Wednesday, March 31, 2010

March 28: Palm Sunday, Saint Proterius

I always find Holy Week draining. This could be due to the fact that I'm an organist and musician at a Catholic church and a Methodist church; head of the Worship Team at the Methodist church; Sunday school teacher; choir director; choir member; and, this year, because of an insane compulsion to volunteer, director of a children's Easter Sunrise Service musical, which is scheduled for 7 a.m. Sunday morning. Between Palm Sunday and Easter, I have a total of eight services, masses, practices, and rehearsals to be at. To add to the fun, this morning my sister-in-law e-mailed to let me know that she's having a birthday barbecue on Holy Saturday afternoon for her stepson. I can tell you that when I read that message, the little vein that's been pulsing prominently in my temple the past few weeks nearly sprang a leak.

However, my level of involvement is not the main reason I can barely peel a purple egg on Easter. I find the liturgies and services themselves emotionally taxing, starting with Saturday night's vigil mass for Palm Sunday. At a Catholic celebration for Palm Sunday, the entire passion narrative is read dramatically, involving several actors and the priest, who always gets the part of Jesus despite having the tone and inflection of Roseanne Barr at a baseball game. It ain't Broadway. It ain't even off-off-off-off-off-off Broadway, which is, I believe, somewhere near Pittsburgh.

There are always moments of unintended humor during this reading. My favorite is when the congregation, playing the part of the angry mob before Pilate, drones "crucify him" with the energy and enthusiasm of heavily medicated insomniacs. It takes a good 15 or 20 minutes for the entire story, from Jesus on the donkey to Jesus in the tomb. If I were directing the production (watch me turn into C. B. Demille), I'd hold open auditions and find parishioners who had some acting chops. I'm not looking for Streep or Deniro, but when you're portraying a person who's bleeding to deathon a cross, I expect to hear a little discomfort, maybe even some pain. However, the idea of me saying to my parish priest "Can you try that again, with more feeling?" makes me a little uncomfortable, the way going to confession or eating tuna does. Besides, I know how volunteering at churches goes. If I said I'd like to direct the reading of the passion, I'd be king of Palm Sunday, minus the jackass, from now until death. So, I keep my mouth shut and suffer, which I count as part of my Easter penance.

It's not all bad acting, though. There is always a point during a Palm Sunday passion that gives me pause, every time it happens. Near the end of the reading, the narrator says, "Jesus cried out in a loud voice, 'Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit.'" Then the narrator, depending on the translation of the gospel being used, says something like, "Jesus took his last breath and died."

At that moment, everyone in the church falls silent and kneels. The pause usually lasts around 30 seconds. Those 30 seconds, for me, are worth the price of admission. It's always solemn. It's always reverent. And it always fills me with a deep melancholy and gratitude.

Now, I'm not going to get all Billy Graham on you, but, to me, that moment where we concentrate on such sacrifice is loaded with meaning. During those moments, I think of sacrifices people have made for me: my father working from sun-up to sun-down to feed and clothe and house nine kids; my older sister buying me a new car when I graduated from college and moved downstate; my pastor friend holding my sobbing self for two hours the night my wife told me she was leaving; my daughter letting me crawl into bed with her night after night when my wife moved out, somehow sensing in her five-year-old head that I needed her nearness to anchor me. I think of my son's one-year-old fingers curled around my thumb in the darkness of his crib, trusting me to warm his home; fill his belly; protect his tiny, peach life from bruises and wounds. So much of what we do, or should do, every day of our lives is about sacrifice.

The saint for Palm Sunday knew about sacrifice. Proterius, a 5th century bishop, became Patriarch of Alexandria in 451 during a time of great religious upheaval. He stuck to his guns, of course, in the face of rioting mobs who wanted him to renounce his beliefs and doctrines. Eventually, he fled to a church for safety in 454. Proterius was stabbed to death inside that church. Sacrifice.

I know I am who I am today because of the sacrifices people have made for me. It's humbling to think that the sacrifices I make, or don't make, for my daughter and son will mold them into the woman and man they will eventually become. That's why Holy Week drains my energy so much. It's not the music or choir practices or worship services or masses. It's not the candles and incense and holy water. It's not the baptisms and first communions and confirmations. It's about sacrifices that shape our lives, make us who we are.

It's about 30 seconds of silence.

Monday, March 29, 2010

March 25: The Annunciation of the Lord

I'm sure you're waiting, Faithful Reader, for me to discuss Manly Man Poetry Night again. However, this week, my friend and I did not go to Big Boy, eat manly onion rings, scratch ourselves in manly ways, and write manly poetry. This week, I hosted our monthly book club meeting. Now, I'm sure you're saying to yourself: Poetry and now a book club. Man, could this guy get even more sexy and macho? Yes, I am a fine specimen of testoterone, and don't ever forget it.

My book club consists of family, friends (including my pastor friend), family of friends, and friends of friends. We have been going strong for close to six years (which in book club years is close to four decades), and, while our ranks have seen a little fluctuation, for the most part, we are a stable group of readers. I use the term "stable" in the physical sense, not the mental sense.

At 7 p.m. on March 25, our little band of literati met to discuss this month's reading selection, The Anarchist, a novel about the assassination of William McKinley. If you are interested, I give the book four stars. It was written by John Smolens, a colleague of mine at the college where I teach, and, brave soul that he is, he consented to come to our meeting to answer our questions, put up with our dysfunction, and down some Killian's. This isn't the first time that John has visited our group. In fact, this is the third novel of his that we've read, and consequently his third time in the hot seat. Either John is really hard-up for something to fill his Thursday night, or he really enjoys being with us. I prefer to believe the latter as opposed to the former.

Much of the conversation with John concerned his research for the novel, which included trips to Chicago and Buffalo to read and pore over newspapers from 1901, the year President McKinley was shot by an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz. As presidential assassinations go, it's a story not too many people know the details about. I vaguely recalled that McKinley was shot greeting the public in a large hall. McKinley's murder does not have the historical weight of Abraham Lincoln's or the immediacy of JFK's. In fact, most people barely remember the names of the two other assassinated presidents of the United States. (If you're wondering, they're William McKinley and James Garfield. Garfield, I believe, was shot in a train station, but that's the extent of my knowledge.)

When I commented to John how few people really know the details surrounding McKinley's death, or what a hugely popular president he was, John smiled, sipped his Killian's, and said, "I was kind of counting on that."

As a writer, I can vouch for the fact that writing an interesting poem, story, novella, or novel about a subject as familiar as JFK's assassination would be as difficult as getting a clear shot from the grassy knoll. However, writing something interesting about William McKinley's fatal shooting at the Pan-American Exposition is an easier endeavor (not the writing, which is hard work no matter what the subject, but the creation of something fresh and unique). John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, these are names everybody knows. Leon Czolgosz, on the other hand, is a name that conjures no immediate associations. Drop Leon's name at a party that's not a book club gathering about The Anarchist and see if it starts any interesting conversations. (I once went to an online chat room where people were debating who would win the Nobel Prize in Literature that year. I typed something like, "I think it's going to be a poet from the United States named Martin Achatz." The resounding virtual silence was deafening. Leon's name would have the same effect in a crowd not consisting of history geeks and conspiracy theorists.)

Stories that have been told over and over lose their power, become ordinary and expected, even stories containing angels and virgins and people rising from the dead. Familiarity breeds boredom and apathy. March 25 is the celebration of the Annunciation, which, for my non-Catholic friends, is the appearance of the angel Gabriel to Mary telling her that she is going to be the mother of God. Basically, it's the commemoration of the conception of Jesus. Nine months from this date, we will be opening Christmas presents. It's a story every person, Christians and non-Christians, has heard over and over again. It has lost its luster and power, which is an amazing statement to make. Even I have to admit that i would rather discuss a novel about a presidential murder than sit down with a Bible and go over the narrative of the birth of Christ again.

I always struggle with this at Christmas and Easter. Sometimes it feels like I'm just putting in the DVD for Oliver Stone's JFK and watching it for the tenth time. Say it with me: "Back and to the left. Back and to the left." That film can still evoke an emotional response in me, but it's a response I expect and am prepared for. Every once in a while, I get shaken out of my complacency when it comes to the Christ narrative, usually by some artistic work. Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ knocked me on my ass when it first came out. Reading a Flannery O'Connor short story does this for me occasionally, as well.

Writing this blog has made a difference for me this Lent. I have been much more aware of my spiritual and personal and emotional life for the past 40 or so days. Being so brutally honest with myself in front of my one or two readers has been like watching the Zapruder film frame-by-frame for blood spatter evidence. Not a completely pleasant experience, but one that has invested my Easter journey with deeper meaning.

I think that's one of the jobs of believers--to reinvent the story, to find the Leon Czolgosz that makes you view history in a totally different way. If you can't do that, then faith really becomes a matter of rereading a good book for the umpteenth time, hoping that the ending has changed. For the record: President McKinley dies in The Anarchist, and Jesus rises from the grave on Easter morning. The trick is writing an ending for yourself that makes a difference.

I'm still working on my last chapter this Easter.

Friday, March 26, 2010

March 23: Saint Toribio de Mogrovejo

I thought of titling this blog "The Nasty Bitch Strikes Back" (start humming the Star Wars theme with me), but I decided to take the high road. You may remember, Faithful Reader, the last time Nasty Bitch (henceforth referred to as NB) made an appearance in a post. She said and did some not-so-Christian things to my wife, so I went to her house and said and did some very not-so-Christian things is response. The ensuing guilt and remorse I experienced from my outburst ruined the better part of a week for me (think Luke after Darth cut his hand off). I finally ended up apologizing to NB, and, armed with the knowledge that I had done the right thing, the thing both Jesus and Yoda would have wanted me to do, I moved on to my next opportunity to make an wookie of myself.

Well, yesterday, when I spoke to my wife on the phone, she told me NB had said some more not-very-Christian things to her and my daughter and pretty much slammed a door in my wife's face, literally. Of course, my first response was to go to the Dark Side. I had this out-of-body vision of myself screaming at NB again, but the vision that immediately followed was of me having to suck Bantha butt again and apologize. Neither vision gave me much pleasure.

My wife and daughter were at home, out of harm's way, so I decided to pray about the situation on the drive home. I prayed for NB. Her mental state has not improved since my last outburst. In fact, I would say she has gotten worse. She looks like she hasn't slept in about two weeks, and , on a good day, her mood is sullen. On a bad day, she's just, well, a nasty bitch. Since she hasn't had an appointment with her psychiatrist, I know she hasn't started taking any medication to improve her condition. That means that she's still experiencing auditory and aural hallucinations. The last time she was like this, the voices were telling her to kill herself.

As I drove, I prayed for NB. I asked that she be made well, that she gets the help she obviously needs. I prayed that she be happy, really happy--no seeing figures standing in the mirror behind her or sneaking into her bedroom at night, no hearing voices whispering her name or telling her to harm herself. I prayed that she would turn back into the person I used to like, the person I remember going on vacations with. I prayed that she just be a whole person again. Wholeness. I've prayed similar prayers for my wife when she was in the throws of mania or addiction.

By the time I pulled into my driveway, I felt peaceful. I wasn't ready to charge over to NB's house and challenge her to a light saber duel. I was calm and accepting. I saw NB for what she is right now--a sick individual in need of compassion and understanding. That doesn't mean I shouldn't protect myself and my family from cruelty and pain. That does mean that I recognize the source of that cruelty and pain as a symptom of NB's broken mind/heart/soul. And I can pray for her.

That's pretty much what Toribio de Mogrovejo did for a good portion of his life. A 16th century Spanish professor of law, he was appointed bishop of Lima, Peru. For a quarter century, he walked through jungles, forded rivers, wrestled gigantic alien Rancors (just making sure you're paying attention), and exposed himself to things like malaria, leprosy, and heatstroke. Instead of expecting broken people to come to him for help, he went out, met people where they were, and brought them the love and compassion of God. By the time he died in 1606, he had confirmed and baptized nearly one million people.

I probably didn't go as far as Toribio would have gone for NB yesterday. Toribio would have walked to her house, sat down with her, maybe held her hand. He would have asked her how she was doing, listened to her talk about her illness, her anger, her sadness. He would have led her to a better place.

I, on the other hand, patted myself on the back for not calling NB a nasty bitch to her face. I just prayed for her, handed her over to the likes of Saint Toribio, and hoped for the best. Sometimes that's what it's all about: A New Hope.

May the Force be with you.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

March 22: Saint Lea

First, let me say that I'm going to come away from this post looking petty, small, possibly ungracious. I know this for a fact. I won't even like me by the time I'm done writing this. I am once again exposing myself as a jealous, ego maniacal jerk. So be it. Amen.

One of my coworkers and best friends won an award for Employee of the Month yesterday. It's an award I've been nominated for on three occasions and have failed to win. I'm beginning to feel like Susan Lucci at the Emmys. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. The chances of winning the award are slim, and once a person from a department wins, the rest of the department's employees are pretty much screwed for the next few years.

So, here I sit in a quandary. I'm happy for my friend who won, and I'm pissed it wasn't me. I go through this process every time someone with whom I work receives recognition, deserved or undeserved. If the recognition is undeserved, I have the consolation of being able to make snide and bitchy comments like "You winning this award makes me realize how unimportant it really is." If the recognition is deserved (as it is in this case), it makes things stickier. I can't make a snarky comment without looking, well, snarky, and I can't just say "congratulations" and excuse myself from the celebration without looking, well, snarky. There you go. That's my situation in a nutshell, and you can now begin to heap abuse on my uncelebrated, unrecognized head.

As I said, I am sincerely happy for my friend, and she knows this. She also knows that I am going to blog about her winning and told me, "I'm almost more excited about the blog than about winning." She knows this situation will send me into a little tailspin of catty commentary, and she sort of revels in it. Who doesn't like to be envied? It's the reason we all do things like drive around to visit friends in our new car or write those insipid Christmas letters which tout our children's finger-painting abilities. Everyone wants to feel superior every once in a while. It's my friend's turn right now, regardless of how many times she says, "I'm humbled by this honor." (I think I would be happier if she said something like "In your face, sucker!")

To be fair, this friend has had a hell of a time these past couple months. Her son, who has addiction problems, recently tried to commit suicide. While he was hospitalized, he was diagnosed with bipolar and a mood disorder. That's just since February. If anyone deserves a little good juju right now, it's her.

However, even knowing all this doesn't take away the sting from the news of her victory, and my friend made it even worse by saying to me, "I'm sorry, Martin." Humility is being forced down my throat, and it's beginning to irritate the shit out of me. Sometimes, God is like my nine-year-old daughter. He knows just what buttons to push to make me feel simultaneously angry and ashamed.

Lea, today's saint, doesn't provide much comfort, either. In fact, she sort of rubs salt in my wounds. Most of the information about her comes from a letter written by Saint Jerome to a friend. Jerome is praising Lea' s virtues over a person of renown who, like Lea, had died recently. This renowned consul comes off sounding vain and petty (sound familiar?), while Lea comes away sounding like, you got it, a saint:

Who will praise the blessed Lea as she deserves? She renounced painting her face and adorning her head with shining pearls. She exchanged her rich attire for sackcloth and ceased to command others in order to obey all. She dwelt in a corner with a few bits of furniture; she spent her nights in prayer and instructed her companions through her example rather than through protests or speeches. And she looked forward to her arrival in heaven in order to receive her recompense for the virtues that she practiced on earth.

So it is that thenceforth Lea enjoyed perfect happiness. From Abraham's bosom, where she resides with Lazarus, she sees our consul who was once decked out in purple now vested in a shameful robe, vainly begging for a drop of water to quench his thirst. Although he went up to the capital to the plaudits of people, and his death occasioned widespread grief, it is futile for the wife to assert that he has gone to heaven and possesses a great mansion there. The fact is that he is plunged into the darkness outside, whereas Lea who was willing to be considered a fool on earth has been received into the house of the Father, at the wedding feast of the Lamb.

Hence, I tearfully beg you to refrain from seeking the favors of the world and to renounce all that is carnal. It is impossible to follow both the world and Jesus. Let us live a life of renunciation, for our bodies will soon be dust and nothing else will last any longer.

Wise words from a holy man. Earthly glory really is fleeting and unimportant in the great scheme of the universe. It puts everything into perspective.

I wonder if Jerome would write a letter nominating me for Employee of the Month.

Monday, March 22, 2010

March 19: Blessed Sibyllina of Pavia

You might be wondering about all the pictures of bodies in my last blog. (Yes, those are current photographs of the actual bodies of saints.) Well, my last posting was all about relics, and there really isn't a better relic than a saint's mortal remains. Now, not all bodies of saints remain in such a pristine state of preservation. (Catherine of Bologna, whom I wrote about a little while ago, is an example of a saint whose corpse has stayed relatively well-preserved, but not quite to the same degree as, say, Vincent de Paul.) All of the saints whose bodies retain a life-like state are called "incorruptibles."

Joan Carroll Cruz, in her excellent book The Incorruptibles, describes this phenomenon:

The more carefully we consider the preservation of the incorruptibles, the more baffling does the subject become, for then conservation seems to be neither dependent on the manner of burial nor on the temperature or place of interment. Nor were they adversely affected by extended delays between the time of death and their burials, by moisture in the tombs, by rough handling, by frequent transferences, by covering with quicklime, or by their proximity to decaying corpses. The greater majority were never embalmed or treated in any manner, yet most were found lifelike, flexible, and sweetly scented many years after death...The mystery of their preservations is further compounded by the observances of blood and clear oils--which have proceeded from a number of these holy relics--a phenomenon which again, needless to say, was never recorded with regard to the deliberately or accidentally preserved. (27)

For the skeptic in my two readers, you are probably saying that there has to be a scientific explanation for this condition. All I can tell you is that when a person is being considered for beatification or canonization, his or her body is exhumed and examined by a team of medical doctors and scientists. In a true case of incorruption, this team has never come up with a scientific explanation for the state of the holy person's remains. It is deemed, quite simply, a miracle.

Now, why am I sharing this information with you? I'm sure you can guess. Sibyllina of Pavia, the patron for March 19, died in 1367. In 1853, when her beatification moved forward, her body was found to be incorrupt. That's 486 years in the grave without any decomposition, folks. Pretty remarkable. But the details of her life are equally astounding to me. Orphaned and blind by the age of twelve, she was taken in by an order of Dominicans. At first, she prayed incessantly to have her sight restored. When this didn't pan out, she accepted her condition as God's will and moved into a small cell beside the Dominican church. She lived as a hermit in that cell for the next 65 years, until her death at the age of 80. Pilgrims from all over the country visited her to ask for guidance and advice. By her life, she taught all who knew her to accept personal hardships with grace and humility.

For those readers who have been with me since the beginning of this blog site, you know that I have been praying every morning throughout Lent for people who have hurt me, wronged me, pissed me off, or, in some way, made my life difficult. When I started, the list of people was, I thought, relatively short. Every day, however, it has grown and expanded as I thought of another offender, and another, and another. At the beginning, my prayer sort of went like this: "God, please bless Joe Blowme." (That name is made-up, if you didn't guess.) After a while, I still wasn't feeling very forgiving, so I changed my prayer: "God, please help me to forgive Murray Shithead, and please bless him." Well, I still found myself harboring a great deal of anger toward the people on my list, so the latest incarnation of my prayer goes something like this: "God, please teach me how to forgive." We're closing in on Palm Sunday, so time is running out. I've got about a week-and-a-half to experience transformation. The clock is ticking, and I don't think I'm going to meet my deadline.

Of course, it is my deadline, not God's deadline. By the end of Lent, I was hoping to be done with the people in my Hall of Flaming Assholes, to never have to give them another thought for the rest of my life. It hasn't quite worked out that way. In fact, this whole exercise in forgiveness has taught me an important lesson: I'm not as forgiving as I thought I was. People I thought I'd forgiven long ago are still setting off my rage radar. It's a little disconcerting, especially considering the fact that I call myself a Christian and forgiveness is supposed to be a big deal for me. (I wonder if there's a religion out there that allows you to hold on to lifelong grudges and doesn't involve human sacrifice or having sex with a goat. Probably not.)

I haven't totally given up on the possibility that I'll wake up tomorrow morning and all the ghosts of my past will have crossed over into the light of reconciliation and peace, but I'm not holding my breath. Easter's only two weeks away, and, although God can do things like make bodies immune to the ravages of time and decay, I have a sneaking suspicion my miracle isn't even on God's to-do list yet. In fact, my problem probably falls just below finding a sock that's disappeared in the laundry. Like Sybillina and her eyesight, God has other plans for me and my little forgiveness dilemma. It doesn't seem fair to me, because I've really tried hard these last five weeks to open my fist to let go of some hurts I've been holding on to for a long while. Then again, after Sybillina gave up on regaining her vision, she was a blind hermit for close to 70 years. I guess I just have to learn to wait, be patient, have faith. That's not an easy thing for a person whose natural instincts lean toward sarcasm, instant gratification, and more than a little fear.

I just can't see my way to the end of this whole process, just like I can't see my way to the end of this blog. I keep writing and writing, hoping that I will somehow find the right path, string together the right words. Maybe that's the point. Forgiveness isn't going to be some incorrupt miracle displayed under glass. It's going to be something I have to keep doing over and over and over, like brushing my teeth or making the bed or washing dirty dishes.

Friday, March 19, 2010

March 18: Saint Alexander

Saint John Vianney, d. 1859

Last night was Manly Man Poetry Night with my pastor friend. We went to Big Boy again and had onion rings and Diet Pepsi. Just to shake things up, we also ordered deep-fried mozzarella cheese sticks. I am a fairly anal retentive person, so I'd been working on a poem for most of the day. It came from a poetry exercise out of the same book as last week, The Practice of Poetry, and was, oddly enough, suggested by the same poet, Lee Upton. This exercise was titled "Tabloid Tone Exercise," and the challenge was to take a headline from a supermarket tabloid and write a serious poem based on the headline.

Saint Catherine Laboure, d. 1876

I decided to kill two birds with one stone and combine my poem somehow with the day's saint, Alexander, a third century bishop and martyr. Alexander spent a lot of time in prison and exile. He was condemned to execution eventually for being a Christian, but the wild animals that were supposed to tear him to pieces wouldn't cooperate. The book says, "they refused to attack him." Instead, he was thrown back into prison, where he died around 250 A.D.

Saint Maria Mazzarello, d. 1881

The headline I chose from the Weekly World News ( I used to have a subscription) was "Ancient Bones Tell Frightening Story: Skull Speaks." If you didn't guess by the picture of Catherine of Bologna a few days ago, I'm of a morbid inclination, and this headline appealed to me on a few levels.

Saint Bernadette Soubirous, d. 1879

One of my fascinations with saints is the age-old tradition of relics. When holy men or women died in the past, their remains, in part or whole, were much sought after. Often, a saint's head ended up in one place while a saint's body ended up somewhere else. (It sounds gross, but stay with me.) Eventually, a classification for these relics developed. A first class relic is "a part of the saint (bone, hair, etc.) and the instruments of Christ's passion." A second class relic is "something owned by the saint or instruments of torture used against a martyr." A third class relic is "something that has been touched to a 1st or 2nd class relic. You can make your own 3rd class relic by touching an object to a 1st or 2nd class relic, including the tomb of a saint." (You're probably seeing where I'm headed with the poem by now.)

Blessed Imelda Lambertini, d. 1333

A church in Pittsburgh houses the largest collection of relics outside of the Vatican (some 4,000 to 5,000 items, including a full skeleton , a few skulls, and some teeth.) The relics were gathered by a priest, Suibertus Mollinger, who himself is on the road to sainthood, I believe. He was the pastor of Most Holy Name of Jesus Parish. Father Mollinger paid for the building of the original Saint Anthony's Chapel to display the collection himself. Eventually, additions were made to the building, which was officially dedicated on June 13, 1892.

Saint Vincent de Paul, d. 1660

That's the source material for the poem in today's post. Except for the details about the life of Saint Alexander, the rest of the poem is fictionalized-Father Cassius, Sacred Heart Parish, the eyes of Vincent de Paul, talking skull, and all. If the poem offends you, I'm sorry. That's not my intent. Please read on in the spirit in which I wrote the following lines, with sick curiosity, a little reverence, and a lot of good humor. I present to you my contribution to this week's Manly Man Poetry Night:

Ancient Bones Tell Frightening Story: Skull Speaks

Father Cassius owned 1,012 relics,
Had a museum built at Sacred Heart Parish,
A marble hall to contain his ossuaries,
Tabernacles, monstrances, chalices,
Shoe boxes, cigar boxes, hat boxes.
Each held a relic from some holy body,
A fragment of sacred muscle, a chip
Of benevolent bone. He had the braid
Belonging to Mary-Magdalene Martinengo,
Long and dark as a Lenten novena;
Fidelis of Sigmaringen's pink tongue,
Gleaming with miraculous spit;
Ethelwald's ring of shriveled foreskin,
Reputed to cure urinary tract infections;
The big toe of Teresa of Avila, used
To dispel both headaches and athlete's foot;
Roch, AKA Rocco, represented by semen
On a robe which opened closed wombs,
Warded off impure thoughts and dreams;
Sharbel Makhluf's left lung, floating,
Delicate as an angel fish, in a glass bowl;
Vincent de Paul's donated eyes,
Prunes on a silver plate, serving the cause
Of glaucoma and cataracts in the poor;
The left breast of Veronica of Guiliani,
Supple and full as a cow's udder,
Invoked in time of drought, famine;
The pubic curls of Monegundis, folded
In tissue, saved for the balding world;
High up, in a box labeled "Alex,"
A skull, dark as polished onyx,
Slept on a bed of cotton and straw.
Some nights, as votive candles licked
The walls at vespers "amen,"
Father Cassius heard the skull
Open its tongueless jaws, sing
A psalm of prison and death,
Exile and chains, of Jerusalem,
Wild boars, panthers tamed,
The banishment of soul from skin.
The skull would wail, grind
Fractured teeth, weep
For its missing neck, vertebrae,
Scapula, ribs, ulna, femur,
Coccyx. The skull would mourn
Until lauds pink light in the sky,
Wanting to be complete, whole, one,
Like the body of Christ
Three days after the cross.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

March 17: Saint Patrick

This posting is going to be shorter than most of my other blogs. It's not because I'm hungover from too much green beer or suffering gastrointenstinal distress from an abundance of corned beef and cabbage. In fact, aside from wearing green dress pants and a watch with a green band, I did very little to celebrate the feast of the patron saint of Ireland. I spent a good deal of the afternoon and evening at a funeral and wake. (It wasn't even an Irish wake. It was a Methodist wake, which means lots of casseroles and cheesy potatoes.) The funeral was for the mother of a good friend, and, at the end of the night, even if I'd felt inclined to kiss the Blarney, I had no energy left.

That being said, I'm going to have a guest writer for my blog today. This morning, my good friend whose son was recently diagnosed bipolar, among other things, shared a poem with me that she had written. Considering the subject matter of my last few postings, I thought I would share her poem with you. (It's one of those poem's that I wish I'd written, but let's leave my jealousy issues alone for now.)

My friend is struggling with her son's illness. It's not that she's in denial. She is simply a mother who wants to make her son whole again, and she knows she can't. It's terrible to have someone you love hurting and beyond your reach. If that someone is your child, it's like watching the muscle of your own heart slowly deteriorate and dissolve. It sucks, pretty much.

Before Patrick became the focus of his modern, drunken holiday, he was the son of a Roman Britain deacon and his wife. At sixteen, Patrick was kidnapped and carried off as a slave to Ireland, where he remained for six years. I can't think of a better metaphor for mental illness than enslavement. Suddenly, the son you know is gone from your life, and you are left in a vacuum of grief and confusion. Patrick eventually escaped because he heard a voice telling him to go home. But, I'm sure you're aware of the fact that he eventually returned and converted Ireland to Christianity. Again, his return was the result of a voice/vision, and he followed that vision back to the land of his enslavement. In one of the two extant letters written by Patrick, he describes that vision:

I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victorius, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: "The Voice of the Irish." As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea--and they cried out, as with one voice: "We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us."

My friend had a vision of her son's enslavement yesterday. The poem that follows describes that vision. This is her son, carried off to a strange land. This is her mother's heart dissolving:

Finder's Keepers?

I search your blue eyes.
I feel your agony, pleading, despair.
I want to make myself small,

crawl inside your brain,
pull out the blackness.

I would throw it out like rotten fish,

wrap it in a box,
tie it with my strongest knots.

I could squish it small,

hide it in a margerine tub
in the back of the fridge.

I don't want to know the furry, black parasite

that's taken up residence between your ears.
Why can't I make it all better?
Skinned knees, broken bones, second place,

wrecked cars, truancy have fixes.
If you name it, does it mean you have to keep it?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

March 15: Saint Louise de Marillac

Frequently when I sit in my office at the university, I find myself staring out the window that my desk faces. At this time of the year, the window's streaked with dirt and sand, and in the afternoon, the heat from the sunlight bears down on me through the glass. The view from the window is not spectacular. It looks out on the faculty parking lot on the side of the building. Above the lot is a grassy hill that leads up to the street. In the winter, kids sled this hill daily. The slope is free of trees, and the incline is steep enough to make most sledders scream as they sail toward the bottom.

Most of the time when I look out the window, however, all I see are college students walking to or from campus. I've been in this office for a couple of years. As an Adjunct Associate English Professor, I rank pretty low on the faculty pecking order. If a full-time professor needed a place to store his collection of ancient Peruvian belly button lint, I'd probably be given office space in the closest toilet stall tomorrow. I enjoy my current digs a great deal because I am pretty far off the beaten path and only people who are absolutely desperate to see me show up at my door. In fact, I'm convinced that the reason I have been able to retain my office for this long is that I have been forgotten. I prefer the anonymity to unemployment.

This is not to say that I wouldn't jump at the chance to join the ranks of full-time professorship. I would sacrifice my window, my office, and my isolation for the opportunity, but the chances of that happening are about as likely as Stephen King winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. Translation: not an icicle's chance in Hades. So, I will enjoy my window seat until my inevitable next move, whenever that may be.

Students do not understand the precarious situation I'm in. That's because most college students still labor under the delusion that degree equals stable, well-paying job. A person with multiple degrees, like myself, therefore, must be indispensable to the entire establishment of higher education. They do not realize that the fry cook at McDonald's probably has a Ph.D. in Comparative Incan Poetry. To most students, I represent a combination of scholar, therapist, surrogate parent, and confessor. Unless, of course, the student is failing, and then I am an asshole, fuckhead, moron, monkey-ball licker.

I don't mind fulfilling any of these roles (except the monkey ball thing). In fact, I feel priveleged when a student opens up about a problem he or she is having. To me, that signifies a degree of trust I try to establish with all of those under my tutelage. I don't teach math where the answers are a easy as solving x + y = 4logz. (It's been years since I've taken trigonometry, so please don't try to test my mathematical prowess.) My point is that English is not a cut-and-dry science or discipline. There is always some degree of subjectivity and interpretation in English courses, and, therefore, students feel slightly more at ease with me, I think. When personal problems arise, I am sometimes the person to whom he or she turns.

A couple of years ago, I had a guy in a composition course I was teaching, and he was very clearly struggling with some issues. Some days, he would come to class, put his head down on his desk, and barely respond when I asked him a question. Other days, I couldn't get him to shut up. He was loud, interrupted my lectures, and made inappropriate comments as other students read their writings aloud. After a couple of weeks, I had come to the conclusion that he was either doing drugs or unmedicated and bipolar.

One day, I got an e-mail from him saying that he had to miss class. He'd been in the hospital all weekend and still wasn't doing well. When he showed up later in the week, he had bandages on his forearms.

That day, I was teaching an essay by Wendell Berry, who is a poet and avid environmentalist/conservationist. As a preface to our class discussion, I had the students write a journal entry on a subject they felt passionate about. I decided to write about my wife. I wrote about the day she ended up in the hospital after cutting herself. (Yes, I had my troubled student in mind.) After I read my journal entry to the class, I spoke about the stigma surrounding mental illness and how even family members can sometimes treat a mentally ill person like a two-headed Guernsey cow. "It's scary," I finished. "I know."

Louise de Marillac would have been all over this situation. Born in 1591, she dedicated most of her life to "corporal and spiritual service of the poor in their homes." Under the tutelage of Vincent de Paul (yes, he of thrift store fame), Louise founded an order of nuns called Daughters of Charity, Servants of the Sick Poor. Unlike me, who prefers isolation and anonymity, Louise sought out people who were suffering and made their lives better. That's why she's the Patroness of Social Workers, and I'm an adjunct instructor in a borrowed office.

After class was over, my student lingered until everyone else had left the room. He approached me and said quietly, "I really liked what you wrote and said."

I looked at him, at the bandages on his arms. "How are you doing?" I said.

He shrugged. He was a big guy who struck me as a person who was more comfortable talking about beer than emotional well-being.

I nodded. "Well, you know you can talk to me if you need help." I hoisted my book bag onto my shoulder. "My office door is always open." If they haven't moved me, I added in my head.

He stared down at his feet. "I hurt myself this weekend."

I didn't say anything, waiting for him to continue.

"That's why I was in the ER," he said.

We started walking out of the room.

"Are you getting help?" I said.

"I'm seeing doctors," he mumbled.

We walked in silence until we were outside.

"They're trying to kick me out of school," he said finally.

We walked a little further, and then I said, "You have to take care of yourself."

He stopped abruptly. "I gotta go," he said. He started walking away from me, saying over his shoulder, "I really liked what you wrote."

I never saw him again, never heard from him again. On my next roster, he had withdrawn from the class.

When I sit in my anonymous office now and stare out my anonymous window at anonymous students, I often think of that kid, walking away from me, alone. I wonder how many of the young men and women I see through me window are nursing unseen wounds, wounds they don't want to admit to or are ashamed of. They trudge up the hill by themselves. I hope they are heading home to someone who cares about them, who loves them. Someone who'll stand at the top of the hill and watch them sled down it, making sure they're safe when they reach the bottom.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

March 12, 13, 14: Fear and Loathing and Saints

Friday night, I finished my weekly household chores late. It was nearly 10 p.m. by the time the toilet and shower were scrubbed; tables, chairs, and shelves were dusted; and rugs were vacuumed. I sat down on the couch, grabbed the remote, and turned on the TV for a little channel surfing.

I enjoy the time immediately post-cleaning because, for a few short hours, everything is in order and I feel like I've gained control of my life. It lasts until Saturday morning when my 17-month-old son wakes up and starts dragging toys out of toy bins and clothes out of laundry baskets. But, on Friday nights, I can sit and revel in the tracks left by the vacuum cleaner on the freshly vacuumed carpets and the heavy scent of lemon Pledge in the air.

I started flipping through the channels, not really expecting to find anything more satisfying than the deep blue water of my clean toilet bowl. I stopped on a station that featured a ten- or eleven-year-old girl in what seemed to be in the throws of demonic possession. She was pounding the kitchen table with her fists, screaming at her parents. The camera cut to the girl's siblings huddled on the stairs, listening to their sister's threats of violence and murder. A voice-over said something like, "As soon as Jamie returned home, she started hearing the voices and seeing the evil spirits again." I stopped and continued to watch, thinking it was some news program that was going to show a ritual exorcism.

The girl's behavior was absolutely terrifying, and the mother and father just sat and listened to her rant and growl. At one point, the youngest sibling, who couldn't have been more than seven or eight, became so upset and scared that she started pulling her own hair out in clumps. The mother held the little girl and rocked her, crying and saying, "Please don't hurt yourself like that."

I waited for a priest or minister to enter the scene and start unpacking Bibles and holy water and crucifixes. It turns out, however, that I had stumbled upon 20/20, and the story was on young children with schizophrenia. Now, little Linda Blairs puking pea soup I can handle; children with mental illnesses, that's something totally different.

You see, when my wife was diagnosed with bipolar, I did a lot of reading about the disease. I read memoirs and textbooks and Websites. I pored over pamphlets given to us by doctors. I suppose it was my way of trying to gain a little control over a situation in which I felt helpless, like running the vacuum cleaner over a bed of hot coals so I wouldn't burn my feet. Futile, but a least I was doing something.

One of the things that frightened me the most was the question about relatives. All of the psychiatrists and therapists, all of the literature, pointed to the genetic link. Beth had an uncle and great aunt with bipolar. Therefore, she was probably suffering from the same disease. It runs in the family, like red hair or being a fan of Michael Bolton.

Ever since that time, I've watched my daughter, who, at nine, resembles my wife's childhood photographs so much it's hard to tell them apart. I've read stories and articles about children with bipolar, about the wild moods, the depressions and manias. One little boy I read about was so tired of being unstable that he wrote his parents a suicide note when he was eight. Eight years old. Instead of playing Pokemon and watching Harry Potter movies, he was jumping out of second story bedroom windows.

I watch my daughter for signs that the helix of her DNA has shifted. When she pulls her hair because she can't play a chord for her piano lesson correctly, when she throws herself on the floor screaming because she doesn't want to take a bath, when she sits in her closet to give herself time to control her anger, I wonder if I'm witnessing normal, nine-year-old hormones or symptoms of something more serious. I have learned to deal with and accept my wife's illness. I don't know if I could do the same for my daughter.

I often wonder how the parents of saints managed their children's holiness. I'm here to tell you that if my daughter told me she was talking to the Virgin Mary, holding an actual conversation with a glowing woman in blue robes, I'd have that child in the ER within the hour. As I watched 20/20, I thought that schizophrenia in a child could easily disguise itself as saintliness or demonic possession. As a father, I wouldn't want any of those options for a child of mine.

At the end of 20/20, one of the children became so dangerous to herself and her family that her parents had to commit her to a long-term treatment facility. I watched the mother cling to her daughter, weeping, saying over and over, "Mommy will call you. Mommy will call you." She wouldn't let go.

I wish I could stop being on the look-out all the time with my daughter. I wish I could somehow lock my fear in a safe and hide it far under my bed, among the dust bunnies and shoe boxes full of my daughter's kindergarten paintings. I wish I could look into her eyes and not wonder if I'll ever see a stranger looking back at me. I wish and hope I never have to let go.

Monday, March 15, 2010

March 11: Saint Pionius

Once a week, I have a man date. No, this is not a admission of sin, some great, shocking confession. Basically, I go out for Diet Dew, fries, ice cream, Shamrock Shakes, whatever, with my pastor friend. Now, you'd expect two guys to get together and go bowling or shoot pool. Maybe take in a Jackie Chan flick and then down a few brewskis. Let me state, for the record, my friend and I are manly men, completely at ease with our masculinity. So it should come as no shock that when he and I get together, we talk about and write...poetry.

For the last couple of weeks, we've been meeting at the local Big Boy. We returned there this week because they played '80s hair band music on the loudspeaker during our first visit. My friend and I are proud products of that decade. We both sported mullets back in the day, and I, personally, went through more hair colors than Cyndi Lauper (which may partly account for my current Friar Tuck look, along with genetics). Anyway, the music was good, and the onion rings were fresh.

While the music station had changed this week (I believe it was some kind of Motown mix), the food was just as good. We don't usually get right down to writing. Usually, there's a little decompression time where we both air the dirty and clean laundry of our lives. There's a sort of unspoken rule for our evenings together: what happens on poetry night, stays on poetry night. It's a safe place for us to share our problems and worries, offer advice or encouragement, and solve the problem of global warming (not to worry, guys and gals, we almost have it licked).

On our man date this week, we didn't have anything particularly earth-shattering to discuss, other than the fact that we were both pretty tired. My daughter had just received her first detention at school. That was weighing me down a little bit. The offense was of the misdemeanor variety as school offenses go, but as a concerned father, I was a little flummoxed over the cause of my daughter's foray into delinquency. I tend to over-think and over-analyze everything in my life, so I was trying to discern some deeper meaning to the infraction. Perhaps I had done something that was causing my daughter to act out. (It's no fun living in my head sometimes.)

Pretty much, though, my friend and I were just enjoying the end of a long week and anticipating a little down time, which, in both our cases, simply means a shift in responsibilities. In my case, I switch from working in a medical office and teaching at the college to practicing with my praise band, rehearsing with choirs, teaching Sunday School, and leading worship music. My friend switches to weekend pastor mode, which means running worship services, delivering messages, chaperoning youth group lock-ins, and tending to all the other congregational fires which may erupt.

After finishing our plate of onion rings and downing a couple glasses of Diet Pepsi, we got down to work.

Our task for the week was to write a poem based on a writing exercise by a poet named Lee Upton. It is called "Index/Table of Contents Exercise," and it involves doing one of two things: "invent a mock index focusing on a character or subject of your choice, or invent a mock table of contents for a future book." Upton says to include page numbers with your mock index/table. (This exercise comes from a collection of poetry exercises titled The Practice of Poetry, a book I highly recommend to other men for their nights out with the guys.)

I chose to write the table of contents of a book on the martyrdom of today's saint, Pioinius. Call me morbid, but the physical details of a martyr's death fascinate me because they often involve extreme violence, some humor, and a lot of balls on the part of the saint. The saint usually mocks, chastises, or argues, and, by the end of the ordeal, doesn't seem to suffer a whole hell of a lot. It has to do with trust and faith, obviously. For me, who can be thrown into a tailspin by a third-grade lunchtime detention, that kind of trust in the face of torture and imminent death proves that I have a lot to learn. God needs to keep me after school and make me write "I will trust in You" about a billion times on the chalkboard, or until my fingers cramp or I run out of chalk.


The poem I wrote about Pionius is based on a first-hand description of his trial and death quoted in a book called The Acts of Christian Martyrs. Most of the language comes directly from this account. I titled the poem "How to Become a Turkish Martyr":

Once upon a time in Smyrna.....1
Sacred bread with water, woven chains…..2
Idol sacrifice, forbidden meats…..2
Emperor’s edict, God’s command…..4
Men of Greece, Homer and Solomon…..5
Foreign fornication, slander, golden calf…..6
Chaff or wheat, winnowing…..7
Dead Sea, punished for man…..8
Judgment by fire, his Word…..10
Burnt alive, or to burn after death…..12
Heaven and earth, all things that are…..13
How ruddy his complexion…..15
Famine and violent death…..17
Hungry with us, tranquil, praise…..19
Trampled by swine, dragon’s tail…..22
Fiery winnowing-fork, Word of God…..25
Rebel angels, demonic ministers…..27
They would not deny, die…..29
Knotted scarf, choking…..31
“Which god do you worship?”…..33
Redemption of the world…..33
Crown, tore them apart…..35
Back to prison, mocked and beat…..37
Clubbed him heavily, wounded…..39
Name, Christ, psalms and prayers…..41
“Will you offer sacrifice?”…..42
I am a presbyter, a teacher…..44
Him who made the air…..45
“Change your mind”…..46
Rushing, but towards life…..49
Eager for death, burnt alive…..51
Removed his clothes, stretched…..52
On the gibbet, hammer, nails…..52
They are in to stay…..53
Firewood, logs, circle…..54
Flames, last Amen, joyful…..55
“Lord, receive my soul”…..55
Trust, soul, all blood, every spirit…..56
Unjustly condemned…..56
Through the narrow gate, great light…..57
Body, athlete, full array, height…..58
Ears not distorted, face, beard…..59
First blossom of hair…..60
Once again—wondrous grace!…..60

Saturday, March 13, 2010

March 10: Saint Marcarius

First, let me apologize for not posting for the last couple of days. My entry today will partly explain my absence. The other part of my explanation was that was down for maintenance until 7 p.m. yesterday, so I couldn't type in what I had. Please note and accept my mea culpa. Now, on with the show....

Any English teacher who tells you he or she enjoys correcting student papers/poems/stories is lying. I've been in the business for nearly 20 years, and I can tell you in all honesty that I would rather have an enema than comment on student writing (at least it's quicker and the sense of violation only lingers a short while). At this time in the semester, I'm pretty much a grading machine. It seems right now like I'm lugging around 50 pounds of essays about dead grandmothers and/or first sexual experiences. (They're not good sex stories, either. These are college freshmen and sophomores we're talking about. It's over in about 30 seconds, which is more than I can say for the papers.) By the end of a day of grading, I feel like I've just sat through a weekend marathon of Dora the Explorer. (Can you say it with me? Sick grandma, phone call, funeral! Sick grandma, phone call, funeral!! Sick grandma, phone call, funeraaaaaal!!! Excelente!)

If it sounds like I'm whining, it's because I am. I know me complaining about having to grade papers is like a urologist complaining about the smell of pee. It just comes with the territory. And don't misunderstand me: I love teaching. It's the evaluating that I'm not a big fan of.

Every once in a while, I get a student whose work is so good it hurts. Literally. When I read good writing, whether it's from an 18-year-old from Felch, Michigan, or William Faulkner, I experience pangs of envy that pound in my temples. I've already admitted in an earlier blog that one of my many character flaws is jealousy, so this confession should come as no shock. I can't stand reading writers who are better than me. (It doesn't happen very often, but it happens.) When that writer is one of my students, it's both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that I get to read amazing work (and make biting comments that will shake the writer's confidence a little); the curse is that everything else submitted by other students in the class reads like bad J. D. Salinger knockoffs--all moron, nothing that makes you want to call up the author when you're done.

This semester, I have a few really good students who will end up getting A's in my classes, but I don't have any student who humbles me as a teacher and writer, who I simply can't make any better. Thus, at the moment, sitting down with a stack of 25 papers is like hunting with a shotgun: sometimes an essay is a direct hit, but, most of the time, essays are scattered randomly from good to mediocre to lousy. Pretty jaded, I know.

I am sorely in need of a summer recharge. This always happens around this time in the winter term. Right after spring recess, I lose my compass point, to borrow a bad metaphor from Mr. Holland's Opus. I start questioning my abilities as a teacher because every day I face a classroom full of people who are suffering from the same malaise (call it I-don't-give-a-shit-itis). I don't usually teach in the summer sessions, so I get a break to restore my enthusiasm.

The bad thing about this condition is that when I read about a saint now, it makes me feel even more apathetic and lazy because most saints do things like stop famines, cure cancers, build schools and basilicas. I'm just happy if I remember to floss and wear matching socks. Marcarius is a good example. A fourth century bishop, he helped write the Creed at the Council of Nicaea (you know, the prayer that sort of tells all Christians what to believe). He found the actual cross Christ was crucified on in Jerusalem, and then built the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. He also did things like battle heresies and convert hundreds/thousands of people. Like I said, sometimes saints (who all have type-A personalities) just make me tired.

I'm sorry this blog isn't more inspiring or wise. You're probably thinking, I waited two days for this?! It's hard to find inspiration when you're buried in papers. I can't even see my way to a witty, smart ass conclusion to this reflection. If I were grading this posting, I'd probably give it about a B-. Grammatically, there's nothing wrong with it, but it's narrative voice is superficial and a little annoying. I don't even like me, which is never a good sign.

So, I turn back to my dead grandma essays and pick up my red pen. Time to share my suffering.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

March 9: Saint Catherine of Bologna

I'm afraid that yesterday's blog verged on the mean-spirited, despite my attempt to paint a portrait of my subject that dwelt on her human side; it's impossible for me to hate her. In fact, I have deep sympathy for her struggles with unhappiness and mental illness. If I can forgive my wife's sexual addiction, I have to forgive this person's flaws, as well. I just wish her flaws weren't so overtly hurtful.

Yesterday was just one of those days when I shouldn't have been around people. If you've ever seen Brian DePalma's The Untouchables with Deniro, there's a great scene where Deniro/Capone blows his cork. He starts ranting, declaring he wants everyone dead, ending with, "I want to go to the graveyard and piss on his bones!" (I may be paraphrasing here, but I'm pretty sure that's the line.) I was pretty much Bobby Deniro in full Al Capone mode yesterday. (Not a good thing to be on a day when I have to teach.) I pretty much try to avoid people and situations that will make me drag out my baseball bat when I'm like this.

So, that's my explanation for my posting yesterday. I'm human, and I was cranky.

Today, I'm trying to turn over a new leaf in honor of Catherine of Bologna. Born in 1413, she spent the early years of her life in the royal court of the Marquis of Ferrara. Basically, she was the companion of the marquis's young daughter. Eventually, she joined the order of the Poor Clares and became the superioress of a couple of convents. When she died in 1463, she was buried and then exhumed after 18 days because of the perfume rising from the soil. She's one of the incorruptibles, which means that her remains have never decayed. To this day, her body is on display in the chapel of the Poor Clares in Bologna. (Her skin has discolored, but she's close to 600 years old. We should all look so good at her age.)

The reason Catherine inspires me to loftier goals in my mood and work is because she is the patron saint of artists. During her lifetime, she was a painter and writer. One of her works is Rosarium, "a Latin poem on the life of Jesus." If Catherine had read what I wrote yesterday, she would have laughed (even in a crappy mood, I can still be funny), but she would have recognized the baser impulses of my words (I wanted to call my subject a "nasty bitch").

So, today, I'm trying to shake off my darker side. For those of you that know me personally, this is no easy feat. Think Moses parting the Red Sea or Obama passing health care reform. But I don't walk around all day with a thundercloud raging in my head. I do see the beauty in life.

For the last week, Spring has taken hold of the Upper Peninsula. Now, Spring in the U.P is a little different than Spring in Washington D. C. There are no cherry blossoms exploding on the trees here. But, the sap is flowing in the maples, and the snow banks are no longer taller than the Empire State Building. There's actual mud on the ground and water flowing down the streets. If I spend a little time outdoors, I can actually smell the frozen world thawing. On Sunday, there were flies buzzing around my front porch. They were very confused flies, not quite sure what to do with the cold, white stuff, but they made me feel like summer was within reach. Yes, even flies can be beautiful when they're harbingers of warm weather.

I just have to make a conscious effort to notice the small moments of art in my life every day. Last night, I put my son in his crib and watched him drift off to sleep. After a few minutes, I quietly left the bedroom, convinced that I was home free to simmer for the rest of the night in my bad juju. Just as I sat down on the couch with a book about a political assassination in my lap, I heard my son start crying in his crib. I threw myself to my feet and stormed into his bedroom.

"You better go to sleep, kid," I said aloud as I sat on the bed beside the crib. "I'm in no mood for this tonight."

Then I looked over at him.

He stretched his hand through the bars of the crib toward me, his fingers open and waiting.

I reached out and put my finger in his small palm.

His hand closed around my finger, and he smiled at me in the darkness. Then he closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep.

I sat there for a really long time and watched him just...breathe.

Painting by Saint Catherine of Bologna

March 8: Saint Theophylact

In my wildest dreams, I never thought my life would turn out the way it has (so far). On the day my wife and I got married, I knew that she had an uncle who was bipolar and a great aunt who was also bipolar. (Recently, a cousin of hers was also diagnosed with bipolar.) But, as I gazed into her smiling face on that October day, I never thought mental illness would set up permanent camp in our lives. I saw 2.5 kids. Maybe a dog. A full-time university teaching job. A full-time teaching position in a local school system for my wife. That's what I saw.

Over the years of dating my wife, I had witnessed the kind of havoc her uncle's illness created, the months he spent holed up in his bedroom, the suicide attempts, the summer manias. But, on our wedding day, I never saw mental illness as part of my immediate, minute-by-minute existence. Even if I had, I still would have said "I do," but I would have also prepared myself a little better for the excitement to come.

Nobody really plans to entertain mental illness as a house guest. It just sort of shows up at your front door like weird Aunt Lulu from Buffalo, and the bad thing is, you have to let her in.
You remember my Lenten prayer list (the list of people who've hurt, betrayed, or fucked me over)? One person who has been at the top of that list has a mental illness. She just likes to pretend that she doesn't. She's suffered from depression and delusions (hearing voices nobody else can hear). Currently, she's convinced her psychiatrist that she's cured. The chemicals in her brain have miraculously balanced themselves, and she's the happiest, most well-adjusted person on the planet. Call the Billy Graham Crusade. She's ready to testify. She's off her meds and couldn't be happier. (If your bullshit meter is going off, it should be.)

This person doesn't want to be labeled "crazy." She comes from a generation that still views mental illness as some kind of character flaw that can be cured with hard work, exercise, and 64 ounces of water per day. (The water thing could do the trick if it's used to wash down a few Zoloft or lithiums.) That's what she believes, and that's fine.

The problem is her treatment of my family member with mental illness. I could try to sugar-coat it, but let's just be completely honest here: this person is a bitch to my wife. As I've thought about , stewed over it, prayed on it, I've come to the conclusion that this person is scared. She has a mental illness and doesn't want to admit it, is actually terrified of it. She sees my wife, who also has a mental illness, and recognizes her biggest fear, the King Kong on her back, so to speak. So, this person resorts to being rude, cruel, and just plain nasty to my wife.

It's a human response, to be sure. She tries to justify her actions by saying my wife is lazy, manipulative, and selfish. But it all boils down to the fact that this person's got Aunt Lulu at her front door, and she doesn't want to invite her in.

Which brings me to Theophylact, today's saint. The thing I like about him is that he always answered the door. A ninth-century bishop, he was famous for his kindness to the sick and poor and mentally ill. The prayer that follows his biography in my book says, "May our Lenten sacrifices focus on our need to respond to the most desperate of Your loved ones." It's not easy confronting yourself, or Jesus, in the face of someone who frightens you. Theophylact did it, always, with hospitality, compassion, and love.

I don't expect the person I'm writing about today to change. That would mean she would have to admit her own fear and weakness. Again, not an easy thing to do. It's much easier to be a nasty bitch.

And Aunt Lulu will just keep knocking.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

March 5, 6, 7: Saints Among Us

Let me apologize for not posting anything for the last few days. I worked at a local soup kitchen for the homeless. I went door-to-door collecting donations for Haitian earthquake relief. I spent three hours every night in contemplation and prayer. Okay, not really. I actually took Friday off work, went grocery shopping, and took in the newest Martin Scorsese flick with a friend at which I consumed an obscene amount of buttered popcorn and a box of Buncha Crunch, washing it down with two gallons of Diet Pepsi. I can honestly say that I did nothing that even came close to self-sacrificing, holy, or saint-like for the last three days.

I often wonder if being around a saint is any fun. I mean, all it would be is "God this" and "God that," "Jesus this" and "Jesus that." I don't think saints can really just chill. I doubt Mother Teresa ever ate a Cheeto in her life. (I know she's not a saint yet, but, let's face it, it's just a matter of time.) Of course, for the price of a bag of Cheetos, she could probably have bought enough rice to feed a small, African village. That's the reality of being a saint. It's not just a 40 hour per week job. There's no down time. If I'd taken Francis of Assisi to see Shutter Island on Friday, I bet he would have slipped behind the theater with my bag of popcorn and fed some hungry sparrows and squirrels. (I always picture Saint Francis sort of like Disney's Snow White, the animals flocking to him as he steps outdoors, a chubby cartoon bluebird sitting on his shoulder and singing in his ear.) Inviting a saint to your house for dinner would be like asking Julia Child over for pork rinds and a bottle of Pabst. There'd always be an element of not measuring up, no matter what the social situation.

Think of the job description for a saint:

WANTED: Man or woman willing to become monk, nun, bishop, priest, social activist, missionary, teacher, or hermit. Must be available at all times to answer calls. Must work weekends and holidays. No overtime. Life of poverty and deprivation a definite possibility. Working conditions may be hazardous, even fatal. Martyrdom or lengthy,painful, lingering illness (tuberculosis, stomach cancer, stroke, etc.) almost assured. If interested, apply in prayer and wait. Interviews may be immediate (if a visionary) or after death.

Doesn't sound like a position that would get many applicants, does it? The whole martyrdom thing turns off my sixteen-year-old nephew. After reading some of the Lives of the Saints, he has determined that sainthood too often involves being burned at the stake, drowned, dismembered, or torn to shreds by wild bears. He'd much rather just play Halo.

I'm sure saints have senses of humor. I'm sure they have favorite foods (unless they survive on communion bread and wine, in which case they cross over into Olsen twin territory). Saints are human beings, just like me, just like you, just like Jesus. We all have to eat. We all have to sleep. We all have to shit. (That's right, people. Jesus wept, but Jesus also crapped. It just didn't make the top ten Gospel moments.)

I'm sure you're wondering where I'm headed with this little meditation. I started this entire blog because I want the calm and joy that comes with having the faith of a saint. If I wake up tomorrow morning and find out I have stage four lymphoma, I want to be able to smile and say, "It's God's will." (For the record, if I find myself in that situation, I'd prefer to be one of those saint who experiences a miraculous healing and goes on to live to the age of 103.) But I know that I'm not made of that kind of mettle. I'm more of the roll-into-a-fetal-position-and-cry in-the-corner mettle.

For the most part, what you read about saints is all miracles and halos. They pray, and famines end. The preach, and pagans convert. That's all fine and dandy, but it doesn't give me any hope that I stand a chance of being Saint Martin of the Snuggie (yes, I own one and use it nightly). Perfection is not an easy standard to live up to. I need saints who are messy, who fuck up some. I need saints who make me laugh, who might have told a dirty joke once in a while. I need saints who walk among us, not above us.

Basically, I need saints who shit.

March 4: Blessed Placida Viel

I often wonder if what I do makes any difference at all in the world. I have been teaching on the university level for close to 17 years. Doing the math, I've taught, on average, about two classes every fall and winter semester, with an occasional spring and summer session thrown into the mix. In each class, I've had roughly 25 students, sometimes a couple more, sometimes a couple less. So, that's approximately 100 students a year for 17 years, or 1,700 students. Throw in a couple hundred more for overload and spring/summer classes. That brings the total number of minds I've molded to 1,900.

I find that number frightening.

I've had close to 2,000 lives to screw up. Now, I know that my ability or inability to teach someone the difference between a comma splice and a comma fault error, or the nuance of theme and motif, will not make that someone a crack addict. (I'll lay the blame for that one at the feet of college-level bowling instructors. The only "C" I ever received in college was in bowling, and that grade ruined my Christmas and drove me to an angry night of drinking with a friend. Crack was only a "D" away.)

There's this nagging feeling in my gut, however, that I somehow passed a student in one of my courses who was functionally illiterate. Next on the Hallmark Channel, Jim Carrey stars as a man who graduates from a small, northern Michigan university with a degree in English and ends up indigent, begging of the streets of Detroit because (grab the Kleenex box, folks) he can't read!!

Just a few weeks ago, I opened my local newspaper and saw the face of a former student. I remember her distinctly. She was in a summer class I taught on narrative and descriptive writing, and she was a soft-spoken, lovely woman who frequently visited my office in the years after the class was done just to visit. She asked about my wife, my daughter. One Halloween, she went to see The Rocky Horror Show with my wife and me and some friends. I stopped seeing her on campus a few years ago, and, as my life got complicated, I never really thought about her. Last week, my student was arrested for robbing two banks with a toy gun. (Knowing this person, the toy gun doesn't surprise me.)

My lessons in dialogue and place description didn't make my student a modern Bonnie Parker. As I stared at her mug shot in the newspaper, though, I wondered how many teachers and friends and family had dropped the ball in her life. I know she had children. Maybe if I had kept in touch, sent her a Christmas card, tracked her down on Facebook, done something to show her that I cared about her well-being, she wouldn't have ended up looking like a fugitive from America's Most Wanted. Maybe.

That's what Blessed Placida Viel would have done. I'm sure none of her students slipped through the cracks. Born Victoria Eulalia Jacqueline Viel in Normandy in 1815, Placida made education one of the priorities of her career as a nun. She was chosen superior-general of the Sisters of Christian Schools in 1846. In that role, she established orphanages and nurseries and education programs. By the time of her death in 1877, she had started 36 schools for the poor and destitute.

In all that I've learned about saints, there seems to be one common denominator: saints leave the world a better place because of their lives and actions. Placida's legacy is 36 schools and thousands of children educated who wouldn't otherwise have had a chance. That's a legacy worthy of the title "saint." My legacy, so far, is a bank robber.

One out of 1,900 is not a bad record, I know. Odds are, though, among the 1,899 other students, there are drug dealers, alcoholics, adulterers, and Republicans. Judging my success as a teacher by one troubled soul is like reading 50 student evaluations at the end of a semester and rating my performance on the single person who gave me all "D's" and wrote the word "asshole" on the back of the evaluation sheet. It's hard not to take something like that personally. It causes me flashbacks to bowling class.

But I continue to teach in good faith, knowing that, for every Bonnie Parker, Steven Segal, or George W. Bush in my classes, there might be a Martin Luther King, Meryl Streep, or Placida Viel.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

March 3: Saint Katherine Drexel

I often dream about what I would do if I were wealthy. (Sing with me: "If I were a rich man, ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum.") I'm not talking Bill Gates or J. K. Rowling kind of wealthy. I'm talking about having enough money to not have to worry about which bill I have to put off paying until the next paycheck arrives. Or living in a house where the wait for the only toilet doesn't rival the wait for Space Mountain. Or being able to order the newest novel by Wally Lamb from Amazon without feeling like you've just denied your daughter her one chance to go to a small community college to learn a skilled trade. I want enough money so that I don't have to worry. Period. What that dollar amount is, I have no idea. That is my criteria for being well-off, however. Pay all the bills. Nice house. Good car. Something in the bank for a rainy day or week or month. And a little left over for a trip to Red Lobster.

(All day long I'd biddy biddy bum. If I were a wealthy man.)

My BFF always asserts that she would make a great rich person. I tell her I would make a fabulous tycoon, as well. She says she would take me to the Bahamas and give me enough money to be a full-time writer in exchange for daily neck massages. I, in turn, would buy her a bathing suit for every day of the month and make sure she lives in a place warm enough for her to always wear them comfortably outside all year long. All I ask in return is that she reads what I write and tells me how awesome I am. (We writers are very needy people, for the most part. We might say that we write for truth or our art, but really all we want is to be the most popular kid on the playground.)

We both agree that we would take care of our families and donate to various causes near and dear to our hearts (Save the Kenyan Warthog, Feed the Children Scoop Fritos, etc.). We don't want to end up looking like self-indulgent celebrities, ala Paris Hilton. We want to do something good, something important, with our money, so that when we're boarding our cruise ship to Alaska we feel like we've earned our filet mignon of elk.

(I wouldn't have to work hard. Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum.)

All kidding aside, whenever I or my wife have gotten a bump in salary or paid off a car loan, whenever I anticipate a couple hundred extra dollars a month, I celebrate for a little while. Then I do something stupid, or something stupid happens to me. This summer, I made my last payment on my Mercury Sable and was looking forward to a few, payment-free years. The next Monday, on my way to work, I hit a deer that came bounding out of the darkness, and I totaled my car. (Whenever I tell people this story, they invariably ask the same question: "Did you kill the deer?" Even the policeman at the scene asked me this question. My response is always the same: "I don't give a shit. My car is wrecked.") So, a week-and-a-half later, I was driving around in a brand new car payment.

My point is this: enough is never enough. It will always seem like there's something on which to spend money. A new car. A bigger house. A trip to Florida (or Green Bay). A Wii Fit to tell you every day that you're obese. A box of Cap'n Crunch. I am just as guilty as everyone else. Just check out my Amazon wish list. If Amazon sold small, Caribbean islands, I'd have one in my cart.

(If I were a biddy biddy rich, Yidle-diddle-didle-didle man.)

Today's saint, Katherine Drexel, was once described by newspapers as "the richest nun in the world." The heiress of a wealthy banker, Katherine's income topped out at over $1000 a day in the early 20th century. Now, I'm picturing a nun in Vera Wang habits with Cartier rosaries. Of course, being a saint-in-the-making, Katherine had other plans for her fortune. She established her own order, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, which was dedicated to "the service of Native and African Americans." By the time she died in 1955 at the age of 97, Katherine had donated 20 million dollars that funded, among other things, 63 schools, including Xavier University, the first Catholic college for African Americans. My research paints her as a "one-woman foundation." She herself answered every request for money she received while still living a life of extreme poverty.

Katherine Drexel was a good rich person. She knew what to do with money: she gave it away. This is something I have a difficult time understanding. If someone started handing me $1000 a day, I don't think I'd open up a newspaper, rub my hands together, and say, "Now, who needs my help?" I harbor this fantasy of becoming really wealthy and then settling a few old scores. One scenario of which I'm particularly fond: buying a bookstore I once worked at and firing the manager whom I disliked. (That manager doesn't even work there any more, but, hey, it's my fantasy.) Perhaps God knows the kind of rich person I'd be, and that's why I earn just enough money to hold the creditors at bay and buy birthday and Christmas presents.

Wealth has little to do with money. I know this. I'm a rich guy. I know this also. As the old saying goes, money can't buy happiness. How about this one: money is the root of all evil? If I had a penny for every adage and proverb about money, I could probably afford that Carribean island.

I'd be the one parked on the beach in the new Ford Freestyle that's not paid off.

(Lord who made the lion and the lamb, You decreed I should be what I am. Would it spoil some vast eternal plan? If I were a wealthy maaaaaaaaaan!)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

March 2: Blessed Angela of the Cross Guerrero

One summer, I took a graduate-level workshop in jazz poetry. For two weeks, I went to a classroom in the music building of the university and learned about John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Dave Brubeck. We listened to blues, dixieland, bebop, and funk. And we wrote poems in response to the music, poems that were supposed to mirror the rhythms and turns of the notes, the instruments, and the singers.

It was a pretty good gig, I thought, and the class was blessedly clear of the ego and one-upmanship that usually permeates graduate-level classes. Let me explain something about higher education. When you move past the bachelor's degree level, into the Master's and Ph.D. realms, you find yourself in rooms full of people who are used to being told they are the smartest and best students. These are the kind of brown nosers whose every doodle in art, every 100 on spelling tests were plastered with gold stars and magnetized to the refrigerator for visitors to gawk at. "Look at little Johnny's haiku he wrote in kindergarten yesterday," a typical parent of a future graduate student might say. "I think it reflects the deconstructive pull of modern capitalism." I can make fun of these overachievers because, for most of my adult life, I have counted myself among their numbers.

By the time I hit this jazz poetry workshop, I was nearing the end of my tolerance of this tiresome game of jockeying to be professor's pet. Besides, the instructor was a good friend of mine who already knew I was the best writer in the room. I just had to watch my back for the second-rate poets who might want to pull a Tonya Harding on me.

The very first time the class met, however, I knew this wasn't going to be a typical graduate seminar. I was acquainted with every other student present except one. This stranger came limping through the door, assisted by a cane. She had a tattered notebook under her arm with a cheap Bic pen jammed into the spiral. She sat in the front row, which is a faux pas in graduate classes. Such an action smacks of hubris, indicating you think yourself better than the rest of the attendees. The seasoned grad students sit in the back of the room, trying to be unobtrusive until their true geniuses are revealed and they are led to the front of the lecture hall in glory. I was seated in a dark corner near the back. I watched this woman claim her unearned place of honor near the grand piano that dominated the front.

As we got started, I was convinced that this stranger might have just wandered in from one of the several adult foster care homes that dotted the perimeters of the campus. However, when the instructor went over the computer roster, the woman's name (let's call her Lynn) appeared on the roll. She was legally and officially one of us.

As that first day proceeded, Lynn would, on occasion, laugh loudly for no apparent reason, pound her cane on the floor when other students read poems, yell things like "play motherfucker" while we were listening to musical selections. At the end of that first meeting, I think every person in the class, including the professor, had come to the same conclusion: this woman was from another planet. (Much later, I found out she suffered from schizophrenia.)

The rest of the week pretty much continued in the same manner. Sitting in the seat of honor, Lynn managed to call the resident lesbian poet a dyke several times. Lynn read several of her compositions, which were peppered generously with words like "pussy," "cock," and "cunt." And, near the end of the first week, she told one African American man in the class that his mother was a "lazy nigger who should get off welfare." (That statement prompted the strongest reaction to Lynn. The man threw a chair across the room.)

At the end of the first week, the professor spoke to us before Lynn arrived for class. She told us that Lynn was going to be removed from the roster and asked us to put up with it for one more day.

That Friday, Lynn was unusually quiet. People read poems, and we commented on them. We listened to some Miles Davis. We were almost home free. As the class was just about over, Lynn said, "I have a poem."

The instructor looked at her. "I'm not sure we have time."

Lynn got up from her chair and went to the piano. She sat down. I was expecting her to start clubbing the keyboard with her cane. She put her fingers on the keys and started to play.

Angela of the Cross Guerrero founded her religious order, the Congregation of the Cross, on August 2, 1875. The women under her direction lived like the people they served . Caring for the outcasts of society, the orphans and sick and poor and mentally ill, Angela and her crew begged for food, medicine, clothing, and shelter. They never kept any surplus for themselves, only enough to survive. Per Angela's isntructions, they were to "live with and like the poor." Angela died on March 2, 1932, at the age of 86.

The song Lynn played that afternoon was slow and sad and beautiful. As she played, she read a poem from her notebook. It was about the loss of a daughter, the ache she still felt in her womb for the child's birth, the pain of not being able to care for her baby and herself. When she finished reading, she closed her eyes and continued playing for another ten or fifteen seconds.

When she stopped playing, nobody said a word. The room remained silent.

Angela of the Cross once wrote, "The nothing keeps silent, the nothing does not want to be, the nothing suffers all. The nothing does not impose itself, the nothing does not command with authority, and finally, the nothing in the creature is practical humility."

That day, I sat, staring at nothing.