Sunday, May 21, 2017

May 21: Empty Eggshell, Classic Saint Marty, "Waiting for Donald Hall"

I am an empty eggshell right now.  I've been working all day on computer stuff.  I'm tired of staring at my laptop, planning out my students' academic lives for the next six weeks.  Tonight, I see a good book and maybe a drink or two in my future.

My son has been throwing up for most of the day, although he's regaining some of his normal piss and vinegar, as my brother in Grand Rapids would say.  My son's still looking pale, but he's eaten some ice cream and kept it down.  He's already talking about not going to school tomorrow. 

I am ready to be done.  Really ready.  I am going to get my son in bed, and then I'm going to either pass out or disappear into Ann Patchett's Commonwealth.

And now for a flashback.  Seven years ago, I was thinking about winning the Nobel Prize in Literature.  Some things never change . . .

May 24, 2010:  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.


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.


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.

And a poem from Saint Marty, just for fun.

Waiting for Donald Hall

by:  Martin Achatz

Is like looking out the kitchen window
     at fists of clouds,
Wondering when those fingers
     will relax,
When bullets of water will spill
     from that palm
Of sky, sail down to black soil
     in the pumpkin patch
Where two leaves have sprouted,
     green as swamp, with promise
Of orange in their tender
     stems, a wide orange,
Full of mulch and hay, vines
     of frost on morning panes,
Candle grin of jack-o-lantern
     on All Hallow's Eve,
When souls wander all night
     in search of an open gate.

He appears in the doorway, hunched
     over his walker, shuffles
To his chair, sits, lifts his beadle
     eyes to the gathered crowd,
Clears his throat, ushers words
     to his tongue, and makes a sound

Like driftwood in Lake Superior surf.

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