Friday, October 30, 2020

October 30: Got On My Knees, Wife's 47th Birthday, True Love

 Merton's loses his grandfather . . . 

In the fall of 1936 Pop died.  The manner of his death was this. I had been on a geology field trip in Pennsylvania, and had come back, late one Sunday night after a long cold ride through New Jersey, back from the coal mines and the slate quarries, in an open Ford. The icy wind of the Delaware Water Gap was still in my flesh. I went to bed without seeing anybody. They were all in their rooms by the time I got home. 

The next morning I looked in Pop’s room, and he was sitting up in bed looking strangely unhappy and confused. 

“How do you feel?” I said. 

“Rotten,” he answered.  There was nothing surprising about that. He was always getting ill. I supposed he had caught another cold. I said: 

“Take some more sleep, then.” 

“Yes,” he said, “I guess I will.” 

I went back into the bathroom, and hastened to dress and drink my coffee and run for the train. 

That afternoon I was on the track, in the pale November sun, taking an easy work-out. I came down the shady side of the field, in front of the library. There was one of the juniors who worked for the Yearbook standing behind the high wire fence, at the corner nearest John Jay, where the bushes and poplar trees were. As I came down to the bend he called out to me and I went over to the fence. 

“Your aunt was on the phone just now,” he told me. “She said your grandfather is dead.” 

There was nothing I could say. 

I trotted back along the field and went down and took a quick shower and got into my clothes and went home. There was no train but one of those slow ones, that ambled out on to the Island half empty, with long stops at every station. But I knew there was no particular hurry. I could not bring him back to life.

Poor old Pop. I was not surprised that he was dead, or that he had died that way. I supposed his heart had failed. It was typical of him, that kind of death: he was always in a hurry, always ahead of time. And now, after a whole long lifetime of impatience, waiting for Bonnemaman to get ready to go to the theater, or to come to dinner, or to come down and open the Christmas presents, after all that, he had brooked no delay about dying. He had slipped out on us, in his sleep, without premeditation, on the spur of the moment. 

I would miss Pop. In the last year or two we had drawn rather close together. He often got me to come to lunch with him downtown and there he would tell me all his troubles, and talk over the prospects for my future—I had returned to the old idea of becoming a newspaper man. There was a great deal of simplicity about Pop. It was a simplicity, an ingenuousness that belonged to his nature: and it was something peculiarly American. Or at least, it belonged to the Americans of his generation, this kind and warmhearted and vast and universal optimism. 

When I got to the house, I knew where I would find his body. I went up to his bed-room and opened the door. The only shock was to find that the windows were all open and the room was full of the cold November air. Pop, who in his life had feared all draughts and had lived in overheated houses, now lay under a sheet in this icy cold death-chamber. It was the first death that had been in the house that he had built for his family twenty-five years before. 

Now a strange thing happened. Without my having thought about it, or debating about it in my mind, I closed the door and got on my knees by the bed and prayed. I suppose it was just the spontaneous response of my love for poor Pop—the obvious way to do something for him, to acknowledge all his goodness to me. And yet, I had seen other deaths without praying or being even drawn to pray. Two or three summers before an old relative of mine had died, and the only thing that had occurred to me was the observation that her lifeless corpse was no more than a piece of furniture. I did not feel that there was anybody there, only a thing. This did not teach me what it taught Aristotle, about the existence of the soul... 

But now I only wanted to pray.

It's a strange thing when it happens--the urge to prostrate yourself and pray.  Merton says as much.  He hasn't had any real religious education,  Just brief encounters with Quakers and Catholics and Protestants.  At points in his young life, he's felt the pull of what Christians call the Holy Spirit--a breath of divine fire moving through him.  Yet, that fire has never consumed him.  Yet.  

Today was my wife's 47th birthday.  We have been together since she was 16.  If you do the math, that's 31 years.  We've been married for 25 of those years.  I remember that first time I celebrated her birthday with her.  I put signs on her front lawn.  Picked her up from school in a car decked out with balloons.  Took her out to dinner and had roses sitting on the table where we ate--a Mexican restaurant that no longer exists.  And I remember kissing her goodnight, an unforgettable kiss.  To quote The Princess Bride, "Since the invention of the kiss there have been five kisses rated the most passionate, the most pure.  This one left them all behind"

In the 31 birthdays since, we have had some serious struggles, times that dragged me to my knees to pray, as Merton does in the passage above.  I think only real love can bring you to that place of humility and desperation, when all you can do is kneel and say, over and over, "Helphelphelphelp."  It's the most basic and truthful prayer a person can utter.

Because asking for help is an act of surrender, of realizing that there is nothing more you can do.  You're in over your head.  True love is like that.  You drown in it.  Can't control it.  When you love a person like that, you open yourself up to the possibility of moments of transcendent joy (the birth of a child) and crushing heartbreak (the revelation of betrayal).  That's the nature of love.

In our time together, I have experienced the full spectrum of love with my wife.  The dark moments have been pretty dark, and the light moments have been blinding.  Love can be taken for granted, especially one that you've come to depend upon for a very long time.  And then one day, like Merton, you find that love is gone, and you will never have its comfort again.  Like blowing out candles on a birthday cake.

Love is complicated, and tonight I celebrate the complicated person who has been my partner in crime for over three decades.  She has made me dance and driven me to my knees.

Saint Marty gives thanks for the miracle of his wife.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

October 28-29: Spiritually Dead, Eureka, Pentecost

Merton realizes he was spiritually dead . . . 

I was never particularly drawn to the Varsity show: but they had a piano in their room, and the room was almost always empty, so I used to go in there and play furious jazz, after the manner I had taught myself—a manner which offended every ear but my own. It was a way of letting off steam—a form of athletics if you like. I have ruined more than one piano by this method.

The place where I was busiest was the Jester office. Nobody really worked there, they just congregated about noontime and beat violently with the palms of their hands on the big empty filing cabinets, making a thunderous sound that echoed up and down the corridor, and was sometimes answered from the Review office across the hall. There I usually came and drew forth from the bulging leather bag of books that I carried, copy and drawings which I put into the editor’s hand. The editor that year was Herb Jacobson, and he printed all my worst cartoons very large in the most prominent parts of the magazine. 

I thought I had something to be proud of when I became art-editor of Jester at the end of that year. Robert Lax was to be editor and Ralph Toledano managing editor, and we got along well together. The next year Jester was well put together because of Toledano and well written because of Lax and sometimes popular with the masses because of me. When it was really funny, it was not popular at all. The only really funny issues were mostly the work of Lax and Bob Gibney, the fruit of ideas that came to them at four o’clock in the morning in their room on the top floor of Furnald Hall. 

The chief advantage of Jester was that it paid most of our bills for tuition. We were happy about it all, and wandered around the campus with little golden crowns dangling on our watch chains. Indeed, that was the only reason why I had a watch chain. I did not have a watch. 

I have barely begun the list of all the things that occupied me in those days. For example, I gave my name to Miss Wegener at the appointments office. Miss Wegener was—and I hope she still is—a kind of a genius. She sat all day long behind her desk in that small, neat office in the Alumni house. No matter how many people she had talked to, she always looked unruffled and at peace. Every time you went to see her, one or two phone calls would come in, and she would make a note on a little pad of paper. In summer she never seemed to be worried by the hot weather. And she always smiled at you with a smile that was at the same time efficient and kind, pleasant and yet a little impersonal. She was another one who had a vocation and was living up to it! 

One of the best jobs she ever got for me was that of guide and interpreter on the observation roof of the R.C.A. building, Rockefeller Center. It was an easy job. So easy in fact that it was boring. You simply had to stand there and talk to the people who came pouring out of the elevator with all their questions. And for this you got twenty-seven and a half dollars a week, which was very good pay in 1936. I also worked in another office in Radio City, for some people who handled publicity for all the manufacturers of Paper Cups and Containers. For them I did cartoons that said you would surely get trench mouth if you ever drank out of an ordinary glass. For each cartoon I was paid six dollars. It made me feel like an executive, to go walking in and out of the doors of the R.C.A. building with my pockets full of money. Miss Wegener would also send me off on the subway with little slips of paper with the addresses of apartments where I would interview rich Jewish ladies about tutoring their children in Latin, which meant that I got two or two and a half dollars an hour for sitting with them and doing their homework. 

I also handed in my name for the Cross Country team. The fact that the coach was not sorry to get me is sufficient indication of one reason why we were the worst college Cross Country team in the East that year. And so, in my afternoons, I would run around and around South Field on the cinder path. And when winter came, I would go round and round the board track until I had blisters all over the soles of my feet and was so lame I could hardly walk. Occasionally I would go up to Van Cortlandt Park and run along the sandy and rocky paths through the woods. When we raced any other college, I was never absolutely the last one home—there were always two or three other Columbia men behind me. I was one of those who never came in until the crowd had lost interest and had begun to disperse. Perhaps I would have been more of a success as a long-distance runner if I had gone into training, and given up smoking and drinking, and kept regular hours. 

But no. Three or four nights a week my fraternity brothers and I would go flying down in the black and roaring subway to 52nd Street, where we would crawl around the tiny, noisy, and expensive nightclubs that had flowered on the sites of the old speakeasies in the cellars of those dirty brownstone houses. There we would sit, for hours, packed in those dark rooms, shoulder to shoulder with a lot of surly strangers and their girls, while the whole place rocked and surged with storms of jazz. There was no room to dance. We just huddled there between the blue walls, shoulder to shoulder and elbow to elbow, crouching and deafened and taciturn. If you moved your arm to get your drink you nearly knocked the next man off his stool. And the waiters fought their way back and forth through the sea of unfriendly heads, taking away the money of all the people.

It was not that we got drunk. No, it was this strange business of sitting in a room full of people and drinking without much speech, and letting yourself be deafened by the jazz that throbbed through the whole sea of bodies binding them all together in a kind of fluid medium. It was a strange, animal travesty of mysticism, sitting in those booming rooms, with the noise pouring through you, and the rhythm lumping and throbbing in the marrow of your bones. You couldn’t call any of that, per se, a mortal sin. We just sat there, that was all. If we got hangovers the next day, it was more because of the smoking and nervous exhaustion than anything else. 

How often, after a night of this, I missed all the trains home to Long Island and went and slept on a couch somewhere, at the Fraternity House, or in the apartment of somebody I knew around town. What was worst of all was going home on the subway, on the chance that one might catch a bus at Flushing! There is nothing so dismal as the Flushing bus station, in the grey, silent hour just before the coming of dawn. There were always at least one or two of those same characters whose prototypes I had seen dead in the morgue. And perhaps there would be a pair of drunken soldiers trying to get back to Fort Totten. Among all these I stood, weary and ready to fall, lighting the fortieth or fiftieth cigarette of the day—the one that took the last shreds of lining off my throat. 

The thing that depressed me most of all was the shame and despair that invaded my whole nature when the sun came up, and all the laborers were going to work: men healthy and awake and quiet, with their eyes clear, and some rational purpose before them. This humiliation and sense of my own misery and of the fruitlessness of what I had done was the nearest I could get to contrition. It was the reaction of nature. It proved nothing except that I was still, at least, morally alive: or rather that I had still some faint capacity for moral life in me. The term “morally alive” might obscure the fact that I was spiritually dead. I had been that long since!

I have taught so many young people like young Thomas Merton.  Full of energy and ideas.  Constantly on the move.  Sleep-deprived and, at times, alcohol-soaked.  I remember BEING a young person like this, searching for excitement and fulfillment . .  all . . . the . . . time.  I place those ellipses in that last sentence to indicate how never-ending that quest was.  And exhausting.

Of course, Thomas Merton's diagnosis of this condition is that he was morally alive, but spiritually dead.  It's the old adage that you learn in Sunday school:  everyone has a God-sized hole inside them.  We all try to fill that hole with possessions and activities and loves and relationships.  It doesn't work.  The hole is infinite, and it can only be filled by infinity.  That's where God comes in.

Now, whether you believe in God or not, there is truth in this description of the human psyche/soul.  I think we all have a certain emptiness inside that can only be filled by something that is timeless.  Some people find that timelessness by turning to God.  Some to science or poetry or history.  We all crave to feel like we're connected to something larger than ourselves.

God is in all things.  In church and poetry, science and plumbing.  Called different names by different people.  Inspiration.  Grace.  Oprah followers call it the "aha moment."  Archimedes supposedly jumped out of his bath and shouted "Eureka!" when he was touched by it.  Christians call it the Holy Spirit.  Buddhists call it divine enlightenment.  Yet, all of these terms describe the same thing:  being touched by the finger of God.

Now, my scientist friends will frown on that description.  For science, it's a moment when everything that we know, all the tumblers in our minds, suddenly clicks into place and unlocks a mystery, whether it be about the displacement of water or the relativity of time.  And we run through the streets naked, screaming our news.  Or something like that.

We understand the universe in one way before this moment, and we understand it differently after it.

As a poet, I know you can't force inspiration.  It just doesn't work that way.  For me, most inspiration is the result of hours and hours of hard labor.  Then it happens.  It's like a breath blowing through my body.  My vision clears, and I see the path I need to follow.  I am not discounting the possibility of immediate clarity (those poems that seem like they drop into my lap out of the sky like pieces of shattered rainbow).  I'm just saying that I agree with Thomas Edison:  "Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration."

I have been severely lacking in inspiration recently.  I have been creatively busy--designing new programs for the library, contacting artists and writers, thinking up events that I just want to see.  A friend recently asked me what I'm actually doing at the library, and I told him, "I'm getting paid to dream and to make those dreams come true."  That is an amazing privilege.

Yet, I have lacked personal inspiration.  The Holy Breath of Poetry is what I'll call it.  I haven't written a new poem in a very long time.  So, today I took some steps to invite the Holy Breath into my life this evening.  I texted a good friend and asked her if she wanted to write with me tonight.  I created a Zoom meeting.  Now, I'm sitting in a virtual space with my friend, and we are playing.  That's how my friend refers to these nights.  I would replace the "l" in that word with an "r."  We are praying.  

Praying for presence and inspiration.  I love the story in the gospels of the first Pentecost, where the apostles are sitting in a room together after the murder of Christ, terrified of being caught and crucified themselves.  And then "[s]uddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.  They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them." (Acts 2. 2. 2-4).  

That is what my friend and I are doing tonight.  We are in a room together, waiting for that violent wind, those tongues of fire.  And I feel something that I haven't felt in a long while, as well:  trust.  I trust that I will be touched tonight by the Holy Breath of Poetry.  I simply have to let go and follow where my fountain pen leads me.

It's a fearful place to be.  Yes, it is.  Because hand-in-hand with trust comes surrender, the willingness to let yourself become vulnerable.  For me, it's in that place of vulnerability where God lives and divine breath blows.  Where the God-sized hole that resides inside me (and everybody else) opens up into fields and continents and oceans and worlds and galaxies.

A pentecost is upon me.

Saint Marty feels the Holy Breath moving through him this evening.  For that miracle, he shouts, "Hallelujah!"

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

October 25-27: Minimum Requirements, Busyness, Sacred Pause

 Merton becomes a successful multitasker , , , 

Nevertheless, during that year I was so busy and so immersed in activities and occupations that I had no time to think for very long on these things. The energy of that golden October and the stimulation of the cold, bright winter days when the wind swept down as sharp as knives from the shining Palisades kept driving me through the year in what seemed to be fine condition. I had never done so many different things at the same time or with such apparent success. I had discovered in myself something of a capacity for work and for activity and for enjoyment that I had never dreamed of.  And everything began to come easy, as the saying goes. 

It was not that I was really studying hard or working hard: but all of a sudden I had fallen into a kind of a mysterious knack of keeping a hundred different interests going in the air at the same time. It was a kind of a stupendous juggling act, a tour-de-force, and what surprised me most was that I managed to keep it up without collapsing. In the first place, I was carrying about eighteen points in my courses—the average amount. I had found out the simplest way of fulfilling the minimum requirements for each one.

Then there was the “Fourth Floor.” The fourth floor of John Jay Hall was the place where all the offices of the student publications and the Glee Club and the Student Board and all the rest were to be found. It was the noisiest and most agitated part of the campus. It was not gay, exactly. And I hardly ever saw, anywhere, antipathies and contentions and jealousies at once so petty, so open, and so sharp. The whole floor was constantly seething with the exchange of insults from office to office. Constantly, all day long, from morning to night, people were writing articles and drawing cartoons calling each other Fascists. Or else they were calling one another up on the phone and assuring one another in the coarsest terms of their undying hatred. It was all intellectual and verbal, as vicious as it could be, but it never became concrete, never descended into physical rage. For this reason, I think that it was all more or less of a game which everybody played for purposes that were remotely esthetic. 

The campus was supposed to be, in that year, in a state of “intellectual ferment.” Everybody felt and even said that there were an unusual number of brilliant and original minds in the college. I think that it was to some extent true. Ad Reinhardt was certainly the best artist that had ever drawn for Jester, perhaps for any other college magazine. His issues of Jester were real magazines. I think that in cover designs and layouts he could have given lessons to some of the art-editors downtown. Everything he put out was original, and it was also funny, because for the first time in years Jester had some real writers contributing to it, and was not just an anthology of the same stale and obscene jokes that have been circulating through the sluggish system of American college magazines for two generations. By now Reinhardt had graduated, and so had the editor of the 1935 Spectator, Jim Wechsler. 

My first approach to the Fourth Floor had been rather circumspect, after the manner of Cambridge. I went to my adviser, Prof McKee, and asked him how to go about it, and he gave me a letter of introduction to Leonard Robinson who was editor of The Columbia Review, the literary magazine. I don’t know what Robinson would have made of a letter of introduction. Anyway, I never got to meeting him after all. When I went to the Review office I gave the note to Bob Giroux, an associate editor, and he looked at it and scratched his head some bit and told me to write something if I got an idea. 

By 1936 Leonard Robinson had vanished. I always heard a lot about Robinson, and it all adds up to nothing very clear, so that I have always had the impression that he somehow lives in the trees. I pray that he may go to heaven. 

As for Review, Robert Paul Smith and Robert Giroux were both editing it together, and it was good. I don’t know whether you would use the term “ferment” in their case, but Smith and Giroux were both good writers. Also, Giroux was a Catholic and a person strangely placid for the Fourth Floor. He had no part in its feuds and, as a matter of fact, you did not see him around there very much. John Berryman was more or less the star on Review that year. He was the most earnest-looking man on the campus.

There was not an office on that floor where I did not have something to do, except the Glee Club and Student Board and the big place where all the football coaches had their desks. I was writing stories for Spectator, and columns that were supposed to be funny; I was writing things for the yearbook and trying to sell copies of it—a thankless task. The yearbook was the one thing nobody wanted: it was expensive and dull. Of this I eventually became editor, without any evident benefit to myself or to the book or to Columbia or to the world.

For most of my life, I have been a multitasker, like Merton.  I have to believe that Merton is being more than a little disingenuous when he says that he learned how to fulfill the minimum requirements for each of his commitments.  Merton's genius was spiritual (and spiritual writing).  He eventually took all of his life experiences and transformed them, through his writing and thinking, into something remarkable.  Sacred.  Holy.  Nothing was wasted.  All of this industry is, I think, evidence of a fertile and hungry mind and soul.

Multitasking is simply another term for being busy.  I have been a busy person all my life.  I prefer busyness, because it keeps my mind occupied.  When my mind is not occupied, it tends to brood and over-analyze and obsess.  When I do this, I can turn an unanswered text message to a friend into evidence of some deep and abiding rift that will never be repaired (even if I have said or done nothing to upset said friend).  A misplaced fountain pen becomes evidence of early onset Alzheimer's.  And an autumn cold, with its runny nose and cough a fatigue, is (you guessed it!) COVID.

Busyness keeps me from walking down those long and winding roads.

I also think that the world is too consumed with busyness.  We have all become uncomfortable with silence and pause.  If I am not occupied with something, I believe I am wasting time.  I was brought up that way.  Hard work, every minute of the day.  That's what I was taught.  It's the blue collar ethic.  Work and work and work, and, eventually, you'll be rewarded.  Or drop dead of a heart attack at 50.  

I think that's why I became a poet.  The poet's work is in the pause.  Breath.  A poem, for me, is a captured moment--something that makes me stop and savor.  I'm sure everyone reading this post has had the experience of looking at a photograph and, for a brief moment, reliving that instant.  Smelling the Thanksgiving turkey again.  Hearing "Happy Birthday" being sung again.  Opening that Christmas present again.  Poets live in that photograph time, trying to hold onto that now, in order to understand the then and the will be.  

And it's not all about presents and celebrations.  In fact, it's rarely about presents and celebrations.  For me, it's about those times when I have been fileted, laid bare, by life.  Ernest Hemmingway once said, "Write hard and clear about what hurts."  It's still good advice.  Avoiding pain by keeping busy is simply avoidance, and the pain will still be there, waiting, at the end of the day.  

Take it from a list-making, multi-tasking, three-jobbing poet:  sacred pause is important.  I do it every day, multiple times.  In between all the other to-dos of my life, I practice this greatest to-do:  breathing in the pulsing, bleeding, laughing, sorrowing present.  Like the apes at the beginning of 2001:  A Space Odyssey when they encounter the mysterious black monolith, I approach it, touch it, feel its humming skin.  And I am transformed.

Saint Marty gives thanks for the miracle of moment.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

October 23-24: Contemporary Civilization, Kindness of a Poet, Lever Long Enough

 Merton visits the morgue . . .

However, October is a fine and dangerous season in America. It is dry and cool and the land is wild with red and gold and crimson, and all the lassitudes of August have seeped out of your blood, and you are full of ambition. It is a wonderful time to begin anything at all. You go to college, and every course in the catalogue looks wonderful. The names of the subjects all seem to lay open the way to a new world. Your arms are full of new, clean notebooks, waiting to be filled. You pass through the doors of the library, and the smell of thousands of well-kept books makes your head swim with a clean and subtle pleasure. You have a new hat, a new sweater perhaps, or a whole new suit. Even the nickels and the quarters in your pocket feel new, and the buildings shine in the glorious sun. 

In this season of resolutions and ambitions, in 1935, I signed up for courses in Spanish and German and Geology and Constitutional Law and French Renaissance Literature and I forget what else besides. And I started to work for The Spectator and the yearbook and The Review and I continued to work for Jester as I had already done the spring before. And I found myself pledging one of the fraternities. 

It was a big, gloomy house behind the new library. On the ground floor there was a pool-room as dark as a morgue, a dining room, and some stairs led up to a big dark wainscotted living room where they held dances and beer-parties. Above that were two floors of bedrooms where telephones were constantly ringing and all day long somebody or other was singing in the showerbath. And there was somewhere in the building a secret room which I must not reveal to you, reader, at any price, even at the cost of life itself. And there I was eventually initiated. The initiation with its various tortures lasted about a week, and I cheerfully accepted penances which, if they were imposed in a monastery, for a supernatural motive, and for some real reason, instead of for no reason at all, would cause such an uproar that all religious houses would be closed and the Catholic Church would probably have a hard time staying in the country. 

When that was over I had a gold and enamel pin on my shirt. My name was engraved on the back of it, and I was quite proud of it for about a year, and then it went to the laundry on a shirt and never came back. 

I suppose there were two reasons why I thought I ought to join a fraternity. One was the false one, that I thought it would help me to “make connections” as the saying goes, and get a marvelous job on leaving college. The other, truer one was that I imagined that I would thus find a multitude of occasions for parties and diversions, and that I would meet many very interesting young ladies at the dances that would be held in that mausoleum. Both these hopes turned out to be illusory. As a matter of fact, I think the only real explanation was that I was feeling the effects of October. 

Anyway, when John Paul went to Cornell the whole family, except me, drove up to Ithaca in the Buick and came back with words and concepts that filled the house with a kind of collegiate tension for a couple of weeks to come. Everybody was talking about football and courses and fraternities. 

As a matter of fact, John Paul’s first year at Cornell turned out to be sad in the same way as my first year at Cambridge—a thing that was not long in becoming apparent, when the bills he could not pay began to show up at home. But it was even more obvious to me when I saw him again. 

He was naturally a happy and optimistic sort of a person and he did not easily get depressed. And he had a clear, quick intelligence and a character as sensitive as it was well-balanced. Now his intelligence seemed a little fogged with some kind of an obscure, interior confusion, and his happiness was perverted by a sad, lost restlessness. Although he maintained all his interests and increased them, the increase was in extent, not in depth, and the result was a kind of scattering of powers, a dissipation of the mind and will in a variety of futile aims. 

He stood for some time, with great uncertainty, on the threshold of a fraternity house at Cornell, and even let them put a pledge pin on him, and then after a couple of weeks he took it off again and ran away. And with three friends he rented a house on one of those steep, shady Ithaca streets, and after that the year was a long and sordid riot, from which he derived no satisfaction. They called the place Grand Hotel, and had stationery printed with that title, on which desultory and fragmentary letters would come to Douglaston, and fill everyone with unquiet. When he came back from Cornell, John Paul looked tired and disgusted. 

I suppose it is true, at least theoretically, that brothers watch over one another and help one another along in the fraternity house. In my fraternity house at Columbia, I know that the wiser members used to get together and shake their heads a little when somebody was carrying his debauchery too far. And when there was any real trouble, the concern of the brothers was sincere and dramatic, but it was useless. And there is always trouble in a fraternity house. The trouble, which came in the year after I was initiated, was the disappearance of one of the brothers, whom we shall call Fred. 

Fred was a tall, stoop-shouldered, melancholy individual, with dark hair growing low on his brows. He never had much to say, and he liked to go apart and drink in mournful solitude. The only vivid thing I remember about him was that he stood over me, during one of the peculiar ceremonies of the initiation, when all the pledges had to stuff themselves with bread and milk for a special reason. And while I tried with despairing efforts to get the huge mouthfuls swallowed down, this Fred was standing over me with woeful cries of “eat, eat, eat!” It must have been sometime after Christmas that he disappeared. 

I came into the house one night, and they were sitting around in the leather chairs talking earnestly. “Where’s Fred?” was the burden of the discussion. He had not been seen anywhere for a couple of days. Would his family be upset if someone called up his home to see if he was there? Evidently, but it had to be done: he had not gone home either. One of the brothers had long since visited all his usual haunts. People tried to reconstruct the situation in which he had last been seen. With what dispositions had he last walked out of the front door. The usual ones, of course: silence, melancholy, the probable intention of getting drunk. A week passed and Fred was not found. The earnest concern of the brothers was fruitless. The subject of Fred was more or less dropped and, after a month, most of us had forgotten it. After two months, the whole thing was finally settled.

“They found Fred,” somebody told me.

 “Yes? Where?” 

“In Brooklyn.”

 “Is he all right?” 

“No, he’s dead. They found him in the Gowanus Canal.”

 “What did he do, jump in?” 

“Nobody knows what he did. He’d been there a long time.” 

“How long?” 

“I don’t know, a couple of months. They figured out who it was from the fillings in his teeth.” 

It was a picture that was not altogether vague to me. Our famous course in Contemporary Civilization had involved me, one winter afternoon, in a visit to the Bellevue Morgue, where I had seen rows and rows of iceboxes containing the blue, swollen corpses of drowned men along with all the other human refuse of the big, evil city: the dead that had been picked up in the streets, ruined by raw alcohol. The dead that had been found starved and frozen lying where they had tried to sleep in a pile of old newspapers. The pauper dead from Randalls Island. The dope-fiend dead. The murdered dead. The run-over. The suicides. The dead Negroes and Chinese. The dead of venereal disease. The dead from unknown causes. The dead killed by gangsters. They would all be shipped for burial up the East River in a barge to one of those islands where they also burned garbage. 

Contemporary Civilization! One of the last things we saw on the way out of the morgue was the hand of a man pickled in a jar, brown and vile. They were not sure whether he was a criminal or not, and they wanted to have some part of him, after they had sent the rest of him up to the ghats. In the autopsy room a man on the table with his trunk wide open pointed his sharp, dead nose at the ceiling. The doctors held his liver and kidneys in their hands and sprayed them over with a trickle of water from a little rubber hose. I have never forgotten the awful, clammy silence of the city morgue at Bellevue, where they collect the bodies of those who died of contemporary civilization, like Fred. 

An uplifting little passage, filled with fraternity hazing, a depressed brother, suicide, and a trip to the morgue.  And for an encore, I will stand on my head while reciting Hamlet by memory and juggling with my feet.  When I land my dismount, I expect perfect tens from all of the judges.

It has been a heck of a night, filled with drama.  Yet, I don't want to write about that.  I have had more than enough drama for one evening.  Now, I'm sitting at my laptop, trying to wash the drama out of my brain with a very tall glass of wine.

Instead, I want to talk about the kindness of a poet.  Last night, when I was dealing with more drama and feeling a little under-the-weather (not COVID under-the-weather, just a little depleted of energy after a long week), I received an IM from a poet named Dennis Hinrichsen.  We know each other through our roles a Poets Laureate--me of the Upper Peninsula, he of the Greater Lansing area.  We were published in an anthology together.

His message was a simple reaching out to offer kind words and the gift of a copy of his latest collection of poems, as a way to mitigate the stresses and woes of pandemic reality.  It was a kind and generous gesture from a poet whose work I greatly admire.  I accepted his offer, and we had a wonderful exchange of words and ideas.  It buoyed my spirits for the rest of the night.

There are kind people in the world, and grace finds you at the most difficult times of your life.  When that happens, it sort of restores your faith in the universe.  I know some young people who are struggling right now, who need the kind of healing I received last night.  No details are needed here, just the understanding that we are all broken people in a broken time.  This year has been cruel on many levels.

I want these young people to know that there is still light in the world.  Kindness and understanding.  Grace.  I am living proof of that this evening.  Sure, sometimes life seems like an unending fraternity hazing where you are forced to swallow massive quantities of a food you despise.  And then some miracle happens, and you realize that anger and hatred only lead to more anger and hatred.  All it takes is one kind word, one kind gesture.  Archimedes said, "Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world."

On this dark, cold night, I offer my story of moving the world with kindness.  I hope my young people find a long lever, and a fulcrum, so that their worlds can be moved toward grace.

For the miracle of kindness from a poet friend, Saint Marty gives thanks.

Friday, October 23, 2020

October 22: Vile Taste, Worked from Home, Expectations

 Merton returns home and goes to the movies . . .

May came, and all the trees on Long Island were green, and when the train from the city got past Bayside and started across the meadows to Douglaston, you could see the pale, soft haze of summer beginning to hang over the bay, and count the boats that had been set afloat again after the winter, and were riding jauntily at their moorings off the end of the little dock. And now in the lengthening evenings the dining-room was still light with the rays of the sun when Pop came home for dinner, slamming the front door and whooping at the dog and smacking the surface of the hall table with the evening paper to let everybody know that he had arrived. 

Soon John Paul was home from his school in Pennsylvania, and my exams were over, and we had nothing to do but go swimming and hang around the house playing hot records. And in the evening we would wander off to some appalling movie where we nearly died of boredom. We did not have a car, and my uncle would not let us touch the family Buick. It would not have done me any good anyway, because I never learned to drive. So most of the time, we would get a ride to Great Neck and then walk back the two or three miles along the wide road when the show was over. 

Why did we ever go to all those movies? That is another mystery. But I think John Paul and I and our various friends must have seen all the movies that were produced, without exception, from 1934 to 1937. And most of them were simply awful. What is more, they got worse from week to week and from month to month, and day after day we hated them more. My ears are ringing with the false, gay music that used to announce the Fox movietone and the Paramount newsreels with the turning camera that slowly veered its aim right at your face. My mind still echoes with the tones of Pete Smith and Fitzpatrick of the Travel-talks saying, “And now farewell to beautiful New South Wales.” 

And yet I confess a secret loyalty to the memory of my great heroes: Chaplin, W. C. Fields, Harpo Marx, and many others whose names I have forgotten. But their pictures were rare, and for the rest, we found ourselves perversely admiring the villains and detesting the heroes. The truth is that the villains were almost always the better actors. We were delighted with everything they did. We were almost always in danger of being thrown out of the theater for our uproarious laughter at scenes that were supposed to be most affecting, tender, and appealing to the finer elements in the human soul—the tears of Jackie Cooper, the brave smile of Alice Faye behind the bars of a jail. 

The movies soon turned into a kind of hell for me and my brother and indeed for all my closest friends. We could not keep away from them. We were hypnotized by those yellow flickering lights and the big posters of Don Ameche. Yet as soon as we got inside, the suffering of having to sit and look at such colossal stupidities became so acute that we sometimes actually felt physically sick. In the end, it got so that I could hardly sit through a show. It was like lighting cigarettes and taking a few puffs and throwing them away, appalled by the vile taste in one’s mouth. 

In 1935 and 1936, without my realizing it, life was slowly, once more, becoming almost intolerable. 

In the fall of 1936, John Paul went to Cornell, and I went back to Columbia, full of all kinds of collegiate enthusiasms, so that in a moment of madness I even gave my name for the Varsity light-weight crew. After a couple of days on the Harlem River and then on the Hudson, when we tried to row to Yonkers and back in what seemed to me to be a small hurricane, I decided that I did not wish to die so young, and after that carefully avoided the Boat-House all the rest of the time I was in college.

Once again, young Merton falls into a pattern in his life that proves to be empty and unsatisfying.  Merton the memoirist is slowly building his case that his existence was meaningless before he discovered his religious vocation.  All the normal distractions of daily life--school, home, movies, and such--just leave a vile taste in his mouth, like smoking cigarettes when you've never smoked before.

Today has been a day that I'm glad is behind me.  I worked from home, making phone calls and typing up proposals and sending e-mails.  Dreaming up new programming ideas for the library.  And I taught a class at the college in between the e-mails and dreaming.  That part of my day was wonderful.

The difficult part of the day was my son, who was in a rare state of adolescent defiance that included sneaking out of the house when he was supposed to be going to a doctor's appointment, butting me in the face with his head, and screaming that I was a "fucking shitty father."  I was no saint in this confrontation.  It felt like I was under attack, so I tried to hold my ground, remain calm.  I failed.  I found myself yelling back at him, physically restraining him a couple of times when he charged me.  In short, by the time it was all over, I pretty much felt like a fucking shitty father.

So, as I sit here typing this post, I have a vile taste lingering in my mouth from today, plus a little bit of a fat lip from my son's skull smashing into my face.  I am ready for this day to be over, but I know, in the morning, I face a new fresh hell with my son again.

Everyone has a breaking point, I suppose.  I think I reached mine this afternoon.  I was angry and tired, frustrated beyond the point of speech.  Instead of stepping away, taking some deep breaths, I charged into the valley with sword drawn.  I didn't recognize who I was.

After my son stormed out of the house, I spent the next hour or so crying.

I don't expect life to be perfect or easy.  That's a fantasy.  I don't expect my son to do what I tell him to do all the time.  That's also unrealistic.  He just turned twelve, and he's trying to figure out who he is.  If I place expectations on my son, I set myself up for failure.  Day after day after day.  My expectations are not my son's.

So, I stand before you tonight a little broken and bruised, not wanting to face morning's light.  Perhaps, after a night of sleep, I will find my center again.  Become a better person.

Another expectation.  Saint Marty will never learn.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

October 18-21: Doing Good, New Job, Abiding Love

 Thomas Merton becomes disenchanted with Communism . . .

My active part in the world revolution was not very momentous. It lasted, in all, about three months. I picketed the Casa Italiana, I went to the Peace Strike, and I think I made some kind of a speech in the big classroom on the second floor of the Business School, where the N.S.L. had their meetings. Maybe it was a speech on Communism in England—a topic about which I knew absolutely nothing; in that case, I was loyally living up to the tradition of Red oratory. I sold some pamphlets and magazines. I don’t know what was in them, but I could gather their contents from the big black cartoons of capitalists drinking the blood of workers. 

Finally, the Reds had a party. And, of all places, in a Park Avenue apartment. This irony was the only amusing thing about it. And after all it was not so ironical. It was the home of some Barnard girl who belonged to the Young Communist League and her parents had gone away for the weekend. I could get a fair picture of them from the way the furniture looked, and from the volumes of Nietszche and Schopenhauer and Oscar Wilde and Ibsen that filled the bookcases. And there was a big grand piano on which someone played Beethoven while the Reds sat around on the floor. Later we had a sort of Boy Scout campfire group in the living room, singing heavy Communist songs, including that delicate anti-religious classic, “There’ll be pie in the sky when you die.”

One little fellow with buck teeth and horn-rimmed glasses pointed to two windows in a corner of one of the rooms. They commanded a whole sweep of Park Avenue in one direction and the cross-town street in another. “What a place for a machine-gun nest,” he observed. The statement came from a middle-class adolescent. It was made in a Park Avenue apartment. He had evidently never even seen a machine-gun, except in the movies. If there had been a revolution going on at the time, he would have probably been among the first to get his head knocked off by the revolutionists. And in any case he, like all the rest of us, had just finished making the famous Oxford Pledge that he would not fight in any war whatever... 

One reason why I found the party so dull was that nobody was very enthusiastic about getting something to drink except me. Finally one of the girls encouraged me, in a businesslike sort of a way, to go out and buy bottles of rye at a liquor store around the corner on Third Avenue, and when I had drunk some of the contents she invited me into a room and signed me up as a member of the Young Communist League. I took the party name of Frank Swift. When I looked up from the paper the girl had vanished like a not too inspiring dream, and I went home on the Long Island Railroad with the secret of a name which I have been too ashamed to reveal to anyone until this moment when I am beyond humiliation. 

I only went to one meeting of the Young Communist League, in the apartment of one of the students. It was a long discussion as to why Comrade So-and-so did not come to any of the meetings. The answer was that his father was too bourgeois to allow it. So after that, I walked out into the empty street, and let the meeting end however it would. 

It was good to be in the fresh air. My footsteps rang out on the dark stones. At the end of the street, the pale amber light of a bar-room beckoned lovingly to me from under the steel girders of the elevated. The place was empty. I got a glass of beer and lit a cigarette and tasted the first sweet moment of silence and relief. 

And that was the end of my days as a great revolutionary. I decided that it would be wiser if I just remained a “fellow-traveller.” The truth is that my inspiration to do something for the good of mankind had been pretty feeble and abstract from the start. I was still interested in doing good for only one person in the world—myself.

Merton is young.  He has some kind of urge to make the world a better place for humankind, but he lacks the skills to do it at the moment.  He's too focused on his own needs and wants to worry about anyone else's.  That's pretty typical for a teenager.  A teenager doesn't see the big picture.  It's too hard to have a broader vision when all you're focused on is your own pain and awkwardness.

I have been preoccupied these last few days myself.  I started my new job two days ago, you see.  I am now the Adult Programming Coordinator for Peter White Public Library in Marquette, Michigan.  That means that I get to sit in an office most days, dreaming up events and readings and concerts and performances.  For instance, today I worked on a program for December that involves a virtual reader's theater of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.  I spent over an hour just hunting down a good script to use.  And I got paid to do it.

This is sort of a dream job for me--earning money for creating and promoting art.  While, at the moment, I feel a little overwhelmed, I am slowly but surely finding my footing.  For a half hour this afternoon, I caught up with a friend of mine I haven't spoken with in a long time.  We directed and acted in musicals together way back.  I'm trying to involve her in one of my dream projects.  It was a wonderful half hour or so of catching up.  And tomorrow, I get to work at home, sitting at my kitchen table with my laptop, e-mailing and dreaming some more.

In a year that has been marked only by struggle in so many areas of my life (personal, political, parental, professional), these last few days at the library have been quiet and productive and thrilling.  Yet, there are still struggles present.  My son's constant battle with going to school.  My daughter's recent heartbreak and confusion.  My daughter's boyfriend of four years, and his heartbreak and despair.  I just want the world, and everyone I love in it, to be safe and happy.  

So, tonight, I pray for my son--that he will find his excitement for learning again.  I pray for my daughter--that she will know love and peace once more.  I pray for my daughter's boyfriend of four years--that he will realize that he is still loved and that his happiness is inside of himself. 

All of these miracles are about abiding love in some way, and Saint Marty's greatest faith is in the power of love.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

October 15-17: Noisy and Shallow and Violent People, Change, Closed Doors

 Merton on chaotic political ideals . . . 

As far as I can remember, it seems that what most of us thought we were doing, when we took that pledge, was simply making a public-statement, and doing so in sufficient numbers, as we hoped, to influence politicians.  There was no intention of binding ourselves under any obligation. The notion never even occurred to us. Most of us probably secretly thought we were gods anyway, and therefore the only law we had to obey was our own ineffable little wills. It was sufficient to say that we did not intend to go to war for anybody: and that was enough. And if, afterwards, we changed our minds—well, were we not our own gods? 

It’s a nice, complex universe, the Communist universe: it gravitates towards stability and harmony and peace and order on the poles of an opportunism that is completely irresponsible and erratic. Its only law is, it will do whatever seems to be profitable to itself at the moment. However, that seems to have become the rule of all modern political parties. I have nothing to say about it. I do not profess to be either amazed or brokenhearted that such a thing should be possible. Let the dead bury their dead: they have certainly got enough to bury. It is the fruit of their philosophy that they should: and that is all that they need to be reminded of. But you cannot make them believe it. 

I had formed a kind of an ideal picture of Communism in my mind, and now I found that the reality was a disappointment. I suppose my daydreams were theirs also. But neither dream is true. 

I had thought that Communists were calm, strong, definite people, with very clear ideas as to what was wrong with everything. Men who knew the solution, and were ready to pay any price to apply the remedy. And their remedy was simple and just and clean, and it would definitely solve all the problems of society, and make men happy, and bring the world peace. 

It turned out that some of them indeed were calm, and strong, and had a kind of peace of mind that came from definite convictions and from a real devotion to their cause, out of motives of a kind of vague natural charity and sense of justice. But the trouble with their convictions was that they were mostly strange, stubborn prejudices, hammered into their minds by the incantation of statistics, and without any solid intellectual foundation. And having decided that God is an invention of the ruling classes, and having excluded Him, and all moral order with Him, they were trying to establish some kind of a moral system by abolishing all morality in its very source. Indeed, the very word morality was something repugnant to them. They wanted to make everything right, and they denied all the criteria given us for distinguishing between right and wrong.

And so it is an indication of the intellectual instability of Communism, and the weakness of its philosophical foundations, that most Communists are, in actual fact, noisy and shallow and violent people, torn to pieces by petty jealousies and factional hatreds and envies and strife. They shout and show off and generally give the impression that they cordially detest one another even when they are supposed to belong to the same sect. And as for the inter-sectional hatred prevailing between all the different branches of radicalism, it is far bitterer and more virulent than the more or less sweeping and abstract hatred of the big general enemy, capitalism. All this is something of a clue to such things as the wholesale executions of Communists who have moved their chairs to too prominent a position in the ante-chamber of Utopia which the Soviet Union is supposed to be.

Noisy and shallow and violent people, torn to pieces by petty jealousies and factional hatreds and envies and strife.  Thomas Merton might have been writing about Communists, but he is pretty much describing the current state of politics in the United States at the moment.  Constant readers of this blog pretty much know what side of the political spectrum I fall on.  (For occasional readers, or passersby, I will say this:  Donald Trump is to the United States of America what fracking is to the environment.  Blight and ruin.) 

The history of these last three years in my country has been violent and destructive.  I am not a fan of the two-party political system.  However, as the Republican Party of the United States has lost itself in one person's warped ego, I find myself becoming incredibly intolerant of Trump supporters.  Which is ironic, since Donald Trump is pretty much the poster child for intolerance.  I have become what I hate most about the current resident of the Oval Office.

I crave change on the national level.  I don't want to see my country, for which my father served in the armed forces, face another four years of institutionalized hatred and stupidity.  I want to see something shift, move, realign, reset.  If I could, I would press the restart button and reboot the entire world to its pre-2016 settings.

Instead, I find myself wanting change.  Needing change.  Of course, that's pretty much what 2020 has been about.  A global pandemic has a way of reshaping even the simplest of daily tasks.  Going out to the grocery store for a gallon of milk has become a military exercise in preparation.  Do I really need this milk right now?  Do I have my facemask?  Is there enough hand sanitizer in the car?  How crowded is the parking lot?  Can I avoid people wearing masks around their chins like feedbags?  Can I get in and out of the store with a minimum of social interaction?  

This year has also been a time of personal struggle and change for me, as well.  Relationship-wise and career-wise and parenting-wise.  Nothing has been easy these past 290 days, and I have had to face some difficult decisions.  This past Friday, I bid farewell to a healthcare career of over 25 years.  On Monday, I begin a whole new chapter of my professional life--one that I chose and am excited about.

In this same week, I celebrated my silver wedding anniversary, and my 19-year-old daughter fell into a state of unrest and upheaval in her personal life.  (Hers is not my story to tell, so I won't go into detail.)  My son continues to stretch my parenting skills to the breaking point, and Covid-19 cases in my little portion of the Upper Peninsula are sky-rocketing.  An ER nurse friend is working 15- and 16-hour shifts daily.

Not all change is bad.  I know this.  In fact, the badness or goodness of any change is an incredibly subjective thing.  I welcome my career change.  My new job as the adult programming coordinator for a local library will allow me to be creative and artistic in ways that I've always dreamed of.  And I'm getting paid to do it.  On the other hand, I wake every weekday morning with a knot in my stomach, wondering what kind of day my son will hand me.  Will he go to school?  Will he reduce me to sputtering anger?  I miss the son who went to school willingly, loved being with his friends and learning, didn't see the world darkly.

Doors close in life.  Sometimes those doors remain ajar.  Sometime, they are locked and bolted forever.  Either way, you are standing on the opposite side, in a room that may not be very familiar to you at all.  That's where I am right now.  In a house with an unfamiliar floorplan.  

But my foundation hasn't changed.  I still hate Donald Trump.  Love my children and wife.  Enjoy good poems and a glass of wine.  Cherish my friends.  Dream of a kinder, gentler new year.

For the miracle of open and closed doors, Saint Marty gives thanks.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

October 11-14: The Oxford Pledge, Happiness and Home, Silver Anniversary

 Merton on the injustices of war . . .

I forget how the picketing ended: whether we waited for someone else to come and take over, or whether we just decided we had done enough and took off our signs and went away. But any way I had the feeling that I had done something that was good, if only as a gesture: for it certainly did not seem to have accomplished anything. But at least I had made a kind of public confession of faith. I had said that I was against war—against all war. That I believed wars to be unjust. That I thought they could only ruin and destroy the world.... Someone will ask where I managed to get all that out of the placard I was carrying. But as far as I remember, that was the party line that year—at least it was the line that was handed out to the public. 

I can still hear the tired, determined chanting of students at campus demonstrations: “Books, not Battleships!” “No More war!” There was no distinction made. It was war as such that we hated and said we wanted no more of. We wanted books, not battleships, we said. We were all burned up with the thirst for knowledge, for intellectual and spiritual improvement. And here the wicked capitalists were forcing the government to enrich them by buying armaments and building battleships and planes and tanks, when the money ought to be spent on volumes of lovely cultural books for us students. Here we were on the threshold of life, we cried: our hands were reaching out for education and culture. Was the government going to put a gun in them, and send us off on another imperialistic war? And the line of reasoning behind all this definitely held, in 1935, that all war was imperialistic war. War, according to the party line in 1935, was an exclusively capitalist amusement. It was purely and simply a device to enrich the armament manufacturers and the international bankers, coining fortunes for them with the blood of the workers and students. 

One of the big political events of that spring was a “Peace Strike.” I was never quite able to understand by virtue of what principle a student could manage to consider himself on strike by cutting a class. Theoretically, I suppose, it amounted to a kind of defiance of authority: but it was a defiance that did not cost anybody anything except perhaps the student himself. And besides, I was quite used to cutting classes whenever I felt like it, and it seemed to me rather bombastic to dress it up with the name of “strike.” However, on another of those grey days, we went on “strike,” and this time there were several hundred people in the gymnasium, and even one or two members of the faculty got up on the platform and said something. 

They were not all Communists, but all the speeches had more or less the same burden: that it was absurd to even think of such a thing as a just war in our time. Nobody wanted war: there was no justification for any war of any kind on the part of anybody, and consequently, if a war did start, it would certainly be the result of a capitalist plot, and should be firmly resisted by everybody with any kind of a conscience. 

That was just the kind of a position that attracted me, that appealed to my mind at that time. It seemed to cut across all complexities by its sweeping and uncompromising simplicity. All war was simply unjust, and that was that. The thing to do was to fold your arms and refuse to fight. If everybody did that, there would be no more wars. 

That cannot seriously have been the Communist position, but at least I thought it was. And anyway, the theme of this particular meeting was the “Oxford Pledge.” The words of that pledge were written out in huge letters on a great big placard that hung limply in the air over the speakers’ platform, and all the speakers waved their arms at it and praised it, and repeated it, and urged it upon us, and in the end we all took it, and acclaimed it, and solemnly pledged ourselves to it. 

Perhaps everybody has, by now, forgotten what the Oxford Pledge was. It was a resolution that had been passed by the Oxford Union, which said that they, these particular Oxford undergraduates, simply would refuse to fight for King and Country in any war whatever. The fact that a majority of those who happened to be at a meeting of a university debating society, one evening, voted that way certainly did not commit the whole university, or even any one of the voters, to what the resolution said, and it was only other student groups, all over the world, that had transformed it into a “pledge.” And this “pledge” was then taken by hundreds of thousands of students in all kinds of schools and colleges and universities with some of the solemnity that might make it look as if they intended to bind themselves by it—the way we were doing at Columbia that day. All this was usually inspired by the Reds, who were very fond of the Oxford Pledge that year.... 

However, the next year the Spanish Civil war broke out. The first thing I heard about that war was that one of the chief speakers at the 1935 Peace Strike, and one who had been so enthusiastic about this glorious pledge that we would never fight in any war, was now fighting for the Red Army against Franco, and all the N.S.L. and the Young Communists were going around picketing everybody who seemed to think that the war in Spain was not holy and sacrosanct and a crusade for the workers against Fascism. 

The thing that perplexes me is: what did all the people in the gymnasium at Columbia, including myself, think we were doing when we took that pledge? What did a pledge mean to us? What was, in our minds, the basis of such an obligation? How could we be obliged? Communists don’t believe in any such thing as a natural law, or the law of conscience, although they seem to. They are always crying out against the injustice of capitalism and vet, as a matter of fact, they very often say in the same breath that the very concept of justice is simply a myth devised by the ruling classes to beguile and deceive the proletariat.

Obviously, Merton, in his maturity, grows to dislike and mistrust communism as a belief system.  Certainly, this disillusionment has something to do with Marx and Engels' views on religion:  "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness."  The Trappist monk Merton is all about the opium.  It's in religion that Merton finally finds the home he sought after for most of his younger life.  Merton's happiness isn't illusory.  It's as tangible as mushrooms in a forest or an iceberg in the Atlantic.

The Dalai Lama said once, "The purpose of our lives is to be happy."  Buddha says, "Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened.  Happiness never decreases by being shared."  Charles Dickens wrote, "Happiness is a gift and the trick is not to expect it, but to delight in it when it comes."  And Mother Teresa said, "Spread love everywhere you go.  Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier."

Everyone has something to say about happiness.  Advice to give.  From Karl Marx to Mother Teresa.  Achieving happiness is the Holy Grail, and every person seems to have the treasure map to where it's buried or hidden.  Of course, after traveling all over Oz, to the Emerald City and the Wicked Witch of the West's castle and back, we probably all end up like Dorothy.  We find out that happiness has been with us every step of the way.  Happiness and home.  Here's what Dorothy says:

Well, I think that it . . . That it wasn't enough just to want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em.  And it's that if I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own back yard because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with.

We all carry happiness within us.  It's just about recognizing it without expectations.  Right now, my son's happiness rests in a bowl of Ramen noodles.  My daughter, at the moment, is following the Yellow Brick Road, trying to figure out the whole happiness thing.  For me tonight, I found happiness in the person I've called the love of my life for 25 years.  Our silver anniversary.

Many people in my life never thought we'd make it this far, from family members to therapists.  It has been quite the journey, filled with obstacles.  Mental illness.  Addiction.  Separation.  Reconciliation.  Rededication.  Renewal.  I've experienced moments of absolute despair and absolute joy.  If anyone ever says marriage is easy, I have a few stories I'd like to share with that person.

However, for an hour or so this evening, I was reminded of what real happiness felt like.  It was right in my own back yard, as Dorothy says, and it had nothing to do with money or fame or Nobel Prizes.  It was about being with the person I've called my partner for a quarter of a century.  A moment in a restaurant, sharing food, laughing, feeling the intimacy of time between us. 

I'm not a fool.  I know that happiness could end tomorrow.  However, many people never get to experience milestones like 25 years of marriage.  Notice that I didn't say "wedded bliss," because I think that term diminishes what being with a person for that long means.  It means there were sleepless nights.  Angry words.  Maybe betrayals.  But there were also shared joys and sorrows.  Moments when your partner picked up the broken pieces of you and put you back together.

So, tonight, I celebrate the miracle of happiness in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.  I'm clicking my heels together.  Three times.

Repeat after Saint Marty:  "There's no place like home.  There's no place like happiness.  There's no place like love."

Saturday, October 10, 2020

October 10: Communist Sympathizers, Hero's Quest, Luke Skywalker

Merton gets politically involved at Columbia . . .

There was a sort of a legend in New York, fostered by the Hearst papers, that Columbia was a hotbed of Communists. All the professors and students were supposed to be Reds, except perhaps the president of the university, Nicholas Murray Butler, living in solitary misery in his big brick house on Morningside Drive. I have no doubt that the poor old man’s misery was real, and that his isolation from most of the university was very real. But the statement that everybody in the university was a Communist was far from true. 

I know that, as far as the faculty was concerned, Columbia University was built up in concentric rings, about a solid core of well-meaning, unenlightened stuffiness, the veterans, the beloved of the trustees and the alumni, and Butler’s intellectual guard of honor. Then there was an inner circle of sociologists and economists and lawyers, whose world was a mystery to me, and who exercised a powerful influence in Washington under the New Deal. About all of them and their satellites I never knew anything, except that they were certainly not Communists. Then there was the little galaxy of pragmatists in the school of philosophy, and all the thousands of their pale spiritual offspring in the jungles of Teachers College and New College. They were not Communists either. They cast a mighty influence over the whole American Middle West, and were to a great extent conditioned by the very people whom they were trying to condition, so that Teachers College always stood for colorlessness and mediocrity and plain, hapless behaviorism. These three groups were then the real Columbia. I suppose they all prided themselves on their liberalism, but that is precisely what they were: “liberals,” not Communists, and they brought down upon their heads all the scorn the Communists could pour upon them for their position of habitual compromise. 

I do not understand much about politics. Besides, it would be outside the scope of my present vocation if I tried to make any political analysis of anything. But I can say that there were, at that time, quite a few Communists or Communist sympathizers among the undergraduates, and especially in Columbia College where most of the smartest students were Reds. 

The Communists had control of the college paper and were strong on some of the other publications and on the Student Board. But this campus Communism was more a matter of noise than anything else, at least as far as the rank and file were concerned. 

The Spectator was always starting some kind of a fight and calling for mass-meetings and strikes and demonstrations. Then the fraternity boys, who elected to play “Fascist” in this children’s game, would get up in the classroom buildings and turn the firehoses on the people who were standing around the Communist speaker. Then the whole thing would come out in the New York Journal that evening and all the alumni would choke on their mock turtle soup down at the Columbia Club. 

By the time I arrived at Columbia, the Communists had taken to holding their meetings at the sundial on 116th Street, in the middle of the wide-open space between the old domed library and South Field. This was well out of the range of the firehoses in the Journalism building and Hamilton Hall. The first meeting I went to, there, was very tame. It was against Italian Fascism. There were one or two speeches—by students practicing the art. Those who stood around were mostly members of the National Students’ League, who were there out of a sense of duty or partisanship. A few curious passers-by stopped a while on their way to the subway. There was not much excitement. A girl with a mop of black hair stood by, wearing a placard pronouncing some kind of a judgement on Fascism. Someone sold me a pamphlet. 

Presently I picked out the quiet, earnest, stocky little man in the grey overcoat, a hatless, black-haired Communist from downtown, who was running the affair. He was not a student. He was the real article. This was his assignment: forming and training the material that offered itself to him at Columbia. He had an assistant, a younger man, and the two of them were kept pretty busy. I went up to him and started to talk. When he actually listened to me, and paid attention to my ideas, and seemed to approve of my interest, I was very flattered. He got my name and address and told me to come to the meetings of the N.S.L. 

Soon I was walking up and down in front of the Casa Italiana wearing two placards, front and back, accusing Italy of injustice in the invasion of Ethiopia that had either just begun or was just about to begin. Since the accusation was manifestly true, I felt a certain satisfaction in thus silently proclaiming it as a picket. There were two or three of us. For an hour and a half or two hours we walked up and down the pavement of Amsterdam Avenue, in the grey afternoon, bearing our dire accusations, while the warm sense of justification in our hearts burned high, even in spite of the external boredom. 

For during that whole time no one even came near the Casa Italiana, and I even began to wonder if there were anyone at all inside of it. The only person who approached us was a young Italian who looked as if he might be a Freshman football player, and tried to get into an argument. But he was too dumb. He went away mumbling that the Hearst papers were very excellent because of the great prizes which they offered, in open competition, to their many readers.

If Merton's involvement in the Communist Party seems tepid, it was.  I believe he was more in love with the idea of belonging to something bigger than himself than to actually subscribing to any of the teachings of Marx and his followers.  Merton, young and parentless and rootless and mightily unschooled in any kind of moral or spiritual belief system, is looking for a place to call home.  So, any opportunity for involvement fills Merton's emptiness, his need for human connection.

I believe that most people are on a quest for human connection in their lives.  In a way, it's the hero quest we are all on--going through all kinds of struggles and battles, overcoming overwhelming obstacles, in order to find a place and people to call home.  It's a transformational process, involving all kinds of steps--call to action, meeting a mentor, crossing the threshold, death and rebirth, reward, the road back, and resurrection.  Odysseus.  Hercules.  Jesus Christ.  They all go through it for the sake of love.

This evening, I indulged in a quest for human connection myself.  My daughter and I have been steadily working our way through the entire Star Wars universe of films, watching them in order of release.  (As any real Star Wars fan will attest, this is the ONLY way to make your way through the trilogy of trilogies.)  After a long break, we returned to this quest tonight, watching The Force Awakens, the first of J.J. Abrams' reboot of the franchise.

Now, I'm well aware that many people reading this post will not share my affinity to Luke Skywalker and company, so I won't wax philosophic on the moral and spiritual teachings of the Star Wars franchise, although George Lucas depended heavily on Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces in its creation.  In fact, Campbell and Lucas became close friends at the end of Campbell's life, and Campbell himself recognized the religious and mythical echoes in the Star Wars films.

Tonight, my daughter and I made the jump to hyperspace.  We sat on the couch together, under a warm blanket.  And there were our old friends, Han and Leia and, eventually, Luke.  I was reminded of the hot July day I saw A New Hope for the first time.  I was nine years old, and I think, somehow, the Catholic boy in me recognized the unfolding gospel of Luke Skywalker.  Joseph Campbell famously said, "A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself."  That's Jesus.  That's Obi-Wan.  And Han.  And Luke.  (It's even Darth, when you think about it.)

That Star Wars lesson stuck with me into adulthood.  I've tried to let it guide most of my adult decisions.  I'm not perfect.  I've made some pretty selfish choices in my life.  I still do.  (My daughter gave me some Lake Champlain chocolate Five Star Bars for my birthday.  I'm not sharing them with anybody.)  However, as a teacher, son, brother, husband, and father, I find sacrifice an important part of the equation.  Especially with my wife and kids.  

I work about three or four jobs on a consistent basis.  To pay bills and maintain health insurance and help finance my daughter's college education.  Yes, I am frequently exhausted at the end of my days.  Barely able to stay awake to correct papers or quizzes or exams.  Yet, I can't imagine doing anything else.  It's who I am.  I'm not sure if that makes me a hero.  But I know my kids are happy and safe.  They know they are loved.  That's what matters most.  I don't need Yoda to tell me that.

In my kids, I am home.  I learned that a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away.  

And for that lesson of what surrounds and penetrates me, and binds my galaxy together, I give thanks.

Only one last thing for Saint Marty to say:  May the Force be with you.

Friday, October 9, 2020

October 9: Vague Spilling of the Emotions, Matter of Choice, "After Judith Minty"

Merton speaks more about Mark Van Doren . . . 

Mark would come into the room and, without any fuss, would start talking about whatever was to be talked about. Most of the time he asked questions. His questions were very good, and if you tried to answer them intelligently, you found yourself saying excellent things that you did not know you knew, and that you had not, in fact, known before. He had “educed” them from you by his question. His classes were literally “education”—they brought things out of you, they made your mind produce its own explicit ideas. Do not think that Mark was simply priming his students with thoughts of his own, and then making the thought stick to their minds by getting them to give it back to him as their own. Far from it.  What he did have was the gift of communicating to them something of his own vital interest in things, something of his manner of approach: but the results were sometimes quite unexpected—and by that I mean good in a way that he had not anticipated, casting lights that he had not himself foreseen. 

Now a man who can go for year after year—although Mark was young then and is young now—without having any time to waste in flattering and cajoling his students with any kind of a fancy act, or with jokes, or with storms of temperament, or periodic tirades—whole classes spent in threats and imprecations, to disguise the fact that the professor himself has come in unprepared—one who can do without all these non-essentials both honors his vocation and makes it fruitful. Not only that, but his vocation, in return, perfects and ennobles him. And that is the way it should be, even in the natural order: how much more so in the order of grace! 

Mark, I know, is no stranger to the order of grace: but considering his work as teacher merely as a mission on the natural level—I can see that Providence was using him as an instrument more directly than he realized. As far as I can see, the influence of Mark’s sober and sincere intellect, and his manner of dealing with his subject with perfect honesty and objectivity and without evasions, was remotely preparing my mind to receive the good seed of scholastic philosophy. And there is nothing strange in this, for Mark himself was familiar at least with some of the modern scholastics, like Maritain and Gilson, and he was a friend of the American neo-Thomists, Mortimer Adler and Richard McKeon, who had started out at Columbia but had had to move to Chicago, because Columbia was not ripe enough to know what to make of them. 

The truth is that Mark’s temper was profoundly scholastic in the sense that his clear mind looked directly for the quiddities of things, and sought being and substance under the covering of accident and appearances. And for him poetry was, indeed, a virtue of the practical intellect, and not simply a vague spilling of the emotions, wasting the soul and perfecting none of our essential powers. 

It was because of this virtual scholasticism of Mark’s that he would never permit himself to fall into the naive errors of those who try to read some favorite private doctrine into every poet they like of every nation or every age. And Mark abhorred the smug assurance with which second-rate leftwing critics find adumbrations of dialectical materialism in everyone who ever wrote from Homer and Shakespeare to whomever they happen to like in recent times. If the poet is to their fancy, then he is clearly seen to be preaching the class struggle. If they do not like him, then they are able to show that he was really a forefather of fascism. And all their literary heroes are revolutionary leaders, and all their favorite villains are capitalists and Nazis. 

It was a very good thing for me that I ran into someone like Mark Van Doren at that particular time, because in my new reverence for Communism, I was in danger of docilely accepting any kind of stupidity, provided I thought it was something that paved the way to the Elysian fields of classless society.

Merton seems to agree with Mark Van Doren's understanding of poetry as a "virtue of the practical intellect." Poetry is something that perfects the human condition, or expresses aspects of the human condition practically, without the messiness of human ideologies that seek to define the universe in terms of economic or class distinctions. Of course, Merton is a Trappist monk. Therefore, his understanding of the universe is seen through the lens of Catholic monasticism. Poet Kathleen Norris writes of Merton, "Merton has a mystic's sense of unity, and in his poems, he wants to bring as much together as he can. Sometimes he does it with monastic simplicity . . . but Merton can also insist on plenitude, and a wild extravagance flowers in much of his work."

Simplicity and wild extravagance. I don't think there is a better description of poetry than this. Poetry, through its razor-sharp language, pares truth down to its elements. But poetry embraces all the beauty and ugliness of life, as well--joy, grief, ecstasy, despondency. It's all there. That's why, in the lowest times of my life, I've turned to poetry for solace, and, in the highest times, I've sought out poetry to give voice to my abounding happiness.

Today has been good. And by good, I mean that nothing terrible has happened, and a lot of small blessings have filled my hours. I worked, picked up Thai food for dinner, listened to a poetry reading by new Nobel Laureate Louise Glück on my way home. My son went to school (which may not sound like a huge accomplishment, but it was). My daughter's Covid test came back negative (after a week of symptoms). In the evening, I cleaned a church with my wife, and we listened to a good channel of 1980s music as we disinfected and sanitized. When I got back to our house, I took a shower and then napped.

All these little blessings added up to a day of grace. I think a lot of people look for happiness in huge things. Like winning the lottery or the Nobel Prize in Literature. Don't get me wrong. Those things are wonderful, and I wouldn't turn either of them down. However, real happiness has nothing to do with these externals. I saw a short video of Louise Glück leaving her house on the afternoon she won the Nobel, after a day that I'm sure was filled with non-stop phone calls and e-mails and whatnot. She looked absolutely frazzled as she faced the hoard of reporters and photographers outside her home, and she wasn't very gracious in answering their shouted questions. She just wanted to get into the waiting SUV and escape. She didn't look like she was enjoying herself very much.

Now, part of me thinks, "Suck it up. You've just been given the most prestigious literary prize in the world, and over a million dollars to boot." But the other part of me (the nicer part) thinks, "Yeah, I get it. You had a comfortable, ordered life, and it's never going to be the same again. No more anonymous trips to Starbucks or McDonalds. I'm sorry." Louise Glück, from here on out, is Nobel Laurate Louise Glück, with all the accompanying trappings wherever she goes.

Me? I have been granted 18 or so hours of small goodnesses, leading up to me writing this post. It wasn't a perfect 18 or so hours. I didn't get a phone call from the Swedish Academy in the early morning. Wasn't hounded by phone calls and reporters all day. All of my current problems are still problems. But I didn't let all of these small annoyances avalanche into a Sisyphean boulder.

Because happiness really is a matter of choice,

And today, Saint Marty chose happiness, in all its poetic simplicity and wild extravagance.

And a poem of feathered happiness . . .

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.

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. 


Thursday, October 8, 2020

October 5-8: Mark Van Doren, Saint Marty's Day, Good News

 Thomas Merton meets one of his heroes . . . 

Soon I was full of all the economic and pseudo-scientific jargon appropriate to a good Columbia man, and was acclimated to the new atmosphere which I found so congenial. That was true. Columbia, compared with Cambridge, was a friendly place. When you had to go and see a professor or an advisor or a dean about something, he would tell you, more or less simply, what you needed to know. The only trouble was that you usually had to wait around for about half an hour before you got a chance to see anybody. But once you did, there were no weird evasions and none of the pompous beating about the bush, mixed up with subtle academic allusions and a few dull witticisms which was what you were liable to get out of almost anybody at Cambridge, where everybody cultivated some special manner of his own, and had his own individual and peculiar style. I suppose it is something that you have to expect around a university, this artificiality. For a man to be absolutely sincere with generation after generation of students requires either supernatural simplicity or, in the natural order, a kind of heroic humility. 

There was—and still is—one man at Columbia, or rather one among several, who was most remarkable for this kind of heroism. I mean Mark Van Doren.

The first semester I was at Columbia, just after my twentieth birthday, in the winter of 1935, Mark was giving part of the “English sequence” in one of those rooms in Hamilton Hall with windows looking out between the big columns on to the wired-in track on South Field. There were twelve or fifteen people with more or less unbrushed hair, most of them with glasses, lounging around. One of them was my friend Robert Gibney. 

It was a class in English literature, and it had no special bias of any kind. It was simply about what it was supposed to be about: the English literature of the eighteenth century. And in it literature was treated, not as history, not as sociology, not as economics, not as a series of case-histories in psychoanalysis but, mirabile dictu, simply as literature. 

I thought to myself, who is this excellent man Van Doren who being employed to teach literature, teaches just that: talks about writing and about books and poems and plays: does not get off on a tangent about the biographies of the poets or novelists: does not read into their poems a lot of subjective messages which were never there? Who is this man who does not have to fake and cover up a big gulf of ignorance by teaching a lot of opinions and conjectures and useless facts that belong to some other subject? Who is this who really loves what he has to teach, and does not secretly detest all literature, and abhor poetry, while pretending to be a professor of it? 

That Columbia should have in it men like this who, instead of subtly destroying all literature by burying and concealing it under a mass of irrelevancies, really purified and educated the perceptions of their students by teaching them how to read a book and how to tell a good book from a bad, genuine writing from falsity and pastiche: all this gave me a deep respect for my new university.

We've all had people like Mark Van Doren in our lives--people we look up to, who teach us how to be better than we are.  For Merton, Van Doren is the embodiment of everything a student of literature should be.  It's all about the text.  No external psychological or sociological or political distractions.  Just words on a page.  Only words on a page.

I apologize for my long absence.  It has been an eventful Saint Marty's Day week.  Lots to celebrate.  Cupcakes to eat.  Presents to receive and open.  I am a man who has been blessed with family and close friends who really care about me.  So, these last few days have been a true affirmation of all the grace present in my life.  Yes, I sometimes struggle and curse and stare into the abyss.  I'm a poet.  That's what I'm supposed to do.  However, in spite of it all, above all, I am incredibly lucky to love and be loved.  

On Saint Marty's Day, I announced to the world the good news that I will be starting a new job in the middle of October.  In many ways, it's a dream job, utilizing all of my creative skills.  I will be the Adult Programming Coordinator at Peter White Public Library in Marquette, Michigan.  That means I get to plan cool events like readings and concerts and presentations and podcasts and art exhibitions.  In a year that has been characterized by so much strife and grief, I am holding onto this moment of light.

Another moment of light came to me the day after Saint Marty's Day.  I was driving my son home from a doctor's appointment, listening to Garrison Keillor's latest book, The Lake Wobegone Virus.  My son asked me to turn off the sound system in the car.  I did.  Then, my son shared a truth about himself with me.  (I will not talk about this truth.  That is my son's story to tell.)

After he was done talking, I told him that I loved him, would always love him.  I told him he was surrounded by love, would always be surrounded by love.  And then I said, "You know what?"  

He said, "What?" 

"You're my hero," I said.  

He looked at me as if I had just recited a Shakespearean sonnet.

"What you just did was really brave," I said, "and you're a hero for doing it."

I'm not sure if he really understood what I was saying, but I wanted him to hear me say it.  He said, "You can turn your book back on."

I shook my head.  "I don't really want to," I said.  And I didn't.  Instead, we rode the rest of the way in each other's silences.  A comfortable silence, unencumbered by unsaid things.  It was another Saint Marty's Day blessing.

And today, this morning, American poet Louise Glück won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  I was kinda hoping it was my year to be named, but, alas, it was not meant to be.  Instead, I celebrate that a poet won.  A poet that I admire greatly, with a view of the universe that it uncompromising and starkly beautiful.

Tonight, Saint Marty gives thanks for this week of blessings and graces.  For opening doors.  For feast days and inspired words.  But, especially, Saint Marty gives thanks for his son's bravery and honesty.  Thank you, Lord.