Tuesday, December 31, 2019

December 31: A Quick Bite, End of 2019, New Book

"Okay, baby, hold tight," said Zaphod.  "We'll take in a quick bite at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe."

Those are the final lines of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  Zaphod and his pals are zooming off for a snack and another adventure.

Welcome to the end of 2019, the year of Hitchhiker's.  It has been a challenging 365 days.  Started out really well--two weeks at Walt Disney World.  Sun.  Warmth.  Mickey Mouse.  Buzz Lightyear.  Expedition Everest.  And my kids, so happy and relaxed.  It was one of the best times we've had as a family.  Then, the rest of the year.  Being named Poet Laureate again.  Loss of a job.  New job.  Graduation of my daughter.  My son heading into middle school.  Mental illness struggles.  Addiction struggles.  Money problems.  This year has been all over the place.  Highs.  Lows.  Joys.  Sorrows.

I don't want to blame Zaphod Beeblebrox and his friends for the challenges I've faced.  That would be irrational.  However, trying to relate to a novel that is primarily farce has been difficult at times.  If you haven't noticed, I'm a pretty serious guy most of the time.  Sure, I know how to have a good time.  However, this year hasn't offered a whole lot of laughs for me.  So, trying to relate to a crew of aliens on a spaceship fueled by improbability hasn't been easy.  No wonder Marvin, the chronically depressed robot, is my favorite character in the book.

And now, a celebration for the conclusion of the second decade of the 21st century.  Tomorrow, we will be in the '20s.  The Roaring Twenties.  Certainly, at the beginning of a new year, there's always hope for something better.  Possibility.  As most of you know, I'm not a big fan of change.  It's not exciting.  Not an adventure.  In my experience, all change means is a lot of heartache and work.  I'm more of a status quo kind of person.  However, when the status quo is untenable, something has to shift.

So, I am hoping for good things in 2020.  More happiness.  Peace.  Love.  Joy.

Which brings me to the announcement of the book I have chosen for the upcoming year.  There have been a lot of contenders.  I've considered Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.  A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving.  The Complete Stories of Flannery O'ConnorOne Hundred Years of Solitude by Marquez.  Up until tonight, I couldn't decide.  Then, it came to me.  Literally.  The book fell off the shelf, and I realized that I had been led to it for almost three months.

You see, I have been reading a book by a Jesuit priest.  James Martin.  It's titled My Life with the Saints.  It is about Father Martin's explorations of the lives of various Catholic holy women and men.  I was drawn immediately to the chapter about a Trappist monk/writer/mystic from the Abbey of Gethsemani in the hills of Kentucky.  The man was deeply intellectual and deeply spiritual.  He struggled with his humanity, having more than a little ego.  He liked being in the limelight.  In short, he was a guy I can relate to.  A poet who was mentioned by Pope Francis in his address before a joint session of Congress as an exemplar of American Catholicism.

And the memoir this man wrote about his spiritual conversion is considered a classic.  One of the most influential religious works of the 20th century.  It's grounded in failure.  Reaches toward the cosmos.

The book I have chosen to write about for the next year is The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton.  This choice excites me.  Makes me anxious for the new year to start.

Tonight, I will eat homemade pizza.  Play games with my family.  Eat a lot of snacks.  Enjoy the waning minutes of 2019.  Celebrate the first minutes of 2020.  Say goodbye to Douglas Adams.  Hello to Thomas Merton.

Count down with Saint Marty:   Five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . .

December 31: Final Christmas Essay and Poem, "Gloop Christmas," "The Frog Princess"

A final Christmas essay and poem to round out the old year, welcome the new.

Saint Marty wishes his faithful readers (all two of them) a blessed and joyous new year!

Gloop Christmas
by:  Martin Achatz

I never liked Charlie Bucket when I was a kid.  He was too skinny.  Too desperate.  The illustrations of him in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were in black-and-white and reminded me of the Great Depression stories my dad used to share at the dinner table.  My siblings and I would be turning up our noses at some dish my mother had prepared (usually involving liver or cabbage), and my father would launch into some tale of poverty, saying, “When I was a kid…”  And I would picture him as Charlie Bucket on a street corner, begging for a nickel to purchase a magical chocolate bar wrapped in gold foil.  As my father spoke, guilt settled on me like a hard snow.  It almost made me want to consume the sauerkraut or haggis on my dinner plate.  Almost.
Thankfully, I never had to experience the kind of deprivation my father or Charlie Bucket had to endure.  My idea of deprivation was having to eat Rice Krispies instead of Lucky Charms for breakfast.  When I read Roald Dahl’s book, I identified much more closely with another Golden Ticket winner:  Augustus Gloop.  Gloop was the ultimate candy hedonist, eating anything and everything that contained or was coated in chocolate.  The illustrations of Augustus were a little off-putting.  He resembled Jabba the Hut Jr.  No neck.  Folds of skin rippling off him like tsunamis after an earthquake.  However, I knew that, if I were let loose in the chocolate room of Willy Wonka’s factory, I would be on my hands and knees at the river, right next to Augustus, lapping up the liquid chocolate like a thirsty bison.
Writer Steve Almond coined a term for people like Augustus Gloop and me.  We are candyfreaks.  As kids, candyfreaks categorize and hoard candy.  For example, at Halloween time, I had several tiers for my confectionary booty.  In the top tier were all chocolate products—Milky Way and Twix and Hershey and M&Ms.  In the next tier fell chocolate products that tried to sneak in healthy ingredients—things like Chunky bars with their raisins and Snickers with their peanuts.  Anything chocolate that left an aftertaste not derived from the cocoa bean ended up in this category.  Tier three consisted of gummy and taffy products.  JuJu Fruits and Swedish Fish and Gummi bears and Laffy Taffy.  This ilk of candy stuck to my teeth and wreaked havoc with dental work.  The bottom tier was filled with the most loathsome treats—Smarties or jawbreakers or Lemonheads.  Hard candies requiring patience and persistence and a great deal of mouth work.  I have always been a chewer, not a sucker.
Steve Almond identifies Halloween as the High Holy Day of the candyfreak year.  I disagree with him.  While I’m not against the spoils of All Hallow’s Eve, there’s a certain aspect of quality control that has always bothered my Gloop nature.  People are not picky about trick-or-treat candy.  Over the years, the chocolate bars have gotten smaller and the Sweet Tarts more prolific.  By the second week of November, Halloween candy stashes start emitting a sugary vapor that almost makes me want to throw out the remaining Tootsie Rolls and Jolly Ranchers.  Almost.
With all due respect to Mr. Almond, I would like to make a case for Christmas as the pinnacle of the candyfreak/Gloop holidays.  While an argument could be made for Easter (with its chocolate bunnies and Cadbury Cream Eggs), I can’t go along with this line of thought for one simple reason:  Peeps.  Any holiday that has as its centerpiece a sugar-coated marshmallow that tastes like crude oil should be automatically disqualified from consideration.  Valentine’s Day is ineligible because it is the equivalent of a middle school dance.  The “popular” kids are out on the gym floor, swaying to a Journey song and exchanging cardboard hearts stuffed with chocolate creams, while the wallflowers are left in the bleachers, drooling and hungry and unsatisfied.  Thus, by default, Christmas wins.
At the beginning of Frosty the Snowman, Jimmy Durante explains the difference between a regular first snow and a Christmas first snow.  There’s something special, even magical, about Christmas snow, Durante explains.  The same can be said about Christmas sweets.  They hold a certain power that Halloween or Easter sweets do not.  When a plate of homemade Christmas cookies is placed in front of me, I find myself impelled to try confections I wouldn’t give a second look any other time of year.  I have even been known to nibble on snowballs, which are cookies rolled in powdered sugar and coconut.  Steve Almond correctly describes the experience of eating coconut as akin to chewing on cuticles.  Coconut should be banished from all chocolate and baked goods.  Mr. Almond and I agree on this point.  During the yuletide season, however, even my aversion to this ingredient takes a holiday.  Everything tastes good at Christmas.
And everybody has a signature Christmas creation.  My Grandma Hainley had a chocolate chip cookie recipe she took to her grave.  My sister, Sally, makes pizzelles, an Italian waffle cookie that is so delicate and light I can eat two dozen of them in one sitting and still have room for a ham sandwich and a mug of hot cocoa.  One of the reasons I married my wife was her Christmas buckeye.  I’m not generally a huge fan of peanut butter, but my wife’s buckeyes are the Gloop equivalent of crystal meth.  I have been known to sneak out of bed in the middle of the night to get my buckeye fix.  I even get a little panicky when my daughter puts a buckeye with Santa’s plate of cookies on Christmas Eve.  I’ve lied to her, saying, “Santa has a severe nut allergy, sweetheart.  We don’t want the big guy going into anaphylactic shock in the middle of our living room.”
My specialty is brickle.  It’s a candy of my own creation.  Part milk chocolate almond bark, part Planters Dry Roasted Peanuts, part Heath toffee, part crispy rice, it has been known to cause riots at family gatherings.  I have been asked for my recipe on more than one occasion.  However, the recipe seeker stares at me like I’m a member of the Manson family when I describe my brickle-making process.  “The almond bark and paraffin should pour like brown silk,” I say, “and, when you mix it with the other ingredients, it should sound like wet cement.”  I can’t provide exact measurements.  I work by instinct, the way Grandma Moses worked in oils or my best friend in college worked in marijuana.  It’s all about brush strokes or soil humidity.  No one has been able to duplicate my brickle, despite my attempts to pass on my secrets to several apprentice Oompa Loompas.
Of course, Gloop Christmas is not limited to homemade creations.  There are several products that start appearing soon after Halloween that, for me, mark the official beginning of the holidays.  Eggnog, thick and yellow and sweet.  White fudge Oreos, which compete with my wife’s buckeyes for supremacy in my heart.  And my latest discovery:  Extra Creamy Hershey Chocolate Bells.  Generally, regular Hershey’s chocolate ranks as the Thunderbird or Boone’s Farm of my candyfreak addictions.  It’s good for a cheap, quick thrill.  Hershey Christmas Bells, however, come from a whole different chocolate wine cellar.  Smooth and a little nutty, they have the staying power of a Godiva truffle or Ghiradelli dark square.  And they taste even better chilled or frozen.  Put them on top of peanut butter blossoms, and I’d sneak away to a cheap motel with them for a weekend.
There is one Christmas candy product that I have been dreaming about my entire adult life.  At Easter time, the shelves at Wal-Mart and Target are lined with hollow chocolate rabbits.  From the cheap Palmer variety to the more upscale Russell Stover kind, these bunnies all provide a singular thrill.  Whether I start with the ears or tail or feet, I know what will happen with my first bite.  The chocolate lepus will crumble between my lips, and I will taste the air trapped inside.  As a child, I always thought that air tasted like Lent, full of sin and guilt and the promise of redemption.
The Christmas equivalent of this Easter staple would be a chocolate manger scene.  It doesn’t exist, although it seems like a no-brainer to me.  Chocolate shepherds and sheep.  Cows and camels.  Angels and magi.  I imagine picking up a chocolate donkey and biting into it, the air inside tasting of desert and rock and thirst.  Or sinking my teeth into Joseph’s head and finding fear and courage and strength.  Or wrapping my lips around Mary’s hands and feeling the chocolate give way to surrender and faith.  And the Golden Ticket of Christmas:  a chocolate baby Jesus, small and fragile.

I would place that tiny manger on my tongue, letting it slowly melt, flooding my mouth with hope, expectation, joy, and love for a world without Great Depressions and hunger and want.  An Augustus Gloop world.  A world filled with buckeyes and Hershey Bells and Christmas brickle.

The Frog Princess

by:  Martin Achatz

In the photograph,
She stares at his pickle skin,
Cold and slick as marsh mud,
Smells mosquito and fly
On his breath, the days of summer
When only insect and amphibian
Dance under the sun’s thick heat.
She thinks of kissing him,
Pressing her lips to his,
Whispering what she wants
Most to his invisible ears:

The boy, with hair so blonde it glows,
To swing with her on the playground;
Her mother to help her figure out
How many nickels make a dollar;
Her father to comb and braid
Her hair after a winter bath;
Her infant brother to reach out,
Touch the freckles on her cheek;
The frog to dive deep into the well,
Bring back a Christmas ornament,
Gold, round, perfect.

I want to tell her it’s not that simple.
Caterpillars don’t just blaze
Into stained-glass wings,
Pinecones into evergreens.
Flippers don’t sprout fingers, hands,
Arms to hold her, keep her safe.
There’s nature.  Evolution.
Spawn.  Egg.  Tadpole.  Froglet.  Frog.
No prince.

But she knows that snow falls in June,
Rainbows slice thunderheads,
Hens shimmer into peacock,
Angels appear to girls.
Love can grow in swamp clay.
She watches, waits for the frog
To swell, open, stretch, blossom
Into something that will break her heart.

Monday, December 30, 2019

December 30: Vogon Poetry, Three Wise Guys, Irving Berlin Kind of Night

Vogon poetry is of course the third worst in the Universe.  The second worst is that of the Azgoths of Kria . . . The very worst poetry of all perished with its creator, Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings of Greenbridge, Essex, England, in the destruction of the planet Earth.

This is Douglas Adams' take on intergalactic poetry culture.  It ain't a pretty picture.

Greetings, loyal disciples!

I am home, in the midst of a New Year's Eve eve snowstorm.  It blew in this morning and is supposed to last until the wee hours of tomorrow morning.  Predicted accumulations range anywhere from eight inches to 15 inches.  I'll be honest--I was hoping for 2019 going out quietly, like melting snow.  Instead, it's putting up quite a fight.  I should have expected that.  This year has been anything but friendly and cooperative.  It's like that person who shows up early for a party you're throwing and then just stays and stays and stays, making racist jokes and inappropriate comments about your daughter until every other guest leaves is disgust or embarrassment.

This evening, I'm supposed to be doing a poetry reading at my home church.  A little something I cooked up at the beginning of Advent because I love Christmas and have never read at an event for my parish family.  Despite the snowstorm, the show will go on.  There will be food and different wines to sample.  Plus, some good friends of mine who just happen to be fabulous musicians and singers are going to perform, as well.  Out of all the things I've done this Christmas season, I think I've been looking forward to this night the most.  (I like to think my poetry wouldn't make Douglas Adams' list of the worst poetry in the Universe.  After a few glasses of wine, I may even sound pretty good.)

Now, some of you out there may think that Christmas is over at the stroke of midnight on December 25.  Not so.  In Christian denominations, Christmas ain't over until the three wise guys show up.  So, if Larry, Moe, and Curly aren't at the manger, then crank up a little Bing Crosby "White Christmas" on the tunebox and suck down some more eggnog.  'Cuz the Nativity narrative isn't quite done yet.

I am about to whip up some queso dip for tonight's poetry shindig at the rectory.  I have a bottle of wine chilling in the fridge.  It's going to be a good night, whether four people or forty people show up.  Poetry, good music, and lots of Christmas cheer.  The snow just adds to the ambiance.  Now if I could only get Santa Claus to make an appearance.

Saint Marty is having an Irving Berlin kind of night.

December 30: Another Christmas Essay and Poem, "Spooks of Christmas," "Monsters Under Your Child's Bed Are Real"

Another night, another Christmas essay and poem from Saint Marty.

Spooks of Christmas

by:  Martin Achatz

            I have always felt a particular kinship to the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz.  To be precise, when the Lion is in the Haunted Forest, trooping to the Wicked Witch’s castle to get her broom, he witnesses the Tin Man lifted by a ghostly force and thrown like a chew toy.  The Lion squeezes his eyes shut, cowers, and chants over and over, “I do believe in spooks.  I do believe in spooks.  I do, I do, I do, I do, I do, I do, I do, I do believe in spooks.”  I’m not as big a coward as the Lion, although I do avoid walking past a house in my neighborhood that’s supposedly haunted by the specter of a little boy.  Like my furry, Oz counterpart, I have a healthy respect for the power of the unseen.  I do, I do, I do, I do, I do.
            As a child, my respect for all things ghostly was more of an obsession.  Saturday afternoons would find me in front of the TV, watching the latest offering from Sir Graves Ghastly, host of a local creature feature.  Sir Graves was a middle-aged man with a goatee who rose from a casket at the beginning of his show and spoke with a bad Bela Lugosi accent.  His movies ranged from Boris Karloff courting Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein to the 1950s sci-fi flick Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.  My favorite offerings were released in the 1960s by the Hammer Film Studios of England.  These movies invariably featured a lot of blood, copious dismembered body parts, and plenty of zaftig women in flowing white gowns who wanted to attach their mouths to men’s necks.  The combination of horror and gore and sex was enough to drive my pre-pubescent mind wild.
            Eventually, I graduated to the slasher movies of the ‘80s.  Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, and the Friday the 13ths.  As a teen, these films had just the right amount of thrill, spill, and kill to satisfy my cravings for a good scare, plus there were always horny teens sneaking off to go skinny-dipping in Crystal Lake together.  By the beginning of the 1990s, my taste for celluloid screams waned.  Now, as a father of a nine-year-old daughter and two-year-old son, I’m appalled by the Goosebumps TV show.  I refuse to let my children view episodes simply because, to be quite honest, they scare me.  I’d like to say that my tastes have matured, that I find vampires and werewolves, zombies and ghosts childish.  But when The Exorcist was re-released in the year 2000, I went to see it with a friend.  I slept with lights on for two weeks afterward.  I’ve become Don Knotts from The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.
            I even find most of the current movie versions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol a bit too much.  Dickens, aside from creating the stereotypical image of the white, Currier and Ives Christmas, also inaugurated the tradition of telling ghost stories during the holidays.  The tale of Ebenezer Scrooge is just one of many Christmas ghost stories Dickens published.  For Dickens, if you heard a noise in the living room on Christmas Eve, it was more likely to be long-dead Great Grandpa T paying a visit than a jolly, fat elf in red fur.  And Great Grandpa T wasn’t usually having a great night.
            The recent crop from Hollywood based on A Christmas Carol takes full advantage of computer-generated horrors.  Marley’s ghost has a jaw that falls open to gargoyle proportions.  The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is a terrifying wraith in black with the hands of a skeleton and hell-red eyes.  Watching these films, I slip into full Cowardly Lion mode, peering at the TV through laced fingers, waiting for Marley to don Freddy Krueger gloves and carve up Scrooge like a Christmas goose.  I much prefer Waldorf and Stadler as the heckling Marley brothers in A Muppet Christmas Carol.  That’s more my speed now.
            But it makes sense to me, this focus on ghosts at Christmas time.  Even in the accounts of the birth of Christ in the Bible, there are moments of sheer terror.  Every time an angel appears to someone, the first words out of the angel’s mouth are not, “Do these wings make me look fat?”  The first words, without fail, are, “Fear not,” which leads me to believe that angels are pretty scary-looking creatures, not like Connie Stevens, sporting dove wings and singing “You Can Fly.”  No, angels inspire horror at first, not awe.  So Charles Dickens was just following the lead of the writers of the gospels when he wrote Christmas ghost stories.  Plus, at Christmas time, people tend to put a little more stock in the possibility of unseen powers.  The veil between reality and possibility is just a little more transparent.  Angels and ghosts are not just figments of fiction.  They’re as real as snow, ice, and i-Pads.
            Kids, in particular, are more open to such possibilities.  In fact, I believe young children have a vision for the unseen that adults either ignore or completely lack.  I’ve been creeped out on more than one occasion by my daughter and toddler son suddenly going still in the middle of play and staring into an empty room as if they’ve just caught sight of Santa Claus.  My five-year-old nephew once told me, “You know, Uncle Marty, when I get older, I won’t be able to see the angels any more, and that will make me sad.”
            Once upon a time—of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve—my wife and I came home from a midnight candlelight church service.  Our daughter was sleeping the sleep of childhood Christmas, deep as a Robert Frost winter woods.  Our son was in his crib, for once still and calm.  We sent the babysitter home and prepared for bed.  Pajamas.  Toilet.  Teeth brushing.  I went through the house, turning off lights.  I paused for a moment in front of the tree.  The living room glowed a muted red, green, white, and blue, full of the sort of warmth you find in a hand-stitched quilt.  I reached down and unplugged the Christmas tree.
            As I prepared to climb over my wife into bed, I heard my son make a mewling sound, which usually meant he had lost his pacifier.  I sighed, craving the comfort of pillow and blanket, but I turned and went to his crib in the next room to avoid an all-out session of screams and tears from him.  I was tired, but I still felt the peace of the candlelit church, “Silent Night” fluting out of the pipe organ.  I looked down at my son in his crib.
            He was on his back, staring up at the ceiling with eyes as big, round, and dark as tree ornaments.  The pacifier was still between his lips, and, behind it, he was smiling the way he did when I washed his feet during baths, all gums and delight.  He didn’t look at me, didn’t seem to notice I was there.  His gaze never shifted from a place on the ceiling, directly above him.  His stare was focused, full of some kind of knowledge.
            I felt my Cowardly Lion self stir in the depths of my chest.  I imagined Linda Blair levitating above her bed, the girl from Poltergeist standing in front of a snowy TV screen, chiming, “They’re baaaaaaa-aaack.”  I slowly looked up at the ceiling.
            Nothing.  Just empty, white ceiling.  I was half-tempted to mutter, “Humbug,” but, somehow, I knew the sound of my voice would violate the air, cause it to fracture like ice on a mud puddle.  I looked down at my son.
            He’d started to slowly suck on his pacifier, as if he was working over some great, complicated calculus problem in his head.  His gaze remained fixed on the ceiling above him.
            After a few minutes of standing beside him, waiting for an alien to burst from his chest or him to start speaking fluent ancient Greek in a guttural drawl, I went back to my bed and climbed in beside my wife.
            In the dark, I listened to the still house, half-expecting to hear the clink of chains or disembodied footsteps in the attic.  Instead, my son started to make noises, soft, quiet, musical sounds, as if he were talking with some unseen spook or singing with a distant angel choir.

Monster's Under Your Child's Bed Are Real

by:  Martin Achatz

My daughter’s gum looks raw
Where she lost her first tooth,
A chip of enamel tiny
As an apple seed.  She slept
With it under her pillow,
Believed the tooth fairy
Would come in the night,
With pixie wings, shining coins.
This December, she talks of Santa
The way I talk of an uncle
From California flying in
For a Christmas visit.  She believes
Like she believed in snow
Before she touched it,
In frogs before she heard them
Sing after a rainstorm.
She believes in the monster
Under her bed, stitched from
Dark bathrooms, doctor’s needles,
Bloody knees, her fingers
Reaching in sleep for me,
Finding only a cold pillow.

Christ took shadow
Nested in wood shavings,
Goat offal stinging His nose,
Joseph’s hammer driving a nail,
Molded them like wet clay
Into something that crushed
His child heart with terror.
He breathed rabbit breaths on it,
And His monster was born,
A monster that blotted out
The light of His birthstar,
Filled His dreams with the wails
Of fathers for sons split open
Like ripe melons in cribs,
In swaddling cloths soft
As the down of dove.

When Christ screamed, Joseph came
With words cool as mountain ice,
The creature washed into the black sea
Of night by Joseph’s splintered
Caress, by his arms strong as cedar.
Joseph rocked Jesus, knowing,
Even as he whispered Hush
Over and over like a prayer,
The monster waited for his child
On the horizon of sleep, real
As the myrrh of magi.

Tonight, I will listen
For my daughter’s cry,
For her monster to grab
Her dangling foot, pull her
Into the dust under her bed.
I will go to her, take her
In my arms, feel her heart
Leaping against my chest.
Like Joseph, I will rock her, whisper
Daddy’s here.  You’re safe,
Until, like snow or Santa or frogs,
She believes.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

December 29: Utter Blackness, New Year's Eve Party, Snowstorm

Out of the utter blackness stabbed a sudden point of blinding light.  It crept up by slight degrees and spread sideways in a thin crescent blade, and within seconds two suns were visible, furnaces of light, searing the black edge of the horizon with white fire.  Fierce shafts of color streaked through the thin atmosphere beneath them.

Douglas Adams is describing the twin sunrises on the planet of Magrathea.  It's all about light piercing through the darkness, burning away night.  It's an image that is quite moving, especially for a book that, for the most part, is all farce.  Something is on the horizon.  Something bright and clear.

I have spent most of today preparing for the coming new year, which is on the horizon in about two days.

Every December 31st, since I was in sixth grade, I have organized a New Year's Eve party at my parents' house.  I started the tradition because, as a child,  I was jealous of my mother and father and older siblings going out for New Year's Eve, returning home in the wee morning hours, slightly inebriated and sporting party hats and noisemakers.  I started collecting their party favors until, one year, I had enough supplies to throw my own Auld Lang Syne get-together.  Eventually, all of my family decided that my party, with its games and food and prizes, was better than the drunken debauches of the outside world.  Thus, the annual Saint Marty Family New Year's Eve Bash was born.

We've had balloon drops at midnight, featuring about three hundred balloons.  One year, we had a pina colada bar.  (Just one year.  I got so drunk that year that I still can't smell coconut with getting nauseated.)  The guest list has grown and shrunk, expanded and contracted.  Family members have died and married and moved away.  Boyfriends have come and gone.  Close friends have migrated to places like Florida and New Zealand.  Yet, the party goes on, every year.

I am excited to be out of 2019, which has not been kind to me, as most of you know.  There are no guarantees that 2020 will be any better, but there is the possibility of more joy than heartache.  Possibly even a happily ever after.   Who knows?

In the mean time, tomorrow, December 30, my little corner of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is bracing for a winter storm.  If the National Weather Service predictions are accurate, by tomorrow night at this time, there may be an additional ten to twelve inches of snow on the ground.  I am praying that is not the case.  In my old(er) age, I have grown to dislike most winter weather events, unless they involve warming trends and lots of melting.

And tomorrow evening, I'm doing a poetry reading at my home church, if the weather cooperates.  I think it's going to be wonderful.  Lots of food and wine.  Music provided by some friends of mine.  And Christmas poems and a Christmas essay.  As the song goes, these are a few of my favorite things, minus the impending snowstorm.  Any day that involves poetry is a good day.

In these waning days of 2019, Saint Marty has been pretty blessed.

December 29: Another Christmas Essay and Poem, "How the Light Gets In," "Thoughts of Darkness and Light on the Winter Solstice"

As promised, I am posting another one of my Christmas essays tonight, along with a poem.  This particular essay is very close to me still, even though it was written several years ago.

Saint Marty is always in search of the the light.

How the Light Gets In
by:  Martin Achatz 
“We are all broken, that’s how the light gets in.”
---Ernest Hemingway
My daughter was born at the end of an early December snowstorm.  I remember the wind that night while my wife was in labor, the kind of wind that shakes parked cars.  It tore up the darkness, as if it was mad at the sun for disappearing to the other side of the planet.  At some point during that long, midnight vigil, I joked to my wife, Beth, “Keep it down.  I can’t hear the wind.”
She didn’t laugh.
At 7:29 the following morning, our daughter was born, screaming and healthy.
The storm had blown itself out like a birthday candle by the time Beth gave the final push that brought our baby into the world.  Outside, everything was blinding white and calm, a scene from Currier & Ives.  Inside, I stood by my wife’s bed and stared at her and my newborn daughter, felt myself opening up, unfolding like some rare orchid in the moment.  So serene.  So perfect.
I’d like to end with that Madonna and child moment, tell you that later in the morning, three kings showed up and showered us with presents and food and free camel rides.  But that isn’t quite what happened.
Before she became pregnant, my wife had been battling crippling bouts of depression.  She’d been to counselors and therapists, talked about her mother’s death, started taking Prozac.  Nothing worked. The depressions kept getting deeper and longer, as if she were on some endless donkey ride through the Grand Canyon at night during a full lunar eclipse.  These lows were always followed by periods of respite, chrysalis times when my wife broke free, became all wing and sun and light.
Then Beth got pregnant.  For those nine months, the darkness simply vanished.  At first, we kept watch, waiting for the nose of an iceberg to appear on the horizon.  After a few months of clear seas, however, we relaxed, began planning our future with something like hope.  My wife seemed to be waking up after a long fallow season.  Our life became a series of doctor’s visits and firsts.  First hearing of our daughter’s heartbeat.  First ultrasound.  First time our daughter moved.
When we painted the nursery walls that autumn, my wife’s depressions were like shadows in the corners of a well-lit room.  I was in graduate school, writing poems about mosquitoes and moons.  Beth only had one bout of morning sickness her entire pregnancy.  Approaching her due date and the upcoming holidays, we never heard the chains of the Ghost of Mental Illness Yet to Come rattling at our front door.
It took only a couple days after our daughter was born for the honeymoon to end.  Beth woke up one morning and said to me, “I have a nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach.”  These nervous feelings were omens that something dark was about to descend, and I could see it in my wife’s eyes.  She had the look of a rabbit being chased by a screech owl, ready to bolt down the nearest burrow.
Her OB-Gyn seemed concerned but not panicked.  She gave Beth estrogen patches and told her it was the post-partum blues.  We liked this doctor a lot, and both of us clung to the belief that these little round stickers of hormone would steer the UPS truck to our house to deliver a glowing package of joy to our front porch.
As the winter solstice approached, however, I would come home from work night after night to find Beth still in bed, our daughter on the pillows beside her.  The bedroom was a cave filled with the smell of sour breast milk.  I’d climb into bed with them and hold Beth while she wept.  As a writer, I don’t often use the word “wept.”  It’s too melodramatic a verb, summoning up Heathcliff and Jane Eyre on the moors.  But there’s no other word for how my wife clung to my shirt and sobbed, her body convulsed with a grief so profound it made her seem unstitched, as if her bones and muscles and skin couldn’t contain it.  Sadness seeped out of her pores like thick, black sap.
Pain is a part of most Christmas narratives.  Mary is a pregnant teen, shunned and rejected.  As a boy, Scrooge is abandoned by his father.  George Bailey is suicidal.  Rudolph is bullied.  And then there’s Nestor, a little donkey with ears as long as elephant trunks.  In this Rankin/Bass holiday special, Nestor is teased for his anatomical anomaly and eventually gets kicked out of the barn during a blizzard on the winter solstice, a night, according to legend, when animals are given the gift of speech.  Nestor’s mother follows him and ends up lying on top of him to keep him warm.  She saves Nestor but loses her life in the process.
Despair accumulates like heavy snow in all these stories.  Yet, there are also Garcia Marquez moments of magic.  Ghosts.  Wingless angels.  Blazing comets.  The long December nights always end with warm hay and church bells and sunrises.  
The druids and Celts understood this dual nature of the winter solstice time, this battle between death and life, darkness and light.  I think early Christians understood it, as well.  That’s why they chose to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ around December 21.  They saw it as a time when human beings reached through the black and cold of winter toward the warmth and rebirth of spring, the very planet tilting from sorrow to hope.
On Christmas Eve, Beth was having a good spell.  For a few days, she’d been able to get out of bed, play with our daughter, and wrap presents.  During the day on December 24, we made sugar cookies and fudge, watched one of the multiple broadcasts of It’s A Wonderful Life on TV.
Outside, the clouds were the color of a dirty gum eraser, smudged with the promise of snow.  The lilac bushes along our property line were capped with white.  Their branches rattled in the wind like startled deer hoofs on ice or stone.  A storm was coming.  The weatherman was forecasting several inches by Christmas morning.
At church that night, Beth and I sat with family.  Our daughter slept in the crook of my arm the entire service, her velvet dress the color of evergreen.  As we lit candles and sang “Silent Night,” my wife slipped her fingers into my open palm and looked at me, a thin smile on her face.  She wasn’t doing well, I could tell.  It wasn’t anything physical in her appearance.  It was the pressure of her body against mine as we stood, as if she wanted to climb inside my skin, disappear into me.
We drove home in silence, her hand holding mine so tight my fingers ached.  I thought of the new ornament hanging in the branches of the tree in our living room.  It was an angel sleeping on a cloud, and on the cloud were the words “Baby’s First Christmas.”  It should have been that simple, that peaceful.
As we walked to the front steps of our house, Beth leaned into me.  The moon pressed through the clouds above, shedding a dim silver on the snow banks along the sidewalk, like a failing flashlight.  Familiar shapes, shovels and garbage cans and bushes, became looming shadows.  My arms ached, as if they were holding up not just my wife and baby, but the heavens, as well.  All of the talk of light and hope and joy from the church seemed as distant as Orion or Antares.
Then I saw something move in the night.  A small, hunched shape on the apex of a snow pile.  I stopped and stared at it.  For a few moments, it remained frozen, and I started to believe it was simply a chunk of ice, that my mind was playing tricks on me.  But it eventually stretched upward, like a crocus blooming in time-lapse, until it stood half in darkness, half in moonlight.
It was a rabbit, brown and tall.  Its ears twitched back and forth, testing the night for danger.  I could see the Christmas lights from our front porch reflected in the black marbles of its eyes.  Its body was taut, like the band of a slingshot.  It stayed balanced on its hind feet, regarding me.  I suddenly thought of the legend of the talking animals, of Nestor crying for his mother in the night.  The rabbit looked as if it was going to speak, to impart some ancient lepus wisdom of how to avoid pain and sorrow.
I waited on that Christmas Eve, that night of turning from darkness to light, for some kind of miracle to happen.  I wanted to believe that a rabbit could tell me how to help my wife, that God could become human, that happiness could overcome the black of winter.
My daughter cried out in my arms, and the rabbit bolted.  I watched it scramble out of the moonlight into the pitch of the lilac bushes.  Then, silence and snow and dark.  We began moving toward our front door.  For some reason, the distance seemed unusually hard, as if we were struggling through water or against a strong wind.  It would be half a year before Beth was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.  Those six months were filled with more deep depressions, followed by flights of sleepless energy.  Some days, Beth would carve hieroglyphs into her arms with razors or knives.  Other days, she would book airfare to Florida and Walt Disney World.  I kept waiting for the long night to end.  For a ghost bear to materialize and groan a healing incantation.  Or a flock of angel starlings to gather in our maple tree and sing a lullaby.  Something soft that would quiet my wife’s unquiet mind.
That Christmas Eve, as we walked to our home, I thought of the magi, struggling through desert and mountain.  I thought of the sand in their teeth and hair.  Their tired camels and mules.  Their muscles and bones aching for water and rest.  Their long journey, following a star, through the darkness toward the promise of light.

Thoughts of Darkness and Light
on the Winter Solstice

by:  Martin Achatz 

The night, as long as Cecil B. Demille’s
The Ten Commandments, starts with baby
wail in bulrushes, stones the size
of elephants, plagues of blood and darkness.
Ribs of light crack off, disappear
into the belly of star and cloud and cold.
No moon, just endless moments of ash,
smolder, embers of everything day.
I sit in the lobby of a hotel in a city
at the edge of polar night, think of you,
the eclipse of your life, how light
stays in the corners where you still find
pieces of paper with her handwriting,
books dogeared by her fingers,
presents purchased, waiting
for the bright wrap of morning.
Darkness can be a friend, hold you
when bright grief batters your heart, sneaks
into those fissures, cracks,
like light seeping under a doorframe
into a lightless room.  Darkness holds
the possibility that you might see her again,
her shadow fingers in your hair,
rearranging gray locks, shadow
palms on your cheeks,
warming paper skin, shadow
words in your ears, whispering
about the resurrection of Christmas,
how you will find her in an evergreen
bush, burning with mountain fire.
She will carve her name in the stone
tablets of your heart.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

December 26, 27, 28: Rationalize Their Thoughts, Emergen-C, I Did It

As the ship's [Heart of Gold's] artificial night closed in they were each grateful to retire to separate cabins and try to rationalize their thoughts.

Another description of life on the Heart of Gold that could describe a science fiction Dickens scene.  Everyone lying in bed, trying to fall asleep, while visions of the relationships between atoms and molecules dance in their heads.

Yes, I have been absent from posting for a while.  It seems that all of my late-night/all-night grading and Christmas writing and Christmas present wrapping has finally caught up with me.  The day after Christmas, as I was walking into work at 5:45 a.m., I began to sneeze and wheeze.  By about mid-morning, I was in full-blown post-Christmas sickness mode.  For two days now, I've been battling a monster cold.  At night, I've been walking through the door at around 7:30, changing into my pajamas, and collapsing into bed.  In the past two days, I've slept more than I've slept in the past month.  Nine hours one night.  About nine-and-a-half hours the next night.  I've also been dosing myself with DayQuil and Emergen-C.  Finally, this morning, I'm feeling almost human again.  Ready to rejoin the living.

Now, in order to make up for my prolonged hiatuses this month from blogging, I'm going to do something a little different for these last few days of 2019 (a year which has not been one of my favorites), I am going to be doing an extra post each day, containing past Christmas essays and poems that I've written.  Think of it as my version of the twelve days of Christmas, except I don't think I have twelve essays, so it might end up being the ten or eleven days of Saint Marty-mas.

I had a really wonderful Christmas day.  Relaxing.  The highlight of the morning was my son finding out that he and my daughter are getting a puppy for Christmas.  A miniature Australian shepherd.  His face, when he realized a puppy was in his future, will be something that I'll never forget.  Pure surprise and joy.  In the days since Christmas, he will stop what he's doing every once in a while, look up, and say, "I'm getting a flippin' puppy!"

After playing the pipe organ for Mass Christmas morning, I spent the rest of the day opening up presents and eating.  Literally.  That's all I did.  Ham and eggs and toast and cookies and cookies and cookies.  Did I mention cookies?  Of course, there was the normal kind of family dysfunction that goes along with the holiday.  That cannot be avoided.  However, it was a really good day.

When I got home at night, I sort of felt like Clark Griswold at the end of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.  He looks up at the sky, smiles and says, "I did it."

Saint Marty did it.  He gave his kids the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny fucking Kaye.

December 28: Little Christmas Present, "The Christmas Eve Wrinkle," "Hand of God"

Greetings all Christmas lovers out there.
I have been working on a collection of Christmas essays and poems in a manuscript for a couple years.
Below is the first essay and poem from the book.  A little Christmas present from Saint Marty.

The Christmas Eve Wrinkle

by:  Martin Achatz

           For five years, I had been roped into being the accompanist for St. Jude’s children’s Christmas Eve mass.  For five years, I had banged out Silent Night for tinsel-winged, gum-chewing, bathrobed, and foil-crowned angels, Marys, Josephs, shepherds, and kings.  And after each of those years, I had gone home, eggnogged myself silly, and tried to survive the holidays with what was left of my sputtering Christmas spirit.
            It usually started at the beginning of each October.  And this year seemed no different.
            Mrs. Janice, mother of the twin terrors of last year’s heavenly host, approached me one Sunday.  “Oh, Jeremy and Justin are so looking forward to being in the choir again this year.”
            Dr. and Mrs. Bingly, parents of a two-year shepherd alumnus, had said to me during a chance meeting at the IGA, “Well, I hope that little Matt has a shot at Joseph this year.”
            Andrew Elbow’s mother and father, holding the same high aspirations for their son, volunteered for the Christmas decorating committee, the Christmas bazaar organizing committee, the Christmas adult choir, and the Christmas bell-ringing committee.
            Finally, the hammer had fallen.  Father George, beloved pastor of St. Jude’s, had pulled me aside after choir practice one Wednesday, laid a quaking hand on my shoulder, and sighed, “Well, I guess it’s about time to get the children’s Christmas Eve mass rolling.”
            And so ensued a flurry of announcements, bed-sheet costuming, telephone calls, prodding stage parents, and, for me, two months of Saturday morning rehearsals with twenty, off-key seven-year-olds under the direction of Theta Creed, retired kindergarten teacher and unchallenged fuhrer of the Christmas Eve program.
            “Now, boys and girls, we must all use our best singing voices.”  Theta marched up and down in front of the children, waving sheet music in their faces.  “Remember who’s going to be out there.  It’s going to be mommy and daddy and grandma and grandpa and brother and sister.  A whole church-full of people are going to be here to listen and watch you sing and read.  They’re not here for their health.  So sing nicely.”  Theta glared at her charges.  “And smile.”
            I waited and watched for the usual array of mishaps, calamities, and setbacks.  First came little Tony Dickens’s disappearance into the room behind the organ pipes, and the two-hour search that resulted.  Then there was sweet Mary Agnes’s refusal to once again be relegated to the angel choir when she was obviously Mary material.  And, of course, there was the whole messy business of explaining how God was Jesus’ father when Mary was married to Joseph.
            I witnessed all of these things and saw the days of December slowly climb into the double digits.  Nothing completely shocking happened (unless you count Jay-Jay Feebler wetting his pants in front of the altar).  No major casualties.  No lawsuits.  No unexpected wrinkles, until . . .
            “I just want to try something a little different!”  Hector Hicks fairly glowed with Yule-tide joy.
            Father George eyed him uncertainly.  “I’m not sure, uh . . .”  He looked at Theta’s tight-lipped expression, and then at me.  “It would seem more, uh, uh . . . Appropriate to uh, uh . . .”  He looked at Theta again.  “Once the children remove their costumes, I don’t—“
            “Something special, Father George.”  Hector smiled.
            “I don’t seem to be . . .”  Father George floundered.
            Theta’s foot began to tap.
            “Perhaps—“ I began.
            “Mr. Hicks,” Theta geared up.  “I really don’t know if—“
            “I only wish to underscore the true meaning of Christmas, Miss Creed.”  Hector saw Theta’s cheeks flush.  “Uh, just as you do every year with all of your under-appreciated work.”
            “Well, I—“  Theta’s eyes narrowed suspiciously.
            “You do such a beautiful job every time.”  Hector took her hand.  “And all out of the goodness of your heart.”
            Theta smiled.  “Yes.”  She removed her hand from his hand.  “Yes, well, we all want to show the children what Christmas is all about.”
            “You have such a natural rapport with them, too.”  Hector shrugged.  “I don’t know how you do it.  For me, you’re enough to inspire any Christmas.”
            And then I heard it.  It was a sound frighteningly foreign, like a rusty hasp being pried open.  Theta Creed giggled.
            “What was your idea, Mr. Hicks?”  She linked arms with Hector and led him away.
            On Christmas Eve, I sat on the organ bench, the music for “Joy to the World” spread out before me, waiting for Theta’s signal to play the final song.
            The entire program had come off with relatively few hitches.  Parents had delivered their children on time.  The wise men had tripped only once during their entrance, causing a slight domino effect through the shepherds.  Mary didn’t drop the baby Jesus as she carried him to the manger.  The angels had remembered to remove the gum from their mouths.  Joseph even managed to put his arm around Mary.  And now, everyone waited for Theta’s signal.
            But Theta didn’t signal.
            Reggie Feebler, Jay-Jay’s brother, fidgeted with his bath/shepherd’s robe.  Pauline Paisely straightened her coat-hanger wings.  Jeremy Janice, one of the three kings, traded his gold for his brother Justin’s frankincense.
            But Theta didn’t signal.
            Someone in the first pew coughed.  A kneeler banged to the floor.  Arms throughout the congregation waved in the air as jackets were pulled on.
            But Theta didn’t signal.  She simply stood before the children at the head of the church, holding her music in front of her, smiling strangely.
            Father George looked at me.  I shrugged.
            The door at the rear of the church opened.
            All heads turned.
            Santa Claus stepped in.
            He stood unmoving for a few seconds, meeting everyone’s gaze, and then slowly began walking up the center aisle.  The buckles of his boots chinged in the silence.
            The children’s choir was going into paroxysms of whispering and pointing.  Jay-Jay Feebler had his arm tucked between his legs and was doing a jig.  The kings had abandoned their precious, glittery gifts.  And the angels were crowding the shepherds.
            I looked at Father George.  Father George shrugged.
            Santa didn’t stop in front of the children when he reached the altar.  Quietly, he crossed to the manger scene displayed by the side entrance.  He knelt before the crib, folded his mittened hands, and bowed his whiskered head.
            Mary and Joseph stopped elbowing.  The angels stopped pushing.  The shepherds stopped whispering.  The wise men stopped poking.  Jay-Jay stopped jigging.
            Everyone watched Santa.
            After almost half a minute, Santa stood.  He looked at the children.  He looked at Theta.  He looked at me.  Then he looked at Father George, and he nodded.
            Father George nodded back.
            Santa left by the side entrance.
            Theta never gave the signal.  She closed her music folder and tucked it under her arm.  She straightened her jacket, reached down, and sniffed the corsage pinned to her lapel.  She walked over to the organ.
            “Merry Christmas, Martin,” Theta said and smiled.  Then she quietly left by the side entrance.
            I stared after her.  After a few moments, parents began to come up and collect their children.  Wings disappeared under winter coats; halos, under stocking caps.  Hugs and handshakes were exchanged.  But the church remained as silent as snow.
            I turned off the organ and began packing my music up.
            “Who was that?”
            I looked up into the face if Dr. Bingly.
            “Who was that?”  Dr. Bingly repeated, hooking a thumb toward the manger.
            I shrugged and smiled.  “Santa Claus.”  I picked up my music.  “Make sure Matt comes out for the choir next year, doc.”  I began walking away.  “He’s sure to have a shot at Joseph.”

The Hand of God

by:  Martin Achatz

A coming-of-winter day,
The air, half-rain, half-snow.
A neighbor stretches on a ladder,
Strings a curtain of icicle lights
From his eaves.  Rain has already washed
The shadows of maple leaves
From the sidewalk, the way shadows
Washed into dark puddles in Hiroshima
The first rain after the bomb,
Rinsing lovers off bedroom walls,
Children off school sidewalks,
A priest off church nave marble.

This mid-November, war is in the air,
In the dark, low clouds, in the news
Broadcasts of body counts in Iraq.
Predictions for snow tomorrow.
Tonight, I will carry my daughter
To bed, say prayers with her,
Sing her a lullaby.  She curls
Her small fingers around my thumb,
Holds on, leads me into the darkness,
Saying, “Don’t worry, daddy.”