Wednesday, June 30, 2021

June 30: Faith and Simplicity, Messages in a Bottle, Evening of Heartbreak

Merton on his English students . . . 

I was writing a book—it was not much of a book—and I had classes to prepare. It was the latter work that had the most in it of health and satisfaction and reward. I had three big classes of sophomores, ninety students in all, to bring through English Literature from Beowulf to the Romantic Revival in one year. And a lot of them didn’t even know how to spell. But that did not worry me very much, and it could not alter my happiness with Piers Plowman and the Nun’s Priest’s Tale and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: I was back again in that atmosphere that had enthralled me as a child, the serene and simple and humorous Middle Ages, not the lute and goblin and moth-ball Middle Ages of Tennyson, but the real Middle Ages, the twelfth and thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, full of fresh air and simplicity, as solid as wheat bread and grape wine and water-mills and ox-drawn wagons: the age of Cistercian monasteries and of the first Franciscans. 

And so, in my innocence, I stood up and talked about all these things in front of those rooms full of football players with long, unpronounceable names: and because they saw that I myself liked my own subject matter, they tolerated it, and even did a certain amount of work for me without too much complaint. 

The classes were a strange mixture. The best elements in them were the football players and the seminarians. The football players were mostly on scholarships, and they did not have much money, and they stayed in at night most of the time. As a group, they were the best-natured and the best-tempered and worked as hard as the seminarians. They were also the most vocal. They liked to talk about these books when I stirred them up to argue. They liked to open their mouths and deliver rough, earnest, and sometimes sardonic observations about the behavior of these figures in literature. 

Also, some of them were strong and pious Catholics with souls full of faith and simplicity and honesty and conviction, yet without the violence and intemperance that come from mere prejudice. At Columbia it had been pretty much the fashion to despise football players as stupid: and I don’t maintain that they are, as a class, geniuses. But the ones at St. Bona’s taught me much more about people than I taught them about books, and I learned to have a lot of respect and affection for these rough, earnest, good-natured, and patient men who had to work so hard and take so many bruises and curses to entertain the Friars and the Alumni on the football field, and to advertise the school. 

I wonder what has happened to them all: how many of them got shot up in Africa or the Philippines? What became of that black-haired, grinning Mastrigiacomo who confided to me all his ambitions about being a band-leader; or that lanky, cat-faced villain Chapman whom I saw one night, after a dance, walking around chewing on a whole ham? What have they done with that big, quiet Irishman Quinn, or Woody McCarthy with his long bulbous nose and eyebrows full of perplexity and his sallies of gruff wit? Then there was Red Hagerman who was not a Catholic, and who looked like all the big cheerful muscle-bound football players they believed in in the nineteen twenties. He went off and got himself married towards the end of that year.   Another one called “Red” was Red McDonald, and he was one of the best students in the class, and one of the best people: a serious young Irishman with a wide-open face, all full of sincerity and hard work. Then there was the big round-faced Polish boy whose name I have forgotten, who grabbed hold of the tail of a cow which dragged him all around the pasture on the day of the sophomore beer-party at the end of the year. 

The most intelligent students were the seminarians or the ones that were going to enter the seminary: and they were the quietest. They kept pretty much to themselves, and handed in neat papers which you could be relatively sure were their own original work. Probably by now they are all priests. 

The rest of the class was a mixture of all kinds of people, some of them disgruntled, some of them penniless and hard-working, some of them rich and dumb and too fond of beer. Some of them liked to play the drums and knew how. Others liked to play them and did not know how. Some of them were good dancers and danced a lot. Others just went uptown and played the slot machines until the last minute before midnight, when they came back to the college in a panic-stricken rush to get in before the time limit was up. One of them, Joe Nastri, thought he was a Communist. I don’t suppose he had a very clear idea of what a Communist was. One day he went to sleep in class and one of the football players gave him the hot-foot. 

Of all the crowd, it could not be said that they were very different from the students I had known in other colleges. With a few exceptions, they were certainly no holier. They got drunk just as much, but they made more noise about it, and had less money to spend, and were handicapped by the necessity of getting back to the dormitory at a certain time. Twice a week they had to get up and hear Mass, which was a burden to most of them. Only very few of them heard Mass and went to Communion every day— outside of the seminarians. 

However, most of them clung with conviction to the Catholic faith, a loyalty which was resolute and inarticulate. It was hard to tell just how much that loyalty was a matter of conscious faith, and how much it was based on attachment to their class and social environment: but they were all pretty definite about being Catholics. One could not say of them that, as a whole, they led lives that went beyond the ordinary level demanded of a Christian. Some of the most intelligent of them often startled me with statements that showed they had not penetrated below the surface of Catholicism and did not really appreciate its spirit... One, for instance, argued that the virtue of humility was nonsense, and that it sapped a man of all his vitality and initiative. Another one did not think there were any such things as devils.... 

All of them were serene in their conviction that the modern world was the highest point reached by man in his development, and that our present civilization left very little to be desired. I wonder if the events of 1943 and the two following years did anything to change their opinions.

Merton seems to revel in his job as an English instructor.  Loves his students--from the football players to the seminarians.  He acknowledges that many of the young men he taught probably ended up as soldiers in World War II, with many of them not surviving.  They all work hard for Merton, keeping him on his toes.  The thing that Merton seems to admire most about all them is their Catholic-ness.  They all, to a greater or lesser extent, have "souls full of faith and simplicity and honesty and conviction . . ."  Merton readily admits that he learns more from his students than they learn from him.  In my experience as a teacher, that is always the case.

I know that my extended absence from blogging has probably not really been all that noticed.  As a writer, I like to imagine that people wait for my posts the way that Victorian Londoners waited for the next installment of Great Expectations or The Pickwick Papers.  Of course, that isn't reality.  What I do in this blog will really change nothing in the world.  Perhaps there are a few disciples out there who find a kindred spirit in me.  Maybe I make some of you feel a little less lonely.  But, for the most part, these little musings I send out into the ether are just messages in a bottle.  I don't know if they sink or make it to a friendly shore.

The reason for my lengthy sabbatical was professional in nature.  Last week, in the City of Marquette, we celebrated Art Week, which is a six-day festival of poetry readings, concerts, art classes, sidewalk art, historical tours, and art exhibits.  It is a gargantuan effort, and, for my part, I spent all last week running from one event to another.  I arranged popup poetry readings and a gallery show of poetry broadsides.  Two concerts.  One spontaneous writing booth.  An embroidery class.  And I was commissioned to write a closing ceremony poem.

Then, on the seventh day, I didn't rest.  I traveled to Calumet, Michigan, and performed in a variety radio show, which I also cowrote the scripts for.

Monday night, I was literally brain dead.

But, the thing that kept me going was this:  I was literally surrounded by artists.  People of like mind and ideas.  Passionate dreamers.  And they care about making the world a better place though art.  It's sort of like Merton being surrounded by those souls filled with faith and simplicity.  These were my people, and it was an amazing experience.

Of course, life's problems don't disappear, even during Art Week or after.  In Merton's passage above, the specter of World War II looms large.  In my life, it's a struggle with someone close to me who puts my love to the test frequently.  Sometimes daily.  With Art Week, I feel connected and loved. With this person, I often feel the exact opposite--disconnected and unloved.

So, for the last seven days, I've been sort of living in both of these worlds.  And it has been a little draining.  It's difficult for me to integrate these two lives, because they are so dissimilar.  Tonight was particularly hard.  Without getting into personal details, all I will say is that I feel very alone.  And angry.  And betrayed.  And I don't know what to do about it.

Art is a way to work through difficult situations, especially writing.  I can't tell you how many times I've written my way back to center in my journal or through a poem.  Despite what some poets may claim, there's always a little truth of the poet's life in every poem.  I've been writing poems about Bigfoot for the last five years or so.  Bigfoot has become my stand in--smarter, stronger, emotionally more connected than me.  Bigfoot would know what to do tonight, and perhaps I should summon his spirit.  Or the spirit I've created for him.

So, tonight, after a long week of art, another evening of heartbreak, I reach out to my Bigfoot self.  Smell his hairy musk.  Stare into his yellow eyes.  Feel his Stonehenge presence.  

Saint Marty may be staying in Bigfoot's cave for a while, surrounded by his cave drawings.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

June 20: Father's Day, Complicated, "To My Father's Ashes"

No Thomas Merton tonight.  Just a little reflection on Father's Day.

Fatherhood is a complicated thing, full of so many societal expectations.  I grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where the fathers I knew were fishermen, deer hunters, and car mechanics.  They wore flannel almost all year, and thought Chuck Norris films were the height of culture.  (Okay, I'm stereotyping here, but you get the idea.)  I didn't get these fathers.

Even my own father.  On the morning I graduated from high school, my father took me to his rifle cabinet and told me I could pick out any gun of his I wanted as a graduation present.  I never went deer hunting, had only fired a gun once or twice in my entire life.  But I picked out a rifle and thanked him.  I think he may have even hugged me and told me he was proud of me.

I know my father was proud of my accomplishments.  He didn't always get my poetry, but he was always in the front row of all of my readings.  And in the front row of every play I acted in or directed.  He supported me, even though he didn't understand me.  I was like none of his other sons.  We had a complicated relationship.

We didn't see eye-to-eye on a lot of things, politically or socially.  He was a member of the John Birch Society.  I would have been investigated by Joseph McCarthy if I had lived in the 1950s. (Joseph McCarthy--one of my dad's heroes.)  Yet, I know that he was devoted to his family and would have done anything for his wife and kids.  That was a lesson that stuck with me.  I also learned things I swore I'd never repeat with my own children.  Like I said, my father and I had a complicated relationship.

This Father's Day night, I hope that I have been a good father.  Hope that my daughter and son know how much I love them.  That I would do anything for them.  I've tried to make my relationship with my kids as uncomplicated as I could, because I don't want either of them to be writing a poem 40 years from now that ends with the line "Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through."

I loved my father, even as I struggled with his more problematic characteristics.  I still love my father.  He worked hard his whole life, provided for nine kids.  That's a remarkable feat.  I struggle to pay the bills, and I only have two children.

Father's Day is not easy for many people.  Because of estrangement, death, abandonment, infertility.  I respect that.  Honor that struggle.  Pray for peace of heart and mind.  

Saint Marty hopes he never makes Father's Day a complicated day for his kids.  

And a poem for Father's Day . . . 

To My Father's Ashes

by:  Martin Achatz

Staring at your dust
in this black vase,
I wonder what of you
I possess. The cinder
that was your hands. watered
tomato plants every summer
until they swelled into orange
fists of starfish. Grains of your
crooked spine that kept
you from the missiles and grenades
of Pork Chop Hill and Pusan.
Or the pollen of your lips, tongue
that sipped Seven and Seven
all night until you didn’t remember
stoking the furnace with so much
wood that it roared, turned brick
red, almost reduced the house to char.
It could be the soot that was your testes,
scrotum, vesicles, the place
where the Y of me first swam
in white brine the night
you reached out, atlased
my mother’s body with yours.
Perhaps the ember of calf, shoulder.
Powder of ulna, incisor, humerus.
Or maybe it’s a part of you
I don’t know. The finger
that traced the arc of a neighbor
girl’s breast under a haystack moon.
Your grey eyes, the ones the cried
for two days when your daughter
was born with an extra chromosome
swimming in the pools of her nuclei.
An eardrum that heard Louis Armstrong
coax “La Vie En Rose” from his trumpet
one August night at the Paradise
on Woodward when the Detroit River
was a black tendon of water.
Or a mole on your chest that your bride
kissed over and over on your wedding
night until it blossomed to the color
of lupin.

Friday, June 18, 2021

June 17-18: Back to Christ's Altars, Communion and Catholic Bishops, Love

Merton finds peace in a noisy place . . . 

Yet the room was not quiet, either. It was right on a corner next to the stairs, and when anybody on our floor was wanted on the telephone, someone would rush up the stairs and stick his head into the corridor right by my door and yell down the echoing hall. All day long I heard those voices bellowing, “Hey, Cassidy! Hey, Cassidy!” but I did not mind. It did not stop me from doing twice as much work in that room, in one year, as I had done in all the rest of my life put together. 

It amazed me how swiftly my life fell into a plan of fruitful and pleasant organization, here under the roof with these Friars, in this house dedicated to God. The answer to this was, of course, the God Who lived under that same roof with me, hidden in His Sacrament, the heart of the house, diffusing His life through it from the chapel Tabernacle: and also the Office I recited every day was another answer. Finally, there was the fact of my seclusion. 

By this time, I had managed to get myself free from all the habits and luxuries that people in the world think they need for their comfort and amusement. My mouth was at last clean of the yellow, parching salt of nicotine, and I had rinsed my eyes of the grey slops of movies, so that now my taste and my vision were clean. And I had thrown away the books that soiled my heart. And my ears, too, had been cleansed of all wild and fierce noises and had poured into them peace, peace—except for that yell, “Hey, Cassidy,” which, after all, did not make much difference. 

Best of all, my will was in order, my soul was in harmony with itself and with God, though not without battle, and not without cost. That was a price I had to pay, or lose my life altogether, so there was no alternative but wait in patience, and let myself be ground out between the upper and nether millstones of the two conflicting laws within me. Nor could I taste anything of the sense that this is really a martyrdom full of merit and pleasing to God: I was still too obsessed with the sheer, brute difficulty of it, and the crushing humiliation that faced me all the time. Peccatum meum contra me est semper

Yet, in spite of all that, there was in me the profound, sure certitude of liberty, the moral certitude of grace, of union with God, which bred peace that could not be shattered or overshadowed by any necessity to stand armed and ready for conflict. And this peace was all-rewarding. It was worth everything. And every day it brought me back to Christ’s altars, and to my daily Bread, that infinitely holy and mighty and secret wholesomeness that was cleansing and strengthening my sick being through and through, and feeding, with His infinite life, my poor shredded sinews of morality. 

Here it is.  Merton finds peace in this place, because he is reciting the Divine Office, and every day he is "brought back to Christ's altars, and to my daily Bread."  He's praying, going to Communion, and removing things from his life that have acted as roadblocks in his faith journey.  Like Merton, every individual finds his/her own way to God, no matter what name or form God takes.  Yahweh,  Jesus.  Nature.  The Universe.  It's a very personal thing.

Something happened today that bothers me quite a bit.  The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops voted (not unanimously) to draft a document that may, if adopted in November, be used to deny individuals, who hold public office and support abortion rights, the ability to receive the sacrament of Communion.  The document hasn't been written, and the final vote hasn't been cast by the bishops.  However, this step seems to cross the line, using a deeply personal and spiritual act as a way to influence public policy.  And that, in my book, goes completely against what I know about Jesus Christ and his teachings.

Abortion is a very personal matter.  Laws can be made to protect it or make it illegal.  Abortion is not going away, no matter what politicians or bishops or judges say or do.  I am not a woman.  Therefore, I have never had to face that terrible choice in my life, and, rest assured, any woman who has faced that situation has agonized and suffered over the decision.  Making abortion illegal again doesn't mean abortions will stop.  They will simply become more dangerous and life-threatening.  

Now, perhaps you're of the mindset that a woman who chooses to have an illegal abortion deserves to become sick or die.  Again, I'm a lifelong Catholic, and that thinking really doesn't gibe with the Jesus Christ I know.  If you are against abortion, I'm fine with that.  Then you also need to do something to make sure that all mothers have social, financial, and medical support, not just for the term of the pregnancy, but until their children are fully grown.  And you need to provide for those children, too--make sure they are healthy, cared for, eat well, get good educations.  In short, you need to be in it for the long haul, not just nine months.

Using a sacrament of the Catholic Church as a way to influence public policy and servants is tantamount, in my mind, to going against something Jesus Christ said to Pharisees or Herodians or the spies of the chief priests:  "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's."  This rebuke appears in the books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke in one form or another.

In short, at least in my thinking, the bishops who support the drafting of this document regarding Communion aren't trying to spread the Body of Christ, which, if you are a Christian, can be a force for great spiritual healing and understanding.  Reread that passage from Thomas Merton, if you don't believe me.  No, these bishops are using Communion like an allowance that's being withheld as punishment.

As I said earlier, abortion is a deeply personal matter, made between a woman, a medical provider, and whatever support system she has.  No law is going to change that.  The law is there to protect citizens' rights, to allow them to make good or bad choices (depending on your point of view).  I don't believe in abortion, would do everything I could to help someone facing that decision, and love her no matter what.  That's my choice.  My neighbor who lives down the street may believe in abortion.  That's her choice.  Both of those choices are protected.  Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's.

Communion is a deeply personal, spiritual matter, something that happens between you and God.  It can heal a broken heart.  Bring someone back to church.  Change people's minds and souls.  Nobody has the right to stand in the way of that.  Render unto God the things that are God's.

I'm not trying to sway anyone's opinion with this post.  You may disagree with me.  I respect that and still love you.  Because that's what it all boils down to, if you call yourself a Christian:  love.  Love is love is love.

Saint Marty grew up singing that song:  "They'll know we are Christians by our love . . ."  He tries to live by those words every day of his life.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

June 16: Drink Poems, Recite Prayers, Earn Tenure

Merton finds a new way of living . . . 

But I am getting ahead of my story. For in these days, in the late summer of 1940, it was not yet that way. The Breviary was hard to learn, and every step was labor and confusion, not to mention the mistakes and perplexities I got myself into. However, Father Irenaeus helped to straighten me out, and told me how the various feasts worked together, and how to say first Vespers for the proper feast, and all the other things one needs to find out. Apart from him, however, I didn’t even speak of the Breviary to any other priest. I kept quiet about it, half fearing that someone would make fun of me, or think I was eccentric, or try to snatch my books away from me on some pretext. I would have been better off if I had been acting under the guidance of a director, but I had no understanding of such a thing in those days. 

Meanwhile, I put on my best blue suit and hitch-hiked out to St. Bonaventure and spoke with Father Thomas Plassman, who was the president of the college, and the picture of benevolence. He listened kindly and soberly to my answers to his questions, filling a chair with his huge frame and looking at me through his glasses, out of a great kind face built on pontifical lines and all set for smiles paternal enough to embrace an archdiocese. Father Thomas would make a wonderful prelate, and, as a matter of fact, all the students and seminarians at St. Bonaventure held him in great awe for his learning and piety.

Back in Olean his reputation was even greater. Once I had someone whisper to me that Father Thomas was the third best educated man in America. I was not able to find out who were the other two ahead of him, or how it was possible to determine who was the best educated, or what that might precisely mean. 

But in any case, he gave me a job at St. Bonaventure’s, teaching English, for it fell out that Father Valentine Long, who wrote books and taught literature to the sophomores, had been transferred to Holy Name College, in Washington. 

In the second week of September, with a trunkful of books and a typewriter and the old portable phonograph that I had bought when I was still at Oakham, I moved in to the little room that was assigned to me on the second floor of the big, red-brick building that was both a dormitory and a monastery. Out of my window I could look beyond the chapel front to the garden and fields and the woods. There was a little astronomical observatory out there behind the greenhouses, and in the distance you could tell where the river was by the line of trees at the end of the pasture. And then, beyond that, were the high, wooded hills, and my gaze travelled up Five Mile Valley beyond the farms to Martinny’s Rocks. My eyes often wandered out there, and rested in that peaceful scene, and the landscape became associated with my prayers, for I often prayed looking out of the window. And even at night, the tiny, glowing light of a far farmhouse window in Five Mile Valley attracted my eye, the only visible thing in the black darkness, as I knelt on the floor and said my last prayer to Our Lady. 

And as the months went on, I began to drink poems out of those hills.

I love the last line from this Merton passage.  In particular, I love the phrase "I began to drink poems out of those hills."  Merton has found some peace of mind after much chaos and disappointment.  He is learning a new way of living, and, by so doing, a new way to God.  Through prayer, teaching, and poetry.

I usually start my day with prayer of some kind.  Sometimes, it sort of goes like this:  "Oh, my God, not another day!"  Other days, it's a little more positive:  "God, thanks for not letting me die in my sleep!"  Or, "Wow, I never saw that one coming!"  These thoughts are laced with self pity and self absorption.  However, I'm still talking to God.  It counts as prayer.

In everything that I do every day  , I teach, whether it's creating programs for the library or lesson plans for the university.  It's all about educating people about some subject, whether it's cooking brown rice asparagus bean salad or conjugating an irregular verb.  I can check this one off my list, too.

And, of course, all of my days are filled with poetry.  It's my passion and joy.  Writing and reading poetry is always a part of my day.  Usually, after I finish my morning prayer, I read or listen to a poem.  This practice grounds me and provides inspiration for the rest of my day.

So, considering Merton finds his way to God through those three things, I should be well on my way to sainthood.  At least, that's the way I see it.  And, if canonization is not in my future, I should at least be able to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.  And, if THAT is out of the question, how about a full-time professorship at a university?

I'm not asking for much--just sainthood, a Nobel Prize, or tenure.  One of those things shouldn't be too tall of an order.  It's not like I'm praying for world peace or a winning lotto ticket.  (Well, actually, the Nobel Prize is worth about one million dollars.  Plus, you can pretty much pick which university to teach at, including immediate tenure.  So, it's sort of like winning the lotto, with a fancy ceremony, diploma, and a dinner.)

Tonight, however, after a pretty long day of work that started at 7:30 a.m. and didn't end until almost 11 p.m., I'm too tired to think about any of that.  I'm just going to drink some poems from Natalie Diaz and go to sleep.  

Maybe Marty will dream of becoming a tenured saint.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

June 14-15: Deep Within Me, Restored My Faith, Blessing Versus Grace

Merton receives some grace . . . 

Yes, and from the secret places of His essence, God began to fill my soul with grace in those days, grace that sprung from deep within me, I could not know how or where. But yet I would be able, after not so many months, to realize what was there, in the peace and the strength that were growing in me through my constant immersion in this tremendous, unending cycle of prayer, ever renewing its vitality, its inexhaustible, sweet energies, from hour to hour, from season to season in its returning round. And I, drawn into that atmosphere, into that deep, vast universal movement of vitalizing prayer, which is Christ praying in men to His Father, could not help but begin at last to live, and to know that I was alive. And my heart could not help but cry out within me: “I will sing to the Lord as long as I live: I will sing praise to my God while I have my being. Let my speech be acceptable to Him: but I will take delight in the Lord.” 

Truly, He was sending forth His Spirit, uttering His divine Word and binding me to Himself through His Spirit preceding from the Word spoken within me. As the months went on, I could not help but realize it. 

Then, when I finished the Little Hours and closed the Breviary at the end of None reciting the Sacrosancte, and looked up out of the window to see the seminary of Callicoon momentarily appear on its distant hilltop, at the end of a long avenue of river, I no longer felt so much anguish and sorrow at not being in the monastery. 

So, these last few days have been sort of filled with a kind of grace for me, as well.  On Monday, Slow Dancing with Bigfoot was released.  That's the spoken-word album I worked on with a good friend from the band STREAKING IN TONGUESI have been working so long on this Bigfoot manuscript that I have sort of lost my sense of discernment when it comes to the poems.  I can't tell if they're good or bad.  I just keep revising and adding and subtracting.  

However, this project has restored my faith in my work and abilities.  People are telling me that it's good.  Not just close friends.  Everyone is listening and really digging it.  The local paper published a really astounding review of the album, and someone showed up at the library where I work, asking if they had the album available for checkout.  Amazing.

Here's the thing about grace:  it's not something you earn.  It's something that comes into your life when you need it.  Yes, I've worked hard on these poems.  Yes, my friend and I worked hard on putting this album together.  And yes, some other people worked hard on the project, as well--a sound engineer and a really talented visual artist.  It has been like a fever dream seeing all these disparate elements comes together.

That has been a great joy for me.  All these people working on an artistic endeavor that literally sprang from my imagination.  I've made movies.  Directed plays.  Acted on the stage.  All of those things depend upon the collaborative talents of a group of passionate artists.  This album is no different.  Hours and hours of hard work with many artists to bring something new into the world.

But that's not grace.  That's blessing.  I've been blessed with artistic friends who share my passion.  Grace is all the unexpected joy that's come my way since the album was released.  Sure, Slow Dancing with Bigfoot isn't going to win a Grammy or Pulitzer.  But people like it.  Are excited by it.  That's grace.

So, that's pretty much what I wanted to say tonight.  I've experienced two grace-filled days.  My problems haven't vanished.  My struggles are still real.

But Saint Marty has grace and Bigfoot on his side.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

June 11-13: Renew the Face of the Earth, Learning to Pray, "One Species of Jellyfish is Immortal"

Merton learns something about prayer . . . 

The first time I actually tried to say the Office was on the feast of the Curé of Ars, St. John Vianney. I was on the train, going back to Olean—to Olean because the cottage was, for the time being, the safest place I could think of, and because anyway my best prospect for a job was at St. Bonaventure’s. 

As soon as the train was well started on its journey, and was climbing into the hills towards Suffern, I opened up the book and began right away with Matins, in the Common of a Confessor-non-pontiff. 

Venite exultemus Domino, jubilemus Deo salutari nostra...” It was a happy experience, although its exultancy was subdued and lost under my hesitations and external confusion about how to find my way around in the jungle of the rubrics. To begin with, I did not know enough to look for the general rubrics at the beginning of the Pars Hiemalis and anyway, when I did eventually find them, there was too much information in small-print and obscure canonical Latin for me to make much out of them. 

The train climbed slowly into the Catskills, and I went on from psalm to psalm, smoothly enough. By the time I got to the Lessons of the Second Nocturn, I had figured out whose feast it was that I was celebrating. 

This business of saying the Office on the Erie train, going up through the Delaware valley, was to become a familiar experience in the year that was ahead. Of course, I soon found out the ordinary routine by which Matins and Lauds are anticipated the evening of the day before. Usually, then, on my way from New York to Olean, I would be saying the Little Hours around ten o’clock in the morning when the train had passed Port Jervis and was travelling at the base of the steep, wooded hills that hemmed in the river on either side. If I looked up from the pages of the book, I would see the sun blazing on the trees and moist rocks, and flashing on the surface of the shallow river and playing in the forest foliage along the line. And all this was very much like what the book was singing to me, so that everything lifted up my heart to God. 

Thou sendest forth springs in the vales: between the midst of the hills the waters shall pass.... Over them the birds of the air shall dwell, from the midst of the rocks they shall give forth their voices. Thou waterest the hills from Thy upper rooms: the earth shall be filled with the fruit of Thy works.... The trees of the field shall be filled and the cedars of Libanus which He hath planted: there the sparrows shall make their nests. The highest of them is the house of the heron. The high hills are a refuge for the harts, the rocks for the irchins.... All expect from Thee that Thou give them food in season. What Thou givest them they shall gather up: when Thou openest Thy hand they shall all be filled with good.... Thou shalt send forth Thy Spirit and they shall be created, and Thou shalt renew the face of the earth.

It is not an easy thing, sometimes, to pray.  Merton learns this here.  For the past year or so, Merton has prayed, pursued a path that he thought led to God.  And then, he loses his way.  His own humanity--with its focus on human needs and wants--gets in the way.  So, he starts here from ground zero.  He turns to prayer again.  This time, however, his prayer takes him back to the beginning.  To springs and Spirit and renewal.

It's a strange thing.  For the past day or so, I've been working on a new poem.  And tonight, as I sat down to write this post, I find this passage from Merton about beginning and rebirth and renewal, full of water imagery.  Like my poem.

I have no idea where poems come from.  I would like to say that they tumble from my veins like blood or spill out of my lips like breath.  They don't.  The idea for most poems may come to me like that, but what happens after that is as far from speaking in tongues as bologna is from prime rib.  Writing poetry is work.  Hard work.

Since starting my new poem, I have gone through about fifteen or sixteen drafts in the space of about two or so days.  That may sound like torture to some of my disciples.  To me, working on a poem is the closest I get to actual prayer.  Because I know that, when a poem coalesces on the page, when that final word materializes in front of me, there is something else at work.  I've always thought of it as a little divine moment.  God reaches down, taps me on the shoulder.

It all boils down to the source of inspiration.  Is it the unconscious making an intuitional leap that the conscious brain doesn't quite understand?  Or hours and hours of writing finally bearing fruit?  Or the Holy Spirit descending upon me, giving me a tongue of fire?  I think it's all three of these things.  A holy trinity of creativity.

Whatever it is, I give thanks for it this evening.  Something new exists in the world.  God said, "Let there be poem," and there was poem.

For that small miracle, Saint Marty gives thanks.

One Species of Jellyfish is Immortal

by:  Martin Achatz

One species of jellyfish is immortal, moves from polyp to medusa to polyp over and over, raises the chicken-egg question:  which came first--jellyfish or God?  Book of Jellyfish, Chapter 1, Verse 1:  In the beginning was jellyfish, and jellyfish was with God, and jellyfish was God.  Did God create jellyfish in his image, or vice versa?  Or did they create each other, a begat begatting begat?  Beginning calling to beginning?

Before the first day, light and dark, before God even breathed, there was jellyfish in a blue nirvana of brine and tears.  Which means that before there was heart, there was heartbreak.  Jellyfish and God fractals.  Grief within grief within grief.  

If you get stung by jellyfish or God, don't urinate on yourself to cleanse the poison.  That's a tale told by old sailors who chase St. Elmo's votives.  If you are touched by God/tendril of jellyfish, you are a chosen one.  Bearer of a sadness that has existed before existence.  Wail, gnash, hosanna your teeth.  Something is about to be born again.  Its natal starfish blazes in coral skies.  Follow it to tide pools.  Sargasso kelp.  Stop.  Listen.

You will hear your daughter's first breath move over the waters, making all things new.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

June 8-10: Impetration, Albert Einstein, Rare Steak

Merton makes the right choice by accident . . . 

It was no longer possible to consider myself, abstractly, as being in a certain “state of life” which had special technical relations to other “states of life.” All that occupied me now was the immediate practical problem of getting up my hill with this terrific burden I had on my shoulders, step by step, begging God to drag me along and get me away from my enemies and from those who were trying to destroy me. 

I did not even reflect how the Breviary, the Canonical Office, was the most powerful and effective prayer I could possibly have chosen, since it is the prayer of the whole Church, and concentrates in itself all the power of the Church’s impetration, centered around the infinitely mighty Sacrifice of the Mass—the jewel of which the rest of the Liturgy is the setting: the soul which is the life of the whole Liturgy and of all the Sacramentals. All this was beyond me, although I grasped it at least obscurely. All I knew was that I needed to say the Breviary, and say it every day. 

Buying those books at Benziger’s that day was one of the best things I ever did in my life. The inspiration to do it was a very great grace. There are few things I can remember that give me more joy.

Had to look up the definition of "impetration."  I've been a lifelong Catholic, and, for some reason, I have never heard that term.  To "impetrate" means to beseech or entreat.  According to, "impetration" is "[o]ne of the fruits of prayer and good works, especially one of the four ends of the Eucharistic Sacrifice. Impetration with right disposition and the fulfillment of prescribed conditions invariably obtains from God what is asked of him, provided it is to our spiritual advantage. It is ensured petition. (Etym. Latin impetratio, the action of procuring or obtaining by request or entreaty.)"

Basically, impetration is answered prayer.  Of course, answered prayer comes with conditions.  It requires the right "disposition," which means that you can't be praying that someone catches COVID or that Donald Trump goes to prison (although, I think there would be something pretty divine about that).  No, in order to have the right disposition, what you are asking for has to be pure, unselfish, and for the greater good of the universe.  (Again, Donald Trump going to prison seems to fit the bill, but I'm not God.)  

So, praying that a loved one who is seriously ill undergoes healing seems to fall in this spiritual spreadsheet.  However, there is the caveat:  ". . . provided it is to our spiritual advantage."  That means that the impetration mustn't harm us spiritually in any way.  Perhaps there is a reason for a loved one to suffer or be taken away.  Don't ask me to explain that part of the deal.

When my sister was diagnosed with lymphoma of the brain, I asked God to heal her.  Impetrated.  I did that a lot.  My sister never jumped out of her bed to do a "I am healed" dance.  Instead, she got sicker and sicker until she passed away.  Even now, almost six years later, I'm still trying to understand the divine plan in her death.  My family sort of fell apart after she was gone, and we're still picking up the pieces.  All the king's horses and all the king's men can't put this Humpty together again.

Of course, I'm trying to understand the mind of God here.  (Does God have a mind?  That's the subject of another blog.)  There is no way really to do that.  To understand the mind of God means you can see the past, present, and future all at once.  The "big picture," so to speak.  Even saints lack that ability.  Saints are human, and human beings have a limited capacity for understanding.  Some humans have much greater understanding than others, but even Albert Einstein didn't see the potential of nuclear war when he wrote to FDR in 1939, urging the president to develop an atomic bomb before Adolf Hitler did.  Huge mind.  Human understanding.

So, impetration is tricky.  It requires purity of heart.  Selflessness.  Surrender.  In the end, it also involves acceptance--we take whatever God dishes out.  It may not be exactly what we ordered--rare steak versus medium.  Or it may be something completely different from what we wanted--egg plant instead of barbecued ribs.  We can't send it back to the kitchen.  So, we make the best of it.  Eat the meal that's set before us.  Give thanks for the broccoli because it is better for us than the banana split.

As I said, my sister will be gone six years this August.  I'm still sitting at the dinner table with this one, trying to appreciate the entrée before me.  God answered my prayer, just not in the way I wanted or understand.  I'm human.  I'm limited.  Still learning the menu.

Saint Marty hopes the next thing he orders comes with onion rings.

Monday, June 7, 2021

June 7: Burden of Desires, Desires and Passions, Bigfoot Project

Merton comes up with a plan . . . 

There could be no more question of living just like everybody else in the world. There could be no more compromises with the life that tried, at every turn, to feed me poison. I had to turn my back on these things. 

God had kept me out of the cloister: that was His affair. He had also given me a vocation to live the kind of a life that people led in cloisters. If I could not be a religious, a priest—that was God’s affair. But nevertheless He still wanted me to lead something of the life of a priest or of a religious. 

I had said something to Father Edmund about it, in a general way, and he had agreed. But I did not tell him about the Breviaries. It did not even occur to me to do so. I had said: “I am going to try to live like a religious.” 

He thought that was all right. If I was teaching, and living in a college, that would be all right, it would be fine. And he was glad I wanted to join the Third Order, although he did not seem to attach much importance to it. 

For my own part, I was not quite sure what a Third Order secular amounted to in modern America. But thinking of the Franciscan Tertiaries of the Middle Ages, and of their great saints, I realized in some obscure way that there were, or at least should be, great possibilities of sanctification in a Third Order. 

I did have a sort of a suspicion that it might turn out, after all, to be little more, in the minds of most of its members, than a society for gaining Indulgences. But in any case, I did not despise Indulgences either, or any of the other spiritual benefits that came with the cord and scapular. However, it was going to be a long time before I got them, and in the meantime I did not hesitate to shape out the new life I thought God wanted of me. 

It was a difficult and uncertain business, and I was starting again to make a long and arduous climb, alone, and from what seemed to be a great depth. 

If I had ever thought I had become immune from passion, and that I did not have to fight for freedom, there was no chance of that illusion any more.  It seemed that every step I took carried me painfully forward under a burden of desires that almost crushed me with the monotony of their threat, the intimate, searching familiarity of their ever-present disgust. 

I did not have any lofty theories about the vocation of a lay-contemplative. In fact, I no longer dignified what I was trying to do by the name of a vocation. All I knew was that I wanted grace, and that I needed prayer, and that I was helpless without God, and that I wanted to do everything that people did to keep close to Him.

Sometimes the things that we desire most can save our souls, like Thomas Merton's passion to enter the religious life.  Other times, our desires can be downright harmful for our wellbeing, and, by association, the wellbeing of the people in our lives.  Pick an addiction.  Pick an addict.  But all Merton wants to do is keep as close to God as he can while on the planet.

I will admit that I have harbored/do harbor desires and passions that could be considered harmful to me.  We all carry around urges like these.  Contemplate them on a daily basis.  Yet, the difference is whether you act on those destructive urges or not.  It's a matter of free choice--in my book, one of the worst gifts the human race ever received.  Sure, free choice allows good people to become even better, but it also allows good people to fuck up their lives in terrible ways.

But this post is not going to be about a person who is messing up his or her life.  I refuse to walk down that road tonight.  My blog.  My choice.  All of my loyal disciples are probably breathing a sigh of relief right now.  I tend to get in these ruts sometimes, where everything I write is dark and full of sadness.  I'm not sure I would label it depression.  The struggles in my life are real, not heightened by brain chemistry imbalances.  However, this time of year--the cusp of summer, end of school, high school and college graduations, a season of endings and beginnings--tends to make me slightly melancholy.

So, let me tell you about something that made me happy today.  I'm releasing a spoken-word album in a few days--a selection of my Bigfoot poems set to music by my friend's band STREAKING IN TONGUES.  A week or so ago, I asked a writer friend of mine to listen to the album and possibly write a review of it for the local newspaper, my Amazon author page, and Goodreads.  This morning, my writer friend sent me his review.  It was amazing.  Positive.  Poetic.

I've been working on this Bigfoot project for more years than I care to admit.  Adding poems.  Taking poems out.  Arranging.  Rearranging.  As a writer, I have a very hard time letting things go.  I tinker until I can't tell what is good, bad, or indifferent.  I have reached that point with this book.  Slow Dancing with Bigfoot, the album I recorded, is a huge step for me.  Like I've reached the point of Bigfoot graduation.  

The friend who recorded the album with me, and my writer friend who wrote the review, have given me a confidence in my work that I haven't felt in quite a long time.  I some light today.  Felt a lifting of my spirits that have been a little earthbound recently.  I'm not completely out of the swamp yet.

But Saint Marty has transitioned from Leonard Cohen to James Taylor.  It's a step in the right direction.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

June 5-6: As Close As Possible, a Little Obsessive, Love Your Neighbor

Merton runs into his brother . . . 

It was very hot on Church Street.  The street was torn up, and the dust swirled in the sun like gold around the crawling busses and the trucks and taxis. There were crowds of people on the sidewalks. 

I stood under the relatively cool, white walls of the new post-office building. And then, suddenly, walking in the crowd I saw my brother who was supposed to be at Ithaca. He was coming out of the building, and walking with more of a purpose, more of a swing. He almost ran into me. 

“Oh,” he said, “hello. Are you going out to Douglaston? I’ll give you a ride. I’ve got the car here, just around the corner.” 

“What are you doing here?” I said. 

Under the arching door of the big building were placards about joining the Navy, the Army, the Marines. The only question in my mind was which one he had been trying to join. 

“Did you read about this new Naval Reserve scheme they’ve got?” he said. I knew something about it. That was what he was trying to get into. It was practically settled. 

“You go on a cruise,” he said, “and then you get a commission.” 

“Is it as easy as that?” 

“Well, I guess they’re anxious to get men. Of course, you have to be a college man.” 

When I told him I was not going to enter the novitiate after all, he said: “Why don’t you come in to the Naval Reserve.” 

“No,” I said, “no, thanks.” 

Presently he said: “What’s that package you’ve got under your arm? Buy some books?” 


When he had unlocked the car, I ripped the paper off the package, and took out the cardboard box containing the set of four books, bound in black leather, marked in gold. 

I handed him one of the volumes. It was sleek and smelled new. The pages were edged in gold. There were red and green markers.

“What are they?” said John Paul. 


The four books represented a decision. They said that if I could not live in the monastery, I should try to live in the world as if I were a monk in a monastery. They said that I was going to get as close as possible to the life I was not allowed to lead. If I could not wear the religious habit, I would at least join a Third Order and would try my best to get a job teaching in some Catholic College where I could live under the same roof as the Blessed Sacrament. 

Merton, despite his recent spiritual setbacks, is pretty tenacious.  He feels some sort of calling, and he's going to stick to it, even if it means just being near monastics and emulating their way of life.  Somehow, he will experience the religious life by osmosis and personal practice.  Of course, Merton's younger brother has a singular focus, himself--joining the armed forces at the cusp of World War II.

Believe it or not, I have been known to be a little obsessive.  I know it's hard to envision.  At certain times in my life, I have been obsessed with River Phoenix (still am), poetry (ummm--yeah), the Nobel Prize in Literature (I have a replica of one sitting on my desk), Sharon Olds (attended a poetry workshop led by her in California), fountain pens, Moleskine journals, Bigfoot (almost done with my book of poems), Normal People by Sally Rooney (I've read it seven times), astronomy, Star Wars, Christmas (always), and horror movies.

Since becoming a home owner, I also obsess over snow removal and lawn mowing.  I don't enjoy shoveling snow or pushing a lawnmower.  However, I like a clear driveway and sidewalk in winter and a manicured front and backyard in the summer.  Yesterday, in 90-degree temperatures, I mowed my lawn.  Cuz it was shaggy.

By the time I was done, I was so hot it felt like the skin was going to melt from my face like that guy in Raiders of the Lost Ark who gazes into the Ark of the Covenant, at the power of God, and turns into a puddle of Jell-O.  All I wanted was a cool shower and an M&M ice cream sandwich from my freezer.

I had just returned the lawnmower to my parents' house because I don't own my own.  As I pulled up in front of my house and turned off my car engine, I saw a man coming around my house from the backyard.

He was tall.  Thin as a blade of grass, as my mom used to say.  The kind of thin that looked as if you could cut your finger if you touched him.  He wore dirty jeans and a tee-shirt that hung like an empty grocery bag on him.  His face hadn't seen a razor in weeks.  By my estimation, he was in his 20s.  

I was about to say something like, "What the hell are you doing in my backyard?"  I was still hot and cranky.  But I didn't say that.  Instead, I nodded, smiled, and said, "Hey, how's it going?"

He held out an empty Gatorade bottle to me.  "Do you think you could spare some water?" he said.

And then I remembered the water spigot in my backyard that didn't work.  "Absolutely," I said.  I took his bottle, brought it inside, filled it with ice and water.  Then I went to my freezer, grabbed the last M&M ice cream sandwich.  I went back outside.

I handed the young guy his bottle and the ice cream sandwich.  "Looks like you need to cool down," I said.

The man took the bottle and ice cream.  "God bless you," he said.  He turned and walked up the street, holding that ice cream sandwich in one hand, drinking deeply from the Gatorade bottle.  

Sometimes, God is kind of a showoff.  She likes to put things into perspective in dramatic ways.  A well-kept lawn is not one of the Ten Commandments.  In the Book of Mark, Jesus identifies the two greatest of God's commandments:  "The most important one is this . . . 'Love the Lord your God with your whole heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'  The second is this:  'Love your neighbor as yourself.'  There is no commandment greater than these."

Saint Marty got the hint.   

Friday, June 4, 2021

June 3-4: Completely Broken in Pieces, Confession, Forgiveness

Merton feels abject rejection . . . 

I got into New York that evening and called up Father Edmund, but he was too busy to see me. 

So I went out to the house at Douglaston. 

“When are you going to the novitiate?” my aunt asked me. 

“Maybe I’m not going,” I said. 

They did not ask me any questions. 

I went to Communion and prayed earnestly that God’s will should be done—and it was. But I was far from being able to understand it then. 

Father Edmund listened to what I had to say. I told him about my past and all the troubles I had had. He was very friendly and very kind. 

But if I had had any hope that he would wave all my doubts aside with a smile, I was soon disappointed. He said:

“Well, Tom, listen: suppose you let me think it over and pray a bit. Come back in a couple of days. All right?” 

“In a couple of days?” 

“Come back tomorrow.” 

So I waited for another day. My mind was full of anguish and restlessness. I prayed: “My God, please take me into the monastery. But anyway, whatever You want, Your will be done.” 

Of course I understand the whole business now. My own mind was full of strange, exaggerated ideas. I was in a kind of a nightmare. I could not see anything straight. But Father Edmund saw clearly enough for all that. 

He saw that I was only a recent convert, not yet two years in the Church. He saw that I had had an unsettled life, and that my vocation was by no means sure, and that I was upset with doubts and misgivings. The novitiate was full, anyway. And when a novitiate is crammed with postulants year after year it is time for somebody to reflect about the quality of the vocations that are coming in. When there is such a crowd, you have to be careful that a few who are less desirable do not float in on the tide with the rest.... 

So the next day he told me kindly enough that I ought to write to the Provincial and tell him that I had reconsidered my application. There was nothing I could say. I could only hang my head and look about me at the ruins of my vocation. 

I asked a few faint-hearted questions, trying to feel my way and find out if my case were altogether hopeless. Naturally, Father did not want to commit himself or his Order to anything, and I could not even get what might seem to be a vague promise for the future. 

There seemed to me to be no question that I was now excluded from the priesthood for ever. I promised 

I would write at once, and that I would proclaim my undying loyalty to the Friars Minor in doing so. 

“Do that,” Father said. “The Provincial will be pleased.” 

When I walked down the steps of the monastery, I was so dazed I didn’t know what to do. All I could think of was to go over across Seventh Avenue to the Church of the Capuchins, next to the station. I went inside the church, and knelt in the back and, seeing there was a priest hearing confessions, I presently got up and took my place in the short line that led to his confessional.

I knelt in the darkness until the slide snapped back with a bang and I saw a thin, bearded priest who looked something like James Joyce. All the Capuchins in this country have that kind of a beard. The priest was in no mood to stand for any nonsense, and I myself was confused and miserable, and couldn’t explain myself properly, and so he got my story all mixed up. Evidently he decided that I was only complaining and trying to get around the decision that had been made by some religious Order that had fired me out of their novitiate, probably for some good reason. 

The whole thing was so hopeless that finally, in spite of myself, I began to choke and sob and I couldn’t talk any more. So the priest, probably judging that I was some emotional and unstable and stupid character, began to tell me in very strong terms that I certainly did not belong in the monastery, still less the priesthood and, in fact, gave me to understand that I was simply wasting his time and insulting the Sacrament of Penance by indulging my self-pity in his confessional. 

When I came out of that ordeal, I was completely broken in pieces. I could not keep back the tears, which ran down between the fingers of the hands in which I concealed my face. So I prayed before the Tabernacle and the big stone crucified Christ above the altar. 

The only thing I knew, besides my own tremendous misery, was that I must no longer consider that I had a vocation to the cloister.

Not exactly the most comforting depiction of going to confession.  It has been many years since I've received the sacrament of penance.  I don't find it an easy thing to do--speaking aloud all of your deepest shames.  Yet, it can be incredibly healing, as well.  To hear someone say "you are forgiven" is an amazing experience, especially if your guilt has been deep and heavy.  

Merton experiences none of the healing in the above passage, and he leaves the confessional even more broken than when he entered it.  That's just not supposed to happen.  While you have to atone for your transgressions in some way, that atonement should feel liberating, like a gift even.  Merton leaves the confessional even more burdened than when he entered it.

As I said, my last experience in a confessional was many years ago, and I had been carrying around the burden of a particular shortcoming for a very long time.  It had been eating away at me.  When I entered that small space, I couldn't help myself.  I started to weep, could barely speak.  As I gulped out my story between sobs, the priest sat and listened to me, his face not a mask of judgement.  After I was done with my waterfall of misery, he started talking.  He began this way:  "God loves you . . ."

I left the confessional that night feeling as if I could fly.  Literally.  

I wish that I could say I went away and sinned no more.  That would be a lie, and I would have to confess that.  No, I'm just as flawed and broken as the next person--several steps ahead of Donald Trump, but still way behind Mother Teresa.  But that's not my point this evening.

Forgiveness is a powerful force--not just for the forgiven, but the forgiver, as well.  It can set both of you free, if entered into willingly and with an open heart.  I am in a life situation at the moment where I'm struggling with forgiveness.  Mainly because the person I need to forgive doesn't want to be forgiven.  Sees nothing wrong in what she's done/is doing.  Her actions are hurting many people, but she doesn't care.

So, there is the dilemma.  Can you forgive a person who isn't seeking forgiveness?  My answer to that question, for tonight anyway, is "yes."  You can forgive that person.  Keep on forgiving that person.  Because that forgiveness is a way to bring peace into your life and heart.  Most times, when somebody disappoints you, it's because you have put your own expectations on that somebody, and your expectations weren't met.  Cue the sense of betrayal and victimhood.

I can go through my life feeling disappointed.  Being a victim.  Or I can say "I forgive you" over and over until it sinks in.  Until I release that person to make her own mistakes and live with the consequences of her actions, even if it means she ends up alienated and alone.  Or worse.  It's her choice.

When my daughter and son were in preschool, their teachers always did a roll call in the morning.  If one of the children was absent, the teacher would say, "She isn't here today.  We wish her well."  And all the kids would repeat, "We wish her well."

I am still struggling with forgiveness right now.  I sort of feel like that priest who literally kicks Merton out of the confessional, unforgiven and abandoned.  Anger and betrayal are not easy emotions to let go of.  Yet, everybody deserves forgiveness.  Even the people who aren't seeking it, or don't even realize they need it.  Especially them.

So, I will say it now, tonight before I go to sleep, when I wake up in the morning, on my drive into work, and all day tomorrow:  "I forgive."

Maybe Saint Marty will also eventually be able to say, "We wish her well."

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

June 1-2: My Own Homelessness, Flux Capacitor, Charge Back to Normal

Merton loses his way . . . 

It seemed a long, long journey as the train crawled along the green valleys. As we were coming down the Delaware towards Callicoon, where the Franciscans had their minor seminary, the sky had clouded over. We were slowing down, and the first houses of the village were beginning to file past on the road beside the track. A boy who had been swimming in the river came running up a path through the long grass, from the face of the thunderstorm that was just about to break. His mother was calling to him from the porch of one of the houses. 

I became vaguely aware of my own homelessness. 

When we had gone around the bend and I could see the stone tower of the seminary on the hilltop among the trees, I thought: “I will never live in you; it is finished.” 

Feeling isolated and rootless, like Merton does here, is pretty familiar in these pandemic days.  Yes, restrictions are being lifted, and people are coming together more and more.  However, these steps toward "normalcy" produce a certain amount of anxiety for many, myself included.  After almost 16 months of being told to stay home, I can't immediately climb into my DeLorean, set my flux capacitor for February 29, 2020, and make that leap back.  

As a poet, I think I have a leg up on most people.  Poets tend to be pretty solitary by necessity.  Because they see the world differently.  I'm not saying poets don't have friends or family.  Whitman had plenty of pals and admirers.  What I'm saying is that poets are very comfortable with their aloneness, Emily Dickinson being the extreme.  

And these past 16 months have taught me a few things about people.  Some friends who I thought were reasonable and smart gave into wild, unsubstantiated theories of Chinese conspiracy regarding the virus.  Residents of my home state of Michigan denied the existence of the pandemic even as thousands of people died and hospitals were overrun.  And the leaders of my country turned a global health crisis into a political debate instead of treating it for what it was--a catastrophic pandemic of a magnitude we haven't seen in over a century.

Usually, the only time I sit down to dinner with people who might believe that Donald Trump is still President or that "patriots" stormed the Capitol on January 6 is Thanksgiving.  Maybe Christmas.  COVID saved a lot of people from that particular agony last holiday season.  

Forgive me, then, loyal disciples, if I don't want to completely rejoin the party fully just yet.  Normal wasn't really working all that great before the pandemic hit, if you check the record.  There was an overabundance of isolation and homelessness prior to March 2020.  And environmental degradation.  And racism.  Homophobia.  Islamophobia.  Xenophobia.  No vaccine made those things go away.

Let's not charge back to normal, folks.  Let's think about what causes people to feel isolated and homeless.  An economic system designed to keep rich people rich and poor people poor.  A healthcare system that is seen as a privilege instead of a right.  A country based on the principle of liberty and justice for all, but tries to disenfranchise voters of certain skin colors and tries to legislate who you can love legally.  A society that stigmatizes mental illness.

If I have to wear a facemask until all of that changes, I'll do it.  I don't really want to mingle in crowds of people who are okay with any of those realities.  I'll stay home.  Binge watch another Netflix series.  See you when my son or daughter can love who they want.  When the adopted African American son of one of my best friends doesn't have to worry about being pulled over by the police because his skin happens to be the wrong shade.  When we can all admit that a person who was elected President of the United States with the help of a foreign power shouldn't really be President of the United States.

Until all of that happens, I'm not okay with normal.

Saint Marty would rather feel isolated and homeless.