thing and one thing only. My book says, from the time he became a priest in 1579, he "prayed constantly for the privilege of suffering martyrdom for the Faith." He prayed for death. Now, aside from a couple of bad nights that involved a little too much tequila, I can say, without reservation, that I have never asked God to kill me. Richard eventually received a death sentence with "evangelical joy." He was hanged and drawn and quartered. Not something I'd volunteer for. But he took it like a third grader takes the final bell signalling the start of summer vacation.

I can't stop my children from growing up. Eventually, my son will have his baby curls lopped off. Probably sooner than later. Eventually, some boy will want to take my daughter to a movie or dance. More later than sooner if I have anything to say about it. Time moves forward, usually at a gallop. But, sometimes, time slows to the speed of a Popsicle melting on a hot, summer night. I can't embrace the eventuality of death, the way Richard Thirkeld did. It's not in me right now.

I can embrace my son crawling into my lap, exhausted by heat and play. He leans his head against my chest, twirls his blond hair with his fingers. He stares out at nothing, blissed with the comfort of my breaths, the proximity of daddy. For him, this is eternity. It will last forever, like June, July, and August for a third grader.

I hold him, feel the slow, even beats of his heart against my fingertips. For this one, perfect moment, we are all happy, safe, together.

Monday, May 24, 2010

May 24: Saint Simeon Stylites the Younger

A few days ago, I found out that I've been chosen Employee of the Month for the health care system I work for. (Yes, I teach college, as well. Need to pay the bills, people.) This is the same award my coworker and friend won back in February or March. You may remember my jealous rant about the subject some weeks ago. This award came as a complete surprise. Usually, if someone from a department wins Employee of the Month, the rest of the employees are pretty much screwed for a few years. So I wasn't expecting even a nomination until the year 2013.

Winning this award puts me in a bit of a quandary. As most of my readers know, I spend a good deal of my time in this blog complaining about the fact that some idiot has received some kind of award or blessing that he or she does not deserve. Now, I am that undeserving idiot. It sort of takes all of the wind out of my writing sails. How can I be sarcastic and cutting about myself?

Despite the fact that I have a blog and write many witty postings about being unrecognized and unappreciated, I generally feel uncomfortable when people start complimenting me. I prefer to make people laugh. When I start receiving praise, it's my nature to deflect or joke about it. I truly don't go out of my way to draw attention to myself. I like being the funny one, not the one that's held up as an example of excellence. Generally, if you're put on a pedestal, someone's sneaking up behind you to knock you off of it. (Take it from someone who usually does the knocking.)

Saint Simeon Stylites the Younger knows a few things about pedestals. A disciple of a monk named John, Simeon, from the age of five onward, lived a good portion of his life on platforms mounted on top of columns. He did this to avoid distractions in his life of prayer and devotion. (I'm not sure what he did about certain bodily functions, but I can imagine he spent a lot of time yelling "Incoming!" or "Look out below!") When he turned 20, he moved to the mountains, put up another column and platform, climbed to the top of it, and spent the last 45 years of his life on top of that perch.

Nobody ever knocked Simeon off his pedestal. He sat up there, praying, meditating, celebrating mass (the bishop scaled the column to ordain him), eating, sleeping, defecating, urinating, and receiving pilgrims. I sort of picture him as Mel Brooks' 1000-year-old man, dispensing one-liners with a Yiddish accent.

Anyhow, I would prefer to be Mel Brooks than Simeon. Being on a pedestal is too precarious. One false move and you could find yourself at the bottom of the column in a big old pile of saintly shit.

But, since I'm up here for the moment, I might as well make the most of it. Therefore, I've decided to write my acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature. I know Employee of the Month isn't quite in the same league, but I believe in planning ahead, killing two birds with one stone. So, imagine, if you will, a lavish hall, long tables set with royal china and crystal. The Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy announces my name. I stand up, check to make sure my fly is zipped, and then make my way to the podium amid a fanfare of trumpets. (Honest to God, that's how they do it every year, more or less.)

Then I speak:

NOTE: I have included two versions of my speech. The first is humorous; the second, more serious. If you prefer a chuckle, read Version 1. If you want something a little more somber, read Version 2.

VERSION 1:

Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Ever since I won Employee of the Month several years ago at my place of work, I've dreamed of winning this prize. Every writer secretly does. We might say we write for truth or art or grace or understanding. But really, it's all about moments like this, when you stand before the world and are acknowledged as the very best, all your peers looking up to you with blood in their eyes, an envy so intense it causes constipation in a generation of writers. That is when you know you have reached the pinnacle, as I have. I am, at this moment, Saint Simeon on his mountain perch, evacuating myself on the less-talented masses below.

I want to thank the members of the Swedish Academy for finally coming to their senses, recognizing a talent that is unparalleled, a talent Biblical in power and truth. I am humbled by the company I am now a part of: Hemingway, Faulkner, Heaney, Shaw, Lessing, Yeats, and all of those foreigners whose names I can't pronounce. I know, in years to come, younger writers will compare their works to mine and realize how much they fall short. That is as it should be.

The world applauds the wisdom of your decision that culminates in this great hall tonight. I applaud your good taste. Thank you.

VERSION 2:

Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I have had much grace in my life. I have been graced by a beautiful wife. I have been graced by beautiful children. I have been graced by family and friends who have supported me, carried me through difficult times, danced with me in joyful times. And I have been graced with a love of words, of language, of the transformative and healing power of poetry.

The Catholic saint Simeon Stylites the Younger spent almost 60 years of his life sitting on top of a platform balanced on a column. He put himself in this dizzying position to eliminate worldly distractions, to bring himself closer to creation and the Creator. I find myself balanced on a similar pinnacle tonight, gazing down from this prestigious vantage into the faces of people I cherish and admire.

I am humbled by the company you have placed me in, and I am humbled by the faith you have placed in my palms. I will eventually come down from this height, either gracefully or violently, but I will be sustained, lifted up by this faith.

Thank you to the members of the Swedish Academy. Toni Morrison, upon receiving this award, asked everyone present "to share what is for me a moment of grace." Like Simeon, I feel as though I have been lifted up to touch the face of the eternal. Thank you.


Thursday, May 20, 2010

May 20: Saint Bernardine of Siena

Okay, so I'm sitting at a table in Big Boy writing this. It is Manly Man Poetry Night, but I'm the only manly man here tonight. As I said last week, my friend is at his denomination's annual meeting downstate. I came here by myself because our favorite waiter--a young, college-age guy with black, spiky hair and enough swagger to put George Clooney to shame--is leaving the area to move back home (Grand Rapids). His plan is to work, pay off some debts, and then return to Marquette to finish his degree in a year or so. Tonight is his last night, and as I've been sitting at my table, I've already seen customers at another table give him a Hallmark card and hugs. He's going to be missed.

Of course, tonight seems just a little off because I'm here by myself. I'm not a person who goes out by himself very often. If I see a person sitting alone at a table, reading a book or working on a laptop, it depresses me a little. I feel sorry for the person, imagine the loner has no family or friends and comes to Big Boy in the evening to vicariously enjoy the fellowship of the other patrons. Of course, tonight I am one of those pathetic loners. I'm sure people are looking at me right now and thinking, "Who is that handsome writer in the back of the restaurant? He looks like someone important and famous. Maybe I should get his autograph." That's what I'm telling myself, anyway. In actuality, they're probably thinking, "Who is that poor retarded man at the back table with hot fudge smeared all over his chin?" (I had the chocolate chip cookie, hot fudge sundae again.)

I can never resist imagining what it would be like to be a famous writer like Stephen King or J. K. Rowling or Wally Lamb or the guy who writes the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. I like to picture myself scribbling away in my journal and people around me wondering if I'm writing another masterpiece that will win me yet another Pulitzer Prize or, perhaps, a second Nobel Prize in Literature because the Swedish Academy loves me so much. (Hey, it's my fantasy, so I can take it as far as I want to take it.) Here I sit in the local Big Boy in Marquette, Michigan, at my customary table, letting the public bask in the glow of my creative brilliance. Everyone is trying to act nonchalant, stealing furtive glances in my direction when they think I'm not looking. I'm used to it, however. I can't even pick up a pile of dog crap off my lawn without some paparazzi snapping my photo. It's the price I pay for being so talented, smart, and photogenic. I'm the first writer People has ever chosen as its Sexiest Man Alive.

I know. I know. "Thou shalt not covet.... yada, yada, yada." In reality, I have a beautiful wife, two great kids, a (mostly) loving family, and friends who put up with my monstrous ego and jealousy. I have a house, a couple jobs that pay the bills and provide me enough money to go out to Big Boy once a week. I'm a lucky, blessed guy.

The saint for today was pretty blessed, as well, and he was fairly famous during his lifetime, to boot. Bernardine of Siena was known far and wide for his skills as a preacher. Think Billy Graham in Italian. My book says that he "was followed by honors and applause" wherever he went. Crowds thronged him. He turned down the position of bishop three times during his life, preferring to travel through Italy, meeting people, spreading the Word of God. Eventually, in 1435, he became vicar-general of his religious order, the Fathers of the Strict Observance of the Order of Saint Francis. He resigned after five years and returned to preaching. He spent the rest of his life traveling/preaching in Romania, Ferrara, and Lombardy. He died in 1444. Only six years later, he was made a saint. That's right. Six years. He couldn't turn that one down, obviously, without rising from the grave and becoming the world's first Catholic zombie priest. That's a twist even George Romero hasn't thought of.

So, once again, I am put to shame by a saint. Had I been Bernardine, I probably would have accepted the first bishopric that came along. I would have been like, "Pass the cool hat and call me 'your eminence!'"

Had he been a writer in the 21st century, Bernardine would probably have turned down the American Book Award, Pulitzer Prize, and Nobel Prize for Literature. Instead of sitting at a table at the local Big Boy, letting patrons ogle and whisper about him, he would have been the waiter getting hugs from grandmas and bringing refills of Diet Pepsi to beret-wearing wannabe writers. He would have been happy working for less than minimum wage and living off tips. He would have been happy driving a rusted Pinto and living at a half-way house for indigent drug addicts and drag queens. And he would have counted himself blessed.

Our favorite waiter just got another hug from a departing customer. He's saying, "No crying, no crying." He's a loved person, rich in every way but economically.

I'm going to tip him well tonight.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

May 18: Saint John I



Okay, it's really bad when the person you identify with most in a martyr's biography is the person who had him killed. Pope John was sent by Theodoric the Goth, who was the ruler of Italy, to negotiate peace with Emperor Justin I. Justin was the first Catholic ruler in Constantinople in over half a century. While John and his delegation were meeting with Justin, Theodoric got a little suspicious. He got news of how well John and Justin were getting along, so when John returned from his mission, Theodoric threw John in prison, where the he died after being tortured, in the year 526 a.d.

Now, I know you're thinking, "How in the hell can you identify with a man who murdered a pope?" It's not the killing part that strikes a chord with me (unless you're talking about doing away with someone like Hitler or Stalin or Rush Limbaugh). It's the suspicious part that I understand. Had Theodoric just chilled and let John work his saintly magic, things would have gone a lot better for everyone involved. But that's not the way suspicion works. I can attest to this.

Because of my wife's sexual and Internet addictions, things have been a little rough for me in the trust department in the past. Some nights, when my wife was completely out of control, she would be up at the computer until two or three o'clock in the morning. When I got ride of my laptop at home, my wife would go over to the local library and use the computers there. During the days when our daughter was at school, I never knew where my wife was or whom she was with. Even now, as I'm writing this description, I can feel myself reacting physically to these memories. It sits in my stomach like a fist, tense, painful. Imagine doing a couple hundred sit ups in a row when you are completely out-of-shape. That's what it feels like.

Let me say right now that my wife has been sexually sober for over three years. I have no reason to believe that she hasn't been faithful since we've reconciled. She's been working hard with counselors and therapists for a long time, and she really seems to be more in touch with her impulses and urges than she ever has been. I shouldn't be suspicious at all. She loves me, and I love her.

Suspicion, however, has a insidious way of lying dormant for a long time and then attacking when all of your defenses are down. For instance, a few weeks ago, I became convinced that Beth was using the minutes of her track phone a lot faster than she should have been. (I know, I know. I sound crazy, obsessed, and irrational. That's all part of it.) So, when my wife was charging her phone one day, I decided to check her messages, numbers she'd called, voice mail, whatever. I pushed buttons, not really knowing what I was doing, until I came to a menu that had ten text messages in it. The messages said things like "Call you later" and "Urgent! Please call" and "I'll wait for you at..." and "Love you forever."

That's all it took. My mind went absolutely wild. For the rest of the afternoon, I played out scenarios in my mind--confrontations, tearful confessions, angry indignation. When I finally said to my wife that night, "I found text messages from someone on your phone," she looked at me like I was speaking Hebrew.

"Yeah," I said, "messages like 'Call you later' and 'I'll meet you.'"

"Let me see your phone," she said.

"Why?" I wasn't ready to play games. I was ready to be pissed.

She went into the pocket of my jacket and took out my track phone. She turned it on and pressed a few buttons. She handed me my phone.

On the screen were ten messages under the Quicknotes menu: "Call you later" and "Urgent! Please call" and "I'll wait for you at..." and others, identical to the ones I'd found on my wife's phone that afternoon. It was a menu of abbreviated texts used to make texting quicker and easier. Every cell phone has a similar function, my wife explained to me.

That's what suspicion does. It can take something normal and innocent and turn it into infidelity and deceit.

Needless to say, I felt like an idiot, the worst husband in the world. Now, considering the things that have happened in the past, I have a foundation for such emotions. However, I really had no rational reason to question my wife's faithfulness. It was completely a moment of weakness, a moment when I allowed all of the worst parts of myself to take control.

My wife has since forgiven me for what I did, and I've been able to corral my jealousy, push it back into that dark cave in my chest where it lies and waits. I love my wife. I love my kids. Ferociously. But I'm not perfect. My wife know this. All my readers know this.

Sometimes, I'm Jimmy Stewart hugging Donna Reed under a Christmas tree. And sometimes I'm Theodoric, throwing a saint into prison to die.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

May 13: Our Lady of Fatima

Manly Man Poetry Night. My pastor friend and I were at Big Boy by about 8:30 p.m. The evening had been a little stressful because we had a house showing at 6:30 p.m., so I couldn't bring my son home to put him to sleep until well past 7 p.m. My wife took my daughter to her dance class. I know I haven't written about selling our house for a while. It's still for sale. People are still coming to look at it, at least once or twice every couple of weeks. Make me an offer. I'll throw in a garden hose and a copy of Alice Sebold's Almost Moon for free. (That book is the only novel I have ever read that I can say I absolutely hated. I could find absolutely no redeeming qualities in it. I loved Sebold's first two books--Lucky and The Lovely Bones. I've used both as texts in classes I've taught. Almost Moon belongs in the kindling pile for starting campfires. In my humble opinion.)

I didn't have onion rings tonight, and neither did my friend. He had chili cheese fries. It was a pretty crappy, rainy, drizzly day, and the temperature remained in the low forties. So he was looking for something to warm himself. I, on the other hand, was looking for an ice cream fix. I ordered a chocolate chip cookie, hot fudge sundae. Both my friend and I were quite satisfied by our menu selections.

Next week, my friend is gone to a church conference, and the Thursday after that is book club. The final Thursday he's here will be another book club meeting (we moved it up a week so he could attend before he moved to his new church downstate). So, after this blog, there will be only two more Manly Man Poetry Nights with my friend.

May 13 is dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima. In 1917, in a small city called Fatima in Portugal, the Virgin Mary appeared to three shepherd children. The children ranged in ages from ten years old to seven. From May 13 to October 13 of that year, Mary appeared to them on six occasions. The final manifestation on October 13 was accompanied by the miracle described in the poem below. In various accounts, the event was witnessed by 30,000 to 100,000 people, and, despite all scientific attempts to explain the astronomical oddity, no satisfactory theory has been given. The theories range from mass hallucination to stratospheric dust.

I'd been thinking about this miracle ever since I realized that Manly Man Poetry Night fell on the feast day of Our Lady of Fatima. I always love reading accounts of modern miracles where the scientific community scrambles to provide absolutely ridiculous explanations for the unexplainable. It's almost as if nothing can be taken on faith. Faith is somehow equated with ignorance, and in the 21st century, with i-Pods, i-Phones, and i-Pads in nearly every home, ignorance is just unacceptable.

I, on the other hand, could never survive without faith. Simply putting pen to paper, composing a poem or essay or short story or blog, is an act of faith. Launching these posts into the ether of the World Wide Web is akin to stuffing a note in a bottle and tossing it into the ocean. You hope someone eventually finds the bottle, reads the note, and comes to find you on your desert island. Then there's the faith of living with mental illness. I get up every morning and go to work with the faith that my wife is fine and able to function normally. There's also the faith of believing that my wife's addictions are under control, that she's not sneaking off to the local library to use the Internet.

Getting out of bed is an act of faith. Driving to work--faith. Eating breakfast--faith. Answering the phone--faith. Taking a breath--faith.

Let me boil it down for you: life is an act of faith.

That's what the poem I wrote for Manly Man Poetry Night is all about. The exercise itself comes, again, from The Practice of Poetry. It's called "One's-Self, En-Masse." Poet Michael Pettit says to "write a description of two or three paragraphs...in which you describe one particular member or element of a set...The challenge is to perceive the qualities of the group, and to distinguish what makes an individual member of that group both a part of it and apart from it." Now, obviously, I didn't limit myself to two or three paragraphs, but aside from that, I think I followed the guidelines pretty well. So, without further adieu:

O Milagre do Sol
(Miracle of the Sun)

Fatima, Portugal
October 13, 1917

We gathered in the fields of Cova da Iria, in the rain, so many of us that Christ himself couldn't have fed us all with fish and rolls. Peasants and monks. Scientists and soldiers. Faithful and faithless. We waited as clouds pissed on our praying heads, baptized us in mud, made our wool coats heavy as the sea. In the distance, the children, like three tiny crosses, stood, gazed upward. Even in the leaden morning, their faces shone like polished copper. We recited the rosary, sang "Ave Maria," laughed at old women with faces like dried figs who beat their breasts, sobbed about the end of the world.

I came as a poet, artist, voice of reason crying out in a desert of goat herders. I came to watch, listen, write a letter to the world about the magic of manure at Fatima. To be the way, the truth in this mob of garlic eaters, 100,00 strong.

Near noon. Silence. A church bell started to toll, hollow as whale song. The screams began.

Clouds parted, gave way to a silver sun that rolled and danced. It crossed the sky, as if thrown from one invisible child to another. Back and forth it bounced, fell, rebounded. Turned bloody. White as my grandfather's head. Blue. Salamander green. Yellow as harvest wheat. The unseen children kept tossing it. Up. Down. West. South. North. East.

We rolled on the ground. Ran for town. Fell on our knees. Ripped our clothing. Cried, screamed our mea culpas. For ten minutes. For six hundred seconds of fire, rapture, second coming.

Then, the sun was back in the heavens. We stood. Rooted. Panting. Saved.

I, the poet, after hours of sodden doubt, gazed into clear sky for the first time. My clothes, hair, skin warm as my mother's just-baked bread.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

May 12: Saint Epiphanius of Salamis

Reviewing the last couple of blogs I've written, I realize that I have been focusing a great deal on my penchant for jealousy and sarcasm. I'm really not that shallow of a person, although my recent reflections would lead you to believe otherwise. Therefore, today, I am not going to blog about a writer who has talent, fame , and wealth (deserved or undeserved). I am not going to write about a friend, acquaintance, or coworker who has received some sort of positive recognition (deserved or undeserved).

So, I guess that just about does it for this blog. Enjoy the pretty picture....Just kidding.

Traditionally, in the Catholic Church, the month of May is dedicated to honoring the Virgin Mary. Now, is it a coincidence that the secular celebration of motherhood comes during the same month that Catholics celebrate Mary, the mother of Jesus? I don't know. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Beats me. Epiphanius of Salamis, today's patron, was an early proponent of "devotion to Mary." A fourth-century monk in Palestine, he focused many of his writings on Christ's mother. While not all Christian denominations place as much emphasis on the figure of Mary in the Jesus narrative and the practice of faith, everyone has a soft spot for mothers (unless you happen to be a child of Joan Crawford.)

My pastor friend tells me that traditionally, besides Christmas and Easter, Mother's Day is the Sunday when church attendance is at its highest during the year. That means that on the second Sunday of every May, kids drag their asses out of bed, take showers, dress up, and take dear old mommy to mass or a worship service. It might be out of guilt. It might be because moms refuse to do their laundry or babysit the grandkids if their children don't sit in the pews and act like doting sons and daughters for an hour or so. Whatever the reason, the sanctuary is full of mothers wearing corsages and kids wearing bored and/or angry expressions.

My wife and I don't have that problem yet with our children. Our son is only 18-months-old and has to go anywhere we have the strength to carry him. (He was 10 pounds, 7 ounces when he was born. He emerged from the womb ready for kindergarten.) Our daughter is nine-years-old and still enjoys going to Sunday school and church. So the struggle to appear to be a normal, Ozzie-and-Harriet kind of family unit is not that difficult. Like all parents and children, we set aside all the dysfunction (mental illness, addictions, alcoholism, affiliation with the Republican Party) and polish ourselves up until we sparkle like Carol Brady's kitchen.

And actually, this year, my wife and I didn't have too much to fake. Things have been going well for us, and, aside from a few bumps in the road, our daughter is a great kid. I write these previous comments a little nervously because I'm the kind of person who's always waiting for the other shoe to drop. If nothing bad has happened for a while, I start looking over my shoulder for the rabid chimpanzee that's about to attack and chew off my face. (When Oprah interviewed the woman to whom this actually happened, I had nightmares for a week. I'm not trying to make a joke here. It's just the way my mind works.) Every teacher who has taught my daughter has told us what a polite, bright, smart child she is. Aside from occasional bouts of temper fueled by lack of sleep, my daughter hardly ever gives us problems. (For you parents of teenagers, let me assure you: I have heard the horror stories, and I am trying to stock my parental bomb shelter with as many positive memories of my daughter as possible. As a coworker frequently reminds me: "Teenagers suck.")

So, after church this Sunday, when we got home, my daughter gave my wife a card she made in school.

My daughter has never known her mother without mental illness. She has been a part of my wife's manias and addictions and depressions. When my wife and I separated for a year, my daughter continued to love her mother unconditionally. One Saturday during this time, my daughter waited over eight hours for my wife to come for a visit. When my wife finally appeared, I was furious. But my daughter just threw herself at my wife and wouldn't let go.

My daughter just seems to understand the nature of my wife's disease, knows what to expect. She accepts my wife the way a mother accepts her newborn child: seeing only beauty and perfection.

On this Mother's Day, in the month of Mary, this is what my daughter's card said:

Happy Mother's Day!
to: Mommy
from: Celeste
The flower on the windowsill
reminds me of you
weather you're healthy or ill
I love what you do!
Sometimes you are strict
and I love that about you!
Sometimes you are nice
and I love that too!
but the thing that I love most
Is that you
are you!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

May 11: Saint Francis di Girolamo

Right now, I'm reading The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb. It's a book that I didn't choose to read voluntarily. A member of my book club suggested it for this month's meeting. I try to retain tight control over the selections for the club. I once made the mistake of going to the bathroom in the middle of a meeting; when I came back, the other members had selected the books for the next six months. I no longer go to the bathroom during book club.

Despite the fact that I didn't choose the Wally Lamb for this month, I'm really enjoying it. The person from the club who suggested the book has very similar tastes in literature to my own, so there's plenty of dysfunction, mental illness, violence, and death to satisfy me. The thing that really astounds me about the book is that it's so popular. People who I don't even know that well see me reading it and feel compelled to come up and fawn over and praise Wally Lamb. For a book with such dark subject matter, it has a following that rivals teenage girls melting over Robert Pattison. (It doesn't hurt that Lamb's two previous novels were Oprah book club choices. He kind of has the middle-class-housewife, career-woman, self-help-addict, gay-man audience in his back pocket.)

The thing is, a coworker read the Christmas novel Lamb published last November or December, and one morning, at the breakfast table, said, "You could have written that book." She meant it as a compliment, I know. And, having now read about a third of The Hour I First Believed, I see definite similarities in style and tone. If I shared his experiences and obsessions (twins, mental illness, women in prison), I could have been Wally Lamb.

But I'm not. He is a bestselling author, TV personality, and respected writing teacher. I am an adjunct English instructor, full-time medical records clerk, and occasional poet. The only thing I do with any consistency is play the organ for weekend church services and write blogs which disparage the successes of friends, relatives, and talented writers.

The problem is that people who receive praise and/or prizes usually deserve them, and that tends to make me look small and just a little bitchy.

It's even worse if the person I get bitchy about is a freakin' saint. I mean, you can't really make biting comments about Mother Teresa or a Saint Francis of Assisi without appearing a little bit like an asshole. Today's saint, Francis di Girolamo, was famous in his native Italy as a preacher. My book of saints even says that the crowds who followed him "hung on his every word..." Through his gift with language, he converted hundreds of prisoners and prostitutes, slaves and murderers. When I read Francis's biography, I pictured a seventeenth-century version of Wally Lamb, with people walking around the streets of Naples saying to each other, "Did you hear what Francis said on the Sister Oprah Show yesterday?"

I'm not proud of the fact that I harbor this streak of jealousy in my character that runs about as deep as the Grand Canyon. If it's directed at someone famous and successful (like Wally Lamb), I can be as mean and sarcastic as I want to be without the risk of appearing mean and sarcastic. If my jealousy is directed at a friend or acquaintance, my little tap dance becomes trickier. I have to throw in a strong dose of self-deprecating humor to maintain my facade of charm, wit, and humility. It's tough to keep all those balls in the air at once.

I think that's why I like teaching poetry to second graders at my daughter's school. For the couple of hours I'm in their classroom, talking about writing and telling jokes about burping and other bodily noises, I am the Wally Lamb of the elementary crowd. For a short while, I have a group of 25 or so kids who are hanging on my every word, a la Francis di Girolamo, and I feel the weight of the responsibility that comes with being in that position. If I make one wrong move, say one wrong thing, I may send a child spinning off along a career track of stealing, prostituting, serial killing...

...or writing sarcastic blogs about successful friends, relatives, and writers.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

May 6: Saint Peter Nolasco

Yes, my pastor friend and I celebrated Manly Man Poetry Night. We went to Big Boy, ordered the appetizer platter which consisted on chicken fingers, deep-fried mozzarella cheese sticks, and, of course, onion rings. I had just come from a music rehearsal for the funeral of my wife's great aunt. My friend had spent over eight hours in meetings. To make a long story short, we were both tired, ready to eat and relax.

Let me backtrack a little. Being involved in the worship and music ministries at church means that when it comes time for family funerals or weddings or baptisms or second marriages or 50th anniversaries (you name it), they turn to you as the resource person. I've had this occur to me more than once. Tonight, I had to unlock the church, get the lights and sound system turned on, hunt down the proper sheet music, and fire up the church's computer and projector. I usually try to perform these services with a smile and a positive attitude, but tonight, I let me tiredness get the better of me. I became a little snippy and slightly sarcastic, if you can imagine. When my sister-in-law said that if she had known the praise band was going to sing "Jesus Messiah" at the funeral, she could have sang it with us, I think I said something like, "We already have a diva." The stress of the past week's events made almost all the people oblivious to my tone and mood. Thank God. I just wanted to get to Big Boy.

Now, most of my readers are probably thinking, "You selfish bastard. You can't even stop thinking about yourself at a funeral practice." Guilty as charged. If you haven't noticed by now, I am no saint, and I'm prone to bouts or serious self-centeredness. It's just who I am. For the most part, though, I don't think I'm much different from anyone else. I'm just a little more honest about my feelings/failings.

Today's saint is sickeningly self-sacrificing. Born in France in 1180, Peter Nolasco inherited a ton of money from his father when the old man died. Peter was 15-years-old. Instead of doing what any other 15-year-old boy would do with that kind of cash (throw some parties, buy some beer, buy some girls, buy some friends), he took his inheritance and ransomed some Christians being held captive by Moors in Barcelona. Now, if you're anything like me, you're rolling your eyes about now, muttering "Give me a break." I like to think that if I received an unexpected fortune (win the Powerball; fall down in the produce aisle at Wal-mart, break my leg, and sue the evil conglomerate for several million dollars), I would help out certain loved ones and friends. Not all of them. I have a few scores to settle. I sure as hell wouldn't give it all away to help complete strangers.

However, Peter took it even one step further. He became a priest and established a religious group called Order of Our Lady of Ransom whose main focus was (you guessed it!) the freeing of Christian slaves. At one point in his life, he wound up in prison in Algeria, himself, trying to carry out his life's mission. Yeah, right. The prayer following his biography in my book says, "Like Peter, our faith and zeal should lead us to lives of holiness dedicated to the welfare of and concerns for those enslaved by sin and excess."

Which brings us to the poem I wrote for Manly Man Poetry Night. In a way, it's a poem about enslavement and war. Okay, I'm just saying that so I can justify including it in this blog post. It is, however, about a self-absorbed, 12-year-old boy who, coincidentally, bears a passing resemblance to me. It is the result of a poetry exercise in The Practice of Poetry. Poet Carol Muske suggests writing a poem based on/inspired by Elizabeth Bishop's "In the Waiting Room." (If you've never read it, you should. It's brilliant.) So, in blazing, self-centered glory, I give you...

In the Holiday Inn Bathroom or:
How I Learned to Start Smoking and Love the Bomb

In Manistique, Michigan.
My older brother, Paul,
Took me for a guys' weekend.
Cigarettes, porn, cable TV.
Almost spring. Snow still
Humped on the ground
In muddy piles, air full
Of ice and fog and dark.
On the tile floor
By the bathtub at 3 a.m.,
I flipped through pictures,
Smoked filtered Merits
The way any 12-year-old
Boy would smoke.
Suck. Inhale. Cough. Blow.
Taste like the upholstery
In my brother's Dodge Dart.
Tobacco and mint.

I stared at the women
In the magazine:
Babes in the Military.
Posed on tanks.
Spread on subs. Holding
Rifles, guns, sabers,
Fingers curled, loose
As a middle-school girl
Holding hands with her dad.
They wore parts of uniforms,
Hats with visors,
Olive-drab unbuttoned
To expose vulnerable flesh,
Headlamps of breasts
Cupped white where sun
Hadn't touched.

I listened to make sure
I was alone in this land
Of towels, bleach marble,
Drinking glasses with paper caps.
This alien territory
Of naked, smiling warriors.
Protecting. Serving. Me.
The Sailor's shaved
Waves, sandy clefts.
The Marine's curved back,
Muscled buttocks,
Hard as the Berlin Wall.
The Navy Seal's wetsuit
Unzipped, puddled
Like an oil slick
Around the equator
Of her hips. The world
Seemed secure to me,
Guarded by these Amazons
From the pages of Penthouse,
March of 1979.

The U.S. was warless,
Vietnam not quite history,
Iraq, Afghanistan
Distant as the planes
Over New York, the towers.
The only battleground
Were the jungles, desert hearts
Of girls. I wanted to be
Teddy Roosevelt, charge
Up San Juan Hill. The Duke,
Swagger with Green Berets.
Patton, push the enemy
Back and back to the bunker.
March. Fight. Conquer.

I heard a snort,
A growl of sleep,
From Paul in bed.
I suddenly realized
How far I had to go
To know the codes
To launch the missiles,
To have my hand
On the red phone
To give the orders:
Scramble the jets,
Invade, overcome.
I was still in basic,
Slogging through swamps,
Doing push ups, sit ups,
Surprise inspections,
Waiting for my chance
To engage, go
Hand-to-hand,
Face-to-face,
Body-to-body
With the babes
Of the military.
Be Slim Pickens
Riding my bomb
All the way home.


Wednesday, May 5, 2010

May 5: Saint Gothard

You will forgive me in advance if this post is a little unfunny. See, my wife comes from a family of matriarchs. The women on her side run the show, and, for the most part, we men know it. At the top of this pyramid of female power are my wife's grandma and her grandma's sisters. They're all pretty strong cookies. Three of them outlived their husbands; one of these three remarried. One of them got divorced at a time when divorce was tantamount to taking a dump on the Bible. My wife's grandma had several miscarriages and two children. One of those children, my wife's mother, died of ovarian cancer in her late forties; the other child, a son, lived into his fifties and ended up shooting himself. Throw in a strong strain of mental illness, and you have a pretty good picture of the stock my wife comes from. These women are survivors, "tough old birds," as one of my wife's cousins fondly says.

I'm telling you all this because one of those birds died at 12:45 this morning. It wasn't a surprise. She had a stroke last week, and, when she got an MRI, the doctors discovered a massive tumor in her chest. There wasn't a whole lot to do. She was going to die, and her living will was pretty clear about not wanting feeding tubes or respirators or any other kind of "heroic" (I use that term loosely) measures. She died on her own terms, the way she wanted to go.

I love the women of my wife's family. They're crazy, wild, funny, loving, and fierce. It's one of the things that drew me to my wife--this independent strain of female-hood. Having been pretty much raised by my five older sisters, I found myself in very comfortable territory around my wife's grandmother and great aunts.

I can't say I'm heartbroken over this death. I loved her and respected her, and she made great chocolate chip cookies and lemon bars. I will miss her at birthdays and holiday get-togethers when she held court with her Lucille Ball red hair (I believe it was natural, but I'm not sure) and crooked smile.
So that pretty much got the morning off to a great start. Going through my e-mails when I got to work, I came across a chain-message from a friend. It involved a picture of an "angel of abundance" that you had to forward to as many people as you could. If you sent it to eight or more people within four hours, you were promised to receive an economic windfall.

Now, I'm not a superstitious person, although if I had been told eleven years ago that wearing the same pair of dirty underwear for eight years would have kept George W. Bush out of office, I would have done it. But this morning, seeing the fairy-like angel on my computer monitor, I figured, "What the hell? It couldn't hurt anything." So, with a few keystrokes, I sent the angel on her merry way with a hearty "show me the money!"

Three hours later, I got a phone call from the mechanic who was working on my wife's Subaru. It needed a brake job and a wheel bearing/baring/boring replaced. I'm not mechanical in any way, so when someone starts speaking automotive to me, I turn into Sarah Palin in a Harvard Think Tank, muttering such witty bon mots as, "I think that there car there should be fixed, I do." The lowdown was a $1500 repair.

Thank you, angel of abundance, you whore.

Needless to say, the rest of my day was colored by this flood of initial good news. By the time I hit choir practice this evening, I could barely control the torrent of Tourett's-like profanity that was sitting on my tongue like a piece of sour cantaloupe. So when the choir's organist said, "I spoke to some people from downstate, and they said we are getting a wonderful new pastor," I turned to my wife and said, "We need to go. Now." I did not want to discuss the replacement for my best friend.

The abundance angel was working overtime in my life today, heaping blessing after blessing on me until I felt like I was buried in a great, big, stinking pile of blessing manure. On the way home from choir practice, I got into an argument with my wife, which ended when she said something like, "I have no control over that. Stop being an asshole."

Message received. My behavior today was not very saint-like, and my wife called me on it. I was fighting battles I couldn't win--against death, debt, and change. In the face of things I have no control over, I tend to get defensive and more than a little cranky. I can lay money on the fact that any holy person (Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Peter, Paul, or Gothard) wouldn't depend on the angel of abundance for happiness.

That's right, Saint Gothard, and you can stop laughing like Beavis and Butthead ("Huh, huh, you said 'got hard.'"). Gothard knew how to roll with life's punches. Among some of his accomplishments: building and rebuilding churches; reforming monasteries; establishing schools; and running a hospice for the poor and sick. I'm sure Gothard never passed along a chain-scroll to his close friends in hopes of getting money, and if his oxcart broke down, he probably didn't start pointless arguments with those closest to him.

And, honestly, when I think about my wife's great aunt quietly breathing her last breath early this morning, a $1500 repair doesn't seem all that important. I will be seeing my Manly Man Poetry buddy tomorrow night; he won't be moving for over a month-and-a-half. Everything is pretty relative, and I needed Gothard and my wife, who comes from a long line of no-nonsense women, to remind me of that fact.

I will go to the funeral in a couple days. I will sing what they want me to sing, play what they want me to play, and read the scripture they want me to read.

And I will miss the tough, old bird's chocolate chip cookies and lemon bars at the dinner afterward.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

May 4: Saint Antonina

To paraphrase the little girl from Poltergeist: "I'm baaaaa-aaaaack."

April turned into quite the creative writing killer for me. First, I had Easter and all the crap that goes along with it for a church musician (rehearsals, meetings, special services, special meetings, rehearsals for special services, music for rehearsals for special services, meetings about music for rehearsals for special services). Couple that with end-of-the-semester grading, which generally includes enough essays and research papers to level a medium-sized redwood forest, and you get a pretty good idea of how the month went for me. By the time I sat down with my journal and pen at night, I could barely remember how to hate Glen Beck and Sarah Palin.

Anyway, my grades are submitted; Easter is long-gone; and summer is on its way. I actually find myself with time for reflection and introspection, which means I have time to obsess and indulge my favorite hobbies: jealousy, selfishness, and envy.

Since I last posted, my coworker has moved into her new manse on the lake. My other coworker has received her employee of the month gold badge, gold pin, and picture in the employee newsletter. In addition to these wonderful (he said with gritted teeth) events, another couple I know has just sold their house, and my pastor friend has started packing up his office and house for his move to a downstate church on June 21. There are exactly five Manly Man Poetry Nights left, if other obligations don't get in the way to fuck things up.

As you can tell, I'm just as neurotic, angry, and confused as always. My Lenten exercise in forgiveness taught me 1) I am not very forgiving, and 2) forgiveness is a process that takes A LOT of time and patience (a virtue of which I am in usually very short supply). A full posting will be forthcoming on this subject, possibly titled "Forgiveness: Who Needs It?" or "On My Way to Forgiveness I Rediscovered Anger."

Yesterday, my daughter was named student of the week at her elementary school. It's something she's wanted for a while. Either that, or it's something I've wanted for her for a while (ever since I saw the parade of undeserving delinquents who were winning week-after-week). She received a dragon pencil, a rub-on tattoo, and a pin that identified her as the winner. Her name and picture will also be displayed for the next five days at the school. She is really excited. I'm really excited, but not in the same way she is. I'm excited in the all-you-other-kids-are-losers way. She's excited in the look-at-my-cool-pencil way.

I don't know why I act like this. My siblings would say it's because I'm the baby of the family and, therefore, crave attention like Paris Hilton at a nightclub. I crave attention so much that, when my daughter receives recognition, I think it somehow reflects on how good a job I'm doing at parenting her. That's messed up, I know.

Since I'm revealing this ugly side of myself, let me give you another example. Every year, when the winners of the big literary awards are announced, I act offended and put-off by the fact that I didn't win. This year, a classmate with whom I took a fiction-writing workshop ten years ago was nominated for the National Book Award for her collection of short stories. There was even talk that she was going to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (she didn't, wasn't even nominated). She was always lovely and kind to me. When my book of poetry was published, she wrote a great review of it on Amazon.com. In short, she's a great person, and monstrously talented to boot.

I hate her.

The saint for today, Antonina, was a martyr. But I don't really care about her. I'm drawn to an anonymous participant in her story. This is what my book of saints has to say:

The pre-1970 Roman Missal had the following short history: A soldier named N. tried to save St. Antonina, who had been condemned to death during the persecution of Maximian in Constantinople. He changed clothes with her and took her place. However, the ruse was discovered, and both were tortured and then burnt to death.


So, this guy puts on a dress and gets tortured and roasted alive, but Antonina gets to be a saint. He becomes an unknown footnote in drag.

That pretty much sums it up for me today.