Tuesday, April 28, 2020

April 28: Cleaning a Church, Ignorance and Faith, Poem from "Kyrie"

One of my side jobs is cleaning a Catholic church--my home parish.  Since the shelter-in-place order began in Michigan, the church doors have been locked tight.  No prayer gatherings.  Or Masses.  Stations of the Cross.  Confessions.  The building has remained empty and silent.

Twice a week, however, my wife and I continue to dust and vacuum and mop.  I clean the bathrooms and empty garbages.  Bleach the toilets and sinks.  An empty church, in a lots of ways, feels unnatural.  It's a place that's meant to hold people.  Of course, if this pandemic has taught me anything about faith and religion, it is this:  the church really isn't about altars and pews, gleaming marble and vaulted ceilings.  Nope.  The church really is about the people sitting in those pews.  They are the bodies of Christ.

My parish priest told me that the bishop will soon be releasing orders stating that the churches in the diocese can be unlocked for prayer time, following all the CDC guidelines for distancing and sanitizing.  So, when I entered the sanctuary this evening to dust and mop, the pews were taped and partitioned.  It was a strange sight to behold, like a weird maze to follow in order to reach the apse of the sanctuary. 

There will be masks in Church on in the coming weeks.  One person per pew.  No hugs or handshakes.  No communion.  The building will simply be open as a place of meditation and prayer.

I worry as things start to reopen, however gradually.  Worry and fear, I know, are the opposite of faith.  Yet, having watched the news over the last four or five weeks, I know that people often use religion as an excuse to ignore scientific common sense.

So, as much as I would love to see the world return to a pre-Covid condition, that is not ever going to happen.  That "normal" will never return.  So we must adjust.  Pray six-feet apart.  Wear face masks.  Avoid human contact.  That is how we will survive and overcome.

Science is not the enemy of faith.  Ignorance is.

Saint Marty prays for people to be smart in the coming days.

from Kyrie

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt

You wiped a fever-brow, you burned the cloth.
You scrubbed a sickroom floor, you burned the mop.
What wouldn't burn you boiled like applesauce
out beside the shed in the copper pot.
Apple, lightwood, linen, feather-bed--
it was the smell of that time, that neighborhood.
All night the pyre smouldered in the yard.
Your job:  to obliterate what had been soiled.

But the bitten heart no longer cares for risk.
The orthodox still passed from lip to lip
the blessed relic and the ritual cup.
To see in the pile the delicate pillowslip
she'd worked by hand, roses and bluets--as if
hope could be fed by giving up--

Monday, April 27, 2020

April 27: Become a Dilettante, John Keating, What We Stay Alive For

Merton being chastised for wanting to be a writer . . .

It was not the first time I had met Mrs. Pearce, the headmistress of Ripley Court.  She was a bulky and rather belligerent-looking woman with great pouches under her eyes.  She was standing in a room in which were hung several of my father's paintings.  She had probably been looking at them, and considering the error and instability of an artist's way of life when Aunt Maud mentioned the fact that we had been talking about my own future.

"Does he want to be a dilettante like his father?" said Mrs. Pearce roughly, surveying me with a rather outraged expression through the lenses of her spectacles.

"We were thinking that perhaps he might become a journalist," said Aunt Maud gently.

"Nonsense," said Mrs. Pearce, "let him go into business and make a decent living for himself.  There's no use in his wasting his time and deceiving himself.  He might as well get some sensible ideas into his head from the very start, and prepare himself for something solid and reliable and not go out into the world with his head full of dreams."  And then, turning to me, she cried out, "Boy!  Don't become a dilettante, do you hear?"

I was received at Ripley Court, although the summer term was almost over, more or less as if I were an orphan or some kind of a stray that required at once pity and a special, not unsuspicious kind of attention.  I was the son of an artist, and had just come from two years in a French school, and the combination of artist and France added up to practically everything that Mrs. Pearce and her friends suspected and disliked.  Besides, to crown it all, I did not know any Latin.  What was to be made of a boy who was already in the middle of his fourteenth year and could not decline mensa--had never even opened a Latin grammar?

So I had the humiliation of once again descending to the lowest place and sitting with the smallest boys in the school and beginning at the beginning.

But Ripley was a pleasant and happy place after the prison of the Lycee.  The huge, dark green sweep of the cricket field, and the deep shadows of the elm trees where one sat waiting for his innings, and the dining room where we crammed ourselves with bread and butter and jam at tea-time and listened to Mr. Onslow reading aloud from the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, all this was immense luxury and peace after Montauban.

People don't understand the artistic impulse.  Merton, being the son of an intinerant painter, is immediately suspect.  The arts--whether visual, written, spoken, musical--are not considered serious pursuits.  Instead, they should be saved by pastimes, those hobbies responsible people indulge after they have completed their "real work" in a business office, medical practice, retail store.  The arts are frivolous.  The arts are expendable.  (Certainly, the current administration in the White House has made this belief core to their budget proposals, slashing funding for anything to do with truth and beauty and education.)

Me?  I subscribe to John Keating's philosophy from Dead Poets Society:
We don't read and write poetry because it's cute.  We read and write poetry because we are the members of the human race.  And the human race is filled with passion.  And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life.  But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.
That's why I stay up until midnight reading novels and poetry.  Why I tap away at my keyboard for a couple hours every night.  Not because I need something to fill my "empty" hours.  No.  Because I need these things to sustain me for the next day, when all the business of scraping a living from the belly of the world absorbs me.  If I didn't write these blog posts and scribble in my journal, I would undoubtedly be ready to take long walk off a short rooftop.

If you're reading this blog post, you probably already agree with me.  There is something about writing and poetry that fills you up in some way.  Gives you something that Wheel of Fortune or 60 Minutes does not.  It may be a secret obsession that you hide from family and friends.  That's okay.  You can still be a part of this Dead Poets Society.  Just be sure to leave your tie and suit jacket at home.

We are dreamers here.  Hopers for a better tomorrow.  We reject practically everything about our present-day world.  The hatred and waste and greed.  Instead, we embrace love and beauty.  That is what I live for, why I punch time clocks, drag myself out of bed at 4:45 in the morning.  It's all about poetry.  The sonnets and lyrics of everyday existence.

Saint Marty is ready to haiku off to bed now.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

April 26: A Hundred Years Ago, Horton Hears, Poem from "Kyrie"

The sonnets from Ellen Bryant Voigt's collection Kyrie have great resonance for our current time.  In case you haven't noticed.

The world has been through this before.  About a hundred years ago.  Millions of people died.  Everyone walked around with face masks on.  Sheltered in place.  There were so many bodies that they had to be buried in mass graves, without ceremony or prayer.  And then, the Spanish flu subsided, and the world went about its business of dealing with the Great Depression.  Another World War.  A Cold War.  Nuclear proliferation.  Climate change.

And now the universe has brought us back to ground zero again.  We're all wearing masks.  Staying home.  Hundreds of thousands of people are sick and dead.  A world economy in shambles.  Throw into that mix, in my country, a leader who doesn't believe in science.  Or truth.  We have reached a tilting point.

I've been thinking about one of my favorite books when I was a kid.  Horton Hears a Who.  I imagine that our world is right at this moment balanced on a clover carried by a friendly elephant.  We're either going to be boiled in oil or we're going to shout from our rooftops our barbaric "YAWP!"--not going gently into that good night.  (Yes, I'm mixing metaphors and poets here.  So shoot me.)

We need to learn from this time.  I came across the story of Jonathan Coelho, a 32-year-old husband and father who recently died of Covid-19.  He wrote a letter on his phone to his wife and kids before he was sedated and intubated.  Here, in part, is what he said:

I love you guys with all my heart and you've given me the best life I could have ever asked for . . . I am so lucky it makes me so proud to be your husband and the father to Braedyn and Penny.  Katie you are the most beautiful caring nurturing person I've ever met . . . you are truly one of a kind . . . make sure you live life with happiness and that same passion that made me fall in love with you.  Seeing you be the best mom to the kids is the greatest thing I've ever experienced . . .Let Braedyn know he's my best bud and I'm proud to be his father and for all the amazing things he's done and continues to do . . . Let Penelope know she's a princess and can have whatever she wants in life.  I'm so lucky.
That is the greatest lesson of this pandemic.  It's about finding out what's really, truly important.  It's not whether you can get your hair done.  Or go out to Red Lobster for dinner.  It's about love.  Period.  Simple as that.

Saint Marty wishes you all a peaceful, love-filled Sunday evening.

from Kyrie

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt

Thought at first that grief had brought him down.
His wife dead, his own hand dug the grave
under a willow oak, in family ground--
he got home sick, was dead when morning came.

By week's end, his cousin who worked in town
was seized at once by fever and by chill,
left his office, walked back home at noon,
death ripening in him like a boil.

Soon it was a farmer in the field--
someone's brother, someone's father--
left the mule in its traces and went home.
Then the mason, the miller at his wheel,
from deep in the forest the hunter, the logger,
and the sun still up everywhere in the kingdom.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

April 25: Utopian Strain, a Writer, Dreams

Merton has a conversation with his aunt about the future . . .

Now that I as going to go to school in England, I would be more and more under her wing.  In fact, I had barely landed when she took me on one of those shopping expeditions in Oxford Street that was the immediate prelude to Ripley Court--a school in Surrey which was now in the hands of her sister-in-law, Mrs. Pearce, the wife of Uncle Ben's late brother, Robert.  He had been killed in a cycling accident when, coming to the bottom of a hill, he had failed to turn the corner and had run straight into a brick wall.  His brakes had gone back on him halfway down.

It was on one of those mornings in Oxford Street, perhaps not the very first one, that Aunt Maud and I had a great conversation about my future.  We had just bought me several pairs of grey flannel trousers and a sweater and some shoes and some grey flannel shirts and one of those floppy flannel hats that English children have to wear, and now, having emerged from D. H Evans, were riding down Oxford Street on the top of an open bus, right up in the front, where one could see simply everything

"I wonder if Tom has thought at all about his future," Aunt Maud said and looked at me, winking and blinking with both eyes as a sign of encouragement.  I was Tom.  She sometimes addressed you in the third person, like that, perhaps as a sign of some delicate, inward diffidence about bringing the matter up at all.

I admitted that I had though a little about the future, and what I wanted to be.  But I rather hesitated to tell her that I wanted to be a novelist.

"Do you think writing would be a good profession for anyone?" I said tentatively.

"Yes indeed, writing is a very fine profession!  But what kind of writing would you like to do?"

"I have been thinking that I might write stories," I said.

"I imagine you would probably do quite well at that, some day," said Aunt Maud, kindly, but added:  "Of course, you know that writers sometimes find it very difficult to make their way in the world."

"Yes, I realize that," I said reflectively.

"Perhaps if you had some other occupation, as a means of making a living, you might find time to write in your spare moments.  Novelists sometimes get their start that way, you know."

"I might be a journalist," I suggested, "and write for the newspapers."

"Perhaps that is a good idea," she said.  "A knowledge of languages would be very valuable in that field, too.  You could work your way up to the position of foreign correspondent."

"And I could write books in my spare time."

"Yes, I suppose you probably could manage it that way."

I think we rode all the way out to Ealing, talking in this somewhat abstract and utopian strain, and finally we got off, and crossed Haven Green to Castlebar Road where we had to stop in at Durston House for something or other.

It's a simple enough conversation.  An adult asking a child what s/he wants to be when s/he grows up.  Everyone reading this post probably had similar conversations with a parent or teacher or counselor or priest or minister or whomever.  "What do you want to be when you grow up?" asks the visiting police officer.  "A police officer!" says I.  "What do you want to be when you grow up, my son?" says my parish priest.  "A priest!" says I.  "What do you want to be when you grow up?" says my mother.  "A writer?" says I timidly.  My mother clucks her tongue, "Well, you can take English classes, but how about computers?  There's a future in that."  Thus I began my college career, on a full-ride scholarship, as a Computer Science major.

That didn't quite work out the way my mother imagined.  Do I regret the twists and turns my life took on the way to my current situation?  I suppose I would make different choices given the opportunity.  Maybe finish my PhD in literature.  Maybe hole up in a bedroom of the first apartment my wife and I had, banging away on a computer, writing my first novel.  Maybe forgo college entirely and travel, visiting the places I've always dreamed of seeing and now probably never will.  Rome.  London.  Paris.  Florence.  Beijing.

A side effect of this pandemic, for me, is all the time I have now to think about things like this.  My future, at the moment, is pretty hemmed in by financial and parental obligations.  I have bills to figure out how to pay and a family to support on a greatly reduced income.  I won't be planning trips to Greece or Madrid or even Green Bay any time soon.  Instead, I will hammer away on some blog post for an hour or so, publish it, and then move on to grading and making a spinach artichoke bomb.  The blogging keeps my dream alive, and the bomb feeds my kids and wife.  Some things don't change.

So, go ahead.  Ask me what I want to be when I grow up.

Saint Marty's answer will probably still be, "A writer."

Friday, April 24, 2020

April 24: Juggled, 33% Chance, Poem from "Kyrie"

It has been a long, tiring week in a succession of long, tiring weeks.

I often find myself too tired to do much of anything by the time I get home from working at the medical office, but I have other obligations at night.  Teaching.  Cleaning.  Writing.  Grading.  Fathering.  Husbanding.  I've juggled all these balls pretty well for most of my life.

Now, however, I find myself struggling.  Before I know it, I'm staring at a stack of papers or a blank computer screen at midnight, frozen and exhausted.  The stress of working in a hospital/medical office environment is draining.  Sure, there are times when I laugh and joke.  And I'm surrounded by people I care about and who care about me.  But this pandemic sort of consumes me, physically and mentally, for a good portion of every 24 hours.

I know that my story isn't any different from thousands of other stories out there.  I'm not unique.  I try to keep that in mind.  It's difficult, however, when I read statistics about how much Covid-19 affects people with diabetes.  That, if I get this virus, I stand a 33% chance of ending up on a ventilator.  Just thinking about that makes me want to wash my hands for about a half hour straight.

My great friend, Helen, said to me a couple weeks ago that she believes something good is going to come out of this pandemic.  At the time she said this to me, I had a hard time believing her statement.  But, as the shelter-in-place extends and extends, I have come to truly treasure the time I have with my family.  Long walks with my puppy.  Zoom meetings with siblings where we just eat dinner together.  These simple acts of sharing have become serenity in the middle of a chaotic time.

Tonight, I am giving thanks for these small moments of joy.  They sustain me.  Give me hope.

They allow Saint Marty to continue juggling for another day.

from Kyrie

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt

All day, one room:  me, and the cherubim
with their wet kisses.  Without quarantines,
who knew what was happening at home--
was someone put to bed, had someone died?
The paper said how dangerous, they coughed
and snuffed in the double desks, facing me--
they sneezed and spit on books we passed around
and on the boots I tied, retied, barely
out of school myself, Price, at the front--
they smeared their lunch, they had no handkerchiefs,
no fresh water to wash my hands--when the youngest
started to cry, flushed and scared,
I just couldn't touch her, I let her cry.
Their teacher, and I let them cry.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

April 20, 21, 22, 23: How Nice, Joy Center, Grace at Work

Merton's aunt and uncle . . .

The retired headmaster of Durston House Preparatory School for Boys, on Castlebar Road, looked like almost all of the great, tearful, solemn war-lords of Victorian society.  He was a stoop-shouldered man with a huge, white waterfall moustache, a pince-nez, ill-fitting tweeds.  He walked slowly and with a limp, because of his infirmities, and required much attention from everybody, especially Aunt Maud.  When he spoke, although he spoke quietly and distinctly, you knew he had a booming voice if he wanted to use it, and sometimes when he had a particularly dramatic statement to make, his eyes would widen, and he would stare you in the face, and shake his finger at you, and intone the words like the ghost in Hamlet then, if that had been the point of some story, he would sit back in his chair, and laugh quietly, displaying his great teeth, and gazing from face to face of those who sat at his feet.

As for Aunt Maud, I think I have met very few people in my life so like an angel.  Of course, she was well on in years, and her clothes, especially her hats, were of a conservativism most extreme.  I believe she had not forsaken a detail of the patterns that were popular at the time of the Diamond Jubilee.  She was a sprightly and charming person, a tall, thin, quiet, meek old lady who still, after all the years, had some thing about her of the sensible and sensitive Victorian girl Nice, in the strict sense, and in the broad colloquial sense, was a word made for her:  she was a very nice person.  In a way, her pointed nose and her thin smiling lips even suggested the expression of one who had just finished pronouncing that word.  "How nice!"

That is Merton describing two people he seems to love very much--his aunt and uncle who live in Great Britain.  In these two short paragraphs, you can really sense the affection Merton seems to have for them.  Aunt Maud is an angel, and Uncle Ben is the ghost of Hamlet, holding court with his admiring students.

Tonight, I had the privilege of giving a virtual poetry reading, sponsored by the Joy Center in Ishpeming, which is owned and managed by my great friend, Helen.  It filled my cup to the brim to spend time with people whom I care about deeply, even if it was only in an electronic setting.  I got to hear voices I haven't heard in a while.  See smiling faces that filled me with such peace and happiness.  The entire evening was medicine that I needed.

I try not to speak much about my fiscal or family difficulties in this blog.  Everyone is struggling right now.  I know this.  So, let me just say that I had a difficult day because of a particularly difficult money problem.  I was not in the best frame of mind when I began the Zoom meeting tonight.  In fact, I would say that I was at one of my lowest points of an entire week of lows.

Yet, when people started popping up for my poetry reading, each smile and laugh, each wonderful shining face, worked to drive the darkness away.  For a couple hours, all of my problems receded into the shadows, and I was able to soak in the love and friendship.  I may sound sentimental here, like a Helen Steiner Rice greeting card.  I don't care.  Seeing all those people, sharing my poems and essay, was just the medicine I needed to remind me how truly blessed I am.

Yes, the money difficulties are still there, and the accompanying family struggles.  But, through the power of poetry, I was able to find some happiness tonight.  And that is truly grace at work.

Saint Marty loves you all and thanks you for loving him.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

April 19: Sundays, Melancholy, Poem from "Kyrie"

Sundays are strange right now. 

I wake up, watch a livestream of a local Catholic Mass.  Then I get dressed and drive to my wife's church, a United Methodist congregation.  There, my wife sings and I play the piano in an empty sanctuary for a Zoom worship service.  Later on today, I will watch a recording of a Sunday service led by one of my very best friends, who is a pastor of another United Methodist church downstate.

In my life, Saturday nights and Sunday mornings have been devoted to being around people, united in worship experiences.  It's how I grew up.  It's in my DNA.  So, being isolated in my own little box during Zoom worship feels more than a little artificial.  Yet, it still feeds that craving for community and faith that Sundays engender in me.

I will go grocery shopping later today.  While I am at Meijer, I will be wearing a mask and avoiding other shoppers as much as possible.  This evening, I will make a birthday dinner for my daughter's boyfriend.  He turned 18 yesterday.  I will take my dog for a walk or two.  I will hear birds piping in the cold April air.

Whether in pandemic or not, the birds return to the Upper Peninsula in April, and the sun starts showing its bright eye earlier and earlier in the morning.  These things are constant.  Eternal.  I try to stay in touch with these signs of God's grace every day, but on Sundays especially. 

It is the Sabbath.  A day set aside for rest.  Reflection.  Thanksgiving.  I have never been a big fan of Sundays or Sabbaths.  I can't explain why, but a deep melancholy fills me, morning to night.  It may have something to do with the weekend ending, another five days of stress impending.  These past five or six Sundays, I have struggled even more with this sense of melancholy.  I have come to realize that being around other human beings on Sundays lifts my spirits, makes me feel not quite so alone.

It is a historic time right now in the world.  A time that will be recorded in history books, studied by economists and medical doctors, written about by poets for years to come.  Perhaps, in 50 or 75 or 100 years, someone will be reading these very words that I'm typing right now.  I will become part of a Covid-19 pandemic archive, filed under "Blog Post, Sundays, Covid-18 Pandemic, April 19, 2020."  Because it is important to remember the past.  It's how we learn from out mistakes.  Become better.

Greetings, academic of the future, from me, pandemic blogger and thinker of the past.  This Sunday, I lift this message up to you.  Take care.  Learn from it.  Say a prayer for the people of this time.  Know that, on this Sunday, I am sitting at my kitchen table, thinking about the meaning of Sundays and birds and eternity.

Because that's all we have right now.  Some idea of a distant future Sunday, where we can all gather together again, without fear, and sweep away all the crumbs of darkness and melancholy.

Saint Marty is ready with his broom.

poem from Kyrie

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt

Dear Mattie, Did you have the garden turned?
This morning early while I took my watch
I heard a wood sparrow--the song's the same
no matter what they call them over here--
remembered too when we were marching in,
the cottonwoods and sycamores and popples,
how fine they struck me coming from the ship
after so much empty flat gray sky,
on deck winds plowing up tremendous waves
and down below half the batallion ill.
Thirty-four we left behind in the sea
and more fell in the road, it's what took Pug.
But there's enough of us still and brave enough
to finish this quickly off and hurry home.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

April 18: Heart and Center, Walking with My Dog, Retrospective Falsification

Merton moves to England . . .

Before I was really able to believe that I was out of the Lycee for good, we were racing through Picardy on the Nord railway.  Pretty soon the atmosphere would take on that dim pearlish grey that would tell us we were nearing the Channel, and all along the line we would read the big billboards saying, in English, "Visit Egypt!"

Then, after that, the channel steamer, Folkestone cliffs, white as cream in the sunny haze, the jetty, the grey-green downs and the line of prim hotels along the top of the rock:  these things all made me happy.  And the cockney cries of the porters and the smell of strong tea in the station refreshment room spelled out all the associations of what had, up to now, always been a holiday country for me, a land heavy with awe-inspiring properties, but laden with kinds of comforts, and in which every impact of experience seemed to reach the soul through seven or eight layers of insulation.

England meant all this for me, in those days, and continued to do so for a year or two more, because going to England meant going to Aunt Maud's house in Ealing.

The red brick house at 18 Carlton Road, with the little lawn that was also a bowling green and the windows looking out on the enclosed patch of grass which was the Durston House cricket field, was a fortress of nineteenth-century security.  Here in Ealing, where all the Victorian standards stood entrenched in row upon row of identical houses, Aunt Maud and Uncle Ben lived in the very heart and the center of the citadel, and indeed Uncle Ben was one of the commanders.  

I spent a good portion of today walking with my dog.  According to my iPhone, I walked close to 21,000 steps.  That's 9.8 miles.  On my walks, I visited places where I had lived in the past.  I walked past the first apartment my wife and I had when we were married.  It was a duplex at the time.  We lived in the lower part.  It was large and spacious, with a nice-sized kitchen and a sun room that leaked in the winter.  I have fond memories of the place, even though the landlord eventually rented the upper level to her sister whose favorite pastime was having sex, loudly, with her weed-smoking boyfriend at 7 o'clock in the morning.

At first, I couldn't locate this duplex.  After circling the block once or twice, I realized that the building has been renovated, new siding and a two-car garage erected in the backyard.  It looked nothing like the place I remember, with its 1970s yellow paint and cluttered front porch.  That house has retreated into the golden light of nostalgia.

This evening, I walked by the building which used to house my father's small business--a plumbing supply store.  That building, on the outside, still looks the same.  Pastel green with brown trim.  Up above, the sign with my father's name on it still hangs.  When I pressed my face to the windows to peer inside, I could see displays, tables, and the counter with the cash register.  All stuff that I remember clearly from the days when I worked there.  I could tell there was a fine layer of dust over everything.

For all four years of high school, every Saturday, I worked at that store.  I sort of hated the fact that eight hours of my precious weekend time was taken up in that place.  Tonight, however, I found myself wanting to go inside, sit on the high stool that used to be behind the cash register counter, and return for a few moments to that time when all the members of my family were still alive and the future seemed like a bright and shining thing that I wanted to chase down.

This pandemic has forced me (everyone?) into thinking about the past, when you could put your arms around a relative or friend without worry.  Masks were reserved for Halloween.  Rubber gloves were only used to scrub the toilet.  Simpler times, although they didn't seem simple when I was living them.  Just as Merton seems to engage in a little retrospective falsification in the passage above, I've been indulging in a little of that myself today.  (Definition of retrospective falsification: the unconscious distortion of past experiences to conform to a person's needs in the present.)

What do I need in this present that my distorted memory of the past offers?  Take your pick.  No bills.  No mental illness.  No coronavirus.  No worry.  A future that seemed limitless--college, job, wife, kids, books to write, dreams to chase, happily ever after.  Everything seemed possible back then.

I know what I did today wasn't necessarily healthy for my state of mind.  But it brought me comfort to remember, even if my mind whitewashed those memories so that they shone like agates in lake water.  It was medicine.  Sweet and good tasting.  Yet, it also filled me with an ache for all the things/people/times that I've lost, as well.

Tomorrow, I will be changing the routes of my walks.  Avoiding those places that drag me back to the past so strongly.  Instead, I will try to be thankful for my present life, where all of my family is together in my home.  Safe.  Healthy.  Warm.  Loved.

Saint Marty is going to go have an adult beverage now.  That's something he didn't do when he was in high school.  Much.

Friday, April 17, 2020

April 17: Xenophobe in Chief, Stop Being Stupid, Poem from "Kyrie"

You know, I've been seeing these theories floating around social media (fueled by the Xenophobe in Chief sitting in the Oval Office) that this pandemic isn't simply Mother Nature being Mother Nature.  The story goes that Covid-19 was created in a Chinese laboratory and was somehow loosed on the world, either accidentally or purposefully.

I suppose this is a natural response to an event that is so mind-boggingly catastrophic.  We want to blame someone or something.  That's what humans do.  Place blame.  By that logic, we have to blame the United States for the deadliest pandemic of the last 100 years (the Spanish flu of 1918 that killed almost 50 million people worldwide).  It seems to have begun in the heartland of the United States, spreading from there.  There were three waves of the Spanish flu, and that pandemic lasted well over a year, and it kept returning because human beings simply refused to keep isolating.

The second wave of that pandemic began because World War I ended, and citizens of my home country had to throw parades to celebrate.  People crowded the streets, hugged each other, rubbed shoulders, cheered.  Because of those celebrations, another outbreak of that flu occurred, killing more people in total than World War I did.  So, again, America is to blame for that second bout. 

My point is this:  people need to stop being stupid.  Human beings mess up the world, and the world corrects things.  That's how it works.  Instead of looking for someone to blame, how about stopping idiots from throwing massive protests, blocking routes to hospitals, and spreading this fucking virus even more.  This isn't about socialism or fascism.  It's science.  We stay away from each other.  The virus can't spread.  The virus goes away, like an uninvited relative at Thanksgiving. 

Instead of listening to brain-dead, swastika-wearing, gun-toting hate mongers, how 'bout listening to the ones who know a few things about epidemiology--you know, those women and men in the white coats who we all run to when we get sick.

This message has been brought to you by Saint Marty and common sense.

poem from Kyrie

by:  Martin Achatz

Hogs aren't pretty but they're smart,
and clean as you let them be--in a clean pen,
hogs are cleaner than your average cat:
they use their nose to push their shit aside.
And not lazy:  if a hog
acts sick, you know it's sick.

As long as I've known hogs, I've known sick hogs,
especially in the fall, the cold and wet.
Before the weather goes, you slaughter hogs
unless you want to find them on their sides,
rheumy eyes, runny snout.

It's simple enough arithmetic,
so don't you think the Kaiser knew?
Get one hog sick, you get them all.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

April 13, 14, 15, 16: Grace of Those Days, Class of 2020, Senior Pictures

Merton indulges in some serious nostalgia . . .

In the last moments in which I had an opportunity to do so, I tasted the ferocious delights of exultant gloating over the companions I was about to leave.  They stood around me in the sun, with their hands hanging at their sides, wearing their black smocks and their berets, and laughing and sharing my excitement, not without envy.

And then I was riding down the quiet street in a carriage, with my luggage beside me, and Father talking about what we were going to do.  How lightly the cab-horse's hoofs rang out in the hard, white dirt of the street!  How gaily they echoed along the pale smug walls of the dusty houses!  "Liberty!" they said, "liberty, liberty, liberty, liberty," all down the street.

We passed the big polygonal barn of a post-office, covered with the tatters of ancient posters, and entered under the dappled shadow of the plane trees.  I looked ahead, up the long street to Villenouvelle station, where I had taken the train so many times in the small hours of the morning, on my way home to spend the Sunday in St. Antonin.

When we got on the little train, and traveled the way we had first come to the Aveyron alley, I did indeed feel my heart tighten at the loss of my thirteenth century:  but oh, it had long ceased to belong to us.  We had not been able to hold on, for very long, to the St. Antonin of the first year:  and the bitter lyre of the Lycee had burned all its goodness out of me again, and I was cauterized against it, and had become somewhat insensitive to it:  not so much so, however, that I did not feel a little sad leaving it for ever.

It is sad, too, that we never lived in the house that Father built.  But never mind!  The grace of those days has not been altogether lost, by any means.

I think this sheltering in place makes everyone feel the way young Merton feels here--sad for the things we had or might have had.  I'm sure the high school seniors are experiencing this melancholy in a much different way than most.  In the blink of an executive order, they lost the last three months of their time together.  Prom, gone.  Senior skip day, gone.  Graduation ceremony, gone.  All night grad party, gone.  All those last laughs, last classes, last moments of shared irony.  Gone.

On Facebook right now, I've noticed a particular movement--posting your senior pictures in honor of the Class of 2020.  While I understand the sentiment behind it, I'm not sure if displaying my 1980s clothes and haircut necessarily makes today's high school seniors feel consoled or better in any way.  I think it's simply a way for middle-aged people to post embarrassing pictures of themselves to make fun of.  And I hate to say it, but I don't think the impulse to do this is truly motivated by thoughts of these young people who've lost so much.  It's more about nostalgia than anything else.

Don't get me wrong.  I've laughed at many of those senior pictures that have come through my Facebook feed.  Enjoyed the bad hairstyles and unfortunate outfits that were cool once.  They have brought good memories back for me.  But my point is that I HAVE those memories.  I can recall the warm June night I paraded out of my high school for the last time.  I can hear the songs that were played at the all night grad party (to this day, hearing Simple Minds' "Don't You (Forget About Me)" will immediately take me back to the Elks Club at 2 a.m. in the mid-80s.)  I was able to say goodbye to that part of my life in a profound and meaningful way.

The seniors of 2020 will never have the opportunity to be nostalgic about their last year of high school.  How can you be nostalgic about isolating in your home for months?  Or face masks?  Or economic recession/depression?  Death counts?  That's the stuff of a Stephen King novel, not your senior yearbook.  My heart breaks for these young people, because this time in their lives ended with a fever instead of "Pomp and Circumstance."

So, I will not be posting my senior picture on Facebook in support of the Class of 2020.  (Nobody wants to see that anyway.).  While, for me, that photo is a reminder of everything I had back then, for the graduating class of 2020, it's reminder of everything they have lost right now.

Instead, Saint Marty will post a picture of his puppy, because a cute puppy is more of a consolation to high school seniors right now than mullets and parachute pants.

April 16: Another Long Week, Days Getting Lost, Poem from "Kyrie"

It is late.  I am tired after another long week.

For most people, these days are blending.  More than one person who's in quarantine has asked me, "What day is it?"  Even the days are getting lost right now.

Loss isn't easy to navigate, big or little.  Easter has come and gone, and that doesn't seem possible.  However, all of the Lenten and Holy Week festivities that remind me of the coming of Easter weren't front and center for me this year.  Therefore, I lost Easter, too.

I'm losing sleep.  Money.  Teaching.  Reading.  Writing.  At the moment, I am simply consumed with surviving, as are most people.  And that will have to be enough for now.

Saint Marty is tired of washing his hands.

poem from Kyrie

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt

How can she be his mother--he had one of those
and knows she isn't it--odd, stiff,
negative of her sisters:
                                    like large
possessive animals they are, grooming
the small inscrutable faces with their spit.

But here's the boy, culled from the loud clump,
and she can give him courtesy and work,
and since he seems to love to play outside

they work his mother's garden, grubbing out
the weeks and grass, the marginal and frail,
staking the strongest fruit up from the dirt.

Together they'll put by what they don't eat,
jars and jars of it--greens, reds, yellows
blanched in the steaming kitchen, vats of brine.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

April 12: Easter Lessons, Pandemic Lessons, Poem from "Kyrie"

Easter teaches us never to give up hope, even in the darkest hours.  After the tomb comes resurrection.  That is what I was taught as a young boy in catechism.

I have not always embraced the lessons of Easter in my life.  I'm a poet, which means that I'm supposed to turn to alcohol, not religion, when things seem bleak.  I've been thinking a lot about what kind of lessons this global pandemic is supposed to impart.  I haven't come up with any clear answers.

Certainly, I have learned how to wash my hands well.  And I've learned that hugging the wrong person can kill you.  Being an introvert is healthy.  Having a dog is a good excuse to go for a walk.  Being apart doesn't mean being disconnected, and being realistic can be misconstrued as being panicked.  Loving someone can sustain you, but it can also make you feel very alone.

Tonight, snow is falling on my part of the world.  A late season storm that will more than likely end in power outages and even more isolation in an isolated world.  Yet, I feel sustained this evening, after cooking a turkey dinner for my family and taking my puppy for a long, long walk.  Small things can save you from despair.

Someone helping you wash dishes.

A piece of chocolate in the middle of the night.

An arm reaching out to hold you in the dark.

The hum of the furnace.

A beautiful poem.

This is the lesson of Easter for me this year.  In the middle of a pandemic.

To never take any grace for granted.  And it's all grace.

Happy Easter from Saint Marty.

from Kyrie

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt

O God, Thou hast cast us off, Thou has scattered us
     Thou hast been displeased, O turn to us again.
Thou hast made the earth to tremble; Thou has broken it;
     heal the breaches thereof; for it shaketh.
Thou hast showed Thy people hard things; Thou hast made us
     to drink the wine of astonishment.

Surely He shall deliver us from the snare,
He shall cover us with His feathers, and under His wings,
     We shall not be afraid for the arrow by day
     nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness.
A thousand shall fall at our side, ten thousand shall fall,
     but it shall not come nigh us, no evil befall us,
Because He hath set His love upon us . . .

                                                  Here endeth the first lesson.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

April 11: Chains Struck, Easter Vigil, Light and Hope

Young Merton has a little Easter moment . . .

Father had gone to Paris to be best man at the wedding of one of his friends from the old days in New Zealand.  Capt. John Chrystal had made himself a career in the British army and was an officer in the hussars.  Later on he became Governor of a prison:  but he was not as dreary as that might imply.  After the wedding, the Captain and his wife went off on their honeymoon, and the mother of the new Mrs. Chrystal came down to St., Antonin with Father.  

Mrs. Stratton was an impressive kind of a person.  She was a musician, and a singer, but I forgot whether she had been on the stage:  in any case, she was not a very theatrical character, rather the opposite, although she had a certain amount of dash about her.

She was not what you would call elderly, by any means, and besides she was a woman of great vitality and strength of character, with rich intelligence and talent, and strong and precise ideas about things.  Her convictions commanded respect, as did her many talents, and above all her overwhelming personal dignity.  You felt that she ought to have been called Lady Stratton, or the Countess of something.

At first I was secretly resentful of the great influence she at once began to exercise over our lives, and thought she was bossing our affairs too much, but even I was able to realize that her views and advice and guidance were very valuable things.  But so strong was her influence that I think it was due to her more than to anyone else that we gave up the idea of living permanently in St. Antonin.

The house was almost finished and ready for occupation, and it was a beautiful little house too, simple and solid.  It looked good to live in, with that one big room with the medieval window and a huge medieval fireplace.  Father had even managed to procure a winding stone stair and it was by that that you went up to the bedroom.  The garden around the house, where Father had done much work, would have been fine.

On the other hand, Father was travelling too much for the house to be really useful.  In the winter of 1927 he was some months at Marseilles and the rest of the time at Cette, another Mediterranean port.  Soon he would have to go to England, for by this time he was ready for another exhibition.  All this time I was at the Lycee, becoming more and more hard-boiled in my precocity, and getting accustomed to the idea of growing up as a Frenchman.

Then Father went to London for the exhibition.

It was the spring of 1928.  The school year would soon be over.  I was not thinking much about the future.  All I knew was that Father would be back from England in a few days.

It was a bright, sunny morning in May when he arrived at the Lycee, and the first thing he told me was to get my things packed:  we were going to England.

I looked around me like a man that has had chains struck from his hands.  How the light sang on the brick walls of the prison whose gates had just burst open before me, sprung by some invisible and beneficent power:  my escape from the Lycee was, I believe, providential.

Merton is set free from his chains.  The doors of his prison are flung open, and the light shines down upon him.  If you don't recognize the parallels in this passage to Acts 16:  25-26, where Saint Paul and Silas are set free from their prison and chains by an earthquake, then you probably weren't paying attention in Sunday school or didn't attend Sunday school at all.

It's an apt passage for tonight.  It is Holy Saturday.  In a usual year, at this time of the night (it is about 10:30 p.m. right now), I would be in a choir loft, playing the pipe organ and singing the Easter Vigil Mass at my church.  It's one of my favorite Masses of the entire Church calendar, full of all the bells and whistles of Catholic pageantry.  Candles and Gregorian chant, bells and "glorias," and, of course, clouds of incense.  And, just for fun, there are also baptisms and confirmations.  It's quite the show.

This year, however, my church is dark and empty.  No candles flickering in the pews.  No priest in Easter white intoning, "Rejoice, heavenly powers!  Sing, choirs of angels!"  Nope.  This Holy Saturday is more tomb than resurrection.

Of course, Christians all over the world are celebrating Easter in some way tomorrow.  Pope Francis has been holding solemn services all week in a vacant Saint Peter's Square.  Tonight, he celebrated the Easter Vigil in a nearly empty Saint Peter's Basilica.  For some reason, the images of Pope Francis sitting alone in a dark, rainy night have stuck with me.  A symbol of how isolating and terrifying this pandemic is.

Of course, Easter will come tomorrow.  There are five baskets, filled with chocolate, sitting on my kitchen table right now.  This morning, as I was heading to church to practice some music for tomorrow (I am playing for a virtual Easter Sunday service), I passed the Easter Bunny, standing at an intersection of the highway, waving at cars.  I honked and waved back.  Nothing is going to stop Easter.

There is power in the message of Easter for everyone (Christian, atheist, agnostic, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, whatever) this year:  we will rise from the ashes of this disaster.  There will be light and hope in the world again.  Resurrection is on its way.

Covid-19 is teaching the world some hard lessons.  It's sort of knocked us all on our complacent asses.  We have taken the gifts of this world for granted for a very long time.  Now, we can't.  When we're done sheltering in place.  When we can go grocery shopping without fearing for our lives.  When coming home from work isn't like returning home from war.  When all this is said and done, I hope the Easter we experience is one of renewed appreciation for the graces of living in this spinning universe.  That we see and treat every human being for what they really are:  reflections of the Higher Power (Yahweh/God/Buddha/Jesus Christ/Allah) in our lives.

That will truly be an Easter to rejoice.

Saint Marty wishes you all a joyous Easter Vigil!  He is rising . . .

April 10: Two Wonderful People, Good Friday, Not Alone

Merton recognizes a great gift of love and prayer and grace given to him as a young man . . .

So I began to justify Protestantism, as best I could.  I think they had probably said that they could not see how I managed to go on living without the faith:  for there was only one Faith, one Church.  So I gave them the argument that every religion was good:  they all led to God, only in different ways, and every man should go according to his own conscience, and settle things according to his own private way of looking at things.

They did not answer me with any argument.  The simply looked at one another and shrugged and Monsieur Privat said quietly and sadly, "Mais c'est impossible."

It was a terrible, a frightening, a very humiliating thing to feel all their silence and peacefulness and strength turned against me, accusing me of being estranged from them, isolated from their security, cut off from their protection and from the strength of their inner life by my own fault, by my willfulness, by my own ignorance, and my uninstructed Protestant pride.

One of the humiliating things about it was that I wanted them to argue, and they despised argument.  It was as if they realized, as I did not, that my attitude and my desire of argument and religious discussion implied a fundamental and utter lack of faith, and a dependence on my own lights, and attachment to my own opinion.

What is more, they seemed to realize that I did not believe in anything, and that anything I might say I believed would be only empty talk.  Yet they did not give me the feeling that this was some slight matter, something to be indulged in a child, something that could be left to work itself out in time, of its own accord.  I have never met people to whom belief was a matter of such moment,  And yet there was nothing they could do for me directly.  But what they could do, I am sure they did, and I am glad they did it.  And I thank God from the bottom of my heart that they were concerned, and so deeply and vitally concerned, at my lack of faith.

Who knows how much I owe to those two wonderful people?  Anything I say about it is only a matter of guessing but, knowing their charity, it is to me a matter of moral certitude that I owe many graces to their prayers, and perhaps ultimately the grace of my conversion and even of my religious vocation.  What shall say?  But one day I shall know, and it is good to be able to be confident that I will see them again and be able to thank them.

The Privats, the old French couple with whom the young Merton is living at this moment, are devoutly Catholic, and they don't indulge Merton's penchant for argument.  While Merton contends the worth of all religions (a belief that Pope Francis endorses, by the way), the Privats refuse to engage in debate.  Instead, they offer him love, grace, and understanding.  The Trappist monk Merton credits the Privats' intercession as a reason for his religious conversion and life.

Today is Good Friday.  A day in the Christian calendar full of solemnity and grace.  But this Good Friday is different from any other Good Friday I have ever experienced in my lifetime.  Christians, instead of gathering together in service and commemoration of the crucifixion of Christ, stayed home.  Didn't gather.  Were united in isolation and grief.

In a very strange way, this pandemic Good Friday has taught me, personally, more about Christ's Passion than any church service--Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran--ever has.  For the past three or four weeks, I have been confronted with the possibility of mortality.  It's on the news, dawn to dusk.  Infection rates and death counts.  And the stories of people suffering and taking their last breaths in isolation, away from family and friends.  Tens of thousands of people living out their own Good Fridays.

My hands are dry, scaly, scabbed from washing and sanitizing.  I spend the majority of my days hidden behind masks, my glasses fogged with breath.  I take my temperature four and five times a day.  When I get home from work, I don't hug my kids, kiss my wife, pet my dog.  I go immediately to the bathroom.  Strip off my clothes and throw them in the washing machine.  Jump in the shower, stand under water as hot as I can tolerate, and wash my body.  I am plagued with past-due notices, bills I can't pay because of lost income.  But I am not alone.

My daughter lost the end of her first year of college.  Her boyfriend, a senior in high school, lost his last months with his close friends, his final prom, and his chance to walk into a gym in his graduation cap and gown.  My son lost the end of sixth grade, those months of making ready, learning, navigating the road to high school and beyond.  My wife was supposed to start a new job, begin a new career.  That has been put on hold indefinitely.  But they are not alone.

My mother and sister who has Down Syndrome both suffer from Alzheimer's.  I haven't seen them in close to a month.  I hear reports from my siblings of how they are doing, but I know that their memories of me a slowly slipping away.  If I'm able to walk through the door of their house again, I might just be "that nice man," because they won't remember my name or face.  But they aren't alone, either.

We all have stories.  Crosses to carry.  The Covid-19 pandemic has stripped away the trappings of all our lives.  Laid bare all our needs and wants and failings and fears.  That is the lesson of Good Friday.  All that ugliness hanging up there, for everyone to see.  And the realization that we are all the same in our struggles.  We are not alone.

And that, after the darkness and pain of Good Friday, comes the dawn of Easter morning, with all that promise of light and hope and redemption and renewal.  That is the lesson the Privats were trying to teach the young Merton.

That is the lesson that Saint Marty learned today.

April 10: A Long Walk, Some Kind of Loss, From "Kyrie"

Took my dog for a long walk this afternoon.  It was cold, and, of course, we encountered barely anyone.  Just a few lonely people longing to escape the four walls of their home for a few minutes.

As we walked, I looked at the houses we passed, thought of the people inside.  Statistically, nobody is going to escape the touch of this virus.  It will enter everyone's lives through some kind of loss.  A parent or grandparent.  A friend.  A car.  A home.  A job.

During the Great Depression, the jobless rate, at its peak, was 25%.  One in four people were out of work.  Economists are predicting an unemployment number that could actually equal that number.  Like I said, nobody is going to be left untouched by this mess.

I joked with a coworker yesterday that we're all going to come out of isolation 25 pounds heavier and alcoholics.  She didn't disagree.

Saint Marty just had a mug of special hot chocolate.  Now, he's eyeing up the Cheetos.

from Kyrie

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt

My brothers had it, my sister, parceled out
among the relatives.  I had it exiled
in the attic room.  Each afternoon
Grandfather came to the top stair, said
"How's my chickadee," and left me sweet
cream still in the crank.  I couldn't eat it
but I hugged the sweaty bucket, I put
the chilled metal paddle against my tongue.
I swam in the quarry, into a nest of ropes,
they wrapped my chest, they kissed the soles of my feet
but not with kisses.  Another time:  a man
stooped in the open door with her packed valise,
my mother smoothing on eight-button gloves,
handing me a tooth, a sprig of rue--

Thursday, April 9, 2020

April 9: Maunday Thursday, Timelessness, Poem from "Kyrie"

It is Holy Thursday, or Maunday Thursday.  In the Christian calendar, that means getting together to commemorate the Last Supper, before Christ is betrayed by Judas Iscariot and turned over to the Sanhedrin for judgement.

Because of the lack of church services right now, Holy Week has seemed lacking in the "holy" department.  Instead, the days just blend together.  I spent all day yesterday, thinking it was Thursday.  Usually, I feel the weight of these seven holy days pretty strongly.  The Christ narrative of the Passion sort of wrecks me every year.  Brings my spirit down and then resurrects it.  I'm craving that like Cheetos or a midnight milkshake right now. 

Without the markers of Palm Sunday and Maunday Thursday, I feel like I'm stuck in some kind of limbo, in between a New Year's Day and next Christmas.  Floating like a full moon trapped in black branches.

This is another result of the Covid-19 pandemic--timelessness.  Where everything and nothing is the same.  Tomorrow, I will participate in a Zoom Good Friday Service.  I'm playing piano and my wife is singing.  Something normal, in a way.  A marker on the map to Easter Sunday.

I will hold on to that tomorrow when my wife and I "go" to church.  It will feel as if I've taken one step forward toward some kind of future.  I know I am living in history right now.  Perhaps, in hundred years, a poet will write a collection of poems about this time.  Maybe the collection will be called Sanctus and start with an epigraph from John Prine:  "Jesus was a good guy, he didn't need this shit."

Saint Marty communioned with Hamburger Helper tonight.

poem from Kyrie

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt

My father's cousin Rawley in the Service,
we got word, and I think a neighbor's infant,
that was common, my mother'd lost one too.

Then he went to town to join the war.
The Sheriff hauled him home in an open rig
spat on the street, been jailed a week or two.

She ran from the henhouse shrieking, shaking eggs
from the purse of her white apron to the ground.

Before I was born, he built a wide oak drainboard
in the kitchen, didn't just glue the boards,
screwed them down.  Glue held, one split in two.

My mother was an angel out of heaven.
My father was a viper.  I wished him dead,
then he was dead.  But she was too.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

April 8: Panicking, Daily Gift, Poem from "Kyrie"

I have another poem for all my faithful disciples from Ellen Bryant's Voigt's poetry collection on the Spanish flu epidemic. 

You know, for those of my disciples who are able to stay at home, I'm happy for you.  Don't complain.  Enjoy the time.  Do something that gives you pleasure.  Connect with family and friends through whatever social media is available to you.  Tell people that you love them, even if you aren't the kind of person who says those three words often.  Listen to the birds outside your window.  And think about the people who are out there, making sure you're safe.  Those people struggle.  Daily.  Hourly.  Minutely.  Secondly.  Don't diminish that struggle.

I am not panicking about this pandemic.  I'm doing what I have to do to help my family survive intact.  Yes, I write about things that are bothering me.  Things that don't make sense.  I struggle on a daily basis with worry.  I admit it.  That doesn't mean that I don't think of my life, and the lives of the people I love, as a daily gift.

Saint Marty ain't Chicken Little, and the sky ain't falling.  It's just cloudy, with a chance of meatballs.

from Kyrie

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt

In my sister's dream about the war
the animals had clearly human expressions
of grief and dread, maybe they were people
wearing animal bodies, cows at the fence,
hens in their nests.  The older dog implored her
at the door, out back, aeroplanes
crossing overhead, she found the young one
motionless on the grass, open-eyed,
left leg bitten off, the meat and muscles
stripped back neatly from the jagged bone.
For weeks I thought that was my fiance,
the mailbox was a shrine.  I bargained with
the little god inside--I didn't know
it was us she saw in the bloody trenches.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

April 5, 6, 7: A Great Grace, Palm Sunday, Mistakes Are Being Made

DISCLAIMER:  I started this post on Sunday, and have been thinking and rethinking it every since.  It seems as though this pandemic has spread in me the inability to publish posts daily, or even every other day.  Like everyone else, I have many concerns with which I'm trying to deal.  I wake up worried, go through my day worried, go to bed worried.  Yet, I am simply a microcosm of an entire world.  So, my apologies, faithful disciples of Saint Marty.  I will try to do better . . .

Written on April 5:

Merton talks more about living with the pious Privats . . .

Those were weeks that I shall never forget, and the more I think of them, the more I realize that I must certainly owe the Privats for more than butter and milk and good nourishing food for my body.  I am indebted to them for much more than the kindness and care they showed me, the goodness and the delicate solicitude with which they treated me as their own child, yet without any assertive or natural familiarity.  As a child, and since then too, I have always tended to resist any kind of a possessive affection on the part of any other human being--there has always been this profound instinct to keep clear, to keep free.  And only with truly supernatural people have I ever felt really at my ease, really at peace.

That was why I was glad of the love the Privats showed me, and was ready to love them in return.  It did not burn you, it did not hold you, it did not try to imprison you in demonstrations, or trap your feet in the snares of its interest.  

I used to run in the woods, and climb the mountains.  I went up the Plomb du Cantal, which is nothing more than a huge hill, with a boy who was, I think, the Privat's nephew.  He went to a Catholic school taught, I suppose, by priests.  It had not occurred to me that every boy did not talk like the brats I knew at the Lycee.  Without thinking, I let out some sort of a remark of the kind you heard all day long at Montauban, and he was offended and asked where I had picked up that kind of talk.  And yet, while being ashamed of myself, I was impressed by the charitableness of his reaction.  He dismissed it at once, and seemed to have forgotten all about it, and left me with the impression that he excused me on the grounds that I was English and had used the expression without quite knowing what it means.  

After all, this going to Murat was a great grace.  Did I realize it?  I did not know what a grace was.  And though I was impressed with the goodness of the Privats, I could not fail to realize what was its root and its foundation.  And yet it never occurred to me at the time to think of being like them, of profiting in any way by their example.  

I think I only talked to them once about religion.  We were all sitting on the narrow balcony looking out over the valley, and the hills turning dark blue and purple in the September dusk.  Somehow, something came up about Catholics and Protestants and immediately I had the sense of all the solidity and rectitude of the Privats turned against me, accusing me like the face of an impregnable fortification.

The Privats pretty much live their faith every day of their lives.  That's why Merton seems drawn to them, why he both wants to be with them and like them.  Yet, at this point in his life, he doesn't connect their goodness with their religious faith.  He has no idea about grace.

It is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week.  The most important seven days in the Christian calendar.  A time to focus on grace and blessings and forgiveness.  It was a strange Palm Sunday for me, without waving palms or singing "All Glory Laud and Honor" or sitting at a pipe organ.  It was a solemn day, full of the kind of silence I usually associate with Good Friday.  A sense of loss and disquiet pervading every minute.  And perhaps that's exactly the way Palm Sunday should be this year.

Because Palm Sunday is a reminder of all that is right and wrong in the universe.  Christ riding on a donkey into Jerusalem as people shout "Hosanna!"  And, on the opposite side of the coin, the Sanhedrin plotting against Christ and his followers.  That's the way of the world, I guess.  The haves always plotting against the have-nots.  The people in power always scheming to hold onto that power, even to the detriment of the ones they are supposed to serve.

The past 24 hours has proven to me that the power dynamic in place that first Palm Sunday is still very much alive today.  While I won't get into the details of my situation, I will say that sometimes leaders make terrible decisions, under the guise of public safety and interest, when those leaders are truly motivated by greed and power.  It's simply a reflection of what's happening on a national and international level.  People are going to get sick.  People are going to die.  All because our leaders can't or won't do the right thing.  That makes me really sad for my community and country.

Perhaps none of what I've just written makes a whole lot of sense.  I apologize for that.  If I told the truth, without telling it slant, as Emily Dickinson advises, I would get myself into a heap of trouble.  Let me just say that sometimes people I look up to disappoint me a great deal.  The Sanhedrin could have done the right thing, but they didn't   And Christ had to die on the cross in the Biblical narrative to atone for their offenses.

I'm just hoping that no one has to be crucified for the mistakes that are being made this Palm Sunday.  But, Palm Sunday always leads to Good Friday.  One person dies for the mistakes of others.  It's the story of Easter.  And it's the story of this time in human history.  Mistakes are being made, and somehow those mistakes will be corrected by the universe.  Every cross has its Easter resurrection and renewal.

That's story of Saint Marty's life at the moment.  Take up the cross.  Walk with hum for a while.  At least until Friday.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

April 1, 2, 3, 4: Grace Within, Paul Lynde, Plague of Locusts

Merton talking about some good people . . .

The Auvergnats are, as a rule, not tall.  The Privats were both of them not much taller than I was, being then twelve, but tall for my age.  I suppose M. Privat was about five foot three or four, but not more.  But he was tremendously broad, a man of great strength.  He seemed to have no neck, but his head rose from his shoulders in a solid column of muscle and bone, and for the rest, his shadow was almost completely square.  He wore a black broad-brimmed hat, like most of the peasants of the region, and it gave his face an added solemnity when his sober and judicious eyes looked out at you peacefully from under the regular brows and that regular brim above them.,  These two decks, two levels of regularity, added much to the impression of solidity and immobility and impassiveness which he carried with him everywhere, whether at work or at rest.  

His little wife was more like a bird, thin, serious, earnest, quick, but also full of the peacefulness and impassiveness which, as I now know, came from living close to God.  She wore a funny little headdress which I find it almost impossible to describe, except to say that it looked like a little sugar-loaf perched on top of her head, and garnished with a bit of black lace.  The women of Auvergne still wear that headdress.

It is a great pleasure for me to remember such good and kind people and to talk about them, although I no longer possess any details about them.  I just remember their kindness and goodness to me, and their peacefulness and their utter simplicity.  They inspired real reverence, and I think, in a way, they were certainly saints.  And they were saints in the most effective and telling way:  sanctified by leading ordinary lives in a completely supernatural manner, sanctified by obscurity, by usual skills, by common tasks, by routine, but skills, tasks, routine which received a supernatural form from grace within, and from the habitual union of their souls with God in deep faith and charity.

Their farm, their family, and their Church were all that occupied these good souls, and their lives were full.

Father, who thought more and more of my physical and moral health, realized what a treasure he had found in these two, and consequently Murat was more and more in his mind as a place where I should go and get healthy.

That winter, at the Lycee, I had spent several weeks in the infirmary with various fevers, and the following summer, when Father had to go to Paris, he took the opportunity to send me once again to Murat to spend a few weeks with the Privats, who would feed me plenty of butter and milk and would take care of me in a every possible way.

Merton obviously cares a great deal for the Privats.  They are ordinary people leading ordinary lives in an extraordinary way, full or grace and love and compassion.  They obviously make a strong impression on twelve-year-old Thomas Merton, who recognizes their "deep faith and charity."  Perhaps, the seed of the future Trappist monk is planted here by this humble French couple.

I have to say that I have always been blessed by having good people in my life.  Friends who've carried me through some of the worst times in my life.  Filled my cupboards with food when I couldn't afford to buy groceries.  Bought me lunch when my life was falling apart.  Sat and listened to my problems without judgment.  Gave me advice when I needed it.  And just loved me despite of my messy, broken life.

In the current pandemic, shelter-in-place world, I miss these good people in my life.

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, I have been teaching my university classes online, including Zoom meetings with my students.  At first weirdly awkward, these class sessions have come to feel "normal" in a way.  I don't know if that's a good thing.  Instead of being self-conscious, I now simply set aside the feeling that I am sitting next to Paul Lynde in Hollywood Squares.  I allow myself to be myself.

So, when it came time for my monthly poetry workshop, I decided to try a virtual experiment.  I, and seven of the best people I know, gathered online at 7 p.m. Thursday night for some writing and sharing.  As each person entered the meeting, it was like greeting someone coming home from a war.  We yelled out their names, like incantations them magically appear.

We talked and wrote and shared for about two-and-a-half hours.  It was wonderful to be in the presence of these really good people.  I told one of them later in a phone text that I entered the evening with an empty cup, and I left full to the brim.  It was a night that I really needed, after dealing with the reality of Covid-19 on a daily basis at work for three weeks straight.

That is what this time has created--moments when you realize just how much has been stripped away from you.  And what is really important.  I have been holding these monthly poetry jam sessions for over three years.  In the process, I found a family of poets.  Wonderful friends, every last one of them.  And I got to spend about 150 virtual minutes with them this week.

They are all healthy and safe.  And they were all ready to write and share.  As the old saying goes, pressure creates diamonds.  That night was a diamond for me.  Something beautiful in a dark moment in history.  I have been living in the light of those couple hours ever since. 

And then last night, out of the blue, I received a FaceTime call from one of my best friends.  We spoke for over an hour.  He's a pastor at a church downstate, and we hadn't spoken in a really long time.  "Why does it take a global pandemic to get us to talk?" my friend asked.  We laughed and talked about our kids and pets and jobs.  It was as if we were picking up the thread of a conversation we had started that afternoon. 

So, I have been blessed with poetry and friends these first few days of April.  People who bring love and joy into my existence.  That is something to celebrate.

Saint Marty just hopes it doesn't take a plague of locusts to hear from his friends again.

Photo courtesy of my good friend and poet, Jane Piirto