Tuesday, June 30, 2020

June 29-30: Watching "Star Wars," Bantha in Heat, Poem from "Kyrie"

Sometimes, in the darkest of times, you simply have to let go.  Relax.  Do something completely frivolous, even if you have five million other things to do.

Last night, I watched Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone with my kids.  My daughter and I once spent a full week watching that entire series.  It was the first time for my son.  Tonight, it's the original Star Wars.  The one I saw 27 times during the summer of 1977.  I'm ashamed to say that I haven't inflicted my full Star Wars geekdom on either of my kids yet. 

My son quickly lost interest.  My daughter, on the other hand, is sort of fascinated by my Rain Man-like ability to recite all the lines of the movie by heart, but I think she's getting a little annoyed by my running commentary of behind-the-scenes facts.  I'm having more fun than a Bantha in heat.

All of the darkness I've been dealing with these last few weeks has faded into the background, and the Death Star hasn't even cleared the planet yet. 

For that George Lucas miracle, Saint Marty gives thanks.

And a poem about laughing in the face of tragedy . . .

Poem from Kyrie

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt

After they closed the schools the churches closed,
stacks like pulpwood filling the morgue,
but my cousin's husband's father "knew someone"
               Nobody else was there
but our own Parson Weems--to pray for us
and play the organ.
                              Boy in a homemade box,
additional evergreens--rather grim
until the opening bars of "A Mighty Fortress"

flushed a bird from the pipes to agitate
around the nave.  It's hard to cry if your head
is swiveled up,
                         much less with bird manure
dropping "like the gentle rain"
on empty polished pews, plush carpet,
shut casket.  Besides, I'd cried enough.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

June 28: Ten-Day Boat, Book Club Meeting, God Complex

Young Merton goes on the search for love . . .

In three months, the summer of 1931, I suddenly matured like a weed.

I cannot tell which is the more humiliating: the memory of the half-baked adolescent I was in June or the glib and hard-boiled specimen I was in October when I came back to Oakham full of a thorough and deep-rooted sophistication of which I was both conscious and proud.

The beginning was like this: Pop wrote to me to come to America. I got a brand-new suit made. I said to myself, "On the boat I am going to meet a beautiful girl, and I am going to fall in love."

So, I got on the boat. The first day I sat in a deck chair and read the correspondence of Goethe and Schiller which had been imposed on me as a duty, in preparation for the scholarship examinations at the university. What is worse, I not only tolerated this imposition but actually convinced myself that it was interesting.

The second day I had more or less found out who was on the boat. The third day I was no longer interested in Goethe and Schiller. The fourth day I was up to my neck in the trouble that I was looking for.

It was a ten-day boat.

According to David Van Biema of Time Magazine:
He [Thomas Merton] will not become a saint because of his radical pacificism, which caused him to be censored even in his lifetime; because his curiosity regarding Eastern contemplative traditions struck some as heretical; and because he admitted to a variety of sins throughout his career that would give ammunition to his opponents. Certain intellectually-inclined Catholics, however, will continue to regard his wrestling with faith as holier than the boring compliance of some others well along the path to canonization.
According to Van Biema, Merton is too much a person of his time--vehemently opposed to war, intellectually curious about Eastern religious ideas, and wholly human in his failings (he fathered a child out of wedlock before he became a Trappist monk).  And in the passage above, the adolescent Merton does what all adolescent boys do:  he lets his actions be dictated by a force centered thoroughly below his belt.  

I think I am drawn to Merton because of his humanity.  He isn't one of these holy people who, as a child, had visions of the Virgin Mary and joined a holy order when he was ten years old, never to leave the confines of the monastery again.  No, Merton struggled.  Failed.  Sinned.  Sought forgiveness.  Failed again.  For me, he is a model for saintliness.  Despite all of the things he did "wrong," Merton never stopped chasing God for his entire life.

Now, I have been chasing God most of my life, or vice versa.  It's pretty much the same thing.  I've run away from God, turned my back on God, yelled at God, and broke up with God.  Yet, somehow, I still have God in my life, despite my best efforts.  I would like to say that now, in the darkest moments of my life, I always turn to prayer and find comfort in God's abiding presence.  However, that would be a lie.  

Here's the truth:  there is something in me that always wants to try to fix things that are wrong in my life.  Things I simply have no power over.  People I love who are traveling down the road of addiction and self-destruction.  Who are sick with no hope of good health.  Who make bad choices daily because of that stupid thing called free will.

You will notice that all of the things I listed in the previous paragraph belong to the life journeys of other people.  One of my huge failings as a human being (and spiritual person) is this notion that I have all the answers.  If only people would listen to me, the world would be a much better place.  Certainly, my life would be a lot easier.  God just needs to let me drive the car for a little while.

There it is.  I want to be God.  Instead of praying "Thy will be done," I pray "my will be done."  And when my will isn't done, I get angry, depressed, despairing.  

Tonight, I had a wonderful Zoom meeting with my book club.  This month's selection was Ann Patchett's The Dutch House.  A great novel.  Deeply complex in its humanity.  There were a lot of difficult questions to answer about being stuck in the past, unable to move forward.  A lot of the book's issues struck close to home.  And no matter how hard I tried to steer the discussion in other directions, it always seemed to circle back to me.  I'm not kidding.  I couldn't control it.

The people in my book club are some of my best friends.  They know me.  I can't bullshit my way through anything with them.  They will call me on it.  Or laugh at me.  That's why I love our meetings.  They bring out my flaws, force me to take stock of my life.  They remind me that I'm human, like Merton.  I ain't no saint, although one of my book club members pointed out the possibility that I enjoy being a martyr.  My response to that observations:  "I have to be a martyr to put up with all of you."  Which simply elicited raucous laughter.

So, here I am tonight:  a flawed, deeply conflicted, would-be saint with a God complex.  And I am blessed with the miracle of friends who know all this and still love me.

And for that, Saint Marty gives thanks.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

June 27: The Kessel Run, Novel Coronavirus, Poem from "Kyrie"

It is past midnight as I type this post.  It is literally Sunday, and yet my mind is still in the busyness of Saturday, with its church cleaning, Zoom meeting, house straightening, toilet scrubbing, organ playing, Mass attending, and book club preparing.  I'm sure I've left some things out.

That is the way most of my weekends go.  On Friday night, it seems as though the weekend is some beautiful blank page rolled into a typewriter, waiting for words.  (For those of my disciples who are younger:  a typewriter was the 20th equivalent of a laptop or MacBook.  It's what we wrote our school papers on, but without Spell Check or Autocorrect.)  When I go to bed on Friday night, I feel like a person of leisure.  And now, a mere 24 hours later, I feel as though Saturday has galloped by and Sunday is breathing down my neck.  

At the beginning of the pandemic, time seemed to grind to a halt, and the world felt as if it was stuck in the longest traffic jam in the universe.  Days didn't go by in minute increments.  They tortoised.  Snailed.  Slothed.  Friday morphed into Monday into Thursday afternoon.  March became Marchaprilmay.

As the state of Michigan reopens now, I feel like I've just made the jump to hyperspace.  Suddenly time, which had been in a perpetual state of frozen, is now doing the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.  (That will make sense to any Star Wars geek.)  And I'm not sure that's a good thing.  However, that's the reality at the moment.

The other reality is that for the fifth day in a row, the United States has surpassed the single-day record of new novel coronavirus cases:  44,782 new infections today.  At the moment, the death rate isn't climbing drastically.  That will probably start occurring in about two weeks, if the past is any indication  

Anthony Faucci, the top infectious disease doctor in the country, went on TV yesterday and pleaded with people to maintain social distancing, stay at home, avoid large gatherings, and wear masks.  He couldn't have been simpler and clearer.  And yet, in my neck of the woods, the Upper Peninsula, people seem to believe we aren't part of the United States.  That Florida and Texas are planets light years away.  Two months ago, masks were present everywhere in the U. P., wherever you went.  Last night, I watched people walking into a high school graduation ceremony, nary a mask in sight.

I'm not writing this post to generate controversy or argument.  Some people I work with in the medical field have somehow made this whole pandemic a battle about whether wearing masks is necessary and effective in slowing the spread of Covid-19.  I don't understand this argument.  You don't walk into an operating room without a mask on, because you don't want to cause infection.  So, why wouldn't you believe in the efficacy of mask-wearing to slow down the spread of this virus?

Anyway, the United States continues to be one of the few countries where Covid-19 numbers are increasing exponentially.  Other countries are now considering banning citizens of the United States from travelling.  That's right folks--remember when Donald Trump instituted a travel ban on China?  Well, the same thing's going to happen to us.  Cancel those vacation plans.  Covid-19 hasn't vanished like a miracle.  If anything, the beginning of summer has accelerated its spread.  

So, keep your distance.  Wear your mask.  Be the miracle.

And if you do that, Saint Marty will give thanks.

. . . and a poem, just in case you're thinking about not wearing your mask:

Poem from Kyrie

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt

With no more coffins left, why not one wagon
plying all the shuttered neighborhoods,
calling for the dead, as they once did,
and let the living rest of us alone.
My father's pair of horses made the turn
at the big elm, onto the main road,
and we saw, strung out before us in the mud,
consecutive up the hill, links in a chain,
a caravan.  Ahead of us in line:
three wrapped loaves.  So I stared at the horse's head
between our mare's black ears, its brown ears framed
a gray, the gray a mule, until in the lead,
at the crest, was a child's toy, and a toy sled,
what lay in back shrunk to a cotterpin.

Friday, June 26, 2020

June 26: Round-About Way, Teachers, Graduation in Pandemic

How William Blake changed Thomas Merton's life . . .

The priests that he [William Blake] saw going their rounds in black gowns--he knew no Catholics at the time, and had probably never even seen a Catholic priest--were symbols, in his mind, of the weak, compromising, pharisaic piety of those whose god was nothing but an objectification of their own narrow and conventional desires and hypocritical fears.

He did not distinguish any particular religion or sect as the objects of his disdain:  he simply could not stand false piety and religiosity, in which the love of God was stamped out of the souls of men by formalism and conventions, without any charity, without the light and life of a faith that brings man face to face with God.  If on one page of Blake these priests in black gowns were frightening and hostile figures, on another, the "Grey Monk of Charlemaine" was a saint and a hero of charity and of faith, fighting for the peace of the true God with all the ardent love that was the only reality Blake lived for.  Towards the end of his life, Blake told his friend Samuel Palmer that the Catholic Church was the only one that taught the love of God.

I am not, of course, recommending the study of William Blake to all minds as a perfect way to faith and to God.  Blake is really extraordinarily difficult and obscure and there is, in him, some of the confusion of almost all the heterodox and heretical mystical systems that ever flourished in the west--and that is saying a lot.  And yet, by the grace of God, at least in my opinion, he was kept very much uncontaminated by all his crazy symbols precisely because he was such a good and holy man, and because his faith was so real and his love for God so mighty and so sincere.

The Providence of God was eventually to use Blake to awaken something of faith and love in my own soul--in spite of all the misleading notions, and all the almost infinite possibilities of error that underlie his weird and violent figures.  I do not, therefore, want to seem to canonize him.  But I have to acknowledge my own debt to him, and the truth which may appear curious to some, although it is really not so:  that through Blake I would one day come, in a round-about way, to the only true Church, and to the One Living God, through His Son, Jesus Christ.

We all have that one teacher who makes a difference in our lives.  The one who fundamentally changes you in some way and sends your life spinning off in a new direction.  For Merton, it was William Blake.  Blake showed Merton the path to his future.  I've been lucky enough to have a few such influences in my long educational career, from middle school on up.  Mrs. Kantola, seventh grade.  Mrs. Luoma, eighth grade.  Ms. DeCaire and Mrs. Jones, high school.  Phil Legler, Beverly Matherne, Diane Sautter, Ray Ventre, John Vandezande, Ron Johnson, and John Smolens--college.  All fantastic teachers who were somehow able to make me learn something new about myself and who I wanted to be.

Tonight, I "attended" a high school graduation ceremony.  It had been postponed and rescheduled several times due to the pandemic.  There had already been parades of graduates in cars.  Videos on the school district's Facebook page.  All very moving and exciting and culminating tonight, on the school's football field, with the Class of 2020 sitting in folding chairs, distanced six feet apart.  My daughter's boyfriend was sitting in one of the those chairs.  And my wife and I were parked outside the stadium, watching from the fence line, listening on the radio to the speeches and addresses.

My daughter's boyfriend is an amazing young man, who overcame a lot of obstacles in his educational career.  My daughter has been dating him for going on four years now.  That's a long time for teenagers, who seem to change partners about as often as they change socks.  I've watched him grow and mature, struggle and overcome.  I'm sure he's had some mentors in his life--people he's looked up to.  Maybe they've changed him with a kind word or a valuable life lesson.  Or maybe they kicked him in the ass when his ass needed kicking.  Whoever those individuals are, they can be pretty proud of him.  I certainly am.

So, I present to you the miracle of graduation.  Of seeing bright, shining young people taking their first steps into the future.  It is always, in my experience, a wondrous thing to behold.  The pandemic may have delayed this moment.  It may have set up barriers that needed to be hurdled.  It may have even made graduation seem impossible.  Yet, the impossible happened tonight.

And for that, Saint Marty gives thanks.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

June 25: Rebellion of the Saints, Company of Poets, Immanence

Merton struggles with William Blake's contradictions . . .

On one hand he [William Blake] spoke of the "priests in black gowns who were going their rounds binding with briars my joys and desires."  And yet on the other hand he detested Voltaire and Rousseau and everybody like them and everything that they stood for, and he abominated all materialistic deism, and all the polite, abstract natural religions of the eighteenth century, the agnosticism of the nineteenth and, in fact, most of the common attitudes of our day.

          The atoms of Democritus
          And Newton's particles of light
          Are sands upon the Red-Sea shore
          Where Israel's tents do shine so bright . . .

I was absolutely incapable for reconciling, in my mind, two things that seemed contrary.  Blake was a revolutionary, and yet he detested the greatest and most typical revolutionaries of his time, and declared himself opposed without compromise to people who, as I thought, seemed to exemplify some of his own most characteristic ideals.

How incapable I was of understanding anything like the ideals of a William Blake!  How could I possibly realize that his rebellion, for all its strange heterodoxies, was fundamentally the rebellion of the saints.  It was the rebellion of the lover of the living God, the rebellion of one whose desire of God was so intense and irresistible that it condemned, with all its might, all the hypocrisy and petty sensuality and skepticism and materialism which cold and trivial minds set up as unpassable barriers between God and the souls of men.

Merton envisions William Blake as a quasi-saint--a person so in love with God that he rejected everything that stood between humans and the Almighty.  All the things that the greatest thinkers of his time embraced.  Sensuality.  Skepticism.  Materialism.  Blake was the poetic equivalent of John the Baptist, calling out in his desert voice, "Prepare ye the way!"

I will say that I have never thought of Blake as a strong a believer in a Supreme Being.  My version of Blake was of a man who was trying to create his own mythology, his own God--Urizen, a bearded old man who is the architect of confinement, holding humanity back with conventional laws and wisdom.  Blake was great artist.  An interesting, possibly unbalanced poet.

Yet, here's Thomas Merton, one of the most influential Christian thinkers and writers of the twentieth century, basically canonizing William Blake.  I sort of love it.  I've always believed that poets are somehow more in tune with the divine.  Aware of the glories of the universe, microscopic to macroscopic.  Merton seems to be a validating this belief for me.

I spent this evening in the company of poets, and it brought some light into my soul.  It was a reading that kicked off a new project--an anthology of poems and writing prompts from the monthly workshops I've been conducting since I was first selected Poet Laureate of the Upper Peninsula.  Just sitting in that Zoom meeting, listening to the work of all these writers, moved me profoundly.  It was a conversation of diverse poetic voices.  A night of psalms.

These last few days, I've been posting about the darkness with which I've been struggling.  Haven't been sleeping well.  I've been focused a lot on places and people in my life where I seem to be failing miserably.  It has been a long, tough 15-plus days, where I've thought of throwing in the towel a few times.

However, tonight my poet/prophet friends sort of reminded me of the immanence of grace in the universe, from the tiniest seashell to the redwoods of California.  It's everywhere.  Including those dark moments that border on despair.  I am never without it.  All I have to do is open my eyes and look around to find evidence of God in my life.

And for the miracle of this revelation, Saint Marty gives thanks.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

June 24: Poem from "Kyrie," Lamentations, Hope

Poem from Kyrie

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt

I cried unto God with my voice . . . he gave ear unto me.
In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord;
     my sore ran in the night, and ceased not;
     my soul refused to be comforted.
I remembered God, and was troubled;
     I complained, and my spirit was overwhelmed.
I am so troubled I cannot speak.

Will the Lord cast off for ever?  Is his mercy
     clean gone for ever?  doe his promise fail
     for evermore?  Has God forgot to be gracious?
     has he in anger shut up his tender mercies?

Who is so great a God as our God?
     who has declared his strength among the people?


This poem.  Tonight.  It sort of captures my current state of mind and heart.  A lamentation, very much like ones in the Biblical psalms.  Starting out in utter despair and darkness, and moving toward something akin to hope and praise.

I'm not sure I'm quite at the stage of hope and praise yet, though.  Still in the muddy trenches, fighting my way out of a pretty bruising battle with the blues.  I'm searching for the sun, but it's nowhere in my skies at the moment.  However, I'm going to try to write my way to some kind of miracle tonight.

I know, on the vast scale of tragedy and turmoil in the world, my problems are microscopic.  I'm not starving.  Or homeless.  My health is pretty good.  I have two great kids.  Jobs that mostly pay the bills, albeit not always on time.  My daughter finished her first year of college with a 4.0 GPA.  Pretty good considering how Covid-19 ended the semester on such a surreal note.  My son is funny and strong-willed, two qualities that will help him greatly succeed in the future.  Like I said, I've hit the jackpot in a lot of ways.

Yet, I'm truly struggling in other parts of my life.  Seeing things fall apart, and I'm not able to put them back together.  Because of that, I'm feeling like a complete failure, even though I've done everything in my power to avoid this collapse.  Yet, now all I can do is stand back and watch the forest burn to the ground.

So, where in all that mess do I find my miracle tonight?  At the end of every lamentation comes a ray of light.  That's how lamentations work.  Usually, it goes something like this:  But in you, O God, I seek refuge.  You are my strength and courage.  You are my hope.  

Emily Dickinson says that "'Hope' is the thing with feathers--/That perches in the soul--".

Gerard Manley Hopkins writes "Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God."

Joy Harjo says that the world "begins at the kitchen table.  No matter what, we must eat to live."

So, searching for that feathered thing in my ribs, wrestling with my Higher Power, I sit at my kitchen table with my son, listen to him play video games with his friends, shouting at them, laughing, speaking a language of computer I can only appreciate like I appreciate someone speaking Portuguese.  Loving the sounds without the attachment of meanings.  I consume this moment like chocolate cake, dark and sweet.

And for that kitchen table miracle, Saint Marty give thanks.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

June 23: What Manner of Man, William Blake, Spin It Into Gold

Young Thomas Merton struggles with the poetry of Blake . . .

I was less literal when I was sixteen.  I could accept Blake's metaphors and they already began, a little, to astound and to move me, although I had no real grasp of their depth and power.  And I liked Blake immensely.  I read him with more patience and attention than any other poet.  I thought about him more.  And I could not figure him out.  I do not mean, I could not figure out the Prophetic Books--nobody can do that!  But I could not place him in any kind of a context, and I did not know how to make his ideas fit together.

One grey Sunday in the spring, I walked alone out the Brooke Road and up Brooke Hill, where the rifle range was.  It was a long, bare hog-back of a hill, with a few lone trees along the top, and it commanded a big sweeping view of the Vale of Catmos, with the town of Oakham lying in the midst of it, gathered around the grey, sharp church spire.  I sat on a stile on the hill top, and contemplated the wide vale, from the north, where the kennels of the Cottesmore hounds were, to Lax Hill and Manton in the south.  Straight across was Burley House, on top of its hill, massed with woods.  At my feet, a few red brick houses straggled out from the town to the bottom of the slope.

And all the time I reflected, that afternoon, upon Blake.  I remember how I concentrated and applied myself to it.  It was rare that I ever really thought about such a thing of my own accord.  But I was trying to establish what manner of man he was.  Where did he stand?  What did he believe?  What did he preach?

As an MFA student, I struggled with William Blake, as well.  I spent an entire class (four months) trying to comprehend the Prophetic Books, and failed just as miserably as Merton does.  I love Blake's grand mythology, am transported by his words, but, to this day, I don't think I've even come close to understanding his visions.  And that's okay.  Sometimes, it's okay to just exist in the mystery of something.  Even it it's dark.

I have a confession this evening.  Over these last seven days, with everything that has happened in my life (and other things I haven't blogged about), I've been struggling with God the same way Merton struggles with Blake in the above passage.  I just don't get God right now.  Don't see how God's going to take the chaff of my life and spin it into gold.  Ain't gonna happen, as far as I can tell.

Of course, that's where faith is supposed to come in, right?  True believers simply hand over the pieces of their broken lives and trust that God is somehow going to do something amazing with those shards.  Put Humpty back together, bigger and better.  Right now, I'd have to say my faith is at low ebb.  I'm feeling like a failure in many aspects of my life, professional and personal and spiritual.  And I can't seem to find my way up from the bottom of this hole I'm in.

Those of my disciples who are tired of my darker ruminations may skip to the end of this post right now.  I promise something beautiful will be there waiting.  And for those disciples who want to slog a little with me, I appreciate the company.  When I'm in a blue funk, I tend to feel more than a little isolated, so it helps me to imagine a person out there reading these words and wanting to walk with me for a little while.

Sometimes, when you're feeling lousy, all you really need is someone to put an arm around you and say, "Yeah, this is really fucked up."  That's where I am at the moment.  I don't need advice.  Don't tell me to go for a walk.  Or that it's always darkest before dawn.  Or that God never closes a door without opening a window.  None of that shit is going to work for me tonight.

Just know that I am sad.  That's all.  I've been here before, and the only cure is time.  And a little alcohol.

And now, the something beautiful I promised . . .

This afternoon, God sent some grace my way.  One of my best and dearest friends met me after work.  She had a carload of groceries for me.  Things she thought I could use because of my sick son and chaotic life.  It was remarkable.  In this hugless time of pandemic, it felt like a strong and long embrace from someone who loves me deeply.  And I felt the arms of that miracle around me all the way home.

And for that, Saint Marty gives thanks tonight.

Monday, June 22, 2020

June 22: Light and Darkness, Domino Effect, Poem from "Kyrie"

If you want beautiful light, you're going to have to deal with darkness, too.  That's the way the universe works.  You can't have one without the other.

This evening, as I walked into church to clean, I was in a particularly dark mood for some reason.  One of those funks that fall on me seemingly out of the blue.  I call it the domino effect--a bunch of little or medium-sized problems that turn into a cascade.  Suddenly, you're at the bottom of a very dark place.  That's where I was as I pulled on my rubber gloves, grabbed my bottle of bleach, and walked into the sanctuary to start sanitizing.

I had gotten to the church later than normal because of another obligation, so, by the time I was done with my work, the sun was giving one last yawn in the sky before retiring to the other side of the planet.  I walked back into the sanctuary to retrieve my cell phone and make sure I hadn't left any lights on.  The room was quite dark.

Yet, there was a wall of stained glass that was literally blazing with sunset.  I snapped a photo with my phone, but the resulting picture just doesn't capture the full cut-glass beauty of the moment.  And it pierced the darkness I'd been experiencing.  Gave me some kind of solace.  A moment of grace is what writer Flannery O'Connor would have called it.  Where, through the ugliness of the world, something wondrously frightening and frighteningly wondrous appears.

The window, the sun, the darkness (surrounding me and inside me) combined into a miraculous, grace-filled vision that filled me with something like hope.

And for that, Saint Marty gives thanks.

. . . and a poem that ends with a moment that could be grace, too:

poem from Kyrie

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt

I told him not to move, they'd said don't move.
The weeks of fewer cases were a tease,

a winter thaw that froze back up worse
than before, backswing of a scythe, we filled

the gym, cots and pallets on the floor.
And many now in uniform--I could spot

who'd been gassed, their buttons were tarnished green--
and many of them were missing parts, like him.

Did I say the nurses were wearing masks?
My last day she put him next to me,

sweet little nurse but not enough of her
to go around she said don't let him move.

You tell me, was it prayer or luck kept
me from being that boy reaching for water?

Sunday, June 21, 2020

June 20-21: The Development of My Life, Father's Day, Covid-19 Test

Merton talks about his love of William Blake . . .

Meanwhile there was one discovery of mine, one poet who was a poet indeed, and a Romantic poet, but vastly different from those contemporaries, with whom he had so little to do.  I think my love for William Blake had something in it of God's grace.  It is a love that has never died, and which has entered very deeply into the development of my life.

Father had always liked Blake, and had tried to explain to me what was good about him when I was a child of ten.  The funny thing about Blake is that although the Songs of Innocence look like children's poems, and almost seem to have been written for children, they are, to most children, incomprehensible.  Or at least they were so to me.  Perhaps if I had read them when I was four or five, it would have been different.  But when I was ten, I knew too much.  I knew that tigers did not burn in the forests of the night.  That was very silly, I thought.  Children are very literal minded.  

Merton's father tries to instill his love of William Blake in his son.  That's what father's do--try to impart some of the knowledge they've acquired of the world into their children.  Sometimes it works.  Sometimes it doesn't.  For Merton, with Blake, it works.

Sitting in the ER waiting room Friday night, I was able to put some things into perspective.  Troubles at work, the death of my uncle, my mother's broken hip and consequent surgery--all of these things (while they still weigh on my mind and heart) became background to the possibility that my son may be seriously ill.  And I would have traded places with him in an instant if I could have.

On this Father's Day, I have figured out (for the millionth time in my life) what is really significant and important.  My kids--their safety and health.  It's so easy to lose sight of land in the currents and storms of daily life.  Yes, it's important to try to do your best in everything, every day--for me, it's working, teaching, writing, and friending.  Yet, given the choice between being a great father or a great teacher or poet or health care worker or church musician, I don't have to even think about it. 

Don't get me wrong.  I haven't been a perfect father, by any means.  Fathering really isn't about being perfect.  It's about the process of perfecting.  Every day, when I get up in the morning, I say a little prayer.  It goes something like this:
Hi.  It's me again.  Sorry for fucking up [insert list of mistakes] yesterday.  Please grant me the wisdom to say and do the right things today.  Watch over my wife and kids.  Keep them safe and happy.  Help me to be the best person I can be.  Thanks.
Then, I head out the door and try my damnedest not to fuck up again.  And I usually fail.  But that's all part of being a good father, too--showing your kids how to deal with life's disappointments and setbacks with integrity and grace.   In fact, I would say that's one of the most important lessons I will ever teach my daughter and son.  I don't want to be put on a pedestal.  I'd rather show them how to be a messed-up human in a messed-up world.

That's what went through my head in the ER as I totaled up all of my past week's discouragements, balanced them against my son's good health.  I'm a father who is as far from perfect as possible.  Yet, despite the fact that I curse like a Marine, disappoint my friends, overlook and ignore the daily blessings sent my way, God granted me a miracle--my son's Covid-19 test came back negative.

And for that, this Father's Day, Saint Marty gives thanks.

Friday, June 19, 2020

June 19: Doorsill of the Apocalypse, Deeply Flawed, Grand Design

Thomas Merton experiences a newfound freedom . . .

The death of my father left me sad and depressed for a couple of months.  But that eventually wore away.  And when it did, I found myself completely stripped of everything that impeded the movement of my own will to do as it pleased.  I imagined that I was free.  And it would take me five or six years to discover what a frightful captivity I had got myself into.  It was in this year, too, that the hard crust of my dry soul finally squeezed out all the last traces of religion that had ever been in it.  There was no room for any God in that empty temple full of dust and rubbish which I was now so jealously to guard against all intruders, in order to devote it to the worship of my own stupid will.

And so I became the complete twentieth-century man.  I now belonged to the world in which I lived.  I became a true citizen of my own disgusting century:  the century of poison gas and atomic bombs.  A man living on the doorsill of the Apocalypse, a man with veins full of poison, living in death.  Baudelaire could truly address me, then, reader:  Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frere . . . 

If you're wondering what that last French phrase means:  "Hypocrite reader!  --my similar, --my brother . . . "  Merton, after mourning his father for a couple months, undergoes a transformation.  To paraphrase, poorly, the old hymn:  he is cut free of all the ties that bind him.  And Merton is blessed/cursed with complete and total freedom.  He can pretty much do whatever he wants, rules and social etiquette and family obligations be damned.

I have never experienced that kind of freedom.  I don't know if I would want it, even if it was offered to me.  My whole life, I've been bound by rules and guidelines and catechisms and conscience.  I worry about people and what people think of me.  I have always tried to do what I thought was right, and, frequently, I've fallen far short.  That goes for love relationships, family relationships, friend relationships, and work relationships.  And I have to accept that about myself.  I am a deeply flawed individual.  Period.

But that pretty much describes the whole world, and everyone in it.  We all just do our best, and sometimes that best simply isn't good enough.  I'm coming off a pretty rough week, filled with death and injury and struggle.  And then , , ,

My son woke up sick yesterday.  Sore throat.  Fatigue.  My wife took him to the walk-in clinic, and he had strep throat and mono screenings.  Both came back negative.  The provider who saw him told us to bring him to the ER if he developed a fever over 100.4.  At around 6:30 p.m., his temp rose to 100.4 and then, a couple minutes later, to 101.4.  By the time we got him into a room at the ER, his temperature was 102.  He had developed a little bit of a cough, and he said that nothing tasted good.

Of course, in this time of pandemic, first thoughts went to Covid-19.  My son was terrified.  The doctor did another throat swab, and, eventually, a nasal swab for the coronavirus.  Then, we were sent home to await the results. 

That is how my week ended.  Now, if I weren't a religious person, I would say that all that has happened this week is simply the result of every person travelling through this universe alone, subject to the capricious whims of fate.  No grand design.  No lessons to be learned or graces to be found.  Just a series of unfortunate events. 

Yet, that is not who I am.  I believe in the Creator, and I think that we all are subject to certain rules, the most important of which being the Golden one--"Do unto others . . ."  So, I live being very aware of other people and creatures.  Trying to do what's best for the universe in general.  It's not just about me.  Most importantly, I believe that somehow there is some kind of overarching architecture to life.  That's the Christian in me, I guess.  And I know that I fail miserably.  Frequently.  That's the cradle Catholic boy in me.

So, total and complete freedom--without the worry of consequences--is just not in my make-up.  If I offended you this week, I apologize.  If I hurt you in any way, I am deeply regretful.  It was not intentional.  It was simply a reflection of who I am--a human being, trying to fumble my way through a pretty dark time.  That does not excuse me from guilt.  It convicts me of my imperfections and limitations.  I accept them as a miracle, given to me to keep me grounded in humility.

And for that, Saint Marty is deeply grateful.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

June 18: Divine Inheritance, Mother's Surgery, "Ave"

Thomas Merton attends his father's funeral . . .

Tom got an obituary in the Times, and he saw to it that the funeral went off more or less decently:  but it was still another one of those cremations.  This time it was at Golders Green.  The only difference was that the minister said more prayers, and the chapel looked a little more like a chapel, and Tom had got them to hide the coffin under a very beautiful shroud of silk from the Orient somewhere, China or Bali or India.

But in the end they took the shroud off and rolled the coffin through one of those sliding doors and then, in the sinister secrecy of the big, intricate crematory, out of our sight, the body was burned, and we went away.

Nevertheless, all that is of no importance, and it can be forgotten.  For I hope that, in the living Christ, I shall one day see my father again:  that is, I believe that Christ, Who is the Son of God, and Who is God, has power to raise up all those who have died in His grace, to the glory of His own Resurrection, and to share, body and soul, in the glory of His Divine inheritance, at the last day.

I'm sure that, as a young man, Merton thought nothing about dying in grace or the glory of resurrection.  That came much later in Merton's life.  He probably knew nothing about "Divine inheritance" and the body and soul.  He didn't yet have any religious faith that would have provided some kind of consolation to him as a parentless boy.

My mother had her hip replacement surgery this afternoon, and everything went as well as could be expected.  When she woke up in her room after the procedure, she was quite confused and in a lot of pain.  It took a while for them to get that under control.  My sister was able to get her to eat some mashed potatoes and Jell-O.

As a Christian, I do believe all that stuff about salvation Merton alludes to in the above passage.  My faith certainly gave me some hope these last couple days.  I know my mother really was surrounded by positive energy and a butt-load of prayers.  They surrounded her like armor.  And, if today hadn't gone well, my mother would have ridden all those prayers straight to heaven.

Now, of course, some difficult choices need to be made regarding rehabilitation.  But that's the subject for another post, another time.  For tonight, I hold on to the fact that my mother is safe and on the mend.  That, to me, is enough of a miracle for tonight.

And Saint Marty says "hallelujah!" to that.


by:  Martin Achatz

I was 18 the first time I saw
my mother cry.  Arthritis invaded
her spine, stiffened her vertebrae
until, on that morning, she couldn't
cough or lift a coffee cup without
feeling whipped, scourged.
She'd given birth to nine children,
her youngest daughter with Down's,
a baby the doctors told her to forget,
put in an institution, walk away,
erase, like a hurricane after waters recede.
But Mother brought my sister
home, began the hard work of mothering.
Feeding,  Diapers.  Teaching.  Colors.
Letters.  Numbers.  Watched my sister
laugh, walk, speak, do all the things
doctors said she would never do.
My sister flourished like an orchid
in the hothouse of my mother's love,
became exotic and beautiful, healthy.
If my mother cried when the doctors
used the words "mongoloid," "retarded,"
she never said.  If she cried
when my sister took her first impossible
step, she never said.  If she cried
when my sister first called her "mommy,"
she never said.  The day I saw my mother
Cry, she felt helpless, old, reduced.
Like Mary, she realized she couldn't
carry every cross for her baby.  

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

June 17: Admiration and Reverence, Broken Hip, "For My Mother"

Thomas Merton responds to his father's death . . .

The sorry business was all over.  And my mind made nothing of it.  There was nothing I seemed to be able to grasp.  Here was a man with a wonderful mind and a great talent and a great heart: and, what was more, he was the man who had brought me into the world, and had nourished me and cared for me and had shaped my soul and to whom I was bound by every possible kind of bond of affection and attachment and admiration and reverence:  killed by a growth on his brain.

Young Merton seems at a loss in this short passage.  I would have thought he would have gone on for several paragraphs, if not pages, when writing about the passing of his father.  But he sums up his reaction in the space of a few lines, as if even, so much later in his life, he is still unable to express the true measure of his loss.

Woke up again this morning to find a text message from my sister on my phone.  After her Monday middle-of-the-night voicemail about the death of my uncle, I was really anxious about reading the text.  But I did.  She was at the ER with my mother, who fell out of bed last night and was transported by ambulance there.  My mother fractured her hip trying to get out of bed.

My mother is 88 years old.  She'll be 89 on June 25.  She's been struggling with Alzheimer's for the last several years.  Always a force to be reckoned with, my mother's decline has been difficult to watch.  I imagine Thomas Merton felt the same watching his artist father fade away due to a brain tumor.  The mother I remember still emerges at moments, calls me by name, remembers I'm her son.  Those times now are fewer and fewer.  More often than not, I'm just that "nice man" who stops by to talk to her every once in a while.

I visited my mother's hospital room after I was done working this afternoon.  She was sleeping in her bed, curled up peacefully under her blankets.  I didn't wake her.  She'd been agitated and combative all last night and most of the day, according to my sister.  It was good to see that she was comfortable.  Not in pain.

Tomorrow afternoon, she will get a hip replacement.  The bone fractured right at the socket, which, if there is such a thing as a "good" broken hip, is a good one.  Easy to replace, although recovery will be long and hard.  I imagine she will have to go to a nursing home for rehabilitation, which, in the time of Covid-19, will mean there won't be any family allowed to see her.  All of the nursing homes in the area are locked down with visitor restrictions.

So, tonight, I am celebrating my mother's life.  Her strength and determination and love.  She was married to the same man for almost 70 years.  Raised nine children, one with Down's syndrome.  She buried two of those children.  All her life, she suffered with severe rheumatoid arthritis.  Every day she was in pain.  Yet, I never saw her complain.  She has a beautiful soprano voice and forced me to take piano lessons to calm my ADHD brain.  She was in the front row at every play, musical, and poetry reading that I was ever a part of. To me, she is, quite simply, a miracle.

And Saint Marty gives thanks that he's her son.

A poem for my mother . . .

For My Mother

by:  May Sarton

Once more
I summon you
Out of the past
With poignant love,
You who nourished the poet
And the lover.
I see your gray eyes
Looking out to sea
In those Rockport summers,
Keeping a distance
Within the closeness
Which was never intrusive
Opening out
Into the world.
And what I remember
Is how we laughed
Till we cried
Swept into merriment
Especially when times were hard.
And what I remember
Is how you never stopped creating
And how people sent me
Dresses you had designed
With rich embroidery
In brilliant colors
Because they could not bear
To give them away
Or cast them aside.
I summon you now
Not to think of
The ceaseless battle
With pain and ill health,
The frailty and the anguish.
No, today I remember
The creator,
The lion-hearted.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

June 16: Father was Dead, the Lady or the Tiger, Difficult Choices

Thomas Merton learns that in the midst of life . . .

In the Christmas holidays I only saw him once or twice.  Things were about the same.  I spent most of the holidays in Strasbourg, where Tom had arranged for me to go for the sake of the languages:  German and French.  I stayed in a big Protestant pension in the Rue Finkmatt, and was under the unofficial tutelage of a professor at the University, a friend of Tom's family and of the Protestant patriarch.

Professor Hering was a kind and pleasant man with a red beard, and one of the few Protestants I have ever met who struck one as being at all holy:  that is, he possessed a certain profound interior peace, which he probably got from his contact with the Fathers of the Church, for he was a teacher of theology.  We did not talk much about religion, however.  Once when some students were visiting him, one of them explained to me the essentials of Unitarianism, and when I asked the professor about it afterwards, he said it was all right, in a way which indicated that he approved, in a sort of academic and eclectic way, of all these different forms of belief:  or rather that he was interested in them as objectively intriguing manifestations of a fundamental human instinct, regarding them more or less through the eyes of a sociologist.  As a matter of fact, sometimes Protestant theology does, in certain circumstances, amount to little more than a combination of sociology and religious history, but I will not accuse him of teaching it altogether in that sense, for I really have no idea how he taught it.

Under the inspiration of the environment, I went to a Lutheran church and sat through a long sermon in German which I did not understand.  But I think that was all the worship of God I did in Strasbourg.  I was more interested in Josephine Baker, a big skinny colored girl from some American city like St. Louis, who came to one of the theaters and sang Fai deux amours, mon pays et Paris.

So I went back to school, after seeing Father for a moment on the way through London.  I had been back for barely a week when I was summoned, one morning, to the Headmaster's study, and he gave me a telegram which said that Father was dead.

Merton, being a teenage boy, is too self-absorbed in his own life to be really attentive to his father's declining health.  For Merton, it's all about being in a new place, surrounded by German and French speakers, and being exposed to new ideas and experiences.  Unitarianism.  Lutheran worship.  Josephine Baker.  Merton is too busy living while his father is dying.  And then the telegram arrives.

It's so easy to ignore suffering and death, especially when surrounded by all the stimulation of day-to-day existence.  Music.  Dance.  Sex.  Religion.  Learning.  Art.  And perhaps that's the point of this passage from The Seven-Storey Mountain:  if you don't pay attention, you will miss the truly important experiences--and you will be filled with regret.

I've noticed an alarming shift in the people I encounter every day.  Two months ago, everyone was wearing masks, staying six-feet apart, avoiding unnecessary trips to crowded places like stores and gas stations.  A person without a mask in public was suspect, flagrantly violating rules that were in place to suppress the spread of Covid-19.  Everyone was very aware of the suffering and death present in the world.

Now, people walk around with masks pulled down below their chins, exposing their noses and mouths.  That's if they wear masks at all.  Patrons congregate outside of bars, smoking cigarettes.  Beaches are crowded.  Restaurants are open.  Churches are filled with singing parishioners.  It's as if there's some kind of collective amnesia taking place.  Covid-19 has faded into memory, replaced by the urge to "return to normal."  Or people are simply being willfully ignorant.

Yet, in the United States, 23 of the 50 states are experiencing a rise in coronavirus cases.  That's nearly half of the country.  The health of the nation is taking a backseat to the economy of the nation.  And I understand that need.  Small businesses are hurting.  Unemployment is at historic levels.  Yet, citizens are still getting sick and dying.  It truly is a "The Lady, or the Tiger?" scenario. 

Most of you probably remember that short story by Frank R. Stockton from high school.  A young princess falls in love with a youth of lower standing.  Her father, the king, finds out about the relationship and has the youth arrested.  The king sets up a public trial for the youth.  The youth is placed in an arena containing two doors.  Behind one door is a beautiful maiden.  Behind the other is a hungry, ferocious tiger.  If the youth chooses the door with the maiden, he is set free and marries the maiden.  If he chooses the door with the tiger, he is devoured by the tiger.  Before the trial, the king's daughter finds out what is behind each of the doors.  She has the power to save her love from death, but then she must also lose him forever to another woman.  The princess also finds out that the woman behind the door is a rival for her love's affections.  At the conclusion of the story, the youth stands before the two doors and looks up at the princess.  The princess discretely indicates the door on the right, and the youth opens the door.  However, we never find out what is behind the door.  Stockton simply ends:  "And so I leave it with all of you:  Which came out of the opened door--the lady, or the tiger?"

That is where we are right now--choosing between the lady or the tiger.  Both options are equally problematic.  Most people in the Upper Peninsula have been untouched by Covid in any way.  It's some distant, below-the-bridge issue.  I've actually heard a person comment that "it's a Detroit problem."  (I won't even get into the inherent racism of that observation.)  I guess, until Covid becomes something personal, it remains the lady (or tiger) behind the door.

I wrote last night of the death of my uncle, a decent and loving man.  He didn't die of the virus.  Yet, because of the virus, there will be no funeral.  Instead, a memorial service is going to be held at a later time, "after this Covid shit is done," as my sister said.  A difficult moment made even more so because of the pandemic.  Mourning and saying goodbye postponed indefinitely.

Covid-19 and its accompanying issues are complicated.  Lots of doors to contemplate opening.  For me, the choice is to wear a mask, socially distance, avoid crowded events and places.  Is that the lady?  Or the tiger?  I'm not sure.  Only time will provide the answer to that question.

Tonight, Saint Marty is thankful for this simple miracle:  a cool pillow and a good night's sleep.  No tiger.  No virus.  No door.  Just rest.

Monday, June 15, 2020

June 15: Beards and Great Halos, My Uncle, "Something Better"

Thomas Merton on his father's suffering . . .

All summer we went regularly and faithfully to the hospital once or twice a week.  There was nothing we could do but sit there, and look at Father and tell him things which he could not answer.  But he understood what we said.

In fact, if he could not talk, there were other things he could still do.  One day I found his bed covered with little sheets of blue note-paper on which he had been drawing.  And the drawings were real drawings.  But they were unlike anything he had ever done before--pictures of little, irate Byzantine-looking saints with beards and great halos.

Of us all, Father was the only one who really had any kind of a faith.  And I do not doubt that he had very much of it, and that behind the walls of his isolation, his intelligence and his will, unimpaired, and not hampered in any essential way by the partial obstruction of some of his senses, were turned to God, and communed with God Who was with him and in him, and Who gave him, as I believe, light to understand and to make use of his suffering for his own good, and to perfect his soul.  It was a great soul, large, full of natural charity.  He was a man of exceptional intellectual honesty and sincerity and purity of understanding.  And this affliction, this terrible and frightening illness which was relentlessly pressing him down even into the jaws of the tomb, was not destroying him after all.

Souls are like athletes, that need opponents worthy of them, if they are to be tried and extended and pushed to the full use of their powers, and rewarded according to their capacity.  And my father was in a fight with his tumor, and none of us understood the battle.  We thought he was done for, but it was making him great.  And I think God was already weighing out to him the weight of reality that was to be his reward, for he certainly believed far more than any theologians would require of a man to hold explicitly as "necessity of means" and so he was eligible for this reward, and his struggle was authentic, and not wasted or lost or thrown away.

I truly believe, as Thomas Merton does, that affliction and suffering strip away everything extraneous, leaving a person's true self shining through.  If a person is sick of heart or soul, that sickness will become amplified and darker.  If a person shines with light and joy, that light and joy will become blinding. 

This morning, when I got up to get ready for work around 5 a.m., I checked my phone for messages, as I do every day.  There was a voicemail from my sister.  She had called around 1:30 a.m.  I have to admit that I was filled with a little dread.  Messages left in early morning hours never contain good news.  Good news can wait for the light of day.  Bad news comes in the shadows of night.

It was about my uncle.  My dad's youngest sibling.  A tall, quiet man whose voice was a deep, low rumble.  I never saw him open his mouth in anger.  When he spoke, it was always to express kindness and love.  And he had a spark in his eye, as if he was always on the verge of telling a joke.  He was, simply, one of the best men I've ever known in my life.

And he was an artist.  Later in his life, he began to paint oil landscapes.  Self-taught, he would work in his basement studio, creating emerald skies and mustard forests.  He never sold any of his paintings.  Instead, he gave them away as gifts.  My wife and I received one on our wedding day.  A seascape of purple, with a crashing wave.  Art, for him, wasn't about making money.  It was about filling the world with more beauty and more love.

My uncle and my aunt would make a pilgrimage to the Upper Peninsula every year, usually in the fall.  They would rent a cabin on a lake sometimes, and my uncle would bring his paints and canvases.  And their visits were filled with laughter and, for me, nostalgia, remembering Christmases and backyard barbecues from my childhood. 

A couple years ago, my uncle suffered a stroke.  He ended up in a nursing home for rehabilitation, and then he was able to return home.  But I never saw him after his stroke.  I know he struggled.  Yet, I have no doubt that he still had that spark in his eye, that untold joke sitting in his mind.  I don't know if he was able to paint or sketch, but I'm sure that he still filled the world with beauty.

My uncle passed away last night or early this morning.  Peacefully.  Surrounded by people who loved him.

And tonight, Saint Marty gives thanks for the miracle of his uncle's life.

I shared the poem below on Memorial Day this year.   I'm sharing it again tonight, because it is rooted in my uncle's spirit . . .

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, June 14, 2020

June 14: So Much Suffering, Difficult Weekend, Walt Whitman

Thomas Merton on suffering . . .

What could I make of so much suffering?  There was no way for me, or for anyone else in the family, to get anything out of it.  It was a raw wound for which there was no adequate relief.  You had to take it, like an animal.  We were in the condition of most of the world, the condition of men without faith in the presence of war, disease, pain, starvation, suffering, plague, bombardment, death.  You just had to take it, like a dumb animal.  Try to avoid it, if you could.  But you must eventually reach the point where you can't avoid it any more.  Take it.  Try to stupefy yourself, if you like, so that it won't hurt so much.  But you will always have to take some of it.  And it will all devour you in the end.

Indeed, the truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt.  The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most:  and his suffering comes to him from things so little and trivial that one can say that it is no longer objective at all.  It is his own existence, his own being, that is at once the subject and source of his pain, and his very existence and consciousness is his greatest torture.  This is another of the great perversions by which the devil uses our philosophies to turn our whole nature inside out, and eviscerate all our capacities for good, turning them against ourselves.

Yes, Merton hits it right on the head:  there is no way to avoid suffering.  Ignore that thing (or things) that causes you pain, and you will simply experience more pain.  Little things that nag at you, build up, and, eventually, eviscerate your capacity for any happiness.

Pretty heady stuff to start the week off with.  This weekend, however, has sort of forced me to confront some stuff in my life that I really didn't want to confront.  Stuff that's been simmering on the back burner and sort of boiled over last night.  I spent most of last night cleaning up the emotional mess it made on my stove.

Tomorrow is a new day, with new possibilities.  New chances for joy.  New chances for pain.  That's what living is all about, I guess.  You can't have one without the other.  They're opposite sides of the same coin.  (Sorry, I'm tired and can't think of a more original analogy.)  As Queen Elizabeth II said, "Grief is the price we pay for love."  If you open yourself up to loving someone, you open yourself up to the pain of losing them, as well.

So, you have a choice to make then.  Either you accept the cost of love, and therefore accept the pain of loss.  Or you avoid the possibility of love, and thereby avoid the possibility of pain.  Both options are valid for their own reasons.  I guess, for myself, I will always side with love, and all the tears and suffering that go along with it.  I would rather have the chance of experiencing joy than live the rest of my life with regrets.

None of what I have just said is deeply earth-shattering.  Philosophers and theologians have been writing and talking about this subject for centuries.  Tonight, however, I am making a declaration:  I will always choose love, and all the shit that accompanies it. 

I taught a virtual poetry workshop this evening.  A celebration of Walt Whitman's life and work.  It was all about embracing the universe and everything in it--good, bad, beautiful, ugly, and all that exists in between.  That includes pain and suffering.  Grief.  It was a perfect way to end this difficult weekend.  A embrace of life, as only Whitman can embrace it.  I was able to laugh and feel things, difficult things, deeply.  It was a miracle.

And for that, Saint Marty gives thanks.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

June 12-13: Pressure Cooker, Putting Out Fires, Poem from "Kyrie"

Sometimes people are determined to do things that will harm them, and nothing will change the course of their actions or lives.  Mental illness does this.  So does addiction.  I can attest to that fact.

It seems as though this pandemic has become a pressure cooker for a lot of the things that are wrong in the world.  Everything seems to be boiling over.  Racism.  Xenophobia.  Homophobia.  On home fronts, unstable families become more unstable.  There's the impulse to look away until all the fires go out.  That doesn't really solve anything.  It's simply an act of willful ignorance, ignoring a problem until it goes back into hiding or is a pile of ashes.

But problems don't disappear.  (Warning:  I'm about to mix metaphors here.)  Problems fester, and every once in a while they break open and all the sickness pours out.  That's what's happened with George Floyd and all the unrest that has followed his murder.  On a personal level, I've been dealing with some difficulties this past year or so that seem unending.  Just when I think the fire is under control, it flares up again.  (Sort of like the pandemic.  Everyone seems to be acting like it's disappeared.  It hasn't.  Second wave, on it's way.  Keep your masks handy, folks.)

I've had two people this evening who've been helping me stamp out a particular conflagration.  One of these people is a devout Christian.  The other is an atheist.  The atheist said this to me:  "As an atheist, I gotta say that deeply knowing how alone one is in the universe is a strong motivation for change."  The Christian told me this:  " . . . you believe in a Creator that is bigger than anxiety and depression and addiction.  He is bigger than all of us.  He is merciful and mighty and loves you . . . I pray that you think on those words as you lay trying to quiet your mind.  And know that your God loves you."

I find both of those statements strangely comforting, coming at the universe from two completely opposite points of view.  I am alone.  God is with me.  I am in charge of my own destiny.  God has a plan for me.  Don't be afraid of change.  God has your back.  In the end, both of these people were telling me the same thing:  fear not.

I went for a long walk this evening.  It was typical mid-June weather for the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  Warm.  Sunny.  Bugs eating me alive.  Yet, I still was able to appreciate the blue heavens.  Blue forget-me-nots growing along the path.  And blue-tailed damselflies buzzing in the lilac bushes. 

For those blue miracles, Saint Marty gives thanks tonight.

. . . and a poem about second waves:

poem from Kyrie

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt

Home a week, he woke thinking
he was back in France, under fire;
then thought the house on fire, the noise and light,
but that was from the fireworks and the torches
and on the square, a bonfire--everyone,
in nightclothes, emptied from their houses,
drawn toward a false dawn as from a cave--

oh there was dancing in the streets all right,
and singing--"Over There," "Yankee Doodle,"
"Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory," I recall,
and "Camptown Races," who knows why--he plunged
into the crowd, tossed his crutch to the flames,
kissed delirious strangers on each side.

Say he lived through one war but not the other.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

June 10-11: Sorrow and Affection, Rainbow, Two Best Friends

Merton visits his dying father . . .

It was the summer of 1930, before most of these things had happened.  I mean, the summer when Pop had made over to me the portion of my inheritance and threw open the door for me to run away and be a prodigal, or be a prodigal without running away from any earthly home, for that matter.  I could very well eat the husks of swine without the inconvenience of going into a far country to look for them.

Most of that summer we were all together in London.  The reason was, that we could be near the hospital and visit Father.  I remember the first of those visits.

It was several months since I had been in London, and then only in passing, so I had really hardly seen Father at all since he had entered the hospital the autumn before.

So all of us went to the hospital.  Father was in a ward.  We had arrived much too early, and had to wait.  We were in a new wing of the big hospital.  The floor was shiny and clean.  Vaguely depressed by the smell of sickness and disinfectant and the general medical smell that all hospitals have, we sat in a corridor downstairs for upwards of half an hour.  I had just bought Hugo's Italian Self-Taught, and began to teach myself some verbs, sitting there in the hall, with John Paul restive on the bench beside me.  And the time dragged.

Finally the clock  we had been watching got around to the appropriate hour; we went up in an elevator.  They all knew where the ward was--it was a different ward.  I think they had changed his ward two or three times.  And he had had more than one operation.  But none of them had been successful.

We went into the ward.  Father was in bed, to the left, just as you went in the door.

And when I saw him, I knew at once there was no hope of his living much longer.  His face was swollen.  He eyes were not clear but, above all, the tumor had raised a tremendous swelling on his forehead.

I said, "How are you, Father?"

He looked at me and put forth his hand, in a confused and unhappy way, and I realized that he could no longer even speak.  But at the same time, you could see that he knew us, and knew what was going on, and that his mind was clear, and that he understood everything.

But the sorrow of his great helplessness suddenly fell upon me like a mountain.  I was crushed by it.  The tears sprang to my eyes.  Nobody said anything more.

I hid my face in the blanket and cried.  And poor Father wept, too.  The others stood by.  It was excruciatingly sad.  We were completely helpless.  There was nothing anyone could do.

When I finally looked up and dried my tears, I noticed that the attendants had put screens all around the bed.  I was too miserable to feel ashamed of my un-English demonstration of sorrow and affection.  And so we went away.

This particular passage from The Seven-Storey Mountain moves me deeply.  I'm not sure if it's the image of the teenage Merton crying at the bed of his dying father. or if it's the image of Merton's father reaching out to Merton, unable to say what is on his confused mind.   One last "I love you" or "I'm sorry to leave you" or "Pray for me."  This passage just undoes me.  Leaves me swaying and unrooted--a lilac bush in a tornado.

I have two best friends who have been/are being touched by loss during this pandemic time.  The first recently lost her beloved sister just last week to cancer.  As deaths go, my friend's sister's transition was peaceful and healing.  My friend was able to affirm her love, read poetry to her, and say goodbye.  My other friend has a father who was recently placed in hospice care.  This friend is a Methodist pastor and understands better than most the process of loss, death, grief, and salvation.  He's been through it hundreds of times with families.  Yet, watching your own parent slip away is different.  It makes you a child again, feeling as if the anchor chain holding you in place has snapped.  You are adrift in a sea without shores.

Last night, I was cleaning at church with my wife.  It was late, around 9:30 when we finished.  We stepped outside.  Above us, a rainbow stretched from one end of the sky to the other, as if the heavens were wrapped in tissue paper, waiting to be torn open on Christmas morning.  It stunned me into silence as I thought of my two friends, one on one side of grief, one on the other, connected by this ribbon of color.  Red.  Orange.  Yellow.  Green.  Blue.  Indigo.  Violet.  The visible spectrum.

There are so many hues we don't see in a rainbow.  Turquoise.  Sage.  Rose.  Mustard.  In actuality, there are over a million colors present in any rainbow.  We just can't see them with the naked eye.  Think of that.  How limited human vision is.  Its boundaries are tiny.  In the vast ocean of the universe, we see only a tiny seedpod floating in the waves.  That's it.

It's only things like birth, love, sex, and death that give us a tiny glimpse of the eternal.  Allow us to see the wider picture.  Suddenly, we go from a Polaroid to CinemaScope.  These moments crack us open and allow sun and darkness to pour in.  We become living rainbows, full of every human emotion that's existed since the time Homo habilis roamed the African savannas and onward.

One of my friends has already been cracked open by loss.  The other is in the process of being cracked open.  They will both blossom into something bigger, newer.  Like a time lapse of a seed sprouting.  Maybe into trillium.  Or bee balm.  Or a rainbow stretching across a June dusk.  Grief is rough, equal parts loss and relief, incredible sorrow and incredible beauty.

Grief is mystery and miracle.  A prism of what eternity holds.  Amber and gold.  Honey and carnation.  Vermilion and fandango.

Both of my friends are embracing that rainbow.

And for that, Saint Marty gives thanks.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

June 8-9: Wile E. Coyote, Vaccines, Poem from "Kyrie"

I think there's going to be a lot written about this time of pandemic, of racial revolution.  Some of it will be good, lasting.  Most of it will probably be forgotten a couple generations from now, when the idea of the whole world just staying home seems impossible.

I don't know what kind of lessons will arise from this moment of Covid-19 and George Floyd, when everything seems on the brink of total collapse or total resurrection.  We seem to be precariously balanced between these two extremes, like Wile E. Coyote suspended in mid-air just before gravity takes over.

Yes, the virus afflicting humankind right now seems arbitrary, skipping over one person and choosing another.  And yet, the African American community has been effected more catastrophically, because of capitalism and a social class system that is designed to keep poor people poor and rich people rich.

Yesterday, I did the Bob Barker thing for my puppy.  Took her to the vet to get spayed.  She is home, resting, spaced out on the lingering effects of anesthesia and half a pain pill.  I just went to check on her.  She was nestled in my daughter's arms, paw on her chest, quietly staring up into my daughter's face.

My puppy will recover in a few days.  Be back to her normal self in a week or so.  This cocoon we've all been living in has provided me with moments like this one--reflecting on how precious each life is, from the smallest to the largest.  The stories of loss in the last few months have been plentiful--a harvest of grief.  100,000 dead and counting.  Couple that with George Floyd and the protests (a few violent, most peaceful)  that his murder has generated, and the festering wound of over 400 years of endemic racism that has been dragged out into the streets of the United States and displayed for all the world to see.

The story of this time is far from over.  The lessons are still being learned.  I truly believe that hatred and violence are never part of any solution.  Hatred and violence and willful ignorance are what got us to this point in history.  Eventually, there will be a vaccine for Covid-19.  A treatment.  And it will be love, as Martin Luther King, Jr., said, that is the treatment for institutional racism.

We've all been cocooning from racism for a very long while.  Over 400 years, to be exact.  The vaccine is available, and everyone needs to get it.  We all have this virus, whether we're symptomatic or asymptomatic.  The sooner we admit this, the sooner we can start to heal.

Healing is a miracle, sometimes painful and difficult, but always beautiful.

And Saint Marty gives thanks for that.

poem from Kyrie

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt

The bride is in the parlor, dear confection.
Down on his knee at the edge of all that white,
her father puts a penny in her shoe.

Under the stiff organza and the sash,
the first cell of her first child slips
into the chamber with a little click.

The family next door was never struck
but we lost three--was that God's will?  And which
were chosen for its purpose, us or them?

The Gospel says there is no us and them.
Science says there is no moral lesson.
The photo album says, who are these people?

After the paw withdraws, the world
hums again, making its golden honey.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

June 6-7: Miracle of New Poem, Vermeer, "That Girl with Pearl Earring, after Vermeer"

I have a poem for tonight.  It's new, something I wrote this past week, during a poetry workshop I led.

It's late now, and I have to work early tomorrow morning.  My daughter is in the shower, and my son just went to bed.  I'm waiting for my turn in the bathroom, to take care of my nightly ablutions.  It has been a good weekend, too short and too cold.

I am ready for a good night's sleep.

Saint Marty gives thanks this evening for the miracle of a new poem.

That Girl with Pearl Earring, after Vermeer

by:  Martin Achatz

That girl, with that piece of sea in her lobe, went out my front door just a few minutes ago with that boy she's been with these last three years.  And that girl was wearing that lapis lazuli headband, gave that boy that look, the one Vermeer captured in that painting.  That look, so unreadable, that could say, "Yes, I love you, and will let you touch me later," or, "You have no idea who I am, and you never will."  That boy will do anything for that look as he carries the fishing poles, tackle box out the door behind her, and that girl laughs that laugh and calls to him, says, "Don't forget that bug spray."  And that boy will look at that girl and, even though he has never heard of or seen that painting, he will understand it like no one else ever has.  He will imagine spraying her with the scent of evergreen from that can, to keep the mosquitoes from eating her alive.  To keep every last morsel of that girl's flesh for himself.