Sunday, August 30, 2020

August 30: Misery and Corruption, Prayer Thing, Puppy's Belly

Merton is possibly visited by the ghost of his father . . .

Where else did I like to go? St. Pudenziana, St. Praxed’s, above all St. Mary Major and the Lateran, although as soon as the atmosphere got heavy with baroque melodrama I would get frightened, and the peace and the obscure, tenuous sense of devotion I had acquired would leave me. 

So far, however, there had been no deep movement of my will, nothing that amounted to a conversion, nothing to shake the iron tyranny of moral corruption that held my whole nature in fetters. But that also was to come. It came in a strange way, suddenly, a way that I will not attempt to explain. 

I was in my room. It was night. The light was on. Suddenly it seemed to me that Father, who had now been dead more than a year, was there with me. The sense of his presence was as vivid and as real and as startling as if he had touched my arm or spoken to me. The whole thing passed in a flash, but in that flash, instantly, I was overwhelmed with a sudden and profound insight into the misery and corruption of my own soul, and I was pierced deeply with a light that made me realize something of the condition I was in, and I was filled with horror at what I saw, and my whole being rose up in revolt against what was within me, and my soul desired escape and liberation and freedom from all this with an intensity and an urgency unlike anything I had ever known before. And now I think for the first time in my whole life I really began to pray—praying not with my lips and with my intellect and my imagination, but praying out of the very roots of my life and of my being, and praying to the God I had never known, to reach down towards me out of His darkness and to help me to get free of the thousand terrible things that held my will in their slavery. 

There were a lot of tears connected with this, and they did me good, and all the while, although I had lost that first vivid, agonizing-sense of the presence of my father in the room, I had him in my mind, and I was talking to him as well as to God, as though he were a sort of intermediary. I do not mean this in any way that might be interpreted that I thought he was among the saints. I did not really know what that might mean then, and now that I do know I would hesitate to say that I thought he was in Heaven. Judging by my memory of the experience I should say it was “as if” he had been sent to me out of Purgatory. For after all, there is no reason why the souls in Purgatory should not help those on earth by their prayers and influence, just like those in Heaven: although usually they need our help more than we need theirs. But in this case, assuming my guess has some truth in it, things were the other way ’round. 

However, this is not a thing on which I would place any great stress. And I do not offer any definite explanation of it. How do I know it was not merely my own imagination, or something that could be traced to a purely natural, psychological cause—I mean the part about my father? It is impossible to say. I do not offer any explanation. And I have always had a great antipathy for everything that smells of necromancy—table-turning and communications with the dead—and I would never deliberately try to enter in to any such thing. But whether it was imagination or nerves or whatever else it may have been, I can say truly that I did feel, most vividly, as if my father were present there, and the consequences that I have described followed from this, as though he had communicated to me without words an interior light from God, about the condition of my own soul—although I wasn’t even sure I had a soul. 

The one thing that seems to me morally certain is that this was really a grace, and a great grace. If I had only followed it through, my life might have been very different and much less miserable for the years that were to come.

Merton doesn't believe in ghosts--or, as he says it, "everything that smells of necromancy."  However, he feels his father's presence in his hotel room, strongly, as if Owen Merton has reached out and touched his arm.  This presence causes Merton to do something he's never really done.  Pray.  Really pray.  Not just a rote recitation of memorized words.  No.  He begs to be released of all his chains, metaphoric and physical.  Merton is in spiritual pain, and he is asking for release. 

I've had similar moments in my life.  Not the ghost thing.  The prayer thing.  Times when I've gotten down on my knees in the middle of the night and begged for release.  Usually, these moments come after I've exhausted myself with fruitless effort.  Bargaining--If you do this for me, God, I'll dedicate the rest of my life to you.  Anger--Fuck you, God, if you don't help me out.  Begging--Please, God, I'm at the end of my rope here.  Help me out.  Exhaustion--I surrender, God.  I can't do this anymore.  You take care of it.  And surrender--I give up.  You win, God.  I'll do whatever you want.

Usually, when I surrender, that's when God steps in.

This afternoon, after I got back from a shopping with my wife and son, I didn't want to do anything.  I just wanted to take a shower, lie down on the couch, and stay there for about two months.  I haven't been sleeping all that well recently.  Late nights.  Early mornings.  Worrying about things over which I have no control.  Yet, I try to control them.  Because that's what humans do.  Play God.

Instead of surrendering to the sofa, however, I felt a nudge to take my puppy for a walk.  I don't know why.  I had tons of computer work to do for school.  I needed to prepare for my upcoming work week.   Laundry to fold.  Lunches to pack.  But I grabbed the leash, and out the door I went. 

My puppy was pulling me along, barking at cars going by, sniffing everything.  Distracted, I was mentally going over my to-do list for when I got home after the walk.  I wasn't paying attention to anything around me, until my puppy pulled me toward an elderly gentleman who was standing in his driveway, watching us walk by.

I slowed down and allowed my puppy to approach the man.  He bent down and started petting her, scratching her back. cupping her ears, saying, "Oh, you're a pretty girl.  Yes, you are."  My puppy rolled over on her back, exposing her belly, and the man laughed and started rubbing her belly.  "Oh, my, yes.  You are a good girl," he said.

The old man looked up at me, smiled, "She sure is friendly."

I nodded, said, "She loves everybody."

He nodded, smiled again, and said, "I just lost my girl."  I saw tears well up in his eyes.  "Had to put her down last week," he said.  He scratched my puppy's belly.  "She was in a lot of pain, you know," he said.

All of my struggles sort of melted out of my head, and I knew then why God had sent me on this walk.

"I'm so sorry," I said.

The man nodded, sniffed a little.  "She was a good girl, just like this one," he said.  My puppy jumped on his legs and licked his face.  "Oh, thank you," he said to her.  "I love you, too."

I stood there, let the man pet her as long as he liked.

Finally, he stood up and looked at me.  "Thank you," he said.

I nodded.  "Any time," I said.  "I'm really sorry for your loss."

He nodded, looked over at his house, and then back down at my puppy.  "She sure is a pretty girl," he said, nodding at her.

I pressed my lips together and tugged my puppy's chain.  She started bounding up the street.

I allowed God to lead me this afternoon.  Surrendered.  And He taught me a pretty good lesson.  One that humbled me greatly.  He allowed my puppy to bring comfort to a grieving man.  It was a miraculous thing.

And Saint Marty is thankful he was a witness to it.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

August 28-29: St. Peter in Chains, Leaps of Faith, "Elephants Are the Only Animals that Cannot Jump"

Thomas Merton in chains . . .

It is the Christ of the Apocalypse, the Christ of the Martyrs, the Christ of the Fathers. It is the Christ of St. John, and of St. Paul, and of St. Augustine and St. Jerome and all the Fathers—and of the Desert Fathers. It is Christ God, Christ King, “for in Him dwelleth the fulness of the Godhead corporeally, and you are filled in Him, Who is the Head of all principality and power ... For in Him were all things created in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominations or principalities or powers, all things were created by Him and in Him. And He is before all, and by Him all things consist ... because in Him it hath well pleased the Father that all fulness should dwell... Who is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of every creature...”1 “The first-begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth, Who hath loved us, and washed us from our
sins in His own Blood, and hath made us a kingdom and priests to God His Father. ”2 

The saints of those forgotten days had left upon the walls of their churches words which by the peculiar grace of God I was able in some measure to apprehend, although I could not decode them all. But above all, the realest and most immediate source of this grace was Christ Himself, present in those churches, in all His power, and in His Humanity, in His Human Flesh and His material, physical, corporeal Presence. How often I was left entirely alone in these churches with the tremendous God, and knew nothing of it—except I had to know something of it, as I say, obscurely. And it was He Who was teaching me Who He was, more directly than I was capable of realising.

These mosaics told me more than I had ever known of the doctrine of a God of infinite power, wisdom, and love Who had yet become Man, and revealed in His Manhood the infinity of power, wisdom and love that was His Godhead. Of course I could not grasp and believe these things explicitly. But since they were implicit in every line of the pictures I contemplated with such admiration and love, surely I grasped them implicitly—I had to, in so far as the mind of the artist reached my own mind, and spoke to it his conception and his thought. And so I could not help but catch something of the ancient craftsman’s love of Christ, the Redeemer and Judge of the World. 

It was more or less natural that I should want to discover something of the meaning of the mosaics I saw—of the Lamb standing as though slain, and of the four-and-twenty elders casting down their crowns. And I had bought a Vulgate text, and was reading the New Testament. I had forgotten all about the poems of D. H. Lawrence except for the fact that he had four poems about the Four Evangelists, based on the traditional symbols from Ezechiel and the Apocalypse of the four mystical creatures. One evening, when I was reading these poems, I became so disgusted with their falseness and futility that I threw down the book and began to ask myself why I was wasting my time with a man of such unimportance as this. For it was evident that he had more or less completely failed to grasp the true meaning of the New Testament, which he had perverted in the interests of a personal and home-made religion of his own which was not only fanciful, but full of unearthly seeds, all ready to break forth into hideous plants like those that were germinating in Germany’s unweeded garden, in the dank weather of Nazism. 

So for once I put my favorite aside. And I read more and more of the Gospels, and my love for the old churches and their mosaics grew from day to day. Soon I was no longer visiting them merely for the art. There was something else that attracted me: a kind of interior peace. I loved to be in these holy places. I had a kind of deep and strong conviction that I belonged there: that my rational nature was filled with profound desires and needs that could only find satisfaction in churches of God. I remember that one of my favorite shrines was that of St. Peter in Chains, and I did not love it for any work of art that was there, since the big attraction, the big “number,” the big “feature” in that place is Michelangelo’s Moses. But I had always been extremely bored by that horned and pop-eyed frown and by the crack in the knee. I’m glad the thing couldn’t speak, for it would probably have given out some very heavy statements. 

Perhaps what was attracting me to that Church was the Apostle himself to whom it is dedicated. And I do not doubt that he was praying earnestly to get me out of my own chains: chains far heavier and more terrible than ever were his.

Merton is slowly coming to some kind of awakening.  I always have to remind myself, reading this book, that it was written by a person who was already a Trappist monk and is viewing his childhood through that lens.  Therefore, he sees every event of his life as a step leading to his religious conversion.  Sort of like me viewing all of my experiences as steps on my way to becoming a poet.  Merton and I each answered a calling.

Of course, life is not always easy.  Merton's life certainly wasn't.  Mine hasn't been, either.  I've faced some pretty major struggles.  Still am.  And, like all writers and poets, I have taken those struggles and turned them into art.  There is always truth in poetry.  Emily Dickinson advised, "Tell all the truth but tell it slant."  That's the real work for any poet (or writer):  taking your life experiences (good, bad, indifferent) and finding something universal in them.  Distilling them until all readers recognize themselves in your words.

Tonight, I'm sitting at my kitchen table, typing these words.  My son is in bed.  So is my wife.  My daughter and her boyfriend are out with some of their friends.  We're in the middle of a pandemic.  Donald Trump is President of the United States.  For the last year-and-a-half, I've been watching certain things in my life unravel.  Things that I thought were unravelable.  (I don't even think that's a word, but it should be.)  Two years ago, I thought I saw my future clearly.  Now, my crystal ball is a little foggy.  And that makes me a angry.

I went to a graduation party for my daughter's boyfriend this afternoon.  As a college professor, I love the unbridled enthusiasm for possibility that all young people have.  They take classes/labs/workshops because they want to be mechanics and teachers and doctors and environmentalists.  Literally, they are living in the future tense:  I will be a lawyer.  I will be a conservation officer.  I will make the world a better place.

College-age students make great leaps of faith.  They believe in the process of becoming.  Me?  I thought I had already become, that I knew who and what I was.  I was wrong.  I'm still becoming, however reluctantly.  I'm standing on the edge of a cliff, and I can either jump with trust or live in fear and anger.  My daughter's boyfriend is leaping.  And that's a miraculous thing to behold.

Saint Marty gives thanks for his faith in the future.

. . . and a new poem about leaping:

Elephants Are the Only Animals that Cannot Jump
or, an Elephant Leap of Faith

by:  Martin Achatz

Elephants are the only animals that cannot jump, perhaps for the same reason they cannot fly:  the weight of bone.  They lumber place to place, heads down, think of all things they cannot do.  They cannot play leap frog, celebrate leap year.  Despise the TV show Quantum Leap and Little Orphan Annie with her "leapin' lizards!"  Envy salmon their upstream leaps.  Have never looked before they leapt, or leapt to a conclusion.

When Armstrong took his one small step, one giant leap, they made their way to a graveyard, stood among ribs of grandparents, aunts, uncles, raised their trunks to the tusk of moon, bellowed against the gravity of their existence, forever bound by toe and foot to mud, clay, clods of dirt.

At night, in their grief, they shudder.  Snore.  Dream of feathers, ibis, kingfisher.  Feel a divine nudge to take one, deep elephantine breath, start to walk.  Then lope.  Gallop.  Charge.  Ears scooping, tails ruddering.  Faster,  Faster.  Faster.  Until--

It happens.   Wind takes over, and they lift, rise, keep rising, great gray kites.  They swoop, dip, circle.  Up and up, to Aegean blue and light and sun.  Like an exaltation of larks winging south, they grow small, smaller, smallest, vanish into a parade of ivory clouds.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

August 24, 25, 26, 27: Owns and Rules My Life, Big Shoulders, "Arrangement in Pink and Blue No. 1"

Merton finally finds God--in art . . .

Things were going on as they usually did with me. But after about a week —I don’t know how it began—I found myself looking into churches rather than into ruined temples. Perhaps it was the frescoes on the wall of an old chapel—ruined too—at the foot of the Palatine, at the edge of the Forum, that first aroused my interest in another and a far different Rome. From there it was an easy step to Sts. Cosmas and Damian, across the Forum, with a great mosaic, in the apse, of Christ coming in judgement in a dark blue sky, with a suggestion of fire in the small clouds beneath His feet. The effect of this discovery was tremendous. After all the vapid, boring, semipornographic statuary of the Empire, what a thing it was to come upon the genius of an art full of spiritual vitality and earnestness and power—an art that was tremendously serious and alive and eloquent and urgent in all that it had to say. And it was without pretentiousness, without fakery, and had nothing theatrical about it. Its solemnity was made all the more astounding by its simplicity—and by the obscurity of the places where it lay hid, and by its subservience to higher ends, architectural, liturgical and spiritual ends which I could not even begin to understand, but which I could not avoid guessing, since the nature of the mosaics themselves and their position and everything about them proclaimed it aloud. 

I was fascinated by these Byzantine mosaics. I began to haunt the churches where they were to be found, and, as an indirect consequence, all the other churches that were more or less of the same period. And thus without knowing anything about it I became a pilgrim. I was unconsciously and unintentionally visiting all the great shrines of Rome, and seeking out their sanctuaries with some of the eagerness and avidity and desire of a true pilgrim, though not quite for the right reason. And yet it was not for a wrong reason either. For these mosaics and frescoes and all the ancient altars and thrones and sanctuaries were designed and built for the instruction of people who were not capable of immediately understanding anything higher. 

I never knew what relics and what wonderful and holy things were hidden in the churches whose doors and aisles and arches had become the refuge of my mind. Christ’s cradle and the pillar of the Flagellation and the True Cross and St. Peter’s chains, and the tombs of the great martyrs, the tomb of the child St. Agnes and the martyr St. Cecelia and of Pope St. Clement and of the great deacon St. Lawrence who was burned on a gridiron.... These things did not speak to me, or at least I did not know they spoke to me. But the churches that enshrined them did, and so did the art on their walls.

And now for the first time in my life I began to find out something of Who this Person was that men called Christ. It was obscure, but it was a true knowledge of Him, in some sense, truer than I knew and truer than I would admit. But it was in Rome that my conception of Christ was formed. It was there I first saw Him, Whom I now serve as my God and my King, and Who owns and rules my life.

Merton seems to be having an awakening in these paragraphs.  In Rome, he finds God.  Or, rather, he recognizes God in his life, because God was really never lost.  In fact, God's been watching out for Merton all along, through the deaths of his parents and his own illnesses.  Merton just has some scales on his eyes, and, as he stands in front of those Byzantine mosaics and frescoes and altars, those scales start to fall off.

Yes, I have been gone for quite some time.  I apologize.  The first week of face-to-face teaching has sort of consumed me in major ways.  I have had every intention of posting every night.  However, the best laid plans . . . Plus, recently, I've been having a spiritual struggle of my own.  An argument with God.  I've had them before.  At the moment, my life is headed in a direction that makes me profoundly sad and angry.  A direction that feels as if God has taken a few steps back from me.  On good days, I can manage a "please watch over me, God," in the morning.  On bad days, I am little more blunt:  "Fuck you, God."

Yet, as I was once told by one of my best friends who is a Methodist pastor, I know God can take this abuse.  "He has big shoulders," my friend told me.  And I know that's true.  God doesn't abandon anyone.  I rest in that knowledge.  But, at the moment, I simply don't feel a whole lot of grace in my days.  Instead, there seems to be a whole lot of broken promises instead, despite how hard I try to be a good person, do the right things.

Last night, however, I found some solace spending time with an old friend.  Sharing stories and laughter.  Writing together.  I felt connected and a little at peace.  It filled up my empty cup a little.  I'm sure God had a part in it, but there was also a whole lot of wine and White Claw, as well.  But, when I went to bed last night, I actually managed a little three-word prayer--"Thank you, God."  That was a miracle.

Tonight, I finished a draft of a new poem.  Another miracle.  And I got to visit with my niece and her husband, who I haven't seen since my father's funeral.  Miracle.  My son in playing video games and not screaming at the screen.  Miracle.  Tomorrow is Friday.  Big miracle.

It has been a very long week.  Saint Marty is thankful that it's almost over, and that a little grace broke through.

A new poem . . . 

Arrangement in Pink and Blue No. 1

by:  Martin Achatz

He basks before his sister, does this thing
they planned together, she with her 19-year-old
college girl generosity of time, he with his
11-year-old boy hunger for her attention.
On the floor, they face each other,
heads almost touching, his neon
pink hair bathing her face like a sunrise. 
They talk about small things.  Rain.  Cheetos.
Skunks under our front porch.  She holds
his hand.  He allows her to hold
his hand.  She paints each of his fingernails
Pacific Ocean at night, a blue so dark
it could hold sea monsters.  My daughter's touch,
meticulous, does not miss with her brush. 
My son's cuticles, knuckles remain pristine.  White.  
He sits there, the way Whistler's mother probably
did as her son arranged dress, bonnet, asked her
to fold her hands just so, gave her a stool
for her feet, told her not to move, hold still.
said "You're perfect" and "I love you, mom,"
as he mixed his oils while she stared
at the wall in front of her, counted rosettes
in the wallpaper, and felt herself
becoming her son's masterpiece.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

August 23: My Affairs Are in Order, Poetry Workshop, "You Prefer Quiet"

It's late, and the day has been busy.  I just finished preparing for teaching this week.  Heading back into an actual classroom this week.  Translation:  Make sure my affairs are in order.

Led a poetry workshop this evening.  Wrote with some really talented poets.  And I got about four new drafts of poems.  That's pretty miraculous.

And Saint Marty is very grateful for that.

You Prefer Quiet

by:  Martin Achatz

I pick up my pen, almost write your name.
But I don't. You wouldn't want me to
single you out, make you sit at the head
table, endure toasts, well-wishes, cake.
No. You prefer quiet. You told me this, texted
"Quiet is better" one night when I complained
about silence that followed an argument
at home. You always keep quiet close by, walk
down the road with it, pockets stuffed with apples
to feed the old mare. At night, you make yourself
a mojito after you put your life to bed. Imagine
you're Hemingway in Key West. As you sip
your drink, you can almost hear a six-toed
cat pad across your kitchen floor in the dark.

August 20,21, 22: A Lot of Books With Me, E.T., Panic Grass and Feverfew

Merton in Rome with another toothache . . .

So there I was, with all the liberty that I had been promising myself for so long. The world was mine. How did I like it? I was doing just what I pleased, and instead of being filled with happiness and well-being, I was miserable. The love of pleasure is destined by its very nature to defeat itself and end in frustration. But I was one of the last men in the world who would have been convinced by the wisdom of a St. John of the Cross in those strange days. 

But now I was entering a city which bears living testimony to these truths, to those who can see it, to those who know where to look for it—to those who know how to compare the Rome of the Caesars with the Rome of the martyrs. 

I was entering the city that had been thus transformed by the Cross. Square white apartment houses were beginning to appear in thick clusters at the foot of the bare, grey-green hills, with clumps of cypress here and there, and presently over the roofs of the buildings, I saw, rising up in the dusk, the mighty substance of St. Peter’s dome. The realization that it was not a photograph filled me with great awe. 

My first preoccupation in Rome was to find a dentist. The people in the hotel sent me to one nearby. There were a couple of nuns in the waiting room. After they left, I entered. The dentist had a brown beard. I did not trust my Italian for so important a matter as a toothache. I spoke to him in French. He knew a little French. And he looked at the tooth. 

He knew what he thought was wrong with it, but he did not know the technical word in French.

“Ah,” he said, “vous avez un colpo d’aria.” 

I figured it out easily enough to mean that I had caught a chill in my tooth—according to this man with the brown beard. But still, cowardice closed my mouth, and I was content not to argue that I thought it was by no means a chill, but an abscess. 

“I shall treat it with ultra-violet rays,” said the dentist. With a mixture of relief and scepticism, I underwent this painless and futile process. It did nothing whatever to relieve the toothache. But I left with warm assurances from the dentist that it would all disappear during the night. 

Far from disappearing during the night, the toothache did what all toothaches do during the night: kept me awake, in great misery, cursing my fate. 

The next morning I got up and staggered back to my friend colpo d’aria next door. I met him coming down the stairs with his beard all brushed and a black hat on his head, with gloves and spats and everything. Only then did I realize that it was Sunday. However, he consented to give a look at the chilled tooth. 

In a mixture of French and Italian he asked me if I could stand ether. I said yes, I could. He draped a clean handkerchief over my nose and mouth and dropped a couple of drops of ether on it. I breathed deeply, and the sweet sick knives of the smell reached in to my consciousness and the drumming of the heavy dynamos began. I hoped that he wasn’t breathing too deeply himself, or that his hand wouldn’t slip, and spill the whole bottle of it in my face. 

However, a minute or two later I woke up again and he was waving the red, abscessed roots of the tooth in my face and exclaiming: “C’est fini!” 

I moved out of my hotel and found a pensione with windows that looked down on the sunny Triton fountain in the middle of the Piazza Barberini and the Bristol Hotel and the Barberini Cinema and the Barberini Palace, and the maid brought me some hot water to treat the boil on my arm. I went to bed and tried to read a novel by Maxim Gorki which very quickly put me to sleep. 

I had been in Rome before, on an blaster vacation from school, for about a week. I had seen the Forum and the Colosseum and the Vatican museum and St. Peter’s. But I had not really seen Rome.

This time, I started out again, with the misconception common to AngloSaxons, that the real Rome is the Rome of the ugly ruins, the Rome of all those grey cariated temples wedged in between the hills and the slums of the city. I tried to reconstruct the ancient city, in my mind—a dream which did not work very well, because of the insistent shouting of the sellers of postcards who beset me on every side. After a few days of trying the same thing, it suddenly struck me that it was not worth the trouble. It was so evident, merely from the masses of stone and brick that still represented the palaces and temples and baths, that imperial Rome must have been one of the most revolting and ugly and depressing cities the world has ever seen. In fact, the ruins with cedars and cypresses and umbrella pines scattered about among them were far more pleasant than the reality must have been. 

However, I still roamed about the museums, especially the one in the Baths of Diocletian, which had also been, at one time, a Carthusian monastery—probably not a very successful one—and I studied Rome in a big learned book that I had bought, together with an old second-hand Baedeker in French.

And after spending the day in museums and libraries and bookstores and among the ruins, I would come home again and read my novels. In fact, I was also beginning to write one of my own, although I did not get very far with it as long as I was at Rome. 

I had a lot of books with me—a strange mixture: Dryden, the poems of D. H. Lawrence, some Tauchnitz novels, and James Joyce’s Ulysses in a fancy India-paper edition, slick and expensive, which I lent to someone, later on, and never got back.

If you can get past the horrific dentist scenes in thia passage (which is the stuff of nightmares), you may find Merton's tourist experience of Rome, at least at this point in his memoir, fairly typical.  I know that, when I go on trips to new places, I find myself both drawn to all that's new around me, but also retreating sometimes to the familiar (books or poems or people). It's what keeps me grounded.  Reminds me who I am.

I just started teaching last week at the university.  As with most things in this pandemic, it was an exercise in re-invention and re-imagination.  It's like visiting Rome for the first time.  I've read about all the places, studied pictures and maps, but I'm finding the actual experience of the city completely unexpected.  The Colosseum and St. Peter's Basilica and Sistine Chapel are Martian landscapes.  Alien.  Extraterrestrial.  As if Michelangelo was a Jedi night, and the entire city a Vulcan temple.

In fact, most of 2020 has been like that for me, even before Covid-19 infected the public consciousness.  I sort of feel like E. T., lost on a strange planet, not quite knowing how to get home.  I wander around most days, searching for something that reminds me of my old life.  But my old life has been disassembled and scattered to the far reaches of the galaxy. 

So, I'm sitting on my couch right now.  Most people in my household are asleep.  I have music going in my ears.  Modern and instrumental, it was an album sent to me by a friend who understands my struggles.  Has been where I am right now.  Stranded and alone.  This person doesn't offer advice or tell me what to do.  Instead, I get music and jokes texted to me, with comments like, "This helped me."

Music and books and writing and close friends like this.  That's pretty much how I've made it so far in this alien year.  And I have a feeling, by December 31, I'm not even going to recognize who I am.  E. T., in order to get back home, had to die, if you remember.  And then he was resurrected, like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon, or Christ walking out of the tomb.  In any time of great upheaval, the struggle is always followed by rejuvenation.  Months after the Hiroshima bombing, panic grass and feverfew reclaimed the ruins of the city, a "vivd, lush, optimistic green." 

I am waiting for the panic grass and feverfew.  The Christmas-ball spaceship to descend from the heavens. 

Saint Marty is ready to return to his home planet.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

August 19: Saint Francis, Suffering, Anniversary of Sister's Death

Thomas Merton travelling and getting sick again . . .

Then I found the villa of the people I had met at Saint Tropez, and stayed there a couple of days, and finally, fed up with walking, and seeing that I would probably be bored with the rest of the road along the coast, I got on the train and went to Genoa. 

Perhaps the boredom that I felt had its roots in some physical cause, because the first morning I woke up in Genoa, with a bunch of Italian housepainters working on the roof outside my window, I was out of sorts and had a great boil on my elbow, which I clumsily tried to heal by my own private treatments, which did not work. 

So I cashed my letter of credit and got on another train and went to Florence, where I had another letter of introduction to a man who was a sculptor. Florence was freezing. I took a trolley out across the Arno, and found the steep road up the hill where my man lived, and climbed it in the icy silence of a Tuscan winter evening. At first I thought nobody was going to answer my knock on the big hollow-sounding door, but presently an old Italian cook came out, and led me in to the studio where I made myself known and explained that I had a boil on my elbow. So the cook got some hot water and I sat in the dry dust of plaster and among the stone chips around the base of some half-finished work, and talked to the sculptor while his cook fixed up a poultice for my boil. 

The artist was the brother of the former Headmaster of Oakham, the one who had preceded Doherty. I had seen some of his bas-reliefs which decorated the front of the school chapel. He was not as old as his brother, the ex-head. But he was a kind, stoop-shouldered person with greying hair, and had most of the old head’s geniality. He said to me: “I was thinking of going down and seeing the Greta Garbo film in town this evening. Do you like Greta Garbo?” 

I admitted that I did. “Very well, then,” he said, “we will go.” 

But Florence was too cold, and I thought the boil was getting better. So the next day I left, on the way to Rome. I was tired of passing through places. I wanted to get to the term of my journey, where there was some psychological possibility that I would stop in one place and remain. 

The train ambled slowly through the mountains of Umbria. The blue sky glared down upon the rocks. The compartment was empty save for myself, and nobody got in until one of the last stations before Rome. All day I stared out at the bare hills, at the wild, ascetic landscape. Somewhere out there, on one of those mountains, St. Francis had been praying and the seraph with the fiery, blood-red wings had appeared before him with the Christ in the midst of those wings: and from the wounds, other wounds had been nailed in Francis’s hands and feet and side. If I had thought of that, that day, it would have been all I needed to complete the discouragement of my pagan soul, for it turned out that the boil was no better after all, and that I had another toothache. For that matter, my head felt as if I had a fever as well, and I wondered if the old business of blood-poisoning was starting once again.

Merton is moving toward his religious conversion in fits and starts.  Every once in a while, he comes close to people, like Saint Francis, who might have made a difference in his untutored soul had he encountered them.  Saint Francis, the first known person who suffered from stigmata.  Francis embraced his suffering, felt that it brought him closer to the life of Christ.  Merton, with his boil and toothache and possible blood poisoning, suffers without this meaning.

I'm not saying that suffering is good.  It isn't.  It's our reaction to suffering that makes the difference.  Some people wallow.  Others place blame.  Still others seek escape.  And then, the rare few, let suffering refine them, make them better human beings.  Regardless, suffering plain sucks.  Especially if it seems pointless and arbitrary.

Today was the five-year anniversary of the death of my sister, Sally.  Lymphoma of the brain took her.  Her suffering was long and, from my point of view,  needless.  She was a good person.  Generous and loving to everyone in her family.  A person you could depend upon.  An anchor.

Now, don't misunderstand me here.  Sally wasn't a saint by any means.  She was very human, with very human flaws.  Sometimes, she pissed me off.  A lot.  There were times when we didn't speak to each other.  For weeks.  However, even in those times of struggle, she still had my back, and I had hers.

I dreamed of her last night.  Felt her with me most of today.  I wouldn't say I was haunted by her.  She's just hasn't strayed much from my thoughts.  I find it difficult to believe that five years have passed since that morning I stood near the foot of her bed and watched her take that last breath.

This year has been one of suffering for many people.  I'm not unique in any way.  In fact, I would venture to say that I'm fairly ordinary is this respect.  But, today--and tonight--I've been really struggling.  Most of my life, I've believed in the power of love to overcome anything.  It's what I was taught in catechism as a young boy.  As the old hymn goes, "Jesus loves me, this I know . . . "  Love is what saves the world.  Turns tragedy into meaning.  I've always believed that.

That belief has been shaken a lot recently.  It seems to me, on this anniversary night of my sister's death, that love may have a beginning, middle, and end.  And what comes after?  Loss?  Grief?  Anger?  Tears?  Doubr?  I will admit that my Higher Power and I haven't been talking a lot recently.  The conversation has consisted of a lot of finger-pointing and fuck you-ing.

There isn't going to be much light at the end of my post this evening.  I apologize for that.  My sister is still dead.  The pandemic is still raging.  Donald Trump is still President of the United States.  And love still isn't enough to avoid suffering.  Sometimes, all that exists is suffering, and it goes on and on and on.

I'm waiting for some kind of salvation to materialize.

Saint Marty is surrounded by ghosts.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

August 16: I Had Escaped, Brain Dead, "Starfish Have No Brains"

Merton trying to find himself:

I started out from Hyères again, this time more weary and depressed, walking among the pines, under the hot sun, looking at the rocks and the yellow mimosas and the little pink villas and the light blazing on the sea. That night I came down a long hill in the dusk to a hamlet called Cavalaire, and slept in a boarding house full of somber retired accountants who drank vin-rosé with their wives under the dim light of weak electric bulbs, and I went to bed and dreamt that I was in jail. 

At Saint Tropez I had a letter of introduction to a friend of Tom’s, a man with t.b., living in a sunny house on top of a hill, and there I met a couple of Americans who had rented a villa in the hills behind Cannes and they invited me there, when I came that way. 

On the way to Cannes, I got caught by a storm, towards evening, in the mountains of the Esterel, and was picked up by a chauffeur driving a big fancy Delage. I slung my rucksack off my shoulder and threw it in the back seat and settled down, with the warmth of the motor seeping up through the boards and into my wet, tired feet. The chauffeur was an Englishman who had an auto-hiring business in Nice and said he had just picked up the Lindbergh family off the liner at Villefranche and had taken them somewhere down the road here. At Cannes he took me to a very dull place, a club for English chauffeurs and sailors off the yachts of the rich people who were wintering on the Riviera. There I ate ham and eggs and watched the chauffeurs politely playing billiards, and grew depressed at the smell of London that lingered in the room—the smell of English cigarettes and English beer. It reminded me of the fogs I thought I had escaped.

Merton is running from something.  His past?  The loss of his mother and father?  England?  God?  He's recently suffered a near-fatal illness, where he came face-to-face with his unbelief in anything divine.  He's lost, it seems.  Not sure where he belongs, or if he wants to belong anywhere.  So he keeps moving.

I felt a little lost today myself.  Trying to plan for a semester at college that is simply unstable.  I have to be ready for just about any teaching possibility--face-to-face, online, a mixture of both.  I spent six hours today getting ready for the impending first class.  Finishing touches on syllabi.  Lesson planning.  Reading.  E-mailing.  Revising.  I'm too exhausted to really put together a coherent blog post tonight.  I'm brain dead.

I will say, though, that it's work I enjoy.  The challenge of how to teach a group of young people to feel as much passion as I do for a subject.  It satisfies something inside me that my other jobs don't.  It's soulful and energizing, like writing poetry in a way.  I come alive in a classroom like no other place.  I belong there.  I know that.  Merton is lost, and I am found.

And for that miracle, Saint Marty gives thanks.

A poem about being brainless and lost . . .

Starfish Have No Brains

by:  Martin Achatz

Starfish have no brains, so they can't assemble pieces to create a whole picture.

They live on image and instant.  Emerald sea.  First kiss.  Coral.  Parrot fish and salt.  Long embraces, arm in arm in arm in arm in arm.  Moonlit beach, tide.  Bark of seal.  Coming together.  Collision of heavenly bodies.  Seagull shriek.  Crab scuttle.  Separation.  Moan of whale under black skies.  Emptiness.

If the starfish had a brain, he would throw himself into barracuda jaw, cormorant beak.  Allow himself to bake in sun.

Instead, he just counts waves.  One wave.  One wave.  One wave.  One wave.  Never getting to two.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

August 15: Weekends, "Shazam!", "Catfish Have 27,000 Taste Buds"

Allow me to set Thomas Merton aside for one more day.

I have to say that my weekends are almost as busy as my weekdays.  A different kind of busy, of course.  During the week, I'm a office worker and English professor.  On the weekend, I'm a church musician and writer.  I don't get much time for those activities Monday through Friday.

I took my son to see a movie tonight.  Because of the lack of new releases, my local multiplex has started showing older films.  This week, they range from Gone With the Wind to The Lego Batman Movie.  We went to see Shazam!, which was quite good.

When we got home, I made dinner for my daughter, and then I sat down and finished writing a poem I started a couple days ago.  I know that most of my day tomorrow will be spent on school stuff, so I allowed myself some fun tonight.

Saint Marty is tired.  Exhausted really.  But happy for the miracle of a brand new poem . . .

Catfish Have 27,000 Taste Buds

by:  Martin Achatz

Catfish have 27,000 taste buds but spend their lives at rock bottom of river, crick, marsh, with no ambition to rise.  Instead, they comb their whiskers with clay, know the flavor of each intimate piece of universe that enters their bodies.

They are algae, crawfish, caddis fly, frog, clam, blueberry.  Munch up and down the food chain, frequent greasy spoons and Michelin stars.  A catfish once ate an eagle feather, dreamed of clouds, sky for weeks.  Another swallowed a used condom, felt guilty for cheating on his wife.

Cut a catfish open, you might find car keys you lost last Friday, or your sister who died of lymphoma five years ago.  Dinosaurs or ice ages, dark matter or da Vinci.  One catfish contains multitudes, can feed 5,000, with 15 baskets left over for breakfast.

Nietzsche said God is dead.  He isn't.  He's inside a catfish belly, playing pinochle, waiting to be caught, filleted, breaded, fried into rapture with grits.

August 14: Long Week, Fluid Semester, "A Pig's Orgasm Lasts 30 Minutes"

Another short post this evening.

It has been a long week.  Next week will be longer as I head back into the classroom at the university.  I would be lying if I didn't admit to a certain amount of anxiety about the prospect.  However, throughout the pandemic, I've been a frontline worker in healthcare, even though I've been an insulin-dependent diabetic since I was thirteen.  For me, it's either work, and risk exposure to Covid, or not work, and lose everything.  So, heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it's off to work I go.

Of course, the administration at the university keeps using the term "fluid" when describing this upcoming semester.  Translation:  face-to-face classes could be cancelled before we ever meet face-to-face.  It's Orwellian double-speak.  All summer long, I've received e-mails from the college telling me to be prepared to "pivot" this fall with my teaching.  Fluid.  Pivot.  I'm learning an entire new educational vocabulary.

I'm not complaining.  It's just my reality, and the reality of every teacher across the United States and world.  Teach in a classroom, but be prepared to teach online.  Teach half in-person, half-online, but don't diminish any of the class content.  Teach completely online, but somehow keep the entire class engaged.  I've been teaching in higher education for over 25 years, and I have never faced so many challenges.

So, tonight, I am slightly overwhelmed.  I will get over it.  And I'll be fluid, ready to pivot when I need to.  If there's one thing that 2020 has taught me, it's that nothing is certain.  (It has also taught me how to smile with my eyes while mouthing the words "fuck you" behind my face mask.  See, face masks are effective.)

I have another new poem to share this evening.  At least, I think it's a poem, or will be, eventually.  Written last night, it is about pig orgasms.  Something to take my mind off the coming days.

Saint Marty is ready for a miraculous weekend.

A Pig's Orgasm Lasts 30 Minutes

by:  Martin Achatz

A pig's orgasm lasts 30 minutes.  This from a pig farmer who hasn't slept in two weeks.

His wife left him.  His children, one by one, have disappeared, leaving notes on the kitchen table:  "I am tired of so much passion."

Now that he is alone, some nights, the pig farmer stumbles into the barn to watch the swine orgy, listen to their sweaty foreplay, satisfied thrusting grunts.  And then, after several minutes, the moment arrives.  Long and loud as an air raid siren, it goes on and on and on and on, makes the cows in their stalls look up with envy, the mares in the corral nicker, tremble in want.

And the pig farmer sits in the manure pile, wonders if his wife still wears her wedding ring.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

August 13: Writing with an Old Friend, Rekindle, "Butterflies Taste with Their Feet"

I spent this evening writing with an old friend.  Someone who I've known for over 30 years, and who shares my penchant for poetry and literature and dark humor.  We've reconnected after a very long time of being unconnected, and it seems as though we've picked up our friendship right where it left off.

It feels good to rekindle old friendships.  Even miraculous.

And for that, Saint Marty gives thanks.

Here is something I wrote this evening . . .

Butterflies Taste with Their Feet

Butterflies taste with their feet, nibble the world with each step, flit like debutantes from one cotillion to another.  They don't glut or gorge.  They're dainty in their waltzes, summer dresses.

I loved a butterfly once, took her to movies where she nestled on my buttery fingers as I ate popcorn.  Brought her home for Thanksgiving.  My mother smiled, said she had a good appetite, landing on the white meat, dark meat, canned cranberry, Stove Top, pumpkin pie.

Ours was a romance for the ages.  Romeo and Juliet.  Jane Eyre and Rochester.  Shakespeare and his Dark Lady.  Me and my butterfly, her wings the color of carrot and saffron.  I still dream of our time together.  How she would crawl over my body, taste my skin.  At rosy-fingered dawn, I would find myself blossoming, bursting open, unfolding my petals toward the long light of day. 

My pillow still smells of pollen.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

August 12: Having a Good Time, Addiction, Ptolemaic Universe

Thomas Merton meditates on pleasure-seeking . . .

Already at Avignon I foresaw that I was going to run out of money before I got to Genoa. I had a letter of credit on a bank there. So from Avignon I wrote back to Tom asking for money. From Marseilles I started out on foot along the coast, walking on the white mountain road, overlooking the bright blue water, having on my hip a flask of rum and in the rucksack some more of the same novels. At Cassis all the restaurants were crammed with people who had come out from Marseilles for the day, since it was Sunday, and I had to wait long for my bouillabaisse. It was dark by the time I arrived at the grim little port of La Ciotat, under its sugarloaf rock. Tired, I sat on the jetty and contemplated the moon. 

At Hyéres I had to wait a couple of days before the money arrived, and when it did, the letter that went with it was filled with sharp reproofs. Tom, my guardian, took occasion of my impracticality to call attention to most of my other faults as well, and I was very humiliated. So after a month of my precious liberty, I received my first indication that my desires could never be absolute: they must necessarily be conditioned and modified by contacts and conflicts with the desires and interests of others. This was something that it would take me a long time to find out, and indeed in the natural order alone I would never really get to understand it. I believed in the beautiful myth about having a good time so long as it does not hurt anybody else. You cannot live for your own pleasure and your own convenience without inevitably hurting and injuring the feelings and the interests of practically everybody you meet. But, as a matter of fact, in the natural order no matter what ideals may be theoretically possible, most people more or less live for themselves and for their own interests and pleasures or for those of their own family or group, and therefore they are constantly interfering with one another’s aims, and hurting one another and injuring one another, whether they mean it or not.

Having a good time, so long as it doesn't hurt anybody else.  That seems like a philosophy a teenager (even one who will grow up to be a Trappist monk) might subscribe to.  There's something incredibly self-centered in this way of thinking, and most teenagers don't have the wisdom or experience to see the larger picture.

Some adults have this myopic vision, as well.  I have learned this fact from observing and dealing with the addicts in my life.  Instead of seeing the pain and damage they cause, addicts simply look for their next fix, without thought of significant others, children, pets, careers, or God.  Their religion is their addiction, and they use all kinds of things to justify their actions.  "I deserve this."  "I'm tired of being controlled."  "My kid can take care of herself."  "I can handle it."  "This is who I am."  Lie upon lie upon lie, because the truth is too difficult.  (Cue Jack Nicholson:  "You want the truth?!  You can't handle the truth?!")

Addicts are stuck in a Ptolemaic universe.  Ptolemy had a geocentric view--the stars, moon, sun, comets, everything revolved around a stationary Earth.  Addicts (and most teenagers) share this characteristic.  Everything revolves around them and their needs and wants.  If you don't fit into this orbit, you are in for a world of hurt, until the addicts experience a moment of clarity or die.  Sometimes it takes a lifetime of moments of clarity.  They have to learn and relearn the fact that their actions hurt the people who love them.  Over and over and over.  For some addicts, that moment of clarity comes too late.  Children grow tired of playing second fiddle; significant others, being emotional punching bags; and family members, enduring years of embarrassment and disappointment.

Love doesn't die.  It simply develops a very thick skin.  A protective coating, if you will, impervious to the slings and arrows of addiction.  Eventually, if addicts hold on to this Ptolemaic philosophy, they will find that all their moons and suns and stars have moved on.  What's left?  Lifeless rocks.  Black holes, maybe.  Vacuum.  Emptiness.

If you can't tell, I'm having a reflective night.  Wrestling with a lot of difficult emotions.  Earlier, I stepped outside to take my puppy for a short walk.  She is my therapy dog, in a lot of ways, reminding me daily what unconditional love really feels like.  As I started down the block, I looked up.  The clouds were on fire, as if God was trying to knock me over with beauty.

It worked.

I realized that I had been stuck in my own little Ptolemaic universe for most of the day, solely focused on my problems.  I finished my walk, came home, and gave my puppy a couple of treats.  Then, I filled out a survey that, for some reason, I received in the mail from the Trump Presidential Campaign--wrote all of my opinions on it in very thick, very dark magic marker ("You are a racist!" and "You are responsible for the deaths of over 150,00 Americans!" and "I don't support White Supremacists!").  That made me feel better.  Finally, I sat down to write this blog post.

The addicts in my life are still addicts.  I can't do anything to change that.  They are their own universes, slowly moving toward collapse.  However, there is beauty all around me.  I just have to raise my head, look up.

For that fiery miracle, Saint Marty gives thanks.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

August 9, 10, 11: On the Way to Italy, Highly Functioning Introvert, "The Peace of Starry Things"

Merton takes his final exams and graduates . . .

As for the Cistercian abbey, which was the scene of these meditations, I did not think much about it at all. I had wandered through the ruins of the old buildings, and had stood in the parish church that had taken over the old refectory of the monks, and I had tasted a little of the silence and peacefulness of the greensward under the trees, where the cloister used to be. But it was all in the usual picnic spirit with which the average modern Englishman visits one of his old abbeys. If he does happen to wonder what kind of men once lived in such places, or why they ever did so, he does not ask himself if people still try to do the same thing today. That would seem to him a kind of impertinence. But by this time I had practically lost all interest in such speculations. What did I care about monks and monasteries? The world was going to open out before me, with all its entertainments, and everything would be mine and with my intelligence and my five sharp senses I would rob all its treasures and rifle its coffers and empty them all. And I would take what pleased me, and the rest I would throw away. And if I merely felt like spoiling the luxuries I did not want to use, I would spoil them and misuse them, to suit myself, because I was master of everything. It did not matter that I would not have much money: I would have enough, and my wits would do the rest. And I was aware that the best pleasures can be had without very much money—or with none at all. 

I was at the house of one of my friends from school when the results of the higher certificate came out in September, and I could not decently indulge all my vanity at my success, because he had failed. However, he and I were to go up to Cambridge together for the scholarship examinations that December. 

Andrew was the son of a country parson in the Isle of Wight and he had been cricket captain at Oakham. He wore horn-rimmed spectacles and had a great chin that he held up in the air, and a lock of black hair fell down over his forehead, and he was one of the school intellectuals. He and I used to work, or rather sit, in the library at Oakham, with many books open before us, but talking about impertinent matters and drinking a foul purple concoction called Vimto out of bottles which we concealed under the table or behind the volumes of the Dictionary of National Biography. 

He had discovered a black book called, as I think, The Outline of Modern Knowledge, which was something that had just come to the library and was full of information about psychoanalysis. Indeed, it went into some details of psychoanalytical fortune-telling by the inspection of faeces which I never ran into anywhere else, and which I still preserved enough sense to laugh at, at that time. But later, at Cambridge, psychoanalysis was to provide me with a kind of philosophy of life and even a sort of pseudo-religion which was nearly the end of me altogether. By that time, Andrew himself had lost interest in it. 

When we went up to the university, to sit for the scholarship exam, in the dank heavy-hanging mists of December, I spent most of the time between papers devouring D. H. Lawrence’s Fantasia of the Unconscious which, even as psychoanalysis, is completely irresponsible and, just as it says, a fantasia. Lawrence picked up a lot of terms like “lumbar ganglion” and threw them all together and stewed them up with his own worship of the sex-instinct to produce the weird mixture which I read as reverently as if it were some kind of sacred revelation, sitting in the rooms of an undergraduate who liked Picasso, but who had gone down for the Christmas vacation. Andrew, for his part, was at St. Catherine’s, terrified of a tutor who had a reputation for being a very ferocious person. All that week I sat under the high, silent rafters of the Hall, at Trinity College, and covered long sheets of foolscap with my opinions concerning Molière and Racine and Balzac and Victor Hugo and Goethe and Schiller and all the rest, and a few days after it was all over, we looked in the Times and this time both Andrew and I had succeeded. We were exhibitioners, he at St. Catherine’s and I at Clare, while his study-mate, Dickens, who was the only other person at Oakham besides myself who liked hot records, had another exhibition at St. John’s. 

My satisfaction was very great. I was finished with Oakham—not that I disliked the school, but I was glad of my liberty. Now, at last, I imagined that I really was grown up and independent, and I could stretch out my hands and take all the things I wanted. 

So during the Christmas holidays I ate and drank so much and went to so many parties that I made myself sick. 

But I picked myself up, and dusted myself off, and on January 31st of the New Year, my eighteenth birthday, Tom took me to the Café Anglais and treated me to champagne and the next day I was off on the way to Italy.

Thomas Merton, not yet 20 years old, has seen more of this planet than I have, or probably ever will.  That doesn't mean that he was wiser as a teenager than I am right now.  Experience of the world doesn't inherently impart knowledge.  Just because a person has visited the Colosseum doesn't make her an expert on ancient Roman culture, any more than standing in front of Vincent van Gogh's Sunflowers means that I know everything there is to know about the color yellow or Expressionism.

I prefer living in a small town versus a big city.  Large gatherings of people made me slightly uncomfortable before the pandemic, and now, having been social distancing for close to five months now, I'm not sure I would even know how to interact in a crowd.  Small talk is not one of my talents. When I do attend a party, I seek out one familiar face and generally ignore the throngs.

Not many people know this about me.  I am a highly functioning introvert.  I can be engaged, talk in front of an audience, exchange pleasantries.  However, it takes a lot out of me.  After attending such an event, I need to recharge my batteries.  Translation:  I socially isolate.  That's right.  If ordered to stay-at-home for the rest of the year 2020, I could easily survive, even thrive.

Writer Willa Cather once wrote, "Most of the material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen."  There's a great deal of wisdom in her observation.  Writer's don't need trips to Italy.  They don't even have to look further than their own backyards for subject matter.

On Sunday night, I had a one-on-one Zoom poetry workshop with a dear friend of mine.  I've known her since she was a teenager who was into poetry and theater, and I was a just twenty-something writer and teacher.  After we were done, I stepped into my backyard and wrote down what I saw.  I titled it "The Peace of Starry Things" (with thanks to Wendell Berry):

I find myself weary of day, empty of caring whether beds are made, dishes done, bills paid.  I have nothing left to give this greedy life, where everything has a mouth.  So, I step outside, into night, am swallowed whole, feel myself rattle against the teeth of the universe.  Above, around me, stars chew the darkness.  I stand beneath them, know that some have already winked out, gone nova, big banged, black holed.  They've evolved into something brighter or blacker, consumed everything around them in the gravity of their becoming or unbecoming.  They pour into the husk of me now--soles, toes, calves, knees, thighs, pelvis, sex, belly, chest, shoulders, arms, palms, fingers, neck, jaw, cheeks, ears, skull--until I pulse and brim with the peace of starry things.

Saint Marty gives thanks for the miracle of his backyard.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

August 8: Recover my Equilibrium, True Love, Disney Versus Pixar

Merton falls in love again . . .

I got out of the sanatorium in a month or six weeks. With the end of June, came our big examination—the higher certificate, which I took in French and German and Latin. Then we went away for the vacation, and I settled down to wait until September for the results of the exam. Pop and Bonnemaman and John Paul were once again in Europe for the summer, and we all spent a couple of months in a big, dreary hotel in Bournemouth, standing on top of a cliff and facing the sea with a battery of white iron balconies, painted silver, so that they gleamed in the pale, English summer sun and in the morning mist. I will not go into the emotions of that summer, in which I and a girl I met there kept going through storms of sentiment alternating with adolescent quarrels, during which I used to escape from Bournemouth into the Dorset downs and wander around for the whole day in the country trying to recover my equilibrium. 

But at the end of the summer, when she went back to London, and my family also took the boat at Southampton and went home, I packed up my rucksack and went into the New Forest, with a pup tent, and sat down under some pine trees at the edge of a common a couple of miles from Brockenhurst. Oh, the tremendous loneliness of that first night in the forest!  The frogs sang in the brackish stream, and the fireflies played in the gorse, and occasionally a lone car would pass along the distant road, exaggerating the silence by the sound that died in the wake of its passing. And I sat in the door of my tent, uneasily trying to digest the eggs and bacon I had fried and the bottle of cider I had brought out from the village. 

She had said she would write me a letter, addressed to the post office at Brockenhurst, as soon as she got home, but I thought this camp site at the edge of the common was too dreary. Besides, the water of the stream tasted funny and I thought maybe I might get poisoned, so I moved on down toward Beaulieu, where I did not have to eat my own cooking, but ate in an inn. And I spent the afternoon lying in the grass in front of the old Cistercian abbey, copiously pitying myself for my boredom and for the loneliness of immature love. At the same time, however, I was debating in my mind whether to go to a “Gymkhana,” that is a sort of a polite amateur horse-show, and mingle with all the gentry of the county, perhaps meeting someone even more beautiful than the girl for whom I thought I was, at the moment, pining away even unto death. However, I wisely decided to avoid the tents of such a dull affair.

Love is a difficult thing.  Most modern movies would have you believe that, after a bunch of complications and confusements, the boy and girl declare their undying love for each other, get married, and live happily ever after.  It doesn't quite work like that.  Even after saying "I do" to each other, the boy and girl will continue to experience complications and confusements until death they do part.

I hate to sound like a pessimist, but those are the facts.  Fairy tale endings are just that--fairy tales.  In reality, true love is hard work, day after day.  Some days are easier than others, and some are harder.  If you aren't up for that, I would recommend moving to marsh in North Carolina and living in a shack.  Or finding a religious order that requires a vow of isolation.  That's the only way to avoid heartbreak that I can think of, and, even with those precautions in place, love may still find you, and, therefore, heartbreak, too.

Now, the question to ask is this:  is love worth the heartbreak?  At the moment, I'm not sure I can answer that question.  In fact, I don't think I will ever be able to answer it.  At various times during my life, my kids have declared, loudly, "I hate you!"  I think that's some kind of rite of passage for children.  My wife and I have tottered back and forth between stability and collapse in our marriage, due to various issues.  Mental illness and sexual addiction primarily.

I truly wish that Walt Disney was right.  I want to live in a feature cartoon where, after defeating the evil queen's wicked spell, boy and girl ride off in a horse-drawn carriage as the music swells and 5,000 doves take wing.  I don't want to be in a Pixar movie, where true love ends in the jaws of a hungry barracuda in the first five minutes, or in a montage that covers a love from first kiss to last breath in about two minutes.

 I am not going to give you any kind of definitive answer in this post tonight.  I don't know if love is worth heartbreak.  Just like I don't know if I'm in a Disney or Pixar movie.  Happily ever after or barracuda attack.  Falling in love is easy.  Staying in love--that's where it gets tricky.                                     
Saint Marty will sleep tonight, dreaming Disney dreams.  A couple wine coolers will help with that.  The miracle of alcohol.

Friday, August 7, 2020

August 5, 6, and 7: Elaborate and Tricky, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Nephew's Birthday

Merton recovering from gangrene . . .

The big gift God gave me was that I got well. They bundled me up and put me on a stretcher with blankets all up around my face and nothing sticking out but my nose, and carried me across the stone quadrangle where my friends were playing “quad-cricket” with a sawed-off bat and a grey tennis ball. They stood aside in awe as I passed on the way to the school sanatorium. 

I had explained to the doctor about my foot, and they came and cut off the toenail and found the toe full of gangrene. But they gave me some antitoxin and did not have to cut off the toe. Dr. McTaggart came around every day or two to treat the infected place in my mouth, and gradually I began to get better, and to eat, and sit up, and read my filthy novels again. Nobody thought of prohibiting them, because nobody else had heard of the authors. 

It was while I was in the sanatorium that I wrote a long essay on the modern novel—Gide, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Jules Romains, Dreiser, and so on, for the Bailey English Prize, and won a lot of books bound in treecalf for my efforts. 

Two attempts were made to convert me to less shocking tastes. The music master lent me a set of records of Bach’s B Minor Mass, which I liked, and sometimes played on my portable gramophone, which I had with me in the big airy room looking out on the Headmaster’s garden. But most of the time I played the hottest and loudest records, turning the vie towards the classroom building, eighty yards away across the flowerbeds, hoping that my companions, grinding out the syntax of Virgil’s Georgics, would be very envious of me. 

The other loan was that of a book. The Headmaster came along, one day, and gave me a little blue book of poems. I looked at the name on the back. “Gerard Manley Hopkins.” I had never heard of him. But I opened the book, and read the “Starlight Night” and the Harvest poem and the most lavish and elaborate early poems. I noticed that the man was a Catholic and a priest and, what is more, a Jesuit. 

I could not make up my mind whether I liked his verse or not. 

It was elaborate and tricky and in places it was a little lush and overdone, I thought. Yet it was original and had a lot of vitality and music and depth. In fact the later poems were all far too deep for me, and I could not make anything out of them at all. 

Nevertheless, I accepted the poet, with reservations. I gave the book back to the Head, and thanked him, and never altogether forgot Hopkins, though I was not to read him again for several years.

I remember the first time I encountered Gerard Manley Hopkins.  Much like young Thomas Merton, I was around 14 or 15 years of age, and I didn't know what to make of Hopkins, with his sprung rhythm and strange language and imagery.  I think it was "The Windhover," and it was unlike any other kind of poetry I had ever encountered.  However, I was more intrigued by his life as a Jesuit priest/poet than his actual verse:

The Windhover

by:  Gerard Manley Hopkins

To Christ our Lord

I caught this morning morning's minion, king- 
     dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding 
     Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding 
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing 
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing, 
     As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding 
     Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding 
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing! 

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here 
     Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier! 

     No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion 
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear, 
     Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

See what I mean?  So strange and beautiful.  It confounded by teenage mind.  A Jesuit priest writing about Jesus Christ in a way I'd never experienced before.  The priests I had known up to that time in my life tried to bludgeon me with purity and sin.  This guy was gashing gold-vermilion all over the page.  I was drawn to him and his writing, but I didn't fully comprehend it.  That came in another five or six years.  Yet I always carried Hopkins around with me, kept returning to his poems, reciting them like weird psalms.

These last three days have been steeped in poetry.  Wednesday evening, I attended a socially-distanced open mic and read some of my new work.  Pandemic poetry and blog posts.  Last night, I led a socially-distanced poetry workshop, sitting by a lake in a public park, writing about peace on the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.  And then today, no work.  I took a vacation day to clean my house and write a poem for a memorial service that's being held this weekend.  Poetry leading into poetry culminating in poetry.

I had been working on that poem for about two weeks, struggling with it, as a matter of fact.  Then, somehow, last night, It fell into place during the poetry workshop.  It was as if my mind had worked out all the difficulties, and I just had to sit and take notes.  I gashed gold-vermilion all over the pages of my Moleskine.

Now, tonight, I'm beat.  I attended my nephew's birthday party earlier, and got to spend a few hours with some of the people I care about most on this planet.  It felt like a gift from the Windhover--joy and laughter and love.  No worries or fears.  And I felt free.  Hurl and gliding.

For the miracle of three days of poetry, a new poem, and his nephew's birthday celebration, Saint Marty gives thanks.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

August 4: The Economy of God's Love, Brand of Darkness, Unfocusing

Merton reflects on the death of the soul . . .

I wish I could give those who believe in God some kind of an idea of the state of a soul like mine was in then. But it is impossible to do it in sober, straight, measured, prose terms. And, in a sense, image and analog}’ would be even more misleading, by the very fact that they would have life in them, and convey the notion of some real entity, some kind of energy, some sort of activity. But my soul was simply dead. It was a blank, a nothingness. It was empty, it was a kind of a spiritual vacuum, as far as the supernatural order was concerned. Even its natural faculties were shrivelled husks of what they ought to have been. 

A soul is an immaterial thing. It is a principle of activity, it is an “act,” a “form,” an energizing principle. It is the life of the body, and it must also have a life of its own. But the life of the soul does not inhere in any physical, material subject. So to compare a soul without grace to a corpse without life is only a metaphor. But it is very true.

St. Teresa had a vision of hell. She saw herself confined in a narrow hole in a burning wall. The vision terrified her above all with the sense of the appalling stress of this confinement and heat. All this is symbolic, of course. But a poetic grasp of the meaning of the symbol should convey something of the experience of a soul which is reduced to an almost infinite limit of helplessness and frustration by the fact of dying in sin, and thus being eternally separated from the principle of all vital activity which, for the soul in its own proper order, means intellection and love. 

But I now lay on this bed, full of gangrene, and my soul was rotten with the corruption of my sins. And I did not even care whether I died or lived. 

The worst thing that can happen to anyone in this life is to lose all sense of these realities. The worst thing that had ever happened to me was this consummation of my sins in abominable coldness and indifference, even in the presence of death. 

What is more, there was nothing I could do for myself! There was absolutely no means, no natural means within reach, for getting out of that state. Only God could help me. Who prayed for me? One day I shall know. But in the economy of God’s love, it is through the prayers of other men that these graces are given. It was through the prayers of someone who loved God that I was one day, to be delivered out of that hell where I was already confined without knowing it.

I really love the term "the economy of God's love" for some reason.  The unending bounty of God's grace saves Merton from death of the body and soul.  While he lies in bed, incapacitated by illness--physical and spiritual--he is saved through the intercession of prayer.  Yet he has no idea who's praying for him.  He simply knows that, had it been left up to him, he would have gone to sleep and never woken up.  And he didn't care.

Merton identifies this indifference as being in a state of sin.  Perhaps he's right.  Or perhaps, after losing both of his parents and grappling with a painful adolescence, he's clinically depressed.  I know that, as a teenager, I wrestled with that particular brand of darkness on many occasions.  In fact, the summer after I graduated from high school, I lost a mentor to whom I was quite close, and I spent most of that June, July, and August sitting in my dark bedroom, unable to move.  I don't think I was in a state of sin, but I certainly didn't care whether I lived or died.

Writer William Styron, in his memoir Darkness Visible, says, "Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self—to the mediating intellect—as to verge close to being beyond description.”  There it us.  Unless you've experienced depression, there's really no way to fully understand it.  

Yet, I can tell you what depression isn't.  It isn't a state of sin.  Or a phase you grow out of or wake up from.  It's not a matter of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.  Or letting go and letting God.  It's not easy, in any way, and there's no magic pill that cures you.

That being said, I never underestimate the power of grace and prayer.  It is a powerful thing to lift someone up to God.  I do it on a daily basis.  Because I know there are things I just can't control or fix.  Not from lack of trying, but from trying and failing, over and over and over.  Then, after multiple failures, I step aside and let my Higher Power take over.

This evening, I was standing in my backyard near dusk.  My puppy was wandering around my feet, sniffing and barking.  After a few minutes, I noticed that the air around me was swarmed with tiny clouds of insects.   It was easy to overlook them, they were so masked by deep summer green.  I had to unfocus my eyes, look at the air without looking at the air.  Then they became visible.  An entire galaxy of insect life, moving like dust in motes of sunshine.

That is sort of the way I imagine God's grace.  All around us, alive and swarming.  We just choose to focus on the forest instead of the trees.  Or we can't focus on the trees or forest at all, because our darkness is too dark.  Our hole, too deep.

Like Merton, though, I know that I have been saved by the economy of God's love on many occasions.  I was probably saved by it tonight.  Will probably be saved by it tomorrow.  And the next day.  And the next.

Saint Marty just needs to unfocus his eyes, look without looking, at all the grace swarming around him.  And then give thanks.

Monday, August 3, 2020

August 3: Uncertain Faith, Delia Owens, Loon Calling

Thomas Merton contemplates death . . .

What a tremendous mercy it was that death did not take me at my word, that day, when I was still only seventeen years old.  What a thing it would have been if the trapdoors that were prepared for me had yawned and opened their blackness and swallowed me down in the middle of that sleep!  Oh, I tell you, it is a blessing beyond calculation that I woke up again, that day, or the following night, or in the week or two that came after.

And I lay there with nothing in my heart but apathy--there was a kind of pride and spite in it:  as if it was life's fault that I had to suffer a little discomfort, and for that I would show my scorn and hatred of life.  What was life?  Something existing apart from me, and separate from myself?  Don't worry.  I did not enter into any speculations.  I only thought, "If I have to die--what of it.  What do I care?  Let me die, then, and I'm finished."

Religious people, those who have faith and love God and realize what life is and what death means, and know what it is to have an immortal soul, do not understand how it is with the ones who have no faith, and who have already thrown away their souls.  They find it hard to conceive that anyone could enter into the presence of death without some kind of compunction.  But they should realize that millions of men die the way I was then prepared to die, the way I then might have died.

They might say to me:  "Surely you thought of God and you wanted to pray to Him for mercy?"

No.  As far as I remember, the thought of God, the thought of prayer did not even enter my mind, either that day, or all the rest of the time that I was ill, or that whole year, for that matter.  Or if the thought did come to me, it was only as an occasion for its denial and rejection.  I remember that in that year, when we stood in the chapel and recited the Apostle's Creed, I used to keep my lips tight shut, with full deliberation and of set purpose, by way of declaring my own creed which was " I believe in nothing."  Or at least I thought I believed in nothing.  Actually, I had only exchanged a certain faith, faith in God, Who is Truth, for a vague uncertain faith in the opinions and authority of men and pamphlets and newspapers--wavering and varying and contradictory opinions which I did not ever clearly understand.

There you have it.  A dark night of the soul.  Thomas Merton, at 17 years of age, stares into the abyss and says, "So what."  No bargaining or anger.  No praying for the mercy of God, because Merton doesn't believe in God.  He is thoroughly committed to the limits of human intellect, even if he doesn't fully understand what those limits are.

I found myself alone a lot today.  My wife was ill, so she didn't go to work.  So, I had lunch by myself, and cleaned a church this evening by myself.  When you're alone for extended periods of time, you have two choices:  find some kind of distraction (listening to an audio book, for example), or do some internal inventory and reckoning.

I chose the former, plugging myself into the novel Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens.  I didn't have the energy for any kind of introspection.  So, I waded into the marsh with Owens.  It was a good choice.  Owens has a way of making nature come alive.  Herons and bullfrogs and wild turkeys.  Of course, it helps that she is an award-winning nature writer and holds a PhD in Animal Behavior.  And I can get lost in her language, which edges toward poetry at times.

Because of this, I was feeling very zen when I got home from cleaning.  As I was sitting on my couch, I heard something I've never heard in my backyard before:  a loon.  It was amazing and musical.  At first, I thought it was coming from my daughter's room--she frequently plays video games and movies.  Then, I thought it was coming from my wife's phone.  My puppy was looking at me, tense, like a mouse trap ready to snap.  Then I heard the call again, right outside our living room window.

"Did you hear a loon?" I called to my wife, who was in our bedroom.

"I thought I was hearing things," she said.  "It can't be a loon."

There is a lake about three streets over from our house.  As a kid, I used to call it Mud Lake, because it was more swamp than water.  It's real name is Lake Bacon, which is another reason to love it.  In winters, as a kid, my brothers used to take me snowmobiling on its frozen surface--a wide, clear expanse of white that you could plow across at 50 miles per hour.

That is most likely where the loon was from.  Probably nesting there.  When I was in high school, there were swans on the lake, as well.  I'm not sure where they came from, but I remember seeing them gliding across the water like mist. 

After hearing the loon tonight, I was tempted to go into my backyard and call out, in my best Katharine Hepburn voice, "Norman!  The loons!  The loons!  They're welcoming us back!"  I didn't.  I'm already a little suspect for wandering the neighborhood in my pajamas, hunting for comets.

I have no idea why there was a loon by my house.  But there was.  Somewhere in the dusk, just outside my window, it was ululating, over and over.  Reminding me that mystery exists, and I don't have to understand it.  I can just live in it, without searching for explanation.

That's what poetry is all about.  And faith.  Living with the unknowable.  .

And for that mystery, and the loon, Saint Marty gives thanks.