Wednesday, October 27, 2010

October 27: Saint Namatius

I often wonder what kind of legacy I'm going to leave behind.  As a writer, of course, I want to leave behind a few books that people are still reading fifty or a hundred years after I die.  As a father, I want to be remembered by my daughter and son as a presence of love and support.  I want my daughter to remember the nights I read Charlotte's Web to her, doing character voices, making her imagine the manure pile in Wilbur's barn.  I want my son to remember the nights I sang him to sleep, rubbing his head and back like I was polishing a delicate flute of Waterford crystal.  As a teacher, I want my students to remember me as a person who taught them how to live better lives (and hopefully avoid comma splices).  As a Christian, I honestly don't know what my legacy is going to be.  It may be this blog, floating out in cyberspace like a note floating in a bottle in the Pacific.  Forever unread.

The saints who intrigue me the most are the ones whose biographies start out something like this:  "Not much is known about Saint Joe Schmo..."  It's as if their entire lives are empty chalkboards, and, yet, they're regarded holy enough to be saints.  That's astounding to me.  That would be like me winning the Nobel Prize in Literature because the members of the Swedish Academy heard from a friend's cousin that I'm a good writer.  It just doesn't work that way.

Last night, I started teaching a spiritual journaling workshop.  It was a good first night, with a lot of sharing of stories and backgrounds.  The focus of the session was trying to define what our "present periods" are and how we all go about trying to preserve our histories and pasts.  At one point in the evening, we discussed cemeteries  and how visiting one gives you a sense of clarity and peace.  I have been a cemetery stalker for a long time (not in the Ouija board, chicken blood sense).  I find strolling among headstones, reading names, noting birth and death dates, grounds me.  It reminds me of how trivial most of the things that occupy my days really are.  And it also reminds me that, when I'm long gone from this little rock of a planet, the only physical reminder that I've walked, breathed, spoken, took craps, loved my wife and children, or wrote poetry is going to be a piece of marble with my name chiseled into it.  That's it.  For a majority of the residents of cemeteries, that's the sum total of their legacies.  A slab of cold stone.

That's not a very comforting thought.  To be honest, it scares the shit out of me.  I guess I haven't quite left behind the ten-year-old boy who wanted to be the next Stephen King.  I can't shake the fantasy that, one day, some huge literary agent is going to stumble across my blog and send me an e-mail with these words in the subject line:  "YOU ARE THE BE$T WRITER I'VE EVER READ!  PLEA$E LET ME REPRE$ENT YOU!"  Or something like that.  I'm not sure if this scenario is a reflection of my stubborn refusal to accept reality or a genuine possibility for a lucrative, successful writing career.  I just don't want to give up my dream, because, without my dream, I'm just one step away from being Al Bundy in my own version of Married With Children.

Which brings me back to my original question of what  my legacy is going to be, the thing or things for which I'm going to be remembered.  If I'm remembered at all.  I'm not a saint.  I will never be a saint.  I can't imagine doing anything for a sustained period that even remotely resembles being saintly.  Let me give you an example:  today's feast is for Namatius, a man who was the Bishop of Clermont, France, in the 400s.  Namatius and his wife (yes, Catholic bishops were allowed to marry at one time) are best known for building cathedrals filled with beautiful artwork.  His wife created the Bible of the Poor--"sacred images figuratively transcribed from the revealed texts."  Basically, she created picture book Bibles on church walls for the illiterate poor.  By the way, none of this information is first-hand.  This stuff comes from stories told by Saint Gregory of Tours about Namatius and his wife, which, in my book, is like being nominated for sainthood by a nephew of the chief saint-maker committee guy.  (There's an actual title, I believe, but you get the idea.)  The point is:  legacy is tied to memory, and memory is subject to human failings (like too many Jell-O shots at a Halloween party).  I'm not saying Saint Gregory got it wrong on Namatius.  He probably didn't.  But who's to know?

So, I'm just going to keep writing my posts, taking care of my family, and dreaming.  Who knows what could happen?  I don't think there's a patron saint for bloggers yet.  Now I just have to find someone to nominate me after I'm gone.

You know, the nephew of that chief saint-maker committee guy.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

October 13: Blessed Magdalen Panattieri

I'm currently buried under a stack of essays I need to grade.  I'm having a hard time with them, not because they're particularly bad, but because I just can't muster up the energy to complete the task.  I've managed to correct around ten out of 50.  I try to grade in small amounts, one or two papers at a time.  Then I don't get quite so overwhelmed.  However, this time 'round, even grading one essay seems to take forever.  It's not good.  I've got four more batches of papers to get through this semester.  That's approximately 200, five-page essays.  One thousand pages of grading.  It's enough to make me want to call in sick for the next three months.

The problem, obviously, is one of motivation.  I don't feel particularly inspired as a teacher this autumn, and this attitude is spilling over into my work ethic on grading.  I don't mind going into the classroom and talking about books and writing journal entries and making insightful comments.  Yes, I can be insightful at times--just not about my own, personal issues.  I prefer denial.

I'm in this place where I don't feel a whole lot of what I'm doing makes much of a difference.  I look at a stack of ungraded essays and think, "No matter how many times I explain what a comma splice is, these people are never going to be able to write an elegant sentence."  I'm not sure if that qualifies as losing faith in humanity, but, after I correct five or six essays, I'm ready pull a Unabomber--move to an isolated, mountain cabin and write long, rambling letters on the hopelessness of the future (minus mailing bombs to people).  If a class of 25 students can't write a simple, declarative statement and punctuate it correctly, I get a little discouraged.  And cranky.  I'm the Una-cranker.

I know it's my job to try to help my students become better writers.  But, if I'm going to be completely honest, the students who hand in an "A" paper for their first assignment end up with "A's" for the class.  The same is true for students who turn in "B" papers.  And "C" papers.  You get the idea.  Seldom do I see students who actually learn to become better writers.  I'm not sure if this fact is a reflection of me as a teacher or my students as unmotivated, lazy writers.  As a person who indulges in a great deal of guilt, I usually choose the former.  As a realist/pessimist, I sometimes opt for the latter.  Depends on the day.

I just don't feel like I make much of an impact with my teaching sometimes.  I should probably take a page out of the life of today's saint, Magdalen Panattieri.  Born in 1443 in Trino, Italy, she lived her entire life in her childhood home.  For 60 years, she prayed, ministered to children and the poor, and gave "spiritual talks to women and children and later to priests and religious as well."  She didn't do anything earth-shattering in her life--no miracles, no levitations, no multiplying of spaghetti and loaves of garlic bread.  She just did her thing, day after day.  And she obviously made some kind of impact on the world.  I mean, she's one step away from being a saint.

I wonder if anyone ever became a saint for grading freshmen composition essays.  It's not meditation or prayer.  I'm not healing a one-footed, blind leper with a stutter.  I don't have stigmata.  However, I did have a student once tell me it looked like I bled all over his paper because of the red ink.  Maybe that counts.  I'll have to contact the Vatican.

So, I guess the message today is to just keep plugging along, one fragment and run-on sentence at a time. I might be making a difference without even knowing it.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

October 7: Our Lady of the Rosary

And the winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature was...

Not me.

It wasn't the unpronounceable African writer.  It wasn't even Cormac McCarthy, the writer who wouldn't have pissed me off if he had won.  In fact, I might have even been able to work up a little happiness this morning if McCarthy took home the big kahuna.

The winner is.....NOT YOU!!!!!!!!

As I sat at my computer at 6:45 a.m., watching the webcast from the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, I experienced a kind of excitement I used to feel on my birthdays and Christmases as a child.  Now, I knew I didn't stand a snowball's chance in Fiji of winning.  Don't think I'm some kind of delusional egomaniac.  I'm not delusional.  I just was excited.  I can be excited without being mentally unstable. 

Any way, the commentator on the webcast was saying, "And, in about five minutes' time, the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, Peter Englund, will walk through those doors into the Great Hall to announce the winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature."  I was sucking down my Diet Mountain Dew.  Then the commentator said, "Right now, the Permanent Secretary is calling the winner to congratulate him or her on being selected."

And the phone on my desk rang.

October 7 is the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary.  It originated  around 1571 as a celebration of a "naval victory over the Turks" by Don Juan of Austria.  Don Juan credited his success to the recitation of the rosary.  In 1716, Emperor Charles VI again defeated the Turks in battle, and Pope Clement XI extended the feast to the entire church.  Finally, in 1961, the day officially became known as the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary.  It's a day celebrating the power of prayer, of victory due to divine intervention.

Now my rational mind knew my ringing phone was pure coincidence, but the six-year-old-kid-on-Christmas-morning side of me thought, "IwonIwonIwonIwonIwonIwonIwonIwonIwonIwon!!!!!!"  For several seconds, I had a disconnect from reality as I reached for the phone.

I cleared my throat, picked up the receiver, and said, "Hello, this is Marty."

There was a pause.  Was that long distance static I heard?  Then a voice said, "Hi, daddy."

Five minutes later, Peter Englund entered the Great Hall and announced the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa had won the Nobel Prize.

My miracle was the conversation I had with my beautiful, nine-year-old daughter.

There's always next year.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

October 5: Saints Flora and Faustina Kowalska

I am writing this post the day after October 5.  October 5, one of the most important days on the Roman calendar.  It is the feast day of saints Flora and Faustina Kowalska.  Flora was a 14th century French nun who was gifted with many miracles:  during an ecstatic episode, she took no food or drink for three weeks; during a period of prayer, she levitated four feet and stayed suspended before a crowd of people; she suffered the stigmata at times; and she could prophesize about the future.  Faustina was a 20th century nun who, after receiving a vision of Christ, promoted the establishment of Divine Mercy Sunday.  Like Flora, Faustina also had ecstatic visions and prophecies, and she also received the stigmata.  These two women are celebrated on October 5.

But what makes this day extra special, one of the most important days of the whole year, is that it is my birthday.

I'll give you time to pause and bask in the glow of my awesomeness.

Granted, my awesomeness does not involve bleeding from my hands or feet, hovering above a room-full of people, predicting earthquakes in Guatemala, or having visions of or conversations with Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary, but I'm still awesome.

Among the things my friends and family and coworkers did to celebrate me:  1) held a potluck with a buffet of my favorite dishes; 2) called me/e-mailed me birthday wishes; 3) gave me a book I wanted but had forgotten I wanted; and 4) baked me a cake that proclaimed me the winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature.

In the evening, I attended a school concert in which my daughter was performing, and, at the end of the day, I consumed a large piece of my Nobel cake and allowed myself to fall asleep completely assured of my wonderful awesomeness.

Everybody should have birthdays like that, allowing themselves, for 24 hours, to be convinced of their self-worth and incredible talent.  A 24-hour vacation from reality, once a year.

In reality, a lot of people whom I love and who love me made me feel really special today, and you really can't ask for a better birthday miracle.  Unless it happens to be winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Which reminds me...

NOBEL WATCH:  Some Nigerian or Kenyan writer whose name I can't spell or pronounce has suddenly shot up on the list of favorites to win, starting at around number 77 and sitting now at number one or two.  Not happy about it.  Cormac McCarthy has also shot up from number 60 or so to number one or two.  I wouldn't be devastated if Cormac wins.  If I can't have it, he's the next logical choice.  Stay tuned.  There's still hope.