Sunday, May 31, 2020

May 31: Sabbath, Endless Possibilities, Poem from "Kyrie"

Sunday afternoon.  Right after mowing the lawn.  Right before I have a Zoom Book Club meeting with family and friends.  I'm feeling a little exhausted at the moment, even though it's only 65 degrees outside and I didn't even break a sweat while pushing the lawn mower.

Sundays seem to sap my energy and motivation.  I don't really want to do anything else today, now that my grass is shorn down to an acceptable length.  I'm hungry and a little thirsty.  Maybe, later, I will take my dog for a walk, but maybe I won't.  That's just the kind of mood I'm in.

Perhaps this lethargy is a holdover from the days when doing anything on the sabbath was a sin.  Even Christ was charged with working on the sabbath.  He healed people, cast out demons, let his disciples pick wheat to eat on the seventh day.   Me?  I usually reserve Sundays for things that I just can't do any other day of the week--like mowing the lawn or cleaning the house or writing a new poem.  And preparing my myself for the upcoming work week.

This evening, I will be lucky if I make it to 10 p.m.  In fact, a nap on the couch sounds pretty good right now.  Since the pandemic began, I have noticed that the pace of my days has slowed considerably, allowing for things like naps without experiencing guilt.

Or maybe I will take my dog for a walk, and then take a nap.  The possibilities are endless as evening stretches into the miracle of night.

And for that, Saint Marty gives thanks.

poem from Kyrie

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt

After I'd seen my children truly ill,
I had no need to dream that they were ill
nor in any other way imperiled--
no more babies pitching down the well,
no more watching from shore as my boy rolls
like a kicked stone from the raft, meanwhile
Kate with a handful of bees--
                                             when I was a girl,
I practiced in the attic with my dolls,
but Del went out of right mind, his fingernails
turned blue, and Kate--no child should lie so still,
her small excitable body held enthralled. . . .
After that, in order to make it real
I dreamed them whole.

May 30: All the Slums, Thomas Merton and Martin Luther King, George Floyd

Merton testing the waters of freedom . . . 

I was a bit dazed by the momentousness of it, and by Pop's own great generosity.  Because, after all, he really meant it that way.  What he was trying to do was to arrange everything so that even if he were ruined, we would be able to take care of ourselves.  Fortunately, he was never ruined.

That day at Oakham, Pop crowned his generosity and his recognition of my maturity by an altogether astounding concession.  He not only told me he was in favor of my smoking, but even bought me a pipe.  I was fifteen, mind you, and Pop had always hated smoking anyway.  Besides, it was forbidden by the rules of the school--rules which I had been systematically breaking all that year, more for the sake of asserting my independence than for the pleasure of lighting and relighting those cold, biting pipefuls of Rhodesian cut-plug.

When the holidays came there was another big change.  It was decided that I would no longer spend my holidays with Aunt Maud or other relatives in the suburbs outside of London.  My godfather, an old friend of Father's from New Zealand, who was by now a Harley Street specialist, offered to let me stay at his place in town when I was in London, and that meant that most of the day and night I was more or less free to do what I liked.

Tom--my godfather--was to be the person I most respected and admired and consequently the one who had the greatest influence on me at this time in my life.  He too gave me credit for being more intelligent and mature than I was, and this of course pleased me very much.  He was later to find out that his trust in me was misplaced.

Life in the flat where Tom and his wife lived as very well-ordered and amusing.  You got breakfast in bed, served by a French maid, on a small tray:  coffee or chocolate in a tiny pot, toast or rolls, and, for me, fried eggs.  After breakfast, which came in at about nine, I knew I would have to wait a little to get a bath, so I would stay in bed for an hour or so more reading a novel by Evelyn Waugh or somebody like that.  Then I would get up and take my bath and get dressed and go out and look for some amusement--walk in the park, or go to a museum, or go to some gramophone shop and listen to a lot of hot records--and then buy one, to pay for the privilege of listening to all the rest.  I used to go to Levy's, on the top floor of one of those big buildings in the crescent of Regent Street, because they imported all the latest Victors and Brunswicks and Okehs from America, and I would lock myself up in one of those little glass-doored booths, and play all the Duke Ellingtons and Louis Armstrongs and the old King Olivers and all the other things I have forgotten.  Basin Street Blues, Beale Street Blues, Saint James Infirmary, and all the other places that had blues written about them:  all these I suddenly began to know much of by indirection and woeful hearsay, and I guess I lived vicariously in all the slums in all the cities of the South:  Memphis and New Orleans and Birmingham, places which I have never yet seen.  I don't know where those streets were, but I certainly knew something true about them, which I found out on that top floor in Regent Street and in my study at Oakham.

Merton, in his adult life, was very aware of the struggle of the Civil Rights Movement.  Perhaps the little passage above hints at his coming awareness of the plight of African Americans in the United States, with his reference to the "slums in all the cities of the South."  When Merton became a public figure, he wrote poems about the children of Harlem and the bombing of a Birmingham church.  And, in 1968, he was planning a religious retreat with a man he greatly admired--Martin Luther King, Jr.  Merton envisioned this event happening in April of that year.  On April 4, 1968, King was assassinated in Memphis.  Two days later, Merton wrote in his journal:  "The murder of M. L. King . . . lay on the top of the traveling car like an animal, a beast of the apocalypse."  For the Trappist monk, King's death "finally confirmed all apprehensions--the feelings that 1968 is a beast of a year . . . Is the Christian message of love a pitiful delusion?"  Thomas Merton would die eight months later.  December 10, 1968.  Electrocuted by a faulty fan in his room while attending a conference in Bangkok.

Minneapolis right now is burning because of the death of George Floyd, an African American man, at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer with, by all accounts, an established history of violent behavior.  On social media, the pandemic has been pushed aside by this story, another in a long, sad line of stories about people of color murdered by members of law enforcement.  And riots have broken out in other parts of the United States, as well.

I didn't post last night because I didn't know who to respond to these events.  As a privileged, white male, I think my words in support for Black Lives Matter ring a little hollow.  I have no idea what it is like to live as a person of color in my country.  I will never experience the fear that a young, African American man experiences being pulled over by the police.  It is simply not in my cultural vocabulary.

That doesn't stop me from being sickened and outraged by the video of George Floyd's murder.  (Confession:  I couldn't bring myself to watch the entire thing.)  And it doesn't stop me from wanting justice for the crime.  In a class I taught this past semester, I had some of my students talk about being racially profiled, stopped by law enforcement, not because they were breaking the law, but because their skin colors clashed with the neighborhood they were in.  Institutional racism is alive and well and deadly in the United States of America.  We all know that.

Now, I don't think violence is the answer to anything.  George Floyd's killing was horrific.  The looting and burning on the streets of Minneapolis and across the nation is disturbing.  However, these riots are the direct result of a country that is built upon a class system that exploits people of color.  An economy that is designed to keep poor people poor and rich people rich.  A President of the United States who praises white supremacists and call protesters in Minneapolis "thugs."  And a criminal justice system that, consciously or unconsciously, targets people of color.

No, I am not saying all members of law enforcement are racist.  And no, I am not condoning in any way the burning of buildings or the looting of stores.  Fighting violence with more violence doesn't work.  That's not coming from my white privileged mouth.  That comes from Martin Luther King, Jr.:  "Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars . . . Hate cannot drive out hate:  only love can do that."  

My country is a long ways away from everyone joining hands and singing "Kumbaya."  And I say "my country" because I know that I am wrapped up in all of it.  I'm white.  I've never been racially profiled.  Police officers don't follow me down the street because of the color of my skin.  If the tables were turned, and I was given the opportunity to live as an African American male in the United States, I wouldn't take it.  Because I know what kind of struggles black people face in this society.  Yet, I have complacently gone through my life, giving lip service to racial justice and equality, without really doing anything about it.  That makes me part of the problem.

I am not trying to change anyone's mind about anything with this blog post.  I am simply taking ownership of my role in a racist system.  Until everyone does that, people of color will continue to die, and cities will continue to burn.  Plain truth.  Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."  Thomas Merton probably would have raised his hand to that and said "Amen."

This blog post is my attempt to not stay silent.  To talk about something that matters.  Black lives DO matter.  George Floyd's life mattered.  I say that with love in my heart, not hate.  Because, as Martin and Thomas knew, love is the greatest miracle and can move mountains.

And for that, Saint Marty gives thanks.

Work Reference:  Lefevere, Patricia.  "Merton and King:  spiritual brothers who never had a chance to meet."  National Catholic Reporter.  4 April, 2018.  accessed:  31 May, 2020.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

May 28: Graduation Parade, Possibility and Hope, Poem from "Kyrie"

This evening, I attended a graduation parade.  My daughter's boyfriend is part of the Class of 2020, and so I drove out to the high school, parked along the side of the road, and waited for all the seniors to come rolling by in the cars, streamers and balloons snapping, horns blazing away.

It was one of the first times since this pandemic really got serious a few months ago that I allowed myself to be part of a community event.  All the spectators stood by their cars, safely distant, and waited for their senior to drive by.  Even though I saw a few MAGA hats and a couple people simply not following the Covid-19 safety guidelines for the parade, this night wasn't about politics.  

It was about young people, smiling, laughing, waving, claiming this night as their own.  In the last three months, the Class of 2020 has faced challenges that haven't existed for close to four generations.  A global pandemic that brought school, work, scholarship applications, college visits and orientations, proms and graduation ceremonies to a complete halt.  For a while.

But tonight, the world moved forward a little.  Tonight was about young people, looking into their futures and seeing possibility and hope.  That was a miraculous thing to witness.

And Saint Marty gives thanks for that.

Poem from Kyrie

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt

He planned his own service, the pine box,
the open lid, which hymns, chapter and verse,
who would pray, how long, who'd carry him out.
He wrote it all down in a fair hand,
stroking the shawl around him in his chair,
and gave away his watch, his dog, his house.

Emmett said, he'd have lain down in the grave
except he needed us to tuck him in.

He shaved each day, put on his good wool pants
chosen for the cloth and a little loose
as they lowered in another son-in-law.
Sat by the door, handrolling cigarettes
three at a time, licking down both ends,
and wheezed and coughed and spit in a rusted can.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

May 27: Nothing to Worry About, Freedom, Deep Breaths

Merton tastes rebellious freedom for the first time . . .

In 1930, after I had turned fifteen, and before most of these things happened, the way began to be prepared for my various intellectual rebellions by a sudden and very definite sense of independence, a realization of my own individuality which, while being natural at that age, took an unhealthy egotistic turn.  And everything seemed to conspire to encourage me to cut myself off from everybody else and go my own way.  For a moment, in the storms and confusion of adolescence, I had been humbled by my own interior sufferings, and having a certain amount of faith and religion, I had subjected myself more or less willingly and even gladly to the authority of others, and to the ways and customs of those around me.

But in Scotland I had begun to bare my teeth and fight back against the humiliation of giving in to other people, and now I was rapidly building up a hard core resistance against everything that displeased me:  whether it was the opinions or desires of others, or their commands, or their very persons.  I would think what I wanted and do what I wanted, and go my own way.  If those who tried to prevent me had authority to prevent me, I would have to be at least externally polite in my resistance:  but my resistance would be no less determined, and I would do my own will, have my own way.

When Pop and Bonnemaman came to Europe again in 1930, they practically threw the doors of the world wide open to me and gave me my independence.  The economic crisis of 1929 had not altogether ruined Pop:  he did not have all his substance invested in companies that crashed, but the indirect effect on him was just as serious as it was on every other ordinary business man. 

In June 1930, they all came down to Oakham--Pop, Bonnemaman, and John Paul.  It was a quiet visit.  They no longer took towns by storm.  The depression had changed all that.  Besides, they were used to traveling in Europe now.  The fear and trepidation that had been so strong an element in their excitement in the old days were somewhat allayed.  Their voyages were comparatively--but only comparatively--serene.

They had a couple big rooms in the labyrinthine "Crown Inn" at Oakham, and one of the first things Pop did was to take me apart into one of them and talk to me in a way that amounted to an emancipation.

I think it was the first time in my life I had ever been treated as if I were completely grown up and able to take care of myself in everything, and to hold my own in a business conversation.  In reality, I have never been able to talk intelligently about business.  But I listened to Pop exposing our financial affairs as if I understood every word about it, and when it was over I had, indeed, grasped all the essentials.

No one knew what was going to happen in the world in the next ten or twenty years.  Grosset and Dunlap was still in business, and so was Pop:  but one could never tell when the business itself might fold up, or if he himself would be turned out.  But in order to make sure that John Paul and I would be able to finish school, and even go on to the university, and have something to keep us from starving while we were looking for a job afterwards, Pop had taken the money he had planned to leave us in his will, and had put it away for us where it would be as safe as possible, in some kind of insurance policy which would pay us so much a year.  He worked it out on a piece of paper and showed me all the figures and I nodded wisely.  I didn't grasp the details but I understood that I ought to be able to get along all right until about 1940.  And in any case, before a couple of years had gone by, Pop discovered that the big magic insurance policy did not work as nearly as he had expected, so he had to change his plans again, with a loss of a little money somewhere.  

When it was all done, Pop gave me the piece of paper with all the figures on it, and sat up straight in his chair, and looked out the window, running his hand over the top of his bald head and said:  "So now it's all settled.  No matter what happens to me, you will both be taken care of.  You've got nothing to worry about for a few years, anyway."

It is quite a gift that Merton's grandfather gives him:  economic independence.  At the age of around 15, Merton knows that, for about 11 years, he will not have to worry about school tuition or rent or food or travel.  He will be able to live the life he chooses, with very little in the way of limitations.  Merton isn't Jay Gatsby.  He won't be able to lease a mansion and throw extravagant parties every night for his rich friends.  Yet, he also won't be a starving artist (or writer or journalist or Trappist monk).  Freedom is his.

I have known that kind of economic freedom a couple times in my adult life.  When I enrolled in college, I did so with the knowledge that I had a full-ride scholarship.  I was given several thousand dollars each semester, which covered the costs of tuition and books and gas.  Not only that, but I received an overage check every semester, as well.  I had enough funds to simply go to school, live at home, and do pretty much whatever I wanted in my free time.  I would often save a sizable portion of my overage money and take a month-long vacation at my aunt and uncle's house in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan.  While there, I would buy clothes, sneak across the Blue Water Bridge into Canada to drink with my cousins, and go see every movie that was released.  I wasn't Jay Gatsby, but I also wasn't Tom Joad.

And right after I was married, my wife and I lived in Kalamazoo, where I was enrolled in a PhD program at Western Michigan University.  Once again, although we weren't by any means wealthy, my wife and I didn't struggle.  I taught at the college and took classes.  My wife was a substitute teacher at some of the inner-city schools.  We were happy.  Went out to eat a lot.  Traveled to the Upper Peninsula at least once a month to visit family.  Bought books and music and wines.  It was a good life, not limited by economic uncertainty.

I'm sure that I'm forgetting some hardships that I faced during these times in my life.  The human mind has this ability to whitewash the past, wipe away the grime of struggle and pain.  It's a process called retrospective falsification, coined by psychologist Donovan Hilton Rawcliffe in 1952.  It is defined as "the unconscious distortion of past experiences to conform to a person's needs in the present."

For the past couple years, I have faced some financial hardships.  I don't want to discuss the reasons for these difficulties.  That's not the point.  My current economic distresses have gilded those times from my past when money seemed much more abundant.  Now, my undergraduate and graduate years of higher education seem almost like a once upon a time.  I could call them my Roarin' Twenties or my Renaissance. 

Yet, I know my mind is working its retrospective falsification magic.  There were painful moments in that Renaissance.  Heartbreaks.  Sleepless nights.  Tears.  Just like now.  I've been wondering how this pandemic will be remembered in the future.  Will it be painted bleakly, with death statistics and Dorothea Lange-like photos of people at soup kitchens?  Or will it be remembered as a great deep breath--when the universe forced all of us to slow down, take stock, and start over?

Tonight, I am writing with a friend.  We have given ourselves permission to delve into our passions, without guilt or apology.  After I'm done writing this blog post, I may work on a new poem or revise poems from a chapbook manuscript.  Or, I just may go to my refrigerator, take out a wine cooler, and sit down and allow myself to just . . . be.

That is the great miracle of this evening.  This time in history.  Everyone is learning to just . . .be.  Without parades or graduations.  Without fireworks or parties.  Happiness isn't about all those things really.  It may take the graduates of 2020 half a lifetime to realize this, for retrospective falsification to do its work.  But, eventually, they won't remember all that they didn't have this year.

Hopefully, what they will remember are the important things.  A rainy evening.  A dog sleeping on the hardwood floor.  Family going about its nightly business.  No rushing.  No chaos.  No deadlines.  Just the slowness of deep breaths.  In.  Out.  In.  Out.  Time stretching out like a blank page, waiting for that first letter.  That first word.

For this, Saint Marty gives thanks.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

May 26: First Day Back at Work, Rain, Poem from "Kyrie"

Exhausted after my first day back at work after having almost a full week off.

More than one person has remarked to me recently that, after so much time isolating and social distancing, human interaction (outside of immediate family) is incredibly draining.  For the past seven days, my social life has been limited to about four people, with occasional text messages from a few others.  I didn't have to put on airs or pretend to be something that I wasn't.

I think all of us wear many different masks in our regular lives.  We switch between them all day long.  Today, for the first time in a while, I had to put on my healthcare worker mask.  When wearing this mask, I am positive, helpful, funny, maybe a little irreverent, and hard-working.  And now, after playing that part for over eight hours, I find myself emptied out, like I don't have a whole lot more to give today.

When I left work this afternoon, the sky was gray as a whale's back.  Rain was coming.  I made a few stops on my way home, and, by the time I parked in front of my house, the downpour had begun.  It has been drizzling, sheeting, thundering, misting, gushing most of the night.

I just stepped outside to let my dog go to the bathroom.  The world smells new and loamy.  I can hear birds piping in the dusk.  Everything is sheened with water.  The heat of the last week has been tempered.  Coolness in the air. 

After a day of wearing a mask, literally and metaphorically, I welcome the miracle of rain and the freshness it brings.  I can almost feel my spirit sprouting like a lilac bush.

And for that, Saint Marty gives thanks.

poem from Kyrie

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt

Sweet are the songs of bitterness and blame,
against the stranger spitting on the street,
the neighbor's shared contaminated meal,
the rusted nail, the doctor come too late. 

Sweet are the songs of envy and despair,
which count the healthy strangers that we meet
and mark the neighbors' illness mild and brief,
the birds that go on nesting, the brilliant air.

Sweet are the songs of wry exacted praise,
scraped from the grave, shaped in the torn throat
and sung at the helpful stranger on the train,
and at the neighbors misery brought near,
and at the waters parted at our feet,
and to the god who thought to keep us here.

Monday, May 25, 2020

May 25: Memorial Day, Easy Sacrifices and Ultimate Sacrifices, "Something Better"

Like many citizens of the United States, Memorial Day makes me pause and think.

Usually, I would be at a parade right now, and then a cemetery service, honoring men and women from the United States Armed Forces who paid for my freedom with their lives.  I'm eternally grateful for their sacrifices, and I feel a tremendous responsibility to these brave people whom I never met.  I know that, as they fought in foxholes and jungles and deserts, flew in airplanes, served on aircraft carriers and submarines, first and foremost on all their minds was family.  Mothers.  Fathers.  Brothers.  Sisters.  Friends.  Wives.  Husbands.  Children.  These soldiers went into battle because they wanted the world to be a better place for their loved ones.  Safer.  Freer.  

We are in a strange moment in history.  A moment that many of those courageous men and women never imagined.  The enemy isn't some fascist dictator trying to conquer the world.  Or some terrorist organization dedicated to fear and destruction.  The enemy right now is unseen.  Microscopic.  Indiscriminate.  Deadly.  And it is threatening the entire planet.

We need to take some lessons from the men and women we honor today.  Yes, they were afraid.  Knew they might leave their parents childless, their children parentless.  Yet, they were willing to make that sacrifice to give future generations something better.  That is the burden we accept from them at this time.

The sacrifices we need to make right now are tiny compared to the sacrifices these fallen warriors made.  To make the world safer, freer, we need to stay at home, not storm a beach under machine gun fire.  We need to wear face masks, not to protect ourselves from mustard gas, but a virus.  We need to wash our hands, not to rinse off the blood of our wounded friends, but to protect ourselves from infection.  We can still get take-out pizza.  We're not hunkered in trenches eating K-rations.

The easy sacrifices of today are to ensure something better for tomorrow.  And they honor those men and women who ran into battle for us, with nothing more than hope for our future in their eyes.  That is the miracle of today.

For that, and for those fallen heroes, Saint Marty gives thanks.

Something Better

by:  Martin Achatz

I want something better for my kids,
The way all parents want their offspring
To attend college, law or medical
School.  Do something extraordinary.
We scrub toilets, paint walls, deep-fry potatoes
For thirty or forty years, put everything
On hold until we're sure our daughters
Can study veterinary medicine, our sons
Learn to x-ray broken vertebrae, tibias,
Clavicles.  My uncle drove to the GM plant
For over thirty-five years before he received
His pension, then began to paint oil landscapes
Of places he’d dreamed about in rush hour
Traffic on I-75, places full of waves,
Evergreens the color of Chinese jade,
Places he knew he'd never see,
All so his daughter could study,
Become an engineer at Ford.
I don’t want my children to teach
College English part-time, work
Eleven-hour days in an office,
Scribble poems on napkins, lunch bags,
Margins of graded essays, dreaming
Always of a time when those words,
Cut and polished and set in lines of gold,
Will buy vacations to Stockholm or Rome,
Ballet lessons and birthday parties
In hot air balloons.  I want my kids
To know a life better than mine,
Even if it means I eat bologna
With cheese every day, pretending
My cut of lunch meat is somehow
Superior to the one my father ate
At work for over fifty years.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

May 24: Barbecue, Normal, Poem from "Kyrie"

This afternoon, I had a socially distanced Memorial Day weekend barbecue at my parents' house.  My wife, kids, and I sat on the back porch, six feet away from my sisters and mother, and ate hot dogs and bratwurst and watermelon. 

We hadn't been together like that since mid-March.  Yes, we were careful, even though my sister, Rose, who has Down syndrome, really didn't comprehend the six-foot distance rule and tried several times to approach and hug us.  It wasn't "normal" by any means.  But it was as close as we could get to the Sunday dinners we used to have pre-pandemic.

I've heard people bridling against the term "new normal" recently.  Sometimes that bridling borders on anger.  I understand the emotions behind this reaction.  It's a symptom of mourning.  People are grieving all that has been lost because of Covid-19:  making a quick trip to the grocery store to satisfy your craving for Cheetos; stopping to check on your elderly parents on your way home from work; sitting in a church pew beside your neighbors on a Sunday morning and catching up; going for a walk and not having to wear a face mask; attending community parades and events.  All these things have become part of history for now.  The world has shifted, and not gradually.  The change was seismic.  A rift in the fabric of society that appeared almost overnight.  And it has left all of humankind reeling from the loss.

Yet I don't think it's healthy to maintain a death-hold on the "normal" we used to know.  Doing that will simply prolong the pandemic.  By refusing to put on that face mask, insisting on gathering in bars or restaurants or churches, people are not re-establishing normal.  They are just refusing to deal with their grief (and also spreading the virus more, pushing us toward another complete shutdown).  It's like setting a place at the dinner table for a person who has died.  It may feel comforting to cling to the habit, but the deceased person's chair will still remain empty.

So let's not think of "old" normal or "new" normal.  Let's not think of normal at all.  If you know my family, normal is not a word that comes to mind anyway.  Instead, let's think about how to respect each other, support each other, love each other.  That's what will get us all through this.

Tonight, I celebrate time spent with family.  Safely.  Filled with laughter and teasing.  The miracle of togetherness.

And for that, Saint Marty gives thanks.

poem from Kyrie

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt

What were they thinking--everyone we knew,
in school, in church, took me aside
to praise--to me--my sister, as if
I were another of her parents,
or else they were, that proud and fond:
aren't you lucky, isn't she gifted,
doesn't she look grand in her new blue suit?
I had a new suit cut from the same bolt,
quick mind, good heart--vivid blossoms
in other light--yes yes, she did, she was,
what were they thinking?  Terrible,
to be the one who should have died.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

May 23: Memorial Day Weekend, My Son, Poem from "Kyrie"

It is Memorial Day weekend in the United States.  That's sort of the unofficial beginning of summer in my country.

In usual times, people would be flocking to campgrounds and beaches and summer tourist destinations.  Bumper-to-bumper traffic on the interstates and highways.  Hotels would be at capacity, and the smell of barbecues and campfires would fill the air.

This Memorial Day weekend, the first of the pandemic, people are flocking to campgrounds and beaches and summer tourist destinations in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  There was an eight-mile traffic backup at the Mackinac Bridge yesterday.  Hotels are full, and barbecues and campfires are fired up.

People are going to do what they want, regardless of Covid-19 or CDC warnings.  And there will be more infections and deaths, regardless of your political or religious affiliations.  Simple facts.  I've heard more than one person recently say, "I can't live in fear."  That's true.  Living in fear is never good.  I agree.  However, living in reckless disregard of proven ways to slow the spread of the virus is a whole other ball of wax.

I'm hoping that my worries are baseless, that I will be proven wrong in three or four weeks.  I'll be the first to lift a glass of wine in celebration if I'm full of shit.  Until then, I give you this miracle . . .

I just heard my son singing a lullaby to our puppy.  Hush, little baby, don't say a word.  I went to the living room, and he was sitting next to her, petting her head.  My son looked up at me and said, "Sometimes she gets nervous, and I have to calm her down."  Then he went back to singing.

I have a son who understands about anxiety and worry.  A son who is full of compassion and love.

And for that, Saint Marty gives thanks.

poem from Kyrie

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt

Oh yes I used to pray.  I prayed for the baby,
I prayed for my mortal soul as it contracted,
I prayed a gun would happen into my hand.
I prayed the way our nearest neighbors prayed,
head down, hands wrung, knees on the hard floor.
They all were sick and prayed to the Merciful Father
to send an angel, and my Henry came.
The least of these my brethren, Henry said.
Wherefore by my fruits, Henry said.
All of them survived--and do you think
they're still praying, thank you Lord for Henry?
She was so tiny, we kept her in a shoebox
on the cookstove, like a kitten.

Friday, May 22, 2020

May 22: The Republic, Blind Faith, Action of God

Young Merton struggles with Plato and Descartes . . .

This was all the more generous of him for the fact that he really was very much attached to the Classics, and especially Plato, and he would have liked all of us to catch some of that infection.  And yet this infection--which, in my eyes, was nothing short of deadly--was something I resisted with all my will.  I do not exactly know why I hated Plato:  but after the first ten pages of The Republic I decided that I could not stand Socrates and his friends, and I don't think I ever recovered from that repugnance.  There can hardly have been any serious intellectual reason for my dislike of these philosophers, although I do have a kind of congenital distaste for philosophic idealism.  But we were reading The Republic in Greek, which meant that we never got far enough into it to be able to grasp the ideas very well.  Most of the time I was too helpless with the grammar and syntax to have time for any deeper difficulties.

Nevertheless, after a couple of months of it, I got to a state where phrases like "the Good, the True, and the Beautiful" filled me with a kind of suppressed indignation, because they stood for the big sin of Platonism:  the reduction of all reality to the level of pure abstraction, as if concrete, individual substances had no essential reality of their own, but were only shadows of some remote, universal, ideal essence filed away in a big card-index somewhere in heaven, while the demi-urges milled around the Logos piping their excitement in high, fluted, English intellectual tones.  Platonism entered very much into the Headmaster's ideas of religion, which were deeply spiritual and intellectual.  Also, he was slightly more High Church than most of the people at Oakham.  However, it was no easier to find out, concretely, what he believed than it was to find out what anybody else believed in that place.

I had several different Masters in the one hour a week devoted to religious instruction (outside of daily chapel).  The first one just plodded through the third Book of Kings.  The second, a tough little Yorkshireman, who had the virtue of being very definite and outspoken in everything he said, once exposed to us Descartes' proof of his own and God's existence.  He told us that as far as he was concerned, that was the foundation of what religion meant to him.  I accepted the Cogito ergo sum with less reserve than I should have, although I might have had enough sense to realize that any proof of what is self-evident must necessarily be illusory.  If there are no self-evident first principles, as a foundation for reasoning to conclusions that are not immediately apparent, how can you construct any kind of philosophy?  If you have to prove even the basic axioms of your metaphysics, you will never have a metaphysics, because you will never have any strict proof of anything, for your first proof will involve you in an infinite regress, proving that you are proving what you are proving and so on, into the exterior darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth.  If Descartes thought it was necessary to prove his own existence, by the fact that he was thinking, and that his thought therefore existed in some subject, how did he prove that he was thinking in the first place?  But, as to the second step, that God must exist because Descartes had a clear idea of him--that never convinced me, then or at any other time, or now either.  There are much better proofs for the existence of God than that one.

As for the Headmaster, when he gave us religious instruction, as he did in my last year or so at Oakham, he talked Plato, and told me to read A. E. Taylor, which I did, but under compulsion, and taking no trouble to try and understand what I was reading.

I think Merton is around 14- or 15-years-old when he is grappling with Plato and Descartes and proof of the existence of God.  While I can say that I had delved into Plato and Descartes when I was around 15 or so, I certainly didn't grasp any of the nuances of their ideas about the ideal or divinity.  No, being a cradle Catholic, I didn't ever really question the existence of God.  My view on religion was straight out of the Baltimore Catechism.  Question:  Who made you?  Answer:  God made me.  Question:  Who is God?  Answer:  God is the Divine Being who made all things.  Period.  End of discussion.

Of course, throughout my adult life, I have seriously grappled with questions about God and faith and goodness.  As a human being, subject to the slings and arrows of the world, I struggle with doubt.  It comes with the territory of spirituality, I believe.  I think a faith that is blind is dangerous.  It can lead to terrible acts committed in the name of religion.  If you don't believe me, check out Jonestown, the Crusades, Spanish Inquisition, Salem witch trials, and 9-11 attacks.  Blind faith taken to the extreme with disastrous results.

What I have learned in my years on this planet is that talking about God and faith in the abstract means absolutely nothing to me.  It's the actual action of God (some people call it grace) that compels me, invigorates my belief.  So, if you call yourself a follower of God or Yahweh or Buddha or Muhammad or Jesus, prove it.  Live a life of compassion and love and acceptance.  Don't judge people.  Help them.  Feed the hungry.  Respect the environment.  Care for the ill.  Shelter the homeless.  That is the true proof of the existence of a Creator.  When we do things that are bigger than ourselves.

Today, I had another miracle happen to me.  A huge act of grace and compassion from friends who know my family's struggles.  It humbled me and filled me with a true belief in grace.  I know this couple will read this post, and I want them to know that I am thankful beyond words (which is quite a statement, coming from a poet).  This wasn't an act of blind faith.  It was an act of mindful love.  And I am truly and devotedly speechless.

For those of you who are curious about what this miracle was, you are missing my point.  Be aware that there are people in this world who are prisms of compassion.  Testaments to the human action of God (in whatever form you believe) in the world.  That is my point.

And for that, Saint Marty is deeply, profoundly thankful.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

May 21: How Much I Owed to Him, Unexpected Acts of Kindness, Lean Months of Summer

Merton received some unexpected help . . .

As time went on, I was to get into fierce arguments with the football captain on this subject, but that day was yet to come.  As long as I was among the fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds in Hodge Wing, I had to mind my behavior with the lords of the school, or at least in their presence.  We were disciplined by the constant fear of one of those pompous and ceremonious sessions of bullying, arranged with ritualistic formality, when a dozen or so culprits were summoned into one of the hollows around Brooke hill, or up the Braunston road, and beaten with sticks, and made to sing foolish songs and to hear themselves upbraided for their moral and social defects.

When I got into the sixth form, which I did after a year, I came more directly under the influence and guidance of the new Headmaster, F. C. Doherty.  He was a young man for a Headmaster, about forty, tall, with a great head of black hair, a tremendous smoker of cigarettes, and a lover of Plato.  Because of the cigarettes, he used to like to give his class in his own study, when he decently could, for there he could smoke one after another, while in the classrooms he could not smoke at all.

He was a broad-minded man, and I never realized how much I owed to him until I left Oakham.  If it had not been for him, I would probably have spent years in the fifth form trying to pass the School Certificate in mathematics.  He saw that I could far easier pass the Higher Certificate, specializing in French and Latin where, although the examination in these subjects would be very hard, there would be not maths.  And the Higher Certificate meant far more than the other.  It was he who began, from the start, to prepare me for the university, getting me to aim at a Cambridge scholarship.  And it was he who let me follow the bend of my own mind, for Modern Languages and Literature, although that meant that I spent much of my time studying alone in the library, since there was no real "Modern" course at Oakham at the time.

Merton's respect and gratitude for Headmaster Doherty is in retrospect, as he notes.  He simply doesn't recognize the kindness of the man until years later, after he has left the school.  Terrible at math, Merton is instead allowed to pursue his passions for modern languages and literature.  All because Doherty recognizes his true talents.

I think everyone can think of at least one person who has performed unrecognized acts of kindness that changed the course of their lives.  An uncle who teaches you how to rebuild a car engine.  A teacher who praised a poem you wrote.  A friend who convinced you to apply for a college scholarship.  Rarely do we get the opportunity to thank these people.  Acknowledge their kindness and encouragement.

Tonight, however, I am going to acknowledge an unexpected act of kindness in my life.  Late this afternoon, right after I returned from my afternoon walk, I heard someone knocking on my front door.  I was surprised.  Since the pandemic began, surprise solicitations or visitors have been non-existent. 

My wife and I looked through the window of our inside door and saw one of my best friends there, wearing a mask and gloves.  I opened the door and stepped out onto my front porch.  My friend waved at me.  I opened my front door.

"I have something for you guys," she said.  She went to the back of her vehicle and brought out a box of groceries and gallon of milk.  She placed them on the sidewalk before our front steps.  Inside the box was potatoes and a loaf of bread and chips and cupcakes and a full watermelon, among other things.

I was not surprised by my friend's kindness.  She has helped me through a lot of hard times in my life.  I was surprised by this particular act of charity, which was so needed right now.  My salary from university contingent teaching has ended, so money quickly becomes tight this time of year.  It is even tighter due to the pandemic because we haven't been able to get our taxes filed until this week.  So, no tax return cushion, which usually helps us through the end of July, if we are careful.  My wife has been unemployed since November, and the pandemic has affected income from some of my other jobs, as well. 

Long story short:  we have entered the lean months of summer early this year.  And that means that my worry has started earlier, as well.

So my friend with her unexpected act of kindness was a miracle today.  A reminder that God is looking out for me and my family.

And for that, Saint Marty gives thanks.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

May 20: Gentlemanliness, Hippie/Socialist Rebel, Normal

Young Thomas Merton settles into his new school . . .

Oakham, Oakham!  The grey murk of the winter evenings in that garret where seven or eight of us moiled around in the gaslight, among the tuck-boxes, noisy, greedy, foul-mouthed, fighting and shouting!  There was one who had a ukulele which he did not know how to play.  And Pop used to send me the brown rotogravure sections of the New York Sunday papers, and we would cut out the pictures of the actresses and paste them up on the walls.

And I toiled with Greek verbs.  And we drank raisin wine and ate potato chips until we fell silent and sat apart, stupefied and nauseated.  And under the gaslight I would write letters to Father in the hospital, letters on cream-colored notepaper, stamped with the school crest in blue.

After three months it was better.  I was moved up into the Upper Fifth, and changed to a new study downstairs, with more light, though just as crowded and just as much of a mess.  And we had Cicero and European history--all about the nineteenth century, with a certain amount of cold scorn poured on Pio Nono.  In the English class we read The Tempest and the Nun's Priest's Tale and the Pardoner's Tale and Buggy Jerwood , the school chaplain, tried to teach us trigonometry.  With me, he failed.  Sometimes he would try to teach us something about religion.  But in this he also failed.

In any case, his religious teaching consisted mostly in more or less vague ethical remarks, an obscure mixture of ideals of English gentlemanliness and his favorite notions of personal hygiene.  Everybody knew that his class was liable to degenerate into a demonstration of some practical points about rowing, with Buggy sitting on the table and showing us how to pull an oar.

There was no rowing at Oakham, since there was no water.  But the chaplain had been a rowing "blue" at Cambridge, in his time.  He was a tall, powerful, handsome man, with hair greying at the temples, and a big English chin, and a broad, uncreased brow, with sentences like "I stand for fair-play and good sportsmanship" written all over it.

His greatest sermon was on the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians--and a wonderful chapter indeed.  But his exegesis was a bit strange.  However, it was typical of him and, in a way, of his whole church.  "Buggy's" interpretation of the word "charity" in this passage (and in the whole Bible) was that it simply stood for "all that we mean when we call a chap a 'gentleman.'"  In other words, charity meant good-sportsmanship, cricket, the decent thing, wearing the right kind of clothes, using the proper spoon, not being a cad or a bounder.

There he stood, in the plain pulpit, and raised his chin above the heads of all the rows of boys in black coats, and said:  "One might go through this chapter of St. Paul and simply substitute the word 'gentleman' for 'charity' wherever it occurs.  'If I talk with the tongues of men and of angels, and be not a gentleman, I am become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal . . . A gentleman is patient, is kind, a gentleman envieth not, dealeth not perversely, is not puffed up . . . A gentleman never falleth away.' . . ."

And so it went.  I will not accuse him of finishing the chapter with "Now there remain faith, hope, and gentlemanliness, and the greatest of these is gentlemanliness . . ." although it was the logical term of his reasoning.  

The boys listened tolerantly to these thoughts.  But I think St. Peter and the twelve apostles would have been rather surprised at the concept that Christ had been scourged and beaten by soldiers, cursed and crowned with thorns and subjected to unutterable contempt and finally nailed to the Cross and left to bleed to death in order that we might all become gentlemen.

Merton is pretty good at skewering the pretentious stuffed shirts of English (and French) society.  But he is able to do it without being mean.  He simply reports the facts and then follows them to their natural, absurd conclusions.  So, the passage from First Corinthians becomes an endorsement of English gentlemanliness instead of an exhortation to love and charity.

Of course, this also proves something else:  people have been using the Bible and Christian teachings for their own agendas since Christ was put in the tomb.  These days in the United States, you don't have to look too far to find people doing terrible things and justifying their actions by labeling them "Christian."  Frankly, I'm surprised that some "religious" group hasn't used the current pandemic as an excuse to say that the Lord hath loosed this plague upon us in punishment for allowing illegal immigrants to live within our borders or for sanctioning gay marriage.  Don't laugh.  It may happen.

Being a life-long Christian, I get a little tired of this kind of perversion of the teachings of Christ.  The Jesus I learned about in catechism told everyone to feed the hungry, take care of the poor and sick, shelter the homeless.  He was kind of a sandal-wearing, itinerant hippie/socialist rebel.  Peace and love.  Not war and hate.  Share what you have.  Distribute your wealth.  Because you can't buy your way into heaven.  If you've gone to Sunday school for any length of time, all of this should sound pretty familiar.

So, we have a world right now in crisis, brought to its knees by a microscopic organism.  Millions of people out of work.  Hundreds of thousands of people sick and dying.  Yet, the thing foremost on people's minds at the moment is being forced to wear masks in public, and, in conjunction with that, not being able to go to T. J. Maxx or Cracker Barrel.  I went to a Zoom meeting a few nights ago where someone said, "I just want things to go back to normal."

I want to consider that comment for a moment.  The normal that we had before this pandemic hit was a world on the brink of climate disaster.  Hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing oppressive governments because of (among other things) genocide.  In the United States, we had young people living under crushing student debt, and a healthcare system more concerned with profit than healing.  Rampant racism and homophobia and misogyny and Islamophobia.  All normal pre-pandemic.

I think we have an opportunity here to reconsider normal.  Maybe establish something closer to what the sandal-wearing hippie had in mind.  A normal based on love and charity instead of greed and power.  Where people realize that wearing a mask isn't an infringement on their rights, but an act of caring and respect.  Perhaps it will be a normal where wealth isn't accumulated and hoarded but distributed to the unemployed and under-employed.  Think of that--everyone watching out for each other, loving each other.  If you've gone to Sunday school for any length of time, that should sound pretty familiar.

I went for a long walk today with my son and puppy.  We hiked what's called the Iron Ore Heritage Trail, which is a 47-mile trail that stretches across the Marquette Iron Range in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.  We only hiked about four miles of it, from our hometown to the neighboring town.  It was a 70-degree day, and there was birdsong and insect song and wind song.  And we ran into other hikers, as well as bikers and picnickers.  Every person had a smile and kind word.  We all kept our six-foot distances out of respect and love, and the world felt right.  Kind.  Good.

This is a normal I wouldn't mind maintaining.  A miraculous, new one.  One that hippie from Nazareth would be proud of.

For that Saint Marty gives thanks today.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

May 19: The Point of Discovery, Hard Truths, Lilac Buds

Fourteen-year-old Merton faces some hard truths . . . 

One day I was in the deserted house all by myself with Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and d'Artagnan (Athos being my favorite and, in a sense, the one into whom I tended to project myself).  The telephone rang.  I thought for a while of letting it ring and not answering it, but eventually I did.  It turned out to be a telegram for me.

At first, I could not make out the words, as the Scotch lady in the telegraph office was pronouncing them.  Then, when I did make them out, I did not believe them.

The message ran:  "Entering New York harbor.  All well."  And it came from Father, in the hospital, in London.  I tried to argue the woman at the other end of the wire into telling me that it came from my Uncle Harold, who had been travelling in Europe that year.  But she would not be argued into anything but what she saw right in front of her nose.  The telegram was signed Father, and it came from London.

I hung up the receiver and the bottom dropped out of my stomach.  I walked up and down in the silent and empty house.  I sat down in one of the big leather chairs in the smoking room.  There was nobody there.  There was nobody in the whole huge house.

I sat there in the dark, unhappy room, unable to think, unable to move, with all the innumerable elements of my isolation crowding in upon me from every side:  without a home, without a family, without a country, without a father, apparently without any friends, without any interior peace or confidence or light or understanding of my own--without God, too, without God, without heaven, without grace, without anything.  And what was happening to Father, there in London?  I was unable to think of it.

The first thing that Uncle Ben did when I entered the house at Ealing was to tell me the news with all the dramatic overtones he gave to his most important announcements.

His eyes widened and he stared at me and bared his great teeth, pronouncing every syllable with tremendous distinctness and emphasis, saying:  "Your father has a malignant tumor on the brain."

Father lay in a dark ward in the hospital.  He did not have much to say.  But it was not as bad as I had feared, from the telegram he had sent me.  Everything he said was lucid and intelligible and I was comforted, in the sense that a clearly apparent physiological cause seemed to me to exclude the thought of insanity in the strict sense.  Father was not out of his mind.  But you could already see the evil, swelling lump on his forehead.

He told me, weakly, that they were going to try and operate on him, but they were afraid they could not do very much.  Again he told me to pray.

I did not say anything about the telegram.

Leaving the hospital I knew what was going to happen.  He would lie there like that for another year, perhaps two or three years.  And then he would die--unless they first killed him on an operating table.

Since those days, doctors have found out that you can cut away whole sections of the brain, in these operations, and save lives and minds and all.  In 1929 they evidently did not yet know this.  It was Father's lot to die slowly and painfully in the years when the doctors were just reaching the point of the discovery.

Hard truths for a young person to face.  Merton knows he is going to lose his father in a slow, painful manner.  Regardless of Merton's assertion that "doctors have found out that you can cut away whole sections of the brain . . . and save lives and minds and all," a malignant brain tumor, even with today's medical advancements, is something that will change your life significantly.  Or end it.  I've seen this situation up close and personal.

I am not working today.  I took the rest of this week off from the medical office.  At the moment, the entire healthcare system is "ramping up" for full operations.  That means that lots and lots of people are going to be coming through our doors after almost two months of social distancing and isolation.  I decided I really didn't want to be around for that.  

Of course like young Merton, I have to face some hard truths.  I can't remain at home, socially distant, indefinitely.  Yes, I'm an insulin-dependent diabetic, and less likely to survive a bout of Covid-19.  But I also have to support my family and pay my bills.  Thus, I will return to work next week, masked and anxious.  I will wash my hands every 20 minutes, eat lunch in an office by myself, and avoid large groups of patients/coworkers as much as possible.  These will be be the hard truths of my life for quite some time.  

Truth isn't always pleasant.  It can wound and depress.  Yet, on my morning walk with my puppy today, I felt warm wind on my face, the sun on my neck, and I realized that I was having a great time.  I was listening to a good book (Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman), and I could smell summer in the air.  The lilac bushes in my backyard are getting some green buds despite a particularly punishing winter season.  Soon, my entire neighborhood will smell and be purple.  These are truths, too.

I will not be attending any parades this summer.  If there are fireworks, I probably won't be at those, either.  If you see me out and about, I will be wearing a face mask, as will the rest of my family.  Don't think I'm being an alarmist.  My truth is different than your truth.

For this afternoon, however, I am grateful for the miracle and truth of sunlight and coming-of-summer winds and lilac buds.  

For this, Saint Marty gives thanks.

Monday, May 18, 2020

May 18: Human Sacrifice, Power of the Sun, Anything was Possible

Merton gets in touch with some druid culture . . .

The summer days dragged on, cold days full of mist, some days bright with sun.  I became less and less interested in the stable and the ponies, and before August was done, the nieces had given me up in disgust and I was allowed to drop away into my own unhappy isolation, my world without horses, without hunting and shooting, without tartans and without the Braemar gathering and all those other noble institutions.  

Instead, I sat in the branches of a tree reading the novels of Alexandre Dumas, volume after volume, in French, and later, in rebellion against the world of horses, I would borrow a bicycle that happened to be around the place, and go off into the country and look at the huge ancient stone circles where the druids had once congregated to offer human sacrifice to the rising sun--when there was a rising sun.  

Human sacrifice and the rising sun.  Those druids were wild and crazy.  Of course, they offered these sacrifices for people who were sick or going into battle.  Merton, himself,  is dealing with the absence of his father, who is dying of a brain cancer in a hospital ward.  Perhaps that is why he is drawn to the Stonehenges of Scotland.  He somehow understands their ancient purpose and the power of the sun (literally or metaphorically).

Tonight, I went for a walk just as the sun was setting.  I strolled through the neighborhood where I grew up and saw it turn gold, then purple, then orange, and finally brilliant pink.  The world was on fire with color.

I can understand why the druids found so much power in sunrises and sunsets.  This evening, it seemed as if anything was possible.  Trees could have danced.  Birds, burst into flame.  The dead could have climbed from their graves, and the terminally ill jumped out of bed and started cooking dinner.  Nothing would have surprised me.

It was a miracle to behold, and it filled me with hope.

And for that, Saint Marty gives thanks.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

May 17: Croagh Patrick, Bigfoot Stone, Poem from "Kyrie"

It has been a busy day of Zoom church and walking my dog and grocery shopping.  Most of this evening has been taken up with responding to an editor of a journal that is publishing a couple of my poems in its next issue.

And now, as I sit in my kitchen, relaxing with a wine cooler and thinking about work tomorrow, I'm staring at a present a friend gave to me for Christmas two years ago.  She brought it all the way back from Ireland, where she found it on Croagh Patrick, one of the holiest places in that green country.  It's the mountain where Saint Patrick fasted for 40 days in 441 A.D.  The gift is a stone, but it bears a brown marking that looks incredibly like Bigfoot.  My friend found it as she was hiking the mountain, and she immediately thought of me when she saw it.  I have been working on a manuscript of Bigfoot poems for a few years now.  My friend tucked the rock into her backpack and hauled it back to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

So, today's miracle is this stone and the friendship it symbolizes.  I am blessed with people in my life who care about me a great deal.

And for that, Saint Marty gives thanks.

 . . . and a poem I give thanks for . . .

poem from Kyrie

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt

How we survived:  we locked the doors
and let nobody in.  Each night we sang.
Ate only bread in a bowl of buttermilk.
Boiled the drinking water from the well,
clipped our hair to the scalp, slept in steam.
Rubbed our chests with camphor, backs
with mustard, legs and thighs with fatback
and buried the rind.  Since we had no lambs
I cut the cat's throat, Xed the door
and put the carcass out to draw the flies.
I raised an upstairs window and watched them go--
swollen, shiny, black, green-backed, green-eyed--
fleeing the house, taking the sickness with them.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

May 16: Old Testament Times, Daily Miracle, Poem from "Kyrie"

Miracles are not as common as they used to be.

In Old Testament times, it seems like angels sort of roamed around, knocking on people's doors, asking for food and lodging.  If you were smart and kind, you killed your last chicken, used your last scoop of flour, and made soup with dumplings.  You fed those strangers.  Then, you changed the sheets on your bed, tucked your guests in, sang them a lullaby, and wished them well.

If you did all that, you would be blessed.  If your wife was barren, she would conceive a child, and that child would end up being a king of Israel or a prophet.  If your city was about to be destroyed by God, you and your family would be spared (although your wife might be turned into a pillar of salt).  If you were ill, you would get better.  If you were poor, you'd come into prosperity.

That's how miracles used to work.

Not so much these days.  Miracles aren't as plentiful as dandelions.  At least not the kind of miracles you read about in the Bible.  Rain just doesn't fall from the sky and wash away plagues, and God doesn't show up on your doorstep with a bag of gold to help you pay your bills.  It would be great if He did, but don't count on it.

No, miracles take different forms now.  For example, one afternoon, I was grocery shopping by myself at Walmart, and I suffered a severe low blood sugar.  I've been an insulin-dependent diabetic since I was 13.  I was literally slumped over my cart, drenched in cold sweat, when my sister-in-law appeared, recognized my problem, and saved me with food from McDonald's.  Miracle.  Another time, I was unable to buy groceries one week.  I'd received no summer classes to teach, and I was in-between paychecks from my medical office job.  I had nothing to give my kids to eat.  A really kind friend found out about our circumstances and showed up with a pickup truck of groceries.  Miracle.

Miracles are all around us.  We just don't really notice them all that much.  Perhaps we have become blind to them in this social media-driven age.  

So, tonight I'm starting something new on my blog:  my daily miracle.  Every day, I'm going to write about a miracle that I've experienced in the past 24 hours.  Today, I had a miraculous walk with my puppy.  I ran into a coworker who went crazy for my mini Aussie.  I walked 4.2 miles in 60-degree sunshine.  An amazing time, listening to an audio book and getting exercise.

Saint Marty gives thanks for this miracle . . . 

And for this poem . . . 

poem from Kyrie

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt

Dear Mattie, Though you don't tell of troubles there,
meaning to buy me peace I would suppose,
dreadful word goes around, families perished
or scattered.  I remind myself Pug's mother
died from having him and he thought orphans
saved themselves some time in the scheme of things--
won't a future happiness be ransomed
by present woe?  Dear Mattie, it's you
I think of when I say my prayers, your face,
it's you I'll want when I get back from this
just like the night that I said Marry me
and you said Yes, and the moon came
from behind the cloud as I had wished it to,
and I kissed your mouth, and then your chestnut hair.

May 14,15, 16: Don't Get Any Better, In the Midst of Life, Solo

Merton learns his father is gravely ill . . .

I went back to the cricket pavilion a little saddened and unquiet.  I told myself that he would probably get better in a week or two  And I thought this guess had proved to be right when, at the end of the term, he wrote to me that we would be spending the summer in Scotland, where an old friend of his, who had a place in Aberdeenshire, had invited him to come and rest and get well.

We took one of those night trains from King's Cross.  Father seemed well enough, although by the time we got to Aberdeen the following noon, after stopping at a lot of grey and dreary Scotch stations, he was weary and silent.

We had a long wait at Aberdeen, and we thought of going out and taking a look at the city.  We stepped out of the station into a wide, deserted cobbled street.  In the distance there was a harbor.  We saw gulls, and the masts and funnel of what appeared to be a couple of trawlers.  But the place seemed to have been struck by a plague.  There was no one in sight.  Now that I think of it, it must have been Sunday, for dead as Aberdeen is, it surely could not have been so completely deserted on the week day.  The whole place was as grey as a tomb, and the forbidding aspect of all that hostile and untenanted granite depressed us both so much that we immediately returned to the station, and sat down in the refreshment room, and ordered some hotch-potch, which did little or nothing to lighten our spirits.

It was late by the time we got to lunch.  The sun came out, and slanted a long ray at the far hills of heather which constituted our host's grouse-moor.  The air was clear and silent as we drove out of the forsaken town that seemed to us more of a settlement than a town, and headed into the wilderness.

For the first few days Father kept to his room, coming down for meals.  Once or twice he went out into the garden.  Soon he could not even come down for meals.  The doctor paid frequent visits, and soon I understood that Father was not getting better at all.

Finally, one day he called me up to the room.

"I have to go back to London," he said.


"I must go to a hospital, son."

"Are you worse?"

"I don't get any better."

"Have they still not found out what it is that is the matter with you, Father?"

He shook his head.  But he said, "Pray God to make me well.  I think I ought to be all right in due course.  Don't be unhappy."

But I was unhappy.

"You like it here, don't you?" he asked me.

"Oh, it's all right, I suppose."

"You'll stay here.  They are very nice.  They will take care of you, and it will do you good.  Do you like the horses?"

I admitted without any undue excitement or enthusiasm that the ponies were all right.  There were two of them.  The two nieces of the family and I spent part of the day grooming them and cleaning out their stalls, and part of the day riding them.  But, as far as I was concerned, it was too much work.  The nieces, divining this unsportsmanlike attitude of mine, tended to be a little hostile and to boss me around in a patronizing sort of a way.  They were sixteen and seventeen, and seemed to have nothing whatever on their minds except horses, and they did not even look like their normal selves when they were not in riding breeches.  

And so Father said good-bye, and we put him on the train, and he went to London to the Middlesex Hospital.

Merton's father is not getting any better, and Merton is slowly realizing how sick he is.  It's not an easy thing to watch someone you love slowly slip away.  Merton has already watched his mother die, and now he's witnessing his father's decline.  At a young age, Merton is becoming well-acquainted with loss and grief.

As you can tell, I've been working on this post for three days.  Been struggling with exactly what I wanted to say.  No matter how I approach this little passage from The Seven Storey Mountain, I keep coming back to the same topic:  grief.  I've been trying to remain a little more positive in what I share on this blog, simply because I know how many people are dealing with difficult circumstances at the moment--unemployment, illness, depression, and the like.  Everyone is in the same boat.  (I found out just a a little while ago that a good friend has recently been laid off and suffered an unexpected death in the family.)  In the last week or so, I know that I haven't been that successful in remaining upbeat.  I apologize for that.

Yet, as the Book of Common Prayer reminds us, "In the midst of life we are in death."  It's all part of the process of existing on this planet, in this universe.  And death can come in many forms.  Physical death--the ultimate separation.  Emotional death--the demise of happiness and joy.  Relational death--the changing or ending of a significant relationship.  The thing to keep in mind with all of these forms of loss I just listed is that the process of grieving is the same.  And it's not easy.  Ever.

One important part of this process is taking care of yourself.  Eating well.  Sleeping well.  Indulging in small  (or big) pleasures, like reading a good book, watching a favorite movie, writing a poem, painting a picture, rebuilding a car engine, playing board games with your kids.  Whatever.

I am witnessing someone whom I care about a great deal slowly slip away from his life.  Let's call him Solo.  (I am a Star Wars nut.)  Through the choices Solo is making, he is cutting himself off from everyone who cares about him.  Family.  Friends.  Kids.  Spouse.  I've tried to help Solo in every way I can, and nothing has altered his trajectory.  And so here I sit in my kitchen on a Saturday morning, feeling more than a little powerless, faced with the inevitability of this loss.

Today, I'm going to do the only thing I can do:  take care of myself.  I just made myself a good breakfast.  After I finish this blog post, I'm going to get dressed and take my puppy for a long walk.  Then, I think I'm going to work on a manuscript of poems that I've had for a while.  Create something that gives me happiness.  Because, although it is true that in the midst of life we are in death, the inverse is equally valid:  in the midst of death we are in life.

If Solo reads this post, it will probably make no difference.  His sickness runs pretty deep, and, until he is faced fully with the consequences of his choices (and by then it will be too late), he won't realize all that he's lost.

In the mean time, Saint Marty may watch the original 1977 Star Wars tonight.  After all, the subtitle of that film is  A New Hope.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

May 13: Four-Day Weekend, Off-Kilter, Poem from "Kyrie"

Went back to work at the medical office today after taking a four-day weekend.

At the end of the last week, I found myself . . . exhausted.  So many things piled up/went wrong in those five days, I just needed not to be present for a while.  I don't know if that makes sense.  I guess you could call it a mental health vacation.  And I plan to take a more extended one next week.

This morning, I thought I was prepared to return to work.  I picked out my outfit last night, packed my lunch.  I got to bed at a fairly decent time for me.  Set my alarm for 4:45 a.m.  This morning, I stumbled through my normal routine, got myself out to my car, and drove to work.  When I got to the hospital, I parked in my normal spot, put on my mask, and took a picture of myself, to prove that I was ready.  Then, I realized that I left my work badge at home.

Normally, this wouldn't have been a problem.  I would simply have filled out a form, explaining my oversight, and written in my hours for the day.  However, we are not living in normal times.  I can't get into the hospital without my badge.

So, I started my car up, drove home (a 25-minute trip), retrieved my badge, and drove back to the hospital (another 25-minute trip).  That sort of set me up for a day of feeling just slightly off-kilter.  (Yes, I know.  I'm always off-kilter, so nobody really noticed the difference.)  However, I never really regained my balance.  Imagine standing in a room where the floor is just slightly slanted, where the walls don't meet at 90-degree angles, where the ceiling is trapezoidal.  That's how I felt.

I think I received some good news today, but I'm not quite convinced it's actually going to happen.  Yet, this almost good news buoyed my spirits some.  Enough to get me through my eight hours in the medical office.  I'm a little hesitant to celebrate, because, last week, most of my good news quickly fermented into a steaming pile of excrement.

That is what this pandemic has meant for a lot of people.  Everything is different, and yet nothing looks different, aside from the face masks.  Abnormal has become normal.  And normal has become unhealthy.  Even dangerous.  So, I choose to be wary.  Cautious.  Even suspicious.

Saint Marty picked out his outfit for tomorrow.  Made his lunch.  And left his badge in his car.  He's ready for tomorrow.  Perhaps. 

poem from Kyrie

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt

The barber, the teacher, the plumber, the preacher,
the man in a bowler, man in a cap,
the banker, the baker, the cabinet-maker,
the fireman, postman, clerk in the shop,

soldier and sailor, teamster and tailor,
man shoveling snow or sweeping his step,
carpenter, cobbler, liar, lawyer,
laid them down and never got up.

O, O, the world wouldn't stop--
the neighborhood grocer, the neighborhood cop
laid them down and never did rise.
And some of their children, and some of their wives,
fell into bed and never got up,
fell into bed and never got up.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

May 12: Complicate and Sadden, My Plan, God's Plan

Young Thomas Merton's life complicates and saddens . . .

In the autumn of 1929 I went to Oakham.  There was something very pleasant and peaceful about the atmosphere of this little market town, with its school and its old fourteenth-century church with the grey spire, rising in the middle of a wide Midland vale.

Obscure it certainly was.  Oakham's only claim to fame was the fact that it was the county town, and in fact the only real town in the smallest county in England.  And there were not even any main roads or main railway lines running through Rutland, except for the Great North Road which skirted the Lincolnshire border.

In this quiet back-water, under the trees full of rooks, I was to spend three and a half years getting ready for a career.  Three and a half years were a short time:  but when they were over, I was a very different person from the embarrassed and clumsy and more or less well-meaning, but interiorly unhappy fourteen-year-old who came there with a suitcase and a brown felt hat and a trunk and a plain wooden tuck-box.

Meanwhile, before I entered Oakham, and took up my abode in the ratty, gaslit corner of Hodge Wing that was called the "Nursery," things had happened to complicate and sadden my life still further.  

In the Easter vacation of 1929 I had been with Father at Canterbury, where he was working, painting pictures mostly in the big, quiet Cathedral close.  I had spent most of my days walking in the country around Canterbury, and the time went quietly except for the momentous occasion of a big Charlie Chaplin movie which came, late indeed, to Canterbury.  It was The Gold Rush.

When the holidays were over and I went back to Ripley Court, Father crossed over to France.  The last I heard about him was that he was at Rouen.  Then, one day, towards the end of the summer term, when the school cricket eleven went in to Ealing to play Durston House, I was surprised to find myself appointed to go along as scorer.  There was, of course, no likelihood of my ever going as a member of the team, since I was a hopeless cricketer from the start.  On the way into town, on the bus or somewhere, I learned that my father was in Ealing, at Aunt Maud's, and that he was ill.  This was why they had sent me along, I suppose:  during the tea-interval I would have a chance to run in to the house which overlooked the cricket field and see Father.

The bus unloaded us in the lane that led to the field.  In the tiny pavilion, the other scorer and I opened our large, green-ruled books, and wrote down the names of one another's team in the boxes down the side of the big rectangular page.  Then, with our pencils all sharpened we waited, as the first pair went in to bat, striding heavily in their big white pads.

The dim June sun shone down on the field.  Over yonder, where the poplars swayed slightly in the haze, was Aunt Maud's house, and I could see the window in the brick gable where Father probably was.

So the match began.

I could not believe that Father was very ill.  If he were, I supposed that they would have made more fuss about it.  During the tea-interval, I went over, and passed through the green wooden door in the wall to Aunt Maud's garden and entered the house and went upstairs.  Father was in bed.  You could not tell from his appearance how ill he was:  but I managed to gather it from the way he talked and from his actions.  He seemed to move with difficulty and pain, and he did not have much to say.  When I asked him what was the matter, he said nobody seemed to know.

Merton doesn't ever seem to have an easy time as a child.  First, he loses his mother at a very young age.  Then, his itinerant artist father drags him back-and-forth across the Atlantic a few times, crisscrosses Europe.  Merton has had anything but a normal childhood.  Now, his father is gravely ill.  (SPOILER ALERT:  His father is dying.)  Things don't ever seem to go right for Tom.

I can sympathize with Merton.  Situations in my life never turn out the way that I expect.  Certainly, Merton imagined growing up with his parents in France, living a bohemian life, and becoming a famous writer.  That's the life he envisioned for himself as a young person.  Didn't quite turn out that way.  He became a Trappist monk, a bestselling author, and is now being considered for sainthood.  Merton's version of his life pales in comparison to what God had in mind.

And therein lies the rub.  I pretty much think I know what would make me happy and give my life meaning.  Bestselling writer and college professor sound pretty good.  U. S. Poet Laureate sounds even better.  I wouldn't turn down Nobel Laureate, either.  That's the vision I have for my life.  God's vision:  contingent professor and medical office worker at the moment; struggler with bills and family; blogger; church musician; and Poet Laureate of the Upper Peninsula.  That's what God has put on my plate at this moment.

From day-to-day, I have no idea what the hell I'm doing.  This morning and afternoon, I have been on my computer and phone, talking with someone from my state senator's office, trying to find an answer to a difficult question.  It's one of those things that keeps me awake at night.  And now, I've put it in God's hands.  I can't do anything else with it.

I run into problems when I try to run the show instead of taking my cue from God.  If only He would see things my way, my life would be so much better.  Of course, the issue is that God has a much different view of the universe than I do.  Wider.  More encompassing.  Me?  I panic when the phone rings.

I think I need to be more like my puppy.  She doesn't worry about whether she's going to have food in her dish.  She scratches at the door and knows someone will open it for her.  She goes for walks and is transported into joy by the smells and sounds and sights.  And, when she naps, she sprawls in the middle of the floor, completely unafraid of being stepped on.  She just trusts the universe.

Saint Marty needs to be a mini Australian shepherd.