Friday, September 30, 2022

September 30: Flying Fish, Abdominal Pain, Sanderson Sisters

Santiago is a small fish in a large sea . . . 

The sun will bake it out well now, he thought. It should not cramp on me again unless it gets too cold in the night. I wonder what this night will bring.

An airplane passed over head on its course to Miami and he watched its shadow scaring up the schools of flying fish.

"With so much flying fish there should be dolphin," he said, and leaned back on the line to see if it was possible to gain any on his fish. But he could not and it stayed at the hardness and water-drop shivering that preceded breaking. The boat moved ahead slowly and he watched the airplane until he could no longer see it.

The old man is not in charge of his destiny at the moment.  He's at the whim and pull of the fish and the ocean.  Until the wind shifts or the current changes or the fish rises, Santiago must wait and hope.

It's been a strange day.  My sister ended up in the ER this morning with severe abdominal pain.  My daughter drove her.  I was at a doctor's appointment myself when she called to ask to be picked up.  Like I said--strange.  My natural morose disposition had already come up with a scenario in which my sister was having a massive cardiac event. In my mind, she was on the table in an operating room, a surgeon massaging her heart, trying to coax it back to life.

Instead, the ER doc diagnosed her with GERD.  Too much pizza last night, maybe.  I'm skeptical.  My sister was pale.  Diaphoretic.  Her hands were freezing.  That, to me, seems like a heart problem, not a stomach problem.

Why am I writing all this?  Because I'm in a little boat.  We all are.  And the sea is limitless and deep.  If the last few years have taught me anything, it's this:  nothing is for certain.  I woke up this morning with my day all planned out.  Work.  Doctor's appointment.  Work.  Taco Bell for dinner.  Watching Hocus Pocus 2 with my family.  Because I'm that predictable.  I like predictable.

Well, most of those things actually happened.  I went to work.  And the check-up with my doctor.  Had Taco Bell.  Spent the night with Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, Sarah Jessica Parker, my wife, and kids.  My sister is okay.  She even worked tonight and stopped by afterward with a pizza.  And I watched Hocus Pocus 2 with her again.

All of those small things happened in my small boat today.  Some of them planned.  Some, unplanned.  Yet, small things can seem huge.  My sister at the hospital this morning for GERD--huge.  Eating quesadillas with my family and watching the resurrection of the Sanderson sisters--huge.  Doctor's appointment where I arrange to receive a CGM (Constant Glucose Monitoring) system--huge.

In the grand scheme, though, none of those things will solve world hunger or fight homophobia or end climate change or put Donald Trump in prison or lead to Armageddon.  They're tiny, like Santiago's hand cramp or the airplane that passes over his boat on its way to Florida.

But, for Saint Marty, they're Titanic-sized.  

Blessing for today:  Winifred and Taco Bell.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

September 29: The Champion, Glory Days, Nobel Prize in Literature

Santiago recalls when he was a champion . . . 

As the sun set he remembered, to give himself more confidence, the time in the tavern at Casablanca when he had played the hand game with the great negro from Cienfuegos who was the strongest man on the docks. They had gone one day and one night with their elbows on a chalk line on the table and their forearms straight up and their hands gripped tight. Each one was trying to force the other's hand down onto the table. There was much betting and people went in and out of the room under the kerosene lights and he had looked at the arm and hand of the negro and at the negro's face. They changed the referees every four hours after the first eight so that the referees could sleep. Blood came out from under the fingernails of both his and the negro's hands and they looked each other in the eye and at their hands and forearms and the bettors went in and out of the room and sat on high chairs against the wall and watched. The walls were painted bright blue and were of wood and the lamps threw their shadows against them. The negro's shadow was huge and it moved on the wall as the breeze moved the lamps.

The odds would change back and forth all night and they fed the negro rum and lighted cigarettes for him. Then the negro, after the rum, would try for a tremendous effort and once he had the old man, who was not an old man then but was Santiago El Campeon, nearly three inches off balance. But the old man had raised his hand up to dead even again. He was sure then that he had the negro, who was a fine man and a great athlete, beaten. And at daylight when the bettors were asking that it be called a draw and the referee was shaking his head, he had unleashed his effort and forced the hand of the negro down and down until it rested on the wood. The match had started on a Sunday morning and ended on a Monday morning. Many of the bettors had asked for a draw because they had to go to work on the docks loading sacks of sugar or at the Havana Coal Company. Otherwise everyone would have wanted it to go to a finish. But he had finished it anyway and before anyone had to go to work.

For a long time after that everyone had called him The Champion and there had been a return match in the spring. But not much money was bet and he had won it quite easily since he had broken the confidence of the negro from Cienfuegos in the first match. After that he had a few matches and then no more. He decided that he could beat anyone if he wanted to badly enough and he decided that it was bad for his right hand for fishing. He had tried a few practice matches with his left hand. But his left hand had always been a traitor and would not do what he called on it to do and he did not trust it.

It's really not healthy to dwell on past glory days.  It makes you nostalgic for a time when you threw the winning touchdown or won the eight-grade spelling bee or published a poem in The New Yorker.  (Okay, if I published a poem in The New Yorker, I'd have that puppy framed and wear it on a chain around my neck.  If a person showed me a picture of their grandchild, I'd show them my New Yorker poem, which would probably be a little embarrassing after 20 or so years, I suppose.)

I know people who live in the past.  To a certain extent, I'm guilty of it, myself.  When I'm meeting a person in a professional setting, I may give a list of my accomplishments, including the fact that I served two terms as Upper Peninsula Poet Laureate.  I don't think I rest on my laurels at all, however.  I always try to push myself to be better.  Try harder.

This approach to life has allowed me to do amazing things.  Earn advanced degrees in creative writing.  Teach for 30 years.  Attend a poetry workshop led by Sharon Olds.  Star in musicals.  Direct musicals.  Publish a book of poems.  Be chosen as Poet Laureate of the Upper Peninsula twice.  Bring two beautiful children into the world.  Love my wife deeply for 30 years.  Host poetry readings by two U. S. Poets Laureate--Natasha Trethewey and Joy Harjo.

I have been able to do these things by looking forward, not backward.  By forcing myself to attempt things that scared the hell out of me.  Glory days are wonderful.  They remind you of really good times in your life.  Golden times when life was all birthday parties and Christmas presents.

Here is what I believe:  there's always room in your life for more glory days.  I still have big dreams for myself.  Trips I want to take (England, Italy).  Things I want to accomplish (publish another book of poems, win the Nobel Prize in Literature).  People I want to meet (Barack Obama, Stephen King).  

Dreams are just glory days in waiting.  Next week, the Swedish Academy announces this year's winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.  In seven days' time, someone will be living in their glory days.  And for a little while, I will be a part of that person's glory days, living them vicariously.

Saint Marty's blessing for today: new poems written in a writing workshop tonight.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

September 28: Darkness of the Sea, How You Respond, My Two Classes

Santiago thinks about challenges in life . . . 

This is the second day now that I do not know the result of the juegos, he thought. But I must have confidence and I must be worthy of the great DiMaggio who does all things perfectly even with the pain of the bone spur in his heel. What is a bone spur? he asked himself. Un espuela de hueso. We do not have them. Can it be as painful as the spur of a fighting cock in one's heel? I do not think I could endure that or the loss of the eye and of both eyes and continue to fight as the fighting cocks do. Man is not much beside the great birds and beasts. Still I would rather be that beast down there in the darkness of the sea.

"Unless sharks come," he said aloud. "If sharks come, God pity him and me."

Do you believe the great DiMaggio would stay with a fish as long as I will stay with this one? he thought. I am sure he would and more since he is young and strong. Also his father was a fisherman. But would the bone spur hurt him too much?

"I do not know," he said aloud. "I never had a bone spur."

Everyone faces challenges in their lives, every single day.  It can be as simple as being a little tired in the morning.  Or it can be more complicated--major depression, a car accident, a Trump rally in your town.  It's not really about the size of the challenge, however.  It's about how you respond to that challenge.

I've been recovering from my weekend in Calumet since Monday.  My physical and mental states can be characterized with one adjective:  "exhausted."  That has been my challenge this week.  As I've written in the last few posts, I've been experiencing major sadness for some months.  Adding lack of rest/sleep into that mix, and you have a Prozac cocktail.

Going to teach my two classes today, I was prepared.  I had very detailed lesson plans.  I need to do that because I don't trust my mind to be all that clear as I stand in front of my students when I feel like this.  Once at the podium, I quickly realized my plans were jammed with facts and definitions and lists, but they were also completely dull and uninspired.  I could sense the kids in the room simply tuning out.

So, despite my better judgement, I abandoned my lesson plans.  I winged it, talking about creativity and mental illness in one class, and the final-girl horror movie trope in the other.  I even made my students take a creativity test.  And those classes came alive.  Everyone was talking and laughing, and I walked out of those classrooms feeling like I'd actually taught those kids something.

I faced a challenge, and I responded positively to that challenge.  To put it in Santiago terms, I landed the big fish.  And it felt great.

Saint Marty's blessings for today:  creativity and slasher movies.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

September 27: The Big Leagues, Niece's Birthday, Mean Girls

Santiago thinks about something that makes him feel better--baseball . . . 

He felt very tired now and he knew the night would come soon and he tried to think of other things. He thought of the Big Leagues, to him they were the Gran Ligas, and he knew that the Yankees of New York were playing the Tigres of Detroit.

Let me tell you about someone who always makes me feel better about myself.

It's my niece's birthday.  She turns 26 today, and she is smart and beautiful and funny and compassionate.  At family gatherings, we often sit by each other because we share the same sense of humor.  A little dark.  A little sarcastic.  We can whisper and be mean girls together.

This past weekend, when I posted about my struggles over this last month, my niece sent me a text message, just saying that she loves me.  In the middle of a particularly dark moment, her words lifted me up.

I am loved.  I know that.  But it's good to be reminded every once in a while.  My niece always does that for me.  

Today, Saint Marty's blessing is his niece, who is embarking on her twenty-seventh trip around the sun today.

Monday, September 26, 2022

September 26: Very Strange, Son's Fourteenth Birthday, Teenage Boy

Santiago marvels at the fish . . . 

"If you're not tired, fish," he said aloud, "you must be very strange."

The fish seems almost preternatural in strength and stamina.  Like some prehistoric creature.  Strange and beautiful.  A little scary, perhaps.  And the old man respects that.

Today is my son's fourteenth birthday, and he is a marvel to me.  Full of humor and love.  He's still learning how to navigate the world.  He can hold his own in a roomful of experienced adult poets and bring me to my knees with his writing.  

Yet, he's still a young teenage boy who loves to play Dungeons & Dragons, listen to weird indie music, and eat Little Caesar's cheese pizza.  He gets crushes-at-first-sight.  Pushes boundaries like crazy.  Feels everything deeply.

And, for some reason, he's been entrusted to my keeping for the past 5,110 days.  This strange, preternatural child.  Of course, I know that I stand no chance of actually landing this prehistoric fish of a boy.  He will eventually slip away into the wide, deep ocean, as all children must.  And he will leave me in wonder and thankfulness that I was given the privilege of being a part of his evolution.

Happy birthday to my sweet, trouble-making boy.

Saint Marty's blessing today:  fourteen years of adventure with the mystery of my son.

A poem for my son:

Arrangement in Pink and Blue No. 1

by: Martin Achatz

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

Sunday, September 25, 2022

September 25: Uncramped, My Mojo, a Little Cold Light

Santiago thinks about the fish swimming below him . . . 

Once in the afternoon the line started to rise again. But the fish only continued to swim at a slightly higher level. The sun was on the old man's left arm and shoulder and on his back. So he knew the fish had turned east of north.

Now that he had seen him once, he could picture the fish swimming in the water with his purple pectoral fins set wide as wings and the great erect tail slicing through the dark. I wonder how much he sees at that depth, the old man thought. His eye is huge and a horse, with much less eye, can see in the dark. Once I could see quite well in the dark. Not in the absolute dark. But almost as a cat sees.

The sun and his steady movement of his fingers had uncramped his left hand now completely and he began to shift more of the strain to it and he shrugged the muscles of his back to shift the hurt of the cord a little.

The old man has been fishing all his long life.  It is second nature to him.  Even when his hand is cramping and the fishing line is digging into his sore shoulders, Santiago keeps fishing.  Because that's who he is.

Last night, I published my first blog post in a long time.  As I described yesterday, I've been struggling, unable to write, for a while.  This morning, as I prepare to go into rehearsal for a show I'm in tonight, I feel like my writing muscles are uncramping, and I'm not fighting with my lines so much.  In fact, I wrote these first two paragraphs in less than a minute.  Perhaps I am finally getting my mojo back a little.

I am a writer.  Words are how I understand the world.  When I am joyful, I write about it.  When I am in despair, I write about it.  When I am hungry, I eat some chocolate, and then I write about the chocolate.  That is how I mediate my experiences, and I've been doing it for a very long time.  Some people take pictures and post them on Facebook.  I compose poems and blog posts and essays and stories.

It feels good to be friends with language again.  These last 30 or so days, I was lucky if I could write two words in my journal without descending into an existential crisis.  Now, here I am, writing my second blog post in less than twelve hours.  And my head seems clearer, as if, just by sitting with my laptop, tapping on the keyboard, I've opened the windows in the attic of my head, blown away the cobwebs, let a little cold light shine in.

Thanks to all my faithful disciples--family and friends--for putting up with this tired, sad saint.

Saint Marty's blessing today:  words.

Saturday, September 24, 2022

September 24: Dream About the Lions, a Little Derailed, My Daughter

Santiago is getting tired . . . 

I wish he'd sleep and I could sleep and dream about the lions, he thought. Why are the lions the main thing that is left? Don't think, old man, he said to himself. Rest gently now against the wood and think of nothing. He is working. Work as little as you can.

It was getting into the afternoon and the boat still moved slowly and steadily. But there was an added drag now from the easterly breeze and the old man rode gently with the small sea and the hurt of the cord across his back came to him easily and smoothly.

The old man has been out on the boat a long time, and he's tired.  He wants to close his eyes and dream of lions, but he knows that he still has a lot of work to do.

It has been a long time since I have written a blog post.  The last blog post I wrote was published on August 12.  My life got a little derailed last month, and I've been struggling to find my equilibrium ever since.  In the past thirty days, one of my best friends died, and my daughter decided to move out of my house.

In short, this summer did not go out with a whimper.  It sort of grabbed me by the throat, dragged me out into the jungle, and used me as a chew toy.  The blue funk that I'd been battling since July has come roaring back.  Every time I pass the stairs to my daughter's bedroom, I feel the emptiness on my shoulders.  

Emptiness is a strange thing.  Even though it's weightless and shapeless, it's still heavy.   Like a trunk filled with clothes and pictures and shoes and books belonging to someone you loved and lost.  Currently, my trunk holds items from my mother, sister, friend, and, now, my daughter.  I am tired of loss.

There's no way around this grief.  I know that.  I haven't really been able to write or think clearly for a while.  I was able to come up with a poem for my friend's celebration of life, but it took me nearly two weeks.  I struggled to find the words for what I was feeling, and words that would truly honor my friend's spirit.  

So, here I am, sitting in a hotel room in Calumet, Michigan, finally hammering out a new blog post.  Tomorrow night, I'm performing in a radio variety show, and it will take all the energy I have.  No worries.  When I was in a similar funk a while ago, a therapist friend gave me this advice:  fake it 'til you make it.  I'm pretty good at doing that, even under the weight of emptiness.

I am the old man in a very large ocean right now.  No land in sight.

Saint Marty's blessing tonight:  the laughter of his son.

P. S.  I'm going to be writing forward and backward from this point on, trying to catch up on posts I have missed and keep current on my daily posts, as well.  So, start reading ahead and behind.