Friday, January 27, 2023

January 27: "Benjamin, Who Came from Who Knows Where," Scar of Orange, Sunrise

Mary Oliver on the haunted life . . . 

Benjamin, Who Came from Who Knows Where

by:  Mary Oliver

What shall I do?
When I pick up the broom
     he leaves the room.
When I fuss with kindling he
     runs for the yard.
Then he's back, and we
     hug for a long time.
In his low-to-the-ground chest
     I can hear his heart slowing down.
Then I rub his shoulders and
     kiss his feet
and fondle his long hound ears.
     Benny, I say,
don't worry.  I also know the way
     the old life haunts the new.


I find this poem incredibly moving.  It's not just Oliver's love poem to an old and loyal hound.  It's a meditation on what it means to grow old.  How we all are haunted by the ghosts of who we used to be in our younger days.

This morning, as I was driving to my office at the library, I saw a scar of orange light on the horizon.  I knew immediately that the sunrise was going to be spectacular, so I texted one of my best poet friends.  "Hey!  Are you close by?"  (Poet friends are about the only people I know who will always get excited about things like sunrises.)

Pretty soon, we were standing on the roof of the library, watching the heavens transform into something that belongs in a poem.  This friend and I have been through quite a lot together in the last year, including the death of the third of our poet trio.  Every time we find ourselves together, it's as if the ghost of our missing friend is always with us.  Especially when we are doing crazy things like standing on the roof of a library building in sub-zero wind chills in order to experience an arctic dawn.

It truly was a moment when the old life haunts the new.  Even though neither of us mentioned our missing companion as we stood calf-deep in snow, bathed in morning light, I know we were both thinking the same thing:  our friend Helen would have loved this.  She would have probably been leaping around that roof like a deer.

That's what happens when you get older.  Mortality is no longer just reserved for grandmothers and grandfathers.  It's something more present--a constant reminder of how precious each and every shared moment of friendship and beauty is.  

We are haunted by the lives we used to live.  Ghosts surround us all day long.  They remind us to stop for moments of daily wonder.

Saint Marty gives thanks for his poet friend tonight, because she knows the old life and the new.



Thursday, January 26, 2023

January 26: "Percy (Nine)," Examined Life, Overdid It

Mary Oliver laments the examined life . . .

Percy (Nine)

by: Mary Oliver

Your friend is coming I say
to Percy, and name a name

and he runs to the door, his
wide mouth in its laugh-shape,

and waves, since he has one, his tail.
Emerson, I am trying to live,

as you said we must, the examined life.
But there are days I wish

there was less in my head to examine,
not to speak of the busy heart.  How

would it be to be Percy, I wonder, not
thinking, not weighing anything, just running forward.


I have spent a LOT of time this past week examining my life.  There hasn't been much else to do besides that and binging movies.  I couldn't read because of headaches.  Couldn't go for walks because the cold air made me cough so hard I felt like Mimi at the end of La boheme.  Couldn't sleep at night, and had no energy during the day.

So, I spent a lot of time just . . . thinking.

I finally tested negative this morning. Then I tested again, just to make sure.  Negative again.  So I worked at the library today.  Taught in-person at the university.  Tried to get caught up on the work I'd missed.  In short, I overdid it.  Now, I'm paying the price.  I'm pretty exhausted.

I'm happy to be rejoining the world, just running forward, as Oliver says at the end of today's poem.  Don't misunderstand me, though.  There's nothing wrong with reflection and self-examination.  If a person doesn't reflect on and examine life every once in a while, he or she runs the risk of turning into a self-absorbed narcissist who becomes President of the United States and encourages insurrection.  (Wow.  Did I just go there?  It must be COVID brain.)

However, there are times when it's alright just to charge ahead.  To indulge without guilt.  To be so full of excitement that the examined life is left like a dirty pair of underwear on the bathroom floor.  Everyone deserves that kind of no-strings-attached happiness every once in a while.

This afternoon, when I got home, there was my dog, lying on her back on the couch, belly exposed, looking up at me expectantly.  It was as if she had been waiting all day for the moment of my return.  I was Santa Claus delivering presents.  The Easter Bunny handing out chocolate.  The Second Coming of Jesus.  

And I reached down and blessed her with the miracle of a scratch behind her ears and rub of her belly.  And it was good.

That is Saint Marty's examined life tonight.



Wednesday, January 25, 2023

January 25: "Little Dog's Rhapsody in the Night (Percy Three)," COVID Quarantine, Sweet Arrangement

Mary Oliver on puppy love . . . 

Little Dog's Rhapsody in the Night
(Percy Three)

by;  Mary Oliver

He puts his cheek against mine
and makes small, expressive sounds. 
And when I'm awake, or awake enough

he turns upside down, his four paws
     in the air
and his eyes dark and fervent.

Tell me you love me, he says.

Tell me again.

Could there be a sweeter arrangement?  Over and over
he gets to ask it.
I get to tell.


This post is going to be a simple one  to write.  Oliver's poem is all about love.  Over and over, her dog asks for love, and, over and over, Oliver provides it.  Because there can never be too much love in the world.

Day six of COVID quarantine for me.  Tested positive again this morning.  So, I taught my class via Zoom today, and I worked for the library online.  Picked up my son from school.  Had leftovers from China King for dinner.  Watched a livestreamed concert from the library.  (I scheduled the band and was supposed to be there to do the introduction.  That didn't happen.)  And, finally, planned for my day tomorrow, which is complicated since I have to prepare for two possibilities:  first, that I test COVID-positive tomorrow morning, and second, that I test COVID-negative tomorrow morning.

Here is what I have learned (re-learned?) over this past week of quarantine and sickness--I have a lot of people in my life who love me a great deal.  That doesn't come as a surprise.  However, in my normal day-to-day existence, I don't really focus very much on all the love in my life.  Instead, I focus on the meeting I have in the morning, report I have to submit by 11 a.m., class I need to teach, son I have to pick up from school at 2:30 p.m., and . . . You get the idea.  The details of my hectic schedule sort of overwhelm all that love I receive on a daily basis.

And that is what Oliver is getting at with this poem.  The sweet arrangement of love--both receiving and giving.  There's nothing better than getting an unexpected expression of love, whatever form it takes.  A text message.  Email.  Phone call.  For Oliver's dog, it's a scratch behind the ears or a belly rub.  During this last week, so many of my friends and family members have reached out to check on me.  Some offered to get groceries.  Last night, a good friend offered to drop off a fifth of gin.  Other people just wanted me to know that they were thinking of me, sending me healing thoughts and prayers.

At the library where I work, everyone has stepped up to help me out.  Hosting programs.  Taking messages.  Putting out all the small fires that erupt during the course of my workdays.  I have coworkers who truly care about me and would do anything to help me out.  That is love, as well.

Me?  I can't do much right now.  I'm sort of like Percy in Oliver's poem, turning upside down, paws in the air, accepting all the kindness and love the universe is throwing my way.  There really is no way to repay all the kindnesses or say "thank you" enough.  

Of course, that's not really the point of love, though.  Love isn't about balance--making sure the scales are even.  Love is unbalanced, even a little feral.  I picture love like a garden that you plant but just can't control.  The carrots and zinnias and cucumbers and watermelon and sunflowers all crowding each other in chimerical chaos.  Unchecked and untamed.  No scorecard needed.

Saint Marty gives thanks tonight for the wild, organic love in his life this week.



Tuesday, January 24, 2023

January 24: "Percy (One)," Simple Things, Still Positive

Mary Oliver's new dog . . . 

Percy (One)

by:  Mary Oliver

Our new dog, named for the beloved poet,
ate a book which unfortunately we had
     left unguarded.
Fortunately it was the Bhagavad Gita,
of which many copies are available.
Every day now, as Percy grows
into the beauty of his life, we touch
his wild, curly head and say,

"Oh, wisest of little dogs."


It's good to trust in the wisdom of simple things like a hardboiled egg or glass of cold water or spring robin or puppy joy.  These kinds of things bring us pleasure.  Fill our stomachs.  Quench our dry tongues.  Remind us that winter is over.

Of course, we don't live in a world that values simplicity very much.  That's because most of our modern challenges are multi-faceted.  Take climate change, for instance.  The human race is destroying the planet.  Polar ice caps are melting.  Extinction occurs daily.  Air becomes unbreathable.  Water, undrinkable.

Now, each person can do simple things to combat climate change.  It's a matter of changing our habits.  We could drive less.  Recycle.  Eliminate fossil fuels.  Focus on renewable energy.  That's just the tip of the iceberg, which itself is disappearing at an alarming rate.  Our ability to embrace these changes depends on what we value:  Clean air or an SUV?  Clean water or an oil pipeline?  Miles of forest or miles of highways?  Take your pick.

Percy gets it.  The beauty of his life is all about living in the moment, focusing on simple pleasures.  Barking at the squirrel in the tree, car driving down the street, snow falling from the sky.  Chewing up that book lying open on the couch.  That's Percy's wisdom.

And that is drastically different from what usually resides in my head most days.  I thought I was going back to work tomorrow after five days of quarantine.  Sure, I still have a cough, but I always get a persistent cough this time of year.  It usually lasts until spring.  After I dropped my son off at school and wife at work this morning, I drove home and decided to take another COVID test, just to prove that I was better.

The first positive COVID test I took last Friday showed just a very, very faint second line.  If I hadn't looked closely, I would have missed it.  Today, there was no mistaking the second purple line.  I am still positive.  Which means, unless I test negative tomorrow morning, I'm probably going to be teaching online and working from home for the rest of the week.

I am not happy at the moment.  This weekend, I'm supposed to play for three church services and host a meeting of my book club on Sunday night.

As I sit on the couch typing this post, my dog is sleeping next to me.  She is fully stretched out, her legs twitching in some kind of dog dream, probably about chasing a rabbit or waves on a beach.  She's not stressed about work or dinner or school.  When she's hungry, she will eat.  When she's tired, she will sleep.  When she's bored, she will nose my hand with her snout until I reach over and rub her ears.

That's her contentment and wisdom.  The beauty of her life.  The future doesn't really exist for her.  She's just concerned about those tempting pages in the Bhagavad Gita--the ones she can put in her mouth and chew right now.  After that, who cares?

Maybe I need to take more naps.  Chase more squirrels.  Jump in more snowdrifts.  Maybe I need to stop thinking about tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.  It didn't help MacBeth or his wife.  

Instead, at least for the rest of the day, Saint Marty is going to think about now, and now, and now so that tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow will be much brighter.