Wednesday, January 29, 2020

January 28-29: Truth About Anything, Devil, Turn on the Lights

More on anti-Catholicism:

If there was another reason why he[Merton's grandfather] feared the Church of Rome, it was because of the accident that some of the most corrupt politicians that ever passed a bribe in a New York election were known to be Catholics.  To Pop, the word "Catholic" and "Tammany" meant just about the same thing.  And since this fitted in very well with what every Protestant child is told about the duplicity and hypocrisy of Catholics, Catholicism had become associated, in his mind, with everything dishonest and crooked and immoral.

This was an impression that probably remained with him to the end of his days, but it ceased to be explicit when a Catholic lady came to live with us as a sort of companion to Bonnemaman, and a general nurse and housekeeper to the whole family.  This was no temporary addition to the household.  I think we were all very fond of Elsie from the beginning, and Bonnemaman got to depending on her so much that she stayed around and became more and more a part of the family, until she finally entered it altogether by marrying my uncle.  With her arrival, Pop no longer let loose any of his tirades against Rome unless some bitter word happened to slip out without deliberation.

This was one of the few things I got from Pop that really took root in my mind, and became part of my mental attitude:  this hatred and suspicion of Catholics.  There was nothing overt about it.  It was simply the deep, almost subconscious aversion from the vague and evil thing, which I called Catholicism, which lived back in the dark corners of my mentality with the other spooks, like death and so on.  I did not know precisely what the word meant.  It only conveyed a kind of a cold and unpleasant feeling.

The devil is no fool.  He can get people feeling about heaven the way they ought to feel about hell.  He can make them fear the means of grace the way they do not fear sin.  And he does so, not by light but by obscurity, not by realities but by shadows, not by clarity and substance but by dreams and the creatures of psychosis.  And men are so poor in intellect that a few cold chills down their spine will be enough to keep them from ever finding out the truth about anything.

As a matter of fact, by this time I was becoming more and more positively averse to the thought of any religion, although I was only nine.  The reason was that once or twice I had to go to Sunday School, and found it such a bore that from then on I went to play in the woods instead.  I don't think the family was very grieved.

Merton is right.  The devil isn't a fool.  (If you don't believe in the devil, substitute whatever word you want--"mental illness" or "climate deniers" or "addiction" or "Donald Trump.")  The biggest enemy to compassion, love, rational thought, science, religion is obscurity and shadow.  By dragging something into the light, examining it fully, we are able to confront truth.  And truth is what dispels all kinds of devils.

In this blog, I often write about the devils in my life.  Those things that seek to control my actions every day.  Some of those devils are a little too personal to discuss frankly.  So, I tend to resort to metaphor and image.  These last couple days, I've been struggling with one of my biggest demons.  It's something I lose sleep over.  Something that makes me tired every day.  I wake up thinking about it, go to sleep and dream about it.

I wrote about it in my journal tonight:
I had so many fears as a child--fears of clowns, of small spaces, of the dark, of being lost.  There were so many monsters under my bed, I had to get a bigger bed.
As you get older, monsters start to leave, one-by-one.  You outgrow them, like old pajamas.  They dry up into dust bunnies.  (I'm still not a fan of clowns or small spaces.  Stepping into a dark room can still make my pulse quicken until I find the light switch.)
Recently, I've discovered a new monster under my bed, drooling and hungry.  It's part me, part my wife, part my daughter and son.  And it has the face of my sister.
My sister died almost five years ago.  Lymphoma of the brain.  In the space of a little over 365 days, I watched her change from a hospital manager to a person fighting the monster of the air for oxygen.  I saw how she was forced to say goodbye to everything she held close--her father, mother, siblings, nieces, nephews.  Her monster, at the end, was a million goodbyes.
The night before she died, I visited her.  I put my lips to her ear, and whispered, "You don't have to be afraid of the dark."  And I saw a tear form at the corner of her eye and slide down her cheek.
She died the next morning, just as the sun was climbing into the sky.
That's my monster now.  Saying goodbye.  Letting go.  Realizing that something that I cherish is gone.  Forever.
That is my attempt tonight to drag the monster out from under my bed into the light.  Isn't that what we do as kids when we have bad dreams?  We reach out and flick the switch on the wall, watch all those little devils scramble for the closet.

Saint Marty just turned on the lights.

Monday, January 27, 2020

January 25-26-27: Knights Templars, Familial Love, My Mother

A little anti-Catholicism in Merton's childhood:

My grandparents were like most other Americans.  They were Protestants, but you could never find out precisely what kind of Protestants they were.  I, their own grandson, was never able to ascertain.  They put money in the little envelopes that came to them from Zion church, but they never went near the place itself.  And they also contributed to the Salvation Army and a lot of other things:  so you could not tell what they were by the places which they helped to support.  Of course, they had sent my uncle in his boyhood to the choir school of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, on the rock above Harlem, which was then a peaceful bourgeois neighborhood.  And they sent John Paul there too, in due course.  Indeed, there was even some talk of sending me there.  Yet that did not make them Episcopalians.  It was not the religion that they patronized, but the school and the atmosphere.  In practice, Bonnemaman used to read the little black books of Mary Baker Eddy, and I suppose that was the closest she got to religion.

On the whole, the general attitude around that house was the more or less inarticulate assumption that all religions were more or less praiseworthy on purely natural or social grounds.  In any decent suburb of a big city you would expect to run across some kind of a church once in a while.  It was part of the scenery, like the High School and the Y.M.C.A. and the big whale-back roof and water-tank of the movie theater.

The only exceptions to this general acceptability of religions were the Jews and the Catholics.  Who would want to be a Jew?  But then, that was a matter of race more than of religion.  The Jews were Jews, but they could not very well help it.  But as for the Catholics--it seemed, to Pop's mind, that there was a certain sinister note of malice connected with the profession of anything like the Catholic faith.  The Catholic Church was the only one against which I ever heard him speak any definite bitterness or animosity.

The chief reason was that he himself belonged to some kind of a Masonic organization, called, oddly enough, the Knights Templars.  Where they picked up that name, I do not know, but the original Knights Templars were a military religious Order in the Catholic Church, who had an intimate connection with the Cistercians, of which the Trappists are a reform.  

Being Knights, the Knights Templars had a sword.  Pop kept his sword first in the closet in his den, and then, for a while, it was in the coat closet by the front door, mixed up with the canes and umbrellas and with the huge policeman's club which Pop evidently believed would be useful if a burglar came around.  

I suppose that at the meetings of the Knights Templars to which Pop went less and less frequently, he heard how wicked the Catholic Church was.  He had probably heard that from his childhood up.  It is what all Protestant children hear.  It is part of their religious training.

I have to say that it surprises me that Merton's grandparents had such a strong bias against the Catholic Church, since Merton is often touted for possible canonization.  Of course, a lot of saints' families did nasty things to them.  The father of sister saints Agnes and Clare tried to forcibly remove them from their convent, dragging Agnes by her hair.  Thomas Aquinas was imprisoned for two years in a fortress by his family, and they sent a prostitute to tempt him.

People can do a lot of bad things in the name of familial love, up to, and including, years of imprisonment, it seems.  My mother, when I was a senior in high school and had no clue what I wanted to study in college, said to me one day, "I think computers would be good.  Lots of money in that."  So, when I went to the university, I got a full-ride scholarship to study computer science and math.  I took classes in Pascal programming; Calculus I, II, and III; abstract algebra; and artificial intelligence.  Fives years of my life I devoted to computers, all because my mother told me to.  Granted, my mother didn't pull out my fingernails or teeth to get me to do it.

Of course, I now work in a cardiology office and teach composition, mythology, film, and poetry at the university.  I can't remember the last time I put together lines of computer code.  When I have an issue with my computer at work, I don't roll up my sleeves and figure out what's going on.  I pick up the phone and call the IT department.

When I decided to switch my major from Computer Science to English, my mother was not very happy.  If she could have, she probably would have hired a prostitute to change my mind.  As luck would have it, I was pretty gifted with words.  My mother knew this, but she just came from a generation that equated happiness with money, not poetry or devotion to God (although, had I become a priest or monk, my mother would have accepted that happily).

My mother has been proud of all my accomplishments--from grad school to teaching to writing.  Eventually, I came to understand that all my mother really wanted was for me to be happy in whatever I ended up doing.  She didn't care if I could write lines of elegant programming.  Or wrap a disk around and axis and calculate its volume.  All she really cared about was that I smiled a lot, laughed a lot, and had a lot of love in my life.

Eventually, the families of saints do one of two things:  1) they accept the saint's choices and become Catholics (and sometimes saints) themselves, or 2) they kill the saints, burn them alive, or cut off their heads. 

Thank goodness Saint Marty's mother didn't have a sharp sword in the coat closet.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

January 23-24: An Extraordinary Thing, Humanizes, Each Broken Person in My Life

Merton witnesses a kind of miracle:

But then, one cold and rainy afternoon, we observed that numbers of large and small figures, varying in age from ten to sixteen, moat of them very brawny, with caps pulled down over their eyes in a business-like way, were filtering in, by the various streets, and gathering in the vacant lot outside our house.  And there they stood, with their hands in their pockets.  They did not make any noise, or yell, or shout any challenges, they just stood around, looking at the house.

There were twenty or twenty-five of them.  There were four of us.  The climax of the situation came when Frieda, our German maid, told us that she was very busy with house-cleaning, and that we must all get out of the house immediately.  Without listening to our extremely nervous protests, she chased us out the back way.  We made a dash through several back yards and went down the other block, and ended up safely in the house where Bill lived, which was at the other end of the vacant lot, and from which we viewed the silent and pugnacious group from Little Neck, still standing around, and with the evident determination of staying there for quite a while.

And then an extraordinary thing happened.

The front door of our house, at the other end of the lot, opened.  My little brother John Paul came walking down the steps, with a certain amount of dignity and calm.  He crossed the street, and started across the lot.  He walked towards the Little Neck gang.  They all turned towards him.  He kept on walking, and walked right into the middle of them.  One or two of them took their hands out of their pockets.  John Paul just looked at them, turning his head on one side, then on the other.  And he walked right through the middle of them, and nobody touched him.

And so he came to the house where we were.  We did not chase him away.

Yes, Merton's little brother sort of walks into the lions' den in this passage, and he emerges unharmed.  As Merton huddles with friends, watching the scene, John Paul simply and calmly stares down the group of fight-hungry boys from Little Neck, who don't seem to  know what to do with this fearless child.  Without saying or doing anything, John Paul beats the gang with a kind of passive resistance.

I wish that I were more courageous, like John Paul.  Often, I think that I choose the easy way in dealing with my problems.  I am not a big fan of confrontation.  In fact, I don't think confrontation is very effective.  Most of the time, what confrontation does is escalate already volatile situations.  It makes things worse.

Now, I'm not saying that, if a person is treating you terribly, you should just accept the behavior without standing up for yourself.  No.  That's not my point.  A bully certainly needs to be confronted, or else he will spend his life bullying the world until he becomes President of the United States.  Or something like that.  But I think there are ways of confronting bad behavior without yelling or swinging fists or swearing.  Merton's brother, John Paul, is the perfect example.

The gang from Little Neck is out for blood.  Merton's blood, in particular, and the blood of Merton's friends.  John Paul, younger than Merton by four or five years, just wades into this sea of pent-up anger.  He doesn't say a word.  He just stares into the faces of the gathered boys, makes them stare back.  It's a lot harder to be violent or cruel to people when you're looking them in the eyes, because it humanizes them,

I work in a cardiology office where I sometimes answer phones.  It's a busy place, caring for a lot of sick people.  On the phone, I've spoken with patients who are angry, frustrated, and frightened.  These patients have yelled at me, sworn at me, called me names.  They are able to do this because they're on the phone.  They don't have to treat me like a fellow human being.  I'm just a voice.  The anonymity of the telephone gives them a kind of mean courage.  A lot of them are very frightened, as well.  That fear, compounded with frustration and anger, makes these patients lash out sometimes.  That is not an excuse for bad behavior, but an explanation.  A way for me to humanize and remain compassionate and empathetic.

We are all fellow travelers on this journey through the universe.  I try to remember that.  We're all broken in some way.  I try to remember that, as well.  It's in brokenness that we can come together.  Treat each other better.  Love each other.  I love each broken person in my life.  Because it's the right thing to do. 

I don't accept bad behavior.  Don't allow myself to be abused.  When I am treated poorly, I can and do stand up for myself, with love and gentleness and understanding.  I think that is what true courage is all about.  Looking that person in the face and saying, "What you are doing is wrong.  You need to stop.  Change.  I love you."

Saint Marty isn't perfect at this, but he tries and fails and tries again.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

January 20, 21, 22: Nobody at Home, Unconditional Love, Fool for Love

Merton on his little brother, John Paul:

When I think now of that part of my childhood, the picture I get of my brother John Paul is this:  standing in a field, about a hundred yards away from the clump of sumachs where we have built our hut, is this little perplexed five-year-old kid in short pants and a kind of a leather jacket, standing quite still, with his arms hanging down at his sides, and gazing in our direction, afraid to come any nearer on account of the stones, as insulted as he is saddened, and his eyes full of indignation and sorrow.  And yet he does not go away.  We shout at him to get out of there, to beat it, and go home, and wing a couple of more rocks in that direction, and he does not go away.  We tell him to play in some other place.  He does not move.

And there he stands, not sobbing, not crying, but angry and unhappy and offended and tremendously sad.  And yet he is fascinated by what we are doing, nailing shingles all over our new hut.  And his tremendous desire to be with us and to do what we are doing will not permit him to go away.  The law written in his nature says that he must be with his elder brother, and do what he is doing, and he cannot understand why this law of love is being so wildly and unjustly violated in his case.

Many times it was like that.  And in a sense, this terrible situation is the pattern and prototype of all sin:  the deliberate and formal will to reject disinterested love for us for the purely arbitrary reason that we simply do not want it.  We will to separate ourselves from that love.  We reject it entirely and absolutely, and will not acknowledge it, simply because it does not please us to be loved.  Perhaps the inner motive is that the fact of being loved disinterestedly reminds us that we all need love from others, and depend upon the charity of others to carry on our own lives.  And we refuse love, and reject society, in so far as it seems, in our own perverse imagination, to imply some obscure kind of humiliation.

There was a time when I and my magnificent friends, in our great hut, having formed a "gang," thought we were sufficiently powerful to antagonize the extremely tough Polish kids who had formed a real gang in Little Neck, a mile away.  We used to go over in their neighborhood, and stand, facing in the general direction of the billboards, behind which they had their headquarters, and, from a very safe distance, we would shout defiance and challenge them to come out and fight.

Nobody came out.  Perhaps there was nobody at home.

Merton recognizes that the treatment his little brother receives verges on sin.  It is a rejection of love--John Paul wishes to be with Merton and his friends in their clubhouse, and, instead of welcoming him, they throw stones to drive him away.  Which seems very Old Testament to me.  Stoning.  Of course, John Paul has done nothing wrong, other than love his older brother.

It is late as I sit typing this post.  And, in the past few days, I have learned what unconditional love really means.  You see, I currently have a puppy curled up asleep at my feet.  She is tiny and perfect, and she seems to really love me for some reason.  I don't know what I have done to deserve her devotion, other than take her outside to go to the bathroom and let her sleep in bed with my wife and me at night.  Early this morning, I woke up to find the puppy sleeping on my chest.

Unconditional love is a rarity.  It only happens occasionally.  Most love comes with strings attached.  We all want to be loved on our own terms.


I started this post three days ago.  I typed the passage from Merton the first night.  Last night, with my new puppy sitting at the feet, I started reflecting on the meaning of love and unconditional love.  Before the hour grew too late last night, I typed the sentence "We all want to be loved on our own terms," and then I went to bed.  Because I didn't like the idea that I put conditions on the love I send out into the world.  (I think that's what Merton is struggling with in the passage above--how he treated his little brother who was simply seeking Merton's approval and love.)

However, because we are human, we aren't wired to love without expectation.  If I love someone or something, I expect to be loved in return.  Period.  However, that's not the way love always works.  Merton's brother learns that sometimes love is repaid with stones being thrown at you.  I've learned, because of my wife's mental illness and its accompanying problems, that you have to work hard at love. 

Love is seasonal, sometimes easy--marriages, births, deaths.  These are times when love overpowers all other emotions.  It's love distilled to its essence.  Then there are times when love goes fallow, stays hidden, heads south for the winter.  That's when love becomes a job.  You have to endure seasons like that, wait for the green to return.  After all, spring does follow every winter.  The world always renews itself, mysteriously, somehow.  I think love does the same thing.

You may think I'm being naive.  Stupid.  Unrealistic.  Foolish.  I don't care.  I'll be naive for love.  Unrealistic for love.  I will be a fool for love.  Love is what gives life meaning for me.  It's what gets me out of bed in the morning.  It's what keeps me moving all day long.  And it's what pulls me back home at night.  Love is what every person needs and deserves.

Some people have love given to them freely, and they throw it away.  Addicts do this all the time.  And some people have love sleeping right at their feet and never reach down to pet it, thank it, say to it "good girl" or "good boy."  Give it its favorite toy, a drink of water, a treat.

Just call Marty the Patron Saint of Fools.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

January 19: Hyperdulia, Daughter and Son, Everyday Gifts

Merton's memories of his little brother, John Paul:

I mention all this because, as a matter of fact, the movies were really family religion at Douglaston.

That summer, 1923, Pop and Bonnemaman had taken John Paul with them, and had gone to California, and had visited Hollywood, with the status of something more than simple tourists, since Pop knew a lot of movie people in a business way.  The trip had something of the nature of a pilgrimage, however, and we never heard the end of what Jackie Coogan had personally said to them and how he had acted personally in their presence, in a real actual personal face-to-face-meeting-with-Jackie-Coogan. 

Pop and Bonnemaman's other heroes were Doug and Mary, I admit, that what with Robin Hood and the Thief of Baghdad we all paid Douglas Fairbanks a somewhat corrupt form of hyperdulia, although neither I nor John Paul could get excited over Mary Pickford.  But to Pop and Bonnemaman, Doug and Mary seemed to sum up every possible human ideal:  in them was all perfection of beauty and wit, majesty, grace and decorum, bravery and love, gaiety and tenderness, all virtues and every admirable moral sentiment, truth, justice, honor, piety, loyalty, zeal, trust, citizenship, valor, and, above all, marital fidelity.  Day after day these two gods were extolled for the perfection of their mutual love, their glorious, simple, sincere, pious, faithful conjugal devotion to one another.  Everything that good, plain, trusting middle-class optimism could devise, was gathered up into one big sentimental holocaust of praise, by my innocent and tender-hearted grandparents, and laid at the feet of Doug and Mary.  It was a sad day in our family when Doug and Mary were divorced.  

My grandfather's favorite place of worship was the Capitol theatre, in New York.  When the Roxy theatre was built, he transferred his allegiance to that huge pile of solidified caramel, and later on there was no shrine that so stirred his devotion as the Music Hall.

There is no need to go into details of the trouble and confusion my brother and I often managed to create in the Douglaston household.  When guests came whom we did not like, we would hide under the tables, or run upstairs to throw hard and soft objects down into the hall and into the living room.

One thing I would say about my brother John Paul.  My most vivid memories of him, in our childhood, all fill me with poignant compunction at the thought of my own pride and hard-heartedness, and his natural humility in love.

I suppose it is usual for elder brothers, when they are still children, to feel themselves demeaned by the company of a brother four or five years younger, whom they regard as a baby and whom they tend to patronise and look down upon.  So when Russ and I and Bill made huts in the woods out of boards and tar-paper which we collected around the foundations of the many cheap houses which the speculators were now putting up, as fast they could, all over Douglaston, we severely prohibited John Paul and Russ's little brother Tommy and their friends from coming anywhere near us.  And if they did try to come and get into our hut, or even to look at it, we would chase them away with stones.

At the end of this passage, Merton sounds almost regretful of the way he treated his younger brother, John Paul.  Of course, being the youngest in my family of nine, I was a spoiled child.  I had five older sisters, and they were charged with taking care of me.  That's the way things go with a family that large.  The older siblings take care of the younger ones.

Even in my own small family--two children, a daughter of 19, a son of 11)--my daughter feels a certain responsibility for her brother.  When my son loses his shit, my daughter is usually able to calm him down.  Amazingly.  He isn't easily distracted when he's upset.  Yet, she has a way with him.  Always has.  It's a sibling thing.  They understand each other in ways no other person does.

I spent most of today with my daughter, running errands, grocery shopping, visiting a good friend.  It was a great afternoon, even though I hate grocery shopping.  Stores like Meijer tend to make me incredibly anxious.  Too many choices and distractions.  Today, with my daughter and her boyfriend and our new puppy in tow, even grocery shopping wasn't overwhelming.

As we were heading to my parents' house to have dinner this evening, my daughter, holding the puppy, looked at me and said, "By the way, daddy."  I looked at her.  She raised the puppy's muzzle and smiled.  "Best present ever," she said.

This weekend, I saw a change in my son.  For the last couple weeks, he's had a hard time controlling his emotions in high-stress situations.  He's screamed at me.  Kicked me.  Swore at me.  Spit on me.  This isn't anything new.  Yet, he's controlled himself the last three days.  Most of the time.  Since the puppy arrived in our lives on Friday, my son's attitude has completely changed.  He's almost (dare I say it?) behaving normally.

Of course, I have no idea how a normal 11-year-old boy is supposed to behave.  My son practiced his trombone for the last three days without incident.  I just reminded him that he has homework to complete when he gets home.  He didn't try to eat my face off.  That's huge.  My daughter teased him about taking a shower tonight, and he didn't charge at her with a snow shovel.  That's huge, too.

My life is far from normal, just like Merton's life.  I still have stresses.  Still worry about bills and my kids and wife and jobs.  Perhaps that is all normal.  I'm not sure.  Normal is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose.  For Merton, it was normal to have one parent--his father--who was a semi-famous painter.  His grandfather had ties to the movie industry.  Normal. 

I play am a teacher and medical office work erand am a poet.  I work three jobs, four if you count playing the pipe organ on the weekends.  I have someone in my life who is suffering a serious mental health and addiction issues.  These things are all normal to me.  Pretty soon, having a puppy in the house will be normal, too.  Everything starts out as abnormal--each new experience or friend or task.  Then, I get used to the abnormal, and it becomes everyday.

It's up to me to keep things new.  Fresh.  To recognize the hand of God in all my daily experiences.  Everything (normal and abnormal) is a gift.  Merton uses the term "hyperdulia" in the passage above.  By definition, hyperdulia is "the veneration offered to the Blessed Virgin Mary as the most exalted of creatures."  It's not the same veneration offered to God.  It's a veneration of a creation of God.

Tonight, I offer hyperdulia to the gifts of this weekend.  In particular, my daughter and son, who remind me daily to practice selfless love.  To my wife, who challenges me daily to look beyond brokenness toward light.  And to the newest member of my family.  Juno.  Miniature Australian shepherd.  Puppy.  Joy-bringer.  The greatest gift my daughter has every received.

Saint Marty offers hyperdulia to all.

January 18: Start All Over Again, W. C. Fields, Puppy Breaths

Merton talks about his grandfather:

Pop's office always seemed to me a fine place.  The smell of typewriters and glue and office stationery had something clean and stimulating about it.  The whole atmosphere was bright and active, and everybody was especially friendly, because Pop was very well liked.  The term "live wire" was singularly appropriate for him.  He was always bristling with nervous energy, and most people were happy when he came shouting through their departments, snapping his fingers and whacking all the desks with a tolled-up copy of the Evening Telegram.  

Pop worked for Grosset and Dunlap, publishers who specialized in cheap reprints of popular novels, and in children's books of an adventurous cast.  They were the ones who gave the world Tom Swift and all his electrical contrivances, together with the Rover Boys and Jerry Todd and all the rest.  And there were several big showrooms full of these books, where I could go and curl up in a leather armchair and read all day without being disturbed until Pop came along to take me down to Childs and eat chicken a la king.

This was 1923 and Grosset and Dunlap were at a peak of prosperity.  As a matter of fact, it was just about this time that Pop had carried off the one great stroke of his career.  He had sold his employers the notion of printing the books of popular movies illustrated with stills from the film, to be sold in connection with the publicity given to the picture itself.  This idea took on very quickly and remained popular all through the twenties, and made a lot of money for the company, and it was to be the cornerstone of Pop's own economic stability and, in fact, of the whole family's for fifteen years to come.

And so, Black Oxen and the Ten Commandments and the Eternal City and I forget what else went forth into all the drugstores and bookstores in all the small towns from Boston to San Francisco, full of pictures of Pola Negri and others stars of the time.

In those days movies were still occasionally made on Long Island, and more than once, my brother and I and all our friends in the neighborhood would hear they were taking some scene or other down at Alley Pond.  Once, under the trees, we witnessed what was supposed to be a gypsy wedding between Gloria Swanson and some forgotten hero.  The idea was that the two of them allowed their wrists to be slashed, and bound together, so that their blood would mingle:  that was the gypsy wedding, according to the ideas of whoever was producing this immortal masterpiece.  Frankly, however, we were not very much interested in all this.  As children, we had enough sense to find the whole concept extremely heavy.  We were much more excited when W. C. Fields came to Alley Pond to make part of a short comedy.  First they set up the cameras in front of an old tumbledown house.  I don't remember whether our hero was supposed to be drunk or scared, but the door to the house would fly open, and W. C. Fields would come hurtling out and go careering down the steps in a way that made you wonder how he got to the bottom of them without breaking both legs and all of his ribs.  After he had done this over and over again innumerable times, with a singular patience and philosophical tenacity, the men moved their cameras up on top of a big pile of old lumber that was standing by, and filmed what was evidently part of the same sequence.  There was a steep wooded slope, full of trees and bushes, ending in a sheer drop of about six feet.  At the bottom of this, they planted a couple of extremely tame cows.  Then W. C. Fields came blundering through the bushes, in his same hysterical, stumbling flight from some unseen menace,  Looking behind him, he failed to see the drop, and went plunging over, landing on top of the two tame cows, which were supposed to run madly away with him on their backs.  However, they just let Fields land on top of them with a heavy thud, and then stood there, chewing on the grass, and looking bored, until he fell off, and climbed stoically back up the hill to start all over again.  

Merton seems pretty enamored of Pop, his grandfather.  Gregarious and accomplished, Pop is liked by everyone and makes a lot of money selling books.  Perhaps this is Merton's first experience with the publishing field.  I imagine he could have gotten bitten by the writing bug at his grandfather's office, since it is lined with hundreds and hundreds of books.  And then there's Merton's connection to Hollywood and the movie industry.  Brushes with famous people seem pretty common for him.  Gloria Swanson.  W. C. Fields.  Two of the most popular stars of the 1920s and '30s.

Pardon for the lateness of this post.  I have been preoccupied for most of the day with shoveling snow and cleaning churches and eating pizza.  And, of course, taking care of our new puppy.  W. C. Fields once said, "Never work with animals and children."  I currently have an eight-week-old miniature Australian shepherd sitting on my lap as I type this post.  I'm having no problem working with this animal, and she seems to have no problem falling asleep as I grapple for inspiration.

Merton and his pals don't have a problem spending an entire day watching movie stars do ridiculous things.  W. C. Fields doing the same bit of physical comedy over and over and over.  Gloria Swanson performing a "gypsy wedding" with her costar.  Me?  I am fascinated with this puppy.  Watching her romp in snow.  Pick up a top and shake it.  Drink from her water dish.  Crunch down her food.  Pee and poop.  And now, sleeping in my lap, breathing deep puppy breaths.  I can't seem to get enough of it.

What I have noticed most about having Juno (that's the name my daughter picked out for her about two months ago) is that all my worries seem reduced, even trivial, when she's dozing in my lap.  I've heard there are medical studies documenting how pets help with mental health.  Lessen anxiety and depression.  Calm fears.

I am sitting at my kitchen table right now.  It's 12:45 a.m.  Now, this is not unusual for me.  I am a night owl.  (Interestingly enough, I'm also an early bird.)  In the past three months, I've been in this same chair at this same table quite frequently, worrying about bills, the future, addiction, climate change, and, of course, the current person sitting behind in the desk in the Oval Office.  My life breeds insomnia.

Tonight, I am calm.  I'm not going over bills.  Instead, I'm holding a puppy,  I feel content, just looking at her sleeping, head in the crook of my arm.

Saint Marty has always believed in love at first sight.  It happened with his wife, daughter, son.  It has happened again--this time with a one-pound bundle of furry energy, who currently doesn't want to sleep in her kennel.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

January 14-15-16-17: Leave Me, Abandonment, Puppy Moment

More on Merton's life in Bermuda with his father:

When Father left the boarding house, I remained there, and continued to live in it, because it was near the school.  He was living in some other part of Somerset, with some people he had met, and he spent his days at work, painting landscapes.  In fact, after that winter in Bermuda he had finished enough work to have an exhibition, and this made him enough money to go back to Europe.  But meanwhile, I was going to the local school for white children, which was next to a large public cricket field, and I was constantly being punished for my complete inability to grasp the principles of multiplication and division.

It may have been very difficult for Father to try to make all these decisions.  He wanted me to go to school, and he wanted me to be with him.  When both these things ceased to be possible at the same time, he first decided in favor of the school:  but then, after considering at length the nature of the place where I had to live, and the kind of talk I heard there, all day long, with my wide-open and impassive understanding, he took me out of the school, and brought me to live where he was.  And I was very glad, because I was relieved of the burden of learning multiplication and long division.  

The only worry was that my former teacher passed along that road on her bicycle on her way home, and if I was playing by the road, I had to get out of sight for fear that she would send the truant officer around and make me come back to school.  One evening, I did not see her coming, and I was a little late in diving into the bushes that filled a deserted quarry and, as I peeked out between the branches, I could see her looking back over her shoulder as she slowly pedaled up the white hill.

Day after day the sun shone on the blue waters of the sea, and on the islands in the bay, and on the white sand at the head of the bay, and on the little white houses strung along the hillside.  I remember one day looking up into the sky, and taking it into my head to worship one of the clouds, which was shaped at one end like the head of Minerva with a helmet--like the head of the armed lady on the big British pennies.  

Father left me in Bermuda with his friends, who were literary people and artists, and went to New York and had an exhibition.  It got good press and he sold many pictures.  His style had developed, since Mother's death had delivered him from landscape gardening.  It was becoming at the same time more abstract, more original, and simpler, and more definite in what it had to say.  I think that the people in New York did not yet see the full force of his painting, or the direction in which he was going, because the Brooklyn Museum, for instance, bought the kind of pictures of Bermuda that might be thought remotely to resemble Winslow Homer, rather than the things that indicated Father's true originality.  And anyway, there was not much in common between him and Winslow Homer, except the bare fact of having painted watercolors of sub-tropical scenes.  As a water-colorist, he was more like John Marin, without any of Marin's superficiality.

After the exhibition was over, and the pictures were sold, and Father had the money in his pocket, I returned from Bermuda, and found out that Father was going to sail for France, with his friends, and leave me in America.

Merton has just lost his mother to stomach cancer.  Now, his artist father achieves some modest success with his paintings and decides to leave Merton in America while he pursues a bohemian existence in France.  I wouldn't be surprised if Merton suffered from abandonment issues for most of his adult life.  The two most important people in his childhood leave him--his mother, not voluntarily; his father, completely voluntarily.

Everyone, young and old, experiences loss.  Sometimes, it's simple:  losing a tooth.  Sometimes, it's complex and devastating:  the end of a life, a marriage, a job, a friendship.  We all face the same struggles.  And, like many self-help books will tell you, it's how you react to these struggles that define who you are.

As most of you know, 2019 was not a good year for me.  Lots of upheaval and loss.  I couldn't wait to have all 365 days behind me, never to be thought of again.  Memory doesn't quite work that way, however.  I find myself returning to the last days of last year with a bit of retrospective falsification at work.  When the present becomes the past, the human psyche has a way of whitewashing the experiences, polishing them until the rough edges are gone and all that's left is beautiful and shining.  It's how flawed childhoods become "the good old days."  How flawed human beings become saints.

I'm sure, in about 11 months, I will be looking back fondly on the events of this past Christmas season.  Although, financially and emotionally, it was a difficult December the 25th, I will always have one golden memory:  my son and daughter finding out that Santa was bringing them a puppy for Christmas.  The joy of that moment will be with me for the rest of my life.

Really, that's what happiness is all about.  Pushing away the feelings of abandonment and focusing on the puppy moments.  It's a choice.  This evening was the culmination of the promise of Christmas, 2019.  We went a picked up the newest member of our family--an eight-week-old female Miniature Australian Shepherd named Juno.  My son and daughter took turns holding her on the way home. 

Juno is a beautiful blue merle, and my kids are in love.  I haven't been a dog owner for about 18 years.  When my daughter was first born, we had a crazy Cocker Spaniel named Nick.  Nick was . . . well, crazy.  Highly protective and snappy.  Somewhat aggressive.  As soon as my daughter graduated from crawling like a turtle to toddling, I made the decision to give Nick up to the Humane Society for adoption.  That was one of the worst days of my life.  And I pretty much vowed that I would never put myself through that kind of grief again.

I maintained that vow until this past December.  Now, I am the proud father of a four-legged, blue-eyed fur baby.  My kids couldn't be happier.  (My daughter kept looking at Juno tonight and saying, "She's perfect."  My son practiced his trombone without a major meltdown.)  My wife, while anxious about raising and training a puppy, is in love with her, as well.

Me?  I held Juno in my arms as she slept for 45 minutes tonight.  I swear I felt my blood pressure decreasing as I listened to Juno's sleeping breaths, felt her heartbeat against my chest.  I felt calmer that I have felt in months.  It was a moment of unconditional surrender, trust, and love.

Saint Marty hasn't had one of those moments for a while.

Monday, January 13, 2020

January 13: Continual Rearrangement, Outcast, Green Bay Packers

Merton moves to Bermuda with his father:

That summer was full of low sand dunes, and coarse grasses as sharp as wires, growing from the white sand.  And I saw the breakers of the grey sea come marching in towards the land, and I looked out at the ocean.  Geography had begun to become a reality.

The whole town of Provincetown smelled of dead fish, and there were countless fishing boats, of all sizes, tied up along the wharves, and you could run all day on the decks of the schooners, and no one would prevent you, or chase you away.  I began to know the smell of ropes and of pitch and of the salt, white wood of decks, and the curious smell of seaweed, under the docks.

When I got the mumps, Father read to me out of a book by John Masefield, which was full of pictures of sailing ships, and the only punishment I remember getting that summer was a mild reproof for refusing to eat an orange.

By the time we returned to Douglaston, and Father left me with my grandparents, where John Paul had been all the time, I had learned how to draw pictures of schooners and barks and clippers and brigs, and knew far more about all these distinctions than I do now.

Perhaps I went back to the rickety grey annex of the Public School for a couple of weeks, not for longer.  Because Father had found a new place where he wanted to go and paint pictures, and having found it, came back to get his drawing boards and me, and there we went together.  It was Bermuda.

Bermuda in those days had no big hotels and no golf-courses to speak of.  It was not famous for anything.  It was simply a curious island, two or three days out of New York, in the Gulf Stream, where the British had a small naval base and where there were no automobiles and not much of anything else either.

We took a small boat called the Fort Victoria, with a red and black funnel, and surprisingly soon after we had left New York harbor, the flying fishes began to leap out of the foam before her bows and skid along over the surface of the warm waves.  And although I was very eager for my first sight of the island, it came upon us suddenly before I was aware, and stood up before us in the purple waters, green and white.  You could already see the small white houses, made of coral, cleaner than sugar, shining in the sun, and all around us the waters paled over the shallows and became the color of emeralds, where there was sand, or lavender where there were rocks below the surface.  We threaded our way in a zig-zag between the buoys that marked the path through the labyrinthine reefs.

The H. M. S. Calcutta lay at anchor off Ireland Island dockyard, and Father pointed to Somerset where, among the dark green cedars, was the place where we could live.  Yet it was evening before we finally got there.  How quiet and empty it was, in Somerset, in the gathering dusk!  Our feet padded softly in the creamy dust of the deserted road.  No wind stirred the paper leaves of the banana trees, or in the oleanders.  Our voices seemed loud, as we spoke.  Nevertheless it was a very friendly island.  Those who occasionally came by saluted us as if we were old acquaintances.

The boarding house had a green verandah and many rocking chairs.  The dark green paint needed renewing.  The British officers, or whatever they were who lived in the place, sat and smoked their pipes, and talked, if they talked at all, about matters extremely profane.  And here Father put down our bags.  They were expecting us.  In the shadows, we sat down to dinner.  I quickly adjusted myself to the thought that this was home.

It is almost impossible to make much sense out of the continual rearrangement of our lives and our plans from month to month in my childhood.  yet every new development came to me as a reasonable and worthy change.  Sometimes I had to go to school, sometimes I did not.  Sometimes Father and I were living together, sometimes I was with strangers and only saw him from time to time.  People came into our lives and went out of our lives.  We had now one set of friends, now another.  Things were always changing.  I accepted it all.  Why should it ever have occurred to me that nobody else lived like that?  To me, it seemed as natural as the variations of the weather and the seasons.  And one thing I knew for days on end I could run where I pleased, and do whatever I liked , and life was very pleasant.

Merton is a child who adjusts to change easily.  Living with his grandparents in Douglaston, New York, one week.  Bunking with British officers in Bermuda the next.  And he doesn't seem to find this arrangement at all strange or unconventional.  He takes it all in stride.  Of course, it's what Merton is used to.  He has an unconventional father.  Had an unconventional mother.

I suppose that Merton would have been somewhat of an outcast in a public school setting.  Maybe, because of his worldly upbringing, he might have been considered interesting by some.  However, any little thing that smacks of individuality pretty much spells doom for most kids in a school setting.  You don't want to stand out.  You want to blend in.

I don't think that the adult world is much different, either.  I can vouch for that.  For example, I live in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  If you are an adult male from the U. P., you are supposed to have two pastimes--watching the Green Bay Packers, and deer hunting.  During the fall and winter months, Sundays are pretty much all about talking about the upcoming Packer game, watching the Packer game, and taunting Vikings' and Lions' fans after the Packer game is over.  And the month of November is all about shooting whitetail deer--getting ready to shoot, shooting, and eating what you shot.

I don't fit in.  I could care less about football, and I don't like the taste of venison.  My biggest nightmare--having to watch a Green Bay Packer game where someone is serving venison meatloaf.  This past Sunday, as everyone else in the U. P. was watching the Packer game, I was reading a book of poems and having a battle of wills with my eleven-year-old son.  Now, I know Green Bay won, but only because it was all over Facebook this morning.  The battle with my son ended with him screaming, crying, and an apologizing.

The most important part of the night wasn't the Packers beating the Seahawks.  It was my son getting his homework done and not smashing anyone's head in with a shovel.  That is a real victory.

So, you see, I'm not normal.  I don't even know what normal is.  Wouldn't recognize normal if it spit in my face.  Normal is tedious.  Normal is unexciting.  Normal is boring.

Saint Marty will never be normal.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

January 12: Baker's Chocolate, Forbidden Fruit, Adulting

Merton dealing with the aftermath of his mother's death:

He [Merton's father] must have thought of the days before the war, when he had first met Mother in Paris, when she had been so happy, and gay, and had danced, and had been full of ideas and plans and ambitions for herself and for him and for their children.  It had not turned out as they had planned  And now it was all over.  And Bonnemaman was folding away the big heavy locks of red hair that had fallen from the shears when my mother was a girl, folding them away now in tissue paper, in the spare room, and weeping bitterly.

They hired the same car again a day or so later, for another journey, and this time I am definitely glad I stayed in the car.

Mother, for some reason, had always wanted to be cremated.  I suppose that fits in with the whole structure of her philosophy of life:  a dead body was simply something to be put out of the way as quickly as possible.  I remember how she was in the house at Flushing, with a rag tied tightly around her head to keep the dust out of her hair, cleaning and sweeping and dusting the rooms with the greatest energy and intensity of purpose:  and it helps one to understand her impatience with useless and decaying flesh.  That was something to be done away with, without delay.  When life was finished, let the whole thing be finished, definitely, for ever.

Once again, the rain fell, the sky was dark.  I cannot remember if Cousin Ethel (my mother's cousin, called Mrs. McGovern, who was a nurse) remained in the car to keep me from getting too gloomy.  Nevertheless I was very sad.  But I was not nearly so unhappy as I would have been if I had gone up to that mournful and appalling place and stood behind a pane of glass to watch my mother's coffin glide slowly between the steel doors that led to the furnace.

Mother's death had made one thing evident:  Father now did not have to do anything but paint.  He was not tied down to any one place.  He could go wherever he needed to go, to find subjects and get ideas, and I was old enough to go with him.

And so, after I had been a few months in the local school at Douglaston, and had already been moved up to the second grade, in the evil-smelling gray annex on top of the hill, Father came back to New York and announced that he and I were going somewhere new.

It was with a kind of feeling of triumph that I watched the East River widen into Long Island Sound, and waited for the moment when the Fall River boat, in all her pride, would go sweeping past the mouth of Bayside Bay and I would view Douglaston, as I thought, from the superiority of the open water and pass it by, heading for a new horizon called Fall River and Cape Cod and Provincetown.

We could not afford a cabin, but slept down below decks in the crowded steerage, if you could call it that, among the loud Italian families and the colored boys who spent the night shooting craps under the dim light, while the waters spoke loudly to us, above our heads, proclaiming that we were well below the waterline.

And in the morning we got off the boat at Fall River, and walked up the street beside the textile mills, and found a lunch wagon crowded with men getting something to eat on the way to work and we sat at the counter and ate ham and eggs.

All day long after that we were in a train.  Just before we crossed the great black drawbridge over the Cape Cod Canal, Father got off at a station and went to a store across the street and bought me a bar of Baker's chocolate, with a blue wrapper and a picture of a lady in an old-fashioned cap and apron, serving cups of chocolate.  I was almost completely overwhelmed with surprise and awe at the fact of such tremendous largesse.  Candy had always been strictly rationed.

Then came the long, long journey through the sand dunes, stopping at every station, while I sat, weary and entranced, with the taste of chocolate thick and stale in my mouth, turning over and over in my mind the names of places where we were going:  Sandwich, Falmouth, Truro, Provincetown,  The name Truro especially fascinated me.  I could not get it out of my mind.  Truro.  Truro.  It was a name as lonely as the edge of the sea.

I understand almost all of this section of The Seven Storey Mountain except one thing:  Merton's awe over receiving a bar of Baker's chocolate from his father as a present.  Of course, Merton is a six-year-old child, recently motherless, who is going on an adventure with his artist father.  There is a great deal of bitterness, as well as sweetness, in Merton's life at this moment.  Perhaps the Baker's chocolate is a perfect metaphor for Merton's journey.  Excitement and grief mixing together in the same mouthful.

Isn't that pretty much true of any experience, though?  I remember when I was a kid being so tempted by the bar of Baker's chocolate that my mother kept in her kitchen.  It was dark and luscious and inviting, especially for a six- or seven-year-old.  It smelled like Easter morning.  I remember how my mother warned me not to eat that bar of chocolate.  "You won't like it," she said, stirring a pot of spaghetti sauce.  "Trust me."

I thought she was lying to me.  Trying to save the chocolate for herself after I left the kitchen, a special treat only for her.  Mother chocolate.  But I played along.  I left the kitchen and made plans to sneak back later, to sample what I was sure was going to be the best chocolate in the world.  That would be the only reason why my mother wouldn't share it.  Like the cups of whiskey and 7-Up she drank with my father in the evenings, this chocolate would be full of adult pleasure.

As a second grader, I was fascinated by the story of Adam and Eve.  In particular, I was enthralled with the idea of that apple.  I wanted to know what it tasted like.  It couldn't be as simple as a Red Delicious, with its slightly pesticide-tasting skin and flat, sweet white inside.  It had to be more exotic than that.  A variety of apple that didn't exist anymore, because God hid it away from the human race forever after Eve's trespass.

That's sort of what I imagined Baker's chocolate tasted like.  Full of some kind of dark, chocolaty adult knowledge, like the magazines my brothers hid under their mattresses, away from my parents' reach.  So, when my mother was done in the kitchen, the pot of marinara sauce simmering for dinner, I sneaked back in, grabbed a stool, and climbed onto the counter top.  I stood up, opened the cupboard, and reached to the top shelf, where my mother had stowed away her forbidden fruit.

Quickly, before anyone had a chance to discover me, I unwrapped the waxy paper from the chocolate, crammed the whole thing into my mouth, and started chewing frantically, as I'm sure the guilty Eve gulped down great swallows of that sinful apple.

And I quickly learned one of the greatest adult lessons of my life--not everything that seems sweet and inviting and irresistible is good.  The Baker's chocolate was inedibly bitter.  My mouth quickly filled with a thick syrup of grainy, brown spit.  I felt my gorge rising.  Within seconds, I was curled into the kitchen sink, heaving and spitting and throwing up.

After I was done, I weakly stood back up on the kitchen counter and placed what was left of the Baker's chocolate back on the top shelf of the cupboard.  Weakly, I climbed down to the floor.  I stumbled from the kitchen, full of guilt and disappointment, not understanding the adult world.  How could something that smelled and looked so good taste like unwashed socks?

It was one of my first experiences with adult disappointment.  I had been warned, and I had chosen to ignore that warning, like Eve.  My reward?  Bitter, bitter guilt.  I'm sure my mother eventually discovered my teeth marks on that chocolate bar.  Probably had quite a good laugh about it, maybe as she was sipping a highball with my dad.

Through the years, I've had to learn that lesson over and over.  Adulting kind of sucks.  It's often about having to take huge mouthfuls of Baker's chocolate and convincing yourself that it tastes good.  Do you accept a difficult life situation--live with an addict, work a shitty job, take daily emotional and/or physical abuse--or do you make the scary choice to change?

It's all about choosing what kind of chocolate you're willing to eat.

Saint Marty prefers Godiva, although he seems to settle for the cheap Palmer kind a lot more often.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

January 11: Shattered by Sorrow, Prayer, Inscrutability

Six-year-old Thomas Merton losing his mother to stomach cancer:

And probably the chief reason why we needed money was that Mother had cancer of the stomach.

That was another thing that was never explained to me.  Everything about sickness and death was more or less kept hidden from me, because consideration of these things might make a child morbid.  And since I was destined to grow up with a nice, clear, optimistic, and well-balanced outlook on life, I was never even taken to the hospital to see Mother, after she went there.  And this was entirely her own idea.

How long she had been ill and suffering, still keeping house for us, not without poverty and hardship, without our knowing anything of what it was, I cannot say.  But her sickness probably accounts for my memory of her as thin and pale and rather severe.

With a selfishness unusual even in a child, I was glad to move from Flushing to my grandparents' house in Douglaston.  There I was allowed to do more or less as I pleased, there was plenty of food, and we had two dogs and several cats to play with.  I did not miss Mother very much, and did not weep when I was not allowed to go and see her.  I was content to run in the woods with the dogs, or climb trees, or pester the chickens, or play around in the clean little studio where Bonnemaman sometimes painted china, and fired it in a small kiln.

Then one day Father gave me a note to read.  I was very surprised.  It was for me personally, and it was in my mother's handwriting.  I don't think she had ever written to me before--there had never been any occasion for it.  Then I understood what was happening, although, as I remember, the language of the letter was confusing to me.  Nevertheless, one thing was quite evident.  My mother was informing me, by mail, that she was about to die, and would never see me again.

I took the note out under the maple tree in that back yard, and worked over it, until I had made it all out, and had gathered what it really meant.  And a tremendous weight of sadness and depression settled on me.  It was not the grief of a child, with pangs of sorrow and many tears.  It had something of the heavy perplexity and gloom of adult grief, and was therefore all the more of a burden because it was, to that extent, unnatural.  I suppose one reason for this was that I had more or less had to arrive at the truth by induction.

Prayer?  No, prayer did not even occur to me.  How fantastic that will seem to a Catholic--that a six-year-old child should find out that his mother is dying, and not know enough to pray for her!  It was not until I became a Catholic, twenty years later, that it finally occurred to me to pray for my mother.

My grandparents did not have a car, but they hired one to go in to the hospital, when the end finally came.  I went with them in the car, but was not allowed to enter the hospital.  Perhaps it was just as well.  What would have been the good of my being plunged into a lot of naked suffering and emotional crisis without any prayer, any Sacrament to stabilize and order it, and make some kind of meaning out of it?  In that sense, Mother was right.  Death, under those circumstances, was nothing but ugliness, and if it could not possibly have any ultimate meaning, why burden a child's mind with the sight of it?

I sat outside, in the car, with the hired driver.  Again, I knew nothing definite about what was going on.  But I think there was also by this time no little subconscious rejection of everything that might have given me any certainty that Mother was really dying:  for if I had wanted to find out, I would not have had much trouble.

It seemed like a very long time.

The car was parked in a yard entirely enclosed by black brick buildings, thick with soot.  On one side was a long, low shed, and rain dripped from the eaves, as we sat in silence, and listened to the drops falling on the roof of the car.  The sky was heavy with mist and smoke, and the sweet sick smell of hospital and gas-house mingled with the stuffy smell of the automobile.

But when Father and Pop and Bonnemaman and my Uncle Harold came out of the hospital door, I did not need to ask any questions.  They were all shattered by sorrow.

When we got home to Douglaston, Father went into a room alone, and I followed him and found him weeping, over by the window.

The loss of someone you love is never easy.  Merton, however, at the age of six, has little to help him with the experience.  His father doesn't prepare him for it.  His grandparents don't talk to Merton about it.  Merton's mother attempts to say goodbye to her son with a handwritten note, but Merton struggles with its meaning and import.  And Merton has been given little instruction in prayer and religion to comfort himself.  All he has are his own observations--adults, shattered by grief.

Loss--through death, divorce, desertion, disease--is something that throws every human being, with any kind of emotional intelligence, into crisis.  This past week, as I vacationed and tried to recover from a nasty post-Christmas illness, I was also processing the loss of a wonderful friend.  While her death wasn't surprising (she had been unwell for five or six months), it still caught me by surprise.  I don't think anyone is ever really prepared for loss when it occurs.  It's like being on a cruise ship, seeing the lifeboats and life jackets on deck, and recognizing the possibility of catastrophe.  Until you're told to abandon ship, it just isn't real.

And what does prayer and faith in God give you?  I suppose it gives you the one thing that nothing else can--hope.  Faith in science gives you an understanding, however limited, of the physical workings of the universe; it can't explain everything.  Faith in humanity can be tested simply by watching a Donald Trump press conference.  Faith in medicine or mathematics or psychology or law enforcement, all of these are contingent upon a human element.  And humans are flawed.  There's no getting around that.

Only faith in God takes out the human element, and this kind of belief makes all my scientist friends a little uncomfortable.  They see religion as a crutch, a way to deal with a broken physical world.  Almost since the beginning of recorded time, human beings have had religion of some sort.  Have recognized the inherent inscrutability of all aspects of the human experience.  And it's in that inscrutability where joy and loss exist.  The most profound human experiences are shrouded in mystery.

This post may be a little too profound for a Saturday morning, when kids are watching cartoons and the smell of frying bacon is in the air.  Right now, I'm sitting at McDonald's with my wife and son, enjoying the first lazy hours of the weekend.  Loss is sitting on one of my shoulders.  Happiness, on the other.  Snow is falling outside, and all around me are people absorbed in small and large talk.  Sports.  Illness.  Politics.  Death.  I am surrounded by the inscrutable.

I don't need to know how snow forms in the atmosphere and swoops down on us.  I don't need to understand the rules of basketball or the symptoms of prostate cancer.  There is laughter at one table.  Earnest argument at the other.  Human struggle and happiness all around.

And my son, with his green hair, drinking Dr. Pepper.

Saint Marty is taking this moment to treasure it all.

Friday, January 10, 2020

January 10: Common Dependence on God, Tower of Babel, "Five Lesson on the Color Black"

More from Merton on his earliest religious experiences:

The old Zion church was a white wooden building, with a squat, square little belfry, standing on a hill, surrounded by high trees and a large graveyard, and in a crypt underneath it were buried the original Douglas family, who had settled there on the shore of the Sound some hundred years before.  It was pleasant enough on Sundays.  I remember the procession that came out of the sacristy, a choir of men and women, dressed in black, with white surplices, and led by a Cross.  There were stained glass windows up behind the altar, one had an anchor on it, for its design, which interested me because I wanted to go to sea, and travel all over the world.  Strange interpretation of a religious symbol ordinarily taken to signify stability in Hope:  the theological virtue of Hope, dependence on God.  To me it suggested just the opposite.  Travel, adventure, the wide sea, and unlimited possibilities of human heroism, with myself as the hero.

Then there was a lectern, shaped like an eagle with outspread wings, on which rested a huge Bible.  Nearby was an American flag, and above that was one of those little boards they have in Protestant churches, on which the numbers of the hymns to be sung are indicated by black and white cards.  I was impressed by the lighting of candles on the altar, by the taking up of the collection, and by the singing of hymns, while Father, hidden behind the choir somewhere, played the organ.  

One came out of the church with a kind of comfortable and satisfied feeling that something had been done that needed to be done, and that was all I knew about it.  And now, as I consider it after many years, I see that it was very good that I should have got at least that much of religion in my childhood.  It is a law of man's nature, written into his very essence, and just as much a part of him as the desire to build houses and cultivate the land and marry and have children and read books and sing songs, that he should want to stand together with other men in order to acknowledge their common dependence on God, their Father and Creator.  In fact, this desire is much more fundamental than any purely physical necessity.

At this same time my father played the piano every evening in a small movie theater which had been opened in the next town, Bayside.  We certainly needed money.

It doesn't surprise me that some of Thomas Merton's earliest intimations of the presence of God in his life are connected with music.  Some of my earliest memories of church and God are also musical.  I remember sitting next to my mother in a pew, listening to her strong soprano voice.  The old hymns:  "Come, Holy Ghost" and "Mary, Full of Grace" and "Panis Angelicus."  In my mind, when I was a child, my mother's singing was as close to God as I could get.  It lifted me up.

As I got older, I joined church choirs and started playing the piano and pipe organ.  Now, almost 40 years later, I have been a liturgical musician for the majority of my life.  Most of my church life has been spent in choir lofts, looking down at the backs of people's heads.  When I was younger, I used to think I had a God's-eye-view of things.  This, I thought, was how God saw all of us from his perch in the heavens.  For a long time, in the choir loft where I play the pipe organ, there was a sign that read, "When you sing, you pray twice."  I believe that saying.  Music--like prayer and poetry--elevates human expression.  It's sort of the only way we humans can truly approach the divine.

Today, I attended the funeral of a very close friend.  She was a woman who devoted her life to music in the church.  For almost 60 years, she directed and sang in choirs, always with humility, feeling like she wasn't worthy to stand in front of sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses, waving her arms.  More than once, after a Sunday morning choir anthem, she would look at me and say, "I feel like a complete failure."  And she meant it.

I often feel the same way with my poetry.  When I sit down to write something new, I have a vision in my head, a song in my ears, of what I think I want to write.  What comes out of my pen onto the page never really comes close to that initial vision.  In some ways, as I write, I feel like I'm reenacting the narrative of the Tower of Babel.  I want to capture words that are divine--King David, the gospel writers, Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth, Dickinson, Whitman.  Instead, I end up writing something that sounds more like the literary equivalent of the Three Stooges.

For the funeral today, I was asked to write and read a poem for my friend.  It was difficult for me.  I worked on the poem all week.  Actually, I had the first four sections of the poem done by Tuesday.  They came to me fairly easily.  The last section gave me a lot of trouble.  Every time I started writing, I ran into a wall.  Last night, I thought I had it finished.  It wasn't.  So, I got up at six o'clock in the morning today and went to work.  By 8 a.m., the poem was done.

I'm still not sure it's any good.  You will have to be the judge of that.

Saint Marty thinks he's fallen short.  Again.

Five Lessons on the Color Black

by:  Martin Achatz

for Sally Z.

In the beginning, before there was light,
before heavens and earth were split,
before sun and moon, day and night,
seas and volcanoes, tectonic shifts,
before mastodons and sequoias,
mud and breath and Adam,
sleep and rib and Eve,
before the naming, when everything
was shapeless and void,
there was God, and God wore black.

At the bottom of the Quincy Mine
Number 2 shaft, 1.75 miles below
earth’s surface, turn off lights,
phone.  Extinguish candles, torches.
Stand still.  You will experience
complete black, where there is no
up or down, left or right, floor,
ceiling, or walls.  Where everything
exists and doesn’t exist in vertiginous
nothing.  This is how Christ
entered the world.

Black absorbs all colors.
The purple-blue bruises of Advent, Lent.
Cardinal thorns, spikes of Holy Week.
Snows of Christmas, Easter, when joy
piles up like a blizzard,
joy on joy on joy.
Hot roses of Gaudete Sunday,
Laetare Sunday, when expectation
blossoms through meat fasts, candled wreaths,
the way crocuses blossom
through winter into spring.
And the abundance of green all other times,
so ordinary we don’t even notice
it sitting on the side of the road,
homeless, begging for our eyes.
Put on a pair of black pants,
button up a black shirt,
slip on a pair of black shoes,
and you are the gospels.

The word “black” comes from Old English,
Proto-Germanic, Proto-Indo-European,
Dutch, Latin, Ancient Greek.
It’s an old word, kicked around
by bare and sandaled feet
for thousands of years, probably
grunted by Neanderthals as they
scrambled away from the black
palm of night.  Eaten by Vikings
as they crossed continents of black ocean.
Caught in squirming, black nets
on the shores of Galilee.  In most languages,
it means to burn, glow, blaze,
shine, flash, luminesce.  Black
fire.  Black stars.  Black
hosannas in black bowls of sky.  Black
resurrection, when you open
your eyes, see an empty, black
cave.  Black coffee on Sunday
morning, where cream swirls
in the cup like light into a black

is all about the black
you left behind.
Empty, black
chair at the kitchen table.
Black, winter
branches, where wind
plays scales, makes
me think of Kilmer:
. . . only God can make
a tree.  Black
chime of an unanswered
phone call.  And the last, black
words you spoke to me
two Sundays ago.  I hold
them in my hands now.  Count them.
One.  Two.  Three.  Four.
They gleam like polished onyx
in my palms, bright holes
in my skin.  I put them
in my pocket, carry
them with me everywhere,
feel their weight against
my leg, hear them rattle
together, making a black
sound, like the one Christ
made at the back of His throat
when He found out Lazarus
had died.  Or the one
Lazarus made when he stumbled
out of his grave, into
the arms of his best friend.
I take those words out
now, let them fluoresce the black
air of  this place.  They are everything
and nothing.  They are you.  Me.
Us.  Say them now.  Send them
out into the dark matter
of the universe, where they will
nova, become star, galaxy,
angel host, infant, salvation.
Four words.  Four syllables.
Four breaths.
I.  Love.  You.  Babe.