Thursday, July 29, 2010

July 29: Saint Martha

I've always liked the story of Martha in the Bible.  Jesus comes to visit Martha and her sister, Mary, in Bethany.  While Mary sits at Jesus' feet and listens to Him talk, Martha is busting her ass getting dinner ready and the house cleaned and the good china and silver washed.  (Okay, I don't know if they had good china and silver back then, but I'm sure Martha didn't want Jesus to eat hummus/whatever with His fingers or a stick.)  Martha gets pissed at Mary for not pulling her weight, and Jesus scolds Martha:  "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need only of one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."

I got a letter from my daughter last night.  It was the first of three letters I instructed her to write from the church camp she's attending this week.  I know that my daughter is having a great time, attending worship services, doing crafts, swimming, learning about Jesus and the Bible.  The directions we received from the camp director even told us to pack her Bible, a notebook, and a pen.  So she's studying the Bible, and I'm Martha, telling her to write her letters and do her daily reading of Harry Potter and be homesick, dammit.

So, I thought I'd share the contents of that letter with you.  The portions in bold are my daughter's words.  The portions in italics are my interpretations of her words:

(My darling father, whom I miss more than a drowning person misses air.)

first day totally awesome!
(I have struggled through this first 24 hours and am counting the days until you return to pick me up.  I put a smile on my face and pretend to be having fun, but, on the inside, I'm always crying.)

we took a swimming test and I won!!
(They took us down to the lake and let us enter the water.  I really didn't feel like doing it, but I knew you would want me to do my best.  So I participated in their swimming test and did my best for you, Daddy, because you are the greatest daddy in the whole world.)

well, lunch is soon
(I don't really have an appetite, but I'm going to eat whatever they put in front of me because you taught me good manners.  I want you to be proud of me.  I will eat, even though the only thing I'm hungry for is being with you, Daddy.)

I miss you!!
(More than anything in the world.  I cried myself to sleep last night and woke up crying this morning.  I've been crying so much that my eyes are swollen and red.  The camp nurse thought I was having an allergic reaction and tried to give me some Benadryl.  I told her the only thing that would cure me is a big dose of Daddy.)

(With all my heart and every atom in my body, forever and ever, until the end of time, because you are the best and coolest and most loving father in the whole universe.)

(Your little Mary, sitting at the foot of Jesus.)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

July 28: Saint Samson

One of my biggest character flaws, not all the time but sometimes, is pride.  It usually manifests itself when I'm reading a particularly bad poem.  (I can't count how many times friends have handed me a poem written by one of their children and gushed, "Isn't it good?")  When I go to an amateur musical or concert, an off-key singer can send me into paroxysms of cringing and whispered profanity.  I tell you this not because I think pride is something to be, well, proud about.  I tell you this to give you a context for today's post.

The saint d'jour is Samson, a fifth century Welsh bishop.  He did a lot of amazing things, but one line in his biography stood out for me:  "As time went on, the gift of miracles, which he already enjoyed, attracted so much attention that his humility could not tolerate it."  So he returns to his homeland and lives "as a hermit on the banks of the Severn."

As a writer, I don't comprehend this retreat from notoriety.  Most writers want fame, crave it.  Even J. D. Salinger, before he became the Bigfoot of the publishing world, was already really, really famous and really, really rich.  Then, he locked himself away and started suing anyone who tried to take a snapshot of him.  Humility is not a natural state for writers.  We act humble, but, in reality, we'd set ourselves on fire to get someone to notice us.

But, God has a way of deflating ego balloons.  That's what an e-mail I got today reminded me.  I don't generally pass on forwarded messages, but this one is too good to ignore.

So, here is the e-mail, corrected and edited a little bit by me (I am a published writer, after all):


A young and successful executive was traveling down a neighborhood street, going a bit too fast in his new Jaguar. He was watching for kids darting out from between parked cars and slowed down when he thought he saw something. As his car passed, no children appeared. Instead, a brick smashed into the Jag's side door.

He slammed on the brakes and backed the Jag back to the spot where the brick had been thrown. The angry driver then jumped out of the car, grabbed the nearest kid and pushed him up against a parked car, shouting, “What was that all about and who are you? Just what the hell are you doing? That's a new car and that brick you threw is going to cost a lot of money!”

The young boy was apologetic. ”Please, mister... Please. I'm sorry, but I didn't know what else to do.” He pleaded, “I threw the brick because no one else would stop...”  With tears dripping down his face and off his chin, the youth pointed to a spot just around a parked car.  “It's my brother,” he said. “He rolled off the curb and fell out of his wheelchair, and I can't lift him up.”  Now sobbing, the boy asked the stunned executive, “Would you please help me get him back into his wheelchair? He's hurt, and he's too heavy for me.”

Moved beyond words, the driver tried to swallow the rapidly-swelling lump in his throat. He hurriedly lifted the handicapped boy back into the wheelchair, then took out a linen handkerchief and dabbed at the fresh scrapes and cuts. A quick look told him everything was going to be okay.

“Thank you and may God bless you,” the grateful child told the stranger.

Too shook up for words, the man simply watched the boy push his wheelchair-bound brother down the sidewalk toward their home.

It was a long, slow walk back to the Jaguar. The damage was very noticeable, but the driver never bothered to repair the dented side door. He kept the dent there to remind him of this message: “Don't go through life so fast that someone has to throw a brick at you to get your attention!”

God whispers in our souls and speaks to our hearts. Sometimes, when we don't have time to listen, He has to throw a brick at us. It's our choice to listen or not.

Thought for the Day: God didn't promise days without pain, laughter without sorrow, sun without rain, but He did promise strength for the day, comfort for the tears, and light for the way. If God brings you to it, He will bring you through it.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

July 27: Saint Pantaleon

Today's feast saint, Pantaleon, is the patron of physicians.  He is honored in the Greek Orthodox Church, which identifies him as "one of the Holy Moneyless Ones who treated the sick without payment."  The Greek version of his name is Panteleimon, which translates as "the All-compassionate One."  All the other details of Pantaleon's life are suspect, and that means that legend and fact have stewed over the centuries into a mash of truth and fairy tale.  The one thing that's obvious, from his name and titles, is that he was a man of great caring, a person who looked after the poor and broken.  I kind of picture him as a cross between Mother Teresa and Anthony Edwards on ER.  One of the hardest things to do as a human being is to comfort another human being who's suffering physically or mentally, especially if that suffering is acute and frightening.

Last night, I sat in a room-full of people who face that kind of suffering every day of their lives.  It was the monthly meeting for the local chapter of the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI).  It's a support group for those suffering from mental illness and their families and friends.  Basically, it's for people on the front lines, who deal with the effects of bipolar, schizophrenia, depression, mania, OCD, borderline personality disorder, you-name-it, every day of their lives.  Over the years, I've had therapists and friends tell me I should attend a NAMI meeting.  Last night, I decided to follow their advice.

As I listened to people speak last night, I heard story after story of heartbreak and frustration.  One 26-year-old attendee knew she had acute depression when she was 12 or 13; she didn't start receiving legitimate treatment until four or so years ago.  Another person suffered from mental illness since she was a child, but she didn't get help until she was in her thirties; she's in her forties now  and, in a one-year-span, tried to kill herself five times.  There was a young man whose brother is schizophrenic and violent.  The brother refuses to take his medication, and the man can't get him committed to a hospital until the brother hurts himself or another person.  Another man has a girlfriend with untreated bipolar disorder; the girlfriend screams at him and beats him up when they're together.  "She's my best friend.  She's helped me through a lot," the man said, paused, and then finished, "and she's pregnant now."

The details were different for everyone, but they were also the same.  Family members wanted their loved ones to be well.  Those with mental illness wanted to feel normal, think clearly, be happy, at peace.

Through all the anger and frustration at a health care system that, for the most part, fails patients with mental illnesses; through all the turbulence of mania and depression and psychosis and paranoia; through all the meetings with doctors and therapists and police officers and lawyers and judges; through all of this shit, there was one overriding emotion:  hope.

Hope that the pregnant girlfriend will stop screaming.  Hope that the brother will take his shot.  Hope that the next medication, the next treatment, will be the ONE.  Hope.

I didn't expect to find that at NAMI.  I expected the crying, heartbreak, pain, anger.  I didn't expect hope.

But there it was, shining through the understanding nods and concerned questions.  There it was in the face of the woman who said, "I'm going back to college this fall."  There it was in the girl who had found a friend she could talk to, who understood what it felt like to want to cut yourself.  There it was in the man who said he wanted to hold his unborn child.

NAMI is full of Panteleimons.  All-compassionate ones.

Monday, July 26, 2010

July 26: Saints Joachim and Anne

Yesterday, I dropped my daughter off at a church camp for a week-long stay.  It's a facility owned and run by the district of the United Methodist Church.  My wife attended the camp when she was a girl.  It's a gorgeous complex of cabins located near the shores of beautiful lake, and my daughter was completely stoked to be there.  I use the term "stoked" because I can't really think of another, more dignified term to describe her excitement.  It's the first time she's been away from home for an extended period of time without the supervision of some relative.  It's definitely the longest time I've ever gone without seeing or speaking to her since she was born.

So the drop-off/registration time was 2 p.m. yesterday (Sunday).  I spent most of Saturday night packing her suitcase, hunting for her sleeping bag, and filling out permission slips and medical forms.  I also took the opportunity to address several envelopes for her to use to write home during the week.  When I put the envelopes and stamps in her suitcase, I gave her strict instructions:  "You have to write us one letter a day or you'll break my heart."  That may violate a few parenting rules, but I really don't care.

My daughter was not very clingy as we waited to get her checked in.  In fact, she ran off a couple of times to do some exploring with an older cousin of hers.  In line, she kept saying, "How much longer?" over and over, as if the presence of her mother and father was a mosquito she wanted to swat into oblivion.  And, when we finally got her cabin assignment, she ran back to the car and started unloading her bags before I could even remember where I parked.

When we reached her cabin, she quickly picked out her bunk and made her bed, spreading out her sleeping bag neatly.  When she was done arranging her pillow, she looked up at me and said, "Now what?"

"Now you wait until everyone in your cabin is here," I said.  "And then your counselor will tell you what to do."

My daughter leaned back in her bunk, arms behind her head, and smiled.  "Okay, bye."

I kissed and hugged her.  My wife kissed and hugged her.  Then...we left.

No tears.  No looks of abject terror.  No moments of uncertainty at all.  At least not from my daughter.

As I drove away from the camp, I could feel melancholy settling on my shoulders.  I had just entered into a new phase of fatherhood, a phase of letting go.  As the miles between my daughter and me increased, I began to realize that my little girl wasn't so little any more.  (She revels in telling me that on her next birthday, she will officially be a "tweenager.")

When I got back home, I was highly aware of small things that reminded me of her.  Socks that she left balled up on the floor.  A pink grass hula skirt she danced in before she went to bed last night.  A pen with a furry cap sitting on the kitchen table.  I didn't want to let those objects effect me the way they did.  But I couldn't help it.  Each object felt like a death, a little piece of lost childhood I had to fold into a paper boat and launch into the ocean.

I know I'm being melodramatic.  I know a lot of you are rolling your eyes and laughing at me.  I had a friend with grown children tell me yesterday, "You gotta let go some time, dad."  That didn't help.

Today's saints are Joachim and Anne, the father and mother of the Virgin Mary.  The Gospels say nothing about the parents of Mary; the Gospels don't even name them.  However, Anne and Joachim  have been celebrated and honored in Eastern Churches since the earliest Christian times.  Mary's mom and dad would understand my emotions regarding my daughter.  Mary was around 13, only four years older than my daughter, when she became pregnant with Jesus.  I can almost imagine the conversation Mary had with Joachim and Anne over that.  I can certainly imagine Joachim's reaction--fear, heartbreak, loss, sorrow.  Talk about losing your little girl in a really big way.  I'm sure, since they are saints, that Joachim and Anne handled the situation a lot better than I would have.

Here I sit.  My daughter has been at camp less than 24 hours, and I have already mailed her a three-page letter.  I miss her.  I miss the pink princess in the crib.  I miss the kindergartner with her finger painting.  I miss the four-year old who sat in my lap and listened to me read Charlotte's Web.  I'm happy she's independent and confident, but I want her to still need me.  The way Jesus needed Mary.  Mary needed Joachim and Anne.

I want her to need me as much as I need her.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

July 22: Saint Mary Magdalene

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant---
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind---
                -----Emily Dickinson

So, everyone knows some story about Mary Magdalene, whether from the Bible or The DaVinci Code.  Depending on your sources, Mary was either the wife of Jesus and mother of His child; the adulterous woman Jesus saved from being stoned ("Let the person who is without sin cast the first stone"); the woman who washed Jesus' feet with her tears and dried them with her hair; or the sister of Martha and Lazarus (you know, the guy Jesus raised from the dead).  It's amazing how many narratives surround Mary Magdalene.  Even leaders of the Church can't seem to get their facts straight.  Two facts that everyone seems to agree upon, however, is that (1) Mary Magdalene was at the foot of the cross with John and the Virgin Mary and (2) Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene first on Easter morning, before anyone else.  Aside from those two biographical details, everything else is up for grabs.  This saint is always portrayed by the hottest actresses in the movies:  Charlotte Graham, Monica Belluci, Barbara Hershey, and Juliette Binoche.

Truth is such a relative thing.  Tonight, my book club is meeting for a barbecue.  Our book for this month was The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield.  It is a really good read, full of murder and moors and ghosts and mental illness.  I'd recommend it to anyone who likes gothic novels like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.  I also recommend it to fans of Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.  If you're a lover of books, you'll really like TTT.  Above all, this book is about the search for truth and the various "truths" people tell about themselves.

You see, I think most of us tell stories about ourselves.  Those stories are versions of the truth, the versions we choose to share, leaving out or changing the details that we don't want released to the general public.  It's not really lying.  It's doing what every writer does every day:  pick and choose, select and arrange, embellish and polish.  Even when I sit down to blog, I leave out facts, change names and genders, exaggerate for humor, obscure for privacy.  But all good writing gets at the truth.  That's what's satisfying about reading a novel or memoir or poem.  When you're done reading, you feel like you somehow have gotten a glimpse of something bone real, clear.

I know someone right now who is struggling with addiction.  (Plug in whatever addiction you want.  It doesn't matter.)  "Frank" has struggled with this addiction for quite a while.  In the last few years, Frank has been on pretty level ground.  No binges.  No lost weekends.  Frank's family members, who have been through the trenches with him, are now faced with the prospect of a full-throttled, out-of-control descent into addiction.  Frank's household is in lock down.  Nobody is sure which Frank is going to show up--the loving, sweet uncle/brother/friend or the deceitful, angry stranger/junkie.  Stepping into Frank's house right now is like entering a battle zone.  Everyone walks around like there are land mines in the carpeting.

Now, if I were writing fiction, I would fabricate some kind of intervention where Frank eventually dissolves into tears, realizing the hurt and pain he's causing the people who love him.  It would be one of those Lifetime movie moments that involve a lot of snot and hugging.  I wish I was writing fiction.

I'm not.

There's no easy, quick fix to this problem.  Honestly, Frank may never reach that moment of clarity or revelation.  He might just bounce from periods of extended sobriety to months of addictive indulgence and back again.  Or he may end up dead.  Or he may one day realize he's going to lose everything and everybody he values and loves in his life, and he'll never turn back to his addiction again.  The end of his story isn't written yet.

For Mary Magdalene, for Frank, for me, the truth is still out there (cue The X-Files theme).  The narrative is still being written.  I prefer the older versions of Mary Magdalene, pre-Dan Brown.  I like to think that Frank's story is going to resolve happily.  I like to think the same for me.

That's what faith gives me:  hope.

Hope for a happy ending.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

July 20: Saint Margaret

I used to have a recurring nightmare when I was younger. Because there were nine kids in our family, my mom and dad always had a full-size van to chauffeur us around. This was before the days of minivans. My parents' vehicles were large enough to fit our entire family, plus my grandma, comfortably. When I rode anywhere in the van, if there were fewer than two or three passengers, I felt like I was cruising in a movable cave, a place on wheels in which a child my age and size could get lost. And never be seen again.

Perhaps that impression was the seed for my nightmare. In the dream, I woke up in the back of my parents' van. I could hear the wheels humming on the road, the high-pitched tone of highway travel. When I sat up, I was alone. No brothers, sisters, or grandma. No mother or father. The van was simply navigating itself down an endless road, driverless. It wasn't swerving or out-of-control. It was purposefully moving down a two-lane freeway, through a landscape of fields and power lines. The thing terrified me about this dream was not that I was in a van being driven by some unseen presence or force. The thing that terrified me was that I was alone and had no idea where I was going.

As an adult, I've learned that one of my biggest fears is being lost. I can't stand the panic that invades my body if I find myself in unfamiliar surroundings, unsure how to find my way home. It's that loss of control, that helplessness, that makes my heart race. I like being grounded, knowing exactly my place and role in the world. It's all about control. If you haven't figured out I have control issues yet, you need to go back and review a few of my older posts. Doesn't matter which ones. You'll get the idea. Go ahead. I'll wait...

Okay, now that you know I'm a total neurotic, I'll continue.

There a very few times in my life when I don't know where I'm going, what I'm doing, how I'm doing it, and why I'm doing it. One of the only times I've travelled by air alone, I got stuck in Detroit Metro for two hours, not knowing if I was going to make my connecting flight. How did I get through that? Two Ativan and about three glasses of cheap red wine. I don't endorse alcohol or prescription drugs as coping mechanisms, but I made it through the rest of my trip with little to no anxiety. (I also don't remember too much about that final leg of my journey.)

In some ways, though, that childhood nightmare is a pretty good metaphor for life. We may choose husbands or wives or significant others to be partners on the journey, but, when push comes to shove, we're all travelling in that ghost van alone, hoping whatever's driving is taking us somewhere good.

As a Christian, I'm supposed to believe that my van will wind up pulling into the Mickey Mouse Lot of God's Magic Kingdom. That's what's supposed to get me through the rough times.

When I was driving to work this morning, I thought about that nightmare. You see, I leave my house at around 4:50 a.m. It's dark. Really dark, even in the summer. A stretch of my 25-minute trip takes me down U. S 41 where the road is bounded by forest on both sides. My headlights provide me with a little ability to see what's ahead of me. For the most part, though, I'm travelling along at 60-plus mph, hands on the steering wheel, aiming my car into a darkness that may contain any number of dangers and calamities. I can flip on my high beams, but it still won't let me see the deer standing in the middle of the road a mile away. Only God has that kind of GPS. I may think I'm in control, but I'm not.

Margaret, the saint for today, had her share of deer in the road. A convert to Christianity, Maggie was kicked out of her house as a girl by her father, who was a pagan priest. She was eventually imprisoned for her beliefs. In prison, she had a vision/encounter with Satan taking on the form of a dragon and swallowing her. Thank goodness for Margaret, the cross she carried got stuck in the dragon's throat. Quicker that you can say "purge," Satan vomited up Margaret. Eventually, after several failed execution attempts by her Roman captors, she was beheaded.

Now, if I were Margaret and saw the whole dragon puke/decapitation thing in the headlights of my car, I'm not so sure I would have signed up for saint duty. That's why I'm not a saint and probably never will be. I spend most of my life with my hands on the steering wheel, trying to avoid all the dragons coming my way. It's my futile attempt to control the trajectory of my life. Once in a while, I know, I just have to sit in the backseat, buckle up, hold on, and trust.

Deer happens.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

July 15: Saint Bonaventure

It's been over a week, I know. I really have no excuse for not blogging. No ambulances have visited my house. My children are healthy. I haven't been on vacation, unfortunately. No new great calamity has been visited upon me, a la Job. There is really no good reason for my absence from the keyboard, aside from the fact that my days have been busy and my evenings have been full. Don't ask me what I've been busy doing, because I can't really recall. It's been the type of busyness that eats up your time but doesn't bear much fruit. A sort of unproductive hum that lasts all day, like tinnitus.

I don't have a particular subject to write about today, either. So if you're reading this post hoping for some life-changing wisdom, you've come to the wrong blog today. The best I'm going to be able to offer you is a few paragraphs devoid of substance, maybe providing an occasional chuckle but, more than likely, making your finger twitch on your mouse, itching to move on to a portion of cyberspace more entertaining and fulfilling. For this decided lack of inspiration, I apologize.

It's not that my life has become suddenly perfect, pure and white as a glass of Vitamin D milk. I can assure you, I have issues still. A LOT of issues. But today is one of those days when, despite the pile of elephant manure fermenting in the living room of my life, I just feel good. Positive. Blessed. And I have reached this state of bliss without the aid of Ativan or a mug of my special cocoa (a mixture of hot chocolate and Bailey's Irish Cream). I have these days occasionally, when the doors to my soul are thrown open and a strong wind carries away all the dust and cobwebs and detritus of my broken self. Some people might call it the Holy Spirit. Others might call it temporary insanity. I prefer to think of it as a storm of grace.

Nothing really bothers me today. All of the normal elements of my day that cause me irritation or consternation seem insignificant, which, in reality, they probably are. Instead of getting bogged down in my typical swamp of bitching and witty sarcasm, I find myself free, happy to be around people. For those of you familiar with my misanthropic tendencies, I know that statement will possibly alter your world view. I can assure you, this change (a word I generally distrust and loath) is temporary, a trough between tidal waves, so to speak. I choose, however, to enjoy myself at the moment, like Ted Baxter enjoying a sunset after his heart attack on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Like Ted, I'll be back to my normal state in a few days.

(This state has caused concern among my friends and coworkers. They think I'm hiding something or planning to climb into a bell tower with a rifle. Rest assured, I am not a threat to myself of anyone else, and I am not walking around with a balloon of happiness crammed into any of my orifices. I just feel fortunate at the moment for all the people whom I care for and who care for me.)

Now, that brings me to Bonaventure. He was born in Tuscany in the thirteenth century and was given the name John. Deathly sick as a child, John was brought to the attention of Francis of Assisi by John's mother, who begged the holy man to cure her son. Francis received a vision of John's "future greatness" as he prayed for the boy's recovery. Holding the infant, Francis purportedly cried out, "O buona ventura"--O good fortune. Hence, John's name change. John was restored to health and eventually joined the Franciscans. He became best friends with Thomas Aquinas; served as General of the Franciscan Order; and was appointed Cardinal and Bishop of Albano in Rome. Bonaventure, I'm sure, saw every day of his life as good fortune, a shower of blessings.

So, today, no cutting or funny remark at the end of this post. Just join me at the window to watch the sun sink beneath the horizon. Maybe you could even say, in your best Father Guido Sarducci voice, "O buona ventura!"

O good fortune!

Friday, July 9, 2010

July 9: Saint Veronica Giuliani

Since my pastor friend moved away, I know most of you thought Manly Man Poetry Night had gone the way of the Dodo. Well, not quite. Manly Man P. N. has evolved and adapted into a new species, which met for the first time last night. Whoever said Darwin wasn't on to something? You can't keep a mediocre poet down.

Manly Man Poetry Night shall henceforth be known as Gurly Monn Poetry Night, thanks to the attendance of my good friend, Wonder Twin (more on this name in a moment). Wonder Twin has agreed to meet with me once a month to work on poems, discuss life, and eat onion rings at Big Boy. Wonder Twin is one of my closest and dearest friends, and I'm excited to be partaking in fatty, breaded, fried side orders with her.

I've known Wonder Twin for over 14 years. We first met when she took a narrative writing night class I was teaching. We hit it off immediately, mostly because she got my jokes and shared my twisted taste in literature. Through the years, our paths continued to cross until we eventually became coworkers in an outpatient surgery center. We are still coworkers. She still laughs at my jokes, and we still share an affinity for the same depressing books.

But that's not where the closeness of our bond ends. You see, through the course of our friendship, WT and I have become convinced we were separated at birth. We both were in love with same same book as kids, Swan Song by Robert McCammon. We both were addicted to the TV series Lost in Space as children and watched Bill Kennedy at the Movies in the afternoons. We've both struggled with weight and eating issues our whole lives. We are only a few months apart in age (she is older--I have to point out), and we are both products of the '80s big hair band days (she has more hair than me now, although we both sported mullets back in the day). I could continue with the uncanny similarities of our childhoods, down to our love of the Wonder Twins cartoon series (thus the nickname). In adulthood, our life experiences have followed similar trajectories, as well, right down to dealing with close family members who have mental illness and addictions. Spooky. WT also happens to be a member of the same book club that my pastor friend and I were/are in. Surprise, surprise.

That's the background.

We met at Big Boy last night. I had onion rings; she had a chicken Caesar salad. We shared a hot fudge chocolate chip cookie sundae. It was just this side of heaven. After observing a moment of silence for our absent pastor friend, we dove right into normal dinner conversation about bipolar, alcoholism, sexual addiction, and dog shit. Well, it's normal for us, anyway. It was great fun and very cathartic to be sitting across from someone who understands me and my circumstances so thoroughly. Oh, yeah: we also read the poems we had written for our meeting.

Veronica Giuliani, the saint for today, suffered from the wounds of the stigmata, including "the imprint of the crown of thorns" and "the impress of the five sacred wounds." She accepted this suffering with grace, working in her convent as novice-mistress and, eventually, abbess. According to the book, Veronica possessed "a large dosage of common sense and an admirable degree of efficiency." She didn't let the trials of her life slow her down. Instead, she took up her cross and basically rolled up her sleeves and got to work. That's what I admire about her. She may have been toting a whole load of crap, but she still would have shown up for Gurly Monn Poetry Night if she'd been invited. And Veronica would have fit right in with WT and me. We would have sat around, swapping stories, comparing wounds, like that scene on the boat in Jaws.

The poetry exercise we did for last night came from The Practice of Poetry again. It's called "Quilting in the Ditch," and poet/teacher James McKean describes it like this:

Choose a particular item or activity and make that the object of a language search. Find out as much as possible about the language associated with that object, especially active and concrete verbs, the history of the names used for that object, and terminology that seems especially colorful. Then save from your search a list of nouns, a list of verbs, and a list of adjectives. Finally, write a poem using words from these lists, keeping one last criterion in mind--the subject of your poem must be something completely different from the original object of your language search.

So, I chose as the subject of my language search mortuary science. WT was quite jealous for not thinking of my topic before me. She chose wrestling. Now, usually, I hate poems that require footnotes to explain the meaning of the terms and references in the lines. But I'm going to provide a little glossary to explain the more obscure elements of my poem:

cenotaph: an empty tomb or monument erected in memory of a person buried elsewhere.
purge: a discharge from the deceased through the mouth, nose and ears of matter from the stomach and intestine caused by improper or ineffectual embalming, due to putrefaction.
putrefaction: the decomposition of the body upon death which causes discoloration and the formation of a foul smelling product.
catafalque: a stand upon which the casketed remains rest while instate and during the funeral service.
vigil: a Roman Catholic religious service held on the eve of the funeral service.
wake: a watch kept over the deceased, sometimes lasting the entire night preceding the funeral. algor mortis: the cooling of the body immediately after death to room temperature and temporary stiffening of the muscles.
antimony salts: embalming agents used in ancient China.
lividity: unnatural lack of color in the skin.
spiritual banquet: a Roman Catholic practice involving specific prayers, such as Masses and Rosaries offered by an individual or a group for a definite purpose.
cortege: the funeral procession.
door badge: a floral spray placed on the door of a residence wherein death has occurred.
canopy: a roof like structure projecting from the outside wall over the driveway allowing passengers to board and alight from vehicles without being directly exposed to the elements--sometimes construed as a portable canvas shelter used to cover the grave area during committal service.
columbarium: a structure of vaults lined with recesses for urns containing cremated remains.

So now, without further adieu, I give you my inaugural poem for Gurly Monn Poetry Night. Wonder Twin powers activate!:

My daughter wants to call me "dad"
Instead of "daddy," slips it into talk
The way I first used "fuck" as a teen,
As if the word is purge in her mouth,
Putrefaction of the pig-tail girl who sat
On my lap, rested her cheek against
My chest, listened to my heart ebb,
Flow with need for her young needs.
Her legs, tan and scabbed from summer,
Stretch like a catafalque beneath her,
As tall now as her three-year-old
Self, a vigil of womanhood,
Watched over, waked by a father
Unwilling to let algor mortis take hold,
Infant blood replaced by antimony salts,
blush into lividity, the pale of time.
I know there's nothing to do, no
Spiritual banquets to recite, bolstering
The levees against puberty, the cortege
Of her body into the bruising world of adults.
I see the badge on her bedroom door,
Pink, soft petals, so much like the palms
Of her baby hands, delicate as breath,
A ribbon with gold letters: "Beloved Child."
In this almost teen, this in-between
Creature, I mourn for myself, sit
Beneath the canopy, admire her
Monument, all limb and blossom,
Full of promise, the pull for boys, body,
Sweat, want. I stand in this columbarium,
Think I hear my daughter's cry, a small,
Urgent sound for milk, for bottle,
For the solid, holding arms of daddy.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

July 7: Blessed Ralph Milner and Roger Dickinson

Okay, I know it's been a while since I blogged. I have good reasons and good excuses, none of which I intend to share. Suffice to say, my Independence Day weekend pretty much sucked. I couldn't wait for it to be over. It sucked on so many levels that it redefined the state of suckitude. I ranks at least in the top five sucky weekends of my life, and I've had some really sucky weekends.

But I'm not going to write about this weekend's monumental suckishness. It would just open up doors I prefer to keep closed at the moment. So you will just have to be satisfied with four little letters. S. U. C. K.

On a weekend that celebrates independence, I'm struck by how almost every saint or blessed I read about is sort of revolutionary. Most saints are famous for going against the status quo, fighting emperors and kings, giving family fortunes away to care for the poor and sick, becoming monks and nuns instead of husbands and wives. In contemporary society, being a Christian has become synonymous with being close-minded, uptight, old-fashioned, and judgemental. In short, Republican. I don't know how this happened. Most of the Christians I admire are fearless crusaders for wiping out poverty. They care for lepers and educate children from slums and ghettos. My idea of a true Christian is more Mother Teresa than Sarah Palin.

Take the two blesseds for today. Ralph Milner was an old farmer in Hampshire, England, when he converted to Catholicism. He was thrown into prison the day he made his first communion. Roger Dickinson was a priest whose mission was to evangelize England, which was pretty risky in the sixteenth century. It could provide for some pretty sucky experiences, and I know suck. When Ralph was eventually paroled, he gathered money, food, and supplies for other prisoners, and he also helped missionaries like Roger in their attempts to care for and preach to the people of the English countryside. Eventually, both men were arrested and executed for their labors. They were killed for trying to spread compassion and love, for making the world a better place. Doesn't sound very uptight, close-minded, or conservative to me. Take note. Rush Limbaugh had to hire Elton John to make his most recent wedding fun. My point: even Republicans realize being Republican is a drag.

Being Christian means giving a voice to the voiceless. Being a friend to the friendless. A father to the fatherless. A sister to the sisterless. A brother to the brotherless. A mother to the motherless.

Which brings me to the one bright moment in my weekend of suck. On Monday, July 5, I spent a good portion of the day with K, a friend from Washington state. She was home visiting with her two daughters. K's younger daughter is a pixie, full of innocent mischief and heart. K's older daughter, who is eight, suffers from Williams syndrome, a genetic disorder that can result in an array of developmental problems. K's daughter is loving and beautiful, but she is prone to what my friend calls "meltdowns." Her daughter has difficulties in speech and learning; she also has characteristics of autism. K has her hands full.

On top of all that, K was just diagnosed with MS this past November. She has to take shots that cost $4000 a month. On the salary of a Headstart teacher.

K is one of the calmest, most giving people I know. She's waif-thin, looks like a person who lives on granola and yogurt, which she probably does. When her older daughter becomes agitated, K speaks to her quietly, takes her hand if possible. K has been injured caring for her daughter. On Monday, we went to the shore of Lake Superior to wade. Her older daughter got upset and inadvertently head-butted K in the nose. "I've had a bruise there before," K said.

I know K doesn't see herself as a hero or somebody to admire. The very idea would probably send her into a spasm of "No, no .... I don't think so .... You're my hero .... You're the strong one ...." Anything to deflect the attention from herself.

K is a revolutionary for love. When I'm around her, I want to be a better person. When I'm around her, I am a better person. She makes me see light in the darkness. I watched her look at her older daughter with such affection, this daughter that bruises and batters her sometimes. It's the way, I imagine, God looks at us, His children. The tired. Poor. Huddled. Homeless. The wretched refuse who break His heart daily, hourly, minute-by-minute, second-by-second.

K reminds me what love is supposed to be. Unconditional.