Saturday, February 29, 2020

February 29: The Other Road, Leap Day, Leaps of Faith

Merton in a car that's chasing a rabbit:

Somebody growled a modest complaint:

"C'est assez, bein?  Tu ne l'attraperas pas!"

The son of the hay and feed dealer said nothing.  He bent over the wheel with his eyes popping at the road, and the white tail in front of us kept darting away from the wheels of the car, zig-zagging from the high bank on one side to the ditch on the other.

And then we came over the hill.  The darkness and emptiness of the valley was before us.  The road began to descend.

The complaints in the back seat increased, became a chorus.  But the driver stepped on the gas even harder.  The car careened wildly across the road; we had nearly caught the rabbit.  But not quite.  He was out there ahead of us again.  

"We'll get him on the hill," exclaimed the driver.  "Rabbits can't run down-hill, their hind legs are too long."

The rabbit ahead of us was doing a fine job of running down-hill, just about five feet ahead of our front wheels.

Then somebody began to yell:  "Lout out, look out!"

We were coming to a fork in the road.  The main road went on to the left, and an older road sloped off at a steeper incline to the right.  In between them was a wall.  And the rabbit headed straight for the wall.  

"Stop!  Stop!" we implored.  Nobody could tell which way the rabbit was going to go and the wall was flying straight at us.

"Hold on!" somebody shouted.

The car gave a wild lurch, and if there had been any room in the back we would all have fallen on the floor.  But we were not dead.  The car was still on the main road, roaring down into the valley and, to our immense relief, there was no rabbit out there in the lights.

"Did you catch him?" I asked hopefully.  "Maybe you caught him back there?"

"Oh, no," replied the driver sadly, "he took the other road."

It's a funny little scene--young Merton trapped in a speeding car, hurtling down a mountainside in pursuit of a panicked hare.  It's a moment when the adult Merton, I'm sure, would say that God was watching out for him and his friends.

Today is February 29.  Leap day.  Twenty-four hours that comes once every four years.  I have always thought of this day as a gift--extra time to do something different and unique and surprising.  Taking a leap of faith, so to speak.  Dipping your toes into a pool of water about which you know nothing--not its currents or depths of inhabitants.  Taking a chance.

So what leap did I make today?  I planned a family night of musical theater.  Last night, I attended a performance of Matilda at the university theater.  Tonight, I returned for an encore with my wife and kids.  Went out in the afternoon and bought the tickets.  Arranged a puppy sitter.  Lost that puppy sitter, and acquired another.

Now, most of you are probably saying, "Well, that's not much of a leap!"  Yes, I love theater.  Yes, I've taken my kids to see musicals before, professional and community productions.  The play wasn't the actual leap,  The leap was stepping outside of my normal Saturday routine--cleaning the house, playing the organ for church, watching a little PBS at night (still a fan of The Lawrence Welk Show).  I decided that my family needed to do something together, and I arranged it.

I think too many people think that their leaps on Leap Day need to be extreme.  Jumping out of an airplane.  Snorkeling with jellyfish and sharks.  Getting up on a stage naked with a ukelele and singing "Tiptoe Through the Tulips."  That kind of thing.  For me, a creature of habit, stepping outside of my normal routine is quite a leap, especially if it's fairly spontaneous.

Spontaneity can cause me a great deal of anxiety, like hurtling down a mountainside in an out-of-control car.  I like my days planned out.  My first trip to the theater this weekend was on my calendar for over a month.  I knew it was coming.  I was prepared for it.  This evening's trip was less than 24 hours in the making.  Pretty wild for me.

And now, because of this family excursion, my daughter and son have decided to audition for a production of The Sound of Music.  They already picked the day they were going to try out.  They're going to work together this week to pick out songs to sing.  They're taking a leap.  Stepping out of their comfort zones.  (Really stepping out.  Both of my kids suffer from social anxiety to varying degrees.)  I'm so proud of them.

I think that's a pretty good Leap Day.  A spontaneous night out with my family, and my kids deciding to step out and try something completely new.  For my son, that's not just a leap.  It's like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute.

Saint Marty is going to leap into bed now for a good night's sleep.

February 28: Wild Frenchman, "Matilda," Perfect Ending

Merton almost getting killed by a wild Frenchman . . .

One of the members of the rugby team was a small, rabbit-like man, the son of the local hay and feed dealer, who owned a car and drove most of the team back and forth from the games.  One night he nearly killed himself and about six of us when a rabbit got into the lights on the road ahead of us and kept running in front of the car.  Immediately, this wild Frenchman jammed his foot down on the gas and started after the rabbit.  The white tail bobbed up and down in the light, always just a few feet ahead of the wheels, and whipping from one side of the road to the other, to throw the auto off his scent:  only the auto didn't hunt that way.  I just kept roaring after the rabbit, zig-zagging from one side of the road to the other and nearly spilling us all into the ditch.

Those of us who were piled up in the back seat began to get a little nervous, especially when we observed that we were coming to the top of the long steep hill that went winding down into the valley where St. Antonin was.  If we kept after that rabbit, we would surely go over the bank, and then we wouldn't stop turning over until we landed in the river, a couple of hundred feet below.

I will say that this whole week has been quite the wild ride.  I'm not going to recap my misadventures again, as you've heard my little litany of woe enough already.  However, the little passage above captures the spirit of these past few days for me.  Half-terrified, half-crazed.  Chasing rabbits down rabbit holes..  I am ready for a little rest this weekend.

And it started this evening, when I went to see a great production of the musical Matilda by the Superior Arts Youth Theater at the university where I teach.  I attended with one of my best friends, and, for a few hours, I was able to forget all my troubles.  For that I am truly thankful.

I took some pictures with a few of the cast members that I knew.  Then, I drove home and had some quality time with my puppy.  It was a perfect ending to a really crappy week.

Saint Marty is going to sleep well tonight.  It's been a while since that happened.

Friday, February 28, 2020

February 25, 26, 27: Discernment of Souls, Penalty Box, Remain Positive

Merton discussing some popular sports in his new hometown. . .

Meanwhile, we had made a lot of friends.  I do not know whether it was through the capitalist, Rodolausse, or through the radical-socialist teamster Pierrot, that we got in contact with the local rugby football club, or they with us:  but one of the first things that happened after our arrival was that a delegation from the club, the "Avant-Garde de Saint-Antonin," presented themselves to Father and asked him to become president of the club.  He was English, and therefore he was an expert, they assumed, in every type of sport.  As a matter of fact, he had played rugby for his school in New Zealand.  So he became president of the club, and occasionally refereed their wild games, at the risk of his life.  It was not only that the rules had changed, since his time, but there was a special interpretation of the rules in St. Antonin which no one could discover without a private revelation or the gift of the discernment of souls.  However, he lived through the season.

I used to accompany him and the team to all the games they played away from home, going as far as Figeac to the northeast, deep in the hill south, a town with one of those fortress-churches and a real stadium for the rugby team.  St. Antonin was not, of course, called in to play the Gaillac, first fifteen, but only to play an opener, while the crowds were coming in for the principal games.

In those days the whole south of France was infected with a furious and violent passion for rugby football, and played it with a blood-thirsty energy that sometimes ended in mortal injuries.  In the really important games, the referee usually had to be escorted from the grounds afterwards by a special bodyguard, and not infrequently had to make his escape over the fence and through the fields.  The only sport that raised a more universal and more intense excitement than rugby, was long-distance bicycle racing.  St. Antonin was off the circuit of the big road races, but occasionally there would be a race that came through our hills, and we would stand at the end of the long climb to the top of Rochher d'Anglars, and watch them coming slowly up the hill, with their noses almost scraping the front wheels of their bikes as they bent far down and toiled, with all their muscles  clenched into tremendous knots.  And the veins stood out on their foreheads.

Believe it or not, I have never been a huge fan of organized sports.  Not rugby or football or basketball.  I know this revelation will come as a shock to some of you.  When I was a kid, my parents had season tickets for the home games of the university hockey team.  I spent many Friday and Saturday nights in a cold ice arena.  And I ended up tolerating the games fairly well, with a steady supply of hot chocolate and an occasional hot dog thrown in for moral support.

These last few days have been brutally taxing.  Still trying to recover from the string of unfortunate mishaps and malfunctions that have plagued my life recently--plugged toilet, broken furnace, hacked bank accounts, and a drug overdose.  Tonight, sitting in the living room of my sleeping house, I feel like I've been playing my own little hockey game where I've been hit in the face by the puck about 50 or so times.  I'm whipped.

The weekend is almost upon me.  Spring break at the university next week.  My life will be slightly less hectic for the next seven days.  Hopefully.  I'm still trying to sort out my bank account problems.  Have to make some phone calls to to get some money back from them.  Hopefully.

I am a firm believer in trying to remain positive, even in the face of tragedy.  I try to look for silver linings.  I really do.  These last few days, however, I've been wondering if I'm being divinely punished for something.  It feels as though I've pissed off the universe.  Sent to the penalty box, so to speak.

Now, I know that God doesn't work that way.  The vengeful version of the Big Guy Upstairs kind of went by the wayside when Jesus showed up on the scene.  It's all supposed to be about love and forgiveness.  I've had to remind myself of this fact many times in the last five-plus days.  God didn't hack my accounts, but He did make sure that I only lost less than $500,  And He didn't break my furnace, but He did send my brother and sister to fix it.  God is always at work.

So, Saint is headed into the weekend, hoping that God has very little to help me with over the next few days.  Amen.

Monday, February 24, 2020

February 23-24: The Foundations, Sally Rooney and Book Club, Being Normal

Merton's father is still in search of a house . . .

When he [the town capitalist] found out we had come there to live, he immediately offered to sell us his house, and invited us out there to dinner, that we might see it.  The House of Simon de Monfort, as it was called, was a big farm a mile or two out of town on the road to Caylus.  It stood up the slope of a hill overlooking the valley of the Bonnette and was itself in the mouth of a deep circular valley full of woods where, as we found, a small stream full of watercress rose from a clear spring.  The house itself was an ancient place, and looked as if De Montfort might indeed have lived in it.  But it also looked as if he might still be haunting it.  It was very dark and gloomy and, being dark, was no place for a painter.  Besides, it was too expensive for us.  And Father preferred to build a house of his own.

It was not long after I had started to go to the local elementary school, where I sat with great embarrassment among the very smallest children, and tried to pick up French as we went along, that Father had already drawn up plans of the house we would build on the land he had now bought at the foot of Calvary.  It would have one big room, which would be a studio and dining room and living room, and then upstairs there would be a couple of bed-rooms.  That was all.

We traced out the foundations and Father and a workman began to dig.  Then a water diviner came in and found us water and we had a well dug.  Near the well Father planted two poplar trees--one for me, one for John Paul--and to the east of the house he laid out a large garden when the following spring came around.

Owen Merton seems to be trying to create a normal existence for his kids--buying a home, sending Merton to school, laying down roots.  After the turmoil of the previous years with the loss of his mother, Merton, I think, is attracted to the idea of normalcy, even if he will never actually attain it.  He wants what we all want--to have a life filled with quiet, calm perfection.

I woke up Sunday morning with the inside of my house a chilly 31 degrees Fahrenheit.  Everything was cold.  The doorknobs, drinking glasses in the kitchen cupboard, my iPhone.  I left a Mountain Dew Zero on my kitchen stove when I went to bed.  It was colder in the morning than when I bought it the night before.  Don't even get me started about the experience of sitting down on the toilet seat in the bathroom.

Nevertheless, I got ready for church and went to pray.  Figured it couldn't hurt.

As I sat in church, singing in the choir, my brother showed up to work on my furnace.  By the time I got home a little after noon, he had my furnace cranking out hot air.  A bad fuse, dirty air filter, and thermostat were the culprits for my chilly night.  Lesson learned:  I will never take being warm for granted ever again.

Sunday evening, the members of my book club descended on my abode.  (I actually thought that I was going to have to cancel the meeting due to my little furnace predicament.)  Coincidentally, we read the book Normal People by Sally Rooney, which is about (you guessed it!) characters who are trying to be "normal," and failing miserably.  At the end of the night, I think we reached the consensus that "normal" is pretty much in the eye of the beholder.  In other words, we're all fucked up in some way.

Today, this newly acquired wisdom was put to the test.  Without naming names or providing details, let me just say that a "normal" person whom I care about deeply almost ended up taking a little ambulance ride to the hospital because of a drug addiction.  This person has avoided going to rehab because she's afraid that people will find out.  Instead, she ended up "accidentally" overdosing.  She's fine.  This time.

So, you see, normal is a lot of things.

Normal people have addictions.  And new puppies.  They can fill your life with love and heart break.  They make promises.  Break promises.  They are the popcorn kernel that gets stuck in your teeth.  They are the chocolate that melts on your tongue.  Normal people can fill you up and empty you out.  Normal is a matter of opinion.  Normal is a matter of fact.

Saint Marty is all of those things.  And he's praying for the normal addicts in his life.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

February 22: It Continues, No Heat, "The Whiteness of Water"

And so it it continues . . .

After an unheard of warm Saturday of 40-degree temperatures, I was feeling a little better about my circumstances.  I went to my financial institution this morning with my list of fraudulent charges on my debit card.  The debit card was immediately deactivated, and my money will be refunded by Monday.  (By the way, this morning, someone tried to purchase $350 of Staples supplies.  Thank God that I'm flat broke.)

So, I was feeling pretty good about my life.  Things were looking up.

Then, tonight, after I was done cleaning my house, I went to the thermostat and cranked up the heat a little because there was a chill in the air.  I turned it up to 67 degrees.  The furnace did not kick on.  70 degrees.  No furnace.  75 degrees.  No furnace.  85 degrees.  No furnace.  90 degrees.  Nothing again.

It is now almost midnight, and I have no heat in the middle of an Upper Peninsula winter night.

So, I have space heaters going, and my brother (who is a plumber and furnace guy) is driving up tomorrow morning to see if he can fix things. 

I feel as though I'm living under a curse. 

Pray for Saint Marty tonight.  If he doesn't freeze to death, he may commit ritual seppuku

For your reading pleasure, a little winter essay . . .

The Whiteness of Water

by:  Martin Achatz

“ . . . is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows—a colorless all-color of atheism from which we shrink?”
                                    ----Herman Melville

I sit down to write these lines the morning following the first snowstorm of winter.  One week after All Souls Day, a comma of arctic air swooped across Lake Superior, gathered shrapnel of wave crash and foam, baptized my little portion of the Upper Peninsula with dunes of white.

It happens every year, and yet I still stand on my front porch, stunned by those first blind crests and tidals, a Winslow Homer seascape of ice and snow.
In the 1880s, anthropologist Franz Boas, traveling through the tundra of northern Canada, noted an ocean of terms used by indigenous people to describe the whiteness.  Researchers have debated his claim ever since, but recent studies of Inuit, Yupik, and Icelandic dialects have identified some 163 terms for snow and ice, made up of root words and suffixes.

Linguist Willem LeReuse says, “These people need to know whether ice is fit to walk on or whether you will sink through.”  This language is “a matter of life and death.”
A frozen lake is not frozen.  Beneath the white lid of winter, it continues to breathe and groan, strain and stretch.

I sat in a friend’s shanty on Lake Independence one January night.  Cold stars Swiss-cheesed the heavens, and a fuse of wind sizzled across the whiteness, driving pellets of snow against the shanty walls.  Slush skimmed the fishing hole, shrugged over the lip of ice.  Below, my hook dangled in the black Jell-O of lake as I listened.

The snow and ice and water were singing.  Otherworldly music—blue whales dueting in the Atlantic, meteors whistling through atmospheres, penguins or aliens or angels giving thanks under green fingers of aurora.  It was a conversation of states, solid talking to liquid talking to solid, in a language older than Inuit or Yupik.  A glacial language of endings and beginnings.
Abridged list of English snow terms from the Farmer’s Almanac:  barchan, corn snow, cornice, dendrite, finger drift, firn, graupel, ground blizzard, hominy snow, penitents, pillow drift, rimed snow, snirt, snowburst, sun cups, whiteout.
Drive to Lake Superior just before sunrise in February.  Make sure the sky is empty of everything but stars and moon.  Park near Little Presque, just as a rib of light crowns the horizon.  Get out of your car.  Stand.  Listen.

You will hear a distant rushing sound, like a herd of sleeping mammoths, breathing thunder in unison.  In.  Out.  In.  Out.  Follow that sound.

It won’t be easygoing.  You’ll encounter boulders of ice, five-foot drifts of snow sheathed in thick rime, polar faults that trap feet and legs.  If you aren’t careful, you may end up slogging through thigh-deep planes of not-quite-snow and not-quite-ice.  Keep moving toward the sound.

Light will crawl into the heavens as you walk, and you’ll be tempted to pause, watch.  Don’t.  You’ll miss the main attraction because of the opening act.  Forward.  Go forward.

Judge for yourself when you’re close enough to the Big Waters.  You should be able to see the lake fully, without distraction of trees or piled snows.  Be careful not to go too far out.  Waves and currents are still moving beneath the ice.  You may sink through.  This is life and death.

Once you have found this spot, stand there.  Breathe with the water.  In.  Out.  In.  Out.  Don’t take out your phone to mediate the moment.  No video.  No pictures.  Just watch.  
Mix light with water, and the result is Monet—purples, greens, pinks smeared together like sidewalk chalk after rain.  Mix light with water and snow and ice, and the result is clearer, harder.  A Byzantine landscape of glass shards.  Whites, greens, blues, reds pieced together into the geometric face of something divine.  Jonah swallowed by the Leviathan.  Christ strolling across the Sea of Galilee.  Thoreau chopping wood by Walden Pond.

Whiteness gives way to meaning.
In April, I stand by my kitchen window, watch the world melt.  A fang of ice hangs from the eave of the roof.  As the sun strikes it, it begins to sweat, drops steady as a clock’s second hand.  Soon there will be slush, then mud, then green.

The dumb blankness of December and January flows with this promise of becoming.  It is the language of water.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

February 20-21: The Only Communist, Thursday's Catastrophes, Friday's Catastrophes

Merton and his father getting to know their new environment . . .

Thus I was constantly in and out of old churches, and stumbled upon the ruins of ancient chapels and monasteries.  We saw wonderful hill towns like Najac and Cordes.  Cordes was even more perfectly preserved than St. Antonin, but it did not have the form of our town built around its shrine, although Cordes was, of course, centered upon its church too.  But Cordes had been built as a sort of fortified summer resort for the Counts of Languedoc, and its chief attraction were the more or less fancy homes of the court officials who came out there for the hunting with their Lord.

Then, too, we went down into the plains to the south, and came to Albi, with the red cathedral of St. Cecilia frowning over the Tarn like a fortress, and from the top of that tower we looked out over the plains of Languedoc, where all the churches were forts.  This land was long wild with heresy, and with the fake mysticism that tore men away from the Church and from the Sacraments, and sent them into hiding to fight their way to some strange, suicidal nirvana.

There was a factory in St. Antonin--the only factory in the place--employing the only proletarians, three or four men, one of whom was also the only Communist.  The factory made some kind of a machine for raising hay effortlessly from the surface of a field on the top of a wagon.  The man who owned it was called Rodolausse, the town capitalist.  He had two sons who ran his plant for him.  One of them was a tall, lanky, solemn, dark-haired man with horn-rimmed spectacles.

One evening we were sitting in one of the cafes of the town, a deserted place run by a very old man.  Rodolausse got to talking with Father, and I remember his polite enquiry as to whether we were Russians.  He got that idea from the beard.

So, the last couple days have been quite trying.  I sort of feel like the only communist in a town filled with capitalists.  I've felt like I've had a target on my back for the universe to identify me easily.  My environment has not been hospitable in the least.  Here's a quick rundown of Thursday's catastrophes:
  • Spent over an hour on Wednesday night planning my mythology lesson for the morning.  I forgot my lesson planning book and had to teach it by memory.
  • Lost the mate of my favorite winter glove.
  • Got a parking ticket at the university.
  • My son was diagnosed with pink eye and an ear infection.
  • Tried to make a car payment over the phone.  My card was denied.
  • My puppy got hold of my leather pouch where I store my zip drives (which have the only copies of three manuscripts in progress), sparking a frantic 15-minute search.  I found them.
And, here's the rundown of Friday's catastrophes:
  • Worked at the medical office for over ten hours, doing prior authorizations and patient schedulings.
  • Found my lost glove at my office at the university.  So far, so good.
  • Cleaned at church after work.  While I was doing this, I discovered that someone had used my debit card to buy all kinds of things in all kinds of places--Florida, Washington state, Hong Kong.  
  • Came home and spent two hours unplugging my toilet.  My sister eventually came over with a cable to help me.
  • Collapsed on the couch and fell asleep.
So, there you have it.  The ending of a pretty crappy week.  Tomorrow, I have to go to my financial institution, cancel my debit card, and try to get some of my stolen money back.  By my calculations, around $350.  (I guess that's a blessing.)

So you see, Saint Marty is ready to start a communist revolution in his life, and he needs to hug his puppy.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

February 19: Good Subjects for Pictures, Successful Home, Being Human

Merton's father looking to build a permanent home . . .

We rented an apartment in a three-story house at the edge of the town, on the Place de la Condamine, where they held the cattle market.  But Father planned to build a house of his own, and soon he bought some land nearby on the lower slopes of the big hill that closed off the western arm of the valley of the Bonnette.  On top of the hill was a little chapel, now abandoned, called Le Calvaire, and indeed up the rocky path through the vineyards behind our land there had once been a series of shrines, marking the fourteen Stations of the Cross between the town and the top of the hill.  But that kind of piety had died away in the nineteenth century:  there were not enough good Catholics left to keep it alive.

And then when Father began to make plans for building his house, we traveled all over the countryside looking at places, and also visiting villages where there might be good subjects for pictures.

I don't have much time this evening for deep introspection.  In fact, in a few minutes, I will be heading downstairs from my university office to teach my Wednesday evening class.  I will say that Merton's father goes about finding a home for himself and his son in a very businesslike way.  He has very specific ideas of what he's looking for, including close proximity to possible subjects for his painting.

It's difficult to "plan" a happy, successful home.  In fact, I'd say it's darn near impossible.  You can include all kinds of luxuries in a home that may help in creating "happiness," but having a loving family home is a little more than it's closeness to a church or the sea.  It's about what goes on inside the walls of the home, as well.

I've spent most of my adult life trying to foster a loving, nurturing home for my wife and children.  It's what I grew up with--imperfect parents doing the best that they could for their children.  No home is perfect, I know.  All families have some level of dysfunction.  It goes with being human.  As of this moment, I'm still striving to sustain a home that is full of love and compassion and safety.  That's been a tall order this past year-and-a-half.

However, tonight, as I'm planning my descent into the classroom, I will say that I don't think I've sucked at being a father and husband.

Saint Marty isn't perfect, but he's doing the best he can.

February 16-17-18: Incapable of Belief, Center of Your Life, Father/Family Man/Friend/Poet

Merton reflects on the center of things . . .

Even in 1925, St. Antonin preserved the shape of a round, walled bourg: only the walls themselves were gone, and were replaced on three sides by a wide circular street lined with trees and spacious enough to be called a Boulevard, although you hardly ever saw anything on it but ox-carts and chickens.  The town itself was a labyrinth of narrow streets, lined by old thirteenth-century houses, mostly falling into ruins.  Nevertheless, the medieval town was there, but for the fact that the streets were no longer crowded and busy, and the houses and shops were no longer occupied by prosperous merchants and artisans, and there was nothing left of the color and gaiety and noise of the Middle Ages.  Nevertheless, to walk through those streets was to be in the Middle Ages:  for nothing had been touched by man, only by ruin and by the passage of time.

It seems that one of the busiest guilds of the town had been that of the tanners and the old tanneries were still there, along a narrow foul-smelling sewer of a stream that ran through a certain section of the town.  But in those old days the whole place had been filled with the activity of all the work belonging to a free and prosperous commune.

And as I say, the center of it all was the church.

Unfortunately , the very importance of the ancient shrine of St. Antonin had drawn down violence upon it in the days of the religious wars.  The church that now stood on the ruins was entirely modern, and we could not judge what the old one had been like, or see, reflected in its work and construction, the attitude of the citizens who had built it.  Even now, however, the church dominated the town, and each noon and evening sent forth the Angelus bells over the brown, ancient tiled roofs reminding people of the Mother of God who watched over them.

And even now, although I never thought of it and was, indeed, incapable of doing so, since I had no understanding of the concept of Mass, even now, several times each morning, under those high arches, on the altar over the relics of the martyr, took place that tremendous, secret, and obvious immolation, so secret that ti will never be thoroughly understood by a created intellect, and yet so obvious that its very obviousness blinds us by excess of clarity:  the unbloody Sacrifice of God under the species of bread and wine.

Here, in this amazing, ancient town, the very patter of the place, of the houses and streets and of nature itself, the circling hills, the cliffs and trees, all focused my attention upon the one, important central fact of the church and what it contained.  Here, everywhere I went, I was forced by the disposition of everything around me, to be always at least virtually conscious of the church.  Every street pointed more or less inward to the center of the town, to the church.  Every view of the town, from the exterior hills, centered upon the long grey building with its high spire.

The church had been fitted into the landscape in such a way as to become the keystone of its intelligibility.  Its presence imparted a special form, a particular significance to everything else that the eye beheld, to the hills, the forests, the fields, the white cliff of the Rocher d'Anglars and to the red bastion of the Roc Rouge, to the winding river, and the green valley of the Bonnette, the town and the bridge, and even to the white stucco villas of the modern bourgeois that dotted the fields and orchards outside the precinct of the vanished ramparts and the significance that was thus imparted was the supernatural one.

The whole landscape, unified by the church and its heavenward spire, seemed to say:  this is the meaning of all created things: we have been made for no other purpose than that men may use us in raising themselves to God, and in proclaiming the glory of God.  We have been fashioned, in all our perfection, each according to his own nature, and all our natures ordered and harmonized together, that man's reason and his love might fit in this one last element, this God-given key to the meaning of the whole.

Oh, what a thing it is, to live in a place that is so constructed that you are forced, in spite of yourself, to be at least a virtual contemplative!  Where all day long your eyes must turn, again and again, to the House that hides the Sacramental Christ!

I did not even know who Christ was, that He was God.  I had not the faintest idea that there existed such a thing as the Blessed Sacrament.  I thought churches were simply places where people go together and sang a few hymns.  And yet now I tell you, you who are now what I once was, unbelievers, it is that Sacrament, and that alone, the Christ living in our midst, and sacrificed by us, and for us and with us, in the clean and perpetual Sacrifice, it is He alone Who holds our world together, and keeps us all from being poured headlong and immediately into the pit of our eternal destruction.  And I tell you there is a power that goes forth from the Sacrament, a power of light and truth, even into the hearts of those who have heard nothing of Him and seem to be incapable of belief.

There you have it.  Merton explaining the meaning of his universe--the Church, the Body of Christ.  Everywhere the child Merton looks, the Church of St. Antonin dominates his view.  The whole town is a bull's eye, with the gray building and its spire at its center.  A physical manifestation of the core teachings of Catholicism.

I think every person has some kind of center in his or her life.  For some, it's what Merton describes here--Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  No happiness, except through Jesus.  For others, it's work that defines who they are.  I am a plumber or teacher or poet.  Still others define themselves through the people in their lives:  I am a husband or father or brother or friend.  The center is how we define ourselves and our worth.

There is nothing more upsetting than losing your center.  Losing your faith in God.  Or a job you love.  Or your wife or child or best friend.  When that happens, you are forced to redefine your values.  Come up with a new identity.  Sort of like a phoenix, you have to rise from the ashes.  If you're lucky, this only happens once or twice in your life.  For the rest of us pour suckers, our lives are just a series of unwelcome transformations.

In the past year-and-a-half, I've had to recenter myself quite a bit, not of my own choosing.  It's a matter of your priorities shifting, and, suddenly, you start thinking of yourself differently.  Instead of a husband, you're mainly a father.  Instead of a teacher, you're a musician.  Instead of a poet, you're a health care worker.  If I were to define myself right now, I'd probably say that I'm a father/family man/friend/poet, in that order.  Unfortunately, none of those titles brings in a whole lot of money.

Of course, money does not define happiness.  I know this.  I have relatives and friends who have plenty of money, and yet they are absolutely miserable.  These people could travel, buy all kinds of amenities that would make their lives easy, treat their friends and families to gifts, or help the less fortunate.  They don't do any of these things.  Instead, they focus on their unhappiness.  These people have no center, nothing that gives their lives meaning.

I am lucky.  I have a center.  I know what is most important to me at this time in my life.  My kids, first and foremost.  My days are all about insuring their happiness and safety, as best I can.  Some days, that's easier than others.  But that is the gray building with the spire in the middle of my town.

Saint Marty always has his eyes on that spire.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

February 15: Followed by Deep Shadow, Traveling, Dark Night of the Soul

Merton on the move with his father again:

The locomotive had big wheels and a low, squat boiler, and an inordinately high smoke-stack, so that it seemed to have escaped from the museum, except that it was very sturdy and did its work well.  And the three or four little coaches sped us quickly into a territory that was certainly sacramental.

The last town that had a brick campanile to its church, after the manner of all Languedoc, was Montricoux.  Then the train entered the Aveyron valley.  After that, we were more or less in Rouergue.  And then we began to see something. 

I did not realize what we were getting into until the train swept around a big curve of the shallow river, and came to stop under the sunny plane trees along the platform of a tiny station, and we looked out the window, and saw that we had just passed along the bottom of a sheer cliff one or two hundred feet high, with a thirteenth-century castle on the top of it.  That was Bruniquel.  All around us, the steep hills were thick with woods, small gnarled oaks, clinging to the rock.  Along the river, the slender poplars rippled with the light of late afternoon, and green waters danced on the stones.  The people who got on and off the train were peasants with black smocks, and on the roads we saw men walking beside teams of oxen, drawing their two-wheeled carts: and they guided the placid beasts with their long sticks.  Father told me that the people were all talking, not French, but the old patois, langue d'oc.

The next place was Penne.  At the meeting of two valleys, a thin escarpment of rock soared up boldly over the river, bent and sharply rising, like an open wing.  On the top were the ruins of another castle.  Further down, straggling along the ridge, went the houses of the village and somewhere among them the small square tower of a church, an open iron belfry on top, with a visible bell.

The valley seemed to get narrower and deeper as the train followed its narrow single track between the river and the rocks.  Sometimes there was enough space between us and the river to contain a small hayfield.  Occasionally a deserted dirt road or cattle track would cross our way, and there would be a house and a crossing-gate and one of those furious French bells, throwing the sudden scare of it clangor through the windows of the carriage as we passed by. 

The valley widened a little to contain the village of Cazals, hanging on to the foot of the hill across the river, and then we were back in the gorge.  If you went to the window and looked up, you could see the grey and yellow cliffs towering up so high they almost blocked out the sky.  And now we could begin to distinguish caves high up on the rock.  Later I would climb up there and visit some of them.  Passing through tunnel after tunnel, and over many bridges, through bursts of light and greenery followed by deep shadow, we came at last to the town of our destination.

It was an old, old town.  Its history went back to the Roman days--which were the times of the martyred saint, its patron.  Antoninus had brought Christianity to the Roman colony in this valley, and later he had been martyred in another place, Paniers, down in the foothills of the Pyrenees, near Prades, where I was born.  

So, Merton, as a young boy, comes full circle, returning to the place of his birth in France.  Merton's father seems to be on a journey himself--wrestling with his notions of religious faith.  So this little passage about travel is both literal and metaphorical, for both father and son.  There has been a void in Merton's life since the death of his mother.  A God-sized hole.  Merton's father is suffering from the same thing.

For the last couple of days, I've done some traveling myself, going from one place in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to another and then back.  I've never been a fan of road trips.  Living in the U. P., however, you have to get used to them.  They become a necessity, for work, medical appointments, Christmas shopping, traveling Broadway performances, college educations, and the like.  There are just some things that are not readily available in this little shark-shaped piece of land surrounded by water.

During the week, I spend a lot of time on the road.  I live about 20 miles from the places where I mainly work--the university and the hospital.  So, during the course of a work week, I travel roughly around 40 miles a day.  I'm sure, for those who live closer to big cities like New York or Chicago, that commute seems like nothing.

I try to use my time in the car productively.  In the mornings, I pray a lot--for all the people in my life in need of some extra heavenly help.  (Saint Anthony is my go-to guy.  He has rarely let me down.)  In the afternoons, I listen to my favorite podcasts or an audio book--my recents include Normal People by Sally Rooney, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles and When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.  I don't like wasted time, and I tend to view the minutes/hours I spend in a car as empty time.  I need to fill that time

Metaphorically, I've been on a journey for the last year or so, and I'm not quite sure where I'm going to end up.  This little trip is sponsored by mental illness and addiction.  There have been a whole lot of valleys and tunnels, and not a whole lot of palm trees and margaritas this go 'round.  In fact, if I'm being completely honest, I started down this road quite a while ago--right around the time my daughter was born.

During this journey, God and I have had an off again/on again relationship.  Sometimes, we're barely on speaking terms.  Other times, He's all I got.  At the moment, tonight, as I sit here in my living room alone, I have to say that the God-sized hole in my life seems pretty large.  I've tried praying, and it hasn't helped.  It's one of those times when it feels as though God has taken His own little vacation away from me.  Saint John of the Cross called a moment like this a "dark night of the soul."

What do I do with this feeling of isolation and abandonment?  If I was Mother Teresa (who was afflicted with a dark night of the soul that lasted for decades), I would continue to care for the sick and dying in Calcutta, doing God's work.  That's what faith is all about--trusting that God is there even when it seems like he's on the other side of the universe.

So, this evening I look for signs of God.  I found Him in my son, who gave me a hug and kiss as I put him to bed, said, "I love you, Daddy."  I find Him in my puppy, Juno, who's sitting quietly in the room with me, every once in a while lifting her head from her pillow to make sure I'm still here.  And I will find Him, hopefully, when I climb into bed tonight and try to chase down sleep.  Maybe, God will grant me some rest of mind and heart and body.

Saint Marty is tired of this road, this journey.  He'd rather be at Disney World.

Friday, February 14, 2020

February 14: Their Star, Valentine's Day, Unconditional and Selfless Love

Merton and his father following a star . . .

He would have felt far less hesitant if he had only had some Catholic friends of his own intellectual level--someone who would be able to talk to him intelligently about the faith.  But as far as I know, he had none.  He had a tremendous respect for the good Catholic people we met, but they were too inarticulate about the Church to be able to tell him anything about it that he could understand--and, also, they were generally too shy.

Then, too, after the first day, it became clear that Montauban was no place for us.  There was really nothing there worth painting.  It was a good enough town, but it was dull.  The only thing that interested Father was the Musee Ingres, filled with meticulous drawings by that painter, who had been born in Montauban:  and that collection of cold and careful sketches was not enough to keep anyone at a high pitch of inspiration for much more than fifteen minutes.  More characteristic of the town was a nightmarish bronze monument by Bourdelle outside the museum, which seemed to represent a group of cliff-dwellers battling in a mass of molten chocolate.

However, when we happened to inquire at the Syndicat d'Initiative about places to live, we saw photographs of some little towns which, as we were told, were in a valley of a river called the Aveyron not very far away to the northeast of the city.

The afternoon we took the peculiar, antiquated train out of Montauban into the country, we felt something like the three Magi after leaving Herod and Jerusalem when they caught sight once again of their star.

We all go through life looking for a star to follow, searching for the purpose of our lives.  The Magi following the star is one of the greatest metaphors of this--risking everything to find the center of the universe in the form of a little child.  Purpose and meaning come in many shapes and sizes and forms.

Happy Valentine's Day.  You know, I've been really lucky.  Close to 30 years ago, I met the love of my life.  We've been together, more or less, ever since.  It hasn't been a smooth road.  Rather, it was more like the Magi's journey through mountain and desert and arid plane.  Yet, on this day dedicated to love in the year 2020, we are still together.

And our love for each other has brought into my life two other loves--my daughter and son.  Learning to be a father has simply been an education in learning to love unconditionally and selflessly.  I would do anything for my kids, and I think they know it.  They are my guiding stars, helping me get through the deserts of my life.

Some people never find their guiding stars.  I have three, and they continue to shed light in my darkness.  I know I'm sounding sentimental here.  I don't really care.  A little sentimentality on Saint Valentine's Day is acceptable.  I embrace it.

Tonight, I'll be performing in the Valentine's Day show of the Red Jacket Jamboree at the Rozsa Center on the campus of Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Michigan.  Two of my guiding stars will be there--my wife and son.  I know that when I step out on stage at the beginning of the evening, I will see there smiling faces looking up at me.

And Saint Marty will be bathed in their light.

February 13: Without Any Religion At All, Difficult Circumstances, Love and Belief

Merton speaks of his father's religious faith:

When we woke up in the morning, and looked out into the bright sunlit air, and saw the low tiled roofs, we realized that we had come upon a scene different from the last kind of landscape we had seen by the light of the previous evening in the rain.

We were at the borders of Languedoc.  Everything was red.  The town was built of brick.  It stood on a kind of low bluff, over the clay-colored eddies of the river Tarn.  We might almost have been in a part of Spain.  But oh!  It was dead, that town!

Why were we there?  It was not only that Father wanted to continue painting in the south of France.  He had come back to us that year with more than a beard.  Whether it was his sickness or what, I do not know, but something had made him certain that he could not leave the training and care of his sons to other people, and that he had a responsibility to make some kind of a home, somewhere, where he could at the same time carry on his work and have us living with him, growing up under his supervision.  And, what is more, he had become definitely aware of certain religious obligations for us as well as for himself.

I was sure he had never ceased to be a religious man but now--a thing which I did not remember from my earlier years--he told me to pray, to ask God to help us, to help him paint, to help him have a successful exhibition, to find us a place to live.

When we were settled then, perhaps after a year of two, he would bring John Paul over to France too.  Then we would have a home.  So far, of course, everything was indefinite.  But the reason why he had come to Montauban was that he had been advised that there was a very good school there.

The school in question was called the Institut Jean Calvin, and the recommendation had come from some prominent French Protestant whom Father knew.

I remember we went and visited the place.  It was a big, clean, white building overlooking the river.  There were some sunny cloisters, full of greenery, and all the rooms were empty, because it was still the time of summer vacation.  However, there was something about it that Father did not like, and I was, thank God, never sent there.  As a matter of fact it was not so much a school as a kind of Protestant residence where a lot of youths (who belonged, mostly, to fairly well-to-do families) boarded and received religious instruction and supervision and, for the rest, attended the classes of the Lycee.,

And so I obscurely began to realize that, although Father was anxious for me to get some kind of religious training, he was by no means in love with French Protestantism.  As a matter of fact, I learned later from some of his friends, that at the time there had been not a little likelihood that he might become a Catholic.  He seems to have been much attracted to the Church, but in the end he resisted the attraction because of the rest of us.  I think he felt that his first duty was to take the ordinary means at his disposal to get me and John Paul to practice whatever religion was nearest at hand to us, for if he became a Catholic there might have been immense complications with the rest of family, and we would perhaps have remained without any religion at all.  

If anyone had reason to turn his back on God, it was Owen Merton.  Merton's father lost his young wife to cancer early in their marriage, leaving him without his life partner.  The person with whom he had been planning to spend the rest of his life.  And now, he's trying to bring up his children to the best of his ability, including teaching them about faith.

When faced with difficult circumstances in life, a person of faith has two choices:  1) to fully rely on his/her Higher Power, or 2) turn his/her back on that Higher Power.  Sometimes, however, it's a little of both.  Getting angry.  Giving up on prayer.  Wallowing in grief and self-pity.  Then, in the midst of all that, saying things like "help me, God" and "why me, God" and "I don't understand, God."  That's what the human experience is all about. 

Struggle is always a part of life.  Sometimes, you can go for long periods where everything is going well.  You're healthy, making enough money to pay the bills.  Your kids are doing well in school, and your love life is full of roses and hearts and back massages.  And then, things change in a millisecond.  Suddenly, you're walking through a valley of bones.

I'm in Calumet at the moment, sitting in a hotel room as a snowstorm sort of rages outside.  Not a big snowstorm.  Just enough to make it impossible to see across the parking lot.  I've spent a good portion of the night watching reruns of M*A*S*H.  Not a bad way to kill a few hours.

And, of course, being alone gives me a lot of time to think about and reflect on life and love and faith and chocolate.  I already do that a lot, but, being by myself, lets me do it without interruption.  Here is what I've learned about myself tonight:

  1. I love my wife.
  2. I love my kids.
  3. I love my new puppy.
  4. I love my family.
  5. I love my friends.
  6. I love teaching.
  7. I love writing.
  8. I love God, even when my life seems shitty.
  9. I love making the world a better place.
  10. I love being around creative people.
  11. I believe that love wins.  Always.
  12. I believe that God is looking out for me.  Always.
  13. I believe that Donald Trump is a horrible human being.  Always.
  14. I believe that words can change the world.  Always.
  15. I believe that the world is a better place with me in it.  Always.  (I struggle with this one sometimes.)
  16. I believe that a good book makes me happy.  Always.
  17. I believe that being alone makes me a little sad.  Always.
  18. I believe that chocolate makes things better.  Always.
  19. I believe that I'm a decent poet.  Always.
  20. I believe in the idea of Bigfoot.  Always.
That's a lot of love and belief for one night.

Saint Marty is going to try to get some sleep now.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

February 9-10-11-12: Woodsmoke in the Air, "Parasite," Bernie Sanders, Puppy

Merton settling into France with his father:

We flew over the brown Loire, by a long, long bridge at Orleans, and from then on I was home, although I had never seen it before, and shall never see it again.  It was there, too, that Father told me about Joan of Arc, and I supposed the thought of her was with me, at least in the back of my mind, all the day long.  Maybe the thought of her, acting as a kind of implicit prayer by the veneration and love it kindled in me, won me her intercession in heaven, so that through her I was able to get some sort of actual grace out of the sacrament of her land, and to contemplate God without realizing it in all the poplars along those streams, in all the low-roofed houses gathered about the village churches, in the woods and the farms and the bridged rivers.  We passed a place called Chateaudun.  When the land became rockier, we came to Limoges, with a labyrinth of tunnels, ending in a burst of light and a high bridge and a panorama of the city crowding up the side of a steep hill to the feet of the plain-towered cathedral.  And all the time we were getting deeper and deeper into Aquitaine:  towards the old provinces of Quercy and Rouergue, where, although we were not sure yet of our destination, I was to live and drink from the fountains of the Middle Ages.

In the evening we came to a station called Brive.  Brive-la-Gaillarde.  The dusk was gathering.  The country was hilly, and full of trees, yet rocky, and you knew that the uplands were bare and wild.  In the valleys were castles.  It was too dark for us to see Cahors.

And then:  Montauban.

What a dead town!  What darkness and silence, after the train.  We came out of the station into an empty, dusty square, full of shadows, and a dim light, here and there.  The hoofs of the cab-horse clopped away along the empty street, taking some of the other people who had descended from the express off into the mysterious town.  We picked up our bags and crossed the square to a hotel that was there, one of those low, undefined, grey little hotels, with a dim bulb burning in a downstairs window, illuminating a small cafe, with a lot of iron tables and a few calendars covered with flyspecks and the big volumes of the Bottin crowding the rickety desk of the sourfaced lady in black who presided over the four customers.

And yet, instead of being dreary, it was pleasant.  And although I had no conscious memory of anything like this, it was familiar, and I felt at home.  Father threw open the wooden shutters of the room, and looked out into the quiet night, without stars, and said:

"Do you smell the woodsmoke in the air?  That is the smell of the Midi."

Funny thing.  I sort of come from a town that outsiders might describe as "dead."  Of course, visitors don't see all the stuff that goes on in little bergs like Merton's Montauban or my hometown.  In my city, on Main Street, there's a library at one end.  At the other, is a Catholic Church.  In between, there are bars and antique shops and a little diner where everyone goes on Fridays nights for the fish fry.  In winter, Main Street looks like Santa's village at the North Pole.

Today (February 12) as snow storm has moved into my little pocket of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  We are supposed to receive between six to seven inches from this tiny squall.  That may sound like a lot of snow to my disciples from warmer climes, but for Yoopers, that amount of snow doesn't even warrant an extra trip to the grocery store.  However, my hometown will look like Santa's village by the time I get home from teaching this evening. 

Much has happened in the world since the last time I wrote a blog post.  A foreign language film (Parasite from South Korea) pretty much cleaned up at the Academy Awards on Sunday, February 9, winning all the major awards, including Best Picture.  A first in the history of the Oscars. 

Bernie Sanders narrowly won the New Hampshire Primary after coming in a close second in Iowa last week.  I don't know what that means politically, but it sort of heartens me that people support Senator Sanders' ideas in the United States, which increasingly seems to be edging toward the cliff of fascism.  Perhaps there is hope for my country after all.

And on Tuesday, my new puppy, Juno, had her first vet appointment since becoming a part of my family.  She currently weighs 5.9 pounds and can be distracted by dog treats when getting a shot.  (Seriously, she didn't even flinch.)  She has become the center of love in our home.  Over the last month or so, I have learned that, no matter how shitty my day has been, a few licks on the face from a puppy can cure the darkest of moods.

That about catches you up on what has been going on in this wannabe saint's life.  Snow.  Oscars.  Social Democrats.  Puppies.  What more can you ask for in a blog post?

Saint Marty will be blogging from Calumet, Michigan, tomorrow evening.  He's on the road for a little radio show called the Red Jacket Jamboree at the Rozsa Center on the campus of Michigan Technological University.  Stop on by if you get the chance. 

Saturday, February 8, 2020

February 6-7-8: I Do Belong, Feeling Like a Stranger, Blessed

Merton rediscovers the land of his birth:

And yet it was France that grew the finest flowers of delicacy and grace and intelligence and wit and understanding and proportion and taste.  Even the countryside, even the landscape of France, whether in the low hills and lush meadows and apple orchards of Normandy or in the sharp and arid and vivid outline of the mountains of Provence, or in the vast, rolling red vineyards of Languedoc, seems to have been made full of a special perfection, as a setting for the best of the cathedrals, the most interesting towns, the most fervent monasteries, and the greatest universities.  

But the wonderful thing about France is how all her perfections harmonize so fully together.  She has possessed all the skills, from cooking to logic and theology, from bridge-building to contemplation, from vine-growing to sculpture, from cattle-breeding to prayer:  and possessed them more perfectly, separately and together, than any other nation.

Why is it that the songs of the little French children are more graceful, their speech more intelligent and sober, their eyes calmer and more profound than those of the children of other nations?  Who can explain these things?

France, I am glad I was born in your land, and I am glad God brought me back to you, for a time, before it was too late.

I did not know all these things about France the rainy September evening when we landed at Calais, coming from England through which we had passed on our way.

Nor did I share or understand the enthusiastic satisfaction with which Father got off the boat and walked into the noise of the French station, filled with the cries of porters and with the steam of the French trains.

I was tired , and fell asleep long before we got to Paris.  I woke up long enough to be impressed by the welter of lights in the wet streets, and the dark sweep of the Seine, as we crossed one of the countless bridges, while far away the fires on the Eiffel tower spelled "C-I-T-R-O-E-N."

The words Montparnasse, Rue des Saints Peres, Gare d'Orleans filled my mind with their unmeaning, and spelled me no certitude concerning the tall grey houses, and the wide shady awnings of the cafes, and the trees, and the people , and the churches, and the flying taxis, and the green and white buses full of noise.

I did not have time, at the age of ten, to make anything out of this city, but already I knew I was going to like France:  and then, once more, we were on a train.

That day, on that express, going into the south, into the Midi, I discovered France.  I discovered that land which is really, as far as I can tell, the one to which I do belong, if I belong to any at all, by no documentary title but by geographical birth.

Merton has not really belonged anywhere he's lived so far in his short life.  Always on the move, he's felt more like a visitor than a resident of every place he's called "home."  That includes his maternal grandparents' house in New York.  Landing in France, however, he feels as if he has found himself, understands why he is who he is.

It's difficult always feeling like a stranger in your life.  Like you don't ever belong.  I have felt like that a lot.  I've always been the weird sibling in my family--artistic and sensitive, a poet and actor and musician.  Line me up with my remaining siblings, and you could play a game of "One of these things is not like the other."

Feeling like a stranger is a lonely thing.  It's as if, even though you're speaking the same language as everyone else, nobody really understands what you're saying.  Because of circumstances in my life, in the past and recently, I have felt completely alone in rooms filled with people.  Separated.  Unable to ever talk about what is on my mind or heart.  The only thing that has saved me at those moments is knowing that I have tons of friends and family who love me deeply, despite my brokenness.

So, this post is for all of those individuals.  A thank you from a stranger in a strange land.  I don't understand how I got to the place where I am right now.  I've always tried to live right, work hard, love unconditionally.  Yet, I'm surrounded by struggle.  If you are reading this post because you care about me, please know that I care about you, too.  In the world at large, love is in short supply.  In my life, however, love abounds.  I thank you all for that.  I'm not sure I deserve it.

Sometimes Saint Marty feels like an alien, and sometimes Saint Marty feels like the most blessed person alive.

February 8: Anniversary of My Dad's Death, Chip off the Old Block, "The Quiet Man"

Today is the anniversary of my dad's death.  Hard to believe that my dad has been gone for two years already. 

He and I were very different people.  We saw eye-to-eye on practically nothing at all, socially, politically, or spiritually.  The one thing we had in common was how much we love/loved our families.  He would do almost anything for his wife and kids.

In that sense, Saint Marty is a chip off the old block.

The Quiet Man

by:  Martin Achatz

Last night, I dreamed my dad and John Wayne
were sitting around a campfire, eating
peaches out of a can.  Stars thick as cattle herds
milled above them, and the prairie grass
hummed some sweet old song like "Red River Valley"
or "Shenandoah."  I'm not sure if was heaven,
but my father was young and perfect, the hook
of his back as straight as a railroad spike.
Duke was young, too, the retired prizefighter
who chased Maureen O'Hara through the green
Galway countryside.  There weren't any Nazis
crawling along the ground in ambush, no
Richard Boone-faced kidnappers, skin
leathery as buffalo jerky, trying to steal
their sleeping horses.  I'm not sure
if you can smell in dreams, but I remember
smelling manure and smoke and something else.
Maybe the coming of rain.  My dad and Duke
didn't talk, just forked golden crescents
into their mouths, looking as if they were eating
solar eclipse after solar eclipse.  Their forks
made hollow cowbell noises in the dark.
When they were done, they tipped the cans
to their lips, drank the syrup inside
until it ran down their chins.  I kept
waiting for something more to happen,
a runaway stagecoach to crash through
or a baby elephant nosing for hay.
Instead, my dad took a deck of cards
from his pocket, started dealing.
They played gin rummy, hand after hand.
My dad let John Wayne win, because he was
John Wayne and because that's what
my dad did every morning with my mother
for years and years.  He did it because
it was a habit of love.  Maybe that's the name
of this movie:  Habit of Love.  It starts out
simply enough.  Two cards.  Dealt face up.
The king and queen of hearts.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

February 4-5: Waters Purified, Dark Period, Striking a Match

Merton waxing eloquent on his return to France, the land of his birth:

How did it ever happen that, when the dregs of the world had collected in western Europe, when Goth and Frank and Norman and Lombard had mingled with the rot of old Rome to form a patchwork of hybrid races, all of them notable for ferocity, hatred, stupidity, craftiness, lust, and brutality--how did it happen that, from all this, there should come Gregorian chant, monasteries and cathedrals, the poems of Prudentius, the commentaries and histories of Bede, the Moralia of Gregory the Great, St. Augustine's City of God, and his Trinity, the writings of St. Anselm, St. Bernard's sermons on the Canticles, the poetry of Caedmon and Cynewulf and Langland and Dante, St. Thomas' Summa, and the Oxoniense of Duns Scotus?

How does it happen that even today a couple of ordinary French stonemasons, or a carpenter and his apprentice, can put up a dovecote or a barn that has more architectural perfection than the piles of eclectic stupidity that grow up at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars on the campuses of American universities?

When I went to France, in 1925, returning to the land of my birth, I was also returning to the fountains of the intellectual and spiritual life of the world to which I belonged.  I was returning to the spring of natural waters, if you will, but waters purified and cleaned by grace with such powerful effect that even the corruption and decadence of the French society of our day has never been able to poison them entirely, or reduce them once again to their original barbarian corruption.

Merton's point--or wonder--is valid.  It seems that, at the darkest moments in history, from the most violent or corrupt of times, spring some of the most enduring works of art.  Merton's list bears that out.  More recently, think of Allen Ginsberg's Howl during the Vietnam War in America.  Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward at the height of Soviet oppression, Anne Frank's diary scribbled during the Holocaust.  It seems that, when the human race is at its worst, artists and poets and writers rise to their very best.

I know that, at times of struggle in my life, I have turned to my work as a means of consolation.  Writing helps me make sense of the senseless, find beauty in ugliness.  The impulse to put pen to journal pages is, for me, an act of hope.  It's sort of like striking a match in a dark room.  Suddenly, all that is important and true shines for a few brief seconds.  Those matches have to be lit.  The light has to shine.  If it doesn't, we're all sort of doomed by the brutality of the world.

In my country, I'm living through a pretty dark period.  Nationalism is running rampant.  Compassion and humanity and charity are in short supply.  Racism, homophobia, xenophobia are on the rise.  Families are being torn apart, literally and metaphorically.  I find it difficult right now to strike any kind of match, shed any kind of light, because the darkness is so deep and entrenched.  It has brought out the very worst in everybody.

Yet, I think it's important to keep writing, painting, playing music, creating.  It's how we're going to get through these Dark Ages in the United States of America.  Maybe, 40 or 50 years from now, some diary is going to be published.  It will have been written by an adolescent Central American girl being held in an internment camp somewhere in my country at this very moment.  It will be about her longing for her missing parents.  About the teenage boy in the internment camp with her, how she longs to kiss his lips.  The randoms acts of kindness she may witness during her days, things that give her hope and sustain her will to survive.  That diary will be a testament to the indomitable spirit of a human being in the face of inhumanity.  It will be beautiful and heartbreaking.

Saint Marty just struck another match in the darkness.

Monday, February 3, 2020

February 1-2-3: Feast of St. Louis of France, Decent Routine, Open Mic

Merton's father returns from abroad:

When he returned to New York, in the early summer of that year, he came in a kind of triumph.  He was beginning to be a successful artist.  Long ago he had been elected to one of those more or less meaningless British societies, so that he could write F. R. B. A. after his name--which he never did--and I think he was already in Who's Who, although that was the kind of thing for which he had supreme contempt.

But now, what was far more useful to an artist, he had gained the attention and respect of such an important and venerable critic as Roger Fry, and the admiration of people who not only knew what a good painting was, but had some money with which to buy one.

As he landed in New York, he was a very different person--more different than I realized--from the man who had taken me to Bermuda two years before.  All I noticed, at the moment, was the fact that he had a beard, to which I strenuously objected, being filled with the provincial snobbery so strong in children and adolescents.

"Are you going to shave it off now, or later?" I inquired, when we got to the house in Douglaston.

"I am not going to shave it off at all," said my father.

"That's crazy," I said.  But he was not disturbed.  He did shave it off, a couple years later, by which time I had got used to it.

However, he had something to tell me that upset my complacency far more than the beard.  For by now, having become more or less acclimated to Douglaston, after the unusual experience of remaining some two years in the same place, I was glad to be there, and liked my friends, and liked to go swimming in the bay.  I had been given a small camera with which I took pictures, which my uncle caused to be developed for me at the Pennsylvania Drug Store, in the city.  I possessed a baseball bat with the word "Spalding" burnt on it in large letters.  I thought maybe I would like to become a Boy Scout and, indeed, I had seen a great competition of Boy Scouts in the Flushing Armory, just next door to the Quaker meeting house where I had once got a glimpse of Dan Beard, with his beard.  

My father said:  "We are going to France."

"France!" I said in astonishment.  Why should anybody want to go to France?  I thought:  which shows that I was a very stupid and ignorant child.  But he persuaded me that he meant what he said.  And when all my objections were useless, I burst into tears.  Father was not at all unsympathetic about it.  He kindly told me that I would be glad to be in France, when I got there, and gave me many reasons why it was a good idea.  And finally he admitted that we would not start right away.

With this compromise I was temporarily comforted thinking perhaps the plan would be dropped after a while.  But fortunately it was not.  And on August the twenty-fifth of that year the game of Prisoner's Base began again, and we sailed for France.  Although I did not know it, and it would not have interested me then, it was the Feast of St. Louis of France.

I sort of feel like Merton's father typing this post tonight.  It has been a long time since I sat down with my laptop to record some thoughts.  I'm sure some of you think that I have lost interest in blogging.  I haven't.  The problem I'm experiencing is one of adjustment.  Since the new semester has begun, I have failed to establish a decent routine for myself, one in which I carve out time for writing.  I've tried getting up early.  Staying up late.  Stealing some moments in the middle of the day.  Nothing has really worked well .

Now, on top of everything else, I'm a little under the weather.  The flu has been running rampant through my coworkers at the medical office, so I am a little anxious about this cold.  I don't want it to develop into a full-blown case of leprosy.  (My partners in the office are already sanitizing pens and phones and keyboards like the CDC in an Ebola zone.)

I sort of wish my situation was a little more like Owen Merton's.  After many years of struggle, Owen returns home as a successful painter.  He's able to support himself and his family with his art.  I have not, and probably never will, be able to do that.  Instead, I will work a series of part-time jobs until I retire, die, or have a stroke.  With my luck, I'll probably die of a stroke on the day I retire at the age of 96.  Not many jobs out there for full-time poets.

Tonight, I'm going to a poetry open mic.  It's one of my favorite things to do every month.  I'm surrounded by poet friends who appreciate what I do.  Poetry rarely puts money in my pocket.  In fact, when I go to poetry readings, I usually end up buying books with the money I have in my pockets.  That's what poets do.  We support each other, celebrate our successes, lend helping hands when necessary.

So, unless I find a rich patron, win the National Book Award or Pulitzer Prize, or inherit a large fortune from a distant rich relative, I will never be able to support my family with my art, like Owen Merton.

Instead, Saint Marty will cobble writing time from stolen minutes during the day, staying up late, getting up early, forgoing lunch or dinner, attending open mics.  And, every once in a while, he'll get exhausted and a little sick.