Monday, January 31, 2022

January 31: Wonderful and Strange, Alone, Sending Me Signals

Santiago reflects on being old and alone , , , 

No one should be alone in their old age, he thought. But it is unavoidable. I must remember to eat the tuna before he spoils in order to keep strong. Remember, no matter how little you want to, that you must eat him in the morning. Remember, he said to himself.

During the night two porpoise came around the boat and he could hear them rolling and blowing. He could tell the difference between the blowing noise the male made and the sighing blow of the female.

"They are good," he said. "They play and make jokes and love one another. They are our brothers like the flying fish."

Then he began to pity the great fish that he had hooked. He is wonderful and strange and who knows how old he is, he thought. Never have I had such a strong fish nor one who acted so strangely. Perhaps he is too wise to jump. He could ruin me by jumping or by a wild rush. But perhaps he has been hooked many times before and he knows that this is how he should make his fight. He cannot know that it is only one man against him, nor that it is an old man. But what a great fish he is and what he will bring in the market if the flesh is good. He took the bait like a male and he pulls like a male and his fight has no panic in it. I wonder if he has any plans or if he is just as desperate as I am?

Here we see Santiago start to identify with the great fish that he's hooked.  The old man is alone and about to fight a great battle.  He has no idea what his enemy is, only that it is wonderful and strange.  And Santiago is desperate to see it.  To know its size and age.  To be able to put a name to it.

I spent most of today resting.  In the afternoon, I went to the university and taught two classes.  I will admit that getting behind the wheel of my car caused me some anxiety.  But the roads and skies were clear, and the drive was easy.  The four hours I spent in the classroom took all of the energy I had in me.  When I got home, I slept for about three hours.

You don't have to be alone to feel alone, as Santiago does in the above passage.  You can be alone anywhere.  In a crowded grocery store.  Family dinner.  Classroom full of students.  It's not the proximity or lack of proximity to people that creates isolation.  Nope.  It's more emotional than physical.

I am still processing the loss of my sister Rose.  Nobody else feels the exact same way that I do.  It's a complicated mixture of grief, relief, sorrow, self-pity, anger, acceptance.  Take your pick.  Today, I had a physical isolation, as well, because of the car accident yesterday.  I'm sore and headachy and exhausted.

Perhaps the universe is sending me signals.  Over the last 24 hours, I've had many friends send me messages, telling me to take it easy.  Slow down.  I tend to exist in a frenzy of activity.  If I'm sitting still for more than ten minutes, I feel like I'm wasting time.  I could use those minutes to write, read, grade, lesson plan, podcast, or blog.  

Tonight, I'm sitting on my couch, laptop on my knees.  There's a wind that's tearing through the trees outside.  My house is quiet, everyone wrapped in their own versions of isolation.  This is the calm before the storm of togetherness this weekend for my sister's funeral.  

Being alone isn't always a bad thing.  Sometimes, it's necessary.  For reflection.  Recharging.  Healing.  It is the last day of January.  The dead of winter.  Skunks are in torpor.  Bears are snoring in their dens.  Fish are resting in deep, cold waters.  The entire world is in a state of aloneness.

This day has been a deep, necessary breath for me.  I'm a little battered and bruised by life at the moment.  

Saint Marty needed to hibernate a little.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

January 30: Help Me, Compound Fracture of a Weekend, Car Accident

Santiago makes a wish . . . 

Then he said aloud, "I wish I had the boy. To help me and to see this."

When in distress or tired or desperate or alone, people often call out for help.  To God.  Friends.  The universe.

So, to end this compound fracture of a weekend, I got into a car accident this morning. 

It was a slippery road.  I was on my way to play the keyboard for a local Lutheran church.  Approaching a curve in the road, doing about 15 or 20 miles per hour, my car started to fishtail.  Before I knew it, a minivan coming in the opposite direction struck my car in the driver's door.  

The next thing I knew, my car was on the side of the road.  I was still sitting behind the wheel.  Covered in glass.  Ears ringing.  Head pounding.  I pushed the driver's door open.  Got out to see if the other driver was okay.  The world spun vertiginously.  I went and sat in my car again.  The police showed up.  then an ambulance.  I soon found myself on a stretcher in the back of the ambulance, on my way to the hospital.

After a CT scan, frustration, tears, and pain meds, I was on my way home.  Good news:  I have no head trauma.  Bad news:  my daughter's car is totaled, and I feel like I've been hit by a snowplow.

When I was sitting in the car after the accident, I did call out to the universe.  It was something like, "I am done.  Done.  Donedonedone."

I'm probably going to take tomorrow off from the library.  Still going to teach.

Then, Saint Marty may just . . . have a bowl of Cheerios with Bailey's Irish Cream.

Saturday, January 29, 2022

January 29: Nothing Stupid, Below 20, "Low Blood Sugar"

Santiago drifts in the night . . . 

Once he stood up and urinated over the side of the skiff and looked at the stars and checked his course. The line showed like a phosphorescent streak in the water straight out from his shoulders. They were moving more slowly now and the glow of Havana was not so strong, so that he knew the current must be carrying them to the eastward. If I lose the glare of Havana we must be going more to the eastward, he thought. For if the fish's course held true I must see it for many more hours. I wonder how the baseball came out in the grand leagues today, he thought. It would be wonderful to do this with a radio. Then he thought, think of it always. Think of what you are doing. You must do nothing stupid.

It's late.  Santiago has been in the boat, on the sea, fighting a large fish, for several hours.  He's giving himself a pep talk.  The gist of his pep talk:  don't be stupid.

Last night, I did something stupid.  Usually, I test my blood sugar before I go to bed.  I forgot to do that.  And I woke up in my bed with two paramedics talking care of me.

My wife woke up around 3 a.m. and found me seizing because my blood sugar was below 20.  She called 911.  The pillows, sheet, and blankets were soaked in sweat.  My head was pounding.  Ears ringing.  My daughter and her boyfriend were in the living room, pacing and worried.  My puppy was whining in her crate.

I was stupid, which seems to be happening a lot recently.  The difference between this stupid and ordinary stupid--it almost killed me.

Saint Marty is still kickin'.  For now.

Low Blood Sugar

by:  Martin Achatz

for Penny

Sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner,
My father always says the same thing:
"I could eat the asshole of a skunk raw."
He fasts all day, saving room for turkey and pie,
But he doesn't know real hunger,
Low blood sugar hunger.  He doesn't understand
When I talk about hunger so deep
I could gnaw my arm down to bone, suck
The marrow like a teenage boy's first sex,
How and quick and devouring.

Imagine a thirst so thick your tongue
Swells the size of a watermelon
You can't slice open, pink meat
You can't caress in your mouth.
Imagine waking up next to your lover
At midnight, wanting to touch her 
As she moans your name in her sleep.
Now imagine you have no hands.

Penny knows low blood sugar.
Last week, as she drove home,
Her pickup spun.  She watched
Earth become heaven.
Heaven become earth.
She didn't feel her leg splinter,
Teeth break, tongue mushroom blood.
She knew only longing,
The hungry darkness coming,
Reaching out, like a handless lover.

Friday, January 28, 2022

January 28: Almost Comfortable, Simpler, "The Tin Man's Heart"

Santiago tries to get some rest . . . 

The fish never changed his course nor his direction all that night as far as the man could tell from watching the stars. It was cold after the sun went down and the old man's sweat dried cold on his back and his arms and his old legs. During the day he had taken the sack that covered the bait box and spread it in the sun to dry. After the sun went down he tied it around his neck so that it hung down over his back and he cautiously worked it down under the line that was across his shoulders now. The sack cushioned the line and he had found a way of leaning forward against the bow so that he was almost comfortable. The position actually was only somewhat less intolerable; but he thought of it as almost comfortable.

I can do nothing with him and he can do nothing with me, he thought. Not as long as he keeps this up.

I could write about loss again.  It's on my mind a lot these days, except when I'm sleeping or crazy busy.  And it seems like I'm always crazy busy or asleep.  But I have decided to take a break from that subject today.  Sort of like Santiago forcing himself to take a snooze.

So, tonight, I just offer you a poem.  One that I wrote a long time ago, when everyone I loved was still alive, and my life was . . . simpler.

This poem makes Saint Marty smile.

The Tin Man's Heart

by:  Martin Achatz

The Wizard gave the Tin Man
A Heart with a clock
That unwound after sundown,
Hands slowing at midnight
In the dark bed of his chest,
Each second an immense field of poppies,
Fragrant as Dorothy's thick braids.

In the forest under the stars,
The Tin Man listened to his heart tick,
Like the sound of lovers kissing,
Waiting for his spring to uncoil, 
Praying for that moment:
He and Dorothy in the poppies,
The sun on their gleaming bodies.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

January 27: Almost Comfortable, Human Versus Nature, Wild Flowers

Santiago settles in for a long night . . . 

The fish never changed his course nor his direction all that night as far as the man could tell from watching the stars. It was cold after the sun went down and the old man's sweat dried cold on his back and his arms and his old legs. During the day he had taken the sack that covered the bait box and spread it in the sun to dry. After the sun went down he tied it around his neck so that it hung down over his back and he cautiously worked it down under the line that was across his shoulders now. The sack cushioned the line and he had found a way of leaning forward against the bow so that he was almost comfortable. The position actually was only somewhat less intolerable; but he thought of it as almost comfortable.

I can do nothing with him and he can do nothing with me, he thought. Not as long as he keeps this up.

It's a pretty classic confrontation:  human versus nature.  You see it all the time in movies and books.  The Old Man and the SeaMoby DickJaws.  The Biblical narrative of Noah and the Great Flood.  Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds.  Right now, the entire planet is in the grips of a deadly virus that most scientists think originated in bats or pangolins.  (Sorry, conspiracy theorists.  It wasn't intentionally released from a top-secret Chinese lab.)

Here's the thing:  nature happens.  Human beings, since we first appeared on this planet, have been exploiting its resources.  Sometimes this exploitation has been in harmony with the environment (see any Indigenous culture in the United States), but, most of the time, we have caused/are causing great harm to the world in order to get what we want.  And, by hurting the world, we hurt ourselves.

When this pandemic first began, human beings simply ceased their normal, everyday carbon-footprinting lifestyles.  We weren't flying or driving anywhere.  Instead, we just stayed home.  Read.  Watched TV.  Played games with our immediate families.  Christmas was simpler, calmer.  New Year's Eve was marked quietly, with the hope that the coming 365 days were somehow going to be better.  For the first time in 30 years, the peaks of the Himalayas were visible from India because of the reduced air pollution.  In the human versus nature battle, nature seemed to be winning for a while.

It didn't last.  Because human beings are inherently stupid, selfish creatures.  As soon as the politicians kicked open the doors, we started storming and pillaging again, even though it wasn't (and still isn't) safe to do so.  (I'm talking to you, school superintendents!)  

At the moment, I'm sitting on my couch.  Everyone else has gone to bed.  As has been happening these last seven days, when I become unbusy, the compass needle of my mind zeroes in on thoughts of my sister, Rose.  Her simplicity and smile.  She wasn't perfect.  None of us are.  But she was pretty damn close.

Since I've been talking about nature, I will say that Rose's nature was like those pictures I've seen of the Himalayas from India.  She was always there, in good times and bad.  Sometimes she was fogged by the things that pollute our days--anger, pettiness, impatience.  Through all of that, she just sat at the dining room table, playing cards with my mom.  Latch hooking rugs.  Writing letters to family and friends.  Drinking Diet Coke.  Her needs for happiness were pretty basic.  

This is what I know about the struggle of human versus nature:  it shouldn't be a struggle.  Mountains don't ask to be stared at.  Trees don't ask to be photographed.  Lakes are pretty happy just sending waves to the shore.

Rose didn't ask to have Down Syndrome.  It was just a part of her.  Like snow on the peaks of Mount Everest.  Or the aurora flashing green in winter skies.  Rosemarie.  Rosie Begonia.  Rose.  Rosebud.  She was a flower blooming in this world.  Luke writes in his gospel, "Consider how the wild flowers grow.  They do not labor or spin.  Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these."

Saint Marty thinks the world is a little less splendored these days.  But that's the nature of life.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

January 26: I Wish I Could See, NEA Grant, Small Things

Santiago wishes on a fish . . . 

Then he looked behind him and saw that no land was visible. That makes no difference, he thought. I can always come in on the glow from Havana. There are two more hours before the sun sets and maybe he will come up before that. If he doesn't maybe he will come up with the moon. If he does not do that maybe he will come up with the sunrise. I have no cramps and I feel strong. It is he that has the hook in his mouth. But what a fish to pull like that. He must have his mouth shut tight on the wire. I wish I could see him. I wish I could see him only once to know what I have against me.

Most of the time in life, you really have no idea what you're up against, like Santiago.  He knows there is a fish at the end of his line.  That's all.  The old man can guess on its size and shape and kind.  It might be a marlin or a swordfish or a tuna.  Whatever it is, at this moment in the book, the fish is in charge, pulling the boat away from land.

This afternoon, I finished writing a $20,000 NEA grant for the library.  It's a project that I have been working on for almost three full weeks.  I drafted and emailed and budgeted.  Checked and doublechecked.  Wrote and rewrote.  And then, at precisely 2:37 p.m., I clicked a "submit" button, and all of that work went out into the sea of the internet.

Now, I am Santiago, sitting in my little skiff, watching my fishing line to see if the big fish will take my bait.  (I realize that I'm belaboring this metaphor, but it's all I got.  My mind is pudding at the moment.)  I won't know until April whether or not the grant is successful.  What I can say is that I tried my hardest.

This evening, I am once again really tired.  Since COVID hit me, I have experienced this nocturnal dip in energy.  It may not have anything to do with the virus and everything to do with my situation.  My life has not been peaceful by any means.  

So I hold onto small things in the hours from dusk to dawn.  My puppy sleeping on the couch beside me, her tiny deep breaths.  A poem or two from Mary Oliver.  It's a Wonderful Life or The Santa Clause on the television.  A kind message from a friend.  My daughter asking me how my day was.  My son covering me with a blanket when he sees me sleeping on the couch.

All blessings.

Saint Marty's boat may be tiny, but the sea is large and kind.

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

January 25: Only to Endure, "I" Sentences, Mary Oliver

Santiago takes a drink of water . . . 

"It was noon when I hooked him," he said. "And I have never seen him."

He had pushed his straw hat hard down on his head before he hooked the fish and it was cutting his forehead. He was thirsty too and he got down on his knees and, being careful not to jerk on the line, moved as far into the bow as he could get and reached the water bottle with one hand. He opened it and drank a little. Then he rested against the bow. He rested sitting on the un-stepped mast and sail and tried not to think but only to endure.

You know, Santiago gets it right here.  Sometimes the only thing you can do in life is have a drink and endure.  It helps if that drink is a little stronger than water.

At the moment, I am in endurance mode.  I have to teach.  I have a $20,000 grant application that I have to submit by midnight tomorrow.  I have a poem to write for my sister's funeral.  And, ever since I had COVID at the beginning of the month, I still get tired beyond reason at night.  I think my freight train of emotions about my sister's death may be adding to this nighttime exhaustion.

That's a lot of "I" sentences.  Generally, I try to avoid doing that.  Believe it or not, I don't really like focusing on myself all that much.  I prefer helping other people out.  Doing things that make the world a better place.  That's why I love being in charge of programming at the library.  Bringing poetry and art and music into the universe.  There's nothing better.  It's medicine for the weary heart and soul.  

These last few days, I've been turning to Mary Oliver, one of my favorite poets, for solace.  She wrote a lot about grief and loss.  In a gentle, comforting, and, ultimately, beautiful way.  In particular, I have been holding onto these words:  

We shake with joy, we shake with grief.

What a time they have, these two

housed as they are in the same body.

Oliver gets it.  Joy and grief housed in the same container.  You can't have one without the other.  Here's the thing--if something or someone brings you great joy, you will eventually lose that something or someone.  And then you will experience great grief.

If you love deeply, you will grieve deeply.  No way around it.

If you know a loophole to this rule, please let Saint Marty know.


Monday, January 24, 2022

January 24: Can't Do This Forever, Edmund Hillary, Moby Dick

Santiago waits for the fish to give up . . . 

He held the line against his back and watched its slant in the water and the skiff moving steadily to the North-West.

This will kill him, the old man thought. He can't do this forever. But four hours later the fish was still swimming steadily out to sea, towing the skiff, and the old man was still braced solidly with the line across his back.

Often, the things that we think will be easy turn out to be Mount Everest.  And the things that we think will be hard end up being an ice cream sandwich.  Santiago learns this lesson.

Can I tell you that going to work and teaching today turned out to be an Edmund Hillary experience?  I had difficulty remaining focused.  I am a person who juggles a lot of balls every day.  I am used to multitasking.  Therefore, I find it a little disconcerting when my mind won't cooperate when I have stuff to do.

I have a therapist friend who has often told me that one of the ways to cope with life's struggles is to "fake it 'til you make it."  That means showing up, going through the motions, and just getting through the day without doing much damage to anyone (including myself).  

I didn't think losing my sister Rose was going to be easy.  I never thought that.  But, out of all the losses I've experienced in the past five or so years, this one is proving to be the Moby Dick of them all.  My mind keeps going back and back to it.  All day long.  I'm working on a report in my office, and suddenly I find myself overwhelmed by sadness.  Driving home at the end of the day, I see the sky turning orange then pink, and I'm in the weeds.

Perhaps I wasn't ready for Rose to leave.  Maybe it's guilt for pushing for comfort care at the end for Rose.  Or maybe, through this passing, I'm thinking about my own mortality.

Saint Marty sees a lot of Mount Everests in his future these next couple weeks.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

January 23: Plenty of Things, Talking to Myself, Support Group of Poets

Santiago weighs his options . . . 

The fish moved steadily and they travelled slowly on the calm water. The other baits were still in the water but there was nothing to be done.

"I wish I had the boy," the old man said aloud. "I'm being towed by a fish and I'm the towing bitt. I could make the line fast. But then he could break it. I must hold him all I can and give him line when he must have it. Thank God he is travelling and not going down."

What I will do if he decides to go down, I don't know. What I'll do if he sounds and dies I don't know. But I'll do something. There are plenty of things I can do.

The old man has been at it a long time.  So long that he can tell what a fish is doing simply by the way his fishing line moves between his fingers.  By the way his boat is moving in the water.  Santiago never seems to give up.  He always has options.

I wish I were more like Santiago.  I vacillate between high-in-the-sky and down-in-the-dumps.  There isn't a whole lot of middle ground with me.  When I'm down, I eventually pull myself back up, but it takes a lot of talking to myself and sessions with my therapist.  

The other thing that helps is getting together with my writer friends.  You wouldn't think that poets would be that reliable and grounding.  Most people think of Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath and Dylan Thomas when I say the word "poet."  In a lot of people's mind, poets are alcoholic, mentally ill agoraphobes with a penchant for self destruction.  

However, my little support group of poets makes me laugh, sends me cards, celebrates my successes, and shares in my sorrows.  We all have our struggles.  None of us is perfect.  Yet, somehow, I always find myself a better person when I'm able to spend time with them.  Like tonight.

I went into the workshop I was leading this evening in quite a dark place.  By the time it was over, I was laughing and feeling loved.  Thanks to my peeps.  (Yes, I used the word "peeps.")  I will carry that into the week with me.

Saint Marty isn't quite ready for Monday, but he's not quite Sylvia Plath, either.

Something from workshop tonight . . . 

On the Evening of the Day You Died

by: Martin Achatz

I stood in my backyard, my dog 
on the end of her leash, pulling, 
digging in the snow. The wind 
in the lilac branches, limbs of maple 
scratched and moaned. It was a sound 
that made the cold seem colder, 
the stars, fragile as crystal. I didn't 
move. My dog stopped, as well. 
The moment lasted only 20 or 30 
seconds, but it stretched out 
like piano keys of darkness 
on the winter solstice. I listened 
to the wind sing, the rest of the world, 
sigh and sob like cantors
at vespers, and I thought of you. 
How your last breath came and went 
so softly that morning that I am still 
waiting, two days later, for you 
to wake.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

January 22: Eat It Well, Letting Go, Years of Therapy

Santiago hooks the fish . . . 

"He's taken it," he said. "Now I'll let him eat it well."

He let the line slip through his fingers while he reached down with his left hand and made fast the free end of the two reserve coils to the loop of the two reserve coils of the next line. Now he was ready. He had three forty-fathom coils of line in reserve now, as well as the coil he was using.

"Eat it a little more," he said. "Eat it well."

Eat it so that the point of the hook goes into your heart and kills you, he thought. Come up easy and let me put the harpoon into you. All right. Are you ready? Have you been long enough at table?

"Now!" he said aloud and struck hard with both hands, gained a yard of line and then struck again and again, swinging with each arm alternately on the cord with all the strength of his arms and the pivoted weight of his body.

Nothing happened. The fish just moved away slowly and the old man could not raise him an inch. His line was strong and made for heavy fish and he held it against his back until it was so taut that beads of water were jumping from it. Then it began to make a slow hissing sound in the water and he still held it, bracing himself against the thwart and leaning back against the pull. The boat began to move slowly off toward the North-West.

So there it is.  Santiago and the fish are one now, and the battle that consumes the rest of the book begins.  The man is old.  So is the fish.  And they become locked in this struggle of endurance, each carrying their crosses of experience and time.

If you are getting tired of me writing about grief and loss, you may want to take a break from reading Saint Marty for a couple weeks.  My sister Rose's funeral is at the beginning of February, so the little boat of my life is going to be pulled by this fish for a while.  And unlike other losses I've experienced in my life, I'm going to try to allow myself time to lean into this process of letting go.  Embrace the whole messy onslaught of emotions.

You see, most of the time, when I am dealing with difficulties, I throw myself into work and teaching and church.  I keep myself so busy that, by the time I sit down on my couch at the end of the day, the only thing I can think about is sleep.  I think it's a family trait.  We tend to suppress rather than express.  Hence, my years of therapy.

About eight years ago, I lost my brother.  The year after that, my sister died of lymphoma of the brain.  Three years ago, it was my father.  This past October, my mother.  Now, my angel of a sister, Rose.  It has been a catalogue of losses.  But that's what life is.  No matter how hard you love, how tightly you hold on, there comes a time when you have to open your fingers and just . . . give that blessing back to the universe.  

So, this is me.  Puffy eyes.  Runny nose.  Laughing one minute. Ugly crying the next.  Angry in the morning.  Peaceful in the afternoon.  Angry again at night.  I'm carrying around so many versions of myself.  If you don't like what you see, stick around.  Another Marty will show up momentarily.

The me that is typing this post right now is peaceful.  Pretty soon, I'm going out to pick up some pizza for my family.  We're going to have a night of games.  I wonder which version of myself will show up for that?  

The drawbridge is down, and all the different Saint Martys are storming the castle.

Friday, January 21, 2022

January 21: If You Said a Good Thing, Mixed Bag, "Family Picture"

Santiago engages in a little magical thinking . . . 

He was happy feeling the gentle pulling and then he felt something hard and unbelievably heavy. It was the weight of the fish and he let the line slip down, down, down, unrolling off the first of the two reserve coils. As it went down, slipping lightly through the old man's fingers, he still could feel the great weight, though the pressure of his thumb and finger were almost imperceptible.

"What a fish," he said. "He has it sideways in his mouth now and he is moving off with it."

Then he will turn and swallow it, he thought. He did not say that because he knew that if you said a good thing it might not happen. He knew what a huge fish this was and he thought of him moving away in the darkness with the tuna held crosswise in his mouth. At that moment he felt him stop moving but the weight was still there. Then the weight increased and he gave more line. He tightened the pressure of his thumb and finger for a moment and the weight increased and was going straight down.

Santiago will not say his hopes aloud because doing so will jinx him.  The fish won't take the bait, and he will return home for the 85th day without a catch.  Another example of the spoken word somehow having the power of a spell or hex.  Good or bad luck.  Blessing or curse.

This day has been an emotional mixed bag.  At my office, I would find myself staring at the wall in front of me for ten minutes, thinking of my sister, Rose.  Then I would snap back to reality and the task at hand, which happens to be a huge grant.  I'd be fine one moment and crying the next.

Death and funerals tend to raise the bar when it comes to emotions, bringing out the best and worst in family.  Small grudges that have simmered for years become Olympic triathlons.  Large hurts transform into Herculean labors of spite.  Family members are grieving, going through all the normal stages--denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance--and they get stuck.  They remain angry or sad, and they take it out on everyone around them.  Instead of coming together to help each other deal with the loss, families splinter and fight.

I'm trying to avoid stoking the fires.  At the moment, the wound of my sister Rose's death is raw and open.  I am going to allow myself to just . . . feel.  I refuse to let anyone turn this time into a blood sport.  For me, these next couple weeks are about Rose and honoring her spirit and memory properly.  That means loving even the most difficult people.  Because that's what Rose did her whole life.  Loved unconditionally.

I will probably fail at this.  I'm human and imperfect.  I admit that freely.  My hope is that, by the day of Rose's funeral, nobody is dead, bleeding, or on a suicide watch.

Saint Marty is only half-joking.  

A poem about the last time my whole family was together, before death entered the scene . . .

Family Picture

by:  Martin Achatz

All of us together for the first time in about ten years and the cameras crack like machine guns and people yell, "Wait, just one more!" as my nine-month-old daughter screams in my wife's arms, wanting DOWN and AWAY, insistent, and my wife paces back-and-forth because we've been waiting all day for everybody to be here, Fred from L.A., Kevin from across town, Paul from Iron Mountain, Mary from her five kids, on and on:  Fred's new wife Diane, blonde and loud with laughter, herself an only child, glows in this roomful of family, family, family--so much family that the windows are sweating with breath and everyone is itching for the Pizza Hut guy to show up to feed us, so hungry from being together we could eat each other.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

January 20: Christ Knows, My Sister Rose, "Fear Not"

Santiago waits for the fish . . . 

"Come on," the old man said aloud. "Make another turn. Just smell them. Aren't they lovely? Eat them good now and then there is the tuna. Hard and cold and lovely. Don't be shy, fish. Eat them."

He waited with the line between his thumb and his finger, watching it and the other lines at the same time for the fish might have swum up or down. Then came the same delicate pulling touch again.

"He'll take it," the old man said aloud. "God help him to take it."

He did not take it though. He was gone and the old man felt nothing.

"He can't have gone," he said. "Christ knows he can't have gone. He's making a turn. Maybe he has been hooked before and he remembers something of it."

Then he felt the gentle touch on the line and he was happy.

"It was only his turn," he said. "He'll take it."

There is something about waiting for an event to happen.  A birthday or wedding.  A fish nibbling on a hook.  Christmas.  Time both stands still and rushes forward at the same moment.  One second can seem like a winter thaw, a slow-motion drip.  One month can seem like bee sting, fast and painful.  

My day has been like this, both frozen and a stampede.  I received a phone call at 5 a.m. from my sister, telling us that we needed to come to the hospital as soon as possible.  Our sister, Rose, was not doing well.  Here comes the first slow motion stampede, where every minute seemed like an expedition to summit Everest.  Slow and precarious.

After we arrived at the ICU, the rest of the morning was sort of a blur of BiPap machine, x-ray, and blood tests.  In the end, it was determined that, basically, her body was tired of fighting for every breath.  One lung had collapsed, and the other had pneumonia.  She had MRSA and was fighting sepsis.  So, Rose was put on oxygen and, after about an hour, at 9:01 a.m., just when my daughter arrived and took Rose's hand in hers to say goodbye, my sister took one last quiet breath and was gone.

Ice Age seconds passed as I waited to see if her chest would rise again.  She remained still and peaceful.

I like to think that Rose is playing cards with my mother right now.  Or that she's sharing a Diet Coke with my sister Sally.  I like to think that Rose has entered a place where time simply doesn't matter or exist.  Seconds are eons, and eons are moments spent in the arms of people who love you.

Saint Marty is a little heartbroken tonight.

A poem for my sister Rose . . . 

Fear Not

by: Martin Achatz

My sister Rose spoke with the Virgin
One night when lightning laced
The sky and thunder rolled
Like a wailing ambulance.
Rose, with black hair, eyes dark
As baker's chocolate. Rose, who listened
To the rain drill the ground, felt terror
In her chest, blooming like a mushroom.
Rose, with Down's Syndrome,
Her speech thick,
Weighing on her tongue like rust.

She knew nothing of atmospheres,
Weather fronts, lightning that traveled
From the ground to the heavens
Like a white hot soul. She knew
Nothing of raining frogs,
Hailstones the size of peach pits.
Hers was a child's fear, as simple
As shadow in a closet.
When she knelt at the foot of her bed,
Folded small fingers,
Her prayers opened like sunflowers
In the still air.

Mother found Rose that night,
Speaking with the darkness.
She looked like moonlight, her words
Agates, smooth, round, polished.
Rose, imperfect since birth,
Slower than summer heat,
Filled the room with light.

Anne came upon her daughter
Like that, too, Mary in the dark,
Her childhood fears sitting
On the windowsill like empty bowls
Waiting for rain.

Mary spread her arms,
Wrapped them around the angel,
Pressing her mouth to his neck.
She tasted lightning and shadow
On his bright skin, swallowed them,
Felt them take root
In her belly. She opened
Her robe, guided his lips
To her boy chest,
Motherhood swelling
In her rose nipple.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

January 19: There Was Nothing, Endemic, Big and Hungry

The fish finally shows up . . .

Just then, watching his lines, he saw one of the projecting green sticks dip sharply.

"Yes," he said. "Yes," and shipped his oars without bumping the boat. He reached out for the line and held it softly between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. He felt no strain nor weight and he held the line lightly. Then it came again. This time it was a tentative pull, not solid nor heavy, and he knew exactly what it was. One hundred fathoms down a marlin was eating the sardines that covered the point and the shank of the hook where the hand-forged hook projected from the head of the small tuna.

The old man held the line delicately, and softly, with his left hand, unleashed it from the stick. Now he could let it run through his fingers without the fish feeling any tension.

This far out, he must be huge in this month, he thought. Eat them, fish. Eat them. Please eat them. How fresh they are and you down there six hundred feet in that cold water in the dark. Make another turn in the dark and come back and eat them.

He felt the light delicate pulling and then a harder pull when a sardine's head must have been more difficult to break from the hook. Then there was nothing.

Santiago knows it's a marlin.  Knows that it's about six hundred feet below his boat.  And that it's a monster of a fish this far out from land.  He knows all this by the touch of his fingers on the line and the years he has spent on the sea.  Perhaps his luck is finally going to change.

I went into the classroom today for the first time since the Omicron variant started surging in our area.  I was wearing an N-95 mask, as were all the students.  Everyone is doing what they're supposed to be doing.  And, for the first time since the pandemic started, I actually heard someone use the term endemic when talking about COVID.

Let's be realistic here, though.  COVID isn't going away.  For the rest of our lives, all intelligent people will be getting a yearly COVID vaccine, perhaps coupled with the flu vaccine.  That's how COVID will be controlled, regardless of what any horse pill-pusher says.  COVID will always be swimming underneath the surface, six hundred feet down, big and hungry.

Just a little reality check for everybody out there.  If you are wondering when everything is going to go back to "normal" . . . You are probably living in normal right now.  Just keep checking your fishing lines and watching the horizon for coming storms.

Saint Marty ain't throwing out his facemasks any time soon.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

January 18: That Which I Was Born For, Sunrises, Revision

Santiago thinks of the thing he was born to do . . . 

"If the others heard me talking out loud they would think that I am crazy," he said aloud. "But since I am not crazy, I do not care. And the rich have radios to talk to them in their boats and to bring them the baseball."

Now is no time to think of baseball, he thought. Now is the time to think of only one thing. That which I was born for. There might be a big one around that school, he thought. I picked up only a straggler from the albacore that were feeding. But they are working far out and fast. Everything that shows on the surface today travels very fast and to the north-east. Can that be the time of day? Or is it some sign of weather that I do not know?

He could not see the green of the shore now but only the tops of the blue hills that showed white as though they were snow-capped and the clouds that looked like high snow mountains above them. The sea was very dark and the light made prisms in the water. The myriad flecks of the plankton were annulled now by the high sun and it was only the great deep prisms in the blue water that the old man saw now with his lines going straight down into the water that was a mile deep.

The tuna, the fishermen called all the fish of that species tuna and only distinguished among them by their proper names when they came to sell them or to trade them for baits, were down again. The sun was hot now and the old man felt it on the back of his neck and felt the sweat trickle down his back as he rowed.

I could just drift, he thought, and sleep and put a bight of line around my toe to wake me. But today is eighty-five days and I should fish the day well.

The old man was born to fish.  Knows the sea like a book that he's read and reread many times.  I think I was born to write.  It's something that I have to do every day, or else I feel incomplete.  Writing helps me to understand life.  Even the parts that seem to make no sense.

I am sitting on the couch in my living room.  Across the room, the Christmas tree is glowing and blinking.  The furnace is cranking out heat.  My son is sleeping in his bed.  These are things I know.  They are the sentences and punctuations of my life.

Went to see my sister, Rose, in the hospital this evening.  She's still breathing hard.  Her last chest x-ray didn't show much change.  However, the doctor recognizes that she has improved, although, according to my other sister, he said that Rose is going to be very diminished in what she is able to do in her life.  Her sentences and punctuations will never be the same.

Sometimes, when I get to work, I climb the steps to the roof of the library building to see the sunrise.  I did that this morning.  Watched light revise the horizon and clouds  And isn't that what every day is about?  Revisions.  Some of them easy.  Some of them difficult.

Saint Marty sees the red ink on the wall tonight.

Monday, January 17, 2022

January 17: His Thoughts Aloud, Talk to Myself, Like a Prayer

Santiago talks to himself . . .

He did not remember when he had first started to talk aloud when he was by himself. He had sung when he was by himself in the old days and he had sung at night sometimes when he was alone steering on his watch in the smacks or in the turtle boats. He had probably started to talk aloud, when alone, when the boy had left. But he did not remember. When he and the boy fished together they usually spoke only when it was necessary. They talked at night or when they were storm-bound by bad weather. It was considered a virtue not to talk unnecessarily at sea and the old man had always considered it so and respected it. But now he said his thoughts aloud many times since there was no one that they could annoy.

Like Santiago, I frequently talk to myself.  It's not because I'm getting older.  Simply, I spend a lot of time on the road every day, driving to and from work.  When you live in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, you are in your car a great deal of time, because the area is vast and towns are far apart.  So, I spend a lot of this time thinking, and, when I'm dealing with something difficult, I talk aloud.  

Hearing my voice is sort of like writing my thoughts down.  It somehow makes my thoughts more real.  You can't take words back once they are made concrete, either by voice or pen.  Those words are out there, in time or on paper.  You can try to forget what you say or tear up what you write, but they still exist in a very tangible form.

I have been talking to myself a lot since my sister went into the ICU.  Having difficult conversations.  I won't go into the details, but they involved the nature of suffering, letting go, grief, quality of life versus quantity of life.  I did not come up with any definitive answers that put my mind at peace.  I simply sent my thoughts and ideas and hopes out into the universe, like prayer.

In the end, none of us really have control over what's going to happen in the next day or minute or second.  Sure, at times, we convince ourselves that we somehow outgodded God.  That we took a little power out of those divine hands.  We're lying to ourselves, but it makes us feel better.

My sister is alive at this moment.  In another moment, she may be gone.  Same goes for me.  I'm typing this blog post right now, but I may be pushing up daisies the next.  It's a matter of cherishing what you have at any given instant, knowing that it's as brief as a single snowflake in the Sahara.

Saint Marty is going to go play some gin rummy with himself now.  He's going to try not to cheat.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

January 16: A Great Help, Man-of-War Bird, "Meditations on Breath"

Santiago catches a fish . . . 

"The bird is a great help," the old man said. Just then the stern line came taut under his foot, where he had kept a loop of the line, and he dropped his oars and felt the weight of the small tuna's shivering pull as he held the line firm and commenced to haul it in. The shivering increased as he pulled in and he could see the blue back of the fish in the water and the gold of his sides before he swung him over the side and into the boat. He lay in the stern in the sun, compact and bullet shaped, his big, unintelligent eyes staring as he thumped his life out against the planking of the boat with the quick shivering strokes of his neat, fast-moving tail. The old man hit him on the head for kindness and kicked him, his body still shuddering, under the shade of the stern.

"Albacore," he said aloud. "He'll make a beautiful bait. He'll weigh ten pounds."

A man-of-war bird leads Santiago to a school of dolphin and, eventually, the tuna fish he catches.  Sometimes in life, help comes from the most surprising places--a bird, a tuna, a stranger in line at McDonalds, a group of poets.

It has been a long weekend.  I spent most of the afternoon and evening at the hospital today, in my sister's room in the ICU.  She is not doing well, and so I've been allowing myself to experience difficult thoughts and emotions all day.

This evening, I led a poetry workshop for a group of my poet friends.  I thought about cancelling it, but ultimately decided to move forward.  I'm glad I did.  It proved to be a very healing experience.  Help in a difficult time from an unexpected source.

Saint Marty gives thanks tonight for his wonderful friends.

Something from tonight's workshop . . .

Meditations on Breath

by:  Martin Achatz

Breath is darker than a plum as it ripens on the branch.  It swells, blossoms in summer dark until, too heavy, it embraces gravity, becomes something sweet underfoot.

Breath is sharp as winter wind that grabs you by the throat, shakes you, tosses you, shakes you again.  Until you find yourself standing like a moose on a rocky shore, shaking off a curtain of water, opening your mouth after a long march under a mossy lake.

Breath is precious as one single snowflake, drifting, spinning, falling without anyone noticing its fragile perfection.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

January 15: Found Fish, Magical Thinking, Amazing Grace

Santiago finds fish . . . 

Now the old man looked up and saw that the bird was circling again.

"He's found fish," he said aloud. No flying fish broke the surface and there was no scattering of bait fish. But as the old man watched, a small tuna rose in the air, turned and dropped head first into the water. The tuna shone silver in the sun and after he had dropped back into the water another and another rose and they were jumping in all directions, churning the water and leaping in long jumps after the bait. They were circling it and driving it.

If they don't travel too fast I will get into them, the old man thought, and he watched the school working the water white and the bird now dropping and dipping into the bait fish that were forced to the surface in their panic.

Santiago's luck is about to change.  He has never lost faith in the idea that, eventually, he will catch a big fish again.  That's the old man's religion.

Recently, I've been revisiting Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking.  It's a book that details Didion's life following the sudden death of her husband.  I read the book when it first came out in 2005, at a time in my life when I was facing some very difficult personal struggles.  Didion spends a year shuttling between external reality and inner reality.  For example, she keeps her husband's shoes and clothing because she believes the he will need them when he returns home.  As long as his things are in the closet, Didion allows herself to believe that he is still alive.

Some people might call what Santiago and Didion experience superstition.  The big fish is out there.  Didion's husband is picking up Chinese for dinner.  I think that everyone engages in magical thinking at some time in their lives.  We buy lottery tickets.  Believe we'll win the Nobel Prize in Literature.  Light votive candles for sick loved ones.

I played the pipe organ at church this afternoon.  It was a Mass dedicated to my mother, but I didn't know that until it was announced from the pulpit.  For some reason, I took it as some kind of message from God.  I know, I know.  That kind of stuff only happens in the Bible.  Maybe in a Hallmark movie.  Didion would say it's magical thinking.  Santiago, a sign from the ocean--flying fish or a school of dolphin.  

As a Christian, I call it faith.  The belief that God is looking over us every second of our lives.  Giving us strength,  Hope.  Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.

I realize my last couple posts may have been a little bleak and depressing.  My sister Rose's situation has kind of thrown me into a tailspin.  Coming three months after the death of my mother, right at the beginning of a new year, following 2020 and its sequel, I am struggling to find a whole lot of light.

Don't worry.  This post is not going to be another black hole of existential angst.  Even I, the reincarnation of Sartre, get a little tired of darkness and nihilism.  I received a message from a good friend this morning.  She reached out to me, shared some words of wisdom and encouragement.  Reminded me that, as the old saying goes, the price of love is grief.

I don't know what's going to happen with my sister Rose.  I visited her again this evening in the ICU.  She's still breathing hard.  They had to increase her oxygen to 65%.  And she currently has a high fever.  Rose may get better.  Or she may not.  She's been through quite a lot, health-wise, these last couple years.  I'm not sure how much more her little body can take.

My faith tells me that God is looking over her.   Perhaps He will give her back to us for a little while longer.  Or perhaps God will give her the wings He's been saving for her.  And my mother and sister, Sally, will take her hands and lead her to a place where she can dance and sing and do latch hook rugs all the time.  Call that superstition or magical thinking, if you want.

But Saint Marty knows that loving someone sometimes means letting go when the time comes.    

Friday, January 14, 2022

January 14: Colds and Grippes, Pieces of Air, Not Good

Santiago thinks about turtles and grippes . . . 

The iridescent bubbles were beautiful. But they were the falsest thing in the sea and the old man loved to see the big sea turtles eating them. The turtles saw them, approached them from the front, then shut their eyes so they were completely carapaced and ate them filaments and all. The old man loved to see the turtles eat them and he loved to walk on them on the beach after a storm and hear them pop when he stepped on them with the horny soles of his feet.

He loved green turtles and hawks-bills with their elegance and speed and their great value and he had a friendly contempt for the huge, stupid loggerheads, yellow in their armour-plating, strange in their love-making, and happily eating the Portuguese men-of-war with their eyes shut.

He had no mysticism about turtles although he had gone in turtle boats for many years. He was sorry for them all, even the great trunk backs that were as long as the skiff and weighed a ton. Most people are heartless about turtles because a turtle's heart will beat for hours after he has been cut up and butchered. But the old man thought, I have such a heart too and my feet and hands are like theirs. He ate the white eggs to give himself strength. He ate them all through May to be strong in September and October for the truly big fish.

He also drank a cup of shark liver oil each day from the big drum in the shack where many of the fishermen kept their gear. It was there for all fishermen who wanted it. Most fishermen hated the taste. But it was no worse than getting up at the hours that they rose and it was very good against all colds and grippes and it was good for the eyes.

Santiago tries to keep himself healthy and strong by eating turtle eggs and drinking shark liver oil.  It seems as though he has been doing this for quite some time so that he is ready to land the "truly big fish" when the time comes.  Of course, he's old now.  Past his prime, most of the other fishermen would say.  Yet, he's still on the sea, searching for shadows under the waves.

I went to see my sister, Rose, tonight at the hospital.  She's in the ICU, on oxygen and IV antibiotics.  She's connected to a machine that monitors her respirations.  While I was there, she was taking eleven breaths per minute.  That's about one breath every six seconds, and those breaths are hard.  Like she's biting off pieces of air.

The doctor spoke about hospice to my other sister again today.  The plan, at the moment, is to wait and see how Rose does over the weekend.  Intubation was discussed and ruled out.  Her body isn't strong enough to recover from that.  There's a wound on her arm where her skin started peeling away.  Her bladder is barely producing any urine.  When I asked my sister about prognosis, she has used terms like "very serious" and "not good."

I wish that I could feed my sister turtle eggs and shark liver oil to make her well, but I think her days of landing "truly big fish" are done.  She's suffering, and it's difficult to see.  I don't want to see her struggle any more.  I also am having difficulty with the idea of letting her go.  So, I don't really know what I'm hoping and praying for.

I have a feeling, by Sunday, we will have a clearer idea of how this will end.  

Until that time, Saint Marty will keep his phone close by and hope that it doesn't ring.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

January 13: Agua Mala, Upper Peninsula Weather, Rose

Santiago encounters a man-of-war . . . 

The clouds over the land now rose like mountains and the coast was only a long green line with the gray blue hills behind it. The water was a dark blue now, so dark that it was almost purple. As he looked down into it he saw the red sifting of the plankton in the dark water and the strange light the sun made now. He watched his lines to see them go straight down out of sight into the water and he was happy to see so much plankton because it meant fish. The strange light the sun made in the water, now that the sun was higher, meant good weather and so did the shape of the clouds over the land. But the bird was almost out of sight now and nothing showed on the surface of the water but some patches of yellow, sun-bleached Sargasso weed and the purple, formalized, iridescent, gelatinous bladder of a Portuguese man-of-war floating close beside the boat. It turned on its side and then righted itself. It floated cheerfully as a bubble with its long deadly purple filaments trailing a yard behind it in the water.

"Agua mala," the man said. "You whore."

From where he swung lightly against his oars he looked down into the water and saw the tiny fish that were coloured like the trailing filaments and swam between them and under the small shade the bubble made as it drifted. They were immune to its poison. But men were not and when some of the filaments would catch on a line and rest there slimy and purple while the old man was working a fish, he would have welts and sores on his arms and hands of the sort that poison ivy or poison oak can give. But these poisonings from the agua mala came quickly and struck like a whiplash.

The translation of agua mala is "bad water."  Santiago is referring to the poison created by the Portuguese man-of-war jellyfish.  Stings that can cause wounds on the old man's arms and hands as fast as a whiplash, as Hemingway writes.  Sickness can happen like that.

It can also happen slowly, over days or months or years.

My sister, Rose, has Alzheimer's, terrible asthma, and, for the six or seven months, chronic kidney infections.  She has slowly been leaving us for a long time.  At Christmas, she sat at the table eating ground up ham and cookies.  She even managed to smile once, and it was one of the best gifts of the day.

Yet, her health seems to change as quickly as Upper Peninsula weather.  Sunny one minute.  The next, blizzard warning.  This afternoon, I received a call from my oldest sister saying Rose wasn't really responding or moving that much, and she was breathing shallowly.  I told my oldest sister to call an ambulance for her.  That was around 3 p.m.

At around 9:30 p.m., my oldest sister called me again.  Rose is still in the ER at the local hospital.  She's been diagnosed with sepsis, double pneumonia, and kidney failure.  Currently, Rose is on two IV antibiotics.  The doctor asked my sister if our family had thought about hospice care.  My sister told him that we wanted no extreme life-sustaining measures.  No ventilators or chest compressions.  Rose was going to be transferred to the ICU shortly.  

That phone call was about two hours ago.  I haven't received any more updates, which I will count as a good sign for now.

I don't know what the future holds these next couple days.  Nobody does.  However, I'm hoping for some rest for Rose.  That's about all I can do.  Her body has been putting up a good fight for a long, long time.  There's always hope.

Saint Marty just isn't sure what that hope looks like.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

January 12: My Big Fish, Blessings, Hope

Santiago holds on to hope . . .

He watched the flying fish burst out again and again and the ineffectual movements of the bird. That school has gotten away from me, he thought. They are moving out too fast and too far. But perhaps I will pick up a stray and perhaps my big fish is around them. My big fish must be somewhere.

The old man never gives up.  He's been without a fish for 84 days.  Not so much as a nibble.  Yet, his spirit doesn't diminish.  Hope is still out there, just waiting to be hooked or speared.  

The start of 2022 has been rough.  I won't say that it couldn't get much worse, because it always can.  However, I have had blessings, as well.  Lots of them.  My wife and I recovered from COVID.  My furnace didn't need to be replaced.  And, when my tire slipped off my car, I wasn't going down the highway at 60 miles per hour, and I found help from an unexpected angel working at Superior Express Care.

So, the big fish is out there.  Somewhere.  Hope.

Saint Marty is going to trust Santiago on this.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

January 11: Too Fast, Cruel or Kind, Faith in 2022

Santiago watches a bird chase some flying fish . . . 

As he watched the bird dipped again slanting his wings for the dive and then swinging them wildly and ineffectually as he followed the flying fish. The old man could see the slight bulge in the water that the big dolphin raised as they followed the escaping fish. The dolphin were cutting through the water below the flight of the fish and would be in the water, driving at speed, when the fish dropped. It is a big school of dolphin, he thought. They are wide spread and the flying fish have little chance. The bird has no chance. The flying fish are too big for him and they go too fast.

Santiago knows the bird has little hope of catching a flying fish for dinner.  He also knows that the flying fish have little hope of escaping the school of dolphin.  The sea isn't good or bad, cruel or kind.  It's just the sea.

Nothing deep or profound tonight.  Just that the universe, like the sea, can seem arbitrarily difficult at times, snatching the flying fish right out from underneath you.

Saint Marty's faith in 2022 continues to be tested.

Monday, January 10, 2022

January 10: Low Over the Water, 2022 Strikes Again, Exploded Tire

Santiago chases a man-of-war bird . . . 

Just then he saw a man-of-war bird with his long black wings circling in the sky ahead of him. He made a quick drop, slanting down on his back-swept wings, and then circled again.

"He's got something," the old man said aloud. "He's not just looking."

He rowed slowly and steadily toward where the bird was circling. He did not hurry and he kept his lines straight up and down. But he crowded the current a little so that he was still fishing correctly though faster than he would have fished if he was not trying to use the bird.

The bird went higher in the air and circled again, his wings motionless. Then he dove suddenly and the old man saw flying fish spurt out of the water and sail desperately over the surface.

"Dolphin," the old man said aloud. "Big dolphin."

He shipped his oars and brought a small line from under the bow. It had a wire leader and a medium-sized hook and he baited it with one of the sardines. He let it go over the side and then made it fast to a ring bolt in the stern. Then he baited another line and left it coiled in the shade of the bow. He went back to rowing and to watching the long-winged black bird who was working, now, low over the water.

Santiago knows what he's doing.  Has done this before.  The man-of-war bird will lead him to a big fish.  Because the sea is predictable for Santiago.  He knows how this story will end.

I want to tell you a story tonight.  Let's call it "2022 Strikes Again."  

I returned to work today for the first time since December 30th.  I was anxious and tired as I climbed the stairs to my office.  It was a long day of e-mails and reports and phone calls.  By 4:30 p.m., I was exhausted but satisfied.  It felt like I had really accomplished something.  

In the evening, I was hosting the screening of a documentary at the library.  I drove home, picked up my wife and son, and headed back to work.  I was looking forward to a good ending to a pretty good day.  I made a couple stops on the way.  As I was pulling out of a parking lot onto the highway, I felt my car slide sideways on the ice, and something happened.

I thought a chunk of ice had fallen from the wheel well onto the front tire.  There was rumbling, and the car started shaking.  I drove for a little over a mile, and then I smelled rubber burning.  I pulled into the parking lot of a local pizza place and got out to kick the ice off the wheel.

That's when I found out:  the front tire on the driver's side of the car had popped off the rim and pretty much exploded.  It was 6:15 p.m.  My wife called our insurance company to arrange for roadside assistance.  It was about two degrees outside and felt like 15 below zero.  Rob from Auto Owner's informed us that all the tow truck companies were busy, and we had about a three hour wait ahead of us.  

I called the library to arrange for somebody else to screen the film for me.  Then I looked down the road and saw the sign for Superior Express Care, a place where we have the oil changed on my car.  My son ran down the road to see if they were open.  My wife called them.

A guy named Matthew answered the phone and told us to drive the car down the road, and he would help us out.  I slowly drove down the road to Superior Express Care.  Matthew met us outside and inspected the wheel.  Then he went to get a hydraulic jack.  Pretty soon, he was removing the damaged tire and putting on the spare.  When Matthew was done, I asked how much I owed him.

He shook his head.  "Nothing," he said.  "I've been in the same situation.  Just happy to help you guys out."  He nodded at us.  "Stay warm."

I still think 2022 is a burning dumpster heap of a year, but tonight I received an unexpected blessing.  The kindness of a stranger.  Like Santiago, I knew my story was going to end well tonight.

Saint Marty wants to thank Matthew for restoring his faith in humanity. 

Sunday, January 9, 2022

January 9: Getting the Blackness, Three or Four Hours, What's Best

Santiago knows a thing or two about the sun . . . 

The boy had given him two fresh small tunas, or albacores, which hung on the two deepest lines like plummets and, on the others, he had a big blue runner and a yellow jack that had been used before; but they were in good condition still and had the excellent sardines to give them scent and attractiveness. Each line, as thick around as a big pencil, was looped onto a green-sapped stick so that any pull or touch on the bait would make the stick dip and each line had two forty-fathom coils which could be made fast to the other spare coils so that, if it were necessary, a fish could take out over three hundred fathoms of line.

Now the man watched the dip of the three sticks over the side of the skiff and rowed gently to keep the lines straight up and down and at their proper depths. It was quite light and any moment now the sun would rise.

The sun rose thinly from the sea and the old man could see the other boats, low on the water and well in toward the shore, spread out across the current. Then the sun was brighter and the glare came on the water and then, as it rose clear, the flat sea sent it back at his eyes so that it hurt sharply and he rowed without looking into it. He looked down into the water and watched the lines that went straight down into the dark of the water. He kept them straighter than anyone did, so that at each level in the darkness of the stream there would be a bait waiting exactly where he wished it to be for any fish that swam there. Others let them drift with the current and sometimes they were at sixty fathoms when the fishermen thought they were at a hundred.

But, he thought, I keep them with precision. Only I have no luck any more. But who knows? Maybe today. Every day is a new day. It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.

The sun was two hours higher now and it did not hurt his eyes so much to look into the east. There were only three boats in sight now and they showed very low and far inshore.

All my life the early sun has hurt my eyes, he thought. Yet they are still good. In the evening I can look straight into it without getting the blackness. It has more force in the evening too. But in the morning it is painful.

This post is going to be short.  I sort of feel like Santiago after staring into the sun all day long.  My eyes are burning right now.  I spent several hours pulling together my syllabi and semester schedule this afternoon and evening.  Staring at a computer screen for that long is sort of like gazing directly into the sun.  It tires you out.

After working three or four hours on my laptop, I received a mass e-mail from the president of the university where I teach.  Because of the wildfire spread of the omicron variant, the first two days of university classes for the winter semester are cancelled.  Then, for the rest of the week, it's going to be online instruction.  This will allow the school to distribute N95, KN95, and/or KF94 masks to all faculty, staff, and students.

So, riddle me this, Batman.  The university is cancelling classes and distributing proper masks to everyone before resuming in-person learning.  Yet, in all the area public schools, masks are optional and nobody seems concerned about the exploding numbers of new COVID cases.  Why is that?

Science does not seem to be the guiding principle in our public school systems.  The superintendent of my son's school district insists that his decisions are based solely on the "what's best" for the children and staff of the schools.  The local hospitals are overwhelmed.  The CDC now recommends N95 masks and social distancing for any indoor gatherings.  Yet, I've heard nothing from the superintendent regarding omicron, masks, or online learning.  

My eyes are burning.  I'm bone tired already, and it's only Sunday.  I've got a really long week of work ahead of me, with several important deadlines looming.  I had to completely redesign the beginning of my semester tonight, and my son heads back to a school tomorrow where the administration seems more interested in school numbers than school safety.  And, somewhere beneath the surface of all this dark water, omicron is swimming.

This pandemic life is wearying.  I get that.  We all feel like old Santiago after three months without catching a fish.  Unlike Santiago, however, our losing streak is just going to go on and on and on.  Because nobody really wants to do "what's best."

Saint Marty needs to get to bed.  That's what's best for him right now.

Saturday, January 8, 2022

January 8: Sweet Smelling and Good Tasting, Predictability, Tradition

Santiago starts fishing . . . 

He always thought of the sea as la mar which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as el mar which is masculine. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.

He was rowing steadily and it was no effort for him since he kept well within his speed and the surface of the ocean was flat except for the occasional swirls of the current. He was letting the current do a third of the work and as it started to be light he saw he was already further out than he had hoped to be at this hour.

I worked the deep wells for a week and did nothing, he thought. Today I'll work out where the schools of bonita and albacore are and maybe there will be a big one with them.

Before it was really light he had his baits out and was drifting with the current. One bait was down forty fathoms. The second was at seventy-five and the third and fourth were down in the blue water at one hundred and one hundred and twenty-five fathoms. Each bait hung head down with the shank of the hook inside the bait fish, tied and sewed solid and all the projecting part of the hook, the curve and the point, was covered with fresh sardines. Each sardine was hooked through both eyes so that they made a half-garland on the projecting steel. There was no part of the hook that a great fish could feel which was not sweet smelling and good tasting.

Santiago knows what he's doing.  He has a plan solely based on his experiences with la mar.  Decades and decades of blue water, white water, strong currents, doldrums, flying fish, marlin, sharks, and sea birds.  The old man doesn't really leave things to chance.  Chance is for people who really don't know what they're doing.  Who have no practical knowledge.  That is not Santiago.  His actions are guided by an innate instinct developed throughout his lifetime on the sea.

I am a person who likes predictability.  In fact, you could say that I thrive on the element of non-surprise.  When I wake up in the morning, I pretty much know what I need to accomplish before my head hits the pillow at night.  Spontaneity is not something I seek out or enjoy.  I much prefer to know that, at exactly 6:17 p.m., I will be eating a bowl of chicken noodle soup and a homemade biscuit.  Or I will be trying to finish a report for work or putting the final touches on a grant.  

For example, this morning, I knew that I had to put together music for church.  Then I had to go to Ace Hardware and buy a couple filters for my furnace.  After that, rehearsal for this afternoon's Mass.  And then I lowered myself into the crawl space that houses my furnace and changed its air filter.  After a couple minutes of downtime (my only this entire day), I was sitting on the organ bench, pounding out the hymns of the day.  Pizza for dinner (always on Saturday), and then games with my kids.  

Very little of what I typed in the previous paragraph was unplanned.  I knew that I would be doing each of those things when I woke up this morning.  Because my Saturdays are fairly regimented.  That may not sound exciting, but I find a lot of comfort in it.  I've dealt with a lot of upheaval in my life.  So, based on experience, I prefer to embrace the ordinary.  Day-to-day.  Some people thrive on creating an element of chaos and chance in their lives.  That's not me.

This evening, I played the pipe organ for my parish.  A Catholic Mass.  Songs and music that I've known since I was a kid.  Comforting.  I know things change.  That's just a fact.  I can't fight it.

However, at the moment, Saint Marty feels like Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof, ready to break into a chorus of "Tradition."

Friday, January 7, 2022

January 7: Small Sad Voices, Light Without Darkness, Furnace Wasn't Terminal

Santiago rows for deep water and thinks about birds . . . 

Sometimes someone would speak in a boat. But most of the boats were silent except for the dip of the oars. They spread apart after they were out of the mouth of the harbour and each one headed for the part of the ocean where he hoped to find fish. The old man knew he was going far out and he left the smell of the land behind and rowed out into the clean early morning smell of the ocean. He saw the phosphorescence of the Gulf weed in the water as he rowed over the part of the ocean that the fishermen called the great well because there was a sudden deep of seven hundred fathoms where all sorts of fish congregated because of the swirl the current made against the steep walls of the floor of the ocean. Here there were concentrations of shrimp and bait fish and sometimes schools of squid in the deepest holes and these rose close to the surface at night where all the wandering fish fed on them.

In the dark the old man could feel the morning coming and as he rowed he heard the trembling sound as flying fish left the water and the hissing that their stiff set wings made as they soared away in the darkness. He was very fond of flying fish as they were his principal friends on the ocean. He was sorry for the birds, especially the small delicate dark terns that were always flying and looking and almost never finding, and he thought, "The birds have a harder life than we do except for the robber birds and the heavy strong ones. Why did they make birds so delicate and fine as those sea swallows when the ocean can be so cruel? She is kind and very beautiful. But she can be so cruel and it comes so suddenly and such birds that fly, dipping and hunting, with their small sad voices are made too delicately for the sea."

Santiago has so much compassion for the small, delicate birds in this passage.  Plus, his love and respect for the sea is strong, as well.  As he says, the ocean is "kind and very beautiful," but also "cruel."  That pretty much describes the entire universe, doesn't it?  There's so much to love and appreciate in nature, but there's also the need for respect.  

I live very close to Lake Superior.  People who have never seen Superior don't really understand its vastness and beauty.  It is, literally, a freshwater ocean.  That big.  That beautiful.  That dangerous, at times.  Every once in a while, the Big Lake likes to remind us all of its power.  Waves as tall as buildings.  Lake effect winter storms that dump upwards of two-feet of snow on our heads.  Undertows that steal away loved ones who aren't used to its icy currents.  

Life is like that, as well.  There are beautiful sunrises and sunsets.  Mornings with skies as blue as cut jade.  Afternoons that seem to stretch on like arias of light.  But there's also cold that grabs your bones like hungry dogs and won't let go.  Nights so deep it seems that God, on Day One in Genesis, said, "Let there Darkness" and left it at that.  You can't have one thing without it's opposite.  No light without darkness.  No beauty without ugliness, life without death.  Hope without despair.

As both Constant Readers of this blog know, I have been struggling with one of those dichotomies.  No warmth without cold.  Yesterday, my heat stopped working.  I called a repair person, who arrived at my doorstep last night and declared within five minutes that my furnace had fought its last winter battle.  The repair person handed me an almost $7000 estimate for a new heating system.

Today, I tried to arrange the financing for that new system.  I approached two banks and discovered that, because of some pandemic struggles I had with car payments and trombone payments (you read that right--trombone payments), nobody would loan us the money to get our new furnace.  This afternoon, I was pretty much at the end of my rope.  I even organized a GoFundMe page.

And then I took the advice of my wife's cousin.  I called another repair person for a second opinion.  I took an Ativan and went to clean two churches.  By the time I was done scrubbing toilets and sweeping dead flies from window sills, the repair person called.  He showed up, climbed down into our crawl space.  After 25 minutes, the replacement of a small fuse, my furnace roared to life.  And I was told that the furnace wasn't terminal.

I sit here tonight, writing this post, having both a reduced and restored faith in humanity.  The first repair person reduced my faith--tried to take advantage of my family in a desperate situation.  The second repair person restored my faith--fixed my problem, gave me hope.  One thing cannot exist without its opposite.

I am a sea swallow flying over the cruel gray waves of the Pacific, trying to avoid being swallowed up right now.  Beauty and terror.  Darkness and light.

Saint Marty is ready to face a new morning.  Like a beautiful cocker spaniel, holding his favorite ball in his mouth.