Friday, July 31, 2020

July 31: The Marrow of Your Own Life, Black Plague Jeopardy, Aloha Ice

Merton has some really serious dental problems . . .

And I sat back in the chair, mute with misgivings, while he happily trotted over to his tool-box singing "It won't be a stylish marriage" and pulled out an ugly-looking forceps.

"All ready?" he said, jacking back the chair, and brandishing the instrument of torture.  I nodded, feeling as if I had gone pale to the roots of my hair.

But the tooth came out fast, in one big, vivid flash of pain and left me spitting a lot of green and red business into that little blue whispering whirlpool by the side of the dentist's chair.

"Oh, goodness," said Dr. McTaggart, "I don't like that very much, I must say."

I walked wearily back to school, reflecting that it was not really so terrible after all to have a tooth pulled out without novocain.  However, instead of getting better, I got worse.  By evening, I was really ill, and that night--that sleepless night--was spent in a fog of sick confusedness and general pain.  The next morning they took my temperature and put me to bed in the sick-room, where I eventually got to sleep.

That did not make me any better.  And I soon gathered in a vague way that our matron, Miss Harrison, was worried about me, and communicated her worries to the Headmaster, in whose own house this particular sick-room was.

Then the in-school doctor came around.  And he went away again, returning with Dr. McTaggart who, this time, did not sing.

And I heard them agreeing that I was getting to be too full of gangrene for my own good.  They decided to lance a big hole in my gum, and see if they could not drain the pocket of infection there and so, having given me a little ether, they went ahead.  I awoke with my mouth full of filth, both doctors urging me to hurry up and get rid of it.

When they had gone, I lay back in bed and closed my eyes and thought, "I have blood-poisoning."

And then my mind went back to the sore foot I had developed in Germany.  Well, I would tell them about it when they came back the next time.

Sick, weary, half-asleep, I felt the throbbing of the wound in my mouth.  Blood poisoning.

The room was very quiet.  It was rather dark, too.  And as I lay in bed, in my weariness and pain and disgust, I felt for a moment the shadow of another visitor pass into the room.

It was death, that came to stand by my bed.

I kept my eyes closed, more out of apathy than anything else.  But anyway, there was no need to open one's eyes to see the visitor, to see death.  Death is someone you see very clearly with eyes in the center of your heart:  eyes that see not by reacting to light, but by reacting to a kind of a chill from within the marrow of your own life.

And, with those eyes, those interior eyes, open upon that coldness, I lay half asleep and looked at the visitor, death.

What did I think?  All I remember was that I was filled with a deep and tremendous apathy.  I felt so sick and disgusted that I did not very much care whether I died or lived.  Perhaps death did not come very close to me, or give me a good look at the nearness of his coldness and darkness, or I would have been more afraid.

But at any rate, I lay there in a kind of torpor and said, "Come on, I don't care."  Then I fell asleep.

A common belief says that, when you're experiencing death or near death, your life flashes before your eyes.  I'm not sure if that is true or not.  The closest I've ever come to shuffling off this mortal coil was when I was about 13 years old and ended up in a diabetic ketoacidosis coma in the hospital.  I fell asleep on the couch in my family's living room with what I thought was the flu and woke up in intensive care, with a whole lot of people around me, looking grim and hopeless.  When I opened my eyes, they started firing questions at me like "What's your name?" and "What day of the week is it?" and "Do you know where you are?" and "Can you count to five?"  I felt like I was on some weird TV quiz show called Black Plague Jeopardy

My life didn't pass before my eyes.  At least, I don't remember it passing before my eyes.  All I remember is being really tired.  And wanting a glass of chocolate milk.  That's it. 

This evening, however, after work, I think I had a near death experience. 

When my wife and I were on our honeymoon in Hawaii, a friend took us to a little place called Waiola Shave Ice in Waikiki.  There, for the first time in my life, I partook in traditional Hawaiian shave ice.  I don't remember the flavor I had, but I know it was tropical and sweet and revelatory.  I had never had anything like it. When I've thought about our honeymoon over the years, I always return to that moment.  (My memories of trips and vacations are usually centered on food.)

Now, a new business has literally popped up in the city where I work.  Run by a family from Oahu, it's called Aloha Ice, and it sells traditional Hawaiian shave ice.  When my wife and I went there today, we stood in line for about ten minutes, and then bought a couple medium shave ices.  I chose dragon fruit.  My wife got lychee.  Each were as big as a baby's head, and they brought me back to that afternoon in Waikiki.  Palm trees.  Heat.  The Pacific Ocean only a mile or so away.  And my wife and I newly married and ravenous for each other.

My life passed before my eyes in one miraculous spoonful after another, right down to the ice cream at the bottom of the dish.  It was delicious with nostalgia for a simpler, happier time in my life.

And for that, Saint Marty gives thanks.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

July 30: Poem from "Kyrie," My Friend's Nephew, Love and Joy

Poem from Kyrie

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt

I had other children, and they've all
had children too, I know I am
the luckiest of men--my wife, my sons--
but the tongue goes to where the tooth had been.

He was our first.  The War, he said,
was the one important story of his time,
a crucible.
                   Right after he got sick
they quarantined the post, we were on our way
to nurse him through--
                                        our brightest boy
who used to ride his horse the length of the trestle,
across the steep ravine of Cherrystone,
he had such faith in the horse, in himself--

we stayed at a little inn, they gave us Tea,
served the English way, with clotted cream.


Some days leave me without words.  This is one of them.

A family I know is grieving the unexpected loss of a beloved someone.  The nephew of one of my best friends.  He was, literally, the brightest boy, and he imparted that brightness to everyone lucky enough to be in his orbit.  Born with cerebral palsy, he was sustained his whole life by love, and, in turn, love and joy were his primary methods of communication.

And what happens when a bright star collapses?  Its gravity pulls all the surrounding light into the black hole of its absence.  The universe keeps pressing its tongue to the place where the star was and finds a vacuum.  Then, the heavens must realign, planets shift, celestial bodies reorganize.  It takes millennia before patterns reemerge and equilibrium returns.

I just returned from a long walk with my puppy.  We went down streets, up hills, by a lake.  The sky was vibrant blue.  The new moon was clear and bright in the heavens, and it followed us everywhere, as if it was trying to say something.  I finally stopped and looked at it for a very long time.

The sun was setting.  Darkness leeching into the horizon.  And the moon was standing there, in defiance of the coming night.  Bold and unafraid.  And I got it.  I understood what it was trying to whisper in my ear.  All that love and joy that my friend's nephew imparted to this existence will never be dimmed.  It will go on and on, forever.

In mythology, great heroes and heroines, at the end of their lives, don't fade away.  They are raised up, set among the stars.  They become constellations, watching over us.  Guardian angels of light.

That's where my friend's nephew is tonight, skating across the clotted cream of the galaxies.  Smiling, as always.  Reminding us all of the language of love.

And for that miracle, Saint Marty gives thanks tonight.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

July 28-29: A Bicycle Built for Two, Blissed Out, Hopes and Dreams

Thomas Merton has some problems with his teeth . . .

They sent me down to the school dentist, Dr. McTaggart, who lived in a big brick building like a barracks, on the way to the station.  Dr. McTaggart was a lively little fellow.  He knew me well., for I was always having trouble with my teeth.  He had a theory that you should kill the nerves of teeth, and he had already done so to half a dozen of mine.  For the rest, he would trot gaily around and around the big chair in which I sat, mute and half frozen with terror.  And he would sing, as he quickly switched his drills.  "It won't be a stylish marriage--  We can't afford a carriage--  But you'll look sweet--  Upon the seat--  Of a bicycle built for two."  Then he would start wrecking my teeth once again with renewed gusto.

This time he tapped at the tooth, and looked serious.

"It will have to come out," he said.

I was not sorry.  The thing was hurting me, and I wanted to get rid of it as soon as possible.

But Dr. McTaggart said, "I can't give you anything to deaden the pain, you know."

"Why not?"

"There is a great deal of infection, and the matter has spread far beyond the roots of the tooth."

I accepted his reasoning on trust and said, "Well, go ahead."

This little passage reminds me of a scene from the film Little Shop of Horrors (the original film or the musical), where a sadistic dentist treats a masochistic patient.  In the original film, Jack Nicholson played the patient.  In the musical, it was Bill Murray, and the dentist was played by Steve Martin.  So, imagine, if you will, the young Thomas Merton in this passage played by Jack Nicholson, sitting in the dentist chair, eagerly waiting to be tortured by Dr. McTaggart/Steve Martin.  That is the image I have in my mind.

In some ways, a person can become used to pain, especially if it's consistent and constant.  That's why abused partners stay with their abusers.  It's easier to deal with a pain you know, rather than something unknown.  Facing the unknown is a frightening prospect, even if it means stepping away from some place, thing, person, job, habit, or addiction that is destructive.  So, instead, you choose to sit in the dentist chair and let him remove your teeth, one-by-one, because you know it, are used to it.

I just got back from taking my puppy for a walk around the neighborhood in my pajamas and flip flops.  I had my iPhone with me, with an app open to help me identify all the planets and stars and constellations.  The app plays this celestial, New Age music that is designed to lower blood pressures and make you feel one with the universe.

I needed that walk, that music, those celestial bodies tonight.  To help me put my life into perspective.  Take inventory of stuff that makes me feel good and stuff that causes me pain.  I need to do this every once in a while, because I tend to lose sight of all the grace in my life,  Instead, I focus on the toothache, if you get what I mean.  That dull throb that stays with me all day long.

So, here I am, back home and blissed out.  I saw a shooting star.  Startled a rabbit.  Smelled the smoke of a backyard campfire.  It was sweet and made me think of hot dogs and marshmallows.  I heard low voices, laughing.  A family sitting around that fire, telling stories, letting them drift upward like sparks into the chimney of night.  It made me feel like I was ten years old again, all my hopes and dreams playing hide-and-go-seek with me in the dark.

Yes, there are toothaches in my life right now.  A lot of them.  But there are miracles, too.  A lot of them.  

Saint Marty just needs to put on his flip flops and go looking for them.

Monday, July 27, 2020

July 27: Poem from "Kyrie," Clarence the Angel, Miracle Stroll,

Poem from Kyrie

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt

Around the house uneasy stillness falls.
The dog stiffens the ruff at her ears,
stands, looks to the backdoor, looks to the stairwell,
licks her master's shoe.  What she hears

must be a pitch high on the Orphic scale,
a light disturbance in the air,
like flicks of an insect's wings or a reed's whistle
distant and brief:  he barely stirs.

Out in the kitchen something seems to settle--
cloth on a dish, dust on a chair?
The animal whimpers now but doesn't growl:
this absence has a smell.
                                              Poor master,
it's touched him too, that shift in molecules,
but all he feels is more of what's not there.


This poem really is all about absence, felt by a dog and house and person.  As Clarence the angel in It's A Wonderful Life observes, "Strange, isn't it?  Each man's life touches so many other lives.  When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?"

Today, I went for a walk.  Not my normal walk around the town where I grew up.  I walked around the city where I work and teach.  I explored streets and avenues, took pictures of old buildings, and watched a caterpillar crawl along a wall.  I did this because my wife was working late, and I had a telephone therapy session.  So I was walking, talking, avoiding crowds, and sharing some very difficult subjects about my life.

By the end of the session, I'd walked about four miles, and was emotionally exhausted.  Among other things, I was thinking about Clarence's comment.  I think everyone has probably contemplated what the world would be like without them in it.  Questioned what they've really contributed to the universe.  It's only natural to contemplate this question occasionally.  I thought a lot about it this evening.  What kind of hole I would leave.

I didn't really come up with an answer to that question on my walk.  But I was gob-smacked by a lot of gorgeous architecture (mostly churches) and wonders of nature.  When confronted by so much beauty, it makes you feel connected when you've been feeling disconnected.  Like somehow you are a part of something really huge and important, instead of being small and insignificant.  That saved me tonight.  It was a miracle stroll.

And for that, Saint Marty gives thanks.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

July 26: Poem from "Kyrie," History Repeating Itself, 150000 Dead and Counting

Poem from Kyrie

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt

Maybe the soul is breath.  The door shut,
the doctor, needed elsewhere, on his rounds,
the bereaved withdrawn, preoccupied with grief,
I pack each orifice with hemp, or gauze,
arrange the limbs, wash the flesh--at least
a last brief human attention,
                                              not like
those weeks the train brought in big wicker
baskets we had to empty and return,
bodies often so blue we couldn't tell
who was Colored, who was White, which
holy or civil ground to send them to,
plots laid out by dates instead of names. . . .

Have you ever heard a dead man sigh?
A privilege, that conversation.


A bleak poem about a bleak moment in human history.  The dead piling up, mass graves, human beings reduced to dates on a calendar.  The Spanish flu epidemic of 1918.

It seems so distant, and not so distant. 

Tonight's post will not be a rant about the crowded beaches this weekend in the Upper Peninsula.  Or all the people I saw in Walmart with their masks around their chins like feedbags.  Or a government more concerned about money than health.  Or healthcare professionals--doctors, nurses, medical assistants--politicizing something as basic to infection control as masks and hand washing. 

Nope.  I'm not going to write about any of those things.  That is simply history repeating itself.  If you don't believe me, check it out.  In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson encouraged people not to wear masks, to gather in large crowds to celebrate the ending of World War I.  And people in the United States went around ranting about their Constitutional rights being violated because they were forced to wear masks.  And there were Spanish flu deniers.  And politicians claiming that the flu was simply going to vanish miraculously.

We have been here before, a century ago.  And we didn't learn one goddamn thing.

So, this post is about the dead.  150,000 and counting.  Mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters.  I don't want to hear about the inaccuracy of the CDC reports.  I won't listen to arguments about the efficacy of mask-wearing.  Don't tell me that shutting things down again would destroy the economy.

150,000 and counting.

Put your politics aside.  Stop thinking about red states and blue states.  Start thinking about that number.

150,000 and counting.

Are you willing to hear all those dead men and women sighing?  Do you want that privilege?  That conversation?

Saint Marty doesn't.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

July 25: Poem from "Kyrie," Hopes for 2020, Prayer Time

Poem from Kyrie

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt

To claim the War alone changed everything
can't be entirely right, too few of us
went over there.
                          My mother used to phone--
the telephone was new, electric lights,
cars among the horses on the street--
my mother every morning when we woke
rang around to see who else had died.
She and Uncle Henry had a faith
deaf as well as blind, but most of us,
the orphans and the watchers and the stung--

at recess there was a favorite game:  the chosen
died, in fits and twitches, while the other
stood by to cross the arms on the chest--that angels
might get a better grip--and to weep.

I have been wondering what my kids will remember about this pandemic time.  What will they tell their children 20 or 30 years from now?  I imagine them dragging out boxes filled with the masks we wore--showing sons and daughters their favorite designs.  The mask they wore for the first day of school.  And the one they wore for Christmas day.  They'll show their kids pictures of people in cars lined up for Covid-19 tests.  Empty highways and parking lots during the shutdown.  And they'll tell their kids stories about the Covidiots who crowded beaches, refused to wear masks or socially distance, and got mad at people collecting unemployment benefits.  (A question:  why aren't these Covidiots mad at the millionaire politicians who refuse to provide hazard pay to essential workers?  That seems like a more legitimate anger, instead of blaming people who've lost their jobs.)

I had high hopes for 2020.  At the stroke of midnight on January 1st, at my New Year's Eve party, I truly thought that things couldn't get any worse than 2019, which was a pretty shitty year.  I was wrong.  Things got way worse.  Now, I know my son is going to struggle when school starts back up (in whatever form) in the fall.  My daughter is simply hoping that her professors have learned how to teach online better.  Me?  My goal is to make it to December 31, 2020, without catching Covid-19.  Being an insulin-dependent diabetic, with asthma, I am pretty sure contracting the coronavirus wouldn't end well for me.  I want to live long enough to tell my grandkids stories about this pandemic.

Of course, I have other hopes for the rest of this year.  Hopes that I don't want to name here.  Private hopes.  At every church service I've ever attended, there comes a moment when, during the prayer time, the pastor or priest will say something like, "And now we lift up silently those concerns that we hold in our hearts," followed by some seconds of quiet.  Usually, I find myself scrambling to name all the things packed onto the shelves of my heart.  Pains.  Hurts. Mistakes.  And hopes.  I open myself up, and let all those things flood through me.  It hurts a lot of the time.  And this year has magnified that hurt.

Tonight, at the end of this post, right now, take a moment with me.  Think about all that troubles you.  All that you give thanks for.  Hold these things close for a few moments.  Feel their heft.  Allow yourself to hurt.  To celebrate.  To hope.

Now, say this with Saint Marty:  "Lord, hear my prayer."  Have faith.  Expect miracles.

Friday, July 24, 2020

July 24: Metaphysicians in Hell, Substance, Free Will

Merton takes a walking tour in Germany with the philosopher Spinoza . . .

Fortunately, this was one of the matters in which I decided to ignore his advice.  Anyway, I went ahead and tried to read some philosophy by myself.  People who are immersed in sensual appetites and desires are not very well prepared to handle abstract ideas.  Even in the purely natural order, a certain amount of purity of heart is required before an intellect can get sufficiently detached and clear to work out the problems of metaphysics.  I say a certain amount, however, because I am sure that no one needs to be a saint to be a clever metaphysician.  I dare say there are plenty of metaphysicians in hell.

However, the philosophers to whom I was attracted were not the best.  For the most part, I used to take their books out of libraries, and return them without ever having opened them.  It was just as well.  Nevertheless during the Easter vacation, when I was seventeen, I earnestly and zealously set about trying to figure out Spinoza.

I had gone to Germany, by myself as usual, for the vacation.  In Cologne I had bought a big rucksack and slung it over my shoulders and started up the Rhine valley on foot, in a blue jersey and an old pair of flannel bags, so that people in the inns along the road asked me if I was a Dutch sailor off one of the river barges.  In the rucksack, which was already heavy enough, I had a couple of immoral novels and the Everyman Library edition of Spinoza.  Spinoza and the Rhine valley!  I certainly had a fine sense of appropriateness.  The two go very well together.  However, I was about eighty years too late.  And the only thing that was lacking was that I was not an English or American student at Heidelberg:  then the mixture would have been perfect in all its mid-nineteenth century ingredients.

I picked up more, on this journey, than a few intellectual errors, half understood.  Before I got to Koblenz, I had trouble in one foot.  Some kind of an infection seemed to be developing under one of the toenails.  But it was not especially painful, and I ignored it.  However, it made walking unpleasant, and so, after going on as far as St. Goar, I gave up in disgust.  Besides, the weather had turned bad, and I had got lost in the forest, trying to follow the imaginary biker's trail called the Rheinhohenweg.

I went back to Koblenz, and sat in a room over a big beer hall called the Neuer Franziskaner and continued my desultory study of Spinoza and my modern novelists.  Since I understood the latter much better than the philosopher, I soon gave him up and concentrated on the novels.

After a few days, I returned to England, passing through Paris, where Pop and Bonnemaman were.  There I picked up some more and even worse books, and went back to school.

I had not been back for more than a few days when I began to feel ill.  At first, I thought I was only out of sorts because of the sore foot and a bad toothache, which had suddenly begun to afflict me.  

Spinoza was considered one of the most radical atheist heretics of his time, although his ideas have always struck me as fully centered on a belief in God.  His metaphysics is made of one thing--"Substance"--which Spinoza called "God" or "Nature."  He saw the universe as simply two attributes (thought and extension) that are part of infinite divine attributes radiating from God.

Pretty heady stuff for 17-year-old Merton to get his brain around.  And, not surprisingly, he fails.  Thinking abstractly about God (or Nature or Substance) is no easy feat.  People spend lifetimes studying, writing, and arguing about subjects like this.  I, for one, took a long time in coming to any kind of understanding of Spinoza that makes sense to my views of spirituality and the natural world.

The idea of everything in the universe being an extension of God makes sense.  Spinoza's universe is all divinely interconnected, one thing affecting the other, with everything playing out in a pretty deterministic way.  All things occur exactly as planned.  Thus, free will doesn't play a big part in the unfolding of events.  (That is the part, I think, that really bugged the Catholic Church, which puts a lot of stock in human free will.)

I, for one, am not a big fan of free will.  It creates too many problems.  Note:  I didn't say that free will doesn't exist.  It does.  Spinoza and I part ways here.  Free will is that thing that lets people fuck up their lives in huge ways.  If free will didn't exist, then marriages wouldn't fail, addiction wouldn't destroy lives, and Donald Trump wouldn't be President of the United States.

Yet, I know people who find new and creative way to break themselves daily, and, in the process, leave a trail of broken hearts in their wakes.  I'm thinking of one person I know, in particular, tonight.  He has been making terrible choices for a couple years, and now he is on the brink of walking out on his kids and spouse.  Addiction is playing a huge part in this decision.  He knows he's an addict, and he just doesn't care.

If I were Spinoza, I would say that this is exactly the way things are supposed to play out.  Everything is working toward a specific end that is predetermined.  I'm not Spinoza.  I think that this person is being selfish, stupid, and arrogant.  In short, he's choosing to be an addict over everything else in his life.  And he is going to destroy the lives of everyone in his family.  Especially his young son.  Free will in action, folks.

Yet, where there is free will, there's always a chance for redemption.  This person could turn things around before driving his car off the cliff.  He could.  It's possible.  He's been at this point before in his life, a few times, and he's come back.  The question is whether his spouse and children will accept him, forgive him, take him back.  That'a big question.  Free will in action again.

So, you see why I'm not a big fan of free will.  It can be a curse.  Hiroshima leveling a city.  Or it can be a miracle.  Jesus Christ rising from the tomb.

Saint Marty is hoping for a resurrection, but preparing for an apocalypse.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

July 23: Near a Lake, How the Light Gets In, "After Judith Minty"

Went writing near a lake this evening with two of my best friends.  It was something my spirit needed, as I've found myself in a pretty dark place recently.

I wanted to share something that came out of our time together tonight.  It made me smile.  Ernest Hemingway once said, "We're all broken.  That's how the light gets in."

Saint Marty let a little light in tonight.  A tiny, bright miracle.

After Judith Minty

by:  Martin Achatz

for Helen and Gala

Two people.  Two poets.  Two friends.  Surrounded by the long sunlight of coming dusk.  By a lake.  Wind.  Water rucked like a slept-on bed.  Green everywhere.  Clover.  Birch leaves with palms waving.  And green sounds.  Happy kid screams.  The squeal of swing chains.

I watch these two people, two poets, two friends bent over notebooks, pens moving, creating something out of nothing on the winter of their paper.  Great looping somethings.  Smaller, lined somethings.  This July night, in this place, with these two, somethings that haven't drawn breath before will take form--skeleton, muscle, organ, skin, thought, emotion.

And what will that emotion be?  It will be something feathered, like Emily said.  Something purple, like Judith said.  It didn't exist yesterday, might not exist tomorrow.  But tonight, it sits in the branches of my ribs, beats against my lungs with its wings.

I will name it, even though I rarely allow myself that luxury.  I will open my mouth, and let it fly from between my lips.  To my friends, my poets, my people.  I will let it flit between us with its lilac-ness, violet-ness, grape-ness.

Listen.  Hear it.  It's there. 


Tuesday, July 21, 2020

July 21: Poem from "Kyrie," Price We Pay, Grief

Poem from Kyrie

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt

Once the world had had its fill of war,
in a secret wood, as the countryside lay stunned,
at the hour of the wolf and the vole, in a railroad car,
the generals met and put their weapons down.
Like spring it was, as word passed over all
the pocked and riven ground, and underground;
now the nations sat in a gilded hall,
dividing what they'd keep of what they'd won.

And so the armies could be done with war,
and soldiers trickled home to study peace.
But the old gardens grew a tough new weed,
and the old lives didn't fit as they had before,
and where there'd been the dream, a stranger's face,
and where there'd been the war, the empty sleeve.


It's difficult trying to fit old lives into new experiences.  You can't go off to war and then return home without being irrevocably changed.  You can't live through a pandemic and accept a hug without flinching just a little after being deprived of human contact for so long.  You can't suffer the death of anything--a loved one, a marriage, a pet, a friendship--without becoming a little unwilling to open your heart up again.  Nine days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, in Saint Thomas Cathedral in Manhattan, a telegram from Queen Elizabeth II was read.  In it, she said, "Grief is the price we pay for love."

I find myself tonight at one of those junctures between love and grief.  Sometimes, no matter how hard you try to avoid it, love can be snuffed out like a candle, and the resulting darkness settles on you like rain.  In that darkness, you start to build a wall around your heart.  Brick by brick.  Because you simply don't want to experience the pain of loss again.  It's the safe thing to do.  The human thing to do. 

It's raining tonight.  I can hear it tapping against my windows.  A deep, soaking rain.  Tomorrow morning, I'll wake to puddles, worms on the sidewalk, leaves studded with water.  And green everywhere. 

Because, no matter how high the wall, rain will come in the dark.  Something will grow.  To remind you of sunlight, and that you are loved.

And for that miracle, Marty, patron saint of bricks and mortar, gives thanks.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

July 19: "I Have a Dream," Some Dark and Some Light, "He Matters"

I led a virtual poetry workshop this evening with three amazing writers.  The theme of the workshop was "I Have a Dream," to commemorate the 57th anniversary of Martin Luther King's speech in Washington, D. C., this August 28.

It was all about hopes and dreams, some dark and some light. 

Here is something Saint Marty wrote, a little rough . . .

He Matters

by:  Martin Achatz

I haven't been able to watch.
That video.
That knee on that neck.
Can't listen to those words.
I can't breathe.
Later, one word.
A prayer.
I can't do any of those things.
Don't want to be a part of it.
I want to stand up.
Walk away.
Erase it.
it's my knee
on that neck.
My ears filled
with those words.
I can't breathe.
And, later,
I have been kneeling
like that my whole life.
It's time to rise,
lift that body
in my arms, hand him
to his mother,
not look down
or away
when she spits
in my face.
Not wipe that spit away.
Accept it
as penance,
Because she matters.
He matters.
Because he deserves
to open his mouth,
fill his lungs,
My name 

Saturday, July 18, 2020

July 18: An Infinite Being, Sugarloaf Mountain, Neowise

Thomas Merton, the 17-year-old philosopher . . .

Here in this study I edited the school magazine which had fallen into my hands that autumn, and read T. S. Eliot, and even tried to write a poem myself about Elpenor, in Homer, getting drunk and falling off the roof of a palace.  And his soul fled into the shades of hell.  And the rest of the time I played Duke Ellington's records or got into arguments about politics and religion.

All those vain and absurd arguments!  My advice to an ordinary religious man, supposing anyone were to desire my advice on this point, would be to avoid all arguments about religion, and especially about the existence of God.  However to those who know some philosophy I would recommend the study of Duns Scotus' proofs for the actual existence of an Infinite Being, which are given in the Second Distinction of the First Book of the Opus Oxoniense--in Latin that is hard enough to give you many headaches.  It is getting to be rather generally admitted that, for accuracy and depth and scope, this is the most perfect and complete and thorough proof for the existence of God that has ever been worked out by any man.

I doubt if it would have done much good to bring these considerations before me in those days, when I was turning seventeen, and thought I knew all about philosophy without ever having learned any.  However, I did have a desire to learn.  I was attracted to philosophy.  It was an attraction the Headmaster had worked hard to implant in our souls but there was, and could be, no course in philosophy at Oakham.  I was left to my own devices.

I remember once mentioning all this to Tom, my guardian.  We were walking out of his front door, into Harley Street, and I told him of my desire to study philosophy, and to know the philosophers.

He, being a doctor, told me to leave philosophy alone:  there were few things, he told me, that were a greater waste of time.

I, myself, have never taken an official course in philosophy, although, through my schooling, I have read Socrates and Plato and Aristotle and Kant and Descartes and Voltaire, among others.  And I will admit that I struggle with most philosophical reading.  Its density and abstraction hinder me.  I do much better with the concrete rather than the abstract in most cases.  I guess that's why I became a poet.  Big ideas and emotions grounded in image and metaphor.  For me, that's the best way to understand life.

Last night, I went comet chasing again.  This time, I enlisted my entire family in the endeavor.  My wife, son, daughter, and daughter's boyfriend joined me this time.  At around 11 p.m., we piled into my car and drove 35 minutes to the base of Sugarloaf Mountain, a popular tourist hiking spot with a fairly well-kept trail, including several flights of stairs to aid in ascent and descent.  We started climbing around 11:50 p.m.

On our way up, we could see the flashlights of other Neowise-seekers bobbing through the trees in front of us, some going up, some coming down.  One man, as he passed us, said, "You're in for quite a show."  Because of the dark, we took our time, not wanting to risk injury.  We could hear creatures in the dark, saw a deer standing several hundred yards away, staring at our strange parade, its eyes reflecting the beams of our torches, as the British call them.

When we finally reached the last flight of steps that led to the top of Sugarloaf, I could hear voices and see dark shapes moving above me.  In the daytime, when you reach the summit, you are rewarded with an unimpeded view of sky and water and forest.  Lake Superior stretches out to the horizon on one side, and lush green evergreen crawls to the horizon on the other.  It's a breathtaking sight.

Last night, however, as I stepped onto the top of the mountain, my head was pointed to the heavens.  I tried to orient myself, searching for the Big Dipper.  I knew that, once I located that constellation, I could easily find Neowise.  It took only a moment.  The sky was milky with stars, and there was the handle and pan of the Dipper.  I imagined a stream of water cascading from the pan in an arc (not hard to do with the sound of Superior's surf in the dark below).  At the base of that arc was Neowise, a smudge of powdery light.

After almost a full week of Neowise hunting, I was exhilarated.  It was a moment almost 7,000 years in the making.  I stood there, mouth open (not something I recommend, as I swallowed some bug that flew through my lips).  There were clustered groups around me.  One had a camera on a tripod, taking a slow-exposure picture of the comet.  Further away, a group of college-age kids, emitting the skunky scent of marijuana. had set up a large telescope.  They were taking turns staring into the eyepiece.

Staring up, I felt connected to something much larger than myself.  The last time Neowise appeared in the sky was roughly 5,000 years before the birth of Jesus Christ.  The wheel had just been invented.  Farming was a fairly new innovation--having only started in Mesopotamia around two millennia prior.  The woolly mammoth could have seen Neowise, but not any of the pharaohs.  The Egyptian civilization wouldn't appear for another 1,800 years.  No pyramids.  No mummies.  Hammurabi and his code weren't even a twinkle in the universe's eyes.  The Trojan War hadn't been fought.  Homer wasn't singing.  And Rome wouldn't be built for almost 5,000 years.

And there I stood last night, in the year 2020, in the middle of a global pandemic, gaping at Neowise the way, I imagine, those mammoths 7,000 years ago never did.  They simply went about the business of eating, sleeping, moving, and mating.  Meanwhile, that smear of comet light kept climbing away and away.  The mammoths disappeared, and humankind took over.  Building and advancing and polluting and warring and pretty much making a big mess of the world.

It's difficult, standing on top of a mountain under the stars not to feel a little insignificant, to ask yourself questions like, "Does God exist?" and "Are we all alone here?"  In my blog posts, I've been honest over the last year about my personal struggles.  To think that everything that I'm going through is random, without meaning, pushes me to the edge of a pretty steep existential cliff.

Yet, Neowise is up there and has been heading my way for thousands of years.  Last night, on top of Sugarloaf, was a confirmation that miracles still exist.  They are bright scoops of light in a dark universe.  They show up when you least expect, and they fill you with a mammoth wonder.  They make you believe you are not alone.  There are comet pilgrims all around, seeking the same thing you are:  love and happiness.

And for that, Saint Marty gives thanks.

Friday, July 17, 2020

July 17: Sister's Birthday, Sugarloaf Mountain, "Vigil Strange I Kept in Ann Arbor One Morning"

Today would have been my sister Sally's 59th birthday.  It's hard to believe that she left us five years ago.  I still think of her every day.  She and I worked together for almost 20 years, eight-, nine-, and ten-hour days sometimes.

Tonight, in honor of Sal, I'm doing something crazy.  At around 11 o'clock, I'm going to drive to the base of Sugarloaf Mountain, and my family and I are going to climb it in the dark.  Our goal:  to see something wondrous.  A burning wheel in the sky.  A miracle.

And when Saint Marty sees that comet, he will think of his sister's smile and give thanks.

Vigil Strange I Kept in Ann Arbor One Morning

by:  Martin Achatz

after Walt Whitman

I sat by the bed railings, listened to you breathe.
Not the watery gasps of two weeks later, but breaths doing
the work they were meant to do, carrying oxygen to organs,
limbs, pink fingernails, fissured lips, to your damaged
and damaging brain where your voice nestled between
tumors, walled up against the apocalypse of your body.

I sat.  Held your hand.  Made small talk about the humid air
of Ann Arbor, school and work, because I couldn’t bring myself
to make big talk about goodbyes or letting go.  No, I talked to you
the way I talked when we used to eat lunch together, the smells
of vinaigrette and flax seed and bananas around us.  Everyday talk,
because I wasn’t ready for last day talk.

I told you about the film classes I would teach in the fall, listed
the movies we would watch.  Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights,
Singin’ in the Rain, Citizen Kane.  I sang a song to you,
the one Gene Kelly sings to Debbie Reynolds.  You’re my lucky
star.  I saw you from afar.  I got the words wrong.

I vigiled there for an hour, while your body went about the business
of closing up shop.  Never once did I say “I love you” or “I’m sorry for”
or “Don’t go.”  Instead, I talked about Charles Foster Kane and his sled.
Rosebud burning in the furnace at the end, crackling, peeling, ashing.
And, in those last minutes before the official acts of hospice and dying
took over, I asked you one question--“Do you want some ice?”—and you grunted
at me.  I placed a cube on your chapped tongue and watched it 
melt down your chin.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

July 15: Upraised Heads, Neowise and Bigfoot, Wonder-Blind World

Thomas Merton, the teenage rebel . . .

I was now a house prefect in Hodge Wing with a great big study and a lot of slightly lop-sided wicker armchairs full of cushions.  On the walls I hung Medici prints of Manet and some other impressionists and photographs of various Greco-Roman Venuses from museums in Rome.  And my bookshelf was full of a wide variety of strange bright-colored novels and pamphlets, all of which were so inflammatory that there would never be any special need for the Church to put them on the Index, for they would all be damned ipso jure--most of them by the natural law itself.  I will not name the ones I remember, because some fool might immediately go and read them all:  but I might mention that one of the pamphlets was Marx's Communist Manifesto--not because I was seriously exercised about the injustices done to the working class, which were and are very real, but were too serious for my empty-headed vanity--but simply because I thought it fitted in nicely with the decor in which I now moved in all my imaginings.

For it had become evident to me that I was a great rebel.  I fancied that I had suddenly risen above all the errors and stupidities and mistakes of modern society--there are enough of them to rise above, I admit--and that I had taken my place in the ranks of those who held up their heads and squared their shoulders and marched into the future.  In the modern world, people are always holding up their heads and marching into the future, although they haven't the slightest idea what they think the "future" is or could possibly mean.  The only future we seem to walk into, in actual fact, is full of bigger and more terrible wars, wars well calculated to knock our upraised heads off those squared shoulders.

These past few nights, I've been holding up my head and squaring my shoulders and marching into the future at around 11:30.  I like to think it's because I'm some kind of rebel, throwing off the conventions of getting to bed early because I have to work in the morning, going out into the dark in pajamas and sandals, and wandering through my neighborhood streets with my nose pointed to the heavens.

I'm not protesting racial injustices or social inequities or the imprisonment of immigrant children at the borders of the United States.  Don't get me wrong.  All of those things are important and should be protested, loudly, every day.  My nightly excursions, however, are more cosmic in nature.  A search for something larger than myself.  An attempt to reach out and touch something that hasn't been glimpsed by human eyes for close to 6,800 years.

I am Neowise hunting.

And there is something rebellious, or ludicrous, in a middle-aged father of two trooping through the night in his PJs, looking for a close encounter of the comet kind.  Normal guys don't do that kind of thing, unless they are peeping toms, thieves, drug dealers, or addicts.  The first time I did it, I kept looking around to make sure that I wasn't being observed.  I didn't want to be arrested.

Now, I've realized that I am alone in the moonless after-twilight.  Nobody cares about my passage.  I am simply part of the night.  When a car goes by, I step into the shadows of a tree or house.  Disappear.  And, I have come to realize something else, as well:  Bigfoot could exist.  He could walk right down the middle of the street behind me, and no one would notice.  Because we live in a wonder-blind world.

I expected to find other Neowise pilgrims in backyards, gazing up at the stars for the possibility of seeing something that won't pass our way again for almost seven millennia.  The past four nights, I have not encountered another living soul.  Instead, I see plasma-screen televisions flickering and glowing behind drawn curtains.  The first night, I saw fingers of aurora borealis crawling across the heavens.  The second night, the Big Dipper was so close that I could have taken a drink from its tilting pan.  Last night, it was raining so hard that tree branches were bending over and praying to the ground.  And I was the only witness.

So, yes, Bigfoot could exist.  He could live next door, and nobody would realize it.  Because most people have lost their impulse to chase mystery and miracle.  Ezekiel saw a fiery wheel in the sky and became a prophet.  There's a fiery wheel in the sky right now, and a rerun of Everybody Loves Raymond is more important.  Nobody wants to be a prophet.

It's cloudy tonight, so I will not be Neowise hunting.  Instead, about 11:30, I will slip on my sandals, quietly open my front door, and cross into darkness.  Bigfoot will be there waiting.  We will go on a stroll together, listen for the skitter of rabbit, flute of owl, mewl of coyote.  Bigfoot's head will scrape the clouds, and he may reach up and scoop his way to stars.  And there will be Neowise, climbing toward morning.  Its tail will singe his fingertips, and he'll press them between his lips, suck on them.

They are old friends, these two.  Twin astonishments.  They have existed since the beginning, when God created heaven and earth, spoke them into being.  Let there be Bigfoot.  Let there be Neowise.  And they were set into motion, stretching their long legs across space and time.

We just need to pull the scales from our eyes, open our front doors, and step into wonder.

For the miracle of Neowise and Bigfoot, Saint Marty gives thanks.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

July 13-14: The Young and Strong, Holden Caulfield, Dreams

Merton returns to England as a teenage American gangster . . .

The truth is that we did have quite a big bar bill, the Bryn Mawr girls and myself, but we were never drunk, because we drank slowly and spent the whole time stuffing ourselves with sardines on toast and all the other dainties which are the stock in trade of English liners.

In any case, I set foot once more on the soil of England dressed up in a gangster suit which Pop had bought me at Wallach's, complete with padded shoulders.  And I had a new, pale grey hat over my eye and walked into England pleased with the consciousness that I had easily acquired a very lurid reputation for myself with scarcely any trouble at all.

The separation of the two generations on board the ship had pleased me.  It had flattered me right down to the soles of my feet.  It was just what I wanted.  It completed my self-confidence, guaranteed my self-assertion.  Anyone older than myself symbolized authority.  And the vulgarity of the detectives and the stupidity of the other middle-aged people who had believed all their stories about us fed me with a pleasantly justifiable sense of contempt for their whole generation.  Therefore I concluded that I was now free of all authority, and that nobody could give me any advice that I had to listen to.  Because advice was only the cloak of hypocrisy or weakness or vulgarity or fear.  Authority was constituted by the old and weak, and had its roots in their envy for the joys and pleasures of the young and strong.

Finally, when I arrived at Oakham several days after the beginning of the term I was convinced that I was the only one in the whole place who knew anything about life, from the Headmaster on down.

I remember that time in my life, when I thought I had everything figured out.  It was wonderfully comforting, knowing that I had all the answers.  And when some authority figure tried to provide guidance or advice, I nodded dutifully, went away, and did exactly the opposite.  My mother told me to study computer science in college.  There was a future in that, she said.  I went to the university and became . . . a poet instead.

Adults always choose the safe path.  Security.  Money.  Employment.  That's not what young adults want.  When I was an undergrad, I was one step away from establishing my own Dead Poets Society.  I was artistic, love-starved, and, a lot of the time, clinically depressed.  In short, I was Holden Caulfield.

Now, as one of those old authority figures that Holden disparages through most of The Catcher in the Rye, I find myself craving safety, security, money, and good employment.  I often wonder if I chose the right path.  Perhaps I should have stuck with computer programming.  I might now have a good-sized 401(k), a nicer house and car, and a vacation home.  If only I had listened to my mother.

Yet, I know that, even with all those luxuries, I probably wouldn't have been very happy.  I mean, John Grisham was a successful lawyer, but he spent his spare time writing novels.  William Carlos Williams was a doctor, scribbling poems on his prescription pads.  Wallace Stevens sold insurance his whole life.  All of these writers had adult jobs to support their writing habits.

That's the real challenge about being a responsible adult--somehow managing to hold on to some part of what excited you as a young person.  The part that spurned all the advice of adults who wanted you to be responsible and boring.  The part that wanted to be Ingmar Bergman or Amelia Earhart or J. D. Salinger or Thomas Merton. 

If you're able to do that, no matter what career you eventually end up pursuing, you'll find happiness, despite all the adult pressures of the real world.

Me?  I work in a medical office and teach at a university.  But I'm also a Nobel Prize-winning poet.  Oscar-winning movie director.  Underground cartoonist.  Mad blogger.  My reality and my dreams.  The day I give up on my dreams is the day I stop believing in miracles. 

This message has been brought to you by Saint Marty, official sponsor of dreams and miracles.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

July 12: Disreputable and Wild, Free Will, Rainbows and the Promised Land

Thomas Merton returns to England after his first summer of independence . . .

At the end of the summer I started back for England on the same boat on which I had come.  This time the passenger list included some girls from Bryn Mawr and some from Vassar and some from somewhere else, all of whom were going to a finishing school in France.  It seems as if all the rest of the people on board were detectives.  Some of them were professional detectives.  Others were amateurs, all of them made me and the Bryn Mawr girls the object of their untiring investigations.  But in any case the ship was divided into these two groups:  on the one hand the young people, on the other the elders.  We sat in the smoking room all the rainy days playing Duke Ellington records on the portable vic that belonged to one of the girls.  When we got tired of that we wandered all over the ship looking for funny things to do.  The hold was full of cattle, and there was also a pack of fox-hounds down there.  We used to go down and play with the dogs.  At Le Havre, when the cattle were unloaded, one of the cows broke loose and ran all over the dock in a frenzy.  One night three of us got up in the crow's nest on the foremast with the radio operators and I got into a big argument about Communism.

That was another thing that had happened that summer:  I had begun to get the idea that I was a Communist, although I wasn't quite sure what Communism was.  There are a lot of people like that.  They do no little harm by virtue of their sheer, stupid inertia, lost in between all camps, in the no-man's-land of their own confusion.  They are fair game for anybody.  They can be turned into fascists just as quickly as they can be pulled into line with those who are really Reds.

The other group was made up of the middle-aged people.  At their core were the red-faced, hard-boiled cops who spent their time drinking and gambling and fighting among themselves and spreading scandal all over the boat about the young ones who were so disreputable and wild.

Here is the young, wild Merton.  On a boat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with a bunch of Bryn Mawr girls, playing Ellington on a record player, wandering around, getting into arguments about Communism, and giving the older passengers something to talk about.  In short, being a teenage boy.  The only difference between him and any other teenage boy on ship:  Merton will grow up to be one of the most influential religious figures of the twentieth century.  Of course, the Bryn Mawr girls are a little more interesting to him at this point in his life than God.

I often wonder at what point in a holy person's life God steps in and takes over.  Of course, it's probably more like a surrender than a coup.  In everything I've read and learned, God doesn't get in the way of free will.  That's the one ingredient in the human soul that fucks things up for most people.  If it weren't for free will, the streets would be crowded with Mother Teresas and Francises of Assisi and Thomas Mertons.  The high school football teams would be quarterbacked by a kid with stigmata.  And the valedictorian would change the punch into wine at the all-night graduation party.

Of course, that's not the way it works.  Don't get me wrong:  God is pretty relentless.  You can turn your back on him your whole life, write books about his non-existence, join the Church of Latter Day Atheists.  In the end, he will get you, one way or the other.  It's a matter of answering the door when he knocks.  You can keep on ignoring that knocking, or you can surrender. 

Human beings don't like to surrender.  I'm just as guilty as the next person when it comes to this.  I like to think that I, through my own actions, can solve everything that's fucked-up in my life.  If I were talking about Greek tragedy right now, the term I would use here is "hubris"--overweening pride.  One of the most difficult things to do is . . . nothing.  Simply stepping aside and letting God take over.  I've done that several times in my life, and I can say that each time was incredibly freeing and terrifying at the same time.  I did it when my sister was dying of lymphoma of the brain.  When my marriage was crumbling.  And when I struggle with depression and anxiety.  There always comes that moment where I throw my hands in the air and say to God, "That's it!  I'm done!  You think you can do better?  Be my guest!" 

And, every time, God steps in, rolls up his sleeves, and goes to work.  The results are usually miraculous.

Yet, before the miracle is the struggle.  The days or weeks or months or years when you think you are alone in the universe, master of your own destiny.  Think about the children of Israel wandering through the desert for 40 years to complete a trip that should have only taken only a couple weeks, at most.  Jesus Christ wandered in the desert, too, for 40 days.  Noah floated on the ark for 150 days before hitting dry land.  There's times of drought and flood, and then times of rainbows and the Promised Land.

By this time in my adulthood, I should have learned to surrender early, but I don't.  There's a sense of powerlessness in surrender, and I find it very uncomfortable.  I'm a person who loves routines and habits.  I like to know who committed the murder before I even pick up the mystery novel.  God, however, doesn't give a whole lot of clues as to when the miracle is coming.  Instead, it just sort of appears, like an unexpected comet or star in the sky.

Saint Marty just has to remember to look up and give thanks.

July 11: Human Connection, Mask-Wearing, Poem from "Kyrie"

Each night, I take my puppy for a walk.  It's one of those habits I started in March, when the full effects of the pandemic were just being felt.  Now, almost four months into Covid-19, I am still walking.

This evening, as I was striding down a street, I noticed a small, white dog on a leash start running across the street toward us.  I could tell she was not going to stop when she reached the curb, even though there was an SUV coming down the street.  The dog's owner was yelling at her to stop.  She didn't stop.

She charged across the blacktop toward my puppy and me.  I stopped walking, waited for the little white dog to approach us.  The SUV slowed to a crawl, waited.  The little white dog approached my puppy, and they began doing the butt-sniffing dance of canine greeting.  I put my foot on the little white dog's red leash, so that she could not run away as her owner approached.

I wasn't wearing a mask.  Usually on my walks, I am very good at avoiding people.  The owner of the dog, however, I could not escape.  She needed to retrieve her pet.  As she came nearer, she slowed and kept saying, "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry."  She stopped six feet from me, and we both stood staring at each other, wondering how we were going to handle the situation.

I smiled at her.  "It's okay," I said.  I reached down and picked up her dog's leash.  "Your puppy's just excited."  I held the end of the leash out to her.  She leaned forward, took the leash, and then stepped back.  She smiled.

"Thank you," she said.

I nodded.  Then, I began walking again.

It is probably the first time I have spoken to a complete stranger since March.  It was almost as if I didn't remember the rules of polite interaction, and I could tell that she was dealing with similar feelings.  There was awkwardness, tinged with a little fear.  Yet, the human connection--even for just a few seconds--was wonderful.  A miracle.

Michigan's governor, Gretchen Whitmer, just made mask-wearing the law.  If you don't mask up, you get fined.  A coworker of mine, who walks around all day with her mask hanging around her chin like a feedbag, said something on Friday like, "Governor Witless has done it again.  I'm so sick of her."  I didn't respond to my coworker's comment.  I can't engage in political debate in the work setting, even though mask-wearing shouldn't be a political issue, especially with a healthcare worker who should know better.

And I should have been wearing a mask tonight.  I wasn't.  The owner of the white dog should have been wearing a mask.  She wasn't.  Our interaction lasted all of ten seconds.  It was a human moment, without any political overtones.  She was relieved her puppy hadn't gotten hit by the SUV.  I was happy to have played a tiny part in making sure that her puppy didn't get injured.

Tomorrow, when I take my puppy for a walk, I will be wearing a mask.  It's the law, and I don't mind enduring this slight inconvenience to insure that everyone stays healthy and safe.

Tonight, Saint Marty gives thanks for a brief moment of normal human connection in the midst of a pandemic.

Poem from Kyrie

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt

No longer just a stream, not yet a pond,
the water slowed and deepened, banks eroded,
redwing blackbird roosting on a stalk,
sometimes that rippled vee plowing the surface.
Each clear day, she walked to the willow oak,
raked the anemic grass, tidied the mounds,
walked back down to the house by way of the creek.
If the beaver had put in a stick, she took it out.
If a storm had dropped a branch, she hauled it off.
When milder weather came, she tucked her skirts
at the waist and waded in, dislodging trash
the beaver would recover.  Months of this.
Twice she sent for the neighbors to trap it or shoot it.,
but each time Fan said Emmett don't you dare.

Friday, July 10, 2020

July 10: Sweet Sense of Independence, "Hamilton," My Legacy

Young Merton's summer of independence . . .

Bonnemaman was the one who suffered most from my reticence.  For years she had been sitting at home wondering what Pop was doing in the city all day, and now that I was developing the same wandering habits it was quite natural for her to imagine strange things about me, too.

But the only wickedness I was up to was that I roamed around the city smoking cigarettes and hugging my on sweet sense of independence.  

I found out that Grosset and Dunlap published more than the Rover Boys.  They brought out reprints of writers like Hemingway and Aldous Huxley and D. H. Lawrence and I devoured them all, on the cool sleeping porch of the house at Douglaston, while the moths of the summer darkness came batting and throbbing against the screens, attracted by my light that burned until all hours.

Most of the time I was running into my uncle's room to borrow his dictionary, and when he found out what words I was looking up he arched his eyebrows and said:  "What are you reading, anyway?"

Sweet sense of independence.

That's what my daughter will be tasting this weekend.  She, her boyfriend, and another friend are going on a road trip to the Keweenaw Peninsula for a few days.  By themselves.  In my daughter's car.  It's not that I don't trust my daughter's judgement.  She's got a good head on her shoulders.  It's just the letting-go part of this little adventure that I'm having a problem with.

My daughter and I watched Hamilton this evening.  It has been one of my daughter's favorite musical soundtracks since the show premiered on Broadway.  That's four years of listening.  She could literally sing the entire show if she wanted to.  I do love the music, as well.  And I knew the plot of the show.  Nothing was a surprise.  I knew that American defeated Great Britain in the Revolutionary War with the help of Lafayette.  George Washington stepped down as President after two terms.  I knew that Hamilton cheated on his wife, and that his son was killed in a duel.  Hamilton supported Thomas Jefferson in his bed for the Oval Office, and Aaron Burr killed Hamilton in a duel.  Knew all of that going in.

It was the ending of the show that did me in tonight.  The question of who is going to tell your story. what your legacy will be.  When Phillipa Soo was singing Eliza Schuyler-Hamilton's last song, I found myself literally crying.  Not just tearing up.  I wasn't expecting that.  The idea that Eliza spent the rest of her life telling Hamilton's story, putting herself "back in the narrative"--the depth of her devotion and love profoundly affected me.

I'm not sure what kind of legacy I'm going to leave behind, and I doubt that there's going to be an Eliza in my life to tell my story.  Chances are, these blog posts are going to do that job.  Somebody 70 or 80 or 100 years from now may be reading these very words because of my poems.  Or because of something my son or daughter did.  I may be a footnote to their lives.  Or maybe that future person is doing a dissertation on the pandemic of 2020, and I'm eventually going to be cited or quoted as a reference.

Let me clear up something right now:  I'm a mess.  I'm full of insecurities and contradictions.  I'm not always nice or smart.  At the moment, the trajectory of my life seems unclear.  I'm never going to be President of the United States, although Donald Trump has proven that anybody with enough money and connections with Russia can become a resident of the Oval Office.  Perhaps I'll write something of note some day.  Marriage and family--well, that's all in God's hands, as everything is.

Maybe my daughter and son will write a musical about me some day.  It will take Broadway by storm, win all kinds of Tony Awards, and, eventually, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  My kids will speak my narrative.  I hope it will be a good one, something they can be proud of, despite all of my character flaws.

Perhaps, as my daughter is sitting in her hotel tomorrow night, after a day of travel and sight-seeing and fishing, she will take out a notebook and jot down a random line of poetry that will become the opening lyric of that musical:  "How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore / And a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot / In the Caribbean by providence impoverished / In squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?"  Or something catchy like that.

Here's the thing:  you don't get to decide your legacy.  My job in this whole process:  living the best life that I am able.  The rest is in the hands of other people, long after I'm gone.

Hopefully, they'll write about the miracle of this night, with my daughter.  How we both sat, crying on the couch, at the end of Hamilton.  How my daughter, filled with her sweet sense of independence, on the cusp of her adventure, looked at me, after rubbing her eyes, and said, "That was really good."

And for that moment in his legacy, his narrative, Saint Marty gives thanks.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

July 9: My Heart Ready to Explode, My Daughter, "Arias"

Merton sinks into adolescent depression . . .

Of course the whole family was there on the dock.  But the change as devastating.  With my heart ready to explode with immature emotions I suddenly found myself surrounded by all the cheerful and peaceful and comfortable solicitudes of home.  Everybody wanted to talk.  Their voices were full of questions and information.  They took me for a drive on Long Island and showed me where Mrs. Hearst lived and everything.  But I only hung my head out of the window of the car and watched the green trees go swirling by, and wished that I were dead.

I would not tell anybody what was the matter with me, and this reticence was the beginning of a kind of estrangement between us.  From that time on no one could be sure what I was doing or thinking.  I would go to New York and I would not come home for meals and I would not tell anyone where I had been.

I'm sure we've all been here at some point or other in our lives--a feeling of utter devastation and abandonment because we've lost what we thought were the loves of our lives.  So, what to do with that?  Well, teenagers turn inward, withdraw from all who care about them.  They rebel.  Disappear, physically and/or emotionally.  What Merton describes here is so familiar to me that I could almost have written this passage myself.

It is difficult trying to find your path after someone you care about deeply flits away, a hungry hummingbird looking for better nectar.  It's a little like being in a strange countryside without a map or cell phone or road signs.  You just don't know which way to go, and the night is moonless, starless. 

I've been in this place many times.  I suffer from vertigo occasionally, and the experience is very similar.  Not being able to find stable ground.  But I have had one anchor through most of these moments:  my daughter.  She has kept me going during some pretty difficult days.  She's beautiful, graceful, and empathetic.  She cares about everything and everyone deeply. 

Around my birthday last year, I was experiencing one of these moments of emotional vertigo.  Feeling very lost.  At sea.  My daughter was in the middle of her first semester of college, majoring in pre-med, working her first job.  She was making new friends, engaging in new activities.  It was her first taste of independence, and she was loving it.

But, she also knew that I was struggling.  I try to keep my problems separate from my daughter.  She's had to deal with a lot in her 19 years, and I've been really conscious about letting her be a kid and do kid things.  I don't want her to look back on her childhood and teenage years with melancholy, like Thomas Merton.

A couple weeks past my birthday, I came home from work, and my daughter handed me a wrapped present.  She'd pre-ordered it many weeks prior, and she couldn't wait for me to unwrap it.  I sat down, read the card she had chosen.  That made me cry.  And then I opened the present.  It was a copy of Sharon Olds' newest collection of poems, Arias.  It had just been released.  That made me cry even more.  She knew I wanted the book, but that I didn't want to spend the money on it because we were struggling financially.  So, she took some of her work money and bought it for me.

I was speaking to sister-in-law last week about my daughter, and I said, "I don't know what I did to deserve a kid like her."

I've known my sister-in-law for most of her life.  She's the baby sister I never had.  I'm still struggling with those feelings I was having around my birthday.  My sister-in-law knows this.  She said to me, "I do.  All the love, compassion, and genuine respect for others has boiled over into this additional human.  Too much goodness in one man.  There needed to be an additional human to continue it." 

I said, "She makes me feel like I've succeeded in something.  She's my Nobel Prize."

"Exactly!!!" my sister-in-law said.

I carry Arias with me everywhere.  To work and school.  It's my reminder, when I'm feeling very alone, that I've done something right in my life.  And that I am loved.

And for that miracle, Saint Marty gives thanks.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

July 8: Woe for Months, Poet Friend, Sophia

Merton deals with heartbreak and despair . . .

However, I could not sleep for long.  At five o'clock I was up again, and walking restlessly around the deck.  It was hot.  A grey mist lay on the Narrows.  But when it became light, other anchored ships began to appear as shapes in the mist.  One of them was a Red Star liner on which, as I learned from the papers when I got on shore, a passenger was at that precise moment engaged in hanging himself.

At the last minute before landing I took a snapshot of her which, to my intense sorrow, came out blurred.  I was so avid for a picture of her that I got too close with the camera and it was out of focus.  It was a piece of poetic justice that filled me with woe for months.

The source of Merton's despair is, of course, a teenage first love gone bad.  All he has to show for his ten-day affair is a blurry photo and months of ennui.  Throw into that mix a distant suicide, and this little passage from The Seven-Storey Mountain has the makings of a pretty decent John Green novel. 

Tonight, I want to write about Lisa, a poet friend of mine, who experienced some tragedy of her own this past weekend.  Her granddaughter and her granddaughter's mother lost their home and all of their belongings in a house fire.  It happened on a night where both of them were away from the house, so no one was hurt.  Thank goodness.

My friend has set up an account to accept for donations for them.  Here is her Facebook post:
In response to those wishing to help I have opened an account at the U.P. State Credit Union . They by the way were amazing to work with! Thank you Renee & Brad! The account is for Darci Blanton & Sophia Fosmo / fire relief fund. Checks can be sent or money dropped off. Thank you all for the outpouring of prayers love and help . It is all so greatly appreciated. As you know just days ago they lost everything in a fire, we are grateful for their lives. We know things can be replaced and memories are are always with us. Thank you all so very much for your kindness!
The address to send any donations:

          U. P. State Credit Union
          2501 First Avenue North
          Escanaba, MI 49829

I've been writing a lot about miracles in these last few weeks of the pandemic.  Now is your chance to be a miracle in a little girl's life.  Please consider sending a donation to help out Sophia and her mother.  All of us have spent these past months feeling sorry for ourselves for not being able to get our hair done or gather with friends at bars and restaurants.  I know my little losses pale in comparison to what this little girl has lost.

So, let's send some miracles to Sophia.

And for all of you miracle-givers out there, Saint Marty thanks you!

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

July 6-7: Poem from "Kyrie," Good and Bad Dreams, Weird Writers

Poem from Kyrie

by:  Ellen Bryant Voigt

Nothing fluttered, or sighed against her spine,
or coiled, recoiled in a fitful sleep,
fist in a sack, but her breasts knew
what her body made, and in her mind
she saw two legs, two arms, two plates of bone
where the damp tulle wings had been.  Whatever it was,
she bled it out.

More snow fell,
into the deep ravine, the lesser gullies.
The doctor patted her arm:  she was young, strong,
soon there would be another.  But there wasn't:
just the one dream, the one scar.


Some dreams are wonderful, things you never want to wake from.  Other dreams, things you want to leave crumpled in the sheets at the bottom of the bed, to be shook out in morning light.

Since the pandemic began, most people have been dreaming about the time when everything will return to "normal," however that might be defined.  For most, it's about going to a restaurant or movie with friends.  For kids, it may be returning to school, being able to see their friends on something other than computer screens.  For healthcare workers, reporting for work without having to pass through checkpoints that resemble border crossings from West to East Berlin during the Cold War.

I have learned that dreams aren't inherently good or bad.  A bad dream for me might entail waking up in a house completely devoid of people--no wife or kids or dog.  Finding myself completely and utterly alone.  For other people, that particular scenario might be a dream come true.  Space to relax and enjoy some "me" time.  Read a good book without interruption.  Watch a movie on Netflix that nobody else wants to watch.

It really depends on how you define not the dream, but the terms "good" and "bad."  Now, most people would define this pandemic as "bad."  Certainly, there is a whole lot of shitty going 'round.  Unemployment.  Illness.  Broken lives and relationships.  Political turmoil.  Racial unrest.  Of course, all these things existed before Covid-19 was even a glimmer in a meat market.  It's just that the magnifying glass of this time has intensified everything--like sunlight on an ant's back.  A bad dream.

Yet, there have been some strange blessings delivered by the pandemic, as well.  Time has sort of ground to a halt.  Days and nights lengthen out.  Right now, I'm sitting on the couch next to my daughter, watching a movie on Hulu.  A biopic on the writer Shirley Jackson starring Elizabeth Moss.  Shirley.  If it weren't for the virus, my daughter would probably be getting ready for work tomorrow morning, doing her nightly ablutions before bed.

Instead, I'm able to have moments like this.  Shared moments.  With people I love.  And these last few months have been full of them.  Full of good dreams.

That is what this pandemic has done.  Redefined the dreams of the world.  Given us the ability to find the good in all the bad.  Given me this night with my daughter, who actually enjoys spending time with her weird poet father, watching weird movies about weird writers.

And for that, Saint Marty gives thanks.