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.