Tuesday, December 28, 2010

December 28: The Holy Innocents

I hope you had a great Christmas, full of peace, joy, and enough baked goods to clog an artery.  After all, that's what Christmas is supposed to be about--families gathered around fireplaces, toasting marshmallows, and singing "Away in the Manger" or "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer," depending upon your spiritual inclinations.  Really, Christmas is a time to celebrate and reflect upon all the blessings in your life.  I believe most people don't do this enough.

But there's another side to Christmas, and today's feast is a reflection of it.  Today, the church celebrates the feast of the Holy Innocents.  It's a day that's meant to honor all of the babies who were killed in Bethlehem by Herod's soldiers after the birth of Christ.  In the whole Christmas narrative, this portion of the story doesn't get dwelled on too much.  It's ugly, brutal, bloody, and sorrowful.  It doesn't fit into the modern image of Christmas.  Now, some historians and archaeologists will say that, outside of the gospels, there is not physical, verifiable proof that Herod's slaughter of the innocents ever took place.  My response to that:  it doesn't matter.  This part of the story is as important a matter of faith as the donkeys, angels, shepherds, and kings.

This year, I was reminded over and over that Christmas wasn't meant for the "perfect" families and people of the world.  It was meant for people who, like the mothers and fathers of Bethlehem, are dealing with inconceivable loss and pain.  One family I know is dealing with the sudden death of its father/grandfather/husband.  His loss came on the day we were supposed to celebrate the church's Sunday School Christmas program.  When I showed up for worship December 24, I found out that the father of one of our choir members had died just an hour-and-a-half earlier.  It was a heavy night.

Myself, I've been struggling to maintain my yuletide spirit, as well.  As a worship leader, I kept losing musicians and singers through Advent.  Some moved.  Some had other commitments.  On December 22, I lost my main guitarist.  Band members kept dropping out like Republicans at a universal health care convention.  It wasn't pretty.  On Christmas day, I was trying to extricate one of my daughter's new toys from its box.  In the process of sawing through a plastic clip with a serrated knife, I stabbed myself in the wrist.  The knife sank in, came out, and the blood started pumping.  A LOT of blood.  So I ended up at the local ER, getting stitches and feeling like a stupid ass.  My mashed potatoes got burned for dinner that night, filling the kitchen with smoke.  On the following evening, a shelf collapsed in my mother's kitchen cupboards, sending all of the Corelle plates and bowls crashing down on top of me.  I found myself standing in my stocking feet in a pile of glass shards.  Later, as I was leaving to go home, I put on my brand new, L&L Bean winter coat and tried to zip it up.  The zipper broke.

By December 27, I was ready to heave my tree out the window and shred the Christmas cards I'd received.  I know Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Christ, but all I'm celebrating right now is the half bottle of Baileys Irish Cream in my cupboard at home.  I'm ready to join George Bailey on that bridge.

That's what Christmas was for me this year.  Death.  Disappointment.  Self-mutilation.  Destruction.  I felt more kinship to the wailing mothers and fathers of Bethlehem than the shepherds or magi.  In some ways, I think that's really appropriate. 

Christ didn't come into the world to save the "perfect" people.  He came into the world to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable, as a friend likes to remind me.  He came into the world for dumbasses with serrated knives.

Christmas is about the music of angel choirs in the heavens.

But Christmas is also about the weeping of the heartbroken in cold, dark streets.

Friday, December 24, 2010

December 24: All the Holy Ancestors of Jesus Christ

I have always felt a particular kinship to the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz. To be precise, when the Lion is in the Haunted Forest, trooping to the Wicked Witch’s castle to get her broom, he witnesses the Tin Man lifted by a ghostly force and thrown like a chew toy. The Lion squeezes his eyes shut, cowers, and chants over and over, “I do believe in spooks. I do believe in spooks. I do, I do, I do, I do, I do, I do, I do, I do believe in spooks.” I’m not as big a coward as the Lion, although I do avoid walking past a house in my neighborhood that’s supposedly haunted by the specter of a little boy. Like my furry, Oz counterpart, I have a healthy respect for the power of the unseen. I do, I do, I do, I do, I do.

As a child, my respect for all things ghostly was more of an obsession. Saturday afternoons would find me in front of the TV, watching the latest offering from Sir Graves Ghastly, host of a local creature feature. Sir Graves was a middle-aged man with a goatee who rose from a casket at the beginning of his show and spoke with a bad Bela Lugosi accent. His movies ranged from Boris Karloff courting Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein to the 1950s sci-fi flick Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. My favorite offerings were released in the 1960s by the Hammer Film Studios of England. These movies invariably featured a lot of blood, copious dismembered body parts, and plenty of zaftig women in flowing white gowns who wanted to attach their mouths to men’s necks. The combination of horror and gore and sex was enough to drive my pre-pubescent mind wild.

Eventually, I graduated to the slasher movies of the ‘80s. Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, and the Friday the 13ths. As a teen, these films had just the right amount of thrill, spill, and kill to satisfy my cravings for a good scare, plus there were always horny teens sneaking off to go skinny-dipping in Crystal Lake together. By the beginning of the 1990s, my taste for celluloid screams waned. Now, as a father of a nine-year-old daughter and two-year-old son, I’m appalled by the Goosebumps TV show. I refuse to let my children view episodes simply because, to be quite honest, they scare me. I’d like to say that my tastes have matured, that I find vampires and werewolves, zombies and ghosts childish. But when The Exorcist was re-released in the year 2000, I went to see it with a friend. I slept with lights on for two weeks afterward. I’ve become Don Knotts from The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.

I even find most of the current movie versions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol a bit too much. Dickens, aside from creating the stereotypical image of the white, Currier and Ives Christmas, also inaugurated the tradition of telling ghost stories during the holidays. The tale of Ebenezer Scrooge is just one of many Christmas ghost stories Dickens published. For Dickens, if you heard a noise in the living room on Christmas Eve, it was more likely to be long-dead Great Grandpa T paying a visit than a jolly, fat elf in red fur. And Great Grandpa T wasn’t usually having a great night.

The recent crop from Hollywood based on A Christmas Carol takes full advantage of computer-generated horrors. Marley’s ghost has a jaw that falls open to gargoyle proportions. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is a terrifying wraith in black with the hands of a skeleton and hell-red eyes. Watching these films, I slip into full Cowardly Lion mode, peering at the TV through laced fingers, waiting for Marley to don Freddy Krueger gloves and carve up Scrooge like a Christmas goose. I much prefer Waldorf and Stadler as the heckling Marley brothers in A Muppet Christmas Carol. That’s more my speed now.

But it makes sense to me, this focus on ghosts at Christmas time. Even in the accounts of the birth of Christ in the Bible, there are moments of sheer terror. Every time an angel appears to someone, the first words out of the angel’s mouth are not, “Do these wings make me look fat?” The first words, without fail, are, “Fear not,” which leads me to believe that angels are pretty scary-looking creatures, not like Connie Stevens, sporting dove wings and singing “You Can Fly.” No, angels inspire horror at first, not awe. So Charles Dickens was just following the lead of the writers of the gospels when he wrote Christmas ghost stories. Plus, at Christmas time, people tend to put a little more stock in the possibility of unseen powers. The veil between reality and possibility is just a little more transparent. Angels and ghosts are not just figments of fiction. They’re as real as snow, ice, and i-Pads.

Kids, in particular, are more open to such possibilities. In fact, I believe young children have a vision for the unseen that adults either ignore or completely lack. I’ve been creeped out on more than one occasion by my daughter and toddler son suddenly going still in the middle of play and staring into an empty room as if they’ve just caught sight of Santa Claus. My five-year-old nephew once told me, “You know, Uncle Marty, when I get older, I won’t be able to see the angels any more, and that will make me sad.”

Once upon a time—of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve—my wife and I came home from a midnight candlelight church service. Our daughter was sleeping the sleep of childhood Christmas, deep as a Robert Frost winter woods. Our son was in his crib, for once still and calm. We sent the babysitter home and prepared for bed. Pajamas. Toilet. Teeth brushing. I went through the house, turning off lights. I paused for a moment in front of the tree. The living room glowed a muted red, green, white, and blue, full of the sort of warmth you find in a hand-stitched quilt. I reached down and unplugged the Christmas tree.

As I prepared to climb over my wife into bed, I heard my son make a mewling sound, which usually meant he had lost his pacifier. I sighed, craving the comfort of pillow and blanket, but I turned and went to his crib in the next room to avoid an all-out session of screams and tears from him. I was tired, but I still felt the peace of the candlelit church, “Silent Night” fluting out of the pipe organ. I looked down at my son in his crib.

He was on his back, staring up at the ceiling with eyes as big, round, and dark as tree ornaments. The pacifier was still between his lips, and, behind it, he was smiling the way he did when I washed his feet during baths, all gums and delight. He didn’t look at me, didn’t seem to notice I was there. His gaze never shifted from a place on the ceiling, directly above him. His stare was focused, full of some kind of knowledge.

I felt my Cowardly Lion self stir in the depths of my chest. I imagined Linda Blair levitating above her bed, the girl from Poltergeist standing in front of a snowy TV screen, chiming, “They’re baaaaaaa-aaack.” I slowly looked up at the ceiling.

Nothing. Just empty, white ceiling. I was half-tempted to mutter, “Humbug,” but, somehow, I knew the sound of my voice would violate the air, cause it to fracture like ice on a mud puddle. I looked down at my son.

He’d started to slowly suck on his pacifier, as if he was working over some great, complicated calculus problem in his head. His gaze remained fixed on the ceiling above him.

After a few minutes of standing beside him, waiting for an alien to burst from his chest or him to start speaking fluent ancient Greek in a guttural drawl, I went back to my bed and climbed in beside my wife.

In the dark, I listened to the still house, half-expecting to hear the clink of chains or disembodied footsteps in the attic. Instead, my son started to make noises, soft, quiet, musical sounds, as if he were talking with some unseen spook or singing with a distant angel choir.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

December 22: Saint Chaeremon

I owe my readers a huge apology for my prolonged absence from my blog.  My list of excuses is long and really unimpressive:
  1. I got caught up with end-of-semester teaching and grading.
  2. I got caught up with holiday preparations and responsibilities.
  3. I  got caught up with other projects, including teaching a spiritual journaling workshop and writing my annual Christmas poem.
  4. I got caught up with my duties as a church musician and worship leader.
Are you buying it yet?  Am I forgiven?  If not, I'll add one more excuse to the above list.  While my other excuses were true, the following one cuts closer to the real reason I haven't blogged in over a month:

     5.  I got caught up with being lazy.

Especially with writing, it becomes very easy to find other, more "important" tasks to accomplish.  I can think my way out of any writing situation.  My line of reasoning usually follows this pattern:

I really need to sit down and write a post for my blog.  It's been way too long.  But first, since I'm at the computer, I should check my e-mail to see if anyone is trying to get hold of me.  Hey, look at how cheap Kindles are now.  I should go to Amazon.com and see about ordering one.  Wow, they're offering free, 2-day shipping for Christmas.  I wonder if the stuff I ordered on Monday has been delivered yet.  I should track my package.  It's out on the UPS truck right now.  It'll probably be there when I get home from work.  I should check to see if my syllabus needs to be updated for next semester.  I should...

You get the idea.  I could go on and on about the shiny objects that distracted me from the business of writing.  It's easy to become distracted  because, despite the pleasure I derive from writing, writing is hard, time-consuming work.  And it's lonely.  When I write and post blogs, I know there are people reading them.  For the most part, however, it feels like I'm stuffing notes in bottles and tossing them in the ocean.  The conversation, for the most part, is pretty one-way.

Again, I am making pretty lame excuses for my lack of communication in the past month or so.  So, I will just say I'm sorry.  I am not dead.  Or ill.  Or angry.  Or in rehab.  I just fell out of the habit of writing, and now I have to teach myself to love writing again.

In some ways, my relationship with writing is sort of like my relationship with Christianity.  I get lazy.  I start making excuses.  I get tired.  Cranky.  Worn out.  I become distracted by shiny objects--books I want to read instead of devotions, movies I want to watch instead of worship videos, naps I want to take instead of praying.  I'm easily distracted from two of the things that are very important in my life:  my faith and my writing.  I'm not proud of that character flaw, but I know it exists.  And admitting that you have a problem is the first step to recovery.

I'm in recovery right now.  Even as I write these words, I'm thinking of all the things I need to accomplish before Christmas Eve.  Shiny objects abound.

So, I'm trying to get back into blogging on a regular basis.  It's a struggle right now, as I've said.  I feel unfocused, uncreative, and uninspired.  Granted, I can't always wait for inspiration in order to write something.  If I did that, I might as well burn my journal, donate my fountain pen to some poetry half-way house, and start watching reruns of Little House on the Prairie.  Inspiration is actually a small component of the writing process, maybe 4%.  The other 96% is all hard work and dedication.

Chaeremon, today's patron, was Bishop of Nilopolis during a time in the third century when Christians were being hunted, killed, and driven into hiding.  Chaeremon, who was a "very old man," fled into the mountains with a friend and was never seen again, despite extended searches by fellow followers of Christ.  Chaeremon simply vanished.

This saint's story is not quite as gruesome as other martyr's stories.  He wasn't burned alive or drawn-and-quartered.  He wasn't decapitated or fed to hungry bears.  He just disappeared.  My guess about most saints is that the majority of their accomplishments are the result of 4% divine inspiration (visions of Jesus or the Virgin Mary; prophetic dreams; levitation; miraculous healing) and 96% hard work (climbing mountains; building churches and schools; begging for food for the poor; being tortured).  In other words, it's just like writing.

Sometimes grace will guide what you do.  Most of the time, you just have to disappear into the mountains and hope some bright star appears to light your way.

I'm looking up, waiting for my star to appear.  I haven't vanished into a cave.  I have my pen.  I have my paper.  Just add water and inspiration.  I'm heading down the mountainside, one rock, one crater, one cliff at a time.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

November 11: Saint Martin of Tours

Martin of Tours was a Roman soldier when he had what the writer Flannery O'Connor would have called his moment of grace.  Martin was stationed in Amiens, France, when he encountered a half-naked beggar at the city's gates.  Martin took his sword, cut his cloak in two, and gave the beggar half of it.  That night, Martin had a dream.  In the dream, he saw Jesus Christ wearing his torn cloak.  Christ was telling angels how Martin had clothed Him when He was cold and naked.  When Martin awoke, he decided to devote his life to following Christ.  Martin of Tours is now the patron of beggars and soldiers.

I like that story for a few reasons.  First, I like it because  it's about a guy named Martin, and that's a great name.  Second, I like it because it's about unsolicited charity, an act of kindness that somehow proves to me that people are basically good.  Third, I like it because it involves a cool, ecstatic vision.  That just doesn't happen any more.  Jesus doesn't make very many personal appearances these days.

Martin's story also underscores a pretty basic lesson I learned in Sunday School a long time ago (sing it with me):  "Whatsoever you do to the least of My people, that you do unto Me."  You better be good to that one-armed, club-footed, blind server at Red Lobster, because she just might be Jesus in drag.  It's a rule I try to remember, but it's also a rule I don't always follow.  I have a really bad habit of being too judgemental.  If you have read any of my previous posts, you might have noticed that sarcasm comes pretty naturally to me.  Which means that I have ridiculed or insulted Jesus Christ on more than one occasion.  That's probably not a good thing to do on a regular basis.

I have a close friend right now who's going through a really tough time with a loved one.  Without getting into too much detail, it's a situation that requires my friend to exercise a lot of tough love, doing stuff like letting the loved one flunk out of college, lose a job, be stranded alone at Christmas.  It's a horrible position to be in.

I remember one Christmas when my wife and I were separated.  She was living an hour-and-a-half away and was driving a minivan that had over 200,000 miles on it.  Its door was broken; she had to use a bungee cord to keep it closed.  She had moved out of our home about four months before and was in the grips of her sexual addiction completely.  I was raising our daughter alone, and I was having a difficult holiday season.  I didn't even put up a Christmas tree until my daughter begged me.

On Christmas night, I went to my wife's sister's house for a family get-together.  My wife's family had been very supportive of me.  They'd helped me paint my daughter's bedroom, cleaned my house from top to bottom, straightened the junk in the attic.  The get-together was warm and light.  My wife was there, and our daughter was overjoyed to be with her.  On only a few occasions did things get tense, but I worked to stay upbeat and Christmasy.  At the end of the evening, I was packing up my daughter's presents when my wife approached me.

"I was wondering if I could spend the night at the house," she said quietly.

I looked at her, at her pleading eyes.

It was a cold night, about fifteen below zero.  It was the kind of night where the snow doesn't crunch underfoot.  It snaps.  I didn't want to send her back to her apartment.  I didn't want her to drive her shitty vehicle over two hours through an arctic night to an empty home.  I didn't.

I looked back at her for almost a full minute.  Finally, I said, "I don't think it would be a good idea."  I told her it would confuse our daughter.

She nodded and smiled.  "Yeah, I know," she said.  "I understand.  Merry Christmas."  She kissed me on the cheek.

When I got home that Christmas night, I put my daughter to bed.  Then I cried for two hours straight.  I had done the right thing.  I knew that.  (My wife and I are together now.  We have a two-year-old son.)  But that didn't stop me from feeling like I'd just kicked Mary and Joseph off my doorstep into the cold, that I'd just unwrapped the baby Jesus from His swaddling clothes and placed Him on a snowbank, exposed and vulnerable.

Sometimes, love requires you to do some really difficult things.  I learned that.  My friend is learning that.

Sometimes, love means you leave the beggar half-naked at the city gates.

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.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

September 30: Saint Jerome

It's particularly apropos that today's saint, Jerome, is the patron of librarians.  First, last Thursday, my book club met at my house to discuss the month's selection, Catcher In the Rye by Jerome David Salinger.  Second, I find it comforting that the writing and work for which Saint Jerome became famous was done at the end of his life, when he was living as a hermit in Bethlehem.  (Are all Jeromes doomed to be solitary, cranky writers?  I picture Jerome and Salinger in heaven, talking about what a phony bastard Saint Paul is.)  Third, on Jerome's feast day, I've spent a good deal of time on Google trying to find information about the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature, which is going to be announced in the next week some time.

The fact that I was born on October 5 and am a writer may have something to do with my preoccupation with the Nobel and all people and things literary.  I have this dream of some day learning that I've won the Nobel on my actual birthday.  Any way, I watched an interview with Cormac McCarthy yesterday.  Oprah asked McCarthy whether he cared if people read his work.  McCarthy laughed and said "not really."  It irked me.  McCarthy is an incredibly successful  writer--has won the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Genius Grant.  He's always on the list of writers whom bloggers and critics shortlist for the Nobel.  Every year.  And yet he doesn't give a shit if people read his books.  Most writers I know are obsessive about publishing, the bigger the audience the better.  I honestly believe that authors who say they don't care about being read are authors who have a lot of readers.  A LOT of readers.

If I sound bitter and unchristian, it's because I am.  It's a facet of one of my greatest faults--jealousy.  I've written about this unattractive part of my personality in previous posts.  It's nothing new, and, for the most part, I can easily hide behind sarcasm and disparaging bon mots.  People who don't know me well think I'm charming and funny.  People who do know well think I'm charming and funny, but they also know I'm deadly serious when I call Herta Muller (last year's winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature) a Teutonic vampire.

<----  See what I mean?

I try to act humble and nonchalant, but it's just an act.

I'm not going to come up with some kernel of wisdom that puts my jealousy into perspective.  I have no perspective on it.  It's an ugly part of my person, a raging red boil that I mask and cover up with humor.  One of my best friends laughs at me, however, and says, "It burns your ass.  I know."

It does.  I'm fine with that.  Most people who win the Nobel Prize are at least in their 70s.  Saint Jerome didn't start writing in earnest until he retired from active priesthood.  J. D. Salinger only wrote two or three books and then disappeared from the spotlight, never to publish again.  He became a legend.  I still have time.  To be a better person.  To let go of all my petty jealousies and angers.

We all can be better than we are.

Until next week when they announce the winner of the Nobel in Literature.

Then all bets are off.  Unless I win.  Stay tuned...

Friday, September 17, 2010

September 17: Saint Hildegard of Bingen

This morning, I was so tired when I arrived at work that my eyes were literally burning.  As I sit here writing this blog, I have the impression of my head slowly gaining weight.  If I close my eyes right now, I could easily slip into a coma.

I started a home improvement project voluntarily last weekend.  (Generally, I have to be dragged into such ventures with cattle prods and pepper spray.)  I'm painting the wood paneling in my dining and living rooms.  Then I'm going to tear up the 1970s brown shag carpeting to expose the gorgeous, hard wood flooring beneath it.  At least, that's my vision.  I know there's hard wood underneath, and I know that it hasn't seen the light of day for at least 30 years.

I'm doing this for two reasons.  First, I want my house to sell, so I'm trying to make it as spacious and inviting as possible.  Second, I'm tired of the darkness of the rooms.  I want more light.  Over the past couple of weeks, I've felt squeezed breathless, as if the walls were contracting around me.  That may sound melodramatic, but when you're stuck with rooms that look like they were decorated in 1970s remnants, you kind of lose touch with reality.  I'm one step away from locking the doors, putting my ABBA discs on repeat, and slowly slipping into disco oblivion.  Yes, it's that desperate.

So, I'm exhausted physically and mentally.  The last few weeks have been just this side of the cuckoo's nest.  The story is long and complicated, involving wasps and sex and shame and addiction and anger and therapy and chocolate.  (In my life, everything involves chocolate.)  I'm choosing not to re-experience it through writing at the moment, but the result was me sitting on my couch one night and saying out loud, "I need to get out of this house."

It's the house in which my nine-year-old daughter has grown up.  It's the first house on which I ever bought/took a mortgage out.  It's the house in which my book club meets every month.  It's the house in which I wrote my first published book.  But it's also the house in which my wife developed bipolar.  It's the house in which I found out my wife was/is a sex addict.  It's the house in which my wife took scissors and carved up her arms and breasts.  It's the house in which I spent a year raising my daughter by myself, holding on to her at night like a seat cushion in an open water airplane crash.

At this time, the bad memories outweigh the good ones, and I really need a change of environment.  I understand that any problems I currently have will follow me like an ugly wedding afghan knitted by Great Aunt Thelma, but I'm craving something different, a fresh start.

Those of you who know me well are probably in a state of stammering, wordless disbelief right now.  I am not a person who embraces change.  In fact, I generally flee from change.  Change has never been the best of friends to me.  Change is that guy on the football team who used to hammer me with dodge balls.  Change, for the most part, leaves me bruised and sore.  I can honestly say, I think this is the first time I have ever actively sought and worked for change in my life.

For today's saint, change was not the tool of Satan (a belief to which I usually subscribe).  Hildegard of Bingen was a nun, mystic, poet, musician, and thinker.  She corresponded with bishops and kings and saints.  When she saw injustice, she fought to correct it, never backing away from change, even if that change meant wrestling in words with the pope.  In 1153, Hildegard wrote a letter to Pope Eugenius in which she defended an archbishop (and friend) who was under papal investigation.  She didn't gild her distaste for the situation:  "As it is now, however, the vile seek to wash away their vileness with their own depravity, while they themselves are deaf and polluted lying in the ditch.  Lift them up; give aid to the weak."  I can almost see Hildegard muttering to herself as she scribbled those words on parchment, her cheeks flushed with righteous anger.  Hildegard was no fence-sitter.  She was a woman unafraid of throwing herself into action, even if it meant calling Pope Eugenius an old bastard.  (If you read between the lines, it's there.  But saints have to be a little more diplomatic, I guess.)

So I have thrown myself into action, embraced the idea of change and movement toward something better, something hopeful.  I'm not taking on the Vatican.  I'm not arguing a case before the Supreme Court.  I'm painting walls.  I'm tearing up ugly carpeting.

And I'm hoping to find something beautiful underneath.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

September 15: Our Lady of Sorrows

Having a person you love be diagnosed with a mental illness sucks.  Having that same person suffer from addiction (alcohol, drugs, sex, pornography, whatever) doubly sucks.  I can vouch for that.  It all becomes a vicious cycle:  my loved one is out of control; my loved one is sucking down bottles of tequila (substitute your addiction of choice); my loved one is in the hospital; my loved one is getting help; my loved one is starting to do better; my loved one is great; my loved one is having problems; my loved one is out of control ... You get the idea.

One of the hardest parts is not knowing which came first--the illness or the addiction.  Is the addiction a symptom of the illness?  Or is it a matter of the two coexisting like Palestine and Israel, constantly at war, both claiming ownership of the same piece of real estate.  I don't know if my wife's struggle with sexual addiction is a result of mania or if it's an independent entity, a scoop of chocolate on top of the scoop of vanilla that is my wife's bipolar.

The thing that I find most exhausting about my wife's illness/addiction is pretending.  In the morning, when I leave the house for work, I have to put on a mask:  the happy worker.  I deal with patients and coworkers, listen to complaints and concerns, and struggle to silence the voice in my head that's screaming, "You think YOU got it bad?1?  Let me tell you something!!"  Then I have to go teach my writing classes at the university, and I put on another mask:  the concerned teacher.  I listen to mostly teenagers moan about the B's they've received on their papers, since they've always gotten A's in all of their English classes before this.  I fight the urge to let my eyes roll toward my forehead as I listen to their worries, and I entertain the idea of simply saying, "I'm sorry.  You must be mistaking me for someone who gives a shit."  Then I go back to my happy worker mask for a little while longer.  And then, at 5 p.m., I go home and put on another mask:  the daddy.  This mask is more comfortable to wear as I feed, bathe, dress, pack lunches, and march my son and daughter off to bed.  Only after my children are snoring in their respective sleep spaces do I take off my last mask and let myself just be me.  Frazzled.  Sad.  Worried.  Angry.  Hungry.  Bone tired.  Me.

It's tiring being so many people during the day.  It's especially tiring when all you really want to do when the alarm clock goes off is roll over and hang a huge "Do Not Disturb" sign across your ass.  I understand why Greta Garbo said, "I vant to be alone."  If I'm alone, I don't have to act like a phony, to quote Holden Caufield.  I can be my authentic, true self.

And that authentic, true self sometimes feels a little lost.

Today is the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows.  It's a day that commemorates the seven events of great sorrow and loss in the life of the Virgin Mary:
1)  Prophecy of Simeon
2)  Flight into Egypt
3)  Three Days' Loss of Jesus
4)  Meeting Jesus on the Way to Calvary
5)  Mary at the Foot of the Cross
6)  Jesus Taken Down from the Cross
7)  Burial of Jesus

 Mary had a lot to grieve over.  However, in that list of seven items, right between numbers 3 and 4, sits about 30 years in which she had Jesus to herself.  They sat down like any Jewish family in Nazareth and had lamb omelets for breakfast.  Jesus built chairs and entertainment centers (or whatever carpenters made) in His dad's workshop.  And He was devoted to Mary, probably told her He loved her every day.  Probably several times a day.  And they were happy.

That's what I cling to in my life:  those small, happy moments at breakfast or supper when I love and feel loved.  I'm sure Mary did that.  It's what brings you through the sorrow.  It's what helps you see through mental illness and addiction to something true.  Something full of hope.  Something normal, like apple cider or a hot bowl of oatmeal.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

September 9: Saint Peter Claver

I've always found saints comforting.  Sitting in church as a child, I stared at the votives flickering before statues, licking the stone robes, hands, and faces of the saints with light.  The walls reached up and up into vaulted darkness, that high, secret place where prayers gathered and swirled with incense and candle smoke.  I pictured the Hail Marys and Our Fathers trapped like carbon monoxide in the dark beams of the ceiling, circulated by copper fans onto babushkas, through rosary beads, across holy water in fonts, until everything was permeated with grief and hope.

In the pews around me, men and women knelt and prayed, lifted their broken lives to the saints.  Cancer eating pink lung.  Wife fucking strange men.  Son shooting heroin.  Husband coughing blood.  All this pain brought in whispers and candle tongue to the saints, who took it the way children take cherry Popsicles in July, with smiles, joy even, because they know relief from summer misery is simple.  Red.  Sweet.  Saint Sebastian, riddled with arrows, stared upward, as if watching fireworks on July 4, popcorn and hot dogs in his smile.  Lucy, holding a platter on which her gouged eyes sat, glowed like Grace Kelly in Rear Window, beautiful and serene.  Francis of Assisi, stigmata hands bandaged and weeping, surrounded by Disney animals, Thumper and Flower and placid blue jays.  Peter Claver, cradling a black-skinned infant with ribs like hungry teeth, blessed the child's face, tenderly as Michael Landon on Little House.

In the presence of such need, such agonizing want, the saints always looked like they had some secret, knew something the rest of us didn't.  None of the statues or paintings looked starved, filled with desperate hunger.  They all looked as if they had just consumed Thanksgiving dinner, overdosed on some kind of tryptophan-esque satisfaction.  Regardless of which of their body parts was being lopped off, stabbed, or cooked, the saints always seemed confident.  George Clooney confident.  They knew things were always going to work out for them, and, therefore, fear and worry didn't crease their features, didn't turn them into Holocaust refugees, haunted and hollow.

Two years ago, when I first started walking with the saints, I was plagued with doubts and hurts.  My wife was a struggling sex addict.  I was at war with members of my family.  I wasn't sure if my marriage was going to hold together or fly apart like some unstable, radioactive element.  I was happy and unhappy.  Full and hungry.  I thought that, if I could somehow figure out the secret locked behind the blissful smiles and stares of the saints, I would be able to be George Clooney, facing Nazis or mobsters or Joseph McCarthy, anything that came my way, with a crooked grin and a tuxedo.

My wife is still a struggling sex addict.  I'm still at war with members of my family.  I'm still working to hold my marriage and family together.  And I'm still not George Clooney.

I'm one of those old, Italian women I used to watch in church, clutching my rosary, muttering my prayers, beating my breast, flinging my needs heavenward, hoping somebody will catch them, polish them, turn them into something precious.  Love-filled.  Holy.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

August 25: Saint Joseph Calasanz

I am done with my first week of teaching as of this writing.  The thing I always say to myself after the first week of classes is this:  "Fooled them again."

Ever since I began teaching close to twenty years ago, I've felt like a fraud.  I'm not an expert on anything.  I've been writing longer than my students, so I've learned a few more tricks than them.  Because of my age, I've read a lot more than most of my students, as well, so I have a broader knowledge base to draw from.  My biggest fear, however, is that my students are going to look at me one day and say, "You don't know jack shit."  It hasn't happened yet, but I honestly believe it's only a matter of time.

And then I'm just going to have to shrug and say, "You got me."

One of the smartest guys I've ever known (a professor at the university at which I teach) once told me that, after he received his PhD from the University of Michigan, he walked out of the graduation ceremony and realized he didn't know anything.  So, I'm not alone in my feelings of inadequacy.

I know I've written about this subject before.  When you've been teaching  as long as me, you sort of start wondering if anything you've done in the classroom has made an iota of difference in anyone's life.

When I went to the mail room in the English Department a couple days ago, I ran into a former student.  I'd had him in class about five or six years ago.  I even remembered his name, which usually doesn't happen.  At the end of a semester, after I've submitted my final grades, my brain usually does a dump, getting rid of names and details.  The students I remember are students who have done something unique or gone out of their way to keep in touch.

The student I ran into in the English Department was a great beginning poet when I met him.  He showed me his work when I was his instructor, and I remember wanting to kill him, incinerate his body, and claim his poems as my own (in a metaphorical sense, of course).  He was that good.

I asked him what he was up to.

"Oh, you know," he said.  "I'm a teaching assistant in the MFA program" 

Hence the dress shirt and freshly shorn hair, I thought.

"And I've been writing poetry," he said.

"Oh," I said, flipping through the envelopes in my mailbox.  "Any luck?"

"Oh, yeah," he said with a little too much enthusiasm.  "I just had a poem accepted in Cream City Review."  He then went on for half a minute, listing all the journals and magazines in which he'd been published.

And with each addition to the list, I wanted to stab him with the mechanical pencil in my hand.  Edit him out of existence, so to speak.

"And this is my first semester in the MFA, " he finished.

"Wow," I said.  "You've been busy."  You rat bastard.

"And it all started with your class," he said.  "Almost seven years ago." 

I nodded.  Now you're calling me old.  "That's nice of you to say."  I wanted out of the conversation, out of the room.

He smiled a killer smile that, I'm sure, the undergrad girls in the class he's teaching go wild over.  "No, I mean it," he said.  "I wouldn't be here without that class."

I looked at him closely.  He was being sincere, in an un-jaded, just-stepped-off-the-boat-from-Ellis-Island kind of way.  He was in the land of opportunity, and he was thanking me for helping him get there.

Joseph Calasanz is the patron saint of students.  A Spanish priest, he started teaching poor children mathematics, reading, and writing in rented  rooms outside the walls of the Vatican.  Several other priests joined him in his efforts to educate Rome's impoverished boys and girls.  Eventually, Joseph established the religious order called the Clerics Regular of the Poor Schools of the Mother of God.

I don't think it's a coincidence that my encounter with my former student/rising poetry star happened on the feast day of the patron saint of students.  That was just a little too convenient.  God loves playing those kinds of jokes on me.  I'd been wondering if I'd made a difference in any student's life.  Here was the answer.  If you're wondering what I told my student, I took the saintly road.

"You should stop by me office some time," I told him.  "I'd love to read some of your stuff."  Stuff.  That's what poets call poems.

"Yeah, sure," my student said, practically wagging his ass like a puppy.

I left the mail room, my student standing before his mailbox, shining like a fresh penny, a promising future unfolding before him.

I walked back to my office.  I turned off the lights, pulled the blinds, and closed the door.  I pretended I wasn't there.  I'd had enough messages from God for the day.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

August 21: Saint Pius X

Two days before I start to teach for the fall semester at the university.  The weather has been swerving from grey and raining to cool and sunny to humid and hot all weekend.  It is the end of summer, even though there's still two weeks of August left.  These last days of summer always fill me with melancholy.  I know, I know.  No big surprise.  I usually spend this time planning and preparing the next three months of work for myself.  Read this book this week.  Papers to grade the next week.  Quizzes to create that day.  Reading journals to review the following weekend.  I am no longer free to do what I want.  I have obligations, 50 students depending on me.  Lesson plans.  Schedules.  Deadlines.  Less day.  More night.  Basically, everything that is the opposite of May, June, July, and August.  And don't even get me started on Christmas music and programs at church.  Yes, it starts this early.  You thought Wal-Mart was bad.

It doesn't help that I just started rereading Cormac McCarthy's The Road for class, which is one of the coldest, bleakest novels ever written.  The first time I read it, I was sitting by a pool in the middle of July during a heat wave, and I still found myself getting chilled.  If you haven't read the novel, you should.  It's one of my favorites.  It's about a father and son trying to reach the Pacific Ocean in post-apocalypse America.  They're starving and desperate.  They encounter bands of cannibals who capture and keep people like livestock, harvesting them for food.  The father and son have a handgun with one bullet for protection.  Oh, and the father is dying of some ailment that causes fits of bloody coughing.  This all takes place in a landscape of charred trees and baked earth, where sunlight is a memory and everything and everyone is covered in grey ash.  Constant snow and rain.

So, throw that uplifting piece of literature on top of my already end-of-summer melancholia, and you have the recipe for a pretty shitty day.  I know I should feel blessed in my life.  I mean, I'm an English major with advanced degrees, and I have jobs that don't require me to run a deep fryer.  Let's make it even simpler:  I have jobs that allow me to pay my bills.  In this economy, that's pretty damn good.  I'm feeling sorry for myself when some people I know don't have the money to make their next house payment.  That's pretty fucked up.

I used to look forward to fall and winter, the shortening of the days, the long reach of the night.  I waited for the maple leaves to turn yellow and orange, the evenings to ice the throat when you breathe.  I've always been a lover of the dark.  That may shock some of you.  I never opened windows or curtains in my house.  I was the neighborhood Boo Radley, with kids walking by my property and whispering stories about the crazy English professor who only comes out under the cover of darkness.

Nowadays, I look forward to those long summer days, when the sun is in the sky at 5 a.m. and sticks around until nearly 11 at night.  I like the bright heat, opening windows and airing out the dead moats of autumn and winter.  I crave those dog days when just shifting in a chair from one ass cheek to another can make you break a sweat.  The thing is, in the hot months, I don't have to do anything that makes me sweat.  School's out, and, aside from punching the clock at my second job, I have the freedom to simply...do...nothing.  That freedom comes to a close tomorrow.

I don't do well with things ending, especially things that I've enjoyed, like vacations or friendships or movies or books.  It's a selfish impulse, wanting a happiness to continue forever.  In his last will and testament, today's saint, Pius X, who was one of the first popes of the 20th century, made the following statement:  "I was born poor, I have lived in poverty, and I wish to die poor."  Maybe, because of my mood, I read those words as meaning poverty of body, mind, and spirit.  Right now, I'm clinging to the happiness of the last month or so.  It has been a time of stability and relative peace in my usually chaotic day-to-day.  I've really enjoyed that.  But usually, when things are going that well, the earth shifts, and I find myself in poverty again.

Poverty is not a bad thing.  It brings you back to the basics, makes you realize what wealth really is.  Wealth has nothing to do with the tangible--money or possessions.  It has everything to do with the intangible (peace, love, security, hope), because the tangible always ends up slipping away, like sea water through your fingers.

Cormac McCarthy writes in The Road, "All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain.  Their birth in grief and ashes.  So, he whispered to the sleeping boy.  I have you."  It's a father cleaving to his son.  A man cleaving to something pure, something sacred, something intangible.  It's the way, I imagine, God cleaves to us.

Through pain.  Through darkness.  In light like summer.  That's unchangeable.  That's wealth.

Friday, August 13, 2010

August 13: Saint Benildus

It is Friday the 13th.  I'm not really superstitious, however.  Nothing really terrible has ever happened to me on a Friday the 13th.  I'm pretty sure the bad karma attributed to the day comes from the fact that Christ was supposedly crucified on a Friday, and the unlucky number 13 is connected to the number of people at the Last Supper.  The superstition, then, has its roots in Christian tradition.  That doesn't mean that I believe in the whole black-cat, step-on-a-crack, don't-walk-under-a-ladder way of thinking.  However, I did grow up with the whole Jason-in-a-hockey-mask, serial killer thing.  As long as I'm not camping in a rustic cabin on a deserted lake with a group of horny teenagers, I can confidently say that I'm pretty safe.

As a follower of Christ, I guess I shouldn't really subscribe to ideas of luck or karma or fate.  Friday the 13th is just another day of the month...Okay, I just typed that and nothing bad happened.  A brick didn't crush my skull.  Lightning didn't strike my computer and fry its circuitry.  The phone didn't ring with news that my house was on fire or my dog died of severe mange.  (Actually, I don't own a dog, but I just wanted to use the word "mange.")

Since I'm courting catastrophe by scoffing at Friday the 13th, I think I'll just throw caution to the wind and talk about some dreams and goals I have for myself and my life.  So, this post may really annoy those of you who can't stand the me-me-me-ness of current popular books like Eat, Pray, Love.  (I think I may be the only man I know who actually liked that book.)  In my defense, you are reading a blog written about me and my experiences by me.  What the hell do you expect?

Anyway, I recently accomplished one of the goals I've had for a while.  I was chosen as Employee of the Month for the health care system I work for.  That means, for one shining period of 31 days, I was better than over 1200 other people.  (Okay, even I have to admit that statement sounds incredibly shallow.)  I know that awards and accolades don't determine how good of a person I am.  But it's a lot easier to feel good about myself if I have that physical affirmation to back it up.  Plus the money that went with the award was nice.  It's sort of like my coworker who just purchased a new used car.  "Is it bad that I feel like a better person when I'm driving now?" she asked me.

One of my current goals may seem equally as self-serving as the one I just wrote about.  I know I shouldn't crave fame or readership, although sometimes it feels like I'm writing only for myself and the few friends I drag to a computer and force to review my latest post.  I know there are more readers out there than I'm aware of.  However, writing is essentially a lonely process.  You write in isolation, rewrite in isolation, and, in the case of a blog, publish in isolation.  I revel in comments from readers I don't know personally because it means that what I'm writing is actually being read by people who aren't obligated to read it.

Which brings me to my next goal.  I want to be chosen by Blogger.com as a Blog of Note.  Basically, every month, the good people who run Blogger.com choose blogs that somehow strike their fancy for some reason.  I've reviewed a lot of the blogs that have received this distinction.  They don't seem to follow any particular topic or theme.  There's artists and cab drivers and chicken farmers and Hooter's waitresses and moustache fetishists.  You name it.

I want to be chosen as a Blog of Note.

Now, the problem is that the authors of these blogs are pretty good self-promoters.  They do things like e-mail Blogger.com and threaten to torture kittens if their blog isn't chosen for recognition.  I'm not good at stuff like that.  I think another way a blog gets chosen is by having a large following.  That means I need more followers.  I've been at five followers for a while now.  So, what I'm asking is for those of you anonymous followers to register as official followers.  Tell your friends/relatives to register as followers.  I like new friends, even if they're cyber.  And, if you feel so inclined, e-mail Blogger.com and tell them you're going to shave a puppy if Feasts & Famines isn't chosen as a Blog of Note.  It might help.

Now, this blatant plea for recognition and popularity may seem to be antithetical to my quest for becoming more saintly.  I agree with you.  Benildus, today's saint, didn't go around telling friends to mention his name to the pope.  Basically, Benildus spent his life as a teaching priest in France in the 19th century.  He established a school in Saugues, France, and spent almost a third of his life providing free education to underprivileged boys.  He had a reputation for sanctity, generosity, and humility (of course).  He didn't care is he was voted Teacher of the Year.  He didn't even care is he was a Priest of Note.  Benildus just did what he thought God wanted him to do.  When I started this blog, I really thought it was God who planted the seed in my heart.  It was something I felt I needed to do.  I think that qualifies as being called, just like Benildus was called to teach.

I thought God was going to take control, and I'd have over 1000 followers by now.  I'd be getting calls from the New York Times and have my pick of literary agents.  At the very least, I'd be a freakin' Blog of Note.  But, of course, God has other plans.  So, I'm just going to keep writing and trusting.  It's all I can do.  The rest is out of my hands, like all goals and dreams.  It's not about luck, good or bad.  It's about trust.

And a few hundred e-mails to Blogger.com by some avid fans.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

August 11: Saint Clare

I'm having one of those days when I don't find a whole lot to be happy about.  I've known it was coming.  I've been in a good mood for quite some time now.  One of my friends, after reading my last few posts, said to me, "Those are really nice.  What's up with that?"  Last night, I felt the tide shifting.  I spent the evening sitting in my living room in the dark, watching the season finale of Hell's Kitchen.  Seeing people verbally assaulted on television usually improves my mood.  It didn't help.

There are reasons for my change in attitude.  An accumulation of reasons.  The end of summer and the impending start of a new teaching semester.  My daughter starting fourth grade in a few weeks.  Twenty or so pounds I need to lose.  Sarah Palin still in the news.  And other things.  Put them all together, and I'm in one of those states that doesn't quite qualify as a dark night of the soul, as John of the Cross called it.  More like a cloudy-with-a-chance-of-brussel-sprouts evening of the soul.  Just enough to push me to the edge.

I hate getting like this.  It's not really full-blown depression.  I guess, if you had to use a clinical term, it could be called situational depression, which doesn't sound too bad.  To me, situational depression seems to imply that all you have to do to correct the problem is change the channel on the TV, watch a few reruns of Gilligan's Island or The Brady Bunch (especially the one where Marcia gets hit in the nose with the football).  Simple.  Problem solved. 

Not quite.

The good thing about this kind of mood is that it doesn't require hospitalization or medication.  Usually.  In the past, my way of coping involved River Phoenix movies and a trip through Catcher in the Rye.  Maybe some wine coolers.  I haven't resorted to those antidotes yet, and, at my stage in life, I'd probably want to slap the shit out of Holden anyway.  So, I have to come up with some other coping mechanisms.  Hopefully, they won't involve the abuse of chocolate, caffeine, or prescription drugs.  I can't guarantee it, though.  I have a serious weakness for Cosmic Brownies and Twix bars.

I know I'm in good company when it comes to suffering these bouts of soul dusk.  I've written in a previous post about Mother Teresa's letters in which she talks about the "dryness," "darkness," "loneliness," and "torture" of her life.  She discusses the alienation she feels from God, as if she's been ignored or forgotten.  She wrote to a spiritual adviser, "...as for me, the silence and emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, --Listen and do not hear--the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak..."  I'd like to think that, for people like Mother Teresa and Clare, today's patron saint, there's a kind of lighthouse of hope that lets them always see through the dark times.  Clare, who was a contemporary of Francis of Assisi, established a religious order that embraced poverty and the care of the needy, sick, and outcast.  Faced with daily evidence of cruelty and neglect, I'm sure Clare, like Teresa, experienced periods of drought, when God seemed as distant as Pluto or Jupiter (the planets, not the gods).  Teresa lived for years in this empty space, smiling her usual smile in public, groping through darkness in private.

Clare and Teresa made it through, obviously. One's a saint and one's on her way to sainthood. And they did it without the aid of Ativan or Gilligan's Island.  Even if I'm having a shitty day/week/month, as long as I have something to look forward to, something to hope for, I can make it through.  When that hope dims or disappears around a bend in the road, I find myself in the state I'm in right now--contemplating a Cosmic Brownie binge.  I'll make it through this funk, however.  I know this.  I just have to rediscover hope.

In the mean time, I'm hitting the chocolate drawer at work.  Kit Kats and PayDays. 

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

August 10: Saint Lawrence

I'm baaaaa-aaaaack!

Sorry about my prolonged absence from the blog.  For my two or three loyal readers, I will try to make it up to you by writing a couple posts this week.  However, I was on vacation for the last week or so.  No where near a computer, keyboard, monitor, i-Pad, whatever.  Basically, all I've been doing is reading; playing with my almost-two-year-old son and almost-tween daughter; spending some much-needed quality time with my wife; and soaking up the final hot days of summer before the long slide into autumn.

So I have a few points of business to take care of.  First, my friend from Georgia had an operation and is recuperating, so I want anyone who reads this to send healing thoughts and prayers her way.  Second, my pastor friend and his wife had a baby last Friday night, so I want to send a shout-out to the little Twilight girl (that's an inside joke--sorry, I try not to be cryptic and cutesie in my posts, but I'm just coming off a ten-day break; my inner sarcastic child has not woken up yet).

I didn't do anything spiritually fulfilling during my time off.  I didn't build a school in the Ozarks.  I didn't volunteer in a soup kitchen in inner-city Detroit.  I didn't work for Habitat for Humanity (you don't want to see me with power tools, believe me!).  The closest thing I did  for charity was purchase The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner.  For those of you who don't know, for each copy of the book that is sold, one dollar is donated to the American Red Cross.  So, I killed two birds with one stone.  I got a birthday present for a friend and assuaged my Christian guilt a little bit.  Not much.  A little.

I'm not sure I've ever read about a saint taking a vacation.  But it's gotta get tiring being holy 24-7.  I know I couldn't handle it.  I'm way too self-absorbed, to quote a good friend.  Lawrence, the saint for today, is the patron of the poor and of cooks.  The reason he's the patron of the poor:  when he was ordered to turn over the "treasures of the Church" to the Roman government, Lawrence gathered over a thousand beggars, street people, and destitute children.  All the gold and silver the Roman Prefect was seeking had been sold as alms for the assembled crowd.  The reason Lawrence is the patron of cooks:  the Prefect had him roasted over a fire pit for his defiance of Rome.  Lawrence is reputed to have told his torturers, "This side's done, turn me over and have a bite."  On a side note, he's also the patron saint of comedians.

I don't think Lawrence took any paid time off.  If he had, I'm sure he would have skipped the barbecue.  I also don't think he and I were cut from the same cloth, although I appreciate his sense of humor.  I could see his death as part of a Monty Python skit, with John Cleese as the saint-kabob.  Like Lawrence, most of the holy people I've read about seem to think having time away from work has to involve fasting 40 days in the desert.

Me, I opt for a trip to a water park, a bag of Cheetos, and a trashy novel.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

July 29: Saint Martha

I've always liked the story of Martha in the Bible.  Jesus comes to visit Martha and her sister, Mary, in Bethany.  While Mary sits at Jesus' feet and listens to Him talk, Martha is busting her ass getting dinner ready and the house cleaned and the good china and silver washed.  (Okay, I don't know if they had good china and silver back then, but I'm sure Martha didn't want Jesus to eat hummus/whatever with His fingers or a stick.)  Martha gets pissed at Mary for not pulling her weight, and Jesus scolds Martha:  "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need only of one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."

I got a letter from my daughter last night.  It was the first of three letters I instructed her to write from the church camp she's attending this week.  I know that my daughter is having a great time, attending worship services, doing crafts, swimming, learning about Jesus and the Bible.  The directions we received from the camp director even told us to pack her Bible, a notebook, and a pen.  So she's studying the Bible, and I'm Martha, telling her to write her letters and do her daily reading of Harry Potter and be homesick, dammit.

So, I thought I'd share the contents of that letter with you.  The portions in bold are my daughter's words.  The portions in italics are my interpretations of her words:

(My darling father, whom I miss more than a drowning person misses air.)

first day totally awesome!
(I have struggled through this first 24 hours and am counting the days until you return to pick me up.  I put a smile on my face and pretend to be having fun, but, on the inside, I'm always crying.)

we took a swimming test and I won!!
(They took us down to the lake and let us enter the water.  I really didn't feel like doing it, but I knew you would want me to do my best.  So I participated in their swimming test and did my best for you, Daddy, because you are the greatest daddy in the whole world.)

well, lunch is soon
(I don't really have an appetite, but I'm going to eat whatever they put in front of me because you taught me good manners.  I want you to be proud of me.  I will eat, even though the only thing I'm hungry for is being with you, Daddy.)

I miss you!!
(More than anything in the world.  I cried myself to sleep last night and woke up crying this morning.  I've been crying so much that my eyes are swollen and red.  The camp nurse thought I was having an allergic reaction and tried to give me some Benadryl.  I told her the only thing that would cure me is a big dose of Daddy.)

(With all my heart and every atom in my body, forever and ever, until the end of time, because you are the best and coolest and most loving father in the whole universe.)

(Your little Mary, sitting at the foot of Jesus.)