Thursday, August 31, 2017

August 31: Blue Writing, Maggie Nelson, ""Famously Blue Places"

64.  It was around this time that I was planning to travel to many famously blue places:  ancient indigo and woad production sites, the Chartres Cathedral, the Isle of Skye, the lapis mines of Afghanistan, the Scrovegni Chapel, Morocco, Crete.  I made a map, I used colored pins, etc.  But I have no money.  So I applied for grant after grant, describing how exciting, how original, how necessary my exploration of blue would be.  In one application, written and sent late at night to a conservative Ivy League university, I described myself and my project as heathen, hedonistic, and horny.  I never got any funding.  My blues stayed local.
                        ---from Bluets by Maggie Nelson

You may wonder how I choose poems for this blog.  Sometimes, it's intentional.  I look for a poem that touches upon a a particular subject.  Other times, I look through a lot of poems until one sticks with me, for whatever reason.

Tonight, the above passage from Maggie Nelson stuck with me.  It may be the list of blue places.  It may be Nelson's description of her fruitless quest for funding.  It may be Chartres Cathedral or the lapis mines of Afghanistan.

I don't know why I love this little piece of poetry.  For whatever reason, it fills a hole in my heart or mind this evening.  It comforts me.

Saint Marty is thankful for blue writing this evening.

August 31: Millions of Things, War or Fame or Fortune, Hope

He was taken to a small private hospital.  A famous brain surgeon came up from Boston and operated on him for three hours.  Billy was unconscious for two days after that, and he dreamed millions of things, some of them true.  The true things were time travel.

Billy is dreaming and not dreaming after the plane crash.  Sometimes the things he dreams are dreams.  Sometimes, they are true.  These dreams--real and imagined--keep Billy alive.

I have dreams.  Lots of them.  Everyone does, unless you're clinically depressed or near death.  My sister who died of brain lymphoma dreamed of getting better, going home.  My father, who's currently in a hospital downstate, probably has the same dreams.

My dreams are small and large.  I dream of finishing this post, of having ice cream after dinner.  I also dream of some literary agent discovering this blog and offering me a book contract.  I've dreamed of a full time job at the university.  A house with three bedrooms and two bathrooms.  A vacation to Hawaii or Costa Rica.  Winning the Pulitzer Prize or Nobel Prize in Literature. 

Dreams keep me moving.  They push me out of bed in the morning.  They make me go to work.  They bring me home at night.  It's not that I'm miserable in my life.  I'm not Walter Mitty, constantly dreaming and imagining myself into fantasies of war or fame or fortune. 

No, I equate dreams with hope, and hope is what helps people survive hurricanes and floods.  Bad elections and bad presidents.  Bad jobs and bad health.  Hope is what all the major religions of the world are about.  Hope is what motivates scientists to search for cures to cancer and diabetes and Alzheimer's.

Tonight, Saint Marty is hoping to work on a new poem.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

August 30: All Right with Billy, Self Pity, Chicken Sandwich

Billy was brought down Sugarbush Mountain on a toboggan.  The golliwogs controlled it with ropes and yodeled melodiously for right-of-way.  Near the bottom, the trail swooped around the pylons of a chair lift.  Billy looked up at all the young people in bright elastic clothing and enormous boots and goggles, bombed out of their skulls with snow, swinging through the sky in yellow chairs.  He supposed that they were part of an amazing new phase of World War Two.  It was all right with him.  Everything was pretty much all right with Billy.

I wish I could be more like Billy Pilgrim.  No, I don't want to be a survivor of a plane crash.  I don't want to be abducted by aliens and placed in a zoo on a distant planet to mate with a porn star.  Don't want to be a soldier in a war.  Don't want to be an optometrist.

What I want is Billy's ability to be all right with everything.  Not get upset when his life crashes into the side of a mountain.  That's how I wish I could be like Billy Pilgrim.  I want to be much calmer about the vicissitudes of my daily existence.  I think that would make me a much happier person.

At the moment, I'm feeling pretty sorry for myself.  And I hate it.  Self pity is one of my least favorite emotions.  Sure, I get sad and mad and confused.  That's normal for every human being, except maybe Donald Trump.  But he's delusional.  A person cannot be happy every second of the day.  Even Jesus Christ wept every once in a while.  Ask Lazarus.

Billy Pilgrim knows when he's going to die.  He knows when and how the universe is going to end.  He's experienced his birth and childhood and adulthood over and over and over.  No surprises.  The terrible things in his life aren't so terrible because he knows what's coming.  Death isn't an ending.  It's one bead on a string of beads.  Like a rosary, where you can come back to the same moments in Christ's life again and again.

I have no major wisdom this afternoon.  All I have is a chicken sandwich and some apple juice.  That's my happiness.  Maybe, if I were Billy Pilgrim, I would know that this chicken sandwich will change my life in some way.  I would know how teaching my class will go this evening.  Would know what's going to happen this weekend and next week.  And I could be all right with it all.

Saint Marty needs a nap and a time machine.

August 30: Give in to Sadness, Maggie Nelson, "Rite of Decadence"

90.  Last night I wept in a way I haven't wept for some time.  I wept until I aged myself.  I watched it happen in the mirror.  I watched the lines arrive around my eyes like engraved sunbursts; it was like watching flowers open in time-lapse on a windowsill.  The tears not only aged my face, they also changed its texture, turned the skin of my cheeks into putty.  I recognized this as a rite of decadence, but I did not know how to stop it.
                         --from Bluets by Maggie Nelson

It's really easy to give in to sadness.  I don't want to use the word "wallow" because that term, to me, is pejorative.  If I wallow in sadness, that means that I'm somehow enjoying it.  That I'm getting something out of it.  That's not what I'm talking about.

I'm talking about being in a difficult situation, and simply allowing yourself to be consumed by sadness.  Not fighting it in any way, or not being able to fight it.  That's the difference.  I suppose, if I were being clinical, I could use the term "depression."  I have suffered through depressions, where simply getting a glass of water seems like an expedition to the North Pole. 

Of course, there are treatments for this kind of sadness.  Medications.  Therapies.  Self-help books.  I've tried many of them myself, to varying levels of success.  I've been lucky these last few years.  I haven't had to battle this particular blue monster.

However, I find myself tonight giving in--a little--to sadness.  My father is supposed to be coming home this weekend.  I'm not sure what home he's returning to.  My sisters are working on nursing home placement.  That's one blue aspect of my life.

Another blue aspect is my usual autumn funk.  The fall semester has begun.  Tonight, I'm teaching a night class for three hours.  It has been raining all day, a swathe of Hurricane Harvey precipitation sweeping into the Upper Peninsula.  It doesn't look like it's going to stop any time soon.

I wish that I could just choose to be happy.  That's doesn't work for me.  I'm drowning.  Going down for the second or third time.  I know my life cold be worse.  I could live in Texas and be dealing with flood waters.  That doesn't, however, diminish my current emotional state, no matter how hard I try to convince myself how good my life really is.

Saint Marty is struggling to find something to be thankful for tonight.  He does have a pretty good brownie to eat after dinner.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

August 29: Over My Head, Maggie Nelson, "Any One Bead"

79.  For just because one loves blue does not mean that one wants to spend one's life in a world made of it.  "Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and as we pass through them they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus," wrote Emerson.  To find oneself trapped in any one bead, no matter what its hue, can be deadly.
                         ---from Bluets by Maggie Nelson 

 I sometimes spend way too much time in one bead.  This morning, I just wanted to pull the blanket over my head and stay in bed for the rest of the day.  I didn't feel like facing anything--work, school, teaching, breakfast, lunch, dinner, the sun, the stars.  The warmth and darkness of my bed was much more attractive than the alternatives.

I forced myself to get up.  I always do.  Now, I have been awake for over 15 hours, and I have another three or four hours ahead of me.  Tomorrow night, I teach my night class.  I'll be working from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m.

Saint Marty's bead is looking pretty tired.

August 29: Golliwog, Unstuck Mind, Memory Wing

The barbershop quartet on the airplane was singing, "Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nelly," when the plane smacked into the top of Sugarbush Mountain, Vermont.  Everybody was killed but Billy and the copilot.  So it goes.

The people who first got to the crash scene were young Austrian ski instructors from the famous ski resort below.  They spoke to each other in German as they went from body to body.  They wore black wind masks with two holes for their eyes and a red topknot.  They looked like golliwogs, like white people pretending to be black for the laughs they could get.

Billy had a fractured skull, but he was still conscious.  He didn't know where he was.  His lips were working, and one of the golliwogs put his ear close to them to hear what might be his dying words.

Billy thought the golliwog had something to do with World War Two, and he whispered to him his address:  "Schlachthof-funf."

Billy hasn't jumped in time.  He's surrounded by people speaking German, and he has a head injury.  He thinks he's back in Slaughterhouse Five, maybe after the bombing of Dresden.  He knew his plane was going to crash.  He knew he was going to survive, too.  Yet, he's unstuck in time and memory.

My father is still in the hospital downstate.  He's been diagnosed with Alzheimer's.  Currently, we are working on a discharge plan.  That plan involves placement in the memory wing of a nursing home.  My father is not going to take this news well.  He's a very proud man.  Admitting that his mind is somehow unstuck is not something he'll do.  Ever.

I know that this moment has been coming for quite some time.  His behavior has changed quite a bit over the last year.  More forgetfulness.  More angry physical outbursts.  More limitations.  Yet, it's difficult for me to think of him so diminished.  As I've said in previous posts, my dad has always been larger than life in my eyes.  Strong.  Invincible.  Immortal, almost.

I know my situation isn't unusual.  Many adult children have to face this decision when the needs of their parents become too much to handle at home.  Perhaps it would be more of a blessing if my father's mind were a little more unstuck, so that he wouldn't realize what's happening.  Maybe it already is.  For all I know, my father has been time jumping since I was a baby.  That would be a blessing.

Me?  I'm stuck in the present, which kind of sucks right now.

Tonight, Saint Marty is having a hard time finding something to be thankful for, except the spaghetti he had for dinner.

Monday, August 28, 2017

August 28: Poet of the Week, Maggie Nelson, "A Hard and Passing Rain"

I am not done with Maggie Nelson yet.  Bluets is one of my favorite books of all time.  Therefore, I am choosing her as Poet of the Week again.

Here she is:

185.  Perhaps this is why writing all day, even when the work feels arduous, never feels to me like "a hard day's work."  Often it feels more like balancing two sides of an equation--occasionally quite satisfying, but essentially a hard and passing rain.  It, too, kills the time.
                    ---from Bluets by Maggie Nelson 

I know what she is talking about here.  Every once in a while, I spend an entire day working on a piece of writing.  An essay or poem or short story.  It's work.  Sometimes hard work.  But, to me, it never feels like my other jobs.  I can spend three hours teaching a night class, and I'm exhausted.  Eight hours at the medical office can seem like the month of January in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  Long and dark and tiring.

Writing, however, makes my mind and body hum.  It kills time, yes.  But, to me, it's also like spending a day eating chocolate cake or reading Bluets.

It fills Saint Marty up.

August 28: Go On Without Me, Sacrifice, Eat Chocolate All Day

Billy, knowing the plane was going to crash pretty soon, closed his eyes, traveled in time back to 1944.  He was back in the forest of Luxembourg again--with the Three Musketeers.  Roland Weary was shaking him, bonking his head against a tree.  "You guys go on without me," said Billy Pilgrim.

Billy is trying to make a sacrifice.  He knows that he will slow his companions down as they try to elude German soldiers.  Possibly cause them to be captured.  So he tells them to leave him behind.  Perhaps he's not worried because he's already jumped in time.  He knows that he will survive.

I apologize for my absence yesterday.  I spent the day cleaning out a portion of my attic and then hosting my book club.  I had to sacrifice something.  That something happened to be writing a blog post.  Granted, my sacrifice didn't save anybody's life or change the world in any way.  It simply preserved my sanity.

I think that most people's days are filled with sacrifices.  Every morning when my alarm goes off, I force myself to get out of bed and go to work.  I'm never excited about it.  I just do it for my family.  It helps me provide for my wife and children.  This week, the fall semester begins at the university.  On Wednesday, I'll be teaching composition to a group of freshmen from 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.  Not excited about that, either.  But I do it for my family.

I want to eat chocolate all day long.  I don't.  Sacrifice to my health.  When I got home from work this afternoon, I just wanted to take a nap for about ten hours.  I didn't.  I drove my daughter to school for band camp.  Sacrifice.  Tonight, I'm going to do a load of laundry.  Possibly do some prep for teaching.  Work on a poem for a couple I know who's getting married this weekend.  Sacrifice.  Sacrifice.  Sacrifice.

Sacrifice sometimes is difficult.  Ask Jesus.  And sometimes sacrifice is easy.  Ask any mother or father.

Tonight, Saint Marty is thankful for the sacrifices his parents made for him.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

August 26: Pebbles in Water, Amazing Creation, Cellular Level

109.  Over time my injured friend's feet have become blue and smooth from disuse.  Their blue is the blue of skim milk, their smoothness that of a baby's.  I think they look and feel very strange and beautiful.  She does not agree.  How could she--this is her body; its transformation, her grief.  Often we examine parts of her body together, as if their paralysis had rendered them objects of inquiry independent of us both.  But they are still hers.  No matter what happens to our bodies in our lifetimes, no matter if they become like "pebbles in water," they remain ours; us, theirs.
                         ----from Bluets by Maggie Nelson

It's always unnerving when your body, or a loved one's body, becomes something you don't recognize.  Suddenly, you lose control of a hand or eye.  Your wife sleeps all day when she used to work nine hours and go for five mile runs at night.  You used to be able to sit for three or four hours, writing poems, and now you can barely concentrate for ten minutes at a time.  Your loving son attacks other kids with scissors.  Your father uses his cane like a mace in Game of Thrones.

I have been a diabetic since I was thirteen, and I am lucky.  I've had no problems with my eyes or kidneys.  I can still feel the bottoms of my feet.  My two brothers ignored their diabetes.  One of them opted to buy cartons of cigarettes instead of insulin.  The other thought he couldn't afford his diabetic medication and went for years with blood sugars above 500.  The former suffered a stroke and eventually died.  The second is on disability and probably needs a heart transplant.

The human body is an amazing creation.  When my kids were infants, I remember sitting in a chair, holding them as they slept.  Watching them breathe and twitch.  Imagining all the changes that were taking place inside of them on the cellular level.  Brain synapses sparking and forming.  Bones and nerves stretching and growing.  Even today--my daughter is 16, and my son is eight--I something look at them and wonder at the span of their legs, loam of their eyes, water of their laughter.

Saint Marty is so thankful for his healthy, if somewhat tired, body.

August 26: The Febs, Burger Chef, Boo

The plane took off without incident.  The moment was structured that way.  There was a barbershop quartet on board.  They were optometrists, too.  They called themselves "The Febs," which was an acronym for "Four-eyed Bastards."

When the plane was safely aloft, the machine that was Billy's father-in-law asked the quartet to sing his favorite song.  They knew what song he meant, and they sang it, and it went like this:

           In my prison cell I sit,
          With my britches full of shit,
          And my balls are bouncing gently on the floor.
          And I see the bloody snag
          When she bit me in the bag.
          Oh, I'll never fuck a Polack any more.

Billy's father-in-law laughed and laughed at that, and he begged the quartet to sing the other Polish song he liked so much.  So they sang a song from the Pennsylvania coal mines that began:

          Me and Mike, ve work in mine.
          Holy shit, ve have good time.
          Vunce a veek ve get our pay.
          Holy shit, no vork next day.

Speaking of people from Poland:  Billy Pilgrim accidentally saw a Pole hanged in public, about three days after Billy got to Dresden.  Billy just happened to be walking to work with some others shortly after sunrise, and they came to a gallows and a small crowd in front of a soccer stadium.  The Pole was a farm laborer who was being hanged for having had sexual intercourse with a German woman.  So it goes.

Two moments in Billy's life.  In one, he's sitting in an airplane that's going to crash.  In another, he's surrounded by people who will soon be dead, listening to offensively racist/sexist songs.  In the other, he's witness to the execution of a Polish man for doing something very human--having sex with a woman that he probably loved. 

That's the case with most of our lives.  Moments bump up against each other.  You're sitting in McDonald's, eating an Egg McMuffin, and suddenly you remember sitting in a Burger Chef when you were seven, sucking down a strawberry shake after getting a haircut.  These two things suddenly are connected, and a kind of strange nostalgia floods you.

We've been purging rooms at our house this summer.  Bedrooms and bathroom and kitchen.  Yesterday, my daughter climbed the stairs to the attic and started going through boxes and bags.  Halfway through the afternoon, she texted me a picture of a doll she found,  It was Boo from the movie Monster's, Inc

When I saw the picture, I immediately remembered sitting on a bench at the playground, holding that doll while my daughter was climbing and swinging and bouncing.  She was about four or five.  Two teenage girls came walking by, just as my daughter came running up to me, holding her hands out for the doll.  "Oh, my God," one of the teens said, "she looks just like Boo.  So cute."

Two moments bumping up against each other.  I've experienced that a lot this summer as we've gone through our papers and books and clothes.  It's been a little emotional, I have to admit.  I've let go of a lot of things.  Resigned myself to the fact that my kids aren't really kids anymore.  They're growing.  Fast.  In two years, my daughter will be a high school graduate.  My son will be in middle school.

Where has the time gone?

Saint Marty isn't ready to be the parent of an adult.  Not yet.

Friday, August 25, 2017

August 25: Sadness Will Last Forever, Maggie Nelson, Difficult Decisions

Vincent van Gogh, whose depression, some say, was likely related to temporal lobe epilepsy, famously saw and painted the world in almost unbearably vivid colors.  After his nearly unsuccessful attempt to take his life by shooting himself in the gut, when asked why he should not be saved, he famously replied, "The sadness will last forever."  I imagine he was right.
                     ---from Bluets by Maggie Nelson

Sadness is something that is difficult to escape.  I don't think that I have ever simply decided to not be sad, just as I've never made the choice to be sad.  Sadness happens.  Happiness happens.

Certainly, my attitude can shape whether I'm going to be sad or not.  This morning, when I woke up, I knew that I wasn't going to do any schoolwork today.  I'd made that decision last night, and it made me happy.  This afternoon, I decided to go out for drinks with my wife tonight.  That decision made me happy, as well.

When I got home from work this afternoon, my wife told me that the mechanic at the garage diagnosed what is wrong with my car:  I need four new tires at a cost of $580 dollars.  That was not welcome news.  It upset me.

The whole situation with my father has been weighing heavily in my thoughts this week.  My family has some difficult decisions to make in the next few days, and none of those decisions are going to be easy.  I go to sleep thinking about it.  I wake up thinking about it.  Those thoughts do not fill me with joy.  If I were van Gogh, I would be painting self portraits in broad brush strokes with thick blue paint.

Saint Marty doesn't believe the sadness will last forever.  But it ain't going away any time soon.

August 25: Peter Paul Mound Bar, Always Has, Always Will

Billy Pilgrim got onto a chartered airplane in Ilium twenty-five years after that.  He knew it was going to crash, but he didn't want to make a fool of himself by saying so.  It was supposed to carry Billy and twenty-eight other optometrists to a convention in Montreal.

His wife, Valencia, was outside, and his father-in-law, Lionel Merble, was strapped to the seat beside him.

Lionel Merble was a machine.  Tralfamadorians, of course, say that every creature and plant in the Universe is a machine.  It amuses them that so many Earthlings are offended by the idea of being machines.

Outside the plane, the machine named Valencia Merble Pilgrim was eating a Peter Paul Mound Bar and waving bye-bye.

There's something in this passage that makes me a little anxious and sad.  Billy knows his plane is going to crash.  He knows that the people who are with him on the airplane are going to die and that he himself is going to be severely injured.  Yet, he doesn't do anything to prevent the crash.  He straps himself into his seat and waits for the moment.  As the Tralfamadorians say, it has happened this way, and it will always happen this way. 

If I applied Vonnegut's line of thought to my own life, I suppose I would be a lot calmer about the future, since I can't do anything to affect change.  If I'm going to die tomorrow, I'm not going to be able to avoid the car that's going to hit me, so I might as well just go about my life as normal.  Somehow, that car will find me.  It always has and always will.

Of course, this leaves no room for human free will to alter the course of events.  That means that Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States, and he always will be elected.  James Dean will always die in a car crash at the age of 24, and Abraham Lincoln will always be assassinated at Ford Theater.  Most speculative fiction enforces this idea.  Changing the past is a bad idea.  It harms the future in terrible ways. 

That doesn't mean that, if I had the opportunity, I wouldn't travel into the past and buy as many shares of Apple as I could.  It also doesn't mean that I wouldn't kill Adolf Hitler as a child if I could.  But, if doing these things would mean that I wouldn't meet and fall in love with my wife, or that my kids wouldn't be born, I would probably be just like Billy.  I would strap myself into my airplane seat, sit back, close my eyes, and wait for the plane to fall out of the sky.

Saint Marty is thankful for his past and present and future tonight.  Airplane crash or no airplane crash.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

August 24: Blue was Beating, Father's Eyes, Maggie Nelson

22. Some things do change, however. A membrane can simply rip off your life, like a skin of congealed paint torn off the top of a can. I remember that day very clearly: I had received a phone call. A friend had been in an accident. Perhaps she would not live. She had very little face, and her spine was broken in two places. She had not yet moved; the doctor described her as “a pebble in water.” I walked around Brooklyn and noticed that the faded periwinkle of the abandoned Mobil gas station on the corner was suddenly blooming. In the baby-shit yellow showers at my gym, where snow sometimes fluttered in through the cracked gated windows, I noticed that the yellow paint was peeling in spots, and a decent, industrial blue was trying to creep in. At the bottom of the swimming pool, I watched the white winter light spangle the cloudy blue and I knew together they made God. When I walked into my friend’s hospital room, her eyes were a piercing, pale blue and the only part of her body that could move. I was scared. So was she. The blue was beating.
                    --from "Bluets" by Maggie Nelson

My father's eyes are blue.  Not an easy blue.  More like a hard, cold, steel blue.  He's still in the hospital downstate, asking every now and then when he's going to be able to go home.  He's too far away for any family member to visit him, and he's too angry at us to accept any phone calls.  He refuses to talk to any of us.

That's okay.  I understand.  I have to believe he's a little frightened.  I would be.  He's hundreds of miles away, surrounded by strangers, and he has no idea when or if he's going to be able to return home.  For all he knows, he may live out the rest of his life in that hospital, and I think that's probably his greatest fear.

As I've said before, my father and I have a complicated relationship.  I love him.  I think he loves me.  That's about the only thing we have in common, aside from a pretty strong work ethic and devotion to family.

Saint Marty is his father's son, and he is not his father's son.

August 24: Slaughterhouse Five, Predestination, Strike

The parade pranced, staggered and reeled to the gate of the Dresden slaughterhouse, and then it went inside.  The slaughterhouse wasn't a busy place any more.  Almost all the hooved animals in Germany had been killed and eaten and excreted by human beings, mostly soldiers.  So it goes.

The Americans were taken to the fifth building inside the gate.  It was a one-story cement-block cube with sliding doors in front and back.  It had been built as a shelter for pigs about to be butchered.  Now it was going to serve as a home away from home for one hundred American prisoners of war.  There were bunks in there, and two potbellied stoves and a water tap.  Behind it was a latrine, which was a one-rail fence with buckets under it.

There was a big number over the door of the building.  The number was five.  Before the Americans could go inside, their only English-speaking guard told them to memorize their simple address, in case they got lost in the big city.  Their address was this:  "Schlachthof-funf."  Schlachthof meant slaughterhouseFunf was good old five.

So, we have finally reached Slaughterhouse Five.  The place where Billy (and Vonnegut, I believe) survived the firebombing of Dresden.  It has taken close to two hundred pages of time hopping and flying saucer rides and nervous breakdowns.  The entire book has led up to this building, this moment in history.  It seems sort of like fate, although I don't think that Vonnegut put much store in the idea of predestination.

When you think about it, predestination would make life so much easier, especially if you knew what your predestination was.  For example, right now in the healthcare system where I work, there is a great possibility that the registered nurses will be going on strike.  If that happens, the outpatient surgery center where I work will most likely close down for the duration of the strike.  That would leave me without an income, or healthcare.  Needless to say, this prospect makes me more than a bit uneasy.

I wish that I knew right now about the strike.  It would allow me to sleep more easily.  Let me plan for the future a little more.  Instead, I'm stuck in this slaughterhouse of uncertainty.  I don't know when (or if) the bombs are going to start falling.  Just like every other person on the planet.

I simply have to take it one day at a time right now.  Of course, I'm trying to make some plans, provide my family some stability.  Nothing's really panned out so far.  Now, if I were Billy Pilgrim, I would already know what I'm going to do.  I would know how everything is going to turn out.

Instead, it's all about faith.  A lot of faith.

Saint Marty is thankful tonight for his jobs.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

August 23: Love's Primal Scene, Maggie Nelson, from "Bluets"

The half-circle of blinding turquoise ocean is this love’s primal scene. That this blue exists makes my life a remarkable one, just to have seen it. To have seen such beautiful things. To find oneself placed in their midst. Choiceless. I returned there yesterday and stood again upon the mountain.

                    --from Bluets by Maggie Nelson

I have had a long day of work.  I had a long day yesterday.  Tonight, I plan on having a glass of wine and maybe watching an episode of Breaking Bad.  Outside the window right now, I'm staring at a raft of green.  The maples haven't been hit by frost yet, so they're still in full summer ecstasy.  I know the word "ecstasy" is a little overused, but it's the closest I could come to what I'm looking at.

I often worry about being sentimental in my writing.  Words like "joy" and "love" and "heart" and "ecstasy" are good clues that I'm lapsing into romance novel territory.  But those maple leaves are ferociously green and beautiful.

Like Maggie Nelson, Saint Marty sits here, on top of the mountain, gazing at love's primal scene.

August 23: Clowning, My Father, Alzheimer's

There at the corner, in the front of pedestrians, was a surgeon who had been operating all day.  He was a civilian, but his posture was military.  He had served in two world wars.  The sight of Billy offended him, especially after he learned from the guards that Billy was an American.  It seemed to him that Billy was in abominable taste, supposed that Billy had gone to a lot of silly trouble to costume himself just so.

The surgeon spoke English, and he said to Billy, "I take it you find war a very comical thing."

Billy looked at him vaguely.  Billy had lost track momentarily of where he was or how he had gotten there.  He had no idea that people thought he was clowning.  It was Fate, of course, which had costumed him--Fate, and a feeble will to survive.

"Did you expect us to laugh?" the surgeon asked him.

The surgeon was demanding some sort of satisfaction.  Billy was mystified.  Billy wanted to be friendly, to help, if he could, but his resources were meager.  His fingers now held the two objects from the lining of the coat.  Billy decided to show the surgeon what they were.

"You thought we would enjoy being mocked?" the surgeon said.  "And do you feel proud to represent America as you do?"

Billy withdrew a hand from his muff, held it under the surgeon's nose.  On his palm now rested a two-carat diamond and a partial denture.  The denture was an obscene little artifact--silver and pearl and tangerine.  Billy smiled.

The surgeon hates Billy because he thinks that Billy is attempting to turn war into some sort of comedy.  He's offended by Billy's attire.  In turn, Billy has no idea what he has done to upset the surgeon.  As usual, Billy is pretty oblivious to his present.  His mind is in the past or the future, unstuck in time, just like his body.

Well, I haven't spoken much about my father since he was moved to the hospital in downstate Michigan.  I just heard from my sister that his doctor has diagnosed him with Alzheimer's.  That explains his outbursts.  His tendency toward being physically aggressive.  Now, the question is what to do.  The hospital wants to come up with a discharge plan.

My father's mind is sort of unstuck now.  He can name the President of the United States.  He can look at a clock and tell you what time it is.  Yet, he can't write a complete sentence.  He uses his cane like a billy club when he gets frustrated.  He's stuck between who he was and who he's becoming.  Present and future. 

I'm not sure what's going to happen.  He'll be returning very soon.  Where he'll be returning is the issue.  I don't think it's safe for him to come home, and I felt incredible guilt when I typed those last words.  My father's the surgeon, standing on a street corner, indignant, angry.  I'm Billy, trying to figure out what I'm holding in my hands.

Saint Marty is thankful this evening for the fact that his dad is safe tonight. 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

August 22: My Obsessions, Maggie Nelson, "Thanksgiving"

Maggie Nelson is not an easy poet to categorize.  She writes prose that is poetry.  Her poetry often takes the form of prose.  She's political and sexual, and she doesn't turn away from difficult subjects.  I guess that makes her brave.

I'm not sure if I'm a brave poet.  I mean, every poet spends her/his life writing about the same subjects, over and over and over, in different forms and different ways.  I write about God and love and kids and that border between faith and despair.  Those are my obsessions.  I own them.

My main obsession right now, however, is getting my shit together for the beginning of the semester next week.  That means a lot of computer time over the next five days or so.  I own that, too.

Saint Marty can't wait for Thanksgiving break.


by:  Maggie Nelson

Can beauty save us? Yesterday
I looked at the river and a sliver
of moon and knew the answer;

today I fell asleep in a spot of sun
behind a Vermont barn, woke to
darkness, a thin whistle of wind

and the answer changed. Inside the barn
the boys build bongs out of
copper piping, electrical tape, and

jars. All of the children here have
leaky brown eyes, and a certain precision
of gesture. Even the maple syrup

tastes like liquor. After dinner
I sit the cutest little boy on my knee
and read him a book about the history of cod

absentmindedly explaining overfishing,
the slave trade. People for rum? he asks,
incredulously. Yes, I nod. People for rum.

August 22: Here Was Fun, Ice Cream Truck, Circus

So out of the gate of the railroad and into the streets of Dresden marched the light opera.  Billy Pilgrim was the star.  He led the parade.  Thousands of people were on the sidewalks, going home from work.  They were watery and putty-colored, having eaten mostly potatoes during the past two years.  They had expected no blessing beyond the mildness of the day.  Suddenly--here was fun.

Billy did not meet many of the eyes that found him so entertaining.  He was enchanted by the architecture of the city.  Merry amoretti wove garlands above windows.  Roguish fauns and naked nymphs peeked down at Billy from festooned cornices.  Stone monkeys frisked among scrolls and seashells and bamboo.

Billy, with his memories of the future, knew that the city would be smashed to smithereens and then burned--in about thirty more days.  He knew, too, that most of the people watching him would soon be dead.  So it goes.  

And Billy worked his hands in his muff as he marched.  His fingertips, working there in the hot darkness of the muff, wanted to know what the two lumps in the lining of the little impresario's coat were.  The fingertips got inside the lining.  They palpated the lumps, the pea-shaped thing and the horseshoe -shaped thing.  The parade had to halt by a busy corner.  The traffic light was red.

This whole passage is filled with comedy and tragedy.  Billy is marching through the streets of Dresden in silver boots, his hands crammed into a muff.  The Dresdeners are pulled out of their dull lives for a few seconds because of this spectacle, the way I was pulled out of my daily drudge yesterday by a solar eclipse.  The slightest shift in routine, and suddenly a day can transform into a circus.

My day was pretty humdrum.  Got up at the same time.  Took too much time in the bathroom before I left for work, thereby forcing me to run up the stairs to the time clock when I got to the medical center, as usual.  Patients and phone calls and medical records all day.  Same thing I do every day, Monday through Friday.

Let me tell you what turned my day into a circus this evening:  the sound of the ice cream truck.  As I got out of my car, I could hear its bells in the distance.  I couldn't tell the direction the music was coming from.  So, I ran into the house, yelled "Ice cream truck!" to my son, and he came barreling down the stairs, pulling his shoes on.

We jumped in my car, and started circling streets in search of our quarry.  It took about seven minutes and one phone call (I know the guy who drives the truck) to track down a Sno Cone and an M&M ice cream sandwich.  But it was worth it.  It made me feel like a kid again for a few minutes, waving my money in the air, running after the ice cream truck on July days.  And just like that, my day was a circus.

Saint Marty is thankful tonight for his son and ice cream trucks.

Monday, August 21, 2017

August 21: Reflection and Nostalgia and Wonder, Poet of the Week, Maggie Nelson, "Spirit"

It has been a day, for me, filled with reflection and nostalgia and wonder.

First, I'm preparing to teach an online mythology class.  So, I've been reading Ovid's Metamorphoses and reflecting on how I'm going to get my students (most of them probably just out of high school) to understand how every culture has the same mythological thread running through it.  Creation.  Great floods.  Sons of God.  Heroes.  Quests.  I know, I know.  Deep shit.

Second, I went back-to-school shopping with my kids.  Clothes and notebooks and calculators.  It made me nostalgic for crib days and nighttime prayers and I Love You, Stinky Face.

Third, I got caught up in the great American solar eclipse frenzy today.  Taking pictures.  Looking through eclipse glasses.  Watching the sun slowly be eaten by the moon.

So, tonight, I have chosen Maggie Nelson as Poet of the Week, because she inspires me to reflect and remember.  She fills me with wonder.

Saint Marty needs a little more of all of those things in his life at the moment.


by:  Maggie Nelson

The spirit of Jane
lives on in you,
my mother says

trying to describe
who I am. I feel like the girl
in the late-night movie

who gazes up in horror
at the portrait of
her freaky ancestor

as she realizes
they wear the same
gaudy pendant

round their necks.
For as long as I can
remember, my grandfather

has made the same slip:
he sits in his kitchen,
his gelatinous blue eyes

fixed on me. Well Jane,
he says, I think I'll have
another cup of coffee.

August 21: Fools Like Themselves, Surrender Dorothy, Ridiculous

Eight Dresdeners crossed the steel spaghetti of the railroad yard.  They were wearing new uniforms.  They had been sworn into the army the day before.  They were boys and men past middle age, and two veterans who had been shot to pieces in Russia.  Their assignment was to guard one hundred American prisoners of war, who would work as contract labor.  A grandfather and his grandson were in the squad.  The grandfather was an architect.

The eight were grim as they approached the boxcars containing their wards.  They knew what sick and foolish soldiers they themselves appeared to be.  One of them actually had an artificial leg, and carried not only a loaded rifle but a cane.  Still--they were expected to earn obedience and respect from tall, cocky, murderous infantrymen who had just come from all the killing at the front. 

And then they saw bearded Billy Pilgrim in his blue toga and silver shoes, with his hands in a muff.  He looked at least sixty years old.  Next to Billy was little Paul Lazzaro with a broken arm.  He was fizzing with rabies.  Next to Lazzaro was the poor old high school teacher, Edgar Derby, mournfully pregnant with patriotism and middle age and imaginary wisdom.  And so on.

The eight ridiculous Dresdeners ascertained that these hundred ridiculous creatures really were American fighting men fresh from the front.  They smiled, and then they laughed.  Their terror evaporated.  There was nothing to be afraid of.  Here were more crippled human beings, more fools like themselves.  Here was light opera.

The Dresdeners are afraid of the Americans, until they see Billy Pilgrim in his toga and silver boots.  Billy's appearance dispels any lingering doubts or anxiety about fierce enemy prisoners of war.  The Dresdeners realize that their charges are just as old or young or terrified or angry.  The war has made them all the same.  Human beings caught in a ridiculous moment of war.

It has been a long day for me.  Hours of classwork and work-work and parent-work.  Now, tonight, an hour or so of writer-work.  Of course, this afternoon, I was caught up in solar eclipse-work.  I stood outside for fifteen or twenty minutes with all the other ridiculous spectators, staring through special eclipse glasses at the spectacle in the sky.  I felt like a resident of the Emerald City watching the Wicked Witch of the West write "Surrender Dorothy" in the heavens.

I am about to be swept up in my fall semester ridiculousness.  Lecturing students, grading papers, preparing lesson plans.  I'm not sure if I'm ready for it all to begin.  I stopped by my university office this afternoon for a minute.  The campus was teeming with returning students and professors.  The students were wandering around in packs.  The professors were in shorts and Hawaiian shirts, carrying briefcases.  Ridiculous. 

Tonight, I am pretty exhausted.  I should work some more.  Prepare for my upcoming semester.  But my mind is not going to cooperate.  Once I hit 8 p.m., I slip into a state of near exhaustion.  That's where I am right now.  If the Dresdeners saw me right now, they would recognize another American fool, just like Billy Pilgrim.

Saint Marty is thankful tonight for his ridiculous life.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

August 20: Really Warm Day, Classic Saint Marty, "1,031, 200 Seconds"

A really warm day, full of wind and sun.  After church, I mowed my lawn and got so hot that I nearly passed out.  Went out for ice cream afterward.

And I've been writing for the rest of the day.  That's something I don't normally allow myself to do.  But I've been working hard all weekend.  Cleaning and mowing and playing music for church.  Plus, I went for a long run yesterday afternoon.

Obviously, this weekend I've also been preoccupied with thoughts of my sister.  I'm sure tomorrow morning, when I go to work, I'll feel her there, too.  I'm ready to have a few relaxing hours before bed now.

Tonight's episode of Classic Saint Marty first aired two years ago, on a really dark day . . .

August 19, 2015:  Bewildered Expression, 6:27 a.m., Maggie Nelson, Unbearably Vivid Colors

And then Ives blinked and found himself standing on the sidewalk beside his wife, across the street from the Church of the Ascension.  On the pavement, just by his feet, was a large piece of canvas, and under it a body, stretched out.   Then the officer lifted off the canvas and shined a flashlight onto the face to reveal the shocked and bewildered expression of his son.

My sister died this morning at 6:27 a.m.

When I saw her last night, she was breathing hard, each intake hitting her chest like a hammer.  I leaned over, said her name and then, "It's me.  Marty."  Her eyelid lifted, and she focused on me.  I told her about my long day of work.  I told her about classes starting next week.  Just before I left, I leaned over and whispered, "You don't have to be afraid, Sal.  You don't."

When I got to my parents' house at around 5 a.m., my sister was surrounded by the people who loved her.  My mother and father, siblings, nieces, nephews, and best friends.  We all stood around her, touched her hands and feet, told her how much we loved her.

Her breaths got slower, the spaces in between longer, and then she was simply gone.

I thought I was prepared for it.  I thought I was going to hold myself together.  I thought a lot of things.  But, in those moments following my sister's death, I felt an incredible emptiness enter me, as if I had been scooped out like a pumpkin at Halloween.  I wasn't prepared.

It has been about twelve hours since that moment.  I am still not prepared for a world without my sister.  For 17 years, I worked with her.  Eight- and nine- and ten-hour days.  I spent more time with her than any of my other siblings, and we knew each other deeply.  Trusted each other deeply.  Loved each other deeply, without having to say it.

There will be no cartoon tonight.  No laughter.

My sister once said to me, "You know, I wish I was as strong as you."

Saint Marty isn't strong tonight.  He's heartbroken.

98 from Bluets

by:  Maggie Nelson

Vincent van Gogh, whose depression, some say, was likely related to temporal epilepsy, famously saw and painted the world in almost unbearably vivid colors.  After his nearly unsuccessful attempt to take his life by shooting himself in the gut, when asked why he should not be saved, he famously replied, "The sadness will last forever."  I imagine he was right.

I miss your smile

And a new poem for this Sunday night . . .

1,031,200 Seconds

by:  Martin Achatz

I remember that moment
when your body took that last
bite of air.  Maybe it tasted
like shortcake and strawberries,
full of seed and sun and biscuit.
Or spaghetti sauce, a tomatoey gout
of garlic and basil.  Maybe it filled
you with pine smoke and flame,
cricket arias under a thumbnail moon,
starlight bright as the cream in Dad's
black coffee.  In that mouthful
of oxygen, perhaps you felt Superior
pulling at your thin ankles,
and you ran through waves
with our sisters, driftwood white
as skull scattered along the sandy
applause of shore.  Or maybe, just maybe,
you tasted the skin of my daughter,
the way you did when she was a baby
and you buried your nose in the palm
of her neck.  That's it.  1,031, 020 seconds
ago, you took a breath so sweet
that you didn't need to take another.  You tucked
that breath into the wallet of your lungs,
like a lucky two dollar bill, right behind
your driver's license, a picture
of our parents on their 50th anniversary,
the key to the lockbox under your bed,
where you kept everything important
to you, each freckle and hair,
frog croak and lightning fork.
Each solar eclipse that scorched
your retinas with happiness.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

August 19: Resurrection and Hope, Field of Strawberries, "Emmaus"

Today, I have a poem I wrote for my sister a little over two years ago.  On Easter, a day of resurrection and hope.

Hope is a strange thing.  It allows you to survive terrible experiences.  Lifts you out of the darkness.  I have some good friends who see my faith in God as naive.  A hold-over from times before nuclear bombs and modern medicine and science.  That may be true.

However, in a world full of hate, I will choose hope.  Every time.

Saint Marty hopes his sister is sitting in a field of strawberries today, listening to ABBA songs, watching my son and daughter grow and grow like summer ferns.


by:  Martin Achatz

My sister lies in her bed
while her neighbors scream
in the hallway outside her door.
My sock, something’s wrong
with my sock, moans one voice.
And, Give it back, give it back now,
begs another, so full of longing
that I want to find its owner,
reach into my pants pocket,
empty its contents into
the speaker’s hands, hope
that, among the five quarters,
scrap of paper with a phone number,
burned-out Christmas bulb,
Tootsie Roll wrapper, maybe,
just maybe, he may find
what he’s lost.  My sister
has grown deaf to these voices.
She grips her bedrails,
grimaces, pulls herself closer
to me, the effort making her
shake as if some fist
is pounding on the door of her
body.  Do you want a drink?
I ask.  No, she says.
Are you warm enough? I ask.
She nods, closes her eyes.
Should I change the channel?
I ask.  No, she says again.
Then silence as she drifts
like a vagrant kite on a windy
day.  I wonder if she dreams
her body whole, climbs through
the window of her room, begins
walking down the road, between
the snowbanks, under the moon.
Maybe she meets other people
who tell her about the things
they can’t find.  Socks.  Cocker spaniels.
Birthday cards.  Wives.  Poems.
Husbands.  Photographs.  Friends.
The road is crowded with loss.
But they all keep moving, like pilgrims
on some cold Easter morning, hoping
to meet the one who will have
directions, will know how to get home.