Sunday, June 4, 2023

June 4: "Self-Portrait," Grace Safaris, My Friend

Mary Oliver is still in love with life . . . 


by:  Mary Oliver

I wish I was twenty and in love with life
     and still full of beans.

Onward, old legs!
There are the long, pale dunes; on the other side
the roses are blooming and finding their labor
no adversity to the spirit.

Upward, old legs!  There are the roses, and there is the sea
shining like a song, like a body
I want to touch

though I'm not twenty
and won't be again but ah! seventy.  And still
in love with life.  And still
full of beans.

When you read a Mary Oliver poem, you get the feeling that she treated every day like an adventure in grace.  Some people go bird watching.  Others go for long hikes in nature.  I have a friend who thinks nothing of running ten miles just to clear her head.  (If I did that, my adventure would involve a trip to the ER.)  For Mary Oliver, it was hunting for grace daily.  

And by the sounds of it, Oliver didn't ever have to hunt very long.  She could step onto her front porch in the morning to enjoy her coffee, and grace would be circling overhead in the form of an eagle or hawk or heron.  A simple walk through the woods or along a river produced beaver grace and mushroom grace and black bear grace.  After her grace safaris, Oliver would go home and write poems filled with whatever grace had crossed her path that day.

Now, I know it really wasn't that simple.  Even gifted poets go through rough draft after rough draft.  Oliver's poems always seem so effortless to me, but effortlessness takes a lot of effort.  I'd like to believe her poems just sort of arrived upon her, that she just plucked them from a field, pressed them between the pages of the family Bible, and let them dry and turn into something beautiful.

That's not the way writing works.

Perhaps my blog posts seem effortless.  They aren't.  I usually start kicking around ideas early in the morning, sit down with my journal around 10 a.m., and start writing a draft.  I chip away at it all day long until it's time for me to sit down with my laptop.  Often, I've changed ideas quite a few times over the course of the day.

I'm not hunting for grace when I write.  It's nice when grace makes an appearance, but it's a rare occurrence.  For the most part, writing is hard work.  Really hard work.  When I'm in the middle of a poem or essay or blog post, I can become obsessed to the point of complete distraction.  I have stayed up until 3 a.m. working on a draft of a poem, gotten up at 6 a.m. to go to work, worked a full eight or ten hours, and then come home and worked on the poem again for another four or five hours.  If you were counting, I used forms of the word "work" four times in that last sentence.  That's a lot of work.

But I was raised by hardworking parents.  So much of what I do on the weekend doesn't feel relaxing.  For example, I don't really keep holy the Sabbath, if you'll allow me to get a little Old Testament.  God may rest on Sundays, but I've got church services to play music for, and then I need to prepare for another week of work.  Tonight, I had an online poetry workshop to lead.  (If you're still keeping count, "work" appeared three times in this paragraph.)

One of my dad's favorite sayings was, "No rest for the wicked."  I've thought about that phrase quite a bit during my time on this planet.  Does it mean that only wicked people have to work hard?  Or does it mean that wickedness is a fulltime occupation, requiring constant attention?  Maybe it's more metaphysical--once someone wicked dies, that person will never rest in peace ("rest in peace"--another saying that preoccupies me).  

My father used "no rest for the wicked" all the time.  I'd be bitching about stacks of papers I needed to grade, and he'd say it, much to my annoyance.  He'd see me hammering away on my laptop, and he'd say it.  I'd mow my lawn in 90-degree weather, and he'd say it.  Perhaps he was trying to make me feel better, as if those five little words could erase hours of sweat and toil.

This afternoon, I attended a high school graduation party for the daughter of one of my best friends.  It was at a pavilion near the shores of Lake Superior.  The day was gorgeous, temperatures hovering around 90 degrees.  There was a haze of warmth all day long.  (There are wildfires currently raging in Canada, so that may also account for some of the haze.)  

My friend has a lot of things on her plate at the moment.  She's working.  Her son just graduated from the University of Michigan at the beginning of May.  Her daughter graduated from high school a couple days ago.  In a week's time, she and her family are flying to France for a family vacation.  And her father has been struggling with his health.  (Here's where my dad would have said, "No rest for the wicked.")

My friend is a grace-seeker.  Usually, we get together once a week, early in the morning, to write.  These writing sessions, for me, are grace safaris.  They give me a little time to reflect and discover Mary Oliver moments in my life.  My friend can identify flowers and trees.  She can listen to birdsong and tell me whether I'm hearing a white-throated sparrow or a hermit thrush.  Like Oliver, my friend finds her solace in the natural world.

It was good to spend time with my friend this afternoon.  She grounds me when I'm ready to climb to the roof of the library and throw myself off of it.  I hope I do the same for her.  We are both people who have a hard time saying "no."  That means that both are lives become a little . . . frantic at times.

My friend was my grace today.

Now, my wife is asking me to take our puppy out for a walk around the backyard.

Cue Saint Marty's dad:  "No rest for the wicked."

Saturday, June 3, 2023

June 3: "Night and the River," Stories to Tell, Lawnmowing

Mary Oliver has a difficult house guest . . . 

Night and the River

by:  Mary Oliver

I have seen the great feet
into the river

and I have seen the body
of something
scaled and wonderful

slumped in the sudden fire of its mouth,
and I could not tell
which fit me

more comfortably, the power,
or the powerlessness;
neither would have me

entirely; I was divided,
by sympathy,

pity, admiration.
After a while
it was done,

the fish had vanished, the bear
lumped away
to the green shore

and into the trees.  And then there was only
this story.
It followed me home

and entered my house--
a difficult guest
with a single tune

which it hums all day and through the night--
slow or briskly,
it doesn't matter,

it sounds like a river leaping and falling;
it sound like a body
falling apart.

We all have stories to tell.  Some of them are easy:  I had pizza for dinner tonight.  Some of them are harder:  I experience moments of severe sadness frequently.  Oliver sees a bear catching and eating a fish at a river, and the experience haunts her.  It takes up residence in her home and repeats itself over and over, like a scratched record or looping video.  River, bear, fish.  River, bear, fish.  Power and powerlessness.  River, leaping and falling.  Body, falling apart.  Repeat.  Repeat again.

Think about stories told at family get-togethers or class reunions.  They may be funny or sad or absurd.  And people never get tired of telling them or hearing them.  Some of these stories are pretty obvious choices:  childbirths, weddings, and graduations.  Others are more subtle:  what I whispered in my sister's ear the night before she died.  We repeat these stories because they are important--they define us.

Today, the story that defines me has to do with lawnmowing.  I've been avoiding this task for a couple weeks, but this afternoon, I couldn't any longer.  Most of my neighbors' lawns have already received their first manicures of the summer.  I was beginning to feel like that house--the one where there are old cars propped on bricks in the backyard, and the grass is shin-deep and studded with dandelions. 

Now, let me make this clear:  I detest lawnmowing.  If I lived in Arizona, I would be one of those people with stone gardens for landscaping.  If I had the money, I would cement over my front and back yards, and then I would paint the cement green.  That way, if things got messy, all I would have to do is hose away any dirt of detritus from trees.  

However, a weird part of me enjoys the results of lawnmowing.  It's sort of like making my bed in the morning.  On the one hand, I hate doing it.  On the other hand, I appreciate the sense of order I feel when a bed is made.  I experience the same kind of satisfaction when my grass if freshly shorn.  My house looks neat and tidy on the outside for a few days.  Maybe a week.

So, today I spent a couple hours picking up branches and rocks, pushing a lawnmower, and sweating.  Did I mention that it was over 80 degrees today?  I hated every minute of it.  However, when I was done, I sat on my couch in the living room, and I felt . . . accomplished.  In control.

Maybe that's what my story is about tonight:  control.  In much of my life, I have very little power.  I am a fish, swimming in a river, trying to get somewhere (upstream to spawn?  downstream to the Atlantic?).  Today, however, I was the bear, lumping around with my mower, scooping fish from the water.

My lawn looks great tonight.  Nothing else has changed in my life.  I'm still a mess--bouts of sadness, free-floating daily moments of panic, difficulty paying my bills.  However, any person driving down my street tonight will not think that the cast of Deliverance lives in my home.  Instead, they will think:  dang, this dude has it all together.

Of course, it's an illusion.  I never have my shit together.  My mother told me many years ago that, if I made the beds and washed the dishes in the sink, my house would appear clean and orderly.  I've followed that advice my whole life, adding lawnmowing into it.  As long as the beds are made, dishes are washed, and grass is cut, I am in control of my life.

Until the dandelions start reappearing in about a week.  Then I'm back on my front steps, plucking a banjo and looking a little inbred.

The story that defines Saint Marty tonight is this:  fresh-cut grass and a brilliant moon.  

Friday, June 2, 2023

June 2: "Red," Roadkill, Ghost

Mary Oliver sees red . . . 


by:  Mary Oliver

All the while
I was teaching
in the state of Virginia
I wanted to see
gray fox.
Finally I found him.
He was in the highway.
He was singing
his death song.
I picked him up
and carried him
into a field
while the cars kept coming.
He showed me
how he could ripple
how he could bleed.
Goodbye I said
to the light of his eyes
as the cars went by.
Two mornings later
I found the other.
She was in the highway.
She was singing
her death song.
I picked her up
and carried her
into the field
where she rippled
half of her gray
half of her red
while the cars kept coming.
While the cars kept coming.
Gray fox, and gray fox.
Red, red, red.

If you live in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, you have seen roadkill.  If you have lived in the Upper Peninsula for any length of time, chances are good that you have been responsible for causing roadkill.  I've lived most of my life in the U.P., and I have taken out a few animals--a rabbit, deer, and squirrel.  I have come close to eliminating a few skunks, but, thus far, I've avoided that particular species, thank goodness.

Recently, I've noticed a plague on roadkill deer on the highway as I drive to and from work.  When the weather warms up, the deer start moving.  Happens every year.  Eventually, as the summer progresses, deer are replaced by skunks and raccoons as the most common victims of animal vehicular homicide in the U.P.  When major highways are bordered by forests, roadkill happens.  Period.

Don't worry.  I'm not going to post a picture of the bloated deer carcass I've passed every day this week.  I'm dark, but not that dark.  When you hit any kind of animal with your vehicle, there will be damage.  Sometimes major damage, depending on the size of the creature.

I once owned a Mercury Sable.  It was dependable and in really good shape, even with over 100,000 miles on it.  The week after I made the last payment on that car, I was driving to work at around 5:30 a.m.  It was late June/early July, and the sun still hadn't made an appearance.  I was listening to a CD (this was before Bluetooth was a thing).  I never even saw the deer bounding across the highway.

My headlights caught a flash of brown, followed by the impact.  The Sable jerked, crunched, and then sputtered.  It happened so fast, I didn't have time to react.  The next thing I knew, I was sitting on the side of the road with my car's engine in a death rattle.  

Within a minute or so, there was a Michigan State Police cruiser behind me, its lights flashing.  The officer got out of the car, approached the driver's side window, which I rolled down.

"Are you okay?" the trooper asked.

"Yes," I replied, sounding a little more confident than I actually felt.  My hands were still shaking.

"Do you know if the deer is dead?"

I looked up at the trooper.  "No," I said, "but if it isn't, let me know.  I'll back up and run over it again."  I noticed the trooper's troubled expression.  "I'm sorry," I sighed.  "I just paid this car off, and I'm a little pissed."

The trooper nodded.  When I handed him my license, registration, and proof of insurance, he said, "As long as you're okay, I'm going to ask you to stay in your car until I check on the animal."  This guy thinks I'm batshit crazy, I thought to myself.

The trooper went back to his cruiser and sat in it for a few minutes.  Then, he emerged with a flashlight, and I saw him scanning up and down the side of the road, looking for the deer I'd hit.  

The deer was nowhere to be seen.  Either it was thrown far into the woods by the impact with my Sable, or it wasn't that injured and had continued running.  It was g-o-n-e.

The trooper came back to my car and handed me my documents.  "Is your car drivable?" he asked.  I turned the key in the ignition.  The engine roared to life, but sounded like a dying water buffalo.  I drove the car slowly up the highway into a parking lot.  "I'll call you a tow truck," the trooper said.

Within a half hour, the tow truck came and hauled my Sable away.  My dad came to pick me up and drive me to work.  Later that day, I found out that the car was totaled.  It was a shitty day, all 'round.  So, what did I do?  My wife and I went to Red Lobster for dinner.  I ordered four gin and tonics, and, when the server brought my meal, I asked him to box it up for me to take home.

Within a week, I was driving a new car.  A Ford Freestyle.  Another great vehicle.  

However, for the rest of the summer and well into the autumn, I kept on seeing shadow deer on the sides of roads.  If I was driving late at night or early in the morning, I swear brown ghosts were jumping in and out of my headlights.  Perhaps I was suffering from a little PTSD.  Or maybe the spirit of the deer I struck that summer was haunting me.  Punishing me for its untimely death.

I still am hypervigilant when I am driving through particularly remote areas, surrounded by a lot of fields or trees.  I have just enough memory of that lightning bolt of brown in my headlights to be cautious.

One morning, several years later, I was again driving to work early in the morning.  This time, it was late fall.  The heavens were filled with stars and moonlight.  As I came around a bend in the highway, I saw a deer not 20 feet ahead of me, standing directly in the middle of the road.  I slammed on my breaks and heard them scream against the asphalt.  My car came to a stop about five feet from the deer.

And the deer just stood there.  It didn't move or twitch.  In fact, it seemed hardly spooked at all.   It just stared at me, as if it somehow recognized who I was.  I sat in my car, wondering if the creature was going to charge at me.  After what seemed like an hour, the deer slowly trotted off the road and into the trees.  Its white tale bobbed into the darkness like a will-o'-the-wisp.  And then it was gone.

It wasn't the same deer I hit years earlier.  That was impossible.  But that animal wasn't afraid of me or my car.  In fact, it seemed somehow to recognize me and wanted to give me enough time to observe its swan neck, sleek torso, and elegant flanks.  It was beautiful, whether it was from this world or the next.

And that is Saint Marty's roadkill ghost story.

Thursday, June 1, 2023

June 1: "Of the Empire," Angry Poem, Lilacs

Mary Oliver goes a little medieval on humans . . . 

Of the Empire

by:  Mary Oliver

We will be known as a culture that feared death
and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity
for the few and cared little for the penury of the 
many.  We will be known as a culture that taught
and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke
little if at all about the quality of life for
people (other people), for dogs, for rivers.  All 
the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a
commodity.  And they will say that this structure
was held together politically, which it was, and
they will say also that our politics was no more
than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of
the heart, and that the heart, in those days,
was small, and hard, and full of meanness.

Yeah, Oliver is a little pissed.  I've been writing about her and her poetry for six months now, and today is the first time that I can say that.  This is an angry poem.  

Of course, she has every right to be mad.  Look at the inventory of mistakes and greed she provides.  Human beings fear death and adore power.  We care more about the welfare of the wealthy than the deprivations of the poor.  We amass things and ignore the quality of life of fellow planet travelers, dogs, and rivers.  And we put price tags on everything with hearts that are small little fists of meanness.

That's a pretty damning list.  Some of my disciples may take issue with a few of Oliver's assertions (or all of them).  That's okay.  You don't have to agree with her.  That's the beauty of living in a society governed by freedom of speech.  People have the right to say and think the dumbest or smartest shit they want.  I'm totally down with that.

It is around 9 p.m.  Outside, the temperature is still 77 degrees.  All of my lilac bushes are blooming.  I'm surrounded by purple sweetness.  If I were Mary Oliver, I wouldn't be typing this blog post.  I'd be standing in my backyard, basking in these first days of summer, listening to the peepers screaming in the dusk.  I may still do that.

Because that's what Mary would do.  When she felt discouraged or sad or disappointed with humanity, she turned to things that couldn't disappoint her:  her dogs, Blackwater Pond, meadowlarks, rivers, poetry.  No politics here.  Or accumulation of wealth.  Or greed.  Just nature doing what it needs to do in order to survive.

We suck at taking care of the world.  We've proven that, over and over, throughout history.  That's not misanthropic.  That's just plain truth, and that's Oliver's message tonight.  If you have a problem with this poem, then you're probably part of the problem and not the solution.

Please excuse Saint Marty now.  He's got some lilacs to smell.