Tuesday, March 31, 2020

March 30-31: Most Remarkable People, Doublespeak, Nostalgia

Merton writes about the Christmas of 1926 with some remarkable people . . .

In the winter of 1926 Father went to Murat.  Murat is in the Cantal, the old Province of Auvergne, a Catholic province.  It is in the mountains of central France, green mountains, old volcanoes.  The valleys are full of rich pastures and the mountains are heavy with fir trees or raise their green domes into the sky, bare of woods, covered with grass.  The people of this land are Celts, mostly.  The Auvergnats have been more or less laughed at, in French tradition, for their simplicity and rusticity.  They are very stolid people, but very good people.

At Murat, Father boarded with a family who had a little house, a sort of a small farm on the slope of one of the steep hills outside the town, and I went up there to spend the Christmas holidays, that year.

Murat was a wonderful place.  It was deep in snow, and the houses with their snow-covered roofs relieved the grey and blue and slate-dark patter of the buildings crowded together on the sides of these hills.  The town huddled at the foot of a rock crowned by a colossal statue of the Immaculate Conception, which seemed to me, at the time, to be too big, and to bespeak too much religious enthusiasm.  By now I realize that it did not indicate any religious excess at all.  These people wanted to say in a very obvious way that they loved Our Lady, who should indeed be loved and revered, as a Queen of great power and a Lady of immense goodness and mercy, mighty in her intercession for us before the throne of God, tremendous in the glory of her sanctity and her fullness of grace as Mother of God.  For she loves the children of God, who are born into the world with the image of God in their souls, and her powerful love is forgotten, and it is not understood, in the blindness and foolishness of the world.

However, I did not bring up the subject of Murat in in order to talk about the statue, but about M. and Mme. Privat.  They were the people with whom we boarded, and long before we got to Murat, when the train was climbing up the snowy valley, from Aurillac, on the other side of the Puy du Cantal, Father was telling me.  "Wait until you see the Privats."

In a way, they were to be among the most remarkable people I ever knew.  

Any person who knows me knows that Christmas is my jam.  Therefore, I love Merton's description of Murat in deep snow during the yuletide season.  And the huge statue of the Virgin Mary towering over the entire town.  It speaks to my Catholic childhood, where the walls were adorned with pictures of the Sacred Heart and a statue of the Blessed Mother looked down on family dinners from her perch on top of the china cabinet.

In this time of pandemic, I find my mind retreating to these simpler times, when life wasn't a daily struggle.  Even before Covid-19 entered the global consciousness, my life had become difficult in many ways.  Now, facing a kind of plague of Biblical proportions, I feel like everything that I thought was important and consequential is being stripped away.  Each day brings one less thing, one less comfort.

This morning, when I got to the hospital to report to work, I had to stand in line.  At the front of the line, I had to answer a series of questions ("Have you been experiencing fever or respiratory symptoms in the past week?" and "Have you traveled outside the Upper Peninsula in the past two weeks?" and "Have you been in contact with anyone who has been outside of the Upper Peninsula in the past two weeks?")  And then entered another line to have my temperature taken.  Only after passing this screening was I able to get my badge scanned and enter the building.

It was surreal, as if I was living in some kind of police state.  Now, I know that all this is being done in the interest of public safety, but that knowledge doesn't make this newest change any easier.  And a new (or old) language has entered the public domain, one that Orwell identified in 1948:  doublespeak.  Messages layered in double-negatives.  Announcements made and then minutes later retracted, rescinded, revised, or revoked.  This is the new normal.

That is why I allow myself to indulge in nostalgia these days.  Yes, the old days were not all sunshine and rainbows.  There was still poverty and racial injustice and homophobia and xenophobia and war and pestilences.  There hasn't been a time since Adam and Eve walked out of the Garden (metaphorically or literally, depending on your belief system) that human history hasn't been rife with these plagues, physical and existential. 

For tonight, however, I hold onto memories, like Christmases of the past.  My daughter's first Christmas.  She was twenty days old.  Fit into my elbow and slept there like a beautiful gift.  I hold moments like that close to me right now.  Dip into it like fresh water from a cold well.

Saint Marty wishes you all beauty and rest.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

March 29: Truth and Morality, My Father, Sunday Morning

More on the morality of Merton's father . . .

Father was not afraid to express his ideas about truth and morality to anybody that seemed to need them--that is, if a real occasion arose.  He did not, of course, go around interfering with everybody else's business.  But once his indignation go the better of him, and he gave a piece of his mind to a shrew of a French-woman, one of those spiteful sharp-tongued bourgeoises, who was giving free expression to her hatred of one of her neighbors who very much resembled herself.

He asked her why she thought Christ had told people to love their enemies.  Did she suppose God commanded this for His benefit?  Did He get anything out of it that He really needed from us?  Or was it not rather for our own good that he had given us this commandment?  He told her that if she had any sense, she would love other people if only for the sake of the good and health and peace of her own soul, instead of tearing herself to pieces with her own envy and spitefulness.  It was St. Augustine's argument, that envy and hatred try to pierce our neighbor with a sword, when the blade cannot reach him unless it first passes through our own body.  I suppose Father had never read any of St. Augustine, but he would have liked him.  

This incident with the shrew reminds one a little of Leon Bloy.  Father had not read him either, but he would have liked him too.  They had much in common, but Father shared none of Bloy's fury.  If he had been a Catholic, his vocation as a lay-contemplative would certainly have developed along the same lines.  For I am sure he had that kind of a vocation.  But unfortunately it never really developed, because he never got to the Sacraments.  However, there were in him the latent germs of the same spiritual poverty and all of Bloy's hatred of materialism and of false spiritualities and of worldly values in people who called themselves Christians.

For some reason, when Merton speaks of his father in this book, I picture my own father.  I'm not sure if this association has anything to do with Owen Merton's character or just the fact that, since Merton provides no clear descriptions of his father (other than some passages about his facial hair), I fill in the physical details with those of my own dad.  Or it may simply be that the word "father" in my mind is delineated by my experiences, and I am projecting them into my reading of Merton's memoir.

Yet, here I sit, on a rainy Sunday morning in late March in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in the middle of a global pandemic in the year 2020, being visited by the ghosts of two fathers--Merton's and my own.  My father was born in 1927, nine years after the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, and he died in 2018, 100 years after the Spanish flu and two years before Covid-19.  Owen Merton died in 1931, just four years after my father was born, and roughly 13 years after the Spanish flu outbreak.  Owen was an artist.  My dad was a plumber.  Owen was unschooled in religion.  My dad was a cradle to grave Catholic.  Yet, both men had some kind of internal moral compass that was uncompromising.

Don't get me wrong.  My dad was no saint, and neither was Merton's father.  Owen Merton was an itinerant painter who had no problem leaving the care of his children to almost complete strangers in pursuit of his art.  My dad was stridently conservative in his values, and his ideas of social responsibility bordered on (and sometimes stepped fully into) racism at times.  No person is perfect, and these two fathers bear that out.  And both had different responses to organized religion.

Yet again, there is no church this Sunday morning, which unsettles me a great deal, because my father and mother dragged me to Mass every weekend, forced me to fast during Lent, and made my siblings and me recite the rosary every night after dinner.  You could say that my internal clock and calendar were synced with the Church.  Were he alive today, my father would be restless and unsettled without Church, as well.  As a child, he served as an altar boy and graduated from a Catholic high school.  Up until just a few years before his death, my dad was an usher, passing the baskets down the pews every Saturday evening.

Merton's father, it seems, was aware of the teachings of Jesus Christ.  The above passage seems to indicate that Owen Merton actually embraced Christian morality and put it into practice, even though he didn't prescribe to any religious denomination.  Maybe that's why Merton turned out to be a monk and on the shortlist to sainthood.  For Merton, religion wasn't about being IN a church.  For Merton, religion was about BEING a church.  Big difference.  He learned that from his father.

So, both of these fathers passed along some pretty strong lessons about church and religion to their sons.  It took me a while, but I finally realized that Jesus Christ was a social extremist.  Believe it or not, friends, he was more radical than Bernie Sanders in his teachings.  Most Christians don't see Him that way, but He was.  Feed the poor.  Share your wealth.  Take care of the sick.  Watch out for the elderly.  Teach the young.  Sound familiar?  That's not Bernie's platform.  That's Gospel.  Merton got that from his dad.  I, because my dad dragged me to church every weekend and holy day, got it, too, although my father probably wouldn't admit to Jesus' progressiveness.

So, here I sit, working a check-in table at the hospital on a Sunday morning, haunted by two guys, one long dead, the other still very much present in memory.  For the third week in a row, the churches are empty.  People are "attending" worship online.  Me?  I'm thinking that Jesus would probably be sitting at a check-in table at a hospital.  Or bringing sick people to the ER.  Or dropping groceries off on front porches.  Or multiplying masks and gloves.  He'd be pretty darn busy.  Jesus learned that from His father.

Saint Marty hopes his kids learn some good lessons from him, too.

Be well and healthy, everyone.  Amen.

Sister by Jon Cattapan

March 29: The Future, In My Face, Poem from "Kyrie"

Right now, I try not to think too much about the future.  The furthest I allow myself to think of the future is this:  what is for dinner tonight?

I am not being an ostrich, sticking my head in the sand.  I am fully engaged in what is going on in the world.  Don't have a choice about it.  I'm a teacher and healthcare worker and church musician, professions that have been impacted greatly by this pandemic.  Reality is in my face all day, every day.

Being a poet, I also grapple with the truth of this crisis.  That's what poets have been doing since the beginning of time.  Homer dealt with the Trojan War and its aftermath.  Thomas Nashe wrote about the Black Plague, that killed 30% to 50% of the world's population.  (Chaucer grew up during the time of the Black Plague.)  Walt Whitman dealt with the Civil War in the United States  So did Emily Dickinson, although she did it slant.  Poets stare truth directly in the face.

So, that is what I am doing.  I'm dealing with the daily truths I encounter.  I write about them.  Wrestle with them.  Kick them out of my head.  Invite them back inside.  

But Saint Marty is thinking about dinner right now.

A poem from Kyrie about war and pandemic and thinking about the future . . . 

from Kyrie

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt

Dear Mattie, Pug says even a year of camp
would not help most of us so why not now.
Tomorrow we take a train to New York City,
board a freighter there.  You know how the logs
are flushed through the long flume at Hodnett's Mill,
the stream flooding the sluice, the cut pines
crowding and pushing and rushing, and then
the narrow chute opens onto the pond?
I'll feel like that, once we're out to sea
and seeing the world.  I need to say
I've saved a bit, and you should also have
my Grandpa's watch--tell Fan that I said so.
Keep busy, pray for me, go on with Life,
and put your mind to a wedding in the yard--

Thanks to my sister-in-law for my new mask

Saturday, March 28, 2020

March 26, 27, 28: Abundance of the Heart, My Puppy, Saint Juno

Merton writing about how he learned about religion as a child . . .

There was also a Catholic chapel in the Lycee, but it was falling into ruins and the glass was out of most of the windows.  Nobody ever saw the inside of it, because it was locked up tight.  I suppose back in the days when the Lycee was built the Catholics had managed, at the cost of several years of patient effort, to get this concession out of the government people who were erecting the school:  but in the long run it did not do them much good.

The only really valuable religious and moral training I ever got as a child came to me from my father, not systematically, but here and there and more or less spontaneously, in the course of ordinary conversations.  Father never applied himself, of set purpose, to teach me religion.  But if something spiritual was on his mind, it came out more or less naturally.  And this is the kind of religious teaching, or any other kind of teaching, that has the most effect.  "A good man out of the good treasure of his heart, bringeth forth good fruit, and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth that which is evil.  For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh."

And it is precisely this speech "out of the abundance of the heart" that makes an impression and produces an effect in other people.  We give ear and pay at least a partially respectful attention to anyone who is really sincerely convinced of what he is saying, no matter what it is, even if it is opposed to our own ideas.

I have not the slightest idea what the little pasteur told us about the Pharisee and the Publican, but I shall never forget a casual remark Father happened to make, in which he told me of St. Peter's betrayal of Christ, and how, hearing the cock crow, Peter went out and wept bitterly.  I forget how it came up, and what the context was that suggested it:  we were just talking casually, standing in the hall of the flat we had taken on the Place de la Condamine.

I have never lost the vivid picture I got, at that moment, of Peter going out and weeping bitterly.  I wonder how I ever managed to forget, for so many years, the understanding I acquired at that moment of how St. Peter felt, and of what his betrayal meant to him.

Greetings from my Saturday morning.  Usually, pre-pandemic, I would be choosing and practicing the music I would be playing for Mass this evening and worship tomorrow at one of the other churches for which I play.  In a lot of ways, music has been religion for most of my life.  Merton learned from his father, and I learned from sitting on an organ bench as a young adult.  It wasn't until I had to pay attention to liturgy and Gospel readings as a church musician that I really got it, that it sank through the thick bone in my head.

And now, in this piece of history in which I'm living right now, I am learning how to cope from a another source:  my puppy, Juno.  She is a mini Australian shepherd, and every minute of her life is about joy and finding joy.  So, for this post, I am going to let Juno take over the keyboard.  I figure, out of the abundance of her canine heart, she can teach us all a little about how to appreciate what we have.  Here is Juno, in her own words:

I love this blue twisty thing, with its bumps and knots.  It makes my teeth feel so good when I bite it, and the two-leggeds don't mind.  They don't get all barky at me if I sit in the middle of the floor and gnaw and gnaw and gnaw.

What is that?  It's something outside, high-pitched.  One of the two-leggeds just made sounds like "pring" and "irds" or something like that.  I don't understand everything they bark at each other.  But it seems like the irds are the ones making that high-pitched sounds because it is pring outside.  And the two-leggeds don't seem excited about it.  They don't go outside even though it's warm and full of good smells and that bright ball up above is bouncing in the big blue.

I love that bright ball in the blue.  I want to chew it, feel it against my tongue. It hurts to look at it, but I think it must taste wonderful, like my treats, but better.  Warmer, softer.  Like when I sink my teeth into the male two-legged's toe, and he barks at me.  But that soft part of him in my mouth makes me so happy.  As if I've caught something small and alive and wriggling running through the white piles outside.

I go to the thing with the gold knob and scratch it.  The two-leggeds ignore me.  I scratch again.  The two-leggeds ignore me.  I need to go out and see the bright ball and taste the air.  I look at the two-leggeds.  They don't move.  I go to the middle of the room, spread my back legs, and squat.  

The male two-legged jumps up and scoops me off the floor.  He rushes to the thing with the gold knob and pulls it open.  He puts a leash on me, and soon I am standing on the stone ground outside.

I am surrounded by smells and sounds.  I put my snout up and sniff deeply.  There's dirt and rot and water and mud and the bright ball in the blue and the high-pitched irds.  The two-leggeds said this is pring.  I love pring.  I want to roll in pring, drive it into my back and belly.  I want to carry it around with me forever.

I bark.  It sounds so good, I bark again.  The sound fills the air.  I want the irds and the bright ball to know I'm out here.  I bark again and again.  The male two-legged says "pee" and tugs the leash.

How can he not be on the ground, rolling in pring?  How can he just stand there and not raise his face and bark with me?  I bark at him, pull him toward a pool of mud.  He pulls me back.  I bark at him again, grab the leash in my mouth.  He pulls me back.  I pull.  He pulls.  I pull.  He pulls.  What a great pring game!

Finally, the male two-legged scoops me up again.  I lick and nip at his face.  He puts me on top of one of the big white piles.  "Pee," he says.

I can see so much more.  I am closer to the bright ball, the irds.  I can smell something in the air.  Something new.  It's like when the female two-legged makes light with the stick.  She takes the stick and makes light and then puts the light on another stick.  And she lets that stick burn and burn and fill the room with sweet.  That's what this new smell is like.  It's like light burning, but bigger.  More sweet.  And it smells like food, too. It makes my teeth itch.


I'm singing to the bright ball, to the irds.  It is so much glory.  And the male two-legged doesn't see it.  Doesn't smell it.  Doesn't taste it.  I roll on top of the big white pile.  I roll and roll.  I will take pring inside with me.

The male two-legged pulls on my leash and grabs me.  He is huffy and annoyed.  But underneath, I taste something else on him, too.  Something that has nothing to do with pring or pee or irds or the bright ball.  I lick his face.  I've tasted this before.  

I taste it on the little male two-legged when he goes into a dark room.  It tastes sharp and cold.  And I can taste it all over the big male two-legged right now.  He carries me inside.  I squirm and wriggle, try to rub pring and the bright ball and the irds into him.  

Take it, I tell him.  Take it from me.  It's yours.  I want you to have it.  Take the irds.  Take the bright ball.  Take pring.  There's enough for both of us.

He sets me on the floor inside.  He sits down.

I go to the blue twisty thing with bumps and knots, take it in my mouth.  I carry it to the male two-legged.  He sits in his place, stares at me.  I drop the blue twisty thing on his feet.  He reaches over.  Rubs my ears.  Makes sounds that make me feel warm.

The sharp and cold moves away.  There is no dark right now.  In this moment.  In this place.  Between me and him.  I jump into his lap, flop on my back.  He scratches my belly.  He keeps making those warm sounds.

I fall asleep with the sound of the irds in my ears. 

Have a wonderful night, from Saint Marty and Saint Juno.

March 28: Grimmer, Be the Solution, from "Kyrie"

Yes, things are getting grimmer in Michigan.  The President of the United States seems to be withholding crucial medical equipment and supplies from being shipped to our state because of a feud he's created between himself and Governor Whitmer.  And the confirmed cases went from 300 last week to 3,000 this week.

If you are a Trump supporter, I'm fine with that.  If you're a Whitmer supporter, I'm fine with that.  However, this crisis goes beyond whether you're wearing a MAGA hat or have a Biden or Bernie sign in your front yard.  People are dying.  Healthcare workers are struggling.  It's not about politics.

It's about you and me and my kids and your kids and my parents and your parents.  It's about all of us.  Every human being on this planet.  Don't hoard supplies.  It you have a box of masks, drop them off at a doctor's office or hospital.  They need those masks more than you do.  Check on your neighbors.  Call your family.  And whenever possible, just stay home.  Be the solution, not the problem.

I care for all of you.  Want everybody to make it through this pandemic.  It's why I sit at doors at the hospital where I work to check employees in.  Why I continue to work at the medical office.  Why I keep writing these blog posts.  Why I pray, sunrise to sundown.

There are good people in this world, trying to do the right thing.  If there's anything that history has taught me, it's that goodness eventually wins out in the end.

Saint Marty holds onto that idea every night his head hits the pillow.

from Kyrie

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt

Nothing would do but that he dig her grave,
under the willow oak, on high ground
beside the little graves, and in the rain--
a hard rain, and wind

enough to tear a limb from the limber tree.
His talk was wild, his eyes were polished stone,
all of him bent laboring to breathe--
even iron bends--

his face ash by the time he came inside.
Within the hour the awful cough began,
gurgling between coughs, and the fever spiked,
as his wife's had done.

Before a new day rinsed the windowpane,
he had swooned.  Was blue.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

March 23, 24, 25: Moral Lessons, Essential, Negative Capability

Merton getting a little religion in his young life . . .

On the other hand, I do not think they can have been very well instructed Catholics, for one day, as we were emerging from the Lycee, on the way out to one of those walks, we passed two religious in black soutanes, with black bushy beards, standing in the square before the school, and one of my friends hissed in my ear "Jesuits!"  For some reason or other he was scared of Jesuits.  And, as a matter of fact, now that I know more about religious Orders, I realize that they were not Jesuits but Passionist missionaries, with the white insignia of the Passionists on their breasts.

At first, on the Sundays when I remained at the Lycee, I stayed in Permanence with the others who did not go to Mass at the Cathedral.  That is, I sat in the study hall reading the novels of Jules Verne or Rudyard Kipling (I was very much affected by a French translation of The Light That Failed.)  But later on, Father arranged for me to receive instructions, with a handful of others, from a little fat Protestant minister who came to the Lycee to evangelize us.

On Sunday mornings we gathered around the stove in the bleak octagonal edifice, which had been erected in one of the courts as a Protestant "temple" for the students.  The minister was a serious little man, and he explained the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Pharisee and the Publican and so on.  I don't remember that there was any particularly deep spirituality about it, but there was nothing to prevent him from showing us the obvious moral lessons.

I am grateful that I got at least that much of religion, at an age when I badly needed it:  it was years since I had even been inside a church for any other purpose than to look at the stained glass windows or the Gothic vaulting.  However, it was practically useless.  What is the good of religion without personal spiritual direction?  Without Sacraments, without any means of grace except a desultory prayer now and then at intervals, and an occasional vague sermon?

Religion has not played a very big part in Thomas Merton's youth.  Aside from a couple of Quaker meetings and a grandmother who taught him how to recite the Our Father, he is fairly clueless when it comes to spirituality.  It seems that Merton's belief in God begins and ends with Jules Verne at this point in his life.

I've had a lot of time to think about my own spirituality recently.  I've found myself sitting at employee check-in stations at the hospital on three days--last Saturday and Sunday and tonight.  I am currently at an employee entrance, scanning badges and taking names.  Today, the hospital pretty much locked itself down.  The only people (besides employees) who can enter and exit the buildings are patients.  That's it.  Things have gotten VERY serious in a short period of time.

I am struggling to see the point of all of this from a spiritual perspective.  Where is God, and why would He allow this to happen?  These days, I'm sure I'm not alone in this line of thought.  In fact, I'd lay money that most people with any kind of religious faith are pretty much in the same boat.  I imagine Noah, sitting on the deck of the ark, watching the rains wipe out everything that he knew, probably thinking, "What in the hell is this all about?"

I am still working at the medical office, although that could change at any moment.  You see, I'm not really considered "essential" as an employee.  If you don't understand what that means, let me translate:  my job will probably be one of the first ones to go when the health system that owns us starts making cuts due to the epidemic.  Because I don't do direct patient care in any way, I simply don't make the cut.

It seems, in the past year, that God has been slowly stripping away all of my security blankets.  You know what I mean.  Everything that made me feel safe and secure has pretty much evaporated since last April.  Addiction had a part in it.  So did mental illness.  And the economy.  Now it's a tiny little virus.  Losing my job (and health insurance) from the hospital will almost be the last vestige of stability that still exists in my life.

Of course, I'm dealing with unknowns right now.  I don't KNOW that I'm going to be laid off.  I don't KNOW how long that layoff will last IF it does happen.  I am living in a state of negative capability, as poet John Keats would have said.  It's all about uncertainty. For Keats and Shakespeare, that was a good thing.  Me?  It puts me right on the edge of my roof, ready to jump off.

But, for the moment, I am employed.  I have paychecks coming in from the college and the health system.  I am important.  Necessary.  Until I become unimportant.  Nonessential.

So, tonight, I see employees coming in and leaving.  The ones coming in look a little grim.  The ones going out look exhausted.  I scan badges.  Wish everyone a goodnight.  Feel the cold swoop in every time the door opens and closes.

Perhaps God is trying to prove to me that I'm not that significant.  Like the Grimm fairy tales that I'm teaching my students at the moment online, the people who put their faith in material possessions and circumstances (the wicked stepmothers and evil sorcerers of the world) are generally sealed in barrels of boiling oil and snakes and heaved into the river.  It's a rough lesson to learn.  No happily ever after.

So, this is Marty, non-essential saint, signing off from the pandemic front line for now.

March 25: So Many Questions, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Childbed Fever

Where did all this start? 

In Wuhan?  In an open meat market?

With a young man who came down with a fever?  A grandmother who had a persistent, hacking cough?

When will it end?  Hundreds of thousands dead?  Unemployment at 30 percent?  Blood red sunsets?

So many questions.

Saint Marty has no answers.

from Kyrie

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt

When it was time to move, he didn't move,
he lay athwart his mother.  She pushed and pushed--
she'd had a stone before, she wanted a child.

Reaching in, I turned him like a calf.
Rob gave her a piece of kindling wood,
she bit right through.  I turned him twice.

Her sisters were all in the house, her brother
home again on leave--
                                     in the months to come
in the cities there would be families
reported their terminals and fled,
would have to hunt the dying door-to-door.

It started here with too many breech and stillborn,
women who looked fifty not thirty-two.
I marked it childbed fever in my log.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

March 22: Peaceful Friends, Small Losses, Worship and Grocery Shopping

Young Thomas Merton finds a group of friends at school . . .

However, as I say, I adjusted myself to the situation, and got into a group of more or less peaceful friends who had more wit than obscenity about them and were, in fact, the more intelligent children in the three lower classes.  I say intelligent; I mean, also, precocious.

But they had ideals and ambitions and, as a matter of fact, by the middle of my first year, I remember we were all furiously writing novels.  On the days when we went out for walks, two by two into the country in a long line which broke up into groups at the edge of town, my friends and I would get together, walking in a superior way, with our caps on the backs of our heads and our hands in our pockets, like the great intellectuals that we were, discussing our novels.  The discussion was not merely confined to telling the plot of what we were writing:  a certain amount of criticism was passed back and forth.

For instance--I was engaged in a great adventure story, the scene of which was laid in India, and the style of which was somewhat influenced by Pierre Loti.  It was written in French.  At one point in the story I had the hero, who was in financial difficulties, accept a loan of some money from the heroine.  This concept evoked loud cries of protest from my confreres, who found that it offended all the most delicate standards required in a romantic hero.  What do you mean, accept money from the heroine!  Allous donc, mon vieux, e'est impossible, ca!  C'est tout a fait inoui!  I had not thought of that at all, but I made the change.

That particular novel was never finished, as I remember.  But I know I finished at least one other, and probably two, besides one which I wrote at St. Antonin before coming to the Lycee.  They were all scribbled in exercise books, profusely illustrated in pen and ink--and the ink was generally bright blue.

One of the chief of these works, I remember, was inspired by Kingsley's Westward Ho! and by Lorna Doone, and it was about a man living in Devonshire in the sixteenth century.  The villains were all Catholics, in league with Spain, and the book ended in a tremendous naval battle off the coast of Wales, which I illustrated with great care.  At one point in the book a priest, one of the villains, set fire to the house of the heroine.  I did not tell my friends this.  I think they would have been offended.  They were at least nominal Catholics, and were among the students who lined up two by two to go to Mass at the Cathedral on Sunday mornings.

Having friends is important.  Merton learns this.  Currently, I am sitting again at a check-in desk at the hospital, scanning the badges of employees coming in for their shifts.  The door where I'm stationed isn't very busy, so I have a great deal of time to think and read and write for the next four hours.  And what I'm thinking about is social distancing.

My wife bridles against social distancing.  She can't stand the idea of being at home, unable to physically go out, be around people, interact, laugh, have the possibility of meeting a friend she hasn't seen in months, catch up on job and family and loves and losses.  She wanted to go grocery shopping this afternoon, even though we now have enough non-perishables and perishables in our cupboards and fridge to last us three weeks.  I know her urge to go to Meijer is not out of necessity.  It's out of the urge for normalcy, clinging to the habits and routines pre-pandemic.  That's what it's all about.  She wants life to rewind, time to somehow reverse itself.  There are so many things I used to do two weeks ago--small things--that have evaporated in this time of corona.  Here's one of those small losses involving friends that effects me greatly today . . .

My book club was supposed to meet at my house this evening.  At 5 p.m., my friends would have descended upon my home, books tucked under their arms, bearing food.  Dishes to share.  Soup.  A salad.  Dessert bars.  My contribution would have been a parmesan-artichoke bomb.  We would have sat around my living room, laughing, catching up, and talking about this month's read:  Amor Towles' A Gentleman in Moscow.

I find it ironic that we chose this book for this month.  (The choice was made back in December, before anyone had even heard of Wuhan.)  It's the story of a Russian count who is sentenced to house arrest by a Bolshevik tribunal.  He must live in an attic room of a luxury hotel near the Kremlin.  The year is 1922, and the count cannot leave the hotel for the rest of his life.  He's confined to the same people and places, day after day.  A Gentleman in Moscow is a 462-page novel about extreme social distancing, in a way.

It is Sunday.  Normally, the first half of my day is spent in church, worshiping and fellowshipping.  Instead, I got up early this morning and watched a live-streamed Catholic Mass.  Then I watched a Lutheran worship service.  I finished up by watching a Methodist service led by one of my best friends who is a lead pastor at a church in downstate Michigan.  Sitting in my living room, puppy in my lap, I listened to three separate messages from pastors in three separate churches of three separate Christian denominations.  Yet all of their messages were about the same thing:  even though things seem hopeless, we are not alone.

The count in A Gentleman in Moscow, in his confinement, forges a new life of love and friendships.  He doesn't let the walls of his prison hold him in chains.  Instead, his life expands in ways he never imagined.  Even though I didn't step foot in a church this morning, I worshiped with Catholics and Lutherans and Methodists, and I was not alone.

Eventually, my wife will be able to go grocery shopping on Sundays again.  And, eventually, my book club will meet again, and we will laugh and eat and argue about books.  Until then, we will forge new ways of being together.

Saint Marty might be physically distancing, but socially, he's more in touch than ever.

March 22: Dire Reports, Albert Camus, Poem from "Kyrie"

It has been a long day of further dire reports.  Deaths and confirmed cases rising in the United States.  More governors ordering their citizens to shelter in place.  It hasn't happened in my home state of Michigan yet.  I'm expecting it in the next 24 hours, however.  The National Guard has already been mobilized.

What does that mean?  It means we are all supposed to stay home.  Only go out for absolute necessities.  We can go grocery shopping.  Pick up medications at the pharmacy.  Go to doctor's appointments or the hospital.  Fill up our cars at the gas station.  Other than that, stay inside, away from everyone else.

Albert Camus, author of the novel The Plague, once wrote, "There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night."  We are in a time of shadow right now, where all the news is full of darkness.  Some people think this whole pandemic is a media-driven panic.  It's not.  Some people think it's the fault of one political party.  It's not.  Some people try to blame a specific country.  They're wrong.

All the epidemiologists have been warning us about this eventuality for years.  Years.  It was just a matter of time.  The citizens of the world were simply going about their businesses, blissfully ignorant of this impending threat.  I was one of those citizens.  Can't be ignorant anymore.

So, as we all get ready to shelter in place, remember that placing blame does not help.  Could the leaders of this country have done better.  Absolutely.  Could we, the inhabitants of the United States, help to prevent the spread of darkness?  Absolutely.  We are all in this together.  

Lives are going to be lost.  Loved ones.  Neighbors.  Everyone will be touched by the Covid-19 virus in some way.  The world will be a different place in three months' time.  The world is a different place already.  But the sun will eventually return, because shadow can't exist without it.  Until that time, we all are going to become better acquainted with the night.

Here's another poem from Ellen Bryant Voigt's Kyrie.  It's sort of about light and darkness.  How art is used to try to satisfy and soothe unhappiness.  I turn to poetry in times of night.  Other people, to music or painting.  

Night is falling right now.  I'm looking out the window from where I'm stationed at the hospital.  The light is slowly leeching away.  Before I leave, it will be completely dark.  

Saint Marty will look for some stars on the way home.

from Kyrie

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt

The temperament of an artist but no art.
Papa got a piano just for her,
she used him best, made all the sisters try.
We rode the mule to lessons, birds on a branch--
you know what it meant to have your own piano?

Next, guitar.  Then painting in pastels--
she stitched herself a smock, sketched a cow
she tied to the fence by the fringe of its tail, braided
the tail the cow left hanging there.  Unschooled
in dance, too scornful of embroidery,

she seized on marriage like a lump of clay.
A husband is not clay.  Unhappiness
I think can sap your health.  Though by those lights
there's no good reason why I've lived this long.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

March 21: Temporal Prosperity, Young People, And a Little Child

A little rant from Thomas Merton . . .

When I think of the Catholic parents who sent their children to a school like that, I began to wonder what was wrong with their heads.  Down by the river, in a big clean white building, was a college run by the Marist Fathers.  I had never been inside it:  indeed, it was so clean that it frightened me.  But I knew a couple of boys who went to it.  They were sons of the little lady who ran the pastry shop opposite the church at St. Antonin and I remember them as exceptionally nice fellows, very pleasant and good.  It never occurred to anyone to despise them for being pious.  And how unlike the products of the Lycee they were!

When I reflect on all this, I am overwhelmed at the thought of the tremendous weight of moral responsibility that Catholic parents accumulate upon their shoulders by not sending their children to Catholic schools.  Those who are not of the Church have no understanding of this.  They cannot be expected to.  As far as they ca see, all this insistence on Catholic schools is only a moneymaking device by which the Church is trying to increase its domination over the minds of men, and its own temporal prosperity.  And of course most non-Catholics imagine that the Church is immensely rich, and that all Catholic institutions make money hand over fist, and that all the money is stored away somewhere to buy gold and silver dishes for the Pope and cigars for the College of Cardinals.

It is any wonder that there can be no peace in a world where everything possible is done to guarantee that the youth of every nation will grow up absolutely without moral and religious discipline, and without the shadow of an interior life, or of that spirituality and charity and faith which alone can safeguard the treaties and agreements made by governments?

And Catholics, thousands of Catholics everywhere, have the consummate audacity to weep and complain because God does not hear their prayers for peace, when they have neglected not only His will, but the ordinary dictates of natural reason and prudence, and let their children grow up according to the standards of a civilization of hyenas.  

The experience of living with the kind of people I found in the Lycee was something new to me, but in degree, rather than in kind.  There was the same animality and toughness and insensitivity and lack of conscience that existed to some extent in my own character, and which I had found more or less everywhere.

But these French children seemed to be so much tougher and more cynical and more precocious than anyone else I had ever seen.  How, then, could I fit them in with the idea of France which my father had, and which even I had then in an obscure and inchoate form?  I suppose the only answer if corruptio optimi pessima.  Since evil is the defect of good, the lack of a good that ought to be there, and nothing positive in itself, it follows that the greatest evil is found where the highest good has been corrupted.  And I suppose the most shocking thing about France is the corruption of French spirituality into flippancy and cynicism; of French intelligence into sophistry; of French dignity and refinement into petty vanity and theatrical self-display; of French charity into a disgusting fleshly concupiscence, and of French faith into sentimentality or puerile atheism.  There was all of this in the Lycee Ingres, at Montauban.

Merton goes a little off-the-rails in this passage.  He is passionate about this subject, obviously, this belief that, by neglecting the religious and spiritual teaching of the youth of the world, the adults of his time were raising a pack of hyenas.  Ravenous and cruel and hungry.  While I don't necessarily prescribe to the notion that lack of religious upbringing leads to lack of morality and ethics, I do see his point about adults being responsible for instilling in their young charges a strong notion of right from wrong, compassion, love for all humankind, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or identification, religious faith (or lack thereof), age, or social status.  In short, it's all about the Golden Rule:  treating others as you would want to be treated.

Unfortunately, in American society (and around the world right now), there seems to be an alarming lack of this Golden Rule value in adults.  Perhaps we are seeing the fruits of what Merton is talking about in the passage above --the youth of Merton's time have grown into the parents and grandparents and great grandparents of the current generation of adults.  So, we are dealing with racists and xenophobes and misogynists and homophobes and Islamophobes and bullies who are crawling out from under their rocks, into the sunlight, and beating their chests from the pulpits and podiums of the world.

Right now, I would say that we have the exact inverse of what Merton describes.  The majority of young people get it.  They understand the need for compassion and love and understanding and activism.  They are the Greta Thunbergs, Emma Gonzalezes, Malala Yousafzais, David Hoggs, and Desmond Napoleses of the world.  These children are leading the way because we adults have fucked things up so much.  That fills my heart with hope.

I, myself, am willing to step aside and let these young people run the show.  They will certainly do a better job than we have over the last 50 years.  They can't do much worse.  I've spent nearly three decades of my life teaching them about the power of kindness, among other things.  (They still don't understand what a comma splice is, but that's the subject of another blog post.)  When I see old, middle-aged men and women trying to minimize the concerns of young people, it fills me with shame for my generation.

Now, I'm not saying everyone around my age or older are Donald Trumps.  Absolutely not.  In my life, I have surrounded myself with friends and acquaintances who are as just concerned as I am about feeding and clothing the poor, passing sensible gun legislation, getting health care for everybody, protecting the most vulnerable inhabitants of our planet, and saving said planet from destruction.  There are adults who get it.  They are the Thomas Mertons of the world.

In this time of Covid-19, when everyone seems to be worrying only about themselves, we need to remember the Golden Rule even more, especially if you claim to be a Christian (that's pretty much the core message of Jesus Christ).  Treat each other with love and kindness.  Check to make sure your neighbors are alright.  If they don't have toilet paper, give them some of yours.  If they're struggling with money, ease that burden if you can.  If they're hungry, share some of the ground beef from your stash in the freezer.  We are all in this together.

My children give me so much hope right now.  The other night, I went up to my daughter's bedroom and spoke with her about the virus, stressing the importance of self-monitoring and social distancing.  She listened to me and finally said, "I'm already doing all of those things.  I'm just worried about the people who don't have anybody to look out for them."

"And a little child shall lead them . . ."  Thomas Merton would have been proud.

Even though things seem dark right now (Saint Marty is sitting masked at hospital entrance, stopping visitors) the future is going to be bright.

March 21: Front Lines, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Poem from "Kyrie"

Yes, I am sitting in a hospital right now, stopping and questioning people walking through an entrance.  Yes, I am masked.  Yes, I have disinfected my hands about 20 times since I sat down at this desk.  And the confirmed cases of coronavirus continues to grow.

I am writing these posts as a record for my children when they get older.  My daughter, born the year before the 9-11 attack, doesn't remember a time before the "War on Terror."  My son, who is eleven-years-old, will probably have little recollection of a time before the Covid-19 Pandemic.

I'm sure, after the dust settles, the world is going to be a very different place for everyone.  People won't hug as much.  They'll avoid walking near strangers.  They will probably have large stores of nonperishable foods in their houses.  (Child:  "Why do grandma and grandpa have so many cans of spaghetti sauce?"  Adult:  "Because they grew up during the Coronavirus Pandemic.")  Everything will change, good or bad.

Ellen Bryant Voigt, in her Author's Note to her poetry collection Kyrie, writes of the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918, ". . . the national memory bears little trace."  The blog posts I'm writing during this time are my attempt to preserve these memories for my kids and their kids' kids.

Saint Marty is reporting from the front lines, as a healthcare worker and educator.

from Kyrie

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt

This is the double bed where she'd been born,
bed of her mother's marriage and decline,
bed her sisters also ripened in,
bed that drew her husband to her side,
bed of her one child lost and five delivered,
bed indifferent to the many bodies,
bed around which all of them were gathered,
watery shapes in the shadows of the room,
and the bed frail abroad the violent ocean,
the frightened beasts so clumsy and pathetic,
heaving their wet breath against her neck,
she threw off the pile of quilts--white face like a moon--
and then entered straighway into heaven.

March 18, 19, 20: Diabolical Spirit of Cruelty, Day of a Healthcare Worker, Miraculous

Merton learns how to deal with school bullies . . .

At first I used to go home nearly every Sunday taking the early train from Montauban-Villenouvelle, at about five-thirty in the morning.  And I would plead with Father to let me out of that miserable school, but it was in vain.  After about two months, I got used to it and ceased to be so unhappy.  The would was no longer so raw:  but I was never happy or at peace in the violent and unpleasant atmosphere of those brick cloisters.

The children I had associated with at St. Antonin had not been by any means angels, but there had at least been a certain simplicity and affability about them.  Of course, the boys who went to the Lycee were of the same breed and the same stamp:  there was no specific difference, except that they came from families that were better off.  All my friends at St. Antonin had been the children of workmen and peasants, with whom I sat in the elementary school.  But when a couple of hundred of these southern French boys were thrown together in the prison of that Lycee, a subtle change was operated in their spirit and mentality.  In fact, I noticed that when you were with them separately, outside the school, they were mild and peaceable and humane enough.  But when they were all together there seemed to be some diabolical spirit of cruelty and viciousness and obscenity and blasphemy and envy and hatred in mockery and fierce cruelty and in vociferous, uninhibited filthiness.  Contact with that wolf-pack felt very patently like contact with the mystical body of the devil:  and, especially in the first few days, the members of that body did not spare themselves in kicking me around without mercy.

The students were divided into two strictly segregated groups, and I was among "les petits," those in "quatrieme," the fourth class, and below it.  The oldest among us were fifteen and sixteen, and among these were five or six morose bullies with thick black hair growing out of their foreheads almost down to the eyebrows.  They were physically stronger than anybody else and, though less intelligent, they were craftier in the works of evil, louder in obscenity and completely unrestrained in their brutality, when the mood was on them.  Of course, they were not always unpleasant and hostile:  but in a sense their friendship was more dangerous than their enmity and, in fact, it was this that did the most harm:  because the good children who came to the school quickly got into the habit of tolerating all the unpleasantness of these individuals, in order not to get their heads knocked off for failing to applaud.  And so the the whole school, or at least our part of it, was dominated by their influence.

Merton learns how to deal with the bullies at the Lycee.  How to tolerate their unpleasantness.  Looks the other way, to save his own neck.  Let me tell you that the whole world right now is being bullied by a tiny virus.  People are terrified of this little thug, for good reason.  It's a life or death thing, like walking on a frozen lake in the spring.

I work in a medical office.  That medical office is attached to a hospital.  That hospital is going into virtual lockdown as the coronavirus spreads.  The exponential growth of it is sort of staggering, and, considering the situation in Italy, it has the potential to absolutely overwhelm the United States' healthcare system.

Now, you all know that.  I'm not saying anything that you haven't read before.  But let me give you a few glimpses into the day of a healthcare worker:
  • All day, I register patients, answer phones, confirm appointments, and call insurance companies while wearing a mask (which actually isn't a whole lot of protections against this bully of a virus).
  • Most of the patients with whom I speak on the phone are terrified of coming to their appointments.  I spend more time talking about the virus than anything to do with their current problem.
  • I isolate myself in the office where I work.  Don't go to the cafeteria.  Don't go for walks.
  • If I cough, people look at me strangely.  If I sneeze, people look at me strangely.  
  • After filling out paperwork, patients hand me their clipboards and pens.  I sterilize them with bleach wipes immediately.
  • At the end of my shift, I put on gloves and sanitize the entire office.  Computer keyboards.  Counters.  Pens.  Pencils.  Computer mouses.  Scanners.  Cords.  Chairs.  Today, I even bleached a sticky note I needed to keep.
  • When I get home at night, I leave my shoes and coat on the front porch, march straight to the bathroom, strip, put all my clothes in the washer, and wash them in hot water.
  • I still worry that I've carried something home to my family.
I am not an alarmist.  Everyone who knows me can tell you that.  I try not to sit at home reading poorly researched social media posts that are simply meant to panic people.  I've given up listening to or watching the news.  Yet, I am not immune to pandemic panic.  It's kind of hard not to be.

Tonight, around nine o'clock, an alarm went off on my daughter's cell phone.  We were all on the living room floor, playing a board game.  

"What's that for?" I asked.

"Oh," she said," that tells me when the International Space Station is passing directly over head."

We all sat staring at each other for a moment.  My wife.  Daughter.  Son.  Me.  Then, we got up off the floor and went outside.

There it was.

We stood staring up at a bright pinpoint of light moving across the dark bowl of night.  For a few minutes, none of us spoke.  Then, "It's kind of crazy to think there are people up there right now," said my daughter.

My son and wife nodded.

"Talk about social distancing," I said.

For the ten minutes or so we were outside, we forgot to be bullied by Covid-19.  Didn't worry about breathing in something that could kill us.  Instead, we just gave ourselves over to wonder.

Saint Marty was happy for a little miraculous in his life tonight.

March 20: Shit's Getting Real, Ellen Bryant Voigt, from "Kyrie"

The next poem from Ellen Bryant Voigt's Kyrie is a little sobering.

Just heard that there has been another Covid-19 death in the state of Michigan.  That makes three.  A coworker showed me a video her daughter sent her--a huge convoy of National Guard trucks hauling tanks on flatbeds.  Dozens of trucks.  The numbers continue to grow.  Shit's getting real.

Saint Marty needs more poetry in his life.

from Kyrie

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt

To be brought from the bright schoolyard into the house:
to stand by her bed like an animal stunned in the pen:
against the grid of the quilt, her hand seems
stitched to the cuff of its sleeve--although he wants
most urgently the hand to stroke his head,
although he thinks he could kneel down
that it would need to travel only inches
to brush like a breath his flushed cheek,
he doesn't stir:  all his resolve,
all his resources go to watching her,
her mouth, her hair a pillow of blackened ferns--
he means to match her stillness bone for bone.
Nearby he hears the younger children cry,
and his aunts, like careless thieves, out in the kitchen.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

March 17: Losing Things, Ellen Bryant Voigt, "Kyrie"

Again, I turn back to Ellen Bryant Voigt's Kyrie for solace.

I'm tired of losing things I cherish.  I have no idea what lesson I'm supposed to learn in all of this, except that grief is just a letter away . . .

Saint Marty is trying to hold on to hope.

from Kyrie

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt

When does a childhood end?  Mothers
sew a piece of money inside a sock,
fathers unfold the map of the world, and boys
go off to war--that's an end, whether
they come back wrapped in the flag or waving it.
Sister and I were what they kissed goodbye,
complicitous in the long dream left behind.
On one page, willful innocence,
                                                     on the next
an Army Captain writing from the ward
with few details, and much regret--a kindness
she wouldn't forgive, and wouldn't be reconciled
to her soldier lost, or me in my luck, or the petals
strewn on the grass, or the boys still on the playground
routing evil with their little sticks.

March 17: Desolation and Emptiness and Abandonment, Loss, "Nearer, My God, to Thee"

Things getting real for young Thomas Merton . . .

Then the artificiality of the business dawned on me and I went home.  Father said to me:  "What's this I hear about you chasing after girls at your age?"  After that life became very serious, and a few weeks later I put on my new blue uniform and went off to the Lycee.

Although by this time I knew French quite well, the first day in the big, gravelled yard, when I was surrounded by those fierce, cat-like little faces, dark and morose, and looked into those score of pairs of glittering and hostile eyes, I forgot every word, and could hardly answer the furious questions that were put to me.  And my stupidity only irritated them all the more.  They began to kick me, and to pull and twist my ears, and push me around, and shout various kinds of insults.  I learned a great deal of obscenity and blasphemy in the first few days, simply by being the direct or indirect object of so much of it.

After this everybody accepted me and became quite friendly and pleasant, once they were used to my pale, blue-eyed, and seemingly stupid English face.  Nevertheless, when I lay awake at night in the huge dark dormitory and listened to the snoring of the little animals all around me, and heard through the darkness and the emptiness of the night the far screaming of the trains, or the mad iron cry of a bugle in a casserne of Senegalese troops, I knew for the first time in my life the pangs of desolation and emptiness and abandonment.

Desolation and emptiness and abandonment.  Seems like the young Merton is going through a little dark night of the soul here.  He feels friendless and alone at the Lycee, abused physically and mentally.  He is lost.

Over the last couple weeks, I've experienced all kinds of loss.  The loss of my ability to see my students face-to-face in a classroom.  Or to go out and buy simple essential household items like toilet paper or cheese or hamburger.  In fact, every excursion into a public place now kindles in me a little dread.  That's loss of comfort and safety, if you're keeping track.

Today, however, I experienced a loss that hit me very hard.  The Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Marquette cancelled all weekend Masses, from now until April 5.  For most of my adult life, since around the age of 17, worship and Mass have been a constant part of my Saturdays and Sundays.  Aside from an occasional weekend away, I've been on an organ bench every Saturday since I graduated from high school.

When I went to church to clean this evening, I had a really heavy heart.  This pandemic has sort of stripped away everything that I hold dear.  And now, it sort of felt like God was packing up and leaving, as well.  The predictions are all dire--death rates that could top out at 5%.  If you do the math, there are 7.53 billion people in the world.  That means, close to 376,500 people will die before this conronavirus is over and done.

So, at church tonight, I dusted the pews and altar.  I emptied the garbages.  Mopped the marble of the sanctuary floor.  I climbed into the choir loft to dust and collect the garbage, as well.  Then I sat down at the piano in the loft.  I played a song.  "Nearer, My God, to Thee."  The same song that the musicians played on the deck of the sinking Titanic.  I played variations of it.  In the end, I held the last notes, let them roll through the church until they faded away under my fingertips.

It's difficult to see God in all of this.  I know He's there, but I just don't understand His will right now.  It's not divine punishment.  It's senseless death of the young and old and sick.  Where is God in that?

Playing that song felt right tonight, as if I was on the deck of a sinking ship:

Then, with my waking thoughts
Bright with Thy praise,
Out of my stony griefs
Bethel I’ll raise,
So by my woes to be
Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee,

Nearer to Thee.

Saint Marty is trying to feel nearer.

Monday, March 16, 2020

March 16: My First Pandemic, Ellen Bryant Voigt, "Kyrie"

Day three of social distancing.

Went back to work today, with much trepidation.  I've read too may horror stories this past weekend.  We are living in a unique age.  My daughter, last night, said to me, "This is my very first pandemic." 

Saint Marty said a silent prayer that it would be her LAST pandemic.

Another selection from Ellen Bryant Voigt's Krie.  The third poem of the book.

from Kyrie

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt

Dear Mattie, You're sweet to write me every day.
The train was not so bad, I found a seat,
watched the landscape flatten until dark,
ate the lunch you packed, your good chess pie.
I've made a friend, a Carolina man
who looks like Emmett Cocke, same big grin,
square teeth.  Curses hard but he can shoot.
Sergeant calls him Pug I don't know why.
It's hot here but we're not here for long.
Most of all we do is march and shine our boots.
In the drills they keep us 20 feet apart
on account of sickness in the camp..
In case you think to send more pie, send two.
I'll try to bring you back some French Perfume.

March 15: Ellen Bryant Voigt, "Kyrie," Stay Loved

I will continue with offering up poems from Ellen Bryant Voigt's collection Kyrie, which is about the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.  A little over 100 years ago this thing took hold of the planet.

We are now dealing with another thing, and, as always, when I am facing something big and scary, I turn to poetry.

Keep calm, my friends.  Wash your hands.  Stay distanced.  Stay safe.  Stay loved.

Saint Marty is praying for you all.

from Ellen Bryant Voigt's Kyrie

All ears, tongue and gut,
dogs know if something's wrong;
chickens don't know a thing, their brains
are little more than optic nerve--
they think it's been a very short day
and settle in the pines, good night,
head under wing, near their cousins
but welded to a lower branch.

Dogs, all kids of dogs--signals
are their job, they cock their heads,
their backs bristle, even house dogs
wake up and circle the wool rug.
Outside, the vacant yard:  then,
within minutes something eats the sun.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

March 15: Mousy Little Girl with Blonde Locks, First Loves, Humiliation and Confusion

Thomas Merton falls in love . . .

Pop had come very unwillingly to St. Antonin, and as soon as he got there he tried to leave again.  The streets were too dirty.  They disgusted him.  But Bonnemaman refused to move until the full month, or whatever time they had planned to stay, had passed.

However, one of the official family acts that took place during this time was an excursion to Montauban, and the inspection of the Lycee to which I was to be sent in the fall.

I supposed those brick cloisters looked innocent enough in the afternoon sun of late August, when they were empty of the fiends in black smocks who were to fill them in late September.  I was to get my fill of bitterness in those buildings, in due time.

Pop and Bonnemaman and John Paul and all the luggage left on the express for Paris as August came to an end.  Then, in the first week of September, came the patronal feast of Saint Antonin, with torchlight processions, and everybody dancing the polka and the schottische under the Japanese lanterns on the esplanade.  There were many other attractions and excitements, including a certain fanciful novelty in shooting galleries.  At one end of town, there was a pigeon tied by the leg to the top of a tree, and everybody blasted at it with a shotgun until it was dead.  At the other end of town, by the river bank, men were shooting at a chicken which was tied to a floating box, moored out in the center of the stream.

For my own part, I entered a great competition with most of the boys and youths of the town, in which we all jumped into the river and swam after a duck that was thrown off the bridge.  It was finally caught by a respectable fellow called Georges who was studying to be a school-teacher at the normal school in Montauban.

At this time, too, being eleven and a half years old, I feel in love with a mousy little girl with blonde locks called Henriette.  It was a rather desultory affair.  She went home and told her parents that the son of the Englishman was in love with her, and her mother clapped her hand and their household rang with alleluias on that day.  The next time I saw her she was very friendly, and during one of the dances, with a kind of official artfulness, she allowed me to chase her 'round and 'round a tree.

First loves stick with you.  Obviously, Merton's first love stayed with him.  A mousy little girl with blonde locks who let Merton chase her around and around a tree.  I suppose that is the eleven-year-old equivalent of courtship.  Merton doesn't really say if he ever caught his mousy little love.

My first love was in second grade.  Her name was Maria.  She was olive-skinned and beautiful.  I would like to say that I was brave enough to declare my undying devotion to her one day at recess, and that she threw her arms around my neck and whispered in my ear, "Ti amo.  I have a Twinkie for lunch."  That didn't happen.

Instead, I worshiped her from afar.  Across the room, I watched her sharpen her crayons and chew on her fingernails.  I swooned, but I didn't get to chase her 'round and 'round a tree.

One night, I was in a grocery store with my mother.  She was waiting to check out, and I discovered a display of different cigarettes.  Every time someone took a pack of cigarettes out of the display, a bell rang.  I was bored, so I made of game of it.  I would touch a pack of cigs.  The bell would ring, and I would run like hell.  I did this over and over and over.

One time, as I reached to touch a pack of Marlboros, I felt a hand on my shoulder.  I turned around.

There was Maria standing next to her father.  Her father started talking to me, pointing at the cigarette display.  He spoke with a thick Italian accent.  I could barely understand him, but I knew what a stern lecture sounded like.  That's exactly what I was getting as Maria stood by, watching every second of my humiliation.

Eventually, Maria's dad let me escape, and I skulked away, looking for my mother.  I never spoke to Maria again.  In fact, I avoided being close to her.  I practiced social distancing, before it was a thing.

That's the way most first loves end, in humiliation and confusion.  I think Maria moved away at the end of the year.

Saint Marty never saw his first love again.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

March 13-14: The Whole Miserable Journey, Normal, Be the Solution

Thomas Merton on the miseries of travelling with his family . . .

Perhaps the worst day of all was the day we climbed the Jungfrau--in a train.  All the way up I was arguing with Pop, who thought we were being cheated, for he contended that the Jungfrau was not nearly so high as all the other mountains around us, and he had embarked on the excursion on the more or less tacit assumption that the Jungfrau was the highest mountain around these parts:  and now look, the Eiger and the Monch were much higher!  I was vehement in explaining that the Jungfrau looked lower because it was further away, but Pop did not believe in my theory of perspective.

By the time we got to the Jungfrau joch, everybody was ready to fall down from nervous exhaustion, and the height made Bonnemaman faint, and Pop began to feel sick, and I had a big crisis of tears in the dining room, and then when Father and I and John Paul walked out into the blinding white-snow field without dark glasses we all got headaches, and so the day, as a whole, was completely horrible.

Then, in Interlaken, although Pop and Bonnemaman had the intense consolation of being able to occupy the same rooms that had been used only a few months before by Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, John Paul humiliated the whole family by falling fully dressed into a pond full of gold-fish and running though the hotel dripping with water and green-weeds.  Finally, we were all scared out of our wits when one of the maids, exhausted by the strain of waiting on so many hundreds of English and American tourists, fainted while carrying a loaded tray, and crashed to the floor in a tornado of dishes right behind my chair.

We were glad to get out of Switzerland, and back into France, but by the time reached Avignon, I had developed such a disgust for sightseeing that I would not leave the hotel to go and see the Palace of the Popes.  I remained in the room and read Tarzan of the Apes, finishing the whole book before Father and John Paul returned from what was probably the only really interesting thing we had struck in the whole miserable journey.  

People in close proximity to each other can get on each other's nerves.  Thomas Merton learns this the hard way--travelling through Switzerland with his grandfather and grandmother and little brother.  They argue.  Get sick.  Humiliated.  Exhausted.  Being that close to each other, with no escape, can drive a person to a little Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Escape comes in many forms.  Merton chooses literature.

I have had quite the day of busyness.  In this time of pandemic and mass hysteria, I went ahead today with all of my normal weekly activities.  I cleaned at church.  I practiced music for a Lutheran church service I'm playing for tomorrow morning.  I played for Mass this afternoon.  Had pizza for dinner.  It was . . . normal.

Yes, the future is uncertain.  More so than normal.  I have no idea what tomorrow is going to bring.  Or the next.  Everyone seems to have lost their minds a little at the moment.  We aren't confined to our homes.  Yet.  I can get into my car, drive to a store, and buy groceries if I need to.  (Don't know what's left on the shelves at Meijer anymore, but I can still drive there and see.)  There may come a time when that kind of freedom is curtailed a little.  Or a lot.  I don't know.

Here's the thing.  I love my family.  I want them safe, healthy.  I would do anything to insure that, including holing up for weeks with them in my house, living on Ramen and Netflix and poetry.  Would we get on each other's nerves?  Most certainly.  Would we yell at each other?  Yup.  Would I grab a book from my bookshelf--something by Dickens--and escape for a little while?  Indeed.  And, eventually, it would start to feel . . . normal.

I have good friends who are panicking right now, as are a lot of usually level-headed individuals.  The thing that worries me about this panic is that it may start to feel normal.  Living from one hysterical social media post to another.  Glued to our television sets, watching a map of the United States become saturated with outbreaks of COVID-19.  If any of my disciples reading this post remember the days following the 9-11 attacks in the United States, watching news reports 24 hours a day, seven days a week, became a national past time.  I see the current situation quickly developing into something similar.

I have a friend whose father is a retired police detective.  She told me once that one of her father's sayings is, "Safety is just a feeling."  As we all sit in our homes, with our pantries full of toilet paper and pasta and Gatorade, we feel safe.  Prepared.  And that's good.  Our families are ready for the zombie apocalypse.  It provides us some peace of mind, which really is in short supply at the moment in most places.

The people we love most are the ones who can drive us most crazy, as Merton points out in the passage above.  They know how to get under our skins and pluck our nerves like guitar strings.  Yet, those people are the reason we work and sweat and live and die.  They are what make our lives normal, however that is defined.  They are the reason we panic and worry when our normal lives shift or are threatened.  We want our loved ones to be safe, no matter how much they irritate us.

Here is what I have been doing to stem the wave of worry that is sweeping across the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and the world:  every time I begin to worry, I pray instead.  Worry isn't productive.  It helps absolutely nothing.  Prayer, on the other hand, allows me to feel as if I'm helping in some small way, instead of contributing to the national toilet paper shortage.

So, faithful disciples, huddled in your homes, waiting for the coronavirus to come knocking on your front doors, Saint Marty is praying for all of you.  Wishing you good health, abundant love.  Safety, in whatever form that takes.

Keep calm.  Wash your hands.  Check on your elderly neighbors.  Pray.  Be the solution, not the problem.